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International Harald Tribune
March 14, 2012
Do Israelis believe Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran?
An Israeli attack on Iran is “not a matter of days or weeks,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on Israeli television last week. “But it’s also not a matter of years.” Months then?
Israeli leaders like to repeat that diplomacy and sanctions are their preferred way forward for now. But at a meeting with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington on March 5, Netanyahu also said that Israel was “determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, wrote recently that Israel will attack the day “Iran is on the verge of shielding its nuclear facilities from a successful attack.” It’s a kind of “if” that sounds a lot like a “when.”
Other Israelis — non-official, normal Israelis — seem more hesitant. They are still hoping for a less dangerous way out.
In a recent poll of 500 Israelis by Shibley Telhami, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, 34 percent of respondents opposed any strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities (pdf). Some 42 percent backed an attack “only if Israel gains at least American support” and only 19 percent were for striking alone.
In a study last week by Camil Fuchs, a professor of statistics at Tel Aviv University and the official pollster for Haaretz, 58 percent of respondents said Israel should not attack without the United States (26 percent said it should regardless of U.S. support). A Channel 2 poll put at 65 percent the figure of Israelis who oppose going it alone.
Two things jump out from these results. First, Israelis have mixed feelings about attacking Iran at all. Second, having — or not having — the United States’s backing matters to them a whole lot. With good reason: U.S. support for an attack on Iran means Israel wouldn’t feel completely isolated in war and would have a greater chance of success. It’s a little like bringing your uncle to school for your confrontation with the class bully.
Like Israel’s leaders, the public seems to believe that something has to be done about Iran. But unlike the politicians, who endorse a whatever-it-takes approach, Israelis are more cautious and still want to avoid a great sacrifice.
This all makes sense — except that one also has to account for a polling artifact: something funny happens when you give respondents three, not just two, options to choose from.
In the Telhami poll, for example, respondents favored the middle course (strike with U.S. support) over either of the other two options (strike alone, and do not strike at all). This is because an attack by Israel with American backing seemed most appealing: it looked like a compromise between two more extreme poles.
Based on long-time experience as a pollster, Fuchs told me that it’s common for respondents in any survey to go for “the easy response” like that. (The Fuchs poll also gave respondents three choices but those were different — attack alone, attack only with U.S. backing, and undecided — and so can’t really be compared here.)
This, of course, raises the question: what if the option to bring your uncle to face off the bully wasn’t on the table? What would the Israeli public say if the choice were between attacking Iran alone or not attacking at all?
Here’s a (confusing) clue: when Fuchs asked respondents if they trusted Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak “to properly handle” the Iran situation, 50 percent of them said yes (and 38 percent, no). That suggests at least half of Israelis trust the government over a critical security matter (tensions with Iran) even though they seem to oppose its main plan for dealing with it (the readiness to attack alone). Contradiction? It’s a tension at least.
And it’s a suggestion that the polls aren’t framed or phrased subtly enough to fully capture Israeli public opinion.
Reading between the lines, it seems Israelis must hold one of three views. Maybe they don’t really believe Netanyahu is serious about striking Iran. Maybe they trust him to eventually get the United States to back an Israeli strike.
Or maybe their stated preference for striking Iran with U.S. backing does not actually undermine their willingness, ultimately, to support a solo attack. Let this possibility be a red flag to the pundits (here, here and here) who rushed to claim that the recent polls proved Israelis don’t stand by Netanyahu on the Iran question.
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