Israel is on the verge of bombing Iran. Discussions of whether Israel has the bunker-busting bombs or planes to destroy underground Iranian nuclear facilities, abound. Loose talk of when such a strike could take place frequently refers to a matter of months. The head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency recently traveled to Washington to ask what the U.S. reaction would be if Israel disregarded American objections and started bombing. The United States is so worried about a forthcoming Israeli attack that the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff went on CNN to say a military strike now would be “premature.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington this week hoping to reach agreement with President Barack Obama over what nuclear “red lines” Iran shouldn’t be allowed to cross. Instead, Obama encouraged Netanyahu to allow more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Netanyahu told the powerful, pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Israel couldn’t wait much longer.
Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of this imminent attack. It seems as if Israel has been about to strike Iran every six months for the past three years. Before the May 2009 meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, there were reports that Israel was getting impatient and wanted to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. In September 2009, the Los Angeles Times, citing “Israel watchers,” reported that Netanyahu would give the West until the summer or fall of 2010 to get results. “After that, the likelihood of an Israeli military strike against Iran goes up,’’ the newspaper reported. In September 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg, who interviewed President Obama to talk about Iran last week, wrote an Atlantic cover story under the headline: “Israel is Getting Ready to Bomb Iran” and predicted it would happen by the end of the year if sanctions failed to halt the program.
There’s little doubt that Israel is making preparations for the possibility. But there’s also a better chance that Netanyahu is bluffing, hoping that all the media hype about an attack will somehow prod the United States and its allies to take stiffer action or perhaps scare Tehran into compliance with international demands. Netanyahu’s language remains tough. But unless the Israeli government is trying to keep the element of surprise — certainly a possibility—there isn’t much evidence that an attack is actually imminent.
Consider the issue that concerns Israelis most of all: the safety and security of fellow Israelis. Some people in Tel Aviv, I’m told, are quietly stocking up on water, cash, and groceries, and getting their own gas masks. That is understandable, given the dire warnings in the media. But hundreds of thousands of Israelis still lack gas masks, according to a December report by Israel’s state comptroller, and there has been no public urging for Israelis to get one. Tel Aviv, a metropolis of 2 million people, unveiled a new underground shelter this month for 2,000 people. But the same state comptroller report found that most Israelis have no designated shelter.
Of course, these shortcomings could be remedied. It may be that Israel is afraid to make too many public preparations to avoid tipping off Tehran. But this is a matter no Israeli government could afford to bungle. The debacle of the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel, is too fresh of a memory to neglect the home front before any major military operation. In that unanticipated, 34-day summer campaign, Israelis were caught by surprise and authorities were scathingly unprepared, as an inquiry later showed. Thousands of Israelis fled the bombardment for a makeshift beach camp further south, near the coastal city of Ashkelon, a tent compound that cost $200,000 per day to operate and was paid for by a rich Russian-Israeli oligarch. The war left the Israeli economy paralyzed, wreaked psychological havoc by showing Israel’s profound vulnerability to what previously had been considered an inferior foe, and led to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s downfall.