Netanyahu Seen Preparing Cabinet for Iran Strike

The Israeli cabinet is divided on the question whether to launch an attack on Iran.

Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010
Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010 (IDF)

The addition of homeland defense minister Avi Dichter, a former deputy director of the internal security service, to Israel’s security cabinet is seen as a move on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s part to boost cabinet support for an airstrike on Iran.

Chuck Freilich writes in Foreign Policy that “Netanyahu has clearly been working to build such support” and suspects that “adding Avi Dichter as minister for homeland defense was partially designed to tip the balance in favor of an attack.”

The premier would at least need consensus among his cabinet’s nine top members to launch an attack on Iran which Israel suspects is developing a nuclear weapons capacity. Netanyahu has described the prospect of the Islamic republic acquiring such a weapon as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. He rejected calls for patience to let the economic sanctions on Iran to work last month. “The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, There’s still time,’ he said. “And I say: ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?'”

Whether Dichter’s inclusion in the inner circle truly signals a step toward war is doubtful. There is a tendency, as Michael Koplow points out at his Ottomans and Zionists blog, to interpret every move on the Israeli government’s part as an indication that an attack is imminent. “The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion,” he writes.

Even if Dichter may favor an attack, besides Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak, there is scarce official support for it. Binyamin Begin, atomic energy and intelligence minister Dan Meridor, strategic affairs minister Moshe Ya’alon and Deputy Prime Minister Eliyahu Yishai, the leader of the orthodox Shas party, are all opposed to a strike while Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu part, as well as Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, are reportedly wavering back and forth.

Former Mossad cheif Meir Dagan, former security service director Yuval Diskin and Gavriel Ashkenazi, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, have also questioned the wisdom of launching an attack.

Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group.

Israeli public opinion is also divided. 46 to 32 percent opposes a unilateral Israeli strike although the number in favor is up from 23 percent in March. Just over half of Israeli believe that the country would be in significant danger in the event of a war with Iran.

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