by Arieh O'Sullivan

The debate over attacking Iran's nuclear installations that had been simmering behind the closed doors of the Israeli defense establishment has cracked wide open with ministers and experts pushing the pros and cons in the media.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his close ally Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been touting a belligerent line in public against Iran for some time, occasionally warning the world to quash Iran's efforts to get the bomb before Israel does.

Israel's left-wing daily Ha'aretz plastered photos of seven ministers in the so-called "security cabinet" under the headline: "Netanyahu is drafting a majority in the cabinet for a military operation against Iran's nuclear installations."

"Israel is a democracy but not everything should be discussed in the press. In Israel, two people, no matter who they are, cannot take a decision without getting approval (from the Cabinet) for it. But we don't believe this issue should be discussed publicly," Vice Prime Minister and Minister for Regional Cooperation Silvan Shalom told a select group of reporters including from The Media Line.

"Israel is under a huge threat from the Iranians," Shalom said. "We of course cannot live with the idea that Iran will hold nuclear bomb. But I believe in sanctions. I believe they work and I have said that is what needs to be done."

In Israel, the whole idea of a decision for a top-secret raid on an enemy country open to the public and on the newspaper's front pages sparked acrimonious debate. The report by Ha'aretz is one of the first leaks by the Israeli media, which is under censorship, and apparently confirms that Barak and Netanyahu are determined to strike at Iran. Since he stepped down a year ago, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has warned repeatedly in public against an attack.

"This is a break from all the norms," said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. "I mean the media and former senior officials who have forgotten that they are still obligated by confidentiality obligations," including Dagan.

"I think this whole public discussion is off limits," Steinitz told Israel Radio. "I don't remember any similar incident that has been so utterly irresponsible in Israel's 63 years. It's dangerous."

The urgency appears to be coming before the expected release next week of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's uranium enrichment program. Many believe it will not stop short this time of saying explicitly that Teheran has been trying to build nuclear weapons.

And by convenient coincidence, or perhaps not, Israel test launched what the Defense Ministry said was "a rocket propulsion system" but what foreign reports say was a inter-continental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran and farther.

"Missile tests take a long time, and the dates have no political significance," Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel's anti-ballistic Arrow missile project, said on Israel Radio.

Menashe Amir, an expert on Iran, said Iran was gravely concerned about an Israeli strike as well as the possible fall of the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad.

"I have no doubt that the establishment in Iran is watching and listening very closely to everything that is said and declared in Israel," Amir said. "They take the Israeli threats very seriously."

So much so that Iran's military chief of staff said that Israel would regret any attack and would be severely punished. "We would make them regret such a mistake and would severely punish them," Gen. Hassan Firouzabadi was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

"Still, a lot of people believe that this was all initiated by the government as a sort of way of saying 'hold-me-back,' and put the Iranian issue back on the agenda," Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of communications and politics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

"But to quote from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, 'If you're going to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.' One would think that if Israel were to go to war the last thing they would do would be to talk about it," he said.

"One thing is for sure, it certainly seems that Israel wants Iran back on the agenda and you can understand why. The current sanctions are not working and Israel feels a need for the world to take a move here," Wolfsfeld said.



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