Nir Elias/ Reuters
Israelis hold placards during a protest against war with Iran, outside the home of Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening. The placards read in Hebrew, "Bibi, Ehud - Leave the blasts and the effects to real super heros! Go home!" and "No to war in Iran."
TEL AVIV – If the number of column inches in Israel’s newspapers is any kind of accurate measure, the Middle East is in for a nerve-shredding few weeks.
Day after day, the topic of Iran’s nuclear program, and the chances of Israel making a pre-emptive strike to destroy Tehran’s nuclear capability, has been headline news.
For those who fear war and its consequences, none of it has made comforting reading.
To sum up: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are said to be close to ordering military strikes.
Ranged against them, according to reports, are much of the defense and intelligence establishment, including the head of the armed forces, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.
One leaked report on a recent top level meeting in Jerusalem had Netanyahu banging the table in frustration and snapping, "I'm responsible, and if there’s a commission of inquiry later, it's on me."
So one might say things are heating up, with a new round of fevered speculation sparked by the latest intelligence estimate of Iran’s capabilities.
"Israel and the United State agree that Tehran has taken an important step towards having a weapon," one defense analyst close to the decision-makers told NBC News, on the condition of anonymity. "For Israel, that is unacceptable. The U.S. agrees, but not about the time-table for action."
No change there, but the rhetoric is suddenly much sharper.
On Sunday, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon told national radio that it was time to declare the diplomatic efforts to rein in Tehran dead.
When asked how long Iran should have to declare an end to its nuclear program, Ayalon replied: "Weeks, and not more than that."
Is the window closing on diplomacy with Iran, before Israel launches a preventive strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities? Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren discusses.
The judgments on all side are finely balanced – but the stakes for getting it wrong are unquantifiable.
The hawks believe the window in which Israel’s forces are able to inflict real damage on Iran’s research facilities is closing fast. America, with its greater firepower, believes the timeline is longer – but the Israelis don't really trust the United States to act.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta devoted a lot of his time in Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago to reassuring Israel, allegedly with the help of detailed military plans, that the United States has Israel’s interests in mind.
Conversely it is not all clear that Israel has the interests of the White House in mind. A strike before the presidential election on Nov. 6 could have a significant impact on events both in the Middle East and in the United States.
An Israeli man tries on a gas-mask at a distribution centre on Sunday in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israel opened distribution stations to supply its resident with new gas masks, chemical and biological weapons protection kits. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that the threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons
A strike before the election could force the United States to come to Israel’s defense, or blow apart Obama’s campaign.
That would be, to say the least, a bold step even for Netanyahu.
"Iran wants to annihilate us. I won't let that happen," the prime minister has said.
Many observers still dismiss his talk as bluff. If so, then he should congratulate himself for forcing the Iranian nuclear issue high up a world agenda that would otherwise be dominated by Syria.
It might yet force its way into the race for the White House.
If it’s not a bluff, then decision time is coming sooner rather than later.
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