Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of parliament… (Tara Todras-Whitehill…)
Reporting from Jerusalem — It's not the first time Israel has hinted it might strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Whisper campaigns about a possible surprise attack have leaked out before and sometimes appear timed to help U.S. efforts to rally international support for sanctions against Tehran.
But the current round of speculation about an airstrike — fueled by recent statements by anonymous Israeli officials and some high-profile missile and military flight tests last week — sparked an unusually public debate here about whether Israel should take such a step at this time.
What many suspect began as an attempt by Israel to intimidate Iran and motivate the West to do more to crack down on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program has instead inadvertently exposed public ambivalence, government division and a surprising politicization over one of Israel's most pressing security threats.
On one side are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who, according to Israeli media reports, are pushing to move against Iran. But other Cabinet members and several prominent security experts, including two recently retired security agency heads, worry a strike now would spark a regional war, potentially causing greater damage to Israel.
It's a dispute that's been raging quietly for several years but now has burst into the open.
"It was inane, unnecessary and damaging," Alan Baker, Israel's former ambassador to Canada, said of the recent public discussion over whether to launch a strike against Iran. "Iranians must be thinking how stupid these people are. It sent a message to Iranians that there is a huge debate in Israel."
Privately, government officials expressed shock that this sensitive an issue would erupt in such open fashion. Israel prides itself on avoiding public airings of divisions over military matters, usually displaying a united front to the world when it comes to its security.
"It's been a very feisty and even verbally violent debate," said one government official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. "Everything that we used to say behind closed doors came out in the open."
The official said Israel's attempt to signal to the world that its military option against Iran remains on the table "might have backfired a little. I think this complicates the decision" about an airstrike.
There's even a debate about the debate itself. Many officials say such issues should not be subject to open discussion. Israeli strikes against nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 were carried out without warning.
Dan Meridor, a member of Netanyahu's Likud Party and minister of intelligence and atomic energy, called the recent public back-and-forth "scandalous."
But opposition lawmakers say such discourse should be expected in a democracy, particularly concerning such an important security matter as one that could lead to war with Iran or attacks on Israel by militant groups allied with Tehran, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
"If no debate is held about an existential threat to the state of Israel, then what is one going to be held about?" asked Kadima party lawmaker Avi Dichter, a former director of Israel's Shin Bet domestic security agency.
Most Israelis agree that Iran is seeking to obtain a nuclear bomb and must be stopped. But differences are emerging about how and when Israel should act.
A recent poll in the Haaretz newspaper found Israelis essentially split on the question of whether to strike Iran. But more than 80% of respondents agreed that such a strike would probably lead to war with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Even Netanyahu's inner Cabinet disagrees, with some arguing for Israel to act alone and others urging the government to coordinate with the U.S. and wait for tougher international sanctions, according to Israeli media.
Earlier this year, Meir Dagan, who retired from Israel's Mossad spy agency in January, began publicly questioning the need for Israel to strike Iran, calling such a plan "foolish." Other former security officials have echoed the comments, privately and publicly, in what many see as an attempt to make it more difficult for Netanyahu to launch an attack.
Last week, when the government conducted military tests and news leaked that the prime minister was discussing an attack with the Cabinet, the Iranian question dominated the headlines for several days.
Netanyahu's critics accused him of being reckless and gambling with Israel's future. Supporters responded by accusing the critics of betraying national security and using the issue to damage the prime minister's credibility.
To some, the public debate is a sign that Israel is not actually preparing for an imminent attack. If plans were underway, Israel's military censors — who have broad powers to block news coverage that could endanger national security — would have killed the stories, many say.
"The assumption is that if there is a decision to go to war with Iran, then this wouldn't be discussed," said Hebrew University political science professor Gadi Wolfsfeld. "Since it is being discussed, the assumption is that it is saber-rattling."
News assistant Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.