Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to open his weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning by extolling the virtue of strength, words that will no doubt fuel more of the rampant speculation over if Israel is or is not planning a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. He said:
"We have received a reminder about what kind of a neighborhood we live in. We heard the Iranian ruler's remarks about the elimination of Israel. We saw the Syrian army massacre its own people. We have seen bloody events in our region. Various leaders have no moral compunctions about killing their neighbors and their own people alike.
In such a region, the only thing that ensures our existence, security and prosperity is our strength. We are obligated to continue to develop the military, economic and social strength of the State of Israel. This is also the only guarantee for the existence of peace and the only defense for Israel should the peace unravel.”
The latest whirlwind of speculation began last week when Washington Post opinion columnist David Ignatius wrote that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta believes there is a “strong likelihood” Israel may attack Iran this spring, and characterized it as Panetta’s “biggest worry.”
(Related: Iran Begins New Military Exercises Near Strait of Hormuz)
Ignatius’ take was strengthened by Panetta’s refusal to confirm or deny the report to journalists traveling with him to a NATO meeting in Brussels. From AP:
Asked whether he disputes the report, Panetta said, "No, I'm just not commenting." He added, "What I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else."
He noted that Israel has stated publicly that it is considering military action against Iran. He said the U.S. has "indicated our concerns."
In an effort to curtail the chatter, Netanyahu warned Likud ministers Sunday that their public statements on possible military action could damage both Israel and the international sanctions efforts. Ynet reports:
Referring to several recent politicians' statements that caused a stir in the international media, most notably by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Netanyahu urged the ministers to stay clear of remarks on the Iranian issue.
"The chatter causes extensive damage, puts Israel on the front line and impedes the sanction efforts," he said during a Likud ministers' meeting.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned Thursday that Iran was nearing a stage "which may render any physical strike as impractical."
“A nuclear Iran will be more complicated to deal with, more dangerous and more costly in blood than if it were stopped today,” he said. “In other words, he who says in English ‘later’ may find that ‘later is too late.’”
Speaking at the Herzliya Conference, he also said the international community would have to consider options beyond sanctions:
“If sanctions don’t achieve the desired goal of stopping [Iran’s] military nuclear program, there will be a need to consider taking action,” he declared.
Ignatius also referred to this key time after Iran stores enough enriched uranium deep underground as a “zone of immunity” – as Ehud Barak has previously coined it - to develop its weapons.
The combination of Barak’s warning the clock is ticking for any military strike to be effective and the Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s suggestion Iran’s nuclear sites are still vulnerable to attack was potent. Ya’alon said last week:
"Any facility protected by humans can be infiltrated by humans. It's possible to strike all Iran's facilities, and I say that out of my experience as IDF chief of staff."
All this talk has led to rising anxiety among U.S. officials trying to discern Israel’s plans. Reuters reports:
The Obama administration is increasingly anxious about Israeli leaders' provocative public comments on Iran's nuclear program but does not have hard proof that it will strike Iran in the next few months, U.S. and European officials said.
That anxiety was echoed by another Washington Post columnist – Charles Krauthammer – who told “Inside Washington” broadcast this weekend he also believes an attack will occur. According to The Daily Caller, he said:
“I think it’s fairly certain the Israelis are going to attack or you would not have had this leak, deliberately coming this week from secretary of Defense through David Ignatius of The [Washington] Post saying that he thinks there is a high likelihood Israel is going to attack, and then he went ahead and specified when. He said three months, April, May or June. And you don’t say that unless there is obviously indications from the Israelis that they are going to do this even if they get and they are getting a signal from the United States not to do it.”
But former White House and CIA official Ken Pollack told Reuters that Israel’s increasingly dire warnings are misleading:
"If Israel has a good military option, they just take it, they don't talk about it, they don't give warnings," said Pollack, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "So the fact that they are talking about it, to me, is one tip-off that they don't have a good military option.
"We should never rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike and the odds have probably increased in recent months as a result of a number of different factors. But ... there are a lot of disincentives that have prevented Israel from launching a strike for 10 years," Pollack said.
Raising the stakes, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards said Sunday Iran will attack any country which allows its territory to be used by “enemies” to launch a military strike on Iran. According to Reuters, he spoke during the second day of ground exercises:
"Any spot used by the enemy for hostile operations against Iran, will be subjected to retaliatory aggression by our armed forces," Hossein Salami said, during military maneuvers.
All this reading of tea leaves boils down to one key question: Can Israel harm the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in such a way as to derail it significantly? Because Israel would not relish the risk of a major war for just a slight delay in Iran’s nuclear march, decision makers have to be certain any strike will mete out a devastating blow to Iran’s long-term prospects for developing nuclear weapons.