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In the debate heating up on Iran attack, a who’s who of the players

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The debate over an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities has heated up in recent weeks, with several current and former Israeli security chiefs coming out against an attack. Here are some of the debate’s most prominent figures, plus what President Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, think of the idea.

Benjamin Netanyahu

Position and credentials: Prime minister of Israel and the most important person in the decision on whether to strike Iran. A security hawk, Netanyahu has made combating Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons the defining issue of his tenure.

Position on a strike: Experts have written pages upon pages about Netanyahu’s thinking regarding a strike ever since he took office in 2009. While his frequent warnings — and references to the Holocaust — have made many analysts consider him more supportive than other officials of a strike, several experts have floated the possibility that he is bluffing in an attempt to spur the international community to stand up to Iran and have the Islamic Republic stand down from its nuclear aspirations.

Defining quote: “I think it’s important to do everything in our power to prevent the ayatollahs from possessing the capability. We have to be honest and say that all the sanctions and diplomacy so far have not set back the Iranian program by one iota. And that’s why I believe that we need a strong and credible military threat, coupled with the sanctions, to have a chance to change that situation.” — statement at July 29 meeting with Romney

Influence: As the head of Israel’s government, Netanyahu is the most important person in this debate. Together with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, he will make the decision on whether to strike Iran. Regardless of whether Israel strikes, Netanyau’s focus on the issue has raised its profile in the international arena.

Ehud Barak

Position and credentials: Israel’s defense minister. He also served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, and as head of the Israel Defense Forces from 1991 to 1995. He is the second most important figure in the internal Israeli debate after Netanyahu.

Position on an attack: Until this week, Barak’s position appeared to be supportive of a potential strike. But in a statement Thursday, he hinted — according to Haaretz — that the buildup of American forces in the Persian Gulf may obviate the need for a unilateral Israeli strike. Lately, Barak also has focused his statements on Iran’s “zone of immunity,” the point when Iran’s nuclear program becomes impenetrable. At the end of July, he told CNN that the U.S. and Israel were on the “same page” on Iran.

Defining quote: “Israel reserves the right to make sovereign decisions, and the U.S. respects that. However, there’s no mistaking the impressive scope of American preparations to deal with the Iranian challenge on every plane.” — at a Sept. 6 meeting of his Independence Party, as quoted in Haaretz

Influence: As the head of Israel’s security establishment, Barak is at the center of this debate and will play a key role in the decision. As the former head of Israel’s Labor Party he was to Netanyahu’s left, but Times of Israel editor David Horovitz noted that since splitting from Labor in 2011, Barak faced an uncertain political future.

Meir Dagan

Position and credentials: Led the Mossad from 2002 to 2011. As the head of Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Dagan focused on disrupting Iran’s nuclear program — the Mossad was credited with assassinating Iranian scientists and launching cyber attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Position on an attack: Opposed. After leaving the Mossad, Dagan spoke out publicly against a strike, calling it a “stupid idea.” He has made comments in the same vein this year, and has become one of the most prominent Israeli opponents of a strike.

Defining quote: “An Israeli bombing would lead to a regional war and solve the internal problems of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It would galvanize Iranian society behind the leadership and create unity around the nuclear issue.” — quoted in the Sept. 3 issue of The New Yorker

Influence: Dagan draws tremendous respect for his military career, and his is not a lone voice. Former high-level officials who served alongside him also oppose a strike. His opinion, however, means only so much now that he is out of the prime minister’s inner circle.

Yuval Diskin

Position and credentials: Head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, from 2005 to 2011. While he didn’t speak out against a strike until last April, Dagan had claimed that Diskin also opposed an attack while in office.

Position on an attack: Opposed. In his first public comments on the issue, at an event in central Israel, he castigated Netanyahu and Barak for misleading the Israeli public.

Defining quote: “They make decisions based on messianism … I’ve seen them up close. They’re not messiahs, and in a war like this I wouldn’t want them at the helm.” — on Netanyahu and Barak, at the forum in central Israel, April 28

Influence: Similar to Dagan. His former position makes him a prominent voice, but as Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, told JTA, “Yuval Diskin is not a decision-maker with regard to Iran.”

Shimon Peres

Position and credentials: President of Israel, twice a prime minister, and considered to be one of the key architects of Israel’s never-confirmed nuclear weapons program.

Position on an attack: In a statement last month, Peres said that Israel cannot attack Iran without the help of the United States. He has since stayed quiet on the issue.

Defining quote: “It’s clear to us that we can’t do this alone … it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America.” — to Israel’s Channel 2 News, Aug. 15

Influence: Peres has enjoyed high approval ratings as president, a largely ceremonial role. But he was dovish as prime minister, and his comments on Iran drew criticism from some officials, including a Netanyahu aide, who said he overstepped his bounds. Yitzchak Navon, a former president, defended Peres.

Benny Gantz

Position and credentials: Chief of the IDF General Staff, a key player in the discussion on whether to strike Iran’s facilities.

Position on an attack: In April, Gantz said that Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “would be making an enormous mistake” by developing a bomb, “and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile.” In July, Gantz was opposed to an attack before the Nov. 6 U.S. elections, although he has reiterated that the IDF is capable of a strike.

Defining quote: “I can say that the IDF is ready for any scenario. We will reach any place, any time, and defend this nation.” — at the President’s Residence, as quoted in The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 2

Influence: As IDF chief, Gantz is a top adviser to Netanyahu, Barak and the Israeli Cabinet. But Israel’s democracy dictates that elected officials, not military leaders, make the decision on whether to strike. Efraim Inbar, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, notes that “the military was against a withdrawal from Lebanon and a withdrawal from Gaza,” which nonetheless took place in 2000 and 2005, respectively.

Ovadia Yosef

Position and credentials: Spiritual authority of the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party, former Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel and the preeminent Jewish legal authority in the Sephardic world.

Position on an attack: Reportedly opposed. After reported efforts by Netanyahu to secure Yosef’s approval for a potential strike, Reuters and Israel’s Channel 10 reported that the rabbi remained opposed, which means that his ministers in Netanyahu’s inner circle are, too. Even so, last month Yosef told his followers to pray on Rosh Hashanah for the destruction of “enemies” in Iran.

Defining quotation: “When we … ask God to ‘bring an end to our enemies,’ we should be thinking about Iran, those evil ones who threaten Israel. May the Lord destroy them.” — Aug. 25, at his weekly Saturday night address, as reported by the Times of Israel

Influence: Yosef, 91, is not an elected official, but Ephraim of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies notes that as the preeminent Sephardic sage his words carry weight with much of Israel. More directly, says Inbar, he instructs Shas’ ministers, who “will do as they’re told.”

President Obama

Position and credentials: President of the United States, Israel’s closest ally, whose military could do far greater damage to Iran’s facilities than could Israel’s.

Position on an attack: Opposed, for now. Has declared that the U.S. will not allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon and that no options are off the table in that regard. Views military action as a last resort, however, and wants more time to let diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions halt the nuclear program.

Defining quote: “I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.” — to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, March 2

Influence: Hard to overstate. How an attack would affect the U.S.-Israel alliance is one of the most discussed issues in this debate, and analysts like Inbar say the decision could hinge on whether Netanyahu and Barak trust Obama’s assurances. Inbar is doubtful: “The line that the Americans will take care of it is obviously not something that the Israelis trust.”

Mitt Romney

Position and credentials: Republican nominee for president, more hawkish on Iran than Obama.

Position on an attack: Like Obama, Romney has declared that he will take no options off the table in halting Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons quest. During Romney’s July visit to Israel, his adviser, Dan Senor, said that Romney would “respect” a unilateral Israeli strike; Senor clarified later that Romney “recognizes Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Defining quote: “It would be foolish not to take the leaders of Iran at their word. We have a moral imperative to deny Iran’s leaders the means to follow through on their malevolent intent.” — at a July 29 speech in Jerusalem

Influence: Should he be elected, similar to Obama’s, but Inbar notes that “If he wins the elections he only gets in power at the end of January, and it’s going to take him a few months to get the right people in place. We’re talking about a delay of half a year.”

Martin Dempsey

Position and credentials: Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff

Position on an attack: Opposed. Dempsey said that a premature attack could undo international sanctions against Iran and would “probably not destroy” the nuclear program.

Defining quote: An attack would “clearly delay but probably not destroy Iran’s nuclear program … I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.” — in London as reported by The Guardian, Aug. 30

Influence: Both Kam and Inbar say that Dempsey’s statements are aimed at dissuading Israel from attacking Iran, and Dempsey said that he communicates frequently with Gantz.