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Israel plunged into unprecedented debate about war

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AMY TEIBEL | August 13, 2012 03:21 PM EST | AP


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 people's living rooms. Should Israel undertake a risky mission to bomb Iran's 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 doesn't spill its guts," said veteran Israeli journalist Motti Kirshenbaum. He noted that Israel's 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 Israel's 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 Israel's 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 on Monday.

"It's one thing for the media to blather about it, but why are leaders and senior officials chattering themselves to death?" he asked.

Although Israel's leaders frequently lament about all the Iran "chitchat," make no mistake: It's 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 Iran's 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.

In recent months, amid the intensity of economic sanctions and boycotts against Iran, there have been hints of self-congratulation related to the theory that only Israeli saber-rattling could have pushed a world eager to mollify Israel and prevent an attack in this fortunate direction.

But of late the media here has filled with leaked reports attributable to "senior officials" projecting a sense that patience is growing thin: The sanctions don't go far enough, and although they have fueled inflation and hammered the standard of living in Iran, they fall short, especially because Russia and China notably refuse to fall into line.

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 following June's session in Moscow.

At the heart of the talks is how much the West is willing to allow Iran to enrich uranium, which at low levels creates fuel to power reactors but can be boosted to weapons grade material. Iran insists it will never surrender its ability to make nuclear fuel, but says it seeks reactors only for energy and medical applications.

Israelis scoff at Tehran's insistence that its nuclear program is peaceful, and many believe a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to Israel's survival. They cite Iran's repeated calls for Israel's downfall, support for anti-Israel militant groups and development of sophisticated missiles capable of striking Israel.

This may constitute an existential threat, but it also makes good copy.

On Monday, each of the country's five daily newspapers carried a front-page story on a potential attack even though there were no major developments the day before.

"The United States will be dragged into an Israeli attack on Iran," trumpeted Maariv.

"Ehud Barak's atomic mistake," blared Yediot Ahronot, alongside a column on Iran.

Fueling the debate has been extraordinary public criticism of Netanyahu and Barak coming from an unlikely quarter: All of Israel's recently retired security chiefs oppose an attack, and several have come out swinging against Barak and Netanyahu personally. It's a shocking public rift between the political and defense establishments.

"This unprecedented debate more than anything else reflects profound distrust of the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu by the Israeli military and defense establishment," said Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist and former analyst in the Israeli military.

Skeptics note that the risks of a strike are monumental. Israel could become entangled in harsh, long-term consequences, ranging from an ongoing war with Iran and its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, to a diplomatic rift with the U.S., which has urged Israel to give sanctions more time while promising not to let Iran go nuclear.

Also, Israeli air strikes could deliver a debilitating but not necessarily fatal blow to Iran's nuclear program. They would mostly serve to destroy uranium-enriching centrifuges, which can be purchased by friendly states such as North Korea or possibly rebuilt by Iranian technicians.

After the security officials opposed an attack, Israel's leaders turned to the public in an attempt to drum up support, Kirshenbaum said.

"They're doing it because they want partners to the decision, because they understand it's 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."

A poll released Sunday suggested the public, normally hawkish on security matters, has big qualms about a solo Israeli strike on Iran that does not have Washington's blessing. The survey, conducted by Israel's Dialog Institute, showed 46 percent oppose such an attack as opposed to 32 percent who support it and 22 percent who have no opinion. A total of 504 people took part in the survey, which had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

Ezrahi, the political scientist, applauds the public debate.

"Every democracy should discuss the issue of going to war with such potentially fateful results," he said.

But Nachman Shai, a lawmaker with the opposition Kadima Party and a former military spokesman, thinks drawing in the public was a "bad idea."

"It frightens people to live in a country that is talking about war all the time," he said. "What does it do to us as a country, a society? Even though we're a society that is familiar with this, it's a very heavy dose."

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AP correspondent Karin Laub contributed to this report from Ramallah, West Bank.