Oliver Weiken / Pool via Reuters
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backed up his rhetoric last week with an airstrike targeting a Syrian convoy.
It's hard to get a handle on it — few Israelis are willing to talk about it on the record — but there's been a palpable shift in thinking in Israel about launching an airstrike on Iran. Nowhere more than in the counter-terrorism community itself.
Even among the more reasoned — and moderate — voices there, the tone has moved from cautious optimism that an Israeli strike on Iran's uranium enrichment facilities could be avoided to gloomy inevitability.
"It's no longer a question of if but when," replied one Israeli analyst when asked if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would respond militarily if Iran crossed his "red lines" and acquired a nuclear bomb.
Several analysts ticked off different factors behind the change of heart:
- A growing realization that sanctions — no matter how robust — won't stop Tehran from crossing Netanyahu's "red lines" and posing an existential threat to the nation.
- Fueled by the Arab Spring, a sense of chaos swirling around Israel's borders has led Israelis to vote once again for the tough-minded Netanyahu — albeit in fewer numbers — and to sympathize with his hardline policy of protecting Israel at all costs, with walls, fences, and airstrikes, if necessary.
- There was a belief — call it a hope — that Netanyahu would not "go it alone" against Iran — that President Barack Obama would prevail upon him to avoid any unilateral action that might trigger an unforeseen Arab conflagration against Israel. But some Israeli analysts say that Netanyahu seems much less worried than Obama about a lethal Arab response to an airstrike on Iran.
Only a few months ago the Israeli consensus on Iran felt much different. At the height of last fall's Iran–Israel crisis, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak — once Netanyahu's boss in an elite commando unit — not only had the prime minister's ear, but seemed to counter his most hawkish impulses. Then, in late November, Barak quit the cabinet – and Israeli politics.
After elections last month, a new centrist party and leader were swept onto the political scene. Yair Lapid – a charismatic, former news anchorman – was expected to pressure Netanyahu into softer positions. So far, just the opposite has happened.
"It seems that Lapid is not as committed as Bibi (Netanyahu) to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear…(Lapid) is not being regarded as a military authority in Israel and he might not have the weight to balance Bibi," said Dr Boaz Ganor, director of the Herzliya Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Ganor went on to say that — ultimately — the order to strike Iran will be most influenced by the next Israeli defense minister. It now looks likely that will be the even more hawkish vice premier, Moshe Yaalon (unless Barak returns to the fold).
Israeli forces conducted an airstrike on a convoyÂ the Syrian-Lebanese border Wednesday. NBC's Richard Engel joins Brian Williams with his analysis.
With some reports suggesting that Iran is only months away from a nuclear bomb, the Obama administration is sticking to its support for tough sanctions, but also saying that Iran cannot be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has backed up his rhetoric: last week, the Israeli Air Force summarily destroyed a Syrian convoy of sophisticated rockets — inside Syria — allegedly heading to Lebanon and into the hands of Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel.
"In Israel, there is wall to wall consent that Israel should do whatever it takes so that Hezbollah does not get access to these dangerous materials," Ganor said.
Will Iran be next?
Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who has just returned from an assignment in Israel.