The lack of national consensus makes an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities unlikely, yet the escalating threats could create a dangerous dynamic in the longer run ● Public discourse is lacking a serious debate on the consequences of the attack
After months and years in which it has been kept in back rooms or limited to hints and remarks the true meaning of which was understood only by a few people, the Iran debate is suddenly so public that at times it’s hard to make any sense of it. Never has the possibility of a war – a war! – been debated so openly in Israel. Haaret’z top headline today (Thursday) was a poll showing the Israeli public split – 41 in favor and 39 opposing – on a possible Israeli strike against Iran nuclear facilities. According to those numbers, ultra-Orthodox Israelis are particularly keen on the attack (do they know something the rest of us don’t?) and a surprising 21 percent of Israeli-Palestinians are in support.
Some people find the idea of polling such issues bizarre (next – a reality show?) , but history has shown that when left alone to decide in secret on such issues, politicians and generals don’t exercise better judgment than the man on the street. Knowing that the public’s eye is on them, the military and political chiefs in Tel Aviv might be a bit more careful. I agree with Larry Derfner – a public debate on Iran is generally a good thing, and we should be happy that most of the Israel press is engaging in it. Unsurprisingly, it was the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Yisrael Hayon that had a quote in its top headline criticizing public statements made by ex-Mossad chief against the attack, reminding that Israel’s (former) chief spies are sworn to secrecy.
I was buying coffee near my home on Thursday when a siren sounded; I had a vague memory that a civil defense drill was due to take place, but people around me were genuinely concerned. Later, I read that the Home Front Command told reporters that the drill was scheduled a long time ago – just like the Air Force maneuver on the other side of the Mediterranean – yet one can’t help thinking that if Israel is not planning to attack Iran, it wants things to at least to be seen that way.
It’s not clear whether Israel has the military capability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program, but an attack, some people argue, will send a message to the entire Middle East that Israel will act against any country in the region that attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if this won’t stop Iran, such an attack might deter other countries in the region, and prevent the nightmare scenario of an all-out nuclear arms race. Some also hope that the possibility of Israeli attack might strengthen international pressure on Iran, or promote more effective sanctions.
But deterrence is a double-edged sword; it is meant to prevent the need to use military force but sometimes it ends up actually leading to it. It’s easy to see why: You start by threatening to use force if your national interests are jeopardized, and after a while, you have no choice but acting upon your threats in order to make sure that they are seen as credible in the future. This is the real danger of the current game Israel is playing: While I doubt if there is a real desire to attack in the political system or the military right now, as time passes the urge to strike is likely to grow, if only in order to prove to other countries that Israel’s threats are credible.
As for now, it seems that the “Iran Skeptics” camps still has the upper hand in the national debate: in the eight-minister cabinet that constitutes Israel’s top decision-making forum, four ministers are reported to oppose the attack (according to Haaretz those are Benny Begin, Moshe Ya’alon, Eli Yishai and Dan Meridor), three are considered in favor and one’s position is unclear, though it has been reported that he is leaning towards the opposition (that’s Finance Minister Yuval Shteinitz). Reports suggest that the military and Mossad are also not very enthusiastic about the idea, and as I mentioned, there is the very public campaign launched by the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, with the silent support of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of Shabak (the Shin Bet internal security service) Yuval Diskin, though it should be noted that none of the three hold any formal role in security establishment right now.
Finally, the latest development is the criticism against Netanyahu’s push for attack, voiced by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. This is pretty rare – the political tradition in Israel has it that the opposition does not question the government’s security decisions, certainly not in public, and never in advance. Livni wouldn’t have spoken if she had felt that she is alone on this issue.
One thing that is missing from the public debate on Iran is a serious consideration of the consequences of an Israeli attack. The Iranian response – both direct and by proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas – could be pretty tough, and if it actually causes great damage or result in a large number of civilian casualties, Israel might see itself as being forced to retaliate. Therefore, the correct framing of the question isn’t an attack on Iran, but a possible war with Iran and its regional allies. An escalation of this sort might result in drawing the United States and other countries, probably against their will, into the fight. Again, the consequences for all parties involved – Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Lebanese and maybe Syrians – could be terrible.
The fact that Natanayhu is far from enjoying a national consensus behind him on Iran, even before a single shot was fired, makes me think that maybe an attack is not around the corner, at least for the time being.