Is Israel trying to lead the US to war with Iran?

That's what it's starting to look like. But looks can be deceiving.

Abir Sultan/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, Sunday.

After months of quiet, the drumbeat out of Israel for a war with Iran has started again. Iran is on the verge of a nuclear bomb, a point of "no return" as some Israeli politicians have it, and squadrons of anonymous sources, credulous reporters, and columnists have been mobilized to get out the word.

What happens next? Almost certainly a few months of quiet. And then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or a fellow hawk will strike up the band and we'll do this dance again.

Israel's security establishment is far from united on Iran, with many warning that a preemptive war could do more harm than good to Israel's interests. Israel and Western powers have been periodically warning that the Islamic Republic of Iran was on the verge of building a nuclear bomb since the early 1980s. As far back as 1992, Mr. Netanyahu, then a member of the Israeli parliament, said that Iran was five years away from a bomb and that its nuclear program must be "uprooted by an international front headed by the US."

That doesn't mean this latest round of the "sky is falling" Iran-Israel nuclear dance should be ignored. Rumors of war have a habit of becoming war when they carry on for long enough. Israeli anxiety about a nuclear Iran isn't feigned, and it would like to remain the region's sole nuclear armed state. And while it's hotly debated whether Iran is actually seeking the bomb, merely the technical skills to build a bomb, or only a peaceful nuclear power program, increasing technical confidence in Iran will always frighten Israelis. Some day it's possible that the band will play on.

The art of persuasion

But until then the talk of war is best seen as an attempt to sway American politicians and public opinion. Netanyahu and his allies, as a matter of national interest, want to persuade the US to go to war with Iran under certain conditions, well aware that striking a definitive blow against Iran's nuclear program is beyond their own capacity. Home Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Maariv newspaper, according to the BBC, that the country is prepared for a month-long war in the wake of a strike that he predicts would claim about 500 Israeli lives, and that "the United States is our greatest friend and we will always have to coordinate such moves with it."

That would appear to rule out unilateral action by Israel. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday that "I don't believe they've [Israel] made a decision as to whether or not they'll go in and attack Iran at this time... the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate. These sanctions, the additional sanctions, have been put in place, they're continuing to have an impact."

Netanyahu is popular in the US Congress, and his allies believe that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney would be more hawkish on Iran than President Obama, particularly a second-term Mr. Obama with little to fear in the way of the political repercussions of a softer stance towards Iran. In regards to the next four years, the window of maximum Israeli leverage on US policies toward Iran is the next three months.

'They assume the US will not attack'

That argument is supported by a piece written by Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran commentator on Israeli intelligence and military affairs, this week. Mr. Ben-Yishai quotes an anonymous "senior" Israeli official as laying out what the US needs to do to get Israel to tone down its rhetoric. "The Iranian regime is certain that in any case 2012 will pass peacefully," said the official. "They assume the US will not attack for fear of soaring oil prices and because of the presidential elections. They do not believe we will attack without a green light from Washington. Therefore, it is in the Americans' interest to convince the Iranians that the US may attack, not to convince us not to attack."

Ben-Yishai then asks "so what, according to the official, must the US do to prevent Israeli warplanes from taking off en route to Iran?" and answers that "Obama must repeat, publicly [at the UN General Assembly for instance], that the US will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and that Israel has a right to defend itself, independently... Israel is also demanding that Washington inform Iran that if significant progress in the negotiations with the P5+1 group [the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany] is not made within the next two weeks, the talks will be suspended."

The official also says Israel demands even tighter US and EU sanctions on Iran, a US military buildup in the Persian Gulf, and a promise from Obama to attack Iran before there is strong evidence it is on the verge of a nuclear bomb.

That's quite a list. And should be taken for what it is – a low cost effort to sway America's national security stance on Iran, rather than as a guarantee of a unilateral Israeli strike if Obama does not accede. For the moment, the Obama team seems convinced that national security decisions should be made in Washington.

Painted into a corner?

Gary Sick, a scholar of the Persian Gulf who served on the National Security Council for Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, thinks that an Israeli attack isn't imminent.

"It is worth remembering that Israel acquires significant leverage from this constant perception of imminent war," he writes. "My only concern is that Prime Minister Netanyahu, having made the case so often and so publicly for Israel’s right and even duty to attack, will have painted himself into a corner where there is no escape without actually risking national catastrophe. Yes, that is a possibility. But I have sufficient confidence in the operation of Israeli democracy and the instinct for self preservation of its leaders to regard that possibility as vanishingly small."

On the other side of the equation, leaks are being made about Israel's preparations for war in an attempt to head them off.

Richard Silverstein, a critic of the Netanyahu government who reports on Israeli national security, told the BBC today that a former Israeli senior minister from a previous government had given him a briefing paper that the minister told him Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are using to make the case for war inside the current cabinet. On his blog, Mr. Silverstein writes that the document is a "sales pitch" for war. In his translation, it says

A barrage of hundreds of cruise missiles will pound command and control systems, research and development facilities, and the residences of senior personnel in the nuclear and missile development apparatus.  Intelligence gathered over years will be utilized to completely decapitate Iran’s professional and command ranks in these fields.

After the first wave of attacks, which will be timed to the second, the “Blue and White” radar satellite, whose systems enable us to perform an evaluation of the level of damage done to the various targets, will pass over Iran.  Only after rapidly decrypting the satellite’s data, will the information be transferred directly to war planes making their way covertly toward Iran.  These IAF planes will be armed with electronic warfare gear previously unknown to the wider public, not even revealed to our U.S. ally.  This equipment will render Israeli aircraft invisible.  Those Israeli war planes which participate in the attack will damage a short-list of targets which require further assault.

Is the document real? It would be a shocking security breach if so, and Silverstein offers no evidence of its accuracy beyond his anonymous sources and his own judgement. But there is plenty of strategic messaging, smoke, and mirrors to go around on Israel's war plans for Iran.

If Israel were to unilaterally attack, the US would almost certainly be drawn into the war. Obama's advisers know it. Watch for pushback from them on the idea in the days ahead.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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