Tel Aviv — Before leaving with a carton of milk or a popsicle, customers at Eyal Monarov’s Tel Aviv convenience store usually pause to glance at the latest front-page headlines.
Lately newspapers have been chock-full of headlines about the threat of a nuclear Iran, and Monarov says his customers aren’t shy about sharing their opinions with him.
“People who look at the paper say that [Iran isn’t] stopping. They’re continuing on with their [nuclear] program,” he said. “Forget about right and left. There isn’t one person who doesn’t say that we need to attack.”
But just a few storefronts away, Meir Tsolshan, a 65-year-old dry cleaning proprietor, thinks differently. He believes the war of words between Israel and Iran about possible attacks is merely chatter, and that Iranian threats may be exaggerated — just like Iraqi threats on the eve of the 2003 invasion.
Instead of launching an attack, Israel should allow the full brunt of international sanctions to squeeze Iran’s governing regime.
“I’m afraid that they’ll go in and won’t find anything. We don’t know the truth without being there,” he said. “Why should we risk our pilots or the American pilots.”
The views of Tsolshan and Monarov reflect a split in Israel on whether or not Israel should embark on a lone strike against Iran similar to the one 1981 when Israeli airmen destroyed an Iraqi nuclear site.
Two public opinion surveys from late in 2011, one commissioned by the Haaretz newspaper and the other by the Brookings Institute, found Israelis in a statistical tie when asked about whether or not Israel should strike Iran’s nuclear program.
The arguments in the debate reflect many of the same ones cited by security chiefs: some believe that Israel shouldn’t risk a regional war over an attack that may or may not significantly delay the Iranian nuclear program. On the other hand, those who support an attack believe that Iran must be prevented from gaining a nuclear weapon by any means necessary.
“Even if 5,000 people die, that’s better than half of Israel dying by an atomic bomb,” said convenience store owner Monarov. “They say that a barking dog doesn’t bite, but this one does. Just as in 1973 they said that the Egyptians wouldn’t attack — and they did attack. We won by a miracle. Now we need to attack with all our might.”
Though divided over the wisdom of a lone attack, it seems that most Israelis share the belief that an attack is not looming, at least for the time being. That’s because none are taking any special precautions to prepare themselves for a possible regional war. So far there’s been no mass run on emergency supplies in retail stores.
Dry cleaner Tsolshan explained that he hadn’t discussed a war with his children even though there’s been plenty of chatter in the press about such a possibility. Occasionally the issue might come up in passing at the synagogue he attends, but Tsolshan explains that he believes that there are bigger, more pressing issues on the Israeli agenda than an attack on Iran.
“The state of the economy is a stronger issue now,” he said.
That sentiment was shared by Tamara Halperin, a 65-year-old tour guide. Instead of focusing on Iran, Israel and its friends abroad should be concerned about the spreading influence of religious Jewish nationalists in the army. “Are you writing an article about that?” she asks.
As for the question of Iran, Halperin says that few Israelis are discussing the looming conflict around the table on Friday night. Too macabre a subject for the dinner table? She claims it’s due to the fact that Israelis lack facts about the standoff, and can’t separate between “spin” and fact.
“The Israeli public doesn’t have the tools to comment. There isn’t enough data. … It’s so unknown. People say that it’s too big for us. Let’s hope that when the moment of truth arrives that America will be there for us.”
The tour guide said that she has little confidence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (“a panicker” and a “coward”) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (“unreliable”).
Both Netanyahu and Barak have asserted that Israel must retain the right to preemptively attack Iran’s nuclear program as a measure of self-defense that would ensure that Tehran couldn’t threaten the Jewish state with a nuclear attack.
But several months ago, the two Israeli leaders were the targets of indirect criticism by Meir Dagan, the Mossad’s former director. He warned that an attack on Iran would trigger a regional war with potentially catastrophic consequences for Israel.
The anti-attack message got an added voice this week as an Iranian dissident visited Israel to discuss Iran with policy experts, members of the parliamentary opposition and with the media.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar, who spent years in jail in Iran and says he was tortured, now leads a pro-Western international Iranian student organization from Washington, D.C. Though he is a relatively obscure opposition figure, he is getting a lot of attention in Israel during a weeklong visit in which he has been interviewed on a top news program, and met with members of the Israeli opposition. He’s met with parliamentarians and officials in the Foreign Ministry.
Fakhravar said he cautioned Israeli leaders against a lone attack on Iran because that would doom Iran’s domestic resistance while helping Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad garner sympathy.
“This will be the worst scenario. It will be a gift from God for Ahmadinejad,” he says. “After a limited military attack, they can act as a victim, go around the world, and get support and legitimacy from other little countries.”
The Iranian dissident’s other message was that Israelis should understand that the majority of young Iranians oppose the regime. He told Israel’s Channel 2 weekend magazine show — one of the country’s top-rated shows — that he believes sanctions can help weaken the regime to the point where it could buckle.
That remark heartened Tzvi Bin Noon, a high-tech engineer who expressed hope that sanctions would lead to domestic regime change in Iran — without Israel having to fire a shot.
“I believe that sanctions would be better than an attack,” he said, alluding to the fact that it will be impossible for Israel to destroy Iran’s nuclear program in one fell swoop because the program is dispersed around the country. “I’m afraid of the consequences. Israel is a small country and when the center is attacked there’s nowhere to run.”
But Moshiko Yashar, a municipal sports worker, said that Israel has no choice but to attack preemptively if it doesn’t want to risk almost certain attack by Iran. “The regime hates Israel,” he said.
He said he is dubious of the warnings that a regional war could break out as a result of an Israeli strike, noting that Iran and its allies in the region are too divided to be an effective threat to Israel. Moderate Arab states, on the other hand, will be relieved because they too feel threatened by Iran, he said.
“They will celebrate,” he said.