As US President Barack Obama arrives in Israel, he does so amid a growing sense of urgency among the Israeli leadership over Iran’s nuclear programme – and the possibility it will take military action to stop it.
The window in which to solve the crisis by peaceful means, estimated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN last September as this spring or summer, is closing, and the prospect of a military strike looms.
Then, the prime minister, in front of a global audience, famously produced a caricature of an Iranian “nuclear bomb” and, with a red marker pen, drew a line near the top – making crystal clear where along Iran’s path of uranium enrichment Israel would not allow it to reach.
Just days earlier, America had spurned Israeli attempts to set deadlines publicly, reiterating a preference for negotiations as “by far the best approach”.
In Mr Netanyahu’s view, discussions with Iran have served only to buy it time to finish its nuclear project, and are pointless unless coupled with a credible military threat.
The key question observers and analysts disagree over is whether this is merely a strategy by Mr Netanyahu to apply the greatest possible pressure on the US to take more robust action to get results, or whether he would actually order a strike.
“He’s not bluffing at all,” says Maj Gen (ret) Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council. “He believes if, at the end of the day all other options are exhausted – and there are only two options: either get used to nuclear weapons in Iran or try to stop it by Israeli means – then he will prefer the second.”
In fact, an Israeli investigative programme said in 2010 an order was issued by Mr Netanyahu to the Israeli military to prepare for a strike on Iran within hours if required, but that the order was cancelled due to strong opposition from Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs.
I think Israel will not attack Iran for many reasons, above all because the United States doesn’t want Israel to attack Iran – it’s as simple as that”
A flurry of reports in August 2012 also suggested Israel was preparing a strike before that November’s US presidential elections.
At that time though, previous heads of Israel’s intelligence establishment publicly declared their opposition, saying an attack on Iran would be unsuccessful and counter-productive.
Among them was former domestic intelligence agency director Yuval Diskin, who expressed the view that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would only lead it to accelerate its programme.
However, counter-opinion is grounded in precedent, with Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981.
“When we were planning Osirak, we believed the operation would put back [Iraq’s nuclear programme] by three or four years,” says Dr Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at the Institute of Policy and Strategy in Herzliya.
“Actually it put it back by 10 years – so you never really know when you shuffle cards what the results are going to be. So from the point of view of criticism that Israel won’t do it because Israel can only do so much damage, I think that’s a misconception.”
Such a result might only be achieved, though, if Mr Netanyahu acts sooner rather than later. Former Defence Minister Ehud Barak has said Iran could reach a “zone of immunity” – the point at which fortification of its nuclear sites would render a military strike ineffective – as soon as spring.
The single most important factor though in influencing any decision to attack Iran will be Israeli intelligence reports. While the intelligence establishment has not yet countenanced an attack, its position could change at any time – if, for instance, it believes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has decided to actually go for a nuclear bomb.
“The possibility of an Israeli strike is realistic and even probable under certain circumstances,” says Brig Gen (ret) Shlomo Brom, of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“For example, a situation in which Israel will have credible intelligence that Iran is on the verge of breaking out to military capability”, a process which could take as little as a few weeks. This is the “final stage” Mr Netanyahu said he would never let Iran begin.
In judging whether Mr Netanyahu would order an attack or not, one has to take into account the forces which shape his character, particularly the importance with which he views history and the idea of destiny.
“History will not forgive those who do not stop Iran’s nuclear programme,” he said in January.
Iraq and Syria attacks: The precedents?
In June 1981 the Israeli air force bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, destroying it in the process. The operation followed years of public protest by Israel towards France and Italy, both involved in the reactor’s construction.
It was eventually carried out, after 18 months of heated secret debate within the political and security echelons, despite the opposition of the heads of military intelligence and Mossad, and without any of the same kind of current public debate about what to do over Iran.
The attack which destroyed Syria’s nuclear reactor near Deir Ezzor in September 2007 has been widely attributed to Israel, though Israel has never confirmed or denied responsibility.
Like Osirak, the strike was not preceded by public debate in Israel, not least because no-one knew of the reactor’s existence.
The operation is still shrouded in secrecy, although reports afterwards said the then-Defence Minister Ehud Barak opposed the timing of the attack.
Israel did not inform the US in advance of its strike on Osirak, nor of its alleged bombing of the Syrian plant.
Time and again he has drawn parallels between the Iranian nuclear crisis and the world’s failure to prevent WWII and the Holocaust while it still had the chance.
“I don’t think Mr Netanyahu’s threats are rhetorical,” says Dr Bar. “You have to put it in an historic context of a leader of a certain age – [Netanyahu] has a tendency not only to look at politics but also at his role in history.
“There’s no doubt in his mind that Iran wants to acquire a nuclear weapon and will do so if allowed – if he’s PM and that happens, then he goes down in history as the person who allowed the existential threat to materialise, especially after having said he’s not going to allow it – so that’s tremendous pressure on any political leader to take action.”
However, Mr Netanyahu’s frequent warnings are taken by some as an indication he is not intending to act. Among the doubters is Yossi Melman, one of Israel’s leading security and intelligence journalists.
“Netanyahu’s threats are not realistic. He’s always talking about it – if you talk about it too much then I don’t believe you have intentions of doing it, because in the past when Israel and Israeli leaders wanted to do something they did it without talking,” says Mr Melman, author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.
“That was the case when we destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor, that was the case in 2007 with the Syrian nuclear reactor. Yes Netanyahu’s aware of history, but he is making this stupid, unnecessary comparison with the Holocaust – we are not facing a new Holocaust.
“I think Israel will not attack Iran for many reasons, above all because the United States doesn’t want Israel to attack Iran – it’s as simple as that.”
The position of the United States is critical to any Israeli decision to attack Iran, and is of prime importance in shaping Israeli public opinion on the issue.
Polls taken in the summer and autumn last year suggest a majority of Israelis are opposed to military action against Iran without US support.
We’ve had this war coming with Iran for more than 10 years now, but to me it’s a lot of bluff”
Dr Yehuda Ben Meir, of the Public Opinion and Security project at the National Institute for Security Studies, believes this is in large part to do with not wanting to jeopardise US support for Israel.
“It’s clear this is a very important factor in Israeli public opinion because of the tremendous importance that Israelis attach to the close relationship with United States,” he says.
“If the public does not see an attack as creating tension in Israeli-American relations, then support for it will be much higher.”
Shmuel Bar points out that Israel did not inform the US in advance of the attack on Osirak or its alleged attack on the Syrian reactor, and may take the same approach in attacking Iran, as a way of side-stepping a potential “red light” from the US altogether.
Even so, there are those who reject an attack on Iran under any circumstances.
Graphic designer Ronny Edry has harnessed some of that opposition through a movement spawned on Facebook called “Israel Loves Iran”.
It has just marked its first anniversary, notching up over 108,000 likes, a third of which come from Israelis.
“We’ve had this war coming with Iran for more than 10 years now, but to me it’s a lot of bluff,” he says, sitting in his third-floor apartment in Tel Aviv.
“I don’t think Israel will attack Iran and Iran won’t attack Israel because it would mean mutually assured destruction. But if you talk too much about war it’s really dangerous – at some point you’re going to have to prove yourself, you’re going to have to go there, so what we really need to do now is calm the situation down.”