Skimming the newspapers as I rushed to get my children ready for school, I suddenly understood that Israel might actually be preparing for a military attack against Iran. “[United States Secretary of Defence Leon] Panetta Demanded Commitment to Coordinate Action in Iran” read one headline, and “A Bomb at Arm’s Length” read another.
Feeding this hype were a series of military events that had been planned months in advance yet mysteriously coincided with the publication of the International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s efforts to produce a nuclear bomb. For four days straight all of the major television channels repeatedly showed images of Israel preparing for war.
It began with a report on Israel’s testing of a long-range ballistic missile, which emphasised the missile’s capacity to carry nuclear warheads. This was followed by interviews with pilots who were part of a comprehensive Israeli Air Force drill on long-range attacks carried out at an Italian NATO air base. Archival images of a missile being launched from an Israeli submarine were also shown. Ha’aretz readers were told that the submarine was important because it would enable Israel to carry out a second strike in case of a nuclear war.
These images of offensive arrangements were followed by images of Israel’s defence preparations. On November 3rd, the three major news channels dedicated several minutes of air time to covering a drill simulating an attack on central Israel; these clips showed people being carried on stretchers and soldiers treating casualties who had been hit by chemical weapons. A day later, Ha’aretz reported that the military preparations against Iran had indeed been upgraded.
Iran with nuclear capabilities has been continuously presented as an existential threat to Israel. On October 31, in the opening speech of the Knesset’s winter session Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that a “nuclearised Iran will constitute a serious threat to the Middle East and to the whole world and obviously also a direct and serious threat against us,” adding that Israel’s security conception cannot be based on defence alone but must also include “offensive capabilities which serve as the basis for deterrence.”
Analysts repeatedly mentioned that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier and Reuven Barko from Yisrael Hayom even compared Iran to Nazi Germany. One cannot underestimate the impact of this analogy on the collective psyche of Jewish Israelis.
Barko went on to connect Hamlet’s phrase “to be or not to be” to Israel’s current situation, while posing the existing dilemma confronting the State as “to hit or not to hit”. President Shimon Peres claimed that Iran is the only country in the world “that threatens the existence of another country”, but neglected to mention that for generations, the Palestinians have been deprived of their right to self-determination.
On the day when the International Atomic Energy Agency report was finally published practically all Israeli media outlets described it as a “smoking gun”. The report, according to the media, provides concrete evidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is also aimed at producing weapons. Zvi Yechezkeli from Channel Ten described it as “the end of the era of Iranian ambiguousness”, but failed, of course, to remark that Israel’s own ambiguity regarding its nuclear capacities continues unhindered; Roni Daniel from Channel Two declared that “we are relieved” by the report, suggesting that Israel’s claims have now been corroborated and that the report can serve to justify both the imposition of harsher sanctions against Iran and even an attack.
Notwithstanding the endless war mongering, most Israeli commentators claimed that the frenzy was no more than a “nuclear spin”. The majority of political analysts tended to agree that the media campaign, which presented Israel as seriously preparing to attack Iran, was orchestrated just in order to pressure the international community to impose harsher sanctions against Iran. Channel Ten’s Or Heller put it succinctly when he said: “It appears that neither Iran nor the Israeli public is the target of what is going on here, but first and foremost it is the international community, the Americans, the British.”
The commentators also noted that there is wall-to-wall opposition to an Israeli assault, including the US, Europe, Russia and China. Alex Fishman summed up the international sentiment when he wrote: “If someone in Israel thinks that there is a green or a yellow light coming from Washington for a military attack against Iran – this person has no inkling whatsoever of what is going on; the light remains the same, a glaring red.”
The portrayal of Israel as a neighbourhood bully who feigns a rage attack while calling out to his friends to hold him back is not particularly reassuring, however.
After 10 days of media frenzy, Defence Minister Ehud Barak tried to calm the public by saying that “not even 500 people would be killed” in the event of an attack – but he failed to say that there would be no attack.
Yossi Verter from Ha’aretz explained that the media hype serves Barak’s interests. “A successful attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities under his ministerial leadership can rehabilitate his personal status, and help him recover the public’s trust.” Verter cites a leading member of the political system, who claims that “Barak is convinced that only a person of his security stature can lead perhaps the most fateful battle in Israel’s history since the War of Independence.”
Regardless of whether Netanyahu and Barak are already set on launching an assault, the media hype and the portrayal of Iran as constituting an existential threat to Israel surely help to produce the necessary conditions for a military campaign.
What is remarkable about this saber rattling is its abstraction. Not a single analyst noted that entering war is easy but ending it is far more difficult, particularly if on the other side stands a regional power with vast resources and a well-trained military (unlike Hamas or Hezbollah). And, of course, no one really talked about the likelihood of a gory future or what kind of life we were planning for our children. This kind of abstraction makes war palatable, providing a great service to the war machine.