Will they or won’t they? Most political parlour games involve a question of this kind and the one about whether Israel will strike Iran – played out regularly in Washington, London and Paris – is no exception. The last couple of days have seen more sabre-rattling than before. Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon, who heads the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and is a former commander of the Israeli military, said all of Iran’s nuclear installations are vulnerable to military strikes while the US defence secretary was quoted as saying he thought Israel was likely to bomb Iran within months.
They may or may not, but it is unlikely they will communicate through the voice of Leon Panetta or even in the pages of US newspapers. On the whole, I tend to think the risk is receding a bit. There is now good reason to give the tougher EU sanctions a chance to work and the last couple of months have seen more analysis, including inside Israel, about the dangers of a military strategy. Before, any kind of fall-out or backlash was almost never mentioned in the Israeli debate.
In addition, many of Israel’s enemies, including Iran and Hezbollah, are looking weaker and weaker. It is hard to be a champion of the downtrodden, as Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah likes to portray himself, when you are backing the Syrian regime’s crackdown. A strike on Iran may help Israel’s enemies turn the tables.
Finally, with so much of the region in flux, a strike looks more dangerous for Israel in the short-term than it did one or two years ago. Then, Hosni Mubarak could be counted on to hold back any kind of joint Arab reaction. But post-Arab Spring governments may see things differently.
These are not cast-iron reasons. Israel may strike regardless. But a general rule of thumb, offered by my colleague Julien Barnes-Dacey, is to worry when Israel goes quiet, not when it starts shouting: silence is more likely to be a prelude to an attack.