What's behind the latest Israeli media frenzy on Iran?

Israeli media outlets were buzzing this weekend about the possibility of a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran. Was there a policy change driving the attention?

By , Correspondent

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Israeli media speculation that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to launch a preemptive attack against Iran kicked into high gear over the weekend.  But the frenzy seems to lack any basis in changes on the ground in Iran, and may simply be an effort to win over a skeptical Israeli public.

Israel has been warily eying Iran's nuclear program for many months, even as Western sanctions against Iran continue to bleed it of oil revenues.  But over the weekend, speculation in the Israeli media about an imminent Israeli attack on Iran reached a fever pitch.  "[I]t was two articles last Friday that kicked off the current storm," reports the Guardian.

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Writing in Israel's biggest-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, Nahum Barnea and Simon Shiffer, both respected commentators, said: "Insofar as it depends on [Prime Minister] Binyamin Netanyahu and [Defense Minister] 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."

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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 program, and the "immunity zone" – the point when key components of the program are beyond reach in deep bunkers – was approaching.

Time notes that two other Israeli newspapers echoed those sentiments in their own headlines.

Maariv informed us in its banner headline that 37 percent of the Israeli public believes that “If Iran gets the bomb, it might result in a second Holocaust.” And Yisrael Hayom said: “Iran significantly speeds up its progress toward the bomb.” The following day, the latter paper included a headline claiming that, according to Israeli TV, a “Decision by Netanyahu and Barak to strike Iran is almost final.”

Mr. Netanyahu and his cabinet also spoke out strongly on Aug. 12 against the perceived threat of Iran's nuclear program.  The Associated Press reports that Netanyahu told his cabinet, "All threats directed at the Israeli home front are dwarfed by another threat, different in its magnitude and substance, and so I have repeated and shall repeat: Iran must not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons."

And Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called on the United Nations Security Council's permanent members and Germany, known collectively as the P5+1, to declare that talks to negotiate an end to Iran's uranium enrichment "have failed," reports The New York Times. Such a declaration will make “clear that all options are on the table,” including a military strike, he said. 

But despite the common alarm in the Israeli media over the perceived Iranian threat, it isn't clear that any real event or new information has precipitated the recent flurry of articles. In an op-ed for Israeli newspaper Maariv (and translated from Hebrew by Al-Monitor), Ben Caspit writes that "You can all relax – in the last two weeks, nothing new has happened with regard to an attack on Iran. The cabinet hasn’t convened, the defense minister hasn’t summoned the IDF general staff and no new information has been received. Everything that is known today was known two months ago."

Ynet News reports that Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, accused Israeli government officials of "stirring up overblown drama."

During a meeting with students at Ono Academic College, Olmert said that "the current situation does not require Israeli military action – now or in the near future."

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Referring to the public discussion surrounding a potential military strike in Iran, the former PM admitted that he was very worried by recent newspaper headlines. "This issue inflicts massive public damage to Israel. I live among my people; I hear and see the anxiety on the faces of the citizens. This does not contribute anything to our ability to deal with the Iranian threat. (On the contrary) It only makes it harder."

The Associated Press adds that "All of Israel's recently retired security chiefs oppose an attack, and several have come out swinging against Barak and Netanyahu personally. It's a shocking public rift between the political and defense establishments."  Some experts speculate that it is the military's distrust of Netanyahu that has spurred the prime minister to take his case to the public in an effort to build up a bulwark of support for his policy on Iran.

"They're doing it because they want partners to the decision, because they understand it's a very dangerous risk," he said. But he added that the discussion may serve the public good: "You have a situation that is so complicated and so dangerous, that in a democratic society, you might need a debate over whether to do it because so much hangs in the balance."

But Netanyahu doesn't appear to have much support in the media either, despite the flurry of headlines this weekend.  Haaretz writes that "during the past week alone, Netanyahu personally called two writers – one Israeli and the other American – and praised them for the articles they wrote on the Iranian issue."  Haaretz reporter Barak Ravid writes:

Other than his “home newspaper,” Yisrael Hayom, most of the media in Israel, Europe and the United States have expressed their opposition to an attack on Iran. In such an atmosphere, it’s no wonder that Netanyahu regards any article that doesn’t totally rule out a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran as precious and even makes a point of expressing his satisfaction to the writer.

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