Iran chatter whips Israel into a frenzy


People demonstrate against a possible Israeli military attack and war with Iran in March of this year. The issue has flared up again in Israel's political arena.


Uriel Sinai

JERUSALEM — A talking fever is afflicting the State of Israel.

In recent days, the country has been seized by an unprecedented epidemic of public disquisition, opinionating, posturing and frenzied, heated chatter on the subject of a possible Israeli military attack on Iran.

It remains unclear if any of the former chiefs of staffformer intelligence chiefs, former prime ministers, and current serving members of the government, that are speaking their minds to local media possess relevant information.

But everyone, it seems, feels a sudden urgency to impart his opinion.

In one much criticized instance of the local flare-up, a renowned Ha'aretz columnist, Ari Shavit, published an imperative argument for an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear installations. He said the argument was conveyed to him by "a key figure in the security establishment." He called him the “decision-maker."

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"A nuclear Iran is one of the gravest things that could happen to Israel,” the decision maker begins, according to the article. The unnamed source has since been identified as none other than Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"If Iran goes nuclear, everything here will be different. Everything. We will shift into a different state of existence. If Iran goes nuclear, down the road Israel will face a threat of existential magnitude. The first aspect of the issue doesn’t only concern us but the international community and the regional alignment. I’m talking about the spread of nuclearization. Up to now the world has found a way to live with two recalcitrant countries: Pakistan and North Korea. If Iran goes nuclear, the world will just lose it. It won’t have any control over the nuclear demon."

Even the one man who must have an inkling about any possible attack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been dragged into the melée.

"I have not yet made a decision," he said in a television interview.

The clunky statement might seem innocuous at first glance. But many felt it implied a one-man decision-making process, provoking widespread derision and concern. A group of prominent cultural figures, including the writer Amos Oz, sent the prime minister a letter demanding that any decision to strike be made at the cabinet level.

Also writing in Ha'aretz, the writer and mathematician Aner Shalev, said that while Netanyahu, who is often referred to by his nickname Bibi, may have had the intention of calming his citizens with the statement, he did everything but.

"The subtext was horrifying: It is my decision. I am an absolute ruler. There is no government and no democratic system and no professional echelons and no international relations,” Shalev wrote. “There is only me. The entire world will be holding its breath in August, September and October, and waiting submissively for a decision from King Bibi that will decide its fate.”

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The intense burst of debate is surprising. Israel has a documented history of acting, not talking.

Both its strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak in 1981, and against Syria's refinery in 2007, were surgical strikes carried out with the protections of a wide buffer of silence.

The other explanations — that the chatter is merely political or, more optimistic, possibly part of a coordinated strategy with the United States to pressure Iran — are being floated, but without much enthusiasm.

A cartoon on Israeli social media shows Netanyahu, who announced further economic cutbacks today, saying "and regarding the economy…we must…ah…well… I mean, the government… and, um…" and in the next window, "Hey look, the Iranian threat!"

Tamir Sheafer, chairman of the program of political communications at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an expert on political rhetoric, has been following pronouncements on the Iranian question for the past several years. It is a struggle taking place on various levels, he says, the effort to control the public agenda, the battle for public opinion and, as always, the fight for political power.

"If you look at the public discussion of the Iranian question in the past year, you see an unchanging pattern," he said. "Every time an issue uncomfortable for the government arises, like last summer's social protests, or now like budget deficit and increase in taxes now, and consequently public support for Netenayahu declines, immediately someone representing the government pushes the Iranian issue up to the top of the agenda by leaking some allegedly new information."

None of this, he emphasized, obscures the fact that the question of Iran's nuclear armament is a "supremely important issue, but we just don't know what is really going on. In terms of the rhetoric, it seems political."

It is, he adds, a very successful tactic employed by the government.

"Whenever the Iranian problem dominates the agenda, Netanyahu's polling numbers go up."

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The possibility that the chatter is part of a unified strategy is weakened by reactions from senior American officials.

In the past 24 hours, both Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who visited Israel 10 days ago, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey, have downplayed the possibility that an Israeli strike could cause irreversible damage to Iranian nuclear installations.

Israel's air force does not possess the bunker-busting bombs that an American attack is likely to employ.

“I might not be aware of all their capabilities, but I think it is a fair assessment that Israel can delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities," Dempsey said during a press conference at the Pentagon.

Alex Vatanka, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, who specializes on Iran, said he found it puzzling that Israel was going through yet another debate about the issue so soon after the last one.

"You wonder why. Sitting in the US, most people who I follow do not take this question of an Israeli attack on Iran seriously,” he said. “By far, the consensus is that if Israel wanted to attack Iran they would have done it like they did Iraq and Syria. The only reasons for this are political, to push Europe and the US, and to remind the Iranians that they can do it."

Meir Javedanfar, an expert on Iran at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, cautions against the phenomenon of crying wolf.

"Repeated announcements provide incentives for the Iranian government to create extensive backup systems to rebuild after such an attack, thus ensuring minimum damage and the possibility of reparation as soon as possible."