Israelis shrug at Netanyahu's urgent warnings on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has relentlessly warned that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat, but most Israelis are sanguine, believing it won't happen or that Israel can handle it.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) and military advisor Maj. Gen. Yochanan Locker, arrive for the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Sept. 23.

Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presses the United States for “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear development and Iran ramps up its rhetoric, Israelis don’t seem to be expecting a war with Iran anytime soon – and are not frantically preparing for one. 

Yes, Iran is a dangerous regime, most say. But even as some get new gas masks and repair their bomb shelters, more than half say they think Mr. Netanyahu's statements about launching an Israeli strike on Iran are a bluff intended to pressure the US to do the job instead

And even if Netanyahu were serious about going it alone, Israelis express a high degree of confidence in Israel’s ability to defend itself. 

“We have been following the Iran issue for quite a long time and … [Israelis] actually seem to be pretty relaxed about it; and I suppose that, following their answers, this is because they don’t really think it’s going to happen,” says public opinion expert Tamar Hermann, who co-edits a monthly poll known as the Peace Index. “They see it as a chess game by which Netanyahu is trying to achieve certain advantages in the international arena.”

There are other theories about why Israelis seem relatively calm about the Iran threat: They’ve long since accepted that they live in a dangerous neighborhood; they have confidence in the state’s ability to defend itself and protect its civilians; they don’t think Iran will strike anyway; and, for the more religious, they are looking to the same God that delivered their people from enemies who sought their destruction in the past, from Goliath to Haman.

“First of all, I trust God. Secondly, we have very clever people, very good intelligence,” and a strong military, says Moshe Guy, a Tel Aviv resident visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. “I’m not afraid – I’m much more afraid about the conflict between Jews in Israel – between religious and nonreligious.… I see that Judaism is moving toward [being] fanatic, and fanatic is very bad.”

Indeed, other concerns seem to be more top of mind for Israelis, including the high cost of living, rising social tensions, and even a possible earthquake. 

US support still trumps all

Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University found that only 18 percent of Israelis believed that Iran would attack Israel with nuclear weapons. Even if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack, almost 2 in 3 Israelis believe that Israel can handle such a strike, according to the survey, which will be published in December.

But Israelis were more confident in their country's ability to deal with all but one of the other threats posed by the survey  – including war with Arab countries, sustained terrorism, and a chemical or biological weapons attack, according to INSS data shared with the Monitor.

The only thing Israelis are more worried about in terms of national security is a drop in US support of Israel.

“All the studies we’ve done over the past 25 years show that the Israeli public … puts great, great, great emphasis between Israel and US and views strong bonds … as a major factor in Israel’s national security,” says Yehuda Ben Meir, codirector of INSS’s National Security and Public Opinion Project. “Since it’s been made very clear that the US is more than strongly opposed to a unilateral Israeli independent attack at this time … [Israelis] don’t want it.”

To be sure, a substantial cohort – as high as 40 percent, according to some polls – still supports an Israeli strike. But a strong majority – 61 percent, according to the Peace Index – only want a joint US-Israel strike.

That said, Israelis don’t necessarily trust the US. Some 70 percent said they did not have full confidence in US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s promise this summer that the US will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, according to the July edition of Professor Hermann’s Peace Index.

“We cannot trust America,” says Mr. Guy of Tel Aviv, criticizing Netanyahu for pressuring the US to support an Israeli strike or launch its own. “Why speak about it, [why] make so much noise? They will not do it. We must do it.” 

Is an earthquake more likely than a nuclear attack?

This weekend, the deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said that an Israeli strike would “provide a historic opportunity for the Islamic Revolution to wipe [Israel] off the face of the earth,” adding that an infantry battalion would be able to “break Israel’s back” within a day.

It’s sound bites like that which always spur a flurry of calls and website traffic for Dani Avram, the owner of an Israeli bomb shelter company called Ani Mugan (“I am protected”). 

“Every time there’s the right news … you see a big increase of people that want to fix their home shelters,” says Mr. Avram, who says that usually such calls drop off after a few days. “But now, it’s many more people and a longer period of time.” 

Traffic to his company website has increased at least sixfold, he estimates, and calls have risen from a few dozen a day to a few hundred. Even on weekends and recent holidays, traffic has been similar to that on a normal business day, he says. 

Part of it may be an improved awareness among citizens about how to brace for attack, thanks in part to a more organized campaign by the government. 

“It’s not the same as [before the 1991] Gulf War – now we feel more secure because now we feel better prepared,” says Dan, a Modiin resident visiting Jerusalem’s Old City who declined to give his last name.

Distributing gas masks

But his wife, Ilanit, says she is worried – though she admits she has yet to get a gas mask for their third child, an infant.

The Home Front Command, set up in the wake of the Gulf War, began a nationwide campaign in 2010 to distribute gas masks to protect citizens in the event of biological or chemical warfare. Since then, they have distributed more than 4 million of the so-called protection kits, but only about half of Israelis currently have one, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The country has also helped prepare citizens by organizing nationwide civil defense drills every spring or early summer since the 2006 Lebanon war, when Hezbollah sent a flood of rockets over Israel’s northern border. But this year’s drill, which is set to include NATO and the United Nations, will be held in October and doesn’t have anything to do with missiles or other possible retaliatory attacks from Iran.

Normally, the drills include the sounding of a siren, the distribution of messages via SMS, and requests for civilians to go to a designated secure place as they would in an emergency. Local governments are also involved in emergency response simulations. 

Instead, the focus this year will be preparing for an earthquake. The last destructive earthquake in Israel occurred in 1927, and with major quakes occurring every 80 to 90 years on average, some say the country is due for another.

“I know it’s much more sexy to talk about Iran, but an earthquake is much more likely statistically,” says Nissan Zehevi, spokesman for the Home Front Defense minister. But, he adds, “We’re ready for any scenario.”

In the meantime, says Hermann, Israelis don’t seem to be batting an eye – noting among other things the recent uptick in home sales lately.

“Normally people do not invest in real estate when they think that their new homes are going to be destroyed by missiles from Iran,” she says.

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