“Are they making a park here?” asks the woman viewing the apartment with her husband. “No,” the agent chirps, “there’s the business with Iran this summer.”
As if noting a change of seasons, many Israelis are talking about a possible war come summer, or later this year, with an air of inevitability born of years of festering conflict that has periodically flared into full-blown hostilities. The prospect of devastating counterstrikes and mass casualties seems to be taken in stride, seen as a lesser evil than facing a nuclear-armed Iran.
“It’s like people are saying, ‘A typhoon is coming,’ ” Avi Funes, a 57-year-old accountant, said over lunch at the Azrieli Center, a towering glass-and-steel mall and office complex next to the military headquarters and the Defense Ministry — a potential target area for retaliatory missile strikes.
“People aren’t taking to the streets to protest against an attack,” Funes added. “There’s a kind of complacency. What can the ordinary citizen do? It’s not up to him.”
The wisdom of a strike on Iran has been debated here for months, with current and former security officials as well as political figures arguing about whether such a move would achieve its aims or, instead, provoke costly retaliation and possibly a broader conflict without stopping Iran’s nuclear effort. On Tuesday, Iran warned of preemptive action against its foes if it felt its national interests were threatened.
Polls conducted in recent months have shown ordinary Israelis divided over the advisability of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But now that Israeli leaders are openly suggesting that a military strike on Iran might be necessary to stop what they describe as its drive to obtain atomic weapons, Israelis are contemplating the possible result: a rain of missiles fired at population centers by Iran and the militant groups allied with it, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
A familiar fear
Many Israelis have been through it before.
During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Iraq fired about 40 Scud missiles at Israel, including some that hit the Tel Aviv area. Thousands of rockets fired by Hezbollah struck northern Israel during the nation’s 2006 war against the guerrilla group, and hundreds more were fired by Hamas and other groups during Israel’s three-week offensive in late 2008 and 2009 against the Islamist movement. In those conflicts, Israelis took cover in bomb shelters and safe rooms, so civilian casualties were limited. Fewer than 50 Israeli civilians died in all three conflicts combined.
But there are concerns that retaliatory missile attacks by Iran could be of an altogether different magnitude, wreaking far more death and destruction and possibly triggering broader hostilities.
Seeking to allay public concerns and rebut doomsday scenarios, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has in recent months played down the possible impact of missile strikes on Israeli cities and towns. “There won’t be 100,000 dead, not 10,000 dead nor 1,000 dead. Israel will not be destroyed,” he said in a radio interview in November. “It’s not pleasant on the home front . . . [but] if everyone just goes into their houses, there won’t be 500 dead, either.”
That was cold comfort for Gideon Levy, a columnist in the liberal Haaretz newspaper. In a recent article, he railed against what he described as the apparent public indifference to suggestions by Barak and others that hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis could die in missile barrages triggered by an attack on Iran.
“The impression is that the majority of Israelis are not afraid,” he wrote. “The decision is left to a handful of decision-makers whom the public, as usual, trusts obediently and blindly.”
Levy urged Israelis to speak up against a military strike by telling their leaders “now, loudly: We are a-f-r-ai-d.”
‘Business as usual’
But among visitors to the designer shops and cafes at the Azrieli complex this week, there seemed to be only faint trepidation.
“It’s business as usual, although there are concerns,” said Zehava Shem-Tov, a 50-year-old secretary on a lunch break. “There is a sense that something unpleasant awaits us, but it’s kind of repressed.”
Amos Tzion, 53, who sets up farming projects abroad, said that “there’s concern, but also the need” to take action. “We live in an area that’s always been threatening, we’ve grown accustomed to that, and there’s an existential fear that Iran will have the bomb, and something has to be done about it,” he said.
Some people said they were skeptical that stepped-up international sanctions on Iran would stop its nuclear program.
With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “extremist views, it doesn’t look like it, and it’s more likely that there will be no choice but military action,” said Funes, the accountant. “What’s the alternative? If he develops an atomic bomb, it will be a constant threat, and their missiles will be even more dangerous. No one would dare bomb a country that has nuclear weapons.” Israel has its own undeclared nuclear arsenal.
Ayelet Lifschitz, a 24-year-old student from the northern city of Haifa, said she had spent the 2006 war against Hezbollah in a bomb shelter as rockets crashed into her city, an experience she views as “a lifelong trauma.”
She said she opposed Israel going it alone against Iran without international support, particularly from Washington. But she added that she was confident that the country would survive any counterstrike. “This is a strong society,” she said. “We can cope with it, if that’s what it takes to deal with the problem.”
In the meantime, she said, “there is a constant awareness” of the possibility of armed conflict in the coming months, to the point where her friends joke that they may have to juggle appointments and personal plans to accommodate the war.
That approach was reflected recently in a Facebook page started by Kobi Zvili, a Tel Aviv artist. The page, which has attracted hundreds of supporters, pleads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold off any military action before the singer Madonna takes the stage in a suburb of the city on May 29 on the first stop of her planned world tour.
“Bibi, No!” the page title says, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “No war with Iran until after Madonna’s performance.”