Every few months a new flurry of speculation erupts about whether Israel is about to launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This week the subject is back again — and the smoke seems thicker than usual.
The discussion got started this time in a relatively dramatic way: with a banner-headlined story in one of Israel’s best-read newspapers, under the byline of one the country’s most renowned journalists. Nahum Barnea normally writes a column for the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, but last Friday he produced a bombshell story under the headline “Atomic Pressure.”
His main point: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, are determined to attack Iran, and are pressuring Israel’s reluctant military and intelligence chiefs to go along.
“Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak are the two Siamese twins of the Iranian issue,” Barnea wrote. “A rare phenomenon is taking place here in terms of Israeli politics: a prime minister and a defense minister who act as one body, with one goal.”
Barnea’s story quickly touched off a frenzy in the Israeli media, which have followed up with several intriguing reports in recent days. Several accounts described a major Israeli air force exercise at a NATO base in Italy over the weekend, which was said to include all of the types of planes Israel would use in an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
On Wednesday, the newspaper Haaretz reported that Netanyahu was working to assemble a majority in his cabinet in favor of a strike and had recently won over his previously skeptical foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. And Iran’s own media weighed in: The state news agency quoted the defense minister as saying that the United States as well as Israel would suffer “heavy damages” in the event of an attack.
So why is this coming up now? Could an Israeli attack really be imminent? Iran, after all, has not shown any sign of launching a breakout to produce a bomb; even if it did, most experts in Israel as well as the West have said it would take the regime a year or more to complete a bomb.
Haaretz reported that Netanyahu and Barak were focused on an upcoming report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, due on Nov. 8, that is expected to offer new information about Iran’s attempts to develop designs for warheads and delivery systems. Other Israeli reports have speculated that any attack by Israel must occur before the winter months, when cloudy skies might complicate strikes from the air. Iran’s recent steps toward opening a new underground facility for uranium enrichment that is buried under a mountain, and possibly immune to air strikes, could also be a factor.
In reality, Israel is unlikely to launch any attack without the support of the United States, which could easily be drawn into the regional conflict an air strike would trigger. Like the Israeli military establishment, the Pentagon opposes any such venture — and it’s hard to imagine President Obama signing on. If he acts in the coming weeks or months, Netanyahu would risk a rupture in the alliance that is the ultimate guarantor of Israeli security.
The new burst of speculation, like those before it, does serve a couple of purposes for Israel, however. It refocuses attention on the Iranian threat, and takes it away from the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations; it raises the pressure on the United States and its allies to increase sanctions and other nonmilitary pressure on Tehran.
All the smoke also helps to obscure Israel’s real intentions. After so many cries of “Wolf!,” it seems fairly probable that when Israel really does prepare to attack, no one will believe the press leaks. That includes now.