Tough talk between the governments of Israel and Iran is nothing new. The two countries hold such diametrically opposing views in the region and such a negative history that strong language is often a predictable outcome.
The Israeli government perceives the Islamic Republic as its greatest threat, not only due to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s past remarks but also as a consequence of Iran’s continued drive to beef up its nuclear capability. “Existential threat” is the term that is constantly used in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vocabulary when he talks about Iran’s ayatollahs.
Yet at no time in the past — as far as we know — has Netanyahu gone out of his way to lobby others inside his cabinet for a premeditated airstrike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Such an action would be construed by Israelis and Iranians alike as a serious attempt by the Israeli government to lay the groundwork for an actual military strike — a big escalation even when considering the Israel-Iran relationship. Internal planning for a preemptive strike would also alarm the United States, a country with tens of thousands of men and women in the region that would instantly become targets for reprisal Iranian attacks.
According to the Associated Press, Israeli newspaper Haaretz and European news services, this is exactly what the Israeli leader is doing though. And while Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program has always been on the minds of Israel’s security chiefs and policymakers, the rhetoric coming out of Tel Aviv at the moment indicates that some of Israel’s most influential politicians are coming around to supporting the military option.
The cabinet is divided however. The minister for strategic affairs, Moshe Ya’alon, a former military chief of staff, does not believe that Israel has the capability to successfully execute such a complex operation. Even the most outspoken foreign policy hawk in the ruling coalition, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, wonders whether a strike against Iran’s nuclear plants could work. Defense minister Ehud Barak has chosen to back Netanyahu’s position.
For the sake of regional stability, the Israeli cabinet’s deadlock may be a blessing. Lobbying inside any government takes a considerable amount of time. It is often difficult to change the established viewpoints of policymakers on mundane day to day problems, let alone a subject of such strategic importance as a confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear development. The delay is a golden opportunity for all powers with a stake in the Iranian nuclear question to dial down the war rhetoric before it reaches a boiling point.
There is the question of whether Netanyahu really believes in what he is peddling. Is he sincere in his belief that only a preemptive attack on Tehran’s uranium facilities will halt the country’s quest for nuclear weapons? Is he trying to divert attention from the lull in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks by raising the stakes on the Iran problem? Or is Netanyahu’s lobbying campaign something entirely different, perhaps a way to gauge support in the cabinet or a ploy to draw out his opponents?
All of these queries are open for debate as is the question how Iran would chose to retaliate. A firmer resolve in producing the world’s ultimate weapon? The firing of ballistic missiles at Israeli cities? An increase in Hezbollah and Hamas rocket fire?
An Israeli strike would also provide Iran with a convenient excuse to lash out beyond the Middle East, which they have done when Iranian interests have called for it. And there’s the chance that the popular revolutions that have become such a formidable force in the Arab world could be overtaken by an Israel-Iran armed confrontation, giving autocrats in Syria and Yemen an opening to step up their security crackdown in the absence of an attentive global press.
Israel must wonder whether an attack is worth all these risks.