Laying the Foundation
With the end of the Israel-Hizballah conflict, most members of the western press hopped on a plane and quickly forgot about the region, and what may happen next. That's hardly a surprise, since the media's collective attention span equates that of a sugared-up six-year old, but in this case, the MSM has missed a subtle--yet important--shift in Israeli discussions of the Iranian threat, and how to deal with it. Simply stated, Israeli leaders have been quietly conditioning their populace for an eventual military strike against Iran. At this point, the conditioning efforts appear more aimed at preparing the public for eventual action, rather than an imminent attack. Still, this represents an important change in the Israeli tone, which (at one time) emphasized the importance diplomacy and an international response.
Interestingly, PM Olmert began to reshape the Iran debate several months ago, before the conflict with Hizballah. In late June, he held a rare meeting with three former prime ministers--Netanyahu, Barak and Peres--and the session was devoted to a "serious discussion" of the Iranian threat. Photo ops from the meeting conveyed a sense of unity and purpose on the Iran issue, transcending Israel's deep political divides.
When the Lebanon conflict raised questions about Israel's military performance, Mr. Olmert moved quickly to rehabilitate the image of its primary, long-range strike force, the IAF. In a late August speech in Haifa--a city hard-hit by Hizballah rockets during the war--Olmert was quick to recount the IAF's successes against the terrorists. He noted that the IAF destroyed most of Hizballah's long-range rockets in the first hour of the war, reducing the threat posed to cities and targets deep inside Israel. He likened the IAF's first strike to those of the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1982 Bekka Valley campaign, which devastated enemy air forces. Mr. Olmert also indicated that the IAF remains prepared to strike targets well beyond Israel's borders, an obvious reference to Iran. By comparison, Olmert has offered less praise for the Israeli Army and Navy, services that were also engaged in the Lebanon fight, but would not play a role in attacking Iran.
Olmert's government has also heaped praise on the IDF Chief, Lt Gen Dan Halutz, the former head of the IDF. Halutz has been criticized for his management of the Lebanon campaign, but recent articles in Israeli publications have contrasted "public" perceptions of Halutz against more laudatory assessments within defense circles. These articles appear designed (in part) to underscore Olmert's confidence in General Halutz, and his ability to take the fight to Iran, if necessary.
It will be interesting to see how far Mr. Olmert takes this effort--if he survives in office. The Israeli Prime Minister is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal, reminiscent of the Duke Cunningham scandal in the United States. According to Israeli press accounts, Mr. Olmert and his wife purchased a home at far below its market value, from a firm seeking political favors. Olmert has claimed he did nothing wrong, but he was questioned about the matter by investigators earlier this week.
Additionally, some of Olmert's remarks may serve other purposes. His approval ratings sank in the wake of the Lebanon conflict, and he may feel compelled to praise members of his security team, to avoid further damage to his own popularity. But his efforts to present a "unified front" on the Iran issue, strong public support for the IAF and comments by other politicians on the "inevitability" of a showdown with Iran, suggest something else is afoot, namely an important shift in the Israeli debate over Tehran's nuclear program, and the best way to handle it.