How real is Israel’s Threat against Iran?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East In Focus

Last week, Israeli newspapers broke the news that their government was considering a plan to take out Iranian nuclear facilities. Since then, recriminations about who leaked the plans and to what end have been splashed across the region’s dailies. The Iranians, for their part, have responded defiantly to the possibility of such an attack. And yet — revealing the ambivalence of regional attitudes toward Iran — few governments, if any, have condemned the plan outright.

In Israel, the news has sparked a real debate about how to deal with Iran. Yedioth Ahronoth’s  Amos Shavit believes there is no other way than military action: “Nobody will be taking care of the growing nuclear threat from Iran on Israel’s behalf.” But, he cautions, “Should we embark on an operation without hesitation? Of course not. We must think a thousand times, ask tough questions and weigh all issues — just like Begin did — yet at the end of the day we must aim to give this green light, because nobody else will be doing the job for us.”

Daniel Friedman counters, however, that a “decision on whether to strike Iran must remain in the hands of Western powers…. We must repeatedly stress that Israel must not carry out an overt strike against Iran. The issue is complex and the risks are so great that Israel cannot assume them….One of the effective ways to indirectly harm Iran was to remove the Gaza Strip terror regime, which is premised on Iranian support. Such a move, even without curbing the Iranian bomb directly, would have greatly undermined Tehran’s status and its ability to harm Israel. Yet the defense minister made sure that the opportunity to undertake such a move is missed.”

The two largest Israeli dailies, Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, discuss the importance of having the debate on Iran in the open. The Haaretz editorial asserts, “For all the problems it entails, the recent public debate over the Iranian nuclear issue is welcome….[B]ombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is effectively equivalent to starting a war. The implications of such a decision are liable to be dramatic and painful for the entire Israeli public. Given this, there is great importance to the limited dialogue that is now taking place between the government and the public, and among various parts of the public, regarding the possibility of such an attack.”

Similarly, Jerusalem Post’s editorial notes, “[I]t can be argued that the recent flurry of Hebrew media reports was an intentional ploy to “unveil” Israeli plans for an attack, and thus ruin the element of surprise. Or they could be an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of such an attack, by claiming, as sources in the Yediot Aharonot story did, that only two men — Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — were involved in the decision-making process….All the talk and media exposure also serve to obscure Israel’s real intentions. Therefore, while it is of utmost importance that public servants safeguard military secrets, the renewed interest — both locally and abroad — over the possibility of a preemptive military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities seems to be serving Israeli interests quite well.”

Those warning against military action include Uri Avnery, in the pages of the Saudi Arab News: “It is an old Israeli tactic to act as if we are going crazy. We shall not listen to the U.S. any more. We shall just bomb and bomb and bomb. Well, let’s be serious for a moment. Israel will not attack Iran. Period….There are a lot of tensions in the Islamic world. Iran is far from popular in many parts of it. But an Israeli assault on a major Muslim country would instantly unite all. Israel could become a villa in a burning jungle. But the talk about the war serves many purposes, including domestic political ones.”

The conservative Israel National News website quotes a Hassidic rabbi who has an alternative solution to the Iranian dilemma: “Rabbi Shalom Berger, the Rebbe of Mishkoltz, says there is no need to attack Iran because G-d will get rid of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. ‘In my opinion, there is no necessity to take any military action against Iran,’ he said in a recent lesson to students. ‘The wicked Iranian [Ahmadinejad], who threatens to destroy Israel, will disappear shortly, before he will have time to vent his anger.’…The rabbi explained, ‘G-d brings a horrible ruler against Israel. He [the Creator] brings problems on Israel in order to unite the People of Israel.’”

For others, the decision to strike Iran depends greatly on the possible fallout from military action. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yossi Yehoshua believes, “The strike, should it be executed, would have to comprise many fighter jets, of all models possessed by the Israeli Air Force. According to all estimates, the probability that such aerial infiltration would go undetected is marginal, and the working assumption is that a significant number of aircraft will not be returning to their base safely; we shall then have to contend not with one abducted soldier in Gaza, but rather, with 10 pilots in Iranian captivity. This does not mean that the military option should be completely eliminated, yet it must come as a last resort, when we truly feel the sword against our throat. It won’t be a simple mission.”

The Iranians, for their part, have sounded a note of defiance in the face of Israeli threats. The state-backed Press TV reports, “An Iranian expert in international affairs says regional conditions and Israel’s capabilities make it hard to accept that Tel Aviv plans to attack Iran or wants to participate in such a strike. Sa’adollah Zare’ei said on Saturday that in a few days time, the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will retract his recent remarks about an imminent military strike against Iran….‘During the 33-day war [in Lebanon in 2006] Israel was defeated in the most horrific of ways by a military group named Hezbollah,’ Zare’ei said, adding that Iran is too big for Israel to threaten….He said Israel is more vulnerable in difficult times ‘because even if Israel fires 100 missiles at Iran, it will not even displace a few Iranian families,’ but four ordinary Iranian missiles are enough to make one million Zionists flee.”

Voices from the Gulf media have struck an ambiguous tone regarding news of the plan, although the preference, at least in the short term is for actions short of war. The National’s editorial asserts, “Sanctions [are] still preferred in Iran nuclear standoff…. When it comes to curtailing Iran’s nuclear programme, threats and actions rarely intersect. But every so often those shaking their fists in fury go further. Israel’s test on Wednesday of a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Iran is one such time. Which is why the world must pursue a non-military solution to this intractable crisis. This problem needs smarter actions, not empty sanctions or deadly coercion….As patience with Iran appears to be growing thin in some capitals, this is the time to keep using the peaceful pressure points that remain in the international community’s tool kit.”

Another Gulf daily, The Peninsula, is less clear about what the best way forward might be, adding in an editorial, “Attacking Iran would be a difficult task. It is a more distant target, and Israeli warplanes would probably have to go over hostile airspace in Syria, Iraq or Saudi Arabia to reach it….Iran’s nuclear facilities also are believed to be spread out across many sites, buried deep underground. The Iranian military is far more powerful than those of Syria or Iraq, equipped with sophisticated anti-aircraft defense systems as well as powerful medium-range missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel….Though reputed to have the Middle East’s sole atomic arsenal along with a technologically superior air force, Israel lacks long-range bombers which could deliver lasting damage to Iran’s distant, dispersed and fortified facilities.”

Ultimately, though, the target of the leak might not even be Iran itself. Rather, as some have suggested, given the dire domestic conditions in which the Netanyahu government finds itself, Iran might be a helpful ploy. Al Hayat’s Walid Choucair suggests, “The government of Benjamin Netanyahu…might need to flee from their domestic economic difficulties, which have sparked unprecedented protest movements. Israel is now trying to break the international isolation that has begun to target the Jewish state, amid the growing international recognition of a Palestinian state. Taking the discussion of striking Iran out in the open diverts attention from the failure by extremists in Israel to arrive at a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the consequences of this for Israel, and even its ally America. Talking about war has other uses besides war.”  

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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