The Israeli press is giving signs that the country might be preparing for a war with Iran, but analysts remain sceptical.
Judging by recent articles in the Israeli press, it would appear that the country is on an unavoidable collision course with Iran. On Tuesday, the left-leaning daily Hareetz published an article titled “Lengthy Iran conflict likely to cost Israeli economy billions of shekels.” Such stark headlines, combined with news that Israeli Prime Minister named a former internal security minister Avi Dichter as the new home front defence minister, have many observers wondering if the country is preparing for war.
Indeed, in recent days, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have used increasingly aggressive language to suggest the Jewish state is seriously considering a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. “We are determined to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear, and all the options are on the table. When we say it, we mean it,” Barak told Israeli radio on August 9.
Moreover, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called on the United States and Western allies to declare that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program had failed, British daily The Telegraph reported on August 12. Ayalon, echoing previous statements by officials, said it was important for powers to give a deadline “within weeks” to Tehran to freeze nuclear activity.
According to Gallagher Fenwick, France 24’s correspondent in Jerusalem, the issue of Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Israel’s response has once more taken centre stage in the media after it was pushed aside for weeks by the political crisis in Syria.
“Obviously there is now a push from the highest levels of the government to put the Iranian question back on the table. Netanyahu and Barak have really taken the rhetoric up a notch,” Fenwick said by telephone.
Tehran, which insists it is not trying to build a nuclear weapon, said on Tuesday it was dismissing threats of an imminent attack.
“We aren't taking these claims very seriously because we see them as hollow and baseless,” Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told reporters during a weekly briefing.
An attack on Iran could spark a multi-front war against the Jewish state. It would set off retaliatory attacks by the Islamic republic, but almost certainly also trigger a barrage of rocket attacks from militant groups in the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon.
Synchronizing clocks with Washington
Further fuelling speculations of an approaching Israeli offensive are the multiple recent visits by top US officials to Israel. While American and Israeli diplomats have told the press they were absolutely on the same wavelength over Iran, it appeared Washington was trying to dissuade its ally from launching a strike.
Speaking on US television on August 13, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren stressed that Israeli leader’s clocks were “ticking faster” than President Barack Obama’s. “The United States is a big country with very large capabilities located far from the Middle East," Oren told MSNBC. “Israel is a small country with certain capabilities located in Iran's backyard. And Israel, not the United States, is threatened almost weekly, if not daily, with annihilation by Iranian leaders.”
According to Robert Blecher, the Arab-Israeli Project director for the International Crisis Group, Oren’s comment should be taken at its most literal sense: Israel feels like it cannot afford to wait as long as the United States, and that a later strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would not have as much success.
Nevertheless, Blecher added that it was very difficult to predict how Israel would act based on public pronouncements. “Throughout Israel’s history, usually when they are talking, they are not doing. However, you have to wonder if this time they are not playing it the same way,” he noted.
For Majid Rafizadeh, a Washington-based Middle East scholar and analyst, it is clear that involvement in new wars in the Middle East was not popular with the Obama administration, which is head-long into the 2012 presidential campaign, or the unemployment-weary US public. Rafizadeh added that the likely consequences of a unilateral attack by Israel would be international sympathy for the Iranian government and a new lifeline for the Islamic regime.
A lazy summer
For all the rhetoric from officials, ordinary Israeli’s are enjoying summer holidays and have been largely unshaken by declarations, according to France 24’s Fenwick. “I don’t see a country that is ready to launch a major offensive. People are not rushing to stores to buy gas masks or stocking supplies in bunkers,” he said.
Nevertheless, talk of war has been more present in Israeli media, with opposing views on a potential strike being clearly defined and highlighted. The left-wing press has argued that an attack on Iran would be mistimed and a wholly irresponsible move by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Israeli hawks and conservative dailies have warned of the danger of appearing weak to Arab neighbours or unwilling to follow through on warnings against Tehran.
Despite Israel’s reticence to attack Iran without a UN mandate or the backing of the US, the country, Fenwick noted, largely tends to trust Netenyahu and the military establishment that surrounds him. “This is a country that is used to going to war. That said, I don’t think we are close enough to an actual war for that question to bother Israelis right now.”