Israel stepped back from brink of war with Iran in 2010

The day Israeli Prime Minister ordered the military to prepare for war – but was stopped by an internal revolt

The Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to the brink of triggering war against Iran in 2010, according to charges levelled in an Israeli TV documentary.

According to previews of Uvda ("Fact") on Israel's Channel 2, only a revolt by Israel's military chief and Mossad director prevented the country from being placed on full attack readiness.

Israeli leaders are increasingly alarmed at the Islamic Republic's steady march towards the development of nuclear capability, convinced that the combination of nuclear warheads, a fast-developing ballistic missile industry and repeated calls by Iranian leaders to remove Israel from the map threaten the future existence of the Jewish state.

United States and European-backed sanctions against Iran now appear to be biting, but two years ago they seemed ineffectual in dampening Tehran's nuclear ambitions. In the programme, Mr Barak confirms that at the end of a meeting of Israel's security cabinet in 2010, he and Mr Netanyahu instructed the Chief-of-Staff, Lt-Gen Gabi Ashkenazi, and the Mossad director Meir Dagan to initiate a "P Plus" code – placing the military on full alert to launch an imminent attack.

General Ashkenazi said he was concerned that the heightened alert might set in motion processes that would unwittingly trigger the attack. "It's not something you do if you're not sure you want to follow through with it," General Ashkenazi told his political commanders.

"The army was ready to attack, but I also said that attacking then would be a strategic mistake," he said afterwards.

Mr Dagan was even more blunt. "You might be making an illegal decision about going to war," he warned the Prime Minister and Defence Minister. "Only the cabinet is authorised to decide this."

Afterwards, Mr Dagan said: "The Prime Minister and Defence Minister were trying to hijack a war." US officials launched a public campaign against an Israeli strike. Since leaving office last year, both General Ashkenazi and Mr Dagan have repeatedly criticised Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak for warmongering against Iran.

Their description mirrors the more recent experience of the former Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, who briefly joined Mr Netanyahu's government this year.

"Mr Netanyahu is obsessed with an Israeli attack on Iran," said Mr Mofaz. "In the 70 days that I sat in government, more than half the meetings that Mr Netanyahu arranged with me were spent in attempts to persuade me we should attack Iran without American or Western support."

However, Mr Barak said his desire to test Israeli military preparedness had been misinterpreted.

"It's not true that creating the situation whereby the Israel Defence Forces and the other operational arms of the state are on alert for a few hours, a few days, ready to undertake certain operations, forces the state of Israel to carry them out," Mr Barak said.

The two security chiefs were not the only ones who believed they were the only people standing in the way of a major war. By mid-2010, Israeli concerns about Iran were being taken so seriously that leaders of the G8 countries meeting for a summit in Ontario believed "absolutely" that an Israeli attack was imminent, according to Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister at the time.

Both Mr Dagan and General Ashkenazi appear to believe that attempts to counter the Iranian nuclear threat should avoid military action that could escalate into regional conflict. "We must carry out a covert campaign, everything that is below the threshold of war, the threshold of a strike," General Ashkenazi told Israel's Council for Peace and Security in August.

Israel is believed to be responsible for at least three computer viruses that have infected the control systems of Iran's nuclear centrifuges, a series of assassinations of Iranian nuclear research scientists, and a string of mysterious accidents at Iranian military installations.