Time is getting short….
First it was the Shalit deal. Then it was about a week of rocket fire from Gaza, seasoned with the Palestinians’ UNESCO triumph. Now Israel is in a tizzy again—about attacking Iran.
On November 8 the International Atomic Energy Agency is set to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program that is expected to be the most damning ever, saying the program goes well beyond the civilian sphere. It wasn’t that, though—at least not directly—that triggered the uproar in Israel.
What got it going was a front-page column on Friday by veteran, left-of-center, anti-Netanyahu columnist Nahum Barnea in the fiercely anti-Netanyahu daily Yediot Aharonot. Called “Atomic Pressure,” it claimed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had already decided, just the two of them, on an Israeli move against Iran.
All hell broke loose. The issue of the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel—usually inanely relegated to the margins by the media, often in favor of saucy scandals or outrage over the price of cottage cheese and gasoline—suddenly sprang forth on every news and opinion page of the Hebrew press. Now every two-bit journalist was pronouncing on what is actually the paramount, existential issue facing Israel, dwarfing all others even though many of them are not exactly trivial.
Some public figures reacted with fury, claiming Yediot and other anti-Netanyahu elements of the media were deliberately stirring up the storm to turn the public against a strike on Iran—or just to discomfit Netanyahu (they also don’t much like Barak, of left-of-center background but now close to the prime minister). It was claimed that turning these ultra-sensitive security issues into a wild public free-for-all was the height of galling irresponsibility.
Among the critics are three members of Netanyahu’s eight-minister inner cabinet, a key decision-making body. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said what the media was publishing had “no relation to the truth” yet was causing “tremendous damage.” Minister-without-Portfolio Benny Begin called it a “campaign of recklessness.” In an op-ed in another daily, Maariv, Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor said the media hubbub amounted to a form of treason.
Yet, more or less concurrently, other members of the inner cabinet spoke rather openly about the issue, and they included Netanyahu and Barak themselves. Addressing the Knesset on Monday, Netanyahu said a “nuclear Iran would constitute a grave threat to the Middle East and the entire world, and of course it is a direct and grave threat on us.” Barak said, “We’re not hiding our thoughts.... We have to act in every way possible and no options should be taken off the table.” And Interior Minister Eli Yishai, considered a fence-sitter on the attack-Iran issue, was quite upfront:
This possible action is keeping me awake at night. Imagine we’re [attacked] from the north, south and center. They have short-range and long-range missiles—we believe they have about 100,000 rockets and missiles.
He was referring to the fact that, in case of an Israeli strike on Iran, the latter’s proxies in Lebanon and Gaza (possibly along with Syria) would be certain to join the fray.
More significantly yet, though, beyond the war of words, Israel has taken actions in these days whose timing is anything but coincidental. On Wednesday morning Israel tested a long-range missile that, foreign media reports say, can carry nuclear warheads.
And just a few hours later, on Wednesday afternoon, Israeli media were rife with reports of a major Israeli air force drill over Sardinia with Italy and NATO. An Israeli air-force commander said: “We simulated a common enemy. The cooperation between us and the Italians was very good.”
It all wasn’t lost on the Iranians, whose top military official warned Israel of “surprising” retaliations in case of a strike.
What can one make of this sudden welter of dramatic developments?
For one thing, it may be that Netanyahu and Barak are less unhappy than some of their lieutenants about the sudden tumult in Israel. It was also reported recently that the U.S. is now acutely worried about an Israeli strike and acting vigorously to ratchet up pressures on Iran. Israel has worked hard, with some degree of success, to impress the dangers of Iranian nukes on the U.S. and the main European players. All Israelis would prefer that the NATO powers handle Iran instead of small, isolated Israel. Giving the impression, in whatever way, that Israel is close to the end of its tether can be in Israel’s interest.
Few in Israel, though, would put much stock in either the Obama administration ordering a strike on Iran’s nuclear program or sanctions sufficing to halt it. Israeli leaders who talk about danger and sleepless nights are talking candidly. Will the November 8 IAEA report finally wake up the West? Israel’s operative assumption has to be that it won’t.
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