Calling Netanyahu's Bluff

What the Israeli public thinks about attacking Iran.

Israeli television's Channel 10 recently conducted a poll on whether to attack Iran. Forty-six percent of Israelis were opposed to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, while 32 percent supported a strike and 22 percent were undecided. These results didn't surprise me. Whether they were the so called “opinion makers,” the proverbial “man on the street,” or my taxi driver, many of the Israelis I've been meeting here in Tel Aviv were rejecting the idea of initiating a military campaign against Iran without American backing, and had very little confidence in the ability of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his sidekick, defense minister Ehud Barak, to lead them into a new Middle East war. 

If a similar public mood had existed in the United States at the beginning of the Iraq war, former president George W. Bush could not have counted on the support of the American people for a decision to do a "regime change" in Baghdad.

It is perhaps a testimony to the vibrancy of Israeli democracy and its free press that the country is having a real debate about Iran. Unlike the subservient role that Congress and the elite media played in the months leading to the U.S. military adventure in Mesopotamia, top Israeli newspapers, members of the national security establishment, and even its first citizen and elder statesman, President Shimon Peres—operating in a country whose security margins are clearly narrower than those of its global patron—have all expressed strong opposition to the threat by Netanyahu-Barak duo to strike at Iran without receiving a green light from Washington.

Aluf Benn, the editor of the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, whose editorialists and columnists have been in the forefront of the public campaign against the war in Iran, believes that Netanyahu and Barak would launch an attack. According to Benn, such a move is actually being supported or at least, “yellow-lighted” by the Americans and the Europeans.

"The conventional wisdom is that President Obama is opposed to an Israeli attack," Benn told me when we met in his office in Tel Aviv on Sunday. "But Obama has refrained from vetoing an Israeli action or threatening such a move with sanctions if Israel acts," Benn noted. "I believe that this is another example of Obama leading ‘from behind,’ counting on Israel to do in Iran what the Brits and the French did in Libya," he concluded.

But Benn's view of Obama is a minority view among Israeli opinion makers. Most Israeli pundits have portrayed Netanyahu and Barak as the consummate Machiavellians, and have speculated, as political analyst Ben Caspit of Ma'ariv put it, that the two have launched the "most sophisticated scam of the modern era." With this deception, he said, they are projecting an image of a "deranged kid who at any moment would free himself from the restraints and be ready to explode in the midst of the Persian Gulf, drenched with a mixture of oil and geopolitical interests" unless President Obama decides to attack Iran in October.

But such a scam only works if the decision makers in Washington conclude that the Israeli threat is credible, Caspit argued. Unless President Obama initiates a war with Iran a few weeks before the November presidential election, he said, "Bibi would press the button in order to set the club on fire and despite the strong resistance in Washington, pull America's hairs into the burning mess and force Obama into a military intervention before the election, so as not to appear as the weakling of the Free World who helped bring about a Second Jewish Holocaust."

But can this threat can be regarded as credible? Several retired generals and former heads of the intelligence services—joined by current chief of staff and the chiefs of the Mossad and the Shin-Beth (domestic intelligence services) represented by sources quoted in the media—insist that Israel does not have the capacity to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities. On the contrary, they suggest that a unilateral Israeli action would not only result in heavy Israeli civilian losses but could also devastate Israel's relationship with the United States. 

President Obama and his military aides were not impressed by the fiery war rhetoric coming from Israel. This was made clear last week when U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, echoing the views expressed by the ex and current Israeli military officials, commented on the efficacy of striking Iran. Sitting next to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Dempsey said that Israel could "delay but not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities."

The orchestration of public hysteria over Iran by Netanyahu and Barak—in what amounted to the second edition after similar war mongering and "run-to-the-shelters" shouting last summer—has ignited something close to a mood of national psychosis among Israelis. One cartoonist, in a nod to Edvard Munch's "The Scream," drew an image of the Israeli public as an agonized figure in a form of a skull in the throes of an emotional crisis while the smirking Israeli prime minister and his defense chief stand in the background.

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