In terms of democratic principles, the public debate over a prospective Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is justified, as long as it doesn't cause Israel diplomatic damage or require revealing secret information. But the current debate is actually a ritualized and pointless endeavor.

In effect, it's impossible to take a serious position on the matter without full knowledge of the facts. It's important to know the stance taken by countries that are important to Israel, as well as the intelligence assessment and operational options. Thus the only conclusion that can be drawn from public opinion polls asking whether people would support or oppose an Israeli attack is that the Israeli public discourse on the issue is a superficial one. The only proper response is: "I don't have the necessary information to express an opinion."

The fact that this public debate is so insubstantial also affects the statements made by former high-ranking security officials. In theory, they have the right, and even the obligation, to publicly share their opinions on such an important matter, if it's possible to do so without revealing confidential information or damaging Israel's security or foreign affairs. That's the case for a substantive public debate that could influence the decisions being made. On the other hand, there's nothing to be gained from having former high-ranking officials announce what they think about a given issue if it's just a ritualized debate. It would be better for them to try to influence the genuine decision-makers from the inside rather than make a lot of noise in the public arena.

For a closer look at the distinction between substantive and non-substantive public discourse, we can compare the Iranian issue with one that is no less important: the peace process. Decisions relating to how worthwhile it is for Israel to give up parts of Judea and Samaria and divide Jerusalem in exchange for peace agreements are fitting for public debate, as are decisions relating to whether it is right to focus on relations with the Palestinians or whether it would be better to pursue a comprehensive regional peace. It is important to debate such questions. Although there are complicated security considerations involved in the peace process too, one cannot compare the level of secrecy needed in that case to the level of secrecy needed regarding anything connected to Iran. On the peace process, then, former senior political and security officials should indeed be stating publicly what they think and why, thus contributing to a serious public debate.

A public debate on the peace process, and the associated values, can and should affect a national referendum on the issue, as well as Knesset votes and cabinet resolutions. That makes it an essential debate, unlike discussion of an Israeli attack in Iran. Unlike with the peace process, Israel's leaders must - in accordance with the principles of representative democracy and based on the specific characteristics of the Iran issue - make a decision on a prospective Israeli attack on Iran to the best of their judgment, without taking into consideration the media, public discourse or party politics.

I am inclined to estimate that not more than 10 or 15 people in all of Israel know all the varied information that is essential for a level-headed decision on the Iranian issue, including the prime minister, defense minister and two or three advisers and professionals. This leads me to a difficult but unavoidable conclusion: History is presenting Israel with a critical challenge in which the very few are likely to greatly affect the future of very many. Such a situation is not desirable from the perspective of democratic values, and it also entails some danger. Such situations are rare, but they are not unique in history, especially in light of weapons of mass destruction. (Just recall U.S. President John F. Kennedy's response to the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba.)

Fortunately, notwithstanding all the justified criticism of this country's leaders on issues like the peace process and the social welfare policy, there is no doubt about their total commitment to Israel's security, expertise in the Iranian issue and reasoning ability. In any case, the decision is necessarily in their hands. One can only hope that the public debate, which will certainly not help matters, will at least do no harm.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: כך ראוי להחליט על תקיפה