Leading article: Israel's leaders adrift in a fast-changing world

That an attack on Iran is once again in the air reflects the new sense of vulnerability

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There are few places where it is more difficult to disentangle cause and effect, action and reaction, than the Middle East, and the state of Israel in particular. Yesterday's test of a missile system from a military base in the centre of the country, announced by the Israeli Defence Ministry, is a case in point. Precisely what sort of capability was being tested? Was it a routine test, or something out of the ordinary? Was the test, and the announcement of it, intended primarily as a warning to one or more of Israel's restless neighbours? Or was it, as some of the more alarmist speculation interpreted it, a possible precursor to an attack on Iran?

One explanation, of course, does not necessarily rule out another. Ambiguity lies at the heart of much diplomacy, constructive or otherwise, and for Israel these are complicated and challenging times. At the beginning of this week, Unesco voted by a large majority to admit the Palestinian Authority as a full member. This was widely seen not only as paving the way for more international money to be channelled to the Palestinians, but as a precursor of the eventual Security Council vote on UN membership – and, with it, international recognition – for a Palestinian state.

As so often when faced with a diplomatic setback, Israel's instinct was to assert itself all the more. Thus it announced that it would speed up the building of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – compounding earlier illegal settlement-construction – and suspend the transfer of funds to the Palestinian Authority. Just in case anyone should miss the message, a government spokesman spelt out that the measures were designed to increase pressure on the Palestinians to re-engage with the peace process.

Yesterday's missile test may have something to do with the Unesco vote, or with Israel's general sense of insecurity, or indeed with the publication, due next week, of the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear ambitions. That report is expected to conclude, among other things, that development of an Iranian nuclear warhead is three or more years away. Both Israel and the United States have in the past been concerned to ensure that the nuclear threat they see emanating from Iran is not underplayed, while tiptoeing around the issue of Israel's presumed nuclear capability.

Recent US revelations of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington may or may not belong in this mix, as an attempt to influence domestic and foreign opinion in the run-up to publication of the IAEA report. This does not mean that such a plot did not exist or that it was not evidence of Iran's wider malign intent.

Insecurity fosters war talk, which itself ratchets up the sense of insecurity. The Israeli media are reporting that the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has convinced his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to support a pre-emptive attack on Iran, but has not – yet – clinched a majority in the cabinet. Is this more tuning up for the IAEA's findings on Iran, or a barely concealed warning of Israeli action to come?

Either way, the fact that an attack on Iran is once again in the air, even as the optimism of the Arab Spring prevails elsewhere, reflects Israel's heightened sense of vulnerability. And it is a sad comment on Israel's leaders that they have so far been unable to respond to the historic changes taking place around them more positively than they have. It is not the Palestinians' fault alone that the Middle East peace process is as moribund as it was a year ago. While in some respects destabilising, the advance of democracy in the Arab world also provides new opportunities for accommodation and dialogue. At such a time, talk of war – real or hypothetical – is more dangerous than ever.

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