x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Growing division in Israel over Iran

Prime minister and foreign minister accused of fanning the flames of "hysteria" and "fear".

TEL AVIV // A former Israeli general yesterday accused Benjamin Netanyahu, the country's premier, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, of fanning "hysteria" and "fear" about Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Tehran does not pose an "existential" threat to Israel, said Uri Sagi, once the head of the army intelligence directorate, who played an important role in three wars between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

His comments were the latest sign of a growing division within Israel's security and political establishment on a possible strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Some analysts said last week that statements by Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak about an attack appeared increasingly serious and were not used merely as a tactic to pressure the US to impose tougher sanctions against Iran.

Speculation about a possible Israeli attack appeared to be spreading fears among Israelis of a possible counter-attack by Iran in the case of an Israeli strike. The army said the number of Israelis picking up gas masks at local collection spots had risen every month since May.

Furthermore, Israeli media this week reported on more Israelis renovating bomb shelters and stocking up on materials to seal rooms in their homes against possible biological or chemical attacks.

Mr Sagi's interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz emerged a day after the country's president, Shimon Peres, issued a veiled criticism of Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak by suggesting Israel should not strike without the support of its most powerful ally, the US.

Until now, and in the face of Washington's opposition to military action against Tehran, both Israeli leaders have indicated Israel may go it alone if opting to attack.

Polls also suggested that most Israelis were opposed to a solo attack. The latest survey, by the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute on Thursday, found that 61 per cent of Jewish Israelis opposesd a strike without Washington's green light, while 27 per cent supported it.

Small groups of Israelis were also launching public campaigns against military action. Hundreds of people, including several law professors, this week signed an online petition calling on air force pilots to disobey orders to bomb Iran.

Blue Collar, an activist group, this month started a Facebook page that aims to highlight the possible Israeli casualties that could result from an Iranian-led missile strike. Focusing on a defence ministry estimate from April that fewer than 300 people might be killed in such an attack, the group sends out daily posts such as "300 killed are 150 couples" and "300 killed are nine kindergartens".

Mr Sagi, in the interview with Haaretz, said that Israeli leaders' statements on Iran were spurring "an orchestrated and timed hysteria - artificial or not - that is instilling fear in the country".

He added that Iran's nuclear ambitions were not an "existential", but rather a "harsh" threat to Israel and that any strike "would not be possible without coordination with and consent from the Americans". Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed Iran's nuclear capabilities are an "existential threat" to his country.

Mr Sagi also appeared to suggest that Iran's nuclear capabilities were partly a result of the failure of Mr Netanyahu's government to clinch peace deals with the Palestinians and with Arab countries. "[Former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin worked to reach agreements with our neighbours before the Iranians obtain a bomb. If we had peace deals with all Arab countries and the Palestinians today, then what would Iran's conflict with us have been about?"

The media speculation is heightening tensions between Israel and Tehran. Yesterday, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, told worshippers at Tehran University that Israel's existence was "an insult to all humanity".

Mr Ahmadinejad, speaking after countrywide rallies that were part of an annual event marking Quds [Jerusalem] Day on the last Friday of Ramadan, said that confronting Israel was an effort to "protect the dignity of all human beings".