The government appears to be readying the country for war by issuing gas masks, building underground bomb shelters and testing an early-warning system for missiles. The outgoing Israeli home-front defense minister said he had worked to ensure that the nation was ready for a month-long war “on multiple fronts.”
On Friday, the atmosphere grew more heated with sharp comments from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called Israel’s existence an “insult to all humanity.”
Analysts in the United States and Israel are divided on whether the escalating war of words foreshadows an imminent attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Some say that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is bluffing in hopes of forcing President Obama to issue an ultimatum to Iran that America would do the job itself later. Although Obama has declared flatly that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, analysts suggest that Netanyahu is looking for a deadline on abandoning talks and resorting to military action.
Others argue that the Israeli leader appears to be laying the case for unilateral Israeli action over the objections of Washington and the majority of Israeli public opinion. This view holds that Netanyahu thinks he cannot rely on Obama for help now or later, and that he cannot afford to wait for a friendlier Mitt Romney administration to back him up or do the bombing itself.
A new war in the Middle East would be deeply unpopular among American voters. Even talk of an imminent conflict with Iran could spike gas prices and unsettle the financial markets, possibly worsening the already standstill economy weeks before the November election.
The White House has tried to say as little as possible about the prospect of an Israeli strike or what it might do if talks over Iran’s disputed nuclear program — now at an impasse — fall apart.
The Israelis are using the leverage of the U.S. presidential election to seek an explicit statement from Obama that the United States would launch its own attack as early as next year if the talks collapse, analysts and former officials in both the United States and Israel said.
“They are aiming for a specific thing,” said Georgetown University scholar Colin Kahl, formerly the Obama administration’s top Pentagon policy adviser on the Middle East. “They may be trying to push the Obama administration into a much greater declaration of red lines, an even more declarative statement about the use of force.”
Asher Susser of Tel Aviv University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies agreed, saying, “If the United States makes such a statement, that would allow the Israelis to relax somewhat.”