War of words is Israel's best defence
Stuck … Benjamin Netanyahu is talking tough but has little support for an attack on Iran. Photo: Reuters
When one reporter gets an exclusive we call it a scoop. When four competing national dailies lob on readers' doorsteps, all with an exclusive, page-one take on the crisis du jour, it reads more like news management.
For whose benefit? We're talking Israel; we're talking war against Iran.
The day - Friday last week - was a crescendo in fevered local speculation, amped up by foreign reporters and analysts weighing in, creating a pressure-cooker within a pressure-cooker atmosphere with Israelis casting Iran's nuclear program as an existential moment, while disagreeing vehemently on how to respond.
Some things can be stated with certainty. Iran does have a nuclear program and Tehran's insistence that it is purely civilian is met with scepticism in most capitals. The Obama administration wants to deter Tehran with a negotiations-sanctions pincer move but stresses that ''all options are on the table''. The US and Israel cannot agree on the threshold for Iran actually developing a weapon - and so Israel readies for its own unilateral strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
A procession of senior US officials comes away from Israel, claiming to have pulled the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, back from the brink - most recently the Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta.
And then a few things happen.
With his ''you guys don't get it'' disdain, Netanyahu lectures the world that time is running out. A senior Iranian lashes out - this week the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned, ''this bogus and fake Zionist outgrowth will disappear.'' And a senior Israeli resorts to Rumsfeldian hubris - we have just had the outgoing Civil Defence Minister Matan Vilnai's casual warning that war with Iran might last for a month and that about 500 Israelis would die in Iranian missile strikes on Israeli cities.
Vilnai stopped short of using ''cakewalk'', as uttered by a George W Bush adviser before Iraq, but he was up there in declaring: "There's no room for hysteria - Israel's home front is prepared as never before."
So is Israel actually going to war - or merely threatening to go to war?
Washington seemingly sees all this Israeli noise as Netanyahu's bluff.
Decoding it for The New York Times, senior US officials explained that the Israeli leader needed to maintain the credibility of his threat to go it alone in order to keep pressure on the US to stick with its sanctions and ''all options'' strategy.
Translating for mere mortals, the former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was quoted: "The more the Israelis threaten, the more [Washington] respond by showing them that we will take care of the problem if it comes to that."
But Netanyahu does not limit his argument on time running out to nuclear progress in Tehran. The Israeli leader, according to the NYT, figures that he has to act before the November US election - because just as he will have less leverage over a re-elected Obama, a new president Mitt Romney would not want to be rushed to war - notwithstanding his support for unilateral action by Israel.
Oh! And because Israel does not have all the weapons it needs to penetrate Iran's underground nuclear facilities, it seems the best outcome to unilateral strikes would be to derail the Iranian program for only a year or two. But the US does have the right munitions.
Israeli media reports say that Netanyahu has set September 25 as a deadline for Obama to state clearly that the US will take military action.
But who stands behind Netanyahu and the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak? According to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's best-selling paper, the two are determined Israel will strike before the US poll. But stunningly, the piece continues: "There is not a single senior official in the establishment - neither among the [Israel Defence Forces] top brass nor in the security branches or even the President - who supports an Israeli strike at the moment."
The litany of those counselling that Israel should not go ahead makes the Netanyahu-Obama stand ''courageous'' - in the Yes, Minister sense of the word. A Guardian report also casts a wide net in listing those opposed - ''current and former military and intelligence bigwigs and most of their Cabinet''.
Can it all be bluff?
Publicly at least, Netanyahu's intended target does not buy it. Describing any planned Israeli strike as ''stupid'', an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman reportedly dismissed the Israeli threats as ''a sign of weakness'' by ''brainless leaders''. Nice …
And now that the threats have come this far, some in Israel have taken to blaming Obama for not saving Israel from itself. Writing in Haaretz, Ari Shavit argues: "The key to preventing disaster is … in the hands of the US President. [His] most important speech is the one he has not made so far - the Iran speech."
There is no doubt that Israel's relentless international diplomacy has moved Washington and others to impose crippling sanctions on Iran - instead of rushing off to war just now. And it is on this point that the same Ari Shavit wrote last year, when former Mossad boss Meir Dagan dismissed the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran as strategic folly.
As noted in Time magazine this week, Shavit excoriated Dagan for letting the cat out of the bag - "the threat of a military attack against Iran … is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans … [Israel] must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran."
If that is one reality, then perhaps another lies in the sober words of Israeli commentator Larry Dernfer. On the +972 website, he insists Netanyahu cannot get Cabinet backing for ''an extremely risky war opposed by the heads of the IDF, IDF intelligence, the air force, the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the US.''
He concludes: "So I think the game is up - making the case for war with Iran is now a losing battle, and people are going to start running away from it."
Will Israel attack Iran? Tic, tic, tic…