A hysterical sense that the Israeli government is seriously considering attacking Iran's nuclear installations has swept the country. It was first cued by media reports two weeks ago and has been fed by vague hints from Israeli leaders suggesting something momentous was in the wind and a flurry of military activity, mostly involving Israel.
Much of this activity was packed in a single day. Wednesday, Nov. 2, saw an avalanche of military events, starting with Israel's successful test-launch of Jericho 3, an upgraded intercontinental ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead across a distance of 7,000 kilometers.
The IDF then released footage of Israeli Air Force squadron leaders on Italian air base runways reporting to the media on joint exercises in long-range maneuvers. They were carried out with the Italian air force "and other NATO nations" in Sardinia, to familiarize the IAF with NATO military tactics.
After that, the IDF's Home Command announced a large-scale exercise Thursday morning, Nov. 3, to prepare central Israel for missile attack
Finally, Defense Minister Ehud Barak left on an unscheduled trip to London shortly after a secret visit to Israel by the British chief of staff Gen. Sir David Richards earlier this week as guest of Israel's top soldier Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
Suspense is building up ahead of the publication next Tuesday, Nov. 8 of the International Atomic Agency's report which is expected to put Iran in the international dock. The foreboding over Tehran's response to its findings and to more sanctions ties in with the threats from Damascus as the Assad regime nears its moment of truth.
Barak: Israel may have to fight alone
Before leaving for London, Barak delivered an ominous warning to the opening of the Knesset winter session Tuesday. Israel must brace itself, he said, for the need to defend its security interests over long distances – alone and without regional or other foreign support.
He did not mention Iran. Neither did he say outright that the United States would not be there to provide military aid or even diplomatic support. He simply let those shocking inferences stand.
In all the seven wars and two military confrontations with the Palestinians (intifada) which Israel has fought in its 62 years, America was always there, with air and sea corridors for needed arms and spare parts and friendly diplomacy for negotiating ceasefires or armistices. Now, Barak, who is a regular visitor to Washington every few weeks, was telling Israelis that next time they would be on their own.
"We live in uncertain times," he went on to say. "The outcome of the Arab Spring is hard to predict. The threats are multiplying with Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and Iran in the background," Barak said. And if Israel reduces its defense spending to meet social protesters' demands, the United States may likewise cut down on military aid to Israel.
He then called on his government colleagues to augment the state budget by an extra NIS 8 billion ($2.2 billion) to cover "imminent unforeseen security requirements" and social protesters' demands.
The 2011 state budget stands at a peak NIS 348,185,234 (app. $99.5 billion) of which NIS 53.2 billion ($13.5 billion) is earmarked for defense, i.e. 6.3% of expected gross domestic product and 15.1% of the total budget outlay.
Fear of a combined Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah-Hama offensive
Finance minister Yuval Steinitz and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman upbraided Barak for his outspokenness on matters best left to backroom discussions. Lieberman denounced media reporting as "99 percent untrue."
But the damage was done.
The juxtaposition of "alone" and "imminent unforeseen security requirements" was enough to convince the Israeli street that an operation against Iran was around the corner with Tehran's Iran's allies, Syria, Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas and Jihad Islami joining the fray against Israel.
Monday, Oct. 31, ultra-Orthodox Shas Minister Eli Yishai, another senior member of the prime minister's exclusive "Forum of Eight," was recorded making an agonized confession to a closed session of party activists. He said he was not sleeping nights because of the hard decisions to make in a region so fraught with peril and complexity that they could result in 100,000 rockets descending on Israel.
No more words were needed to feed the hysteria. Every Israeli knows the math: Only Syria, Hizballah and Hamas command that many missiles between them. Therefore, Yishai could only have been talking about a potential Israeli-Iranian war.
The sense of doom further deepened when opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima turned to Binyamin Netanyahu during her Knesset address and said with great pathos: "Mr. Prime Minister, don't attack Iran. Listen to your security chiefs."
An Israeli decision to strike Iran now is flatly denied
This was the first time any senior politician had openly mentioned the unmentionable. That comment and the rest of it were drawn from unverified Israeli media speculation which claimed that Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Military Intelligence Chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo and the Shin Bet chief Yaacov Cohen had lined up solidly against an Israeli military action against Iran because, it was said, they believed it would place Israel's very existence in question.
None of this was directly confirmed.
This may be why those assumptions drew no initial reactions from Washington, Moscow, any European capital or even Tehran. They were also ignored by the world media although not so long ago, this story would have been the stuff of thick headlines. Certainly, the West is too deeply concerned with its sinking economy to take an interest in yet another Middle East crisis – even on the scale of a major clash with Iran – after getting its fill of the Arab Spring.
Interest did perk up somewhat Wednesday in the unusual spate of military activity revolving around Israel and NATO only three days after the Western alliance packed up and departed Libya.
So is it true that Netanyahu and Barak decided without consulting anyone else to go to war on Iran before year's end? The answer given by all DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources is a resounding no.
And indeed, this week, Defense Minister Barak finally and flatly denied any such decision when asked by an Army Radio interviewer.
But if attacked Israel may hit back at Iran
Our military and intelligence sources are certain a more nuanced question would have drawn a less categorical negative. For instance, had Barak been asked whether Israel would take advantage of a Middle Eastern war to strike Iran's nuclear program, he might have replied: That depends on how the war goes. Instead of a definite "no," he would most probably have said, "possibly yes" for at least six reasons:
1. Israel's government, military and intelligence heads are convinced that while Syrian President Bashar Assad has dampened, though not extinguished, the flames of revolt against him, in the end he will buckle under the combined foreign military pressure to oust him.
It is coming directly or indirectly from US, NATO allies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on behalf of the Persian Gulf rulers. Although NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denied the organization's present or future military involvement in Syria – "My answer is very short. NATO has no intention (to intervene) whatsoever. I can completely rule that out" – the alliance is very much there, largely through one of its members, Turkey, and Qatar, senior Arab partner in the NATO military operation against Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.
Ankara is arming the rebels with weapons and training in special camps on its soil where too rebel leaders have established commands centers. Qatar, a primary arms and funding supplier, has along with Saudi Arabia officers training Syrian rebels in Turkey and Lebanon.
Israel expects Bashar Assad to go down fighting to the last bullet
2. Knowing he was in line for the sort of NATO treatment that eventually brought Qaddafi to a violent death, the Syrian president granted his first interview in the nine-month uprising against his regime to a Western media outlet on Sunday, Oct. 30. Using Sunday Telegraph as his platform, he issued a harsh threat to "burn the Middle East" and "another Afghanistan" if the West intervened in Syria.
Syria is different in every respect from Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, he insisted. It "is the fault line, and if you play with the ground, you will cause an earthquake."
Israel is convinced that sooner or later the outside pressure building up against him will drive Assad to lash out against the Jewish state to ignite a major regional conflagration and so "burn the Middle East."
Less than a month ago, he warned Turkish Foreign Minister Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu who visited Damascus on Oct. 4: "If a crazy measure is taken against Damascus, I will need not more than six hours to transfer hundreds of rockets and missiles to the Golan Heights to fire them at Tel Aviv."
Israel's analysis of Assad's psychology supports the belief that Assad means what he says.
He is not like the deposed Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, who tried to stay in step with Washington up to and including his exit from power, or the Libyan ruler Qaddafi who lived in fear of a Western attack – not only in 2011 but in 2003, when he dismantled his nuclear program against an American promise of immunity. The Syrian ruler is expected by Israeli intelligence watchers to fight to the bitter end, up to the last Syrian, last ally and last bullet.
This reading of the Syrian ruler's nature and the presumption of Iranian participation in an anti-Israel offensive were reflected in Yishai's anxious "100,000 missiles" comment.
US aid for Israel under attack is not taken for granted
3. Israel and most Arab and Persian Gulf capitals take it for granted, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report, that if Iran does attack Israel, the Obama administration cannot stand afford to aside but will have to intervene militarily.
In that case, one scenario postulates a three-way division of labor: The US and certain NATO allies would attack the sites developing Iran's nuclear weapons and housing the bases of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Islamic Republic's military and financial prop; Israel would concentrate its military resources on repelling attacks from Syria, Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad on itself and allied interests, while Turkey and Qatar would deal with Syria's domestic strife.
For Israel, this would be the optimal scenario. But what if the Obama administration opts out of the campaign for fear of jeopardizing its gains from the Arab revolt? If the worst came to the worst, Israeli's contingency plan for striking Iran's nuclear program singlehanded and without American aid would have to come into play.
This is what Defense Minister Barak meant when he said Israel might have to fight alone across long distances.
The Gaza missile offensive – a dress rehearsal
4. Many Israeli military officials regard the multi-missile offensive from the Gaza Strip this week as a dress rehearsal staged by Tehran and Damascus for a full-scale showdown against the Jewish state.
Jihad Islami's sudden four-day barrage against southern Israel from Saturday, Oct. 29, followed by its rejection of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, was seen at first as the Assad regime's comeback for US and Egyptian efforts to move the Hamas headquarters and political bureau out of Damascus and over to Cairo and Amman.
(On Tuesday, Nov. 1, the new Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh said banishing Hamas political secretary Khaled Mashaal and his staff 12 years ago was "a legal mistake." He thus paved the way for their return to Jordan.)
However, as masses of arms from Libya continued to pour into Gaza for the Jihad Islami, Iran's Palestinian protégé, a different picture emerged: Iran and Damascus appeared to be setting the scene for the opening of a more comprehensive military venture, possibly kicking off the earthquake Assad threatened last Sunday.
Syria and Iran seem to be pursuing a stop-go strategy, raising and lowering the military tension in time with Western steps while keeping it simmering.
The next IAEA report- a game-changer for Iran
5. Next week, harsh international sanctions await Iran as well as Syria following publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report in Vienna which, according to early reports, will disclose new details about the Iranian nuclear military program that prove Tehran's denials are false.
"This will be a game-changer in the Iranian nuclear dossier," a western official predicted. "It is going to be hard for even Moscow or Beijing to downplay its significance."
These disclosers and the events of the Syrian revolt are potential accelerants for military flare-ups across the region.
6. Lastly, the heated public debate in Israel over whether or not to strike Iran's nuclear program before it is too late conceals another argument: Should Israel abandon its policy of never confirming or denying its own nuclear capability in the event of Iran owning up to developing a nuclear weapon or conducting a secret nuclear test?
A decision is needed in the short term following the disclosure Thursday that Iran has acquired a simulation program for designing and testing a potential weapon in secret.