Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Aug. 12, 2012.
FILE: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. With attack rhetoric heating up, Israel’s prime minister says the threat from Iran dwarfs all others. Photo by AP
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On every Rosh Hashanah eve since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, (we have now reached our fourth) Israelis have asked themselves is this the year of the bomb? Will the air force be launched this year on the long flight against Iranian nuclear facilities? Despite talk of a closing window of opportunity and points of no-return, it hasn't happened yet and as the war of words between Netanyahu and the Obama administration has now brought the issue out into the open, the overriding reason for this is that the United States is signaling an unmistakable red-light against such an attack.

That's clear and shining red - not like in 1967 when the Eshkol government thought it may have a green-light (though it didn't actually) or in other recent cases such as Operation Cast Lead or the attack on the Syrian reactor five years ago this month when the absence of a red-light basically meant green. Neither is it like issues such as settlement-building on which the countries have a difference of opinion but not something that causes undue tension.

The red-light over Iran is a "cross us on this at your peril" one and no matter how many times American leaders pay lip-service to Israel's "sovereign right to defend itself," the warning is clear. That's why analysts with good contacts in the administration have recently begun saying that if Israel attacks, the Iranians will treat it as an American act of aggression and retaliate against U.S. targets. That is also the thinking behind Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey's remark that he doesn't want to be "complicit" should Israel attack.

The administration's message is basically this - on Iran Israel is not sovereign to decide since whatever it does will impact directly on U.S. interests and its servicemen and women. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment and the regime in Tehran will risk all-out war with the super-power if attacked by Israel is irrelevant, the fact that the Americans are choosing to frame their objection in that way is crucial.

If the message is now being sent out in the open through the media, you can be certain that it has been going through hidden channels for months and that is ultimately the source of the widespread opposition to a strike within the Israeli security establishment.

Ask any Israeli general what is Israel's foremost strategic asset and the answer will be its relationship with the U.S. (Until not long ago the second asset would have been the peace treaty with Egypt but not that is looking increasingly precarious). The strategic outlook is mirrored in public opinion surveys which show Israelis are more concerned at losing American support than they fear an Iranian bomb. Many Israeli military planners believe that an IAF strike can set the Iranian nuclear program four or five years back and that Israel is well-prepared to face any retaliation by Iran and its proxies, it's the American retaliation that worries them.

Netanyahu hears the message but he cannot believe that anything could really jeopardize the support Israel enjoys in America, not even a president he deeply distrusts - after all, he had a lousy relationship with Bill Clinton as well in his first term, but presidents come and go. This weekend he gave interviews on NBC and CNN because he is certain that he can speak to Americans, above the head of the president, and rely on their support.

But Netanyahu's problem isn't just with Americans, it is with Israelis who don't need him to explain the U.S. to them. In the face of the American red-light he will never succeed in securing the necessary cabinet majority to go to war. No-one else is willing to take the risk, not even Ehud Barak who has been backing off now for weeks.

For better or worse, 5773 will not be the year of the bomb either, at least if America does not change its position and there is no sign of that happening no matter who wins the elections.