Israel Planned to Attack Iran and Start a War, Former Spy Chief Says

Israel planned to bomb Iran and initiate an all-out conflict in the Middle East, according to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former head of intelligence, who said he believed the move may have been illegal.

Tamir Pardo, who served as head of Israeli spy agency Mossad from 2011 to 2016, told local investigative program Uvda in an interview set to air Thursday that Netanyahu instructed his military command in 2011 to prepare for a strike against longtime foe Iran, which Israel has accused of developing nuclear weapons and supporting militant groups abroad. Pardo said then-Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz informed the prime minister that the armed forces would be ready within 15 days.

"It's not something that you're permitted to do just for practice," Pardo said of Netanyahu's request, according to the Times of Israel. "If someone does that then it has two [possible] purposes: One purpose is that he really means [to attack] and the other option is that he is sending a signal, that someone out there should know," he added, suggesting it may have been a message to the U.S.

"In matters like these you have to believe people, they are the pilots," Pardo said in reference to Netanyahu and his administration. "So when he tells you, 'Begin a countdown process,' you understand that he isn't playing games with you. These things have tremendous implications."

Israeli Merkava tanks are seen in a deployment area near the Syrian border in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, on May 10. After a rocket barrage targeted Israeli forces in the Syrian territory, Israeli jets conducted the largest air campaign in Syria since 1973 against what Israel said were Iranian forces. MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Pardo said that his first instinct was to look into the legality of the measure, which he said he would need to be "certain" was legal before carrying out, even though he was supposed to do so without question. He described the measure as tantamount to "launching a war," according to the Associated Press, and said he and Gantz ultimately protested.

In an interview last June, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack told Israeli news site Ynet that he was a fervent supporter of attacking Iran at the time and that he was "more of a hawk than Netanyahu" on the issue. He said he faced opposition from various Israeli cabinet members, including Pardo's predecessor, Meir Dagan. Shortly after leaving the post in 2011, Dagan called Israeli plans to attack Iranian nuclear facilities "a stupid idea," as The New York Times reported.

Related: U.S. gave Jerusalem to Israel, will Syria's Golan Heights be next?

No overt Israeli war on Iran was launched. Instead, Iran's nuclear program suffered a devastating campaign of targeted assassinations that a number of outlets—including Newsweek and Politico— tied to the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. Between 2010 and 2012, four Iranian nuclear scientists were slain and another injured by assailants using bombs and gunfire. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied its responsibility. Iran has claimed its nuclear program was strictly for peaceful purposes, but the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia have cast doubt on this narrative.

The U.S. led an extensive campaign of international sanctions against Iran until reaching an unprecedented multilateral nuclear agreement that included China, Germany, France and the U.K. in 2015. The deal would lift nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in exchange for its limiting its nuclear production. Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency verifying Iran's compliance and pleas from the accord's other signatories, President Donald Trump exited the deal earlier this month.

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A map locates Israeli airstrikes on Syria in May and includes control areas as of April 17. Israel justifies violations of Lebanese and Syrian airspace by arguing such attacks are necessary to protect its national security. INSTITUTE FOR THE STUDY OF WAR/MAPS4NEWS/ISRAELI DEFENSE FORCES/REUTERS

Shortly after Trump announced he was leaving the deal, Israel conducted new airstrikes against suspected Iranian positions in neighboring Syria, where Iran and Russia support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against rebels and jihadis who rose up in a 2011 uprising backed by the West, Gulf Arab states and Turkey. Israel has said it remained neutral in the conflict, but it has reportedly offered support to rebels operating near the occupied Golan Heights and has launched airstrikes against Iranian forces and Iran-backed Shiite Muslim militias such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The conflict escalated significantly after rockets from Syria targeted Israeli forces in the Golan Heights, compelling Israel to launch its biggest bombing campaign in Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The U.S., Russia and Jordan are reportedly seeking to strike a deal that would see all Syrian and non-Syrian militias withdrawn from the country's southern borders in exchange for insurgents being relocated to rebel-held Idlib, in the north, the Syrian military reclaiming territory in the south and, potentially, the dismantling of a U.S. military base near Syria's border with Jordan and Iraq.