WASHINGTON, Jul 18 2012 (IPS) - The perception that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening to attack Iran's nuclear facilities unless sanctions and diplomacy succeed in shutting them down has been the driving force in the Iran crisis.
But although Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have made some tough statements, especially over the past several months, there is still one gaping hole in the record of their rhetoric on Iran: neither Netanyahu nor Barak has ever made an explicit public statement threatening to attack Iran.
And in recent months, both have refused to make anything like such a threat when invited to do so by interviewers.
The absence of any such explicit threat of force by Netanyahu and Barack does not in itself rule out the possibility that he is prepared to attack Iran under some circumstances. A review of the history of Israeli declaratory policy toward Iran, however, reveals that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert twice actually did issue explicit threats to attack Iran if it did not end its nuclear programme.
In February 2006, then Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz declared that, if diplomacy failed to "delay or curb" the Iranian nuclear programme, Israel couldn't "sit idly by" while Iran was on the threshold of achieving nuclear capabilities.
That language suggested a serious threat, because it is well known that the People's Republic of China warned the U.S. Army early in the Korean War that it could not "sit idly by" if the U.S. forces crossed the 38th parallel, before making good on its threat by sending massive ground forces to fight them in North Korea.
On Jun. 8, 2008, Mofaz, then deputy prime minister in the Olmert government, was even more explicit, declaring, "If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it."
In contrast to those straightforward conditional threats to use military force against Iran, Netanyahu and Barak have either refused to address the issue in speeches and interviews or have limited themselves to much broader statements about "all options" being "on the table" and Israel's "right to self-defence".
When asked by CNN's Fareed Zakaria on Nov. 20 whether Israel was going to attack Iran, Barak would not answer, saying it was not a "subject for public discussion". Instead Barak talked about the vague notion of an Iranian "zone of immunity", in which a sufficient proportion of Iran's nuclear capabilities would be in sites protected from a potential Israeli attack so that such an attack would be futile.
In Ottawa before his visit to Washington in March, Netanyahu said only, "(L)ike any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction."
In his speech to the influential lobby group American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Mar. 5, Netanyahu sought to refute the argument that "stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb" and likened it to arguments made by the United States against bombing Auschwitz in 1944.
But that appeared to be an argument against the Barack Obama administration's policy of refusing to attack Iran in the absence of evidence of moves to enrich uranium at weapons grade. Netanyahu refused to say under what circumstances his government would resort to force against Iran.
"I read about what Israel has supposedly decided to do or what Israel might do," he said. "Well, I'm not going to talk to about what Israel will do or will not do. I never talk about that."
In an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News Mar. 7, Netanyahu repeated that generic idea: "If it's necessary we'll act in our own defence." But when she asked if Israel could act alone, he said, "You know I never talk about that."
The closest Netanyahu has come to a direct threat of war was on Mar. 10, when he said he hoped "there won't be a war at all, and that the pressure on Iran will succeed," but added that the "eleventh hour" is approaching for Iran to "halt its nuclear programme or suffer the consequences".
Netanyahu and Barak apparently went much further in off-the-record meetings with a small number of Israeli reporters. The message, wrote Ari Shavit of Haaretz in a Mar. 26 report, was, "If the international community doesn't stop Iran by summer, Israel will soon strike."