By David Rosenberg

Jerusalem, Israel

Prime Minster Binyamin Netanyahu's dire warnings about the Iranian nuclear threat have failed to convince Israelis that a military strike is a good idea or that it can be done at relatively little cost in human lives.

The prime minister has compared the urgency of Iranian threat to Israel to that of Jews on the eve of the Holocaust. He and other cabinet members, most notably Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have discounted the effectiveness of sanctions and other non-military alternatives in stopping Tehran.

But analysts say the Israeli public is unmoved by the emotional appeals Netanyahu has employed and do not regard the threat from Iran as an existential one. Moreover, they say, his message has been diluted by open divisions inside Israel's security establishment over the feasibility of an attack.

"The Auschwitz metaphor works perhaps very well with AIPAC people, but it is overused in the Israeli context," said Tamar Hermann, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying group. "People [in Israel] are not so willing to accept this portrayal of the situation. Israelis are immune to the Holocaust analogy and they have developed some internal resistance."

A poll conducted by Hermann in February showed that less than a third of Israelis backed the idea of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities without U.S. support. If Washington did back Israel, the tide shifts, with two thirds saying they "strongly" or "moderately" support an operation against Iran, the poll found.

Herman said the results of the survey, which was conducted under the auspices of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Resolution at Tel Aviv University, showed Israelis don't regard Iran as an "existential threat" as it has been portrayed by their prime minister.

Other polls show even more tepid support for an operation against Iran. A survey taken for the Brooking Institute's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, also in February, found that more than a third of Israelis opposed a strike under any circumstances. A 42 percent plurality favored an attack with American support, while only 19 percent back Israel going alone.

Another survey, by the Dialog Institute for the Ha'aretz daily and published last Friday, found only 26 percent supported a unilateral Israeli attack.

Disagreements over an Israeli attack were the focus of discussions between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama last week, but the message that came out of the meeting was murky.

Obama's public statements spoke about the need for Israel to "always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat," and its "sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs." But the president also made it clear that sanctions and negotiations need more time to work, and that talk of a military option is premature.

Netanyahu, however, has said Israel has a narrower window than the U.S. for non-military options to work. "The United States is big and distant, Israel is smaller and closer to Iran, and naturally, we have different capabilities," he told Channel One television in an interview aired on Saturday. "So the American clock regarding preventing Iranian nuclearization is not the Israeli one."

Netanyahu's failure to sway the public on Iran is significant because he and his Likud Party are riding high in opinion polls. The Likud would capture between 35 and 37 seats in the 120-seat Knesset if elections were held today. That would make Netanyahu's party by far the biggest in parliament. The center-left Kadima Party would be cut down to as few as 10-12 seats and Labor held to 14. Indeed, the second-biggest vote-getter would be Yisrael Beiteinu, a hawkish party aligned with the Likud.

The Ha'aretz/Dialog survey also found that half the respondents said they relied on Netanyahu and Barak to guide policy on Iran, although a significant 38 percent minority said they did not.

Gadi Wolfsfeld, who teaches politics and media at The Hebrew University and the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center, said one of the reasons Netanyahu has failed to convince the voters is because the security establishment itself is split on the issue.

At a conference of policy makers in February, Barak and Moshe Yaalon, the influential minister for strategic affairs, both positioned themselves as favoring an operation. But Army Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz signaled that for now he preferred to disrupt Iranian progress by other means while Military Intelligence Chief Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi indicated that the window for striking Iranian facilities is bigger than Barak has been saying.

Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, has become strongly opposed to an attack any time soon, reportedly earning the wrath of the Prime Ministers Office.

"You don't have a consensus and therefore people are confused. If the elite, especially everybody in the security elite, was on board there would be bigger backing," Wolfsfeld, author of Making Sense of Media and Politics: Five Principles in Political Communication, told The Media Line.

The IDI poll showed that the public is skeptical that casualties from an Iranian counter-strike would be small, as Barak has suggested. Nearly 60 percent said deaths would exceed the 500 predicted by the defense minister.

While it is unusual for Israeli public opinion not to be squarely behind a popular and respected prime minister on a major security issue, Wolfsfeld said public opinion could quickly shift.

On the eve of the First Gulf War in 1991, for instance, large majorities of Israelis backed a counter-strike against Iraq if Saddam Hussein launched missiles at Israel. But when Baghdad did attack Israel, the public backed then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in refraining from retaliating.

Hermann, of IDI, agreed that the polling data suggest that public opinion could change easily. "It's not that the public rejects the very idea of a strike on Iran," she said, "but they think that Israel can't do it alone."


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Netanyahu Fails to Convince Israelis on Iran Threat | Global Viewpoint