Those pushing the debate on the question in the past year have primarily been Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu and minister of defence, Ehud Barak. They have been imposing the issue on the public arena both in Israel and abroad. Demanding that Iran be stripped of all its nuclear installations, deemed to be geared towards the construction of a nuclear arsenal, the Israeli government has been pushing the international community to take action, threatening to carry out a pre-emptive strike if other options yield no fruit.
The leading duo has been promoting intensively the idea of an attack against Iran, despite the Israeli majority’s reluctance to go the military way without American support and an unprecedented opposition from the Israeli defence elite. Yet, both Netanyahu and Barak insist that notwithstanding the risk of starting a war with Iran and the potentially high number of casualties, such a strike is nothing less than a question of survival for Israel. Speaking in terms of annihilation and survival, they portray the destruction of Iran’s military installations as Israel’s only prospect of existence.
The Israeli opposition parties remains largely silent on the matter. The only rare condemnations came from former prime minister, Ehud Olmert and from head of opposition, Shaul Mofaz, who slammed the government for recruiting Avi Dichter from the very ranks of his own party – Kadima – to serve as a new minister in Netanyahu’s government – an addition supposedly meant to strengthen the pro-strike camp.
The Israeli media is largely divided on the issue in accordance with its political affiliation, with Israel Hayom, the paper most closely related to Netanyahu and his ideological base, largely adopting the prime minister’s line and advocating an annihilation of Iran’s nuclear programme at any price. Haaretz, the newspaper positioned on the left, tends mostly to refute Netanyahu and Barak’s arguments concerning the absolute necessity of an Israeli strike. In between those two poles, Yedioth Ahronoth and Maariv, located at the centre and centre-right of the political spectrum, fill the remaining shades of the discussion. This partition of the press is made clear by the very headers they chose to summarise the question. While Haaretz names it “Attack on Iran”, Maariv prefers to call it “The Iranian Threat”.
But beyond these ideological divisions, it is interesting to look at the characteristics of the debate itself. For Merav Michaeli, journalist and media specialist, the current discussion is dominated first and foremost by the principle of fear.
“Both those who support the attack, with Netanyahu at their head, and those who oppose the attack, speak in a language of fear. They speak of threat, damage, holocaust, annihilation. The Israeli prime minister says that a nuclear Iran could bring about a second holocaust, and Maariv doesn’t shy away from publishing on its front page headline a survey claiming 37% of Israelis believe that if Iran has nuclear power a second holocaust is possible.“
But as Michaeli point out, it is not only Netanyahu and his supporters who foment fear: “Those who oppose an Israeli attack also say: you will bring destruction upon us. As for the media, they don’t address this problem or try to salvage the debate out of the fear principle, but rather, they push this even further. This has become our journalistic standard, made of emotions and manipulations, and devoid of an intelligent, informed debate.”
Reuven Pedatzur, journalist and defence analyst, shares a similar discomfort with the catastrophic undertones given to the debate.
“If they say we cannot live with a nuclear Iran and eventually Iran acquires nuclear weapons, what then are the Israeli citizens supposed to do? According to their logic, they must flee the country, lest we are all annihilated. They create a problem for the future by building up an anxiety towards an eventuality that may well come true.”
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“Of course the threat exists. The question is, what does it mean. And here, I tend to disagree with the prime minister. I believe Iran would eventually have nuclear weapons, but through deterrence, we’ll be able to live with that. is the missing component in the public debate today – discussing the alternatives for the day Iran has nuclear weapons. This is something we have to talk about because this is a very probably outcome, yet nobody mentions this, not in the government nor in the public debate.”
The public debate surrounding “Iran and the Bomb”, like many other debates concerning defence matters, also tends to define those allowed and those not allowed to participate in the discussion, with different stakeholders questioning the legitimacy of others to take part.
“Those who keep reviving the debate are also those who lament its existence. But it is senseless to silence the debate because of the so-called possibility of revealing state secrets. Not one single secret element was unveiled in this discussion,” Pedatzur pointed out.
The issue of differentiating between those considered legitimate speakers on defence matters and those who are not has been plaguing the Israeli public debate for decades. Women, as Michaeli remarks, are the first ones to be excluded.
“The debate surrounding Iran is almost completely clean of female voices. You hardly hear any – not in the government, nor in the media, the defence forces, the academia, or the public realm. Women in Israel have always been completely excluded of defence matters. Even those who voice their opposition to an attack on Iran – they, too, are almost exclusively males.”
For Professor Haggai Ram of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben Gurion University, the problem of the current debate is that it grossly misses the reasons underlying the Israeli problem with Iran. According to him, the Israeli “phobia” concerning Iran stems not only from objective geo-political problems, but also from a number of internal problems. Israel’s fear of the Islamic republic is a projection of its own unresolved issues with the political influence of its Jewish religious segments and its citizens of Middle-Eastern descent.
In addition, since the second Intifada, Israel’s obsession with Iran is also “anchored in an extensive attempt to divert international and internal attention from the continuing occupation, the dispossession of the Palestinians and from the Apartheid regime it reinforces in the occupied territories. Israel paints the Palestinians, Arafat at the time, and more recently the Hamas in Gaza and the whole Palestinian authority, as an entity beset by Iran. Meaning, a heavy Iranian cloud is weighing on Israel, and all its dealings with the Palestinian are, in effect, a war against Iran, “ says Professor Ram and continues.
“You see this in the words of Avigdor Liberman, minister of foreign affairs, but also in the words of other politicians, closer to the political centre. Their argument is that it is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that stands in the way to peace – rather, the problem lies with Iran.”
But for Ram, this rhetoric is not only a political problem – rather, it encapsulates a real threat for the region.
“What worries me is the possibility that the rhetoric or the verbal war will get out of hand. All those leaders speaking against Iran can lose control of the dynamics they themselves have created, transforming them into a real war. In retrospect, many wars have started like that – leaders lost control on the rhetoric they themselves have created and the rivalry became an entity that evolved into an all out war. The verbal rivalry prospering in the media and in the diplomatic circles, and the covert war, made of computer viruses and assassinations, could easily degenerate into a war no one can no longer control”, concluded Prof. Ram.