When It Comes to Bombing Iran, Can We Still Believe What Bibi Says?

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March 6 2012 5:06 PM

Bibi Is Bluffing

Israel may one day bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But it won’t be as soon as Netanyahu wants you to think.

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Any war with Iran would be expected to cause far greater mayhem. Iran has medium-ranged ballistic missiles that could hit Israel. But Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, already has an estimated 40,000 rockets positioned across south Lebanon to strike as far south as Tel Aviv. In a clear sign of how serious Israel considers that threat, senior Israeli Defense officials summoned me to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last year to give me a classified map of the sites when I was working for the Washington Post. Israeli military officials believe the arsenal to be four times as large as what Hezbollah had in the 2006 war thanks to Iranian generosity and Syria’s smuggling help. When it comes to the home front, Israel, even with its advances in anti-missile missile technology, is simply not prepared for another air war.

Nor does the Israeli public see the immediate threat. When you have respected voices like Meir Dagan—the recently departed former head of the Mossad spy agency—saying Iran won’t reach the point of no return in its nuclear program until at least 2015, it will be hard to find Israelis clamoring for a strike now. In fact, the Republican presidential primary candidates, with their promises to attack Iran if elected, seem far more hard-line than concerned Israeli citizens. Only 19 percent of Israelis surveyed last week said Israel should attack Iran even without the support of Washington. The Iran issue, despite all of Netanyahu’s warnings of the dangers of an Iranian bomb, is simply not topping the domestic agenda. Israelis feel more outraged about soaring rent and gas prices than they feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear program. “Here, no one seems to be talking about Iran except journalists,” a friend of mine in Jerusalem told me in an email this week. “Israelis are more into Kochav Nolad”—the Israeli version of American Idol—“and Bar Refaeli's latest bikini.’’

Of course, there are times when heads of state ignore public opinion and must act in their view of the country’s national interests. Anyone who has spoken to Netanyahu wouldn’t doubt the depth of his concern about Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, and the nightmarish consequences for the Jewish state. But here we need to remember who we are dealing with: Bibi is first and foremost a politician. Like Obama, who would be disinclined to launch an air war nine months before an election, Netanyahu has his eye on Israeli elections set to take place next year. A costly, risky military operation that could cause mass casualties is not an option he is likely to undertake until all other options are exhausted.

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And those options seem far from spent. Tougher American financial sanctions, which Netanyahu himself praised, have just been imposed and a new European Union oil embargo is slated to take effect in July. The new sanctions, along with a series of spectacular covert measures including assassinations of Iranian scientists and malicious computer viruses, have all served to set back Iran’s nuclear program, experts say. It is precisely because of Israel’s lack of an appetite for a strike that all these measures are being taken.

Amid all of this, there is truly something farcical—and dangerous—about all the hyperbolic discussion over an Israeli strike. The Obama administration clearly feels spooked enough about the prospect that it sees the only surefire way to halt it is to preach against a strike publicly. Israel believes to be feared it needs to speak often and loudly about its readiness to bomb. But the trouble here is that Israel’s leaders have resorted to such talk so often that it is hard to know when they are serious. If they are indeed on the verge of war, portions of the Iranian government probably see it as more bluster. Or worse, if they take it on its face, it may have the inadvertent effect of provoking a war that never had to happen.

Janine Zacharia, formerly the Jerusalem bureau chief of the Washington Post, is the Carlos Kelly McClatchy visiting lecturer at Stanford University.