TEL AVIV // Iran's nuclear ambitions have become an Israeli media obsession in recent weeks in what commentators say is an unprecedented speculation wave over the possibility that Israel may strike its enemy.
Much of the coverage appears to have been fanned by unusually explicit suggestions by Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister - the two most senior decision-makers in any Israeli strike on Iran - about carrying out a possible attack.
Even for analysts, who in the past have attributed such speculation to Mr Netanyahu's bids to divert attention from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or domestic protests against the high cost of living, the media attention on Iran now signals a possible new turn.
"This is the most intensive public discussion over Iran since the 1990s. For the first time, the declarations from the top seem so hysterical and extreme that it seems that this is no longer a hoax," said Haggai Ram, a professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. He charged in his 2009 book, Iranophobia, that Iran serves as a smokescreen for Israel to cover up issues such as the occupation.
Israeli security analysts say that statements by Israeli leaders, coupled with little tangible results from talks between Iran and world powers on a diplomatic solution to curbing Tehran's nuclear programme, are bringing a possible strike closer.
Some Israeli newspapers have reported that it could even take place before the US elections in November, a possibility that has been largely dismissed until now because of its potential damage to the re-election campaign of Barack Obama, the US president, who is reported to oppose an attack. Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, has indicated he may be more open to the idea.
Nevertheless, Mr Ram says Mr Netanyahu may try to take advantage of the short period before the election to launch a strike because Mr Obama - mindful of pro-Israel votes from US Jews - may be less likely to publicly condemn it. Should Mr Obama be re-elected, he may act more forcefully against it, Mr Ram said.
Signs have emerged in recent days that Israel may indeed be preparing for an attack.
Yesterday, Mr Netanyahu named Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency who is known for being close to the premier and to Mr Barak, as his new civil defence minister.
Mr Dichter has in the past said that Israel needed to prepare for hostilities with Iran in case the world failed to take action. On Sunday, a television report said the country may sustain as many as 50,000 missile strikes in case of a conflict with Iran.
Furthermore, this week the Israeli military is testing a text message warning system against missile strikes in about a dozen cities. The exercise comes after Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday that most threats to Israel's security are "dwarfed" by the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear arms.
Mr Barak, speaking in an interview with the Haaretz newspaper last Thursday, said that a recent US intelligence report made the Iranian issue more "urgent".
And yesterday, the mass-circulation Maariv newspaper reported that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak have set a deadline of September 25 for Mr Obama to make a clear statement that Washington is prepared to take military action itself, otherwise Israel will act. Coincidently or not, that is the day that the United Nations General Assembly opens in New York.
Some analysts say the media frenzy about Iran - similarly to some previous speculation on the issue - may have partly been fanned by defence ministry officials seeking to bolster the defence ministry's budget by showing Iran as a major security threat.
Indeed, today the government is due to debate whether to enlarge the defence ministry's annual budget for 2013 by billions of shekels.
Iran, which has insisted its nuclear programme is for peaceful means, yesterday dismissed reports of an imminent Israeli attack. Ramin Mehmanparast, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in Tehran that even some Israeli officials realised that such an attack - which he called "stupid" - would prompt "very severe consequences."
The escalating reports on a possible confrontation with Iran are also being prompted by a flood of opposition to an attack from prominent political, security, cultural and economic figures as well as from members of the public.
On Monday, a group of intellectuals threatened in a letter to Mr Netanyahu, that was publicised by Israeli media, to turn to the Supreme Court should the premier opt for a military operation against Iran without the consent of the entire government. Israeli media has reported that Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are the main - and perhaps only - backers within the government for a strike.
Furthermore, a poll publicised by an Israeli television channel on Sunday suggested that many Israelis were sceptical of a strike, with 46 per cent of those surveyed opposing an attack without Washington's blessing, while 32 per cent supporting it.