JERUSALEM – To attack or not to attack?
With Israeli politicians warning repeatedly that Iran is secretly pursuing nuclear weapons, this question has spawned an unprecedented amount of agonizing even in a country accustomed to war and incessant debate.
The teeth-gnashing plays out everywhere from the halls of parliament to news talk shows to peoples living rooms. Should Israel undertake a risky mission to bomb Irans nuclear facilities? Should it trust the United States to do the job if necessary? Can it live with a nuclear Iran? Should politicians even be talking about this in public?
A country that is debating whether to attack or not to attack usually doesnt spill its guts, said veteran Israeli journalist Motti Kirshenbaum. He noted that Israels usual pattern is to dissect a military offensive after it happens – not discuss it beforehand.
The public appears to be largely taking the furor in stride, in part because some suspect Israels leaders are essentially bluffing in order to compel the world to get serious about the issue.
But there is a growing sense of foreboding: Even Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is believed to favor an attack, says hundreds will die in the counterstrike, and there is awareness of the global security and economic mayhem that war with Iran could unleash.
Never in Israels history has there been so much talk about an impending war, security affairs analyst and Iran expert Yossi Melman wrote in a column on the Walla! news website Monday.
Its one thing for the media to blather about it, but why are leaders and senior officials chattering themselves to death? he asked.
Although Israels leaders frequently lament about all the Iran chitchat, make no mistake: Its they who are fueling the discussion.
The Iranian threat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, dwarfs any challenge the Israeli home front faces.
True, no Israeli leader has explicitly threatened to attack Iran. Netanyahu and Barak – considered here the main champions of a pre-emptive strike on Irans nuclear facilities – have said no decision has yet been made. But they sometimes seem at pains to make sure the message is not missed.
Netanyahu has been warning about an Iranian nuclear threat since the 1990s, invoking comparisons with the Holocaust and sidelining all other foreign policy issues during his latest tenure as prime minister.
Hints dropped privately by senior officials and multiple warnings by Israeli leaders about time growing short have created the impression here that Netanyahu and Barak have given up on the idea of pressuring Iran through economic and diplomatic sanctions and are out to attack by early fall unless Iran abandons its uranium enrichment program, a key element in making atomic weapons.
The hot topic on the Israeli street is when will the war break out and where to take cover in the event of a missile attack, Melman wrote.
Talks between Iran and world powers are effectively stalled with no firm date to restart.
Fueling the debate has been extraordinary public criticism of Netanyahu and Barak coming from an unlikely quarter: All of Israels recently retired security chiefs oppose an attack, and several have come out swinging against Barak and Netanyahu personally. Its a shocking public rift between the political and defense establishments.
After the security officials opposed an attack, Israels leaders turned to the public in an attempt to drum up support, Kirshenbaum said.
Theyre doing it because they want partners to the decision, because they understand its a very dangerous risk, he said. But he added that the discussion may serve the public good: You have a situation that is so complicated and so dangerous, that in a democratic society, you might need a debate over whether to do it because so much hangs in the balance.