Harriet Sherwood - The Guardian
IN THE PAST FEW DAYS, the Israeli public has been hit by a blizzard of speculative articles suggesting a military strike against Iran's nuclear sites is imminent.
The talk is now of a timetable of weeks, rather than months and some observers believe that Israel will act in the run-up to the US presidential election – at a time when it could be difficult and damaging for President Obama to withhold his backing in the face of a hawkish and vehemently pro-Israel opponent, Mitt Romney, who has already indicated his support for unilateral action by the Jewish state.
On Tuesday an article in Ma'ariv suggested that Netanyahu and Barak have set a deadline of 25 September for Obama to clearly state that the US itself will take military action.
The date is the opening of the UN general assembly in New York, and also the eve of Yom Kippur, one of the most significant dates in the Jewish calendar.
The implication is that, in the absence of a public declaration, Israel will press on with its own plans to strike at the Iranian nuclear programme.
But it was two articles last Friday that kicked off the current storm. Writing in Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea and Simon Shiffer, both respected commentators, said: "Insofar as it depends on Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran will take place in these coming autumn months, before the US elections in November."
But, it pointed out: "There is not a single senior official in the establishment - neither among the [Israeli Defence Forces] top brass nor in the security branches, or even the president - who supports an Israeli strike at the moment."
Nevertheless, Netanyahu and Barak are determined, according to the authors. Despite US assurances that President Obama is committed to stopping the Iranian nuclear programme, "Netanyahu assessed that this was empty talk. That Obama will not take action. Barak was less confrontational, but his conclusion was similar. He said that Israel could not entrust its security in the hands of a foreign state... The US can live with a nuclear Iran. Israel cannot."
On Monday morning, Barnea reported that he and Shiffer had been "bombarded with phone calls from people who asked if it was time to hide in the bomb shelters" over the weekend.
Barak is also widely assumed to be the "decision maker", the anonymous key figure whose views were spread over two pages of Haaretz's weekend magazine on Friday. This thinly disguised figure said that time was running out to act against the Iranian nuclear programme, and the "immunity zone" - the point when key components of the programme are beyond reach in deep bunkers - was approaching.
According to the decision maker: "As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything. For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone - because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend."
Added into the mix was a much-quoted comment, made by Mossad chief Ehraim Halevy, to the New York Times the week before, in which he said: "If I was an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks."
It's possible that the single short quote was taken from a long, measured interview, but it should be assumed that Halevy understood that his words would have impact.
He was swiftly followed by another former intelligence chief, Aharon Zeevi Farkash, former head of military intelligence in the IDF, who said: "It seems to me that [an Israeli attack] could come in the near future," that is, weeks or a couple of months."
Despite the rising decibels, a decision by Netanyahu and Barak to take Israel into a war against the advice of current and former military and intelligence bigwigs, and against the opposition of most of the cabinet, would be an enormous political risk, even leaving aside the military, security and diplomatic consequences
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert was the latest public figure to throw in his cautionary tuppence-worth, in a speech on Sunday. He said: "There is no reason whatsoever for Israel to act in the near future, not in the coming weeks and not in the coming months... We do not have to be hysterical. We have to calm down.... I am part of the circle that believes that Israel can not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. The question is, how do we proceed with this?... This process must be made in full compliance with the international community."
What about the Israeli public? According to an opinion poll in Ma'ariv last Friday, 41% believe that sanctions and diplomacy alone will not stop the Iranians developing a nuclear bomb. Twenty-two percent retained their faith in sanctions and diplomacy; 37% didn't know.
A subsequent series of questions showed that most people hope for US involvement in military action, and believe it will be forthcoming.
But if it comes to "the latest possible date that Israel can seriously harm the Iranian nuclear programme on its own", 35% said Israel should go it alone, 39% said leave it to the US and international community, and 26% said they didn't know.
Four out of 10 said they trusted the judgment of Netanyahu and Barak on this issue, compared with 27% who answered in the negative.
There are still those who believe Netanyahu and Barak are playing a dangerous game of bluff aimed at forcing America's hand. But, for now, those who believe Israel is heading towards war are speaking with louder voices.