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Israel’s hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing an unprecedented challenge. As Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who has been in office for more than three years, he had come to seem immovable. But leading figures of Israel’s security establishment, as well as prominent American Jews, have started openly to contest two of his most fundamental policies: his portrayal of Iran’s nuclear programme as an ‘existential’ danger to Israel, raising the spectre of an imminent Holocaust; and his steady expansion of Israeli colonies in Occupied Territories, with a view, as many suspect, of creating a ‘Greater Israel.’

The challenge to Netanyahu could have far-reaching consequences. For one thing, it appears to have removed any likelihood of an early Israeli attack on Iran, such as Netanyahu has threatened and trumpeted for a year and more; for another, it has revived the possibility of a two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a solution many had thought moribund, if not actually dead.

Netanyahu’s most virulent critics happen to be some of Israel’s most decorated army and intelligence chiefs. For example, Yuval Diskin, recently retired as the head of Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, told a meeting in late April that he had ‘no confidence in the current leadership of the state of Israel, which could lead Israel into a war with Iran or a regional war.’ He accused Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of taking decisions “based on messianic sentiments... I saw them up close, they are not Messiahs... These are not people whose hands I would like to have on the steering- wheel.” Far from ending Iran’s nuclear programme, Diskin predicted that an Israeli attack on Iran could result in “a dramatic acceleration of Iran’s nuclear programme.”

Israel’s current Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, is another senior officer who has openly contested Netanyahu’s apocalyptic rhetoric. “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people,” he told the Haaretz newspaper in April, adding that he did not believe Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would “want to go the extra mile” to acquire nuclear weapons. Mossad’s current chief, Tamir Pardo, has also contradicted Netanyahu by stating that Iran did not pose an ‘existential threat’ to the Jewish state. For his part, Meir Dagan, a celebrated former Mossad chief, has ridiculed Netanyahu’s war-mongering by saying that the idea of attacking Iran was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” and that a pre-emptive Israeli strike would be ‘reckless and irresponsible.’

In an interview with Ben Caspit of Ma’ariv on April 27, he also inveighed against the small parties in Netanyahu’s coalition which, with their own narrow agendas, rob the prime minister of any real freedom of action because, to keep his coalition alive, he must bow to their wishes.

Dagan was particularly critical of the Haredim, members of the most conservative form of Orthodox Judaism, who do not serve in the army, pay less tax than other Israelis, and seek to promote sex segregation in Israel — and also in New York! Dagan believes that ‘the spirit of the law’ demands “an equal distribution of the burden among all the citizens.” The Haredim, he declared, should be compelled to serve in the army, while the Arabs of Israel should also serve, if not in the army, then in the police, the fire brigade, or in Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent. Ephraim Halevy, another former Mossad chief, has also stated publicly that “ultra-orthodox radicalisation poses a bigger threat than [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad.” He, too, has declared that Iran poses no existential danger to Israel.

Two-state solution

Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defence minister and now the new head of Kadima, Israel’s centrist party, said recently on television that an attack on Iran could be ‘disastrous.’ Netanyahu, he argued scathingly, “wants to create an image that he is the protector of Israel.” He accused the prime minister of using Iran as a tool to divert attention from last September’s protests, when 450,000 Israelis poured into the streets of Tel Aviv to demand social justice.

Such recent statements by Israel’s former and current security chiefs show how seriously Netanyahu’s views are being challenged and how impatient many Israelis are for change.

On the Palestine question, two remarkable articles, published in the International Herald Tribune on April 25 (reproduced from the New York Times), also point to a wave of new thinking among prominent Jews. In one article, Ami Ayalon, a former commander of the Israeli Navy and a former head of Shin Bet, advocates a “radically new unilateral approach” to the Palestine problem, which would set “the conditions for a territorial compromise based on the principle of two states for two people, which is essential for Israel’s future as both a Jewish and a democratic state.”

To promote his ideas and rally supporters, Ayalon has created an organisation called ‘Blue White Future’. He argues that Israel does not need to wait for a final-status deal with the Palestinians. Instead, it should renounce all territorial claims east of the West Bank barrier, end all colony construction there, as well as in Occupied East Jerusalem, and plan to re-locate to Israel 100,000 colonists who live beyond the barrier. Israel, he says, should ‘enact a voluntary compensation and absorption law for colonists east of the barrier.’ In the absence of an accord with the Palestinians, he believes Israel should begin to create a two-state reality on the ground.

On the same page of the International Herald Tribune, Stephen Robert, a prominent Jewish philanthropist and former investment banker, now chairman of the Source of Hope Foundation, calls for a ‘reset’ in Jewish thinking. Israel, he argues, is no longer ‘a vulnerable little state’. It has become ‘the most powerful military force in the Middle East.’ Its existence is threatened, however, by the fact that it “has occupied the territory of 4 million Palestinians for over 40 years. Virtually imprisoned the Palestinians lack freedom of movement and civil or political rights. They are subject to imprisonment without charges. They often lack water and jobs and are citizens of nowhere...”

In a passionate appeal, he added: “Israelis must understand that in liberating the Palestinians they will also liberate themselves... A state that persecutes, deprives and denies its neighbours in a manner so similar to what our tormentors did to us cannot be acceptable.”

Peter Beinart’s recent book, The Crisis of Zionism (Times Books 2012) provides yet another indication of the growing realisation among Jews that Israel has taken a wrong turn and must urgently change course. Beinart advocates boycotting products from Israel’s illegal colonies in the Occupied Territories — as a UK supermarket chain, the Co-Operative Group, the country’s fifth largest food retailer, has just done.

At a time when Israel is celebrating its 64th birthday, something like a wind of change is blowing through the minds of its most senior security officials and some of its most fervent overseas supporters. The Palestinians, and the Arab world as a whole, should hurry to respond positively to this most welcome development.

Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.