Analysis from Israel

I have one question for National Intelligence Director James Clapper and his predecessors. As we all know, the infamous 2007 National Intelligence Estimate asserted with “high confidence” that Iran had halted its work on nuclear weapons development, and no subsequent NIE ever reversed that judgment. Yet fast forward seven years, and the latest annual intelligence assessment asserts that “Tehran has made technical progress in a number of areas … from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable nuclear weapons,” and consequently, it now “has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to eventually produce nuclear weapons” should it so choose. So here’s my question: If Iran stopped its weapons development effort seven years ago, how did it happen that since then, it has made precisely the kind of technical progress that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead whenever it chooses?

There are two plausible answers to this question. One, the work never really stopped, or resumed at some point in the last few years, and U.S. intelligence agencies simply missed it. That’s certainly possible; intelligence agencies aren’t omniscient, and it’s unrealistic to think they will never make mistakes. A more troubling possibility is that since intelligence rarely reaches the level of absolute certainty, the available information was misinterpreted due to political bias–a desire to avoid military action against Iran, and hence to avoid interpreting Iran’s behavior in a way that might necessitate such action.

But the answer offered by the Obama administration strains credulity: that Iran really did stop its weapons program and never resumed it, but somehow, mysteriously, nevertheless made major technical progress over the last seven years of precisely the kind that now enables it to build a nuclear warhead anytime it pleases. Even a two-year-old wouldn’t buy that.

The real problem, however, isn’t what this says about the past, but what it says about the future. After all, for years, opponents of attacking Iran’s nuclear program have argued that Tehran hasn’t yet decided to make a nuclear weapon, and if it ever does, the U.S. will know in enough time to stop it before it succeeds. Therefore, there’s no reason for either America or Israel to take military action now. Yet how can either Americans or Israelis have confidence that U.S. intelligence will detect a nuclear breakout in time if, for the past seven years, it has either missed all the signs that Iran was continuing to make “technical progress” toward weaponization, or deliberately ignored them out of a desire to avert military action–a desire that, judging by both words and deeds, remains the administration’s top priority?

The answer, of course, is that they can’t. And the lesson for Israel is clear: It cannot rely on U.S. promises to stop Iran from getting nukes, because these promises are based on the faulty assumption that U.S. intelligence will uncover a “smoking gun”–the kind of irrefutable proof that can’t be argued away–in enough time to take action. Hence the day is coming closer when Israel will have to make a fatal decision: attack Iran itself, or learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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