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In Israel, debate rages over Netanyahu's threats to attack Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have painted himself into a corner by threatening a unilateral strike against Iran's nuclear program, critics say.

August 16, 2012|By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
  • Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against a threatened Israeli military strike on Iran.
Israelis protest in Tel Aviv against a threatened Israeli military strike… (MENAHEM KAHANA, AFP/Getty…)

JERUSALEM — Whether serious or a bluff,Israel'spublic threats to attackIran'snuclear development program are widely credited for bringing U.S. pressure and international sanctions against Tehran this year.

But as speculation about a potential unilateral Israeli strike reignited this week, fueled by public comments and leaks by proponents and opponents both in Israel and the U.S., some here are wondering whether the unusually public campaign is starting to take a toll on the credibility of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

Critics say the repeated open threats are damaging ties with America and triggering a domestic political backlash, even before a final decision about a military operation has been reached.

"You have to credit [Netanyahu] for getting a great deal of international commitment on the issue, which probably would not have happened had it not been done so dramatically and persistently," said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher, cofounder of the Web-based magazine bitterlemons.org.

"But now it's a situation of overkill," Alpher said. "The U.S. establishment is fed up with him. The Israel public is fed up with him. He has turned this into a public controversy and he doesn't know how to put it out."

By repeatedly vowing to go it alone if the U.S. doesn't stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Netanyahu has placed himself in a situation of either having to launch a strike or finding a way to back down without losing face if Iran doesn't blink first, critics say.

"He's put himself high up in a tree, and now he's saying it's up to [President] Obamato bring him down," said Meir Javendanfar, who teaches Iranian studies at Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. "It's come down to threats, threats, threats, but we are at a saturation point."

Last weekend, the debate flared up again in the Israeli media, fueled by unnamed Israeli government sources who declared that an attack against Iran was imminent, likely to occur sometime in October, before the U.S. presidential election.

Netanyahu then fueled the speculation this week by saying that a nuclear-armed Iran dwarfs all other potential threats to the state of Israel, including any possible counterattack by Iran or a regional war that might erupt in the aftermath.

Those close to Netanyahu say his threat to attack is serious, not a bluff.

But some suspect the latest round of Israeli threats is aimed mainly at pressuring the Obama administration to make a stronger public commitment to use U.S. militaryforce if Iran fails to curb its nuclear program, perhaps even setting a deadline. Under that line of thinking, Israel's leverage to pressure Obama is seen as being the strongest before the November election, when the president is reluctant to alienate Jewish donors or give the Republican Party more ammunition to assert that he is abandoning Israel.

Israeli media reported this week that Israeli officials have offered to back down from their threat of attack if the Obama administration makes such a statement.

The Obama administration, which has been trying to discourage Israel from any unilateral strikes and argues that there is still time for diplomacy, responded by playing down the threat of an Israeli strike.

Defense SecretaryLeon E. Panettatold reporters this week that he does not believe Israel has made a final decision to attack, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said Israel lacked the military might to destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities on its own.

The comments infuriated Israelis, who say the only way Iran will agree to internationally imposed limits on its nuclear development program is if there's a credible military threat from Israel or the international community.

"America's actions are undermining Israel's credibility," said Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu's former chief of staff. Bennett blamed the Obama administration for fueling the debate by leaking stories to the Israeli press about American opposition in an attempt to sway public opinion against a strike.

"A lot of what is happening in Israel is a reaction to what the Obama administration is doing behind the scenes," he said. "I don't think Netanyahu wanted this public debate, but he got pulled in and now it's causing a lot of damage to Israel's global credibility."

For its part, Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for civilian purposes only, has dismissed the Israeli threats as saber rattling. "They are baseless and therefore worthless," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said this week.

Iran rejects Israel's right to exist and has called for its destruction. Israel, which is believed to be the region's only nuclear power, fears Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb to use against Israel.

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