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(Bloomberg) -- Early this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a mock wartime meeting of his security cabinet in a bunker. Communities in northern Israel are preparing shelters for a long-term conflict. And the military is working overtime on a new laser system to intercept rockets.
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Their focus is Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
For years, Israel has considered a nuclear-armed Iran to be an existential threat, and directed its energies to confronting it and its regional proxies in Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian areas.
But much is new in the past few months. Iran has emerged from diplomatic isolation, forging a key military alliance with Russia from which it’s seeking air defenses, restoring diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia and pushing its allies to fire missiles at Israel. It is also enriching more and more uranium, including a small amount almost to weapons grade — while denying any plans for making a bomb.
All of these developments, along with a political crisis in Israel triggered by Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary, have pushed the government in Jerusalem into a position from which it’s issuing daily warnings and letting everyone know that it would not hesitate to act, even alone, if it felt enough of a threat from Iran.
Those who know the country say that while there is an element of public posturing, there is also serious intent.
“Iran is hardening its defenses, meaning Israel could lose the option to attack,” said Dennis Ross, a former White House Middle East envoy. “As someone who has worked on this issue and talked to the Israelis for a long time, the one thing I am personally convinced of is they will never allow themselves to lose the option. You don’t wait until it is one minute to midnight.”
Israeli officials cite the topic wherever they go. Nir Barkat, Israel’s economy minister, told Bloomberg TV in New York recently, “Iran threatens the world. They want to create a bomb in order to use it. We’re maybe first in line, but we’re not the only one.”
But Israel’s ability to deliver a decisive blow is questionable, especially if it acted alone and not alongside the US, which says it wants a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Washington and Tehran denied recent reports that they’ve been quietly exploring a new nuclear deal, though Iran said this week the two are close to an agreement on prisoner swaps.
Netanyahu rejects the US stance toward Iran, telling Sky News that “diplomacy can only work if it's coupled with a credible military threat.”
Among experienced Israel watchers, there is skepticism that Netanyahu would strike Iran. Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group, believes he’s diverting attention from his difficulties at home, especially the widespread outrage over plans to weaken the judiciary.
“When everything is a mess internally, the best thing is to reiterate that you have an enemy outside,” she says.
But even opponents of Netanyahu say that, on Iran, they back him. “On this, there is no coalition or opposition in Israel,” said Yair Lapid, opposition leader, when he was in New York recently. “Everybody's on the same note.”
In private, Israeli officials worry whether they can get the job done without their main ally. And they are concerned that deep divisions within Israeli society — exemplified by this year’s mass protests over the judicial plan — could hinder preparations and give their enemies the impression that they’re more vulnerable.
“The Saudi-Iranian deal is helping Iranians feel stronger,” said Jacob Nagel, a former Israeli national security adviser. “The Iranians are giving the money, training, instructions and weapons to push Israel into a multi-front confrontation.”
Israel warplanes took out an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and a Syrian one in 2007 — and there’s talk about doing the same with Iran. Israel came close to doing so twice before under Netanyahu. In 2010 his inner security cabinet, backed by the defense establishment, pulled him back, and in 2012 the US talked it down. Today’s security cabinet is more hawkish.
The intense preparation, then and now, serves as a messaging tool, to persuade the US and Iran that Israel means business and to slow or stop Iranian uranium enrichment and missile production.
A strike on Iran could roil oil markets and turn into a regional conflagration, affecting states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as shipping routes through the Gulf.
It could also trigger a massive backlash against Israel, including from Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas. That makes some investors nervous. The Israeli shekel weakened late last month, albeit briefly, after the country’s military chief warned about action against Iran.
Hezbollah, a Lebanese group thought to have more than 100,000 missiles, can retaliate to set off a brutal conflict, according to Bradley Bowman, a former US army officer who works for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which backs firmer measures against Iran.
“If only a portion of that arsenal were employed against Israel, there is a danger that its defenses could be overwhelmed,” said Bowman.
Iran’s strengthening military ties with Russia are also a source of alarm in Israel.
Iran has provided drones and, in return, sought Russian help in air defense and missile development. Israel sent high-level officials to Moscow in May asking Russia to refrain.
The growing potential for an Israeli strike has unsettled others in the region. Until last year, Saudi Arabia suffered a series of drone and missile attacks on oil and other facilities that were claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi militias in Yemen.
The Saudis saw a China-mediated deal with Iran as a way to “reduce tensions with their neighbors and focus on development,” said Riad Kahwagi founder of INEGMA, a Dubai-based security research group.
One positive effect of the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement, according to several Israeli officials, is that the US felt threatened by China’s role and stepped up its own efforts to reconcile with Riyadh. That could help Israel with its big goal: diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Both Israel and Washington consider a Saudi-Israeli deal to be a key prize, potentially bolstering Israeli security and discouraging Iran from any direct attacks.
Still, Saudi authorities have said publicly that an independent Palestinian state — which Netanyahu has said is very unlikely to happen anytime soon — is a precondition. In private, they’ve also told the US they want defense and security guarantees, access to top-notch weaponry and help developing their own uranium reserves.
For now, Israel is increasingly focused on a possible military confrontation.
Since ex-US President Donald Trump pulled out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018, Tehran has accelerated its processing of uranium. The UN’s atomic energy watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently detected a small amount enriched to 84% levels of purity, slightly below the 90% grade typically used for weapons.
In late May, the agency said Iran’s explanation of it being an accidental by-product was sufficient. Netanyahu accused the IAEA of “capitulation” and said Iran was lying. It was yet another example of Israel feeling isolated internationally on an issue that it says it knows best — and fears most.
--With assistance from Caroline Alexander.
(Updates with shekel moves last month.)
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