In Israel, speculation grows about Iran strike

ISRAEL OUT
Ilan Assayag | AP
ISRAEL OUT
Posted Nov. 03, 2011, at 9:37 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Days of feverish media reports about possible Israeli plans to strike Iran, coupled with a long-range missile test, publicized air force drills abroad and a civil defense exercise Thursday, have heightened speculation here about the likelihood of military action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Taken separately, none of the recent military actions is novel or unprecedented. But the combination of events, along with renewed warnings by Israeli leaders this week about the Iranian threat, have intensified the media focus on Israel’s military option, leading some Cabinet ministers to complain that sensitive security matters were being compromised.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is slated to publish a report next week on Iran’s nuclear program, and the developments in Israel have been interpreted by some commentators as part of an orchestrated effort to prod Western nations into stiffening their sanctions on Tehran.

Israel’s security chiefs are reported to oppose an attack, concerned about possible retaliation by Iran and Iranian-backed militants on Israel’s northern and southern borders.

But the idea of high-level support for such action was catapulted into the headlines after the well-connected columnist Nahum Barnea asked in an article in the Yediot Ahronot newspaper last Friday whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had decided between them to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Barnea wrote that the question is preoccupying Israeli security and government officials, as well as foreign governments.

The Haaretz newspaper reported Wednesday that Netanyahu and Barak were working to mobilize support in the Israeli cabinet for a military strike and had won over Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, although a majority of senior ministers opposed the move.

Appearing before a parliamentary appropriations committee this week, Barak made a statement that seemed to hint at contingency plans to go it alone against Iran, whose nuclear program is seen in Israel as an existential threat.

Arguing against significant cuts in Israel’s defense budget, Barak warned that “situations can be created in the Middle East in which Israel will have to protect its interests or insist on vital matters by itself, without necessarily depending on regional or other forces for assistance.”

But in an earlier interview on Israel Army Radio, Barak dismissed the suggestion that he and Netanyahu had already decided to strike, saying such moves required decisions in larger forums. “You don’t have to be a great genius to understand that in the Israel of 2011, there’s no such thing as two people deciding to do something,” he said.

In parliament this week, Netanyahu again sounded the alarm on Iran. “A nuclear Iran will be a dire threat to the Middle East and the entire world, and it is of course a direct and grave threat to us,” he said. Israel’s defense doctrine, Netanyahu added, “must also include attack capability, which is the cornerstone of deterrence.”

As if to back up his words, Israel’s Defense Ministry announced Wednesday that it had carried out a successful test firing of what experts said was a long-range ballistic missile. The type of missile was not disclosed, although Israel has been reported to be upgrading its Jericho 3 missile so it can be fitted with a nuclear warhead.

The Israeli military, meanwhile, announced that the air force had concluded several days of training with Italian warplanes last week in Sardinia. One pilot who participated said in an interview that the maneuvers allowed the air force to simulate longer-distance missions “in a very large area, much larger than we can in Israel.” A report in Haaretz said the exercise, one of several in recent years with foreign air forces, included mid-air refueling.

On Thursday, a civil defense drill was held in central Israel, simulating a missile attack in the area. The exercise included the sounding of air-raid sirens in the Tel Aviv area and the dispatch of rescue crews to simulated missile impact sites. Such drills are held several times a year in Israel, and the army said the latest exercise had been planned months in advance.

Whether the events were coincidental or intended to send broader signals, the intense media focus on a possible military strike has drawn fire from some Cabinet members.

“In matters of security, confidentiality is vital and even critical,” Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio. “Such sensitive issues must not be raised.”

Ordinary Israelis are divided over the advisability of a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a poll published Thursday. The survey, commissioned by Haaretz, showed that 41 percent of those polled supported an attack, 39 percent opposed it, and 20 percent were undecided.

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