Israelis don't want war with Iran - have they changed?
For the next ten weeks or so, every time we refresh our web browsers and with every radio or television news bulletin, we will be checking, straining our ears and eyes for that initial report, unconfirmed at first, that warplanes have attacked targets in Iran. Throughout the High Holidays until the end of October, when weather conditions and the presidential elections in the United States will rule out an Israeli strike and another window of opportunity will have closed.
If indeed this period elapses and the planes have not been scrambled eastward, there will have been one major factor forcing Benjamin Netanyahu to stay his hand and it won't have been American pressure, as intense as that is.
On Sunday, Channel 10 news published the results of a opinion survey carried out by Dialog under Prof. Camil Fuchs (who is also Haaretz's pollster ) on the public's positions regarding a strike on Iran. It found that 46 percent of Israelis were opposed to their country attacking Iran while only 32 percent are in favor. Twenty-two percent remain undecided.
In other words, despite the repeated warnings by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the pro-Bibi section in the media that Iran poses a grave threat to all Israelis and must be dealt with, not even a third of the public is convinced of their case.
This would be a breathtaking result except for the fact that this latest poll is in line with most of the surveys made over the last few months, which all point to the same conclusion - Netanyahu and Barak have failed to persuade the majority of Israelis that war with Iran is the only way of removing the Iranian threat.
The lack of overwhelming support should not be the government's overriding consideration - elected leaders must be prepared to go against public opinion when they are certain it is in the national interest, but Netanyahu is a slave to surveys, devouring daily all the polling data his aides can get their hands on.
While Barak is fully aware that his chances of political survival after the next elections are slim at best, Netanyahu intends to form the next government and will be extremely wary of committing himself to an unpopular war. He may see the mission of obliterating Iran's nuclear program as his historical destiny but his political instincts militate against taking a step that jeopardizes his hold on power. He can console himself with the reassuring certainty that the moment the order is given and the bombs are away, the vast majority of Israelis will loyally swing behind him and the armed forces, naturally eager to support their leaders in time of war, but that positive surge could be short-lived.
The public will turn against Netanyahu if an airborne attack is less than successful, if not all the crucial targets are destroyed and if Israeli pilots are shot down and captured alive, paraded and humiliated in the streets of Tehran, consigned to indefinite imprisonment far away from home. And if the anti-missile systems are not effective enough to prevent hundreds of civilian casualties in retaliatory attacks, public anger will quickly be redirected at Netanyahu, ensuring electoral defeat.
But whatever path Netanyahu ultimately takes, there is a wider issue here to be addressed. After being bombarded for years with ominous details - the precise number of kilograms of uranium enriched in the centrifuges of Natanz, and to what degree of purity, the range of Shahab-3 missiles, the number of warheads - you could have assumed that by now the public would have been clamoring for an attack.
Netanyahu is the most skilled communicator on the political scene and there is still no viable rival to his dominance. For the last five years he has enjoyed the unconditional support of daily free-sheet Israel Hayom, by now the most widely-circulated paper in the country and a cheerleader for attacking Iran, viciously condemning any voice of skepticism. But while the polls show that the right-wing and religious bloc of parties still command a nearly unassailable majority were elections to be held today, many of those who support Netanyahu as a leader oppose his central policy.
Some argue that Israelis have gone soft, no longer capable of contemplating even a relatively small number of casualties, civilian or military. The disproportionate degree of support for the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange, which focused on the fate of one soldier with scant regard for national interest, would certainly indicate that there is an element of softness at play. But while today's Israelis are not the Spartan pioneers who built a state in the face of almost overpowering adversity, to accuse them of lacking the stomach to take on Iran is over-simplification. Since its establishment 64 years ago, Israel's leaders have insisted that it will not fight a war that is not a milhemet ein-breira, a war of no choice. And while Israel was the first to attack in the 1956 Suez Campaign and in the 1967 Six-Day War, the politicians and generals succeeded in persuading the nation that they were under imminent threat of encirclement and should therefore strike first. The first Lebanon war of 1982 rapidly lost a public mandate when Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon failed to convince Israelis that the threat posed by the PLO warranted invading Lebanon in massive force.
Some outsiders see Israel as a belligerent and militaristic society, but the truth is that while the IDF remains the most respected public institution and the number of young men and women volunteering for combat units and officer's courses is as high as ever, it is hard to push Israelis to war. It is impossible to gauge the opinions of Jews around the world, but ironically some of Israel's more vocal Jewish supporters overseas are more eager to see a strike on Iran than most Israelis. A nation that deeply respects its armed forces but does not want to see them used may seem like a paradox, but in this case (unlike on the eve of the Six-Day War when the IDF General Staff urged Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to give the order to attack ) it seems that also the generals are by and large much less eager than the politicians to go to war.
The online petition calling upon Israel Air Force pilots not to obey an order to strike Iran has very little support, almost exclusively on the far-left margins of political debate from where it emanates; conscientious objection is still very much a minority taste and there is no question that if Netanyahu and Barak give the order, it will be carried out without question. Israelis expect no less from their army. But they hope that the order will never be issued and they will hold the politicians to account if it is.