Israel Consumed by Debate over Whether to Attack Iran

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All week Israel has thrummed with talk of launching a military strike on Iran.  It began with published hints that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was preparing to move forward on plans to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, a pre-emptive move that he, along with his defense minister, Ehud Barak, long have been described as advocating. Word that mooted aim might be moving toward action came from Nahum Barnea, the most respected columnist in the country, whose heads-up ran across the front page of the weekend edition of Yedioth Ahronoth.

Next came solemn but elliptical remarks from members of his inner cabinet, which would have to approve an air strike on a foreign country. “This strike is complex and intricate, and it is best not to talk about how complex and intricate it is,” Eli Yishai, the interior minister and head of the religious Shas party, was quoted saying.  “This operation leaves me sleepless.”

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What followed seemed to confirm that something was indeed afoot in the top levels of government: A flurry of senior ministers began shouting that these things should not be discussed in public. “Debates like this cannot be held in front of the camera,” said Dan Meridor, whose portfolio is intelligence and atomic energy.  “It’s as if we’ve lost our minds here.”  Benny Begin, another Likud member of the inner cabinet lamented “there has never been a media campaign like this. It’s a crazy free-for-all….simply disgusting.”

What’s actually happening is far from clear, and perhaps meant to be that way.  There could be actual fire – a fuse being lit by a country that, after all, sent jets to knock out nuclear installations in Iraq and Syria, albeit with no warning. Or all this could be not fire but smoke, a rustling of papers meant both to unnerve Iran and steel the resolve of global powers to enforce punishing sanctions against it.

The timing is likewise ambiguous. Within days, the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to report evidence that Iran continues in efforts to weaponize its nuclear program.  It’s also a matter of weeks until winter, with the overcast skies that will impede an airstrike, closing the window for months.

Israel’s military stoked speculation.  The Israel Defense Forces announced that pilots had just completed a drill for a long-range strike, including mid-air refueling and navigating in unfamiliar skies.   It also staged a rare missile test launch, sending a contrail over the Mediterranean that was visible from much of central Israel.  Meanwhile, the Home Front Command held a drill, also said to be long planned, simulating a rocket attack on Central Israel.

The net effect of all this was to open a public debate in Israeli society over exactly what Netanyahu’s cabinet so strongly preferred to want to keep to themselves — the wisdom of striking Iran. It’s a debate Barnea, for one, has strongly encouraged. Last year the columnist wrote about a study estimating what would follow a strike on Iran: “The war could be long,” its author said. “The length could be measured in years.”   Many expect that, once attacked, at the minimum Iran would encourage its proxy in Lebanon, Hizballah, to begin launching its tens of thousands of rockets into Israel. In the Gaza Strip, Iran has also supplied rockets to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“Imagine [an attack] from the north, the south and the center,” minister Yishai was quoted as saying. “They have short-range and long-range missiles. We estimate there are about 100,000 missiles and rockets.”

These sabres have been rattled before. Last year Jeffrey Goldberg’s cover story in the Atlantic rang at least as dire.  But only now is the debate being seized inside Israel.  The political opposition smells blood: “I am warning Netanyahu and Barak not to engage in a megalomaniacal adventure in Iran,” said Labor Party chair Sheli Yehimovitch.  Wednesday’s Haaretz carried an opinion piece urging the head of Israel’s air force to use his influence to halt any attack by flatly saying it could not be guaranteed effective. Thursday’s paper led with an opinion poll showing Israelis evenly split on the question: “Should Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.” On the next question — “Do you trust Netanyahu and Barak’s handling of Iran?” —  the numbers showed a majority of 52 percent do,  though it’s a majority within the margin for error.