Israelis Fear Iran, But Don't Want Solo Strike

Does the Public Think Talk of War Is All Bluster?

Fear or Loathing? It’s hard to tell if Israelis are resigned to the likelihood of war with Iran, or just convinced their leaders are bluffing.
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Fear or Loathing? It’s hard to tell if Israelis are resigned to the likelihood of war with Iran, or just convinced their leaders are bluffing.

By Dahlia Scheindlin

Published August 23, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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Listening to Israel’s political leaders, it sounds like the country might be at war by the time this piece goes to press.

The government is counting on profound levels of fear in Israel to buoy its policies. Indeed, in January a survey of mine showed that Jewish respondents chose nuclear Iran as the top threat to the future of the Jewish state. Fully 70% of the Jewish population does not trust American assurances and its diplomatic approach, according to the August Peace Index survey, by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University. In that poll, a 56% majority doesn’t even believe that the international efforts are serious.

It’s odd, therefore, that just a minority of Israeli Jews actually support a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran — barely more than one-quarter in the August Peace Index survey. Different polls from February through April this year showed the same range: Between 19% and 31% support a unilateral strike. In other words, even after months of feverish rhetoric from elected leaders about the urgency of Israeli action, attitudes have not moved at all. Instead of rallying, the public stopped trusting the vocal advocates of a strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Now just one-quarter accept their views, according to the Peace Index; the majority heed the high-level security officials who call for restraint.

Why do so many Israelis, so many of whom are right-wing, oppose the natural policy of the hawks? And if so many disagree, why have they remained silent? There’s no lack of protesting spirit around here lately. Yet the paltry nightly anti-war demonstrations at Barak’s residence, starting mid-August, have been so marginal (and so sweaty) that nobody even bothered to counterprotest.

Regarding the first question, it’s worth noting that large-scale security fears are old news. Already, in 1999, surveys for the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies showed a very high portion of Israelis who feared Iran and Iraq developing nonconventional weapons. Yet by 2009, studies by the same institute showed that nearly 80% did not believe that Iran would use a nuclear bomb against Israel and that 80% did not believe a nuclear Iran would affect their lives. Ironically, in the past nearly 60% have supported action from the Israel Defense Forces to stop Iran’s weapons program. Now it seems that Israelis just aren’t very afraid of fear itself.

In the cafes of Tel Aviv, there’s something in the air besides war: regular life. In a country that defies normalcy, strange routines provide a certain comfort. A rousing argument over Friday night dinner about existential security threats, this time from Iran, is one of them. When the nightly protesters march past a fancy new restaurant, diners gaze at them quizzically over candlelight.


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