If the flood of statements and publications on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran sounds somehow familiar, that’s probably because it’s an almost exact rerun of last fall’s events. A reminder is due: In the summer of 2011, after senior Israeli officials made a series of threatening proclamations, concern arose in U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. In September that year, under the guise of preparations ahead of the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was summoned for talks in the United States. Less than two weeks later, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made a surprise visit to Israel. Panetta’s message was heard in Jerusalem loud and clear: The time is not yet right for an Israeli attack on Iran.
If Israel had operational attack plans back then, they were stashed right at the back of the drawer. That didn’t, however, stop Israel’s leaders from initiating, shortly after Panetta’s departure, an intense spin campaign in the media, according to which an Israeli strike on Iran was all but inevitable. We can go back to the newspapers archives of the time: Between the end of last October (moments after the completion of the prisoner-exchange deal for Gilad Shalit’s release) and the middle of November, Iran was the only issue on the press’ agenda. Of course, there wasn’t an attack, and experts explained that the operational “window of opportunity” for a bombing had closed. Iran’s wintry weather seemingly made a strike on its nuclear facilities more difficult.
And still, Israel gained something out of it all. The wave of media coverage came just days before the periodical report by the UN’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, concerning the status of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as a session of the IAEA’s board of governors that dealt with the same issue. Media reports created a sense of urgency in the international community, and sanctions against the ayatollahs’ regime were escalated, at the peak of which were measures taken by the American administration against the Iranian banking system, as well as the all-encompassing European ban on Iranian oil as of July.
And this time around? Israel, at least metaphorically, has once again been revving its engines. The world, yet again, is concerned. Panetta was sent back here at the beginning of August. (It should also be added that Barak was also in the United States − but that’s a monthly occurrence, in the absence of a functioning foreign minister.) American objections, along with the hesitance expressed by Israeli security professionals (Israel Defense Forces command and the Mossad) concerning an attack at the present time, are again making it hard for Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decide on military action.
But, somehow, just as Panetta left, another round of press briefings is being held. It seems there’s an inverse relation at play: As objective conditions make an attack more difficult, so the tone of the media leaks gets more bellicose. And not only that, but information perceived as classified is, now and again, being released to the press − something that, naturally, infuriates the Americans.
If last time Israel was seeking to accelerate the imposition of sanctions, the goal now is more focused: pushing the United States so as to make Washington take a harsher public stance on the Iranian issue. Israel wants a public obligation from Obama that he won’t allow Tehran to attain nuclear capabilities, through a U.S. ultimatum stating that Washington will drop out of talks with Iran and beef up its forces in the Persian Gulf if progress in isn’t made in these talks. To achieve all these objectives, Israel must continue to maintain its No. 1 goal, until the final decision of whether or not to attack is reached: preserving a viable military threat against Iran.
But the Israeli leadership is taking a dangerous gamble here, which has to do with more than repeatedly stirring tension, exhausting security officials and, lately, playing with the already-fraying nerves of the Israeli public. This last spate of coverage has managed to unhinge the Obama administration as well − for which the Americans repaid us this week with a sharp statement by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, saying the IDF can’t destroy Iran’s nuclear program, only, at most, delay it.
On the face of it, Dempsey’s comments are nothing new. But the timing, wording, context (in a press conference, alongside Panetta) are what count here. Washington has stuck a proverbial pin in Israel’s balloon. Its message is clear: You better sit tight − the Iranian issue is out of your league. Dempsey’s statement thus caused serious damage to Israel’s deterrence toward Iran, since leaders in Tehran now understand that Israel lacks real ability to disrupt their plans.
However, these recent developments have only tightened the squeeze Netanyahu and Barak have found themselves in: After setting the bar of public opinion on Iran so combatively high, they’re obligating themselves to realize their threats. Under extreme circumstances, there’s a scenario in which Israel − if only to prove that its gun isn’t unloaded, as some outsiders may think − could fire away without the basic conditions needed for that gun’s operation.
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