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Opinion: Is Israel still bluffing about attacking Iran?

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, points to

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, points to a graphic showing when he believes Iran's development of nuclear capabilities must be stopped, during an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. (Sept. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

When Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used a red marker to draw a line at the United Nations in New York recently, the world thought it was seeing a warning of possible war against Iran -- if that country enriches uranium beyond that red level to weapons-grade.

Now that the prime minister has returned home, it turns out that his message was also part of Israel's domestic politics. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to reap the dividends of his carefully worded, expertly delivered speech by calling early parliamentary elections. Political sources expect that this coming February, he will consolidate his ruling coalition and win a fresh four-year mandate -- just in time for fateful decisions concerning Iran and relations with the United States.

In some ways, his UN speech and his controversial use of a cartoon bomb to represent Iran's nuclear program can be seen as a white flag of surrender. His new timetable suggests Iran will amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb by spring or summer of 2013, and that is a tacit confirmation that he has been bluffing.

The leader, nicknamed Bibi, and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, were thundering for years that they might have to attack Iran at any moment -- because soon it would be too late. Many world leaders believed them and prepared for the worst-case scenario. The French embassy in Tel Aviv, for example, prepared a contingency plan to evacuate tens of thousands of French-Israeli citizens this past summer in case of a war. We found ourselves among a very small group of analysts who tried to explain that the B&B duo -- Bibi and Barak -- were bluffing and had no intention of ordering the Israeli air force to bomb Iran; certainly not this year.

Netanyahu's new timetable is a tacit surrender to the Obama administration's view that no military strike is necessary right now. B&B thus revealed that they were merely rattling sabers, with no intention of using them against Iran.

They might feel compelled to engage in some more bluffing in 2013, but the expected election campaign in Israel has already injected a measure of discord between Netanyahu and Barak, who leads his own small political party. Barak clings to the slim chance of winning a substantial number of seats in the Knesset.

Yet the big winner in the voting is far more likely to be Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party. His warnings of war have frightened many Israelis, but one result is that more of them will vote for an apparently strong leader at a time of unprecedented insecurity.

As for delaying any likelihood of a military strike against Iran for another two or three seasons, some of Netanyahu's cabinet ministers are highlighting their optimistic view that "Tahrir Square-type" protests are starting to break out in Iranian cities. Perhaps there is some validity in their hope that Iran's government will feel extremely hard-pressed to have damaging sanctions lifted, so it will make a deal to freeze or reverse its nuclear work.


Israel's "red line," where the risk of triggering a regional war might be deemed necessary, was clarified by the prime minister's speech. Saying that he was relying on published reports by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, Netanyahu said that if the Iranians continue with their steady pace of uranium enrichment, then within six to eight months they will have 250 kilograms of 20 percent, or "medium-enriched," uranium. If this amount is further strengthened to 93 percent, it will yield enough highly enriched material for one nuclear bomb.

At least it is clear, now, that Israel is insisting that Iran be stopped before it produces 250 kilograms of the medium-enriched uranium. Netanyahu noted the American position that intelligence agencies would be able to detect a quick rush by Iran to high enrichment and assembling a bomb. Yet the Israeli leader suggested it would be too dangerous to rely on spies to give sufficient warning.

Friction with the Obama administration thus persists. The American president has devoted as much energy to restraining Israel as he has to stopping the Iranians. Relations with Washington may also suffer because of the widespread perception that Netanyahu would prefer that his old friend Mitt Romney win the White House.

Yet as long as Obama is determined that Iran not become a nuclear power, he and Netanyahu will probably find that they can get more done by working together. The United States and Israel have already cooperated -- more than ever, according to officials on both sides -- in covert projects aimed at slowing Iran's nuclear progress. Sources told us that the Stuxnet computer virus, which caused havoc in one Iranian enrichment facility, was a product of such secret cooperation.

The Israeli prime minister can point to even broader benefits from his saber rattling. The world is paying far more attention to Iran's nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran may again be attempted, and Netanyahu will be pleased if harsh sanctions hurting the Iranian economy are further tightened.

In 2013, we expect that Netanyahu will deploy his Cicero-like rhetorical talents to keep suggesting that war is inevitable -- a sequel to the B&B bluff. He appears to hope that the United States and other countries will be convinced that if Israel is about to attack Iran, they might as well join in to make a more effective job of it.


If Netanyahu does win the election he is now expected to call this winter, there are more impacts for the Middle East. Barack Obama, if he is re-elected, may be tempted to relaunch American efforts aimed at Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mitt Romney indicated, elsewhere in the surreptitiously recorded "47 percent" talk, that he feels little or no hope for progress on that front. Either way, a politically strengthened Netanyahu would be in no mood to bow to American pleas for concessions. He would continue to point to Iran as the top priority; and, along with the dangerous unknowns of pro-democracy upheavals in the Arab world, he would reject taking risks by rushing toward a rickety agreement with the Palestinians.

What's the true Netanyahu plan for dealing with Iran? Sabotage and covert action apparently continue. Sanctions may trigger unrest inside Iran. And, it is and has always been Israel's hope that the United States will be the one to lead a military strike, if necessary, to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program.

Yossi Melman, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and analyst specializing in intelligence, and Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent in Washington, are co-authors of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars." They blog at