Israelis fear missile attack on Iran will bring war to region

Four out of five expect Hamas and Hezbollah to retaliate

Jerusalem

Four out of five Israelis expect a strike by its military on Iran to lead to war with Hamas and Hezbollah, shows a poll yesterday after media speculation about a possible attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities.

Yet despite the widespread assumption that the country would find itself in a war on at least two fronts in Gaza and Lebanon, the Israeli people are almost evenly divided over whether such a strike should be launched.

The poll came after Wednesday's test of a ballistic missile and the military's disclosure that three F16 fighter-bomber squadrons had exercised over Sardinia in the past week. Then yesterday, the Tel Aviv area held a drill to practice dealing with rocket attacks. The military was quick to say the drill had been arranged long before the present welter of media debate about whether the country's political leadership was seeking to ramp up support for a strike designed to damage Iran's nuclear capacity. But the publicity given to the test launch and the recent joint air exercise with Italy has helped renew the debate in Israel over whether a strike on Iran by its military is desirable or likely.

Some analysts have suggested this could be partly designed to increase pressure on the international community to tighten sanctions after next week's International Atomic Energy Authority report on Iran's nuclear programme and its widely perceived efforts to acquire atomic weapons.

Discussion between Britain and Israel over Iran intensified with a visit to Tel Aviv by the Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir David Richards, and the arrival in London of the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak. Mr Barak saw Sir David – who was also holding talks with the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) chief of staff Benny Gantz – before flying to London for a trip which included meetings with Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, and William Hague, Foreign Secretary. Officials emphasised that Sir David's visit was one of a regular series by UK defence chiefs to see their Israeli counterparts and had been arranged many months ago.

British and American sources say any military move in the foreseeable future by the Israelis would have to be sooner rather than later, because of the difficulties of winter conditions. Those in favour of an attack are said to be arguing that in a year the Iranian sites will be too well-protected for missile strikes. But some senior IDF officers are said to be arguing there is insufficient evidence to justify this claim and saying any decision on this basis would in fact be political rather than military.

Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, the former head of the domestic security service Shin Bet, are known to be opposed to any imminent strike. And yesterday Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said they were in favour of diplomatic means to resolve the dispute with Iran, adding: "Let me stress that Nato has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Iran, and Nato is not engaged as an alliance in the Iran question."

Yesterday's Ha'aretz-Dialog poll found 59 per cent of respondents thought it "highly likely" that war would occur with Hamas and Hezbollah and 21 per cent that it would be "fairly likely". Forty-one per cent supported a military strike and 39 per cent were opposed with only 11 per cent having no opinion.

Perhaps more surprisingly, 21 per cent of Israeli Arabs support an attack with 54 per cent opposing one. Thirty-seven per cent of "Russian Israelis" and 50 per cent of ultra-orthodox Jews support an attack, according to the poll, compared with 45 per cent of observant Jews in general.

Two respected security commentators, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, wrote in Ha'aretz that the purpose of some of the military moves was "not necessarily an Israeli attack" but could be to spark international diplomatic manoeuvres to ratchet up sanctions on Iran. But they warned this was a "dangerous game" in which, in the event of several weeks of tension, "one party or another might make a fatal mistake that will drag the region into war".

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