It was the Israeli official response you would expect to hear at any mention of the country’s presumed stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, was asked during a local speaking engagement whether he thought it was a mistake for Israel to invest so much money in nuclear weapons when they weren’t working as a deterrent to Iran. “As far as our nuclear weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Halutz said, evoking a good laugh from the crowd at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park who had come to the J Street-sponsored event on Sept. 12.
Halutz’s speech came amid heightening tensions between the United States and Israel over the Iran issue. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was blunt in his recent marks that those “in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” He has further taken to the American airwaves to make his case that Israel cannot afford to wait forever while Iran pursues nuclear capabilities.
As Halutz’s remarks here indicated, the Israeli prime minister is facing opposition within his own country about the wisdom of a military strike against Iran.
Echoing the views of other members of Israel’s defense and intelligence establishment, Halutz urged patience. A red-line policy “has never worked in history,” said Halutz, who is best known for overseeing the Lebanon War in 2006. He argued for the continuation of sanctions, which have hurt Iran’s oil industry, its main source of revenue, even as he acknowledged that the impact of the sanctions is occurring too slowly.
“We may face a situation where the Iranians have enough time to enrich uranium before the sanctions force” the leaders to make a decision on building a bomb. But, he said there was still time for diplomacy and additional sanctions. “We have two different clocks. Israeli clocks are turning at a higher speed, and the American clock is moving slower,” Halutz said. “I’m not sure which speed is the right one, but I think the two sides should meet.”
Netanyahu’s criticism was thought to be directed at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement that the United States would not set deadlines for military action against Iran. President Barack Obama called Netanyahu after his critical news conference earlier this month, and the leaders spoke for more than hour, reportedly discussing their misunderstandings and Iran.
Halutz framed Iran’s threat as one uncertainty among many. For example, the election of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has led some to wonder whether the country will break its four-decades-long peace agreement with Israel. Halutz said he hopes that the need “to take care of 80 million Egyptians and to feed them will be” the priority in Cairo.
Bruce Lipton, who attended the speech with his wife, said he sees Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s talk of destroying Israel and Iran’s nuclear project as an existential threat to Israel, rather than just an attempt by Iran to strengthen its position in the Middle East, as some have speculated.
Efforts to build a bomb “are for the potential to use it,” said Lipton, an American who made aliyah and served in the Israeli army during the first intifada in the 1980s before returning to the United States.
“I don’t want to give them that opportunity, but what do you do about it is a complex question.”