Israel’s stance toward archrival Iran, which it suspects of developing nuclear weapons, relies largely on deterrence: The Jewish state has a decades-old reputation for carrying out risky surprise attacks against targets deemed as existential threats.
But the ability of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to embark on a new preemptive strike may have been significantly curtailed after a pair of warnings from US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and an ex-Israeli spymaster about the potential negative fallout from such an attack.
Such predictions raise the political stakes for Israeli leaders contemplating such a move, making it less likely Mr. Netanyahu would lead Israel into battle against Iran without the support of Washington, say analysts.
"If something goes wrong, Netanyahu will be in deep trouble, because he will not be able to argue that he wasn’t warned," says Akiva Eldar, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Haaretz. "To take the risk of a confrontation with Iran without clear American support is a big risk; this is something that every Israeli understands."
Israel's track record of attacks
The precedents of such attacks are well known: This year and in 2009, Israel was believed to be behind attacks on weapons convoys in Sudan ferrying supplies to the Gaza Strip; in 2007 Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear facility in Syria believed to be part of a weapons program; and in 1981 Israeli pilots hit the Osirak nuclear facility, wiping out Iraq’s nuclear program.
The cumulative effect of such a track record "contributes to the stress level in Tehran" even if it hasn’t completely deterred the Iranian leadership from pursuing a nuclear weapons, says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
There was an uptick in anxiety in Israel in November around the time of a report by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency alleging that Tehran showed signs as recently as 2009 of continued work on a nuclear bomb.
The report’s publication came on the heels of several remarks by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak suggesting the possibility of a preemptive strike on Iran and an Israeli Air Force exercise in Italy simulating long-range attack missions, which no doubt enhanced the credibility of Israel's threats.
US caution makes Israeli threats less menacing
But it appears that Israel's efforts at deterrence have suffered a blow in recent weeks.
The US has engaged in public diplomacy urging Israel to keep that threat off the table while a new round of sanctions takes hold. Mr. Panetta argued last Friday in Washington that such an attack now would deal a blow to the global economy, endanger US troops in the Middle East, and risk shoring up the popularity of the Iranian regime domestically.
At the same time, Meir Dagan, who retired earlier this year as the chief of Israel’s Mossad espionage agency, repeated warnings in the Israeli media that a preemptive strike on Iran was liable to spark a regional war in which Israel would sustain heavy damage.
In a wide-ranging interview aired last week with Israel television Channel 2’s documentary show "Fact," Dagan stated that he disagrees with Mr. Barak’s assessment that Israel has only a few months left to prevent Iran from going nuclear. He also took issue with Mr. Barak’s assessment that Israel would suffer no more than 500 dead if it engaged in military conflict with Iran.
A double bluff by former spymaster?
But Netanyahu is seen as pushing back this week. In a remark understood by Israeli media as a sign the prime minister would not be cowed by pressure at home and abroad against attacking, he praised the legacy of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion for declaring Israel’s independence in 1948 despite international appeals to stand down in the face of certain war with Arab neighbors.
"He understood full well the decision carried a heavy price, but he believed not making that decision had a heavier price," he said at a Dec. 4 memorial for Ben Gurion. "I want to believe we will always act with responsibility, courage and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and security."
To be sure, some analysts believe that public pressure on Israel from its friends actually serves its goals. By stressing the danger of Israeli action, it generates more urgency for the international community to take action – the stated preference of Israeli leaders for years.
"There could be more to [Dagan's comments] than meets the eye," said David Horovitz, the former editor of the Jerusalem Post. "Is he speaking repeatedly because he mistrusts Israelis public leaders? Or it is it a double bluff that maybe the international community needs to step up" its response to Iran.
Former Mossad chief: Iranians are sophisticated, not irrational
Dagan challenged another theme often raised by Netanyahu: the widely held belief among Israelis that the Iranian regime is bent on destroying Israel, despite Israel's ability to launch a massive counterattack.
"Iran acts as a rational country. It takes into consideration the fallout for itself, and therefore it isn’t in a crazy dash to reach nuclear capability," he said. "I think the people there are sophisticated and smart, and we shouldn’t underestimate the Iranians."
The comments highlight an often overlooked school of thinking among Israeli national security experts that object to popular comparisons of the Islamic Republic to Nazi Germany.
"What you mostly hear is that the minute they get an atomic bomb they might use it even though they know the consequences," says Oren Perisco, a media critic for the Seventh Eye, a publication of the Israel Democracy Institute. Israelis are so spooked by this that nearly two-thirds said in a recent survey commissioned by the Brookings Institute they would prefer that both Israel and Iran give up nuclear weapons, Mr. Perisco says.
The Dagan remarks also raise questions about whether a preemptive strike is a "politically viable option," says Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert based in Israel.
While Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial has earned him an image of an irrational leader among Israelis, Mr. Javedanfar says Israel would be negligent to risk its relations with the US by attacking alone.
"It's extremely unlikely that Israel would attack without American permission. It could put the relationship in danger," he says. "I don’t think for a minute that they would be so irresponsible…. Israel has never had the option of acting independently against Iran… not since US troops set foot in Iraq."