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Threat or scare tactic? Israel signals that attack on Iran is possible

Israeli soldiers from the army's Home Front Command and rescue teams take part in defence drill simulating a missile attack at a school in Holon, near Tel Aviv, on Thursday.


Will they or won't they? That's the question bedevilling Israelis this week, wondering whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak will actually launch a military strike on Iran aimed at setting back Tehran's suspected development of nuclear weapons.

There's no doubt they'd like to, but for every argument as to why Israel should stage such a large-scale, long-distance raid, there are half a dozen good reasons why it shouldn't.

Newspapers and electronic media have been full of speculation ever since apparent leaks from Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet revealed that the Prime Minister and Mr. Barak were attempting to win the support of the majority of the government's eight-member inner, security cabinet. It seems, these leaked reports said, that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has decided to support the option of a unilateral attack.

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Several of the other cabinet members, including Vice-Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, Benjamin Begin and Dan Meridor, firmly oppose the idea, at least at this time. But the confluence of several security-related events, people here say, couldn't be a coincidence.

On Wednesday there was the test-firing of a new, long-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as Iran; there also came the news that Israeli fighter jets had recently staged aerial refuelling exercises over the Mediterranean; and on Thursday, a major civil defence drill was held in Tel Aviv, with citizens and emergency crews simulating a missile attack on the city. All this, people believe, points to the likelihood of an attack.

There is precedent for taking such action.

In September of 2007, Israeli fighter jets attacked and destroyed a facility in northern Syria that was believed to be an unfinished nuclear reactor.

That surprise attack was reminiscent of Israel's 1981 raid on the Osirak nuclear facility outside Baghdad in which Iraq's nuclear weapons program was greatly set back.

But, couldn't all this Sturm und Drang really just be a way to push the world community into taking stronger action against Iran after a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency comes down next week? The report is expected to point to Iran's progress in achieving nuclear weapons capability.

A call to the Prime Minister's Office was not helpful in sorting this out. "I'm sorry," said the polite spokesman, Mark Regev. "I cannot comment on this matter. I can only refer you to the Prime Minister's speech Monday at the opening of the Knesset."

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"We have not moved from that," Mr. Regev said.

In dealing in that speech with Iran and other threats to Israel, Mr. Netanyahu enunciated the "two main principles" that guide Israeli policy: "The first is 'If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,' and the second is 'If anyone harms us, his blood is on his own hands.' "

In other words, Israel will practise pre-emptive self-defence and retaliation; both of which point to an attack if necessary, but not necessarily an attack.

"For goodness sake, is anyone actually studying these issues?" asked Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya.

"All the reasons for not attacking Iran are stronger than ever," he said. "An attack would not stop Iran's program but only delay it while guaranteeing that Tehran would be in a state of war with Israel and far more likely to use nuclear weapons."

Furthermore, he said, "there's no sense in hitting Iran unless it is on the verge of obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons" – a situation that would offer some different targets from those available today.

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As well, the blowback against Israel would be severe. Not only would Iran, unlike Syria and Iraq, strike back with weapons of its own, targeting Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv, but the diplomatic consequences for Israel also could be severe, further isolating Israel in the world community just as it is trying to win back support in the region.

"Israel can expect little international support," Mr. Rubin said, adding that moves toward radicalism in the region "make the environment for such an attack far more dangerous for Israel than a year or two ago."

"There is no new development to prompt such an attack," Mr. Rubin said. "On the contrary, all of the reports have been about the slow pace of Iranian progress toward obtaining deliverable nuclear weapons. There is no urgency in such an operation."

But that hasn't stopped Israeli public opinion from being ratcheted up. A survey this week showed that Israelis are almost evenly split on whether Israel should attack Iran's nuclear facilities – 41 per cent support such a strike and 39 per cent oppose it.

As well, 80 per cent of Israelis believe a military operation against Iran will lead to a regional conflagration involving Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israelis do believe the time is coming when Iran will have nuclear weapons capability, but as long as there's a lower-risk option to dealing with it, Israel is unlikely to strike.

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