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Parsing the Increased Chatter on Iran
How much noise does Israel's leadership have to make to get the Obama administration to say what it wants to hear about Iran?
It's a question now preoccupying Israel, along with its corollary: How much noise is too much and risks precipitating a crisis between Jerusalem and its closest ally?
Some Israeli analysts say that pronounced signals from their country's leadership in recent days that it is readying for a strike against Iran are less an immediate call to arms than a call for an unequivocal commitment from the Obama administration to take the lead in such an attack or to come to Israel's aid if it goes first.
"We are at a serious juncture," said Ehud Yaari, an Israel-based fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The way I understand it, the Israeli leadership is trying to signal to the administration that unless there is a change of tack on the part of Washington concerning the Iranian nuclear program, Israel may have to decide to make its own military move."
The Israeli signals have included:
· an interview in Ha'aretz with a top Israeli official -- widely believed to be Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- who argued that Israel risks more in the short term by not striking than it does by striking;
· the appointment to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet of Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel's internal security service, the Shin Bet, to bring the home front up to speed;
· a series of notices to the Israeli public, including a call to update gas masks and a listing of Tel Aviv underground parking lots that could double as bomb shelters;
· a series of public statements by Israel's ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, suggesting that an Israeli strike would reap sufficient rewards to justify it.
"One, two, three, four years are a long time in the Middle East -- look what's happened in the last year," Oren said this week in a Bloomberg News interview, addressing the claim that an Israeli strike would "only" delay Iran's intentions and not end the nuclear program.
A key Israeli fear is that a nuclear Iran would provide an umbrella to hostile forces consolidating their hold along Israel's borders in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and possibly in Syria and Egypt as those nations undergo turmoil that threatens to disrupt decades of peace. "The idea of these non-state actors on Israel's borders, which may be controlled by a nuclear Iran, is a serious threat, the kind of which Israel has not encountered before," Asher Susser, a senior fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said in a conference call organized by the Israel Policy Forum last week.
Still, Obama administration officials are not yet publicly buying the rhetoric.
"I don't believe they've made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters on Aug. 15. "With regards to the issue of where we're at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate."
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an Israeli strike would have limited effect.
"I may not know about all of their capabilities, but I think that it's a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities," Dempsey said at the same briefing.
Such sanguinity may be out of place, Susser said, adding that the notices to the public regarding home-front preparedness are not feints.
"I don't think the Israelis are bluffing," he said. "The people are getting the message."
The likeliest means to shut down the escalating rhetoric, Susser added, would be for the Obama administration to reassure Israel -- and not necessarily in public -- that it would convey to Iran that if it doesn't stand down, military action is inevitable and not just a possibility.
Netanyahu and Barak would want to hear "a very firm commitment from the United States that it will use force, not anything less -- not 'all options are on the table,' not 'any means necessary,' but that the U.S. will take a clear commitment to use force when the time comes," he said. "If the Israelis are convinced that the Americans are not going to take action against Iran, Barak and Netanyahu may very well come to the conclusion that they have to."
Obama administration officials over the last several months have lobbied Israel intensely to tamp down talk of a strike, and to wait out a U.S. strategy of exhausting economic and diplomatic pressure as a means of getting Iran to back off its suspected nuclear weapons program.
Yaari said Israel's leadership was not convinced, noting that similar reassurances from successive U.S. administrations regarding North Korea, belied ultimately by that nation's nuclear tests.
"It's very much on the minds of Barak and Netanyahu that 'the United States will not allow North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons' -- and we know the end to that story," he said.
Israelis favor a U.S. lead should it come to military action against Iran, polls show. A poll published last week by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, and reported by Bloomberg, showed 61 percent of Israelis oppose an Israeli strike without U.S. cooperation. It had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
Meanwhile, a number of Israeli figures have lashed out against Netanyahu and Barak, saying that the government's ratcheting up of the rhetoric could backfire.
"It's clear to us that we can't do it alone," Israeli President Shimon Peres said in remarks on Israel's Channel Two that were seen as a rare rebuke to the government from the largely ceremonial office. "It's clear to us we have to proceed together with America."
Several Likud Knesset members told the media that Peres was speaking out of turn.
Shaul Mofaz, leader of the opposition Kadima Party, was more blunt in his assessment of the risks of confronting the United States. In a blistering Knesset speech, he accused Netanyahu of trying to weigh in on the U.S. elections, undercutting Obama in favor of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Netanyahu, who has had tense relations with Obama, is seen to be close to the Republicans and has a longstanding friendship with Romney.
"Mr. Prime Minister, you want a crude, rude, unprecedented, reckless and risky intervention in the U.S. elections," Mofaz said in remarks translated by Globes, the Israeli business daily. "You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth, we are scared -- scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don't lead, scared that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy."
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, said that Netanyahu's talk of war diminished the real results that U.S.-led sanctions were having on the Iranian theocracy's viability.
"I don't think that the ruling echelon in Israel understands that as much as the Iranian regime does not want war," war is not an "existential threat" to Iran, he said. "What is an existential threat are the sanctions. And the more attention that is diverted from the existential threat of the sanctions, the less the regime needs to address them."