Israel and Iran are fighting a war of nerves

By Haaretz

What's happening now between Jerusalem and Tehran is war of public threats, but the way declarations are translated into actions in international forums will dictate developments in the coming weeks.By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff Israel conducts a rare ballistic missile test; the Israel Air Force reports a successful exercise in Sardinia, far from home; Iran's chief of staff says the "likelihood is low" of an Israeli attack, but threatens that his country would respond forcefully.
British sources tell The Guardian of preparations for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites coordinated with the United States; Britain's chief of staff makes a secret visit to Israel. The defense minister goes to London for talks; MKs from the extreme right demand that the former head of the Mossad be put on trial (! ) for daring to object to an Israeli attack. The speed of events on the Israel-Iran front is beginning to recall the eve of a war.
What's happening now between Jerusalem and Tehran is a war of signals and public threats. But it's the way the declarations are translated into actions at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council, and in Western capitals, that will dictate developments in the coming weeks.
Almost anything goes in this war of nerves. Reasonable citizens, at this point quite worried, should take into consideration that a great deal is happening covertly. At least some of these moves are part of a carefully orchestrated campaign whose purpose is not necessarily an Israeli attack. It could be a means of sparking a broad diplomatic maneuver to ratchet up sanctions on Iran.
News outlets, especially on the Web, have a tendency to link every unimportant scrap of news to a general conspiracy. But the fact that a search-and-rescue exercise is taking place on Thursday in the Petah Tikva area doesn't mean we're on the verge of a regional war.
Even the controversy over the media's preoccupation with the possibility of an attack is misleading. Ostensibly, if the prime minister and defense minister were going to strike, they would be the first to be worried about supposedly secret operational details exposed in the press. But Ehud Barak was interviewed at length on Army Radio Monday and did not mention any damage. And two people who did attack the chatter are ministers considered opponents of an attack, Benny Begin and Dan Meridor.
The most interesting event on Wednesday was the ballistic missile test. Foreign sources say Israel has the ability to attach a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile. Only a few days ago a British report said Israel was working to increase the range of its Jericho 3 missile. Such a test now suggests that maybe the missile test was a signal to Iran.
The problem with that explanation is that a test launch requires months of preparation, with hundreds of people involved. It's not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Still, the defense minister approved the launch, with the prime minister's knowledge. Presumably the two were aware of the spin it would be given, yet they did not cancel it.
So what's really going on here? It seems that only Netanyahu and Barak know, and maybe even they haven't decided. While many people say Netanyahu and Barak are conducting sophisticated psychological warfare and don't intend to launch a military operation, top officials, including some in the forum of eight senior ministers, are still afraid.
Ostensibly, Israel is in a win-win situation. If its scare tactics work, the international community will impose paralyzing sanctions on Iran. If the world falls asleep at its post, there are alternatives.
But this is a dangerous game. A few more weeks of tension and one party or another might make a fatal mistake that will drag the region into war. Barak, the brilliant planner, should know this. More than once in the past his complex plans have gone seriously awry.
The Iranian sphere is not the only place where Israel is playing with fire. The timing of the decision of the eight senior ministers Tuesday to punish the Palestinian Authority by building 2,000 more housing units in the territories and to withhold PA tax money is particularly problematic.
That's because on Sunday many of the tens of thousands of PA security service members will go on Id al-Adha vacation. Withholding the funds, coupled with the U.S. Congress' decision to freeze $192 million in aid to the PA, means the PA security forces will receive no salary in the coming months. These are the very forces Israel's security establishment credits with maintaining relative quiet in the West Bank over the past few years.
It seems that for the forum of eight, the PA's very application for membership to UNESCO - no doubt a critical institution to Israel's security - is an offense that requires just retribution.
Steps that were meant to discourage the PA from approaching other UN agencies could end up compromising the security of Israelis, particularly those living over the Green Line. Some 150 Hamas terrorists are now in Palestinian jails. It seems illogical, in terms of maintaining the jailers' motivation, to withhold their salaries.
The deterrence in Israel's step is also dubious. Speaking Wednesday at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said the PA would never give in to pressure.
One Fatah leader told Haaretz Wednesday, "If there is no diplomatic process and we have no way to pay salaries to the Palestinian forces, we will have to put them on leave." According to the official, the Israeli move only hastens the political end of PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Abbas' hints about dismantling the PA are worn already from overuse, and yet, absurdly, Israel is bringing that eventuality closer by its actions. Without salaries, the PA will be paralyzed. How will that help Israel's security? Only Netanyahu knows.
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