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Israeli public, politicians split on Iran (with advantage to skeptics)

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.

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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.

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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.

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    COMMENTS

    1. BOOZ

      Noam :

      I wonder why you are not considering that Iran (or I should say the current Iranian administration) could take a direct or proxy war initiative in order to distract their public opinion from domestic issues.

      All things equal, the most appropriate Israeli response would be “speak softly and carry a big stick”.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Buckley again

      as I proposed the other day to your friend larry, you may wish to read the following even if f it is not a brief blog entry. (it is true that those who support the attack say “iran” but what they really mean is ‘keep the west bank for ourselves’. those who support the war are exactly those who want the west bank for israel. connect the dots amigo

      http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13600826.2011.577031

      Reply to Comment
    3. ToivoS

      I think there is very little to no chance that Netanyahu is going to bomb Iran. Not going to happen. There is something else going on here — maybe internal Israeli politics, WB goals or. more likely to me, creating a political climate in the US so we will do it. The latter is something that will not happen either.

      The reason is interesting but very rarely discussed. Opposition to such a venture is very strong inside the US military especially in the Navy. Remember Admiral Fallon in 2006 or so cut his career short by publicly stating that the US will not attack Iran. I think the reason for this is because Iran has the capacity to sink US warships in the Persian Gulf. war. The weapon is a series of antiship cruise missiles that fly faster to 2x the speed of sound (i.e. this makes them invulnerable to our Aegis antimissile defenses). They were developed by the Soviet Union, perfected by Russia and China and the Russians have been providing them to Iran. Google ‘Sunburn-22’ or ‘yakhont’ and Persian Gulf if interested in the details.

      In any case these weapons are perfect for the Persian Gulf given their lethal range of 200 – 300 km. These carry conventional warheads and could make any naval vessel a sitting duck if it came within 300 km of an enemy shore. Our naval base in Bahrain is about 200km from Iran.

      In short a war wit Iran might prove to all that surface fleets are obsolete weapons for fighting modern wars. Don’t tell the appropriators in the US Congress.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Henry Weinstein

      Have you read & heard of this, Noam: published in The Guardian by Ian Black (Middle East editor), Thursday 3 November, titled “Israeli PM orders investigation into Iran leak”?
      Extract: “According to the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida, the main suspects are the former heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet (…) Netanyahu is said to believe that the two, Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin wanted to torpedo plans being drawun up by him and Ehud Barack (…)”.
      >http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/03/israeli-pm-investigation-iran-leak
      Another remark, to take only The Guardian: after reading ‘nuclear’ Iran’s last few days (imposant) coverage, one can assume Israel is not the only country in world coldly considering the prospect of an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
      >http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/iran

      Reply to Comment