TEL AVIV // Israel's leaders are misleading the public on Tehran's nuclear ambitions and cannot be trusted on the Iran issue, the former head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency said at the weekend.
Yuval Diskin said the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak were making decisions on Iran based on "messianic feelings" rather than concrete intelligence, and he had no faith in them.
"Believe me, I have observed them from up close … they are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off," said Mr Diskin.
He said Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak, the two main backers of possible military action against Iran, were providing the Israeli public with false information to draw support for a strike. "They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won't have a nuclear bomb," said Mr Diskin.
"This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race. What the Iranians prefer to do today slowly and quietly, they would have the legitimacy to do quickly and in a much shorter time."
Mr Diskin was head of Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011, including during the current terms of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak. He is viewed as having had a good working relationship with Mr Netanyahu and is a respected figure in the security and political arena.
His first public statements on Iran since leaving his post last year are the latest sign of a policy split at the top in Israel. And following remarks last week by Gen Benny Gantz, head of the Israeli military, they are a further indication that officials in Israel's security establishment oppose a strike before diplomatic efforts and sanctions are exhausted.
Mr Gantz said he did not believe Iran's leadership would decide to build a nuclear bomb and that sanctions and diplomatic efforts were starting to bear fruit. Analysts said Mr Gantz's comments offered rare optimism from a top Israeli official about the negotiations with Tehran.
He spoke a day after Mr Netanyahu had given warning that Iran may still develop a nuclear bomb despite the toughened international sanctions.
Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel's Mossad spy agency who in the past year aggressively condemned the government's Iran policy on public forums, has called the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran "ridiculous".
Mr Diskin's comments, in a speech in the city of Kfar Saba on Friday, add to the increasing debate over the international community's handling of the threat of Iranian nuclear ambitions and about whether an Israeli military attack would be necessary to halt Tehran's building of an atom bomb.
"Such statements could make the government more apprehensive about attacking Iran," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli who runs the blog Middle East Analyst about the region's political and economic affairs.
"This could quite possibly discredit the option of a unilateral, premature Israeli attack before all other options are explored."
Mr Diskin's statements may provide fuel for officials in the US and other western countries who oppose such a strike in the near future, especially amid the renewal of talks over Iran's nuclear programme between the Islamic Republic and world powers.
Six countries - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - are due to take part in their second meeting with Iranian officials in Baghdad on May 23.
Iranian state TV said Tehran would also conduct a new round of negotiations in Vienna on May 13-14 with the United Nations' nuclear agency, whose inspectors have demanded access to Iranian military sites.