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November 1, 2011 4:13 pm

Chicken Little, Israeli Edition

avatar by Arik Elman

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Jews protesting against the speech of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia. Photo: David Shankbone.

If there’s something which is guaranteed to drive an observer of Israel mad nowadays, it is an irreconcilable dissonance between the timid response of the Israeli government to a new wave of rocket attacks from Gaza and the mounting hysteria in the local media about the “imminent” Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.

While sirens wailed across the Southern Israel, the second-largest newspaper in the country Yediot Ahronoth had started the ball rolling last Friday with a long screed titled ‘Atomic pressure.’ The author, Nahum Barnea, had uncovered no new information, no concrete evidence of a decision that had been made, no plan and no timetable. The whole point of the article and the campaign that followed was, it seems, to try to raise public awareness of the Iranian nuclear threat and to point out that it is a subject of ongoing debate amongst Israeli leadership. the story was wrapped in tedious psychobabble about Benjamin Netanyahu’s obsession with Winston Churchill and his view of the Iranian “president” as a new Hitler.

Sensing the opportunity to enter the good graces of the “Yediot” media empire, leaders of the main opposition parties peppered their speeches at the opening of the Knesset’s winter session with dire warnings to Netanyahu and the Defense Minister Ehud Barak to avoid, in the words of Labor Party new Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich, “a megalomaniacal escapade in Iran.” Using less colorful language, Oppposition leader and Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni demanded from Netanyahu to surrender his authority and judgment to the generals and intelligence heads, who, rumor has it, are opposing the attack on Iran. The next day in the same newspaper veteran TV commentator Amnon Abramovich proposed his magical solution to the Iranian problem – put the State Comptroller on the case! Micha Lindenstrauss’ investigative prowess – which has tied the whole public service sector in knots without producing any tangible improvement in the quality of service or economy of funds – so impressed Abramovich that he promised that both Netanyahu and Barak “and Khamenei and Ahmadinejad” will be sorely displeased by such an investigation.

Remarkably, this manufactured hysteria has produced almost no public response, for a simple enough reason – Israelis are not stupid. They are experienced enough and realistic enough to understand both the dangers of the open confrontation with Iran and the possibility of ayatollahs acquiring nuclear weapons. They wholeheartedly support the position of their government, which is far from secret – Israel supports all efforts to pressure Iran to surrender its nuclear ambitions, demands to keep the military option on the table and prepares for the eventual failure of international efforts, because the Jewish democracy cannot coexist in the same region as a Muslim Shiite theocracy armed with weapons of mass destruction.

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Israelis have also learned to know their Prime Minister. Compared to his immediate predecessors – Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert – Netanyahu clearly has no stomach for sustained military action, however justified. His rhetoric aside, Netanyahu’s past history at the helm of the Jewish state is mostly one of decidedly non-Churchillian compromises and concessions. As for the Defense Minister, having jettisoned his party to remain in government, the only remaining value Ehud Barak has for Netanyahu is his reported ability to connect with the American administration and security officials. It’s much easier to assume that Barak serves as a conduit for American warnings and assurances then for Israeli belligerence.

Whatever the intent of the Israeli media fear-mongers, they’ve served a good purpose by providing Washington with renewed arguments for new sanctions against Tehran. Due to Obama’s chosen policies, the American toolbox with regard to Iran is almost empty, so the US must use the fear of “Israel going mad” to cajole reluctant allies. It is a useful bluff, but in the end it will be called.

It is now widely expected that the upcoming IAEA report on Iranian nuclear activities will remove most of legitimate doubts about the true goals of Tehran. The ultimate decision – and the ultimate responsibility – about the timing and the scope of the future confrontation between the increasingly unhinged Iranian regime and the West (and the saner part of the Muslim world) lie not with Jerusalem, but with Washington.

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