TEL AVIV // Israel's former Mossad spy agency chief created a furore in Israel over the weekend after calling a possible strike on Iran the "stupidest idea I have ever heard", exposing discord within the country's security establishment on the issue.
Meir Dagan, who was at the helm of the Mossad for eight years before leaving the post in January, said on Friday in his first public remarks since ending his term that it would be difficult for Israel's air force to carry out an effective attack, and any such strike was likely to trigger a regional war.
The statements infuriated at least three senior government ministers yesterday, including Ehud Barak, the defence minister, all of whom blasted Mr Dagan's words as counterproductive to Israel's efforts to fight Iran's nuclear programme.
The comments also show that Israeli security officials are far from having a unanimous opinion on launching a strike against Iran, whose nuclear ambitions have been termed by the current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as the biggest threat facing the nation.
Furthermore, they appear to undermine an apparent strategy by Israel to keep alive years-long speculation on whether it would assault Iran - fanned by its vague hints that such an option is being weighed - as a way of possibly deterring its arch enemy from further developing its nuclear arms.
Mr Barak, while expressing anger yesterday at Mr Dagan, has played down the possibility of a clash with Iran. In an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on Friday, he was asked whether he believed that Iran would drop a nuclear bomb on Israel should it succeed in developing one, and replied: "Not on us and not on any other neighbour."
Mr Barak also appeared to criticise Mr Netanyahu's public emphasis, both at home and abroad, on the urgency needed to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions by saying: "I don't think in terms of panic - what about if some political meltdown takes place in Pakistan and four bombs wind up in Iran? So what? You shut down the country just because they got a shortcut? No. We are still the most powerful in the Middle East."
Mr Netanyahu has not responded to the comments by Mr Barak or Mr Dagan. The prime minister is believed to be a key advocate for launching an air strike on Iran's nuclear facilities should diplomacy or sanctions fail, and Israeli media have reported that the army's air force and military intelligence units back his stance.
While the prime minister tries to advance his view that the international community needs to be more aggressive with Iran on a diplomatic level, Israel has also been reportedly behind other tactics aiming to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions. Those include the Stuxnet computer worm that last year was believed to have wiped out roughly a fifth of Iran's nuclear centrifuges and helped delay, though not destroy, Tehran's capability to build its first nuclear weapon.
The recent debate, however, appears to indicate that chances for an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities currently appear minimal.
Mr Dagan said that attacking Iran would be more difficult than Israel's strike in 1981 on Iraq's nuclear reactor, deemed by the country as a success, because, unlike Iraq, Iran has scattered its nuclear facilities in various places around the country.
He added that Israel has evidence that Iran can divert the clandestine part of its nuclear operations from place to place as a way of dodging international supervision and detection by foreign intelligence agencies. There is therefore doubt, he said, that the Israeli air force could hit all the nuclear targets effectively.
Targeting any part of Iran's legitimate civil nuclear infrastructure, which functions alongside its clandestine infrastructure, would be "patently illegal under international law," Mr Dagan added.
The former spymaster also warned that Israel may face a regional war in the event of a strike. "It is the kind of thing which we know how it will start but not how it will end," he said.
He added that the Iranians are capable of months-long rocket strikes against Israel and that Lebanon's Hizbollah group, which is backed by Iran, could also launch tens of thousands of advanced rockets and hundreds of long-range missiles at Israel. Iran could also add more fuel to the fire by encouraging the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers to step up rocket fire against Israel and by persuading Syria, Israel's northern neighbour, to join the war.
Mr Dagan has in the past expressed more cautious assessments than some other Israeli intelligence officials on when Iran would achieve a nuclear weapon, saying he doesn't expect it before 2015.