Linda Gradstein, The Media Line
Tel Aviv, Israel
In the past few weeks, the question has morphed from "Should Israel attack Iran to try to stop its nuclear program?" to "When will Israel attack Iran to try to stop its nuclear program?"
Israel seems to be increasing its preparations for that attack. Gas mask distribution has been ramped up, and newspapers are filled with bellicose statements, some of which are directed at Israel's closest ally, the United States.
Israel's army chief-of-staff had a stern warning for Iran on Sunday, and an assurance that Israel has the ability to hit Iran.
"There have been calls recently for the destruction of the state of Israel," Benny Gantz said, alluding to Iran. "Against these threats, the IDF (Israeli army) is prepared and mobilized for any event. We will reach anywhere at any time to protect this nation."
On the same day, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said the international sanctions presently in-place against Iran have had no effect.
"The Iranians are using the talks with the major powers to gain time in order to advance their nuclear project," Netanyahu said this week. "The international community is not setting Iran a clear red line and Iran does not see international determination to stop its nuclear project."
When Netanyahu says "the international community" he means "President Obama." Israeli officials have repeatedly said they would prefer the US act to stop Iran, but the US does not seem to be hurrying to do so.
"It is best if the US will lead the coalition of the democratic world to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities," Danny Yatom, a former head of Israel's famed Mossad intelligence agency told The Media Line. "President Obama can easily persuade Netanyahu not to take unilateral action but to wait for the US by giving him even a tacit guarantee that once Iran will cross the line of enriching uranium to 90 percent, the US will use its military might to destroy the nuclear facilities of Iran."
Yatom said that Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama will meet at the UN General Assembly meeting at the end of the month, and Iran will be high on the agenda.
In public, both Israeli and American officials insist that they agree that Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear.
"There is absolutely no daylight between the positions of the United States and Israel when it comes to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons," White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted this week.
But differences also seem to be increasing. Israel's mass circulation daily Yediot Aharonot reported on Monday that the US has secretly promised Iran that it will not support an Israeli strike on Iran if Iran promises not to target US facilities in the Middle East. Israeli officials also say that while the US and Israel agree on the goal, they differ on the timetable.
"The main difference is the timetable due to the different means that the US and Israel have in their arsenal," Yatom said. "For Israel, it will be very difficult to attack what is buried underground, while the US has the means to do that. What concerns Israel is that if we will not cause severe destruction to some of the facilities while we can, when we no longer can do it, the US will not do it either."
That question is being debated at the height of a closely fought presidential election campaign in the US.
"It became an American issue because the Israeli government created a situation in which if America does nothing about it, we will attack," Ami Ayalon, a former head of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security service and former commander of Israel's navy told The Media Line. "Whether they like it or not, the US will be involved either because the price of the oil will increase or there will be violence in the Middle East."
Ayalon says Israel has positioned itself as "the crazy player" who is determined to act against Iran. While in the short term that might serve Israel's interest, in the long term it could erode Israel's deterrent stance. Israel has long maintained a policy of what it calls "nuclear ambiguity" saying, "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." Ayalon says the international community assumes that Israel has nuclear capability, but will not use it.
"As soon as Israel threatens to use its nuclear capability but doesn't, it becomes a paper tiger," Ayalon said. "As soon as Israel says to the US, "I can act crazy if you don't stop me," the world will reassess its attitude toward Israel."
Other analysts say it could also trigger a new Middle East nuclear arms race as countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia move to try to protect themselves against what they see as threats from Iran and Israel.
Israeli analysts also note that there is almost no personal trust between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama, although there is close cooperation between the Israeli and American defense establishments. Eyal Zisser, a Middle East expert at Tel Aviv University, says Netanyahu is preparing the Israeli public and the international community for an Israeli strike.
"He is preparing the ground for an attack so that the minute he needs to make the decision it's already on the agenda," he told The Media Line. "But I don't think he can ignore the US completely. Israel will have to think not once, but twice, before launching an attack."
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