Why Do Israeli Media Keep Predicting War with Iran?

A frenetic pounding of the war drums appears designed to create the impression that Israel will attack Iran before the U.S. presidential election. Whether that's Netanyahu's real intent remains a mystery

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Abir Sultan / Pool / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem August 12, 2012

If the White House believes November will arrive without any nasty surprises in the Iran nuclear standoff, it is not taking seriously the feverish chatter throughout Israel‘s media positing an imminent Israeli attack on the Islamic Republic. The front pages of the four main Israeli dailies last Friday reflected what appeared to be a concerted campaign to create the impression that Israel is preparing itself to start a hot war with Iran sometime over the next 12 weeks, notwithstanding objections by the U.S. and other Western powers — and, indeed, by much of Israel’s security establishment. “[Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Ehud] Barak determined to strike Iran in the fall,” proclaimed Yedioth Ahronoth. Haaretz offered: “Senior Israeli official — The Iranian sword at our throat is sharper than the run-up to the war in 1967.” Maariv informed us in its banner headline that 37% of the Israeli public believes that “If Iran gets the bomb, it might result in a second Holocaust.” And Yisrael Hayom said: “Iran significantly speeds up its progress toward the bomb.” The following day, the latter paper included a headline claiming that, according to Israeli TV, a “Decision by Netanyahu and Barak to strike Iran is almost final.”

Haaretz seemed to suggest that part of the renewed urgency was a claim that new intelligence allegedly received by the U.S. ostensibly showed Iran making accelerated progress toward a capability to build nuclear warheads, although there was no U.S. confirmation of those claims. And others in the Israeli media were skeptical. One of Israel’s most senior columnists, Maariv’s Ben Caspit, sought to calm the media frenzy. “You can all relax,” wrote Caspit. “In the last two weeks, nothing new has happened with regards to an attack on Iran. The Cabinet hasn’t convened, the Defense Minister hasn’t summoned the IDF general staff, and no new information has been received. Everything that is known today was also known two weeks and two months ago.”

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Caspit suggested that the new “bomb Iran” talk wasn’t based on any qualitative shift in the nature of Iran’s nuclear work. The U.S. intelligence assessment until now has been that despite steadily accumulating the means to build nuclear weapons, Iran has not thus far moved to enrich uranium to weapons grade or to begin the process of actually building a bomb. Nor has it taken a strategic decision to do so as yet. The problem is that the “red lines” adopted by Israel and the U.S. for triggering a military response are different: President Obama has vowed to take military action to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, whereas Israel has insisted that Iran can’t be allowed to maintain the capability to build such weapons — a technological capacity it essentially already has. Caspit also argued that the primary issue was one of lack of trust among Israel’s political leaders that it could rely on the U.S. taking military action should Iran move to build nuclear warheads. A recurring theme in much of the coverage, and statements from Israeli leaders, is the belief that Israel can’t entrust its security to the current U.S. government, or any future Administration.

Some of the speculation in Israel suggests that Netanyahu and Barak might take advantage of the window of opportunity offered by a U.S. election season that leaves the Obama Administration vulnerable on the Iran issue to present the Administration with a fait accompli — although even the Israelis acknowledge that the limits on their military capacities are such that, at best, they could hope to simply delay Iran’s nuclear progress by a year or two — begging the question of what strategy would guide an aftermath in which Iran was more likely to seek a nuclear deterrent, and in which Israel’s break from the Western consensus on how to deal with Iran would potentially deal a body blow to the sanctions regime.

(MORE: Will Israel’s Netanyahu Make Peace or War?)

Until now the U.S. and other Western powers have restrained Israel from launching what they believe could be a catastrophic war for very limited gains through imposing what even Washington’s flagship Israel-lobbying organization, AIPAC, has called the “strongest set of sanctions to isolate any country during peacetime.” And Israelis have long recognized that their threat to take unilateral military action gives them leverage over Western powers to demand ever tighter sanctions and pressure on Iran. When former Mossad chief Meir Dagan last year publicly ridiculed the idea of Israel attacking Iran as strategic folly, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit excoriated him for letting the cat out of the bag:

The threat of a military attack against Iran … is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans. It is also crucial for spurring on the Chinese and the Russians. Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran.

Most Western analyses in recent months have concluded that Israel won’t scramble its bombers before November and that the sanctions that are steadily eroding Iranian living standards will be given more time to bleed Iran’s economy — although the Israeli leadership correctly points out that there haven’t been any signs, thus far, that the tightening choke hold of sanctions will prompt Iran’s leaders to capitulate to Western demands. By the logic of using the threat of military action to spur greater Western action, last week’s frenzied percussion on Israel’s war drums could be read as an attempt to challenge complacency in Washington and other Western capitals and to demand even harsher pressure on Iran in the months ahead.

(MORE: U.S. Admits to Waging War Against Iran)

But there’s also a domestic political dimension, with Netanyahu and Barak clearly stung by criticism from so much of Israel’s security establishment of their Iran saber rattling and the publicly known skepticism of the current military brass to Israel mounting a solo attack on Iran without U.S. support. Both men repeatedly make clear that it’s the political echelon that will make the decisions on Iran, not the military.

One of the stranger pieces in the latest flurry of reports suggesting Israel’s leaders are shaping to strike Iran was by Haaretz’s Shavit, in which a man he identifies only as “the decisionmaker” — but in a piece so riddled with obvious clues prompting Israel’s cognoscenti to assume he was talking to Barak – warns that “the sword hanging over our neck today is a lot sharper than the sword that hung over our neck before the Six-Day War.” (Talking metaphorically of a blade at Israel’s throat seemed to be a direct response to Dagan, who had repeatedly challenged what he saw as a reckless weighing of a military option by insisting that Israel should only take military action “when a knife is at its throat and begins to cut into the flesh.”)

The reasoning of Barak and Netanyahu is unlikely to convince Israeli skeptics of military action against Iran, because central to their skepticism has been unprecedented public questioning of the strategic competence of Israel’s top political decisionmakers. Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, for example, in April publicly accused Netanyahu and Barak of being “guided by messianic feelings,” adding, “I don’t have faith in the current leadership of Israel to lead us to an event of this magnitude, of war with Iran.” The breakdown of trust, Caspit claims, is not simply between the U.S. and Israeli political leaderships but also between Israel’s political leadership and its military chiefs.

(MORE: 10 Questions for Ehud Barak)

And the skepticism in the security establishment, and among military chiefs, of a decision to attack Iran at this point will also have been factored into the analyses in foreign capitals of the likelihood of Israel going to war, thereby weakening the leverage derived from that threat. The feverish speculation over an imminent attack on Iran may drown out such skepticism in the Israeli public sphere, of course. But it could also call forth further challenges to an Israeli military option from old security stalwarts.

Asked to comment on last week’s torrent of speculation, Netanyahu on Sunday condemned both the reporting of skepticism of an Iran attack in Israel’s military establishment and claims that such an attack is imminent. But his reasoning wasn’t likely to still the clamor: the Prime Minister lashed out at the media speculation on the grounds that its purpose, ostensibly, was to “prevent Israel from independent action.” On Sunday, Israel tested a nationwide SMS-text-message emergency drill for warning of an incoming missile attack. And its Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, publicly demanded that the West declare failure in attempts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

Clearly, someone wants Israelis and the world to think Israel is moving closer to launching a fateful attack on Iran. Whether such a scenario has really become more likely than it was two weeks or two months ago, or the agenda is part of some game of bluff designed to change either Iranian or Western behavior, there’s a growing danger that the Israeli public’s expectations of war are being raised to a critical point. After all, as many in the security establishment have long warned, you can’t keep telling Israelis that there’s a grave and gathering danger of annihilation looming on the horizon without creating overwhelming pressure to act.

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