The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been telling Israelis that Israel can attack Iran with minimal civilian Israeli casualties as a result of retaliation, and that reassuring message appears to have headed off any widespread Israeli fear of war with Iran and other adversaries.
But the message that Iran is too weak to threaten an effective counterattack is contradicted by one of Israel's leading experts on Iranian missiles and the head of its missile defense program for nearly a decade, who says Iranian missiles are capable of doing significant damage to Israeli targets.
The Israeli population has shown little serious anxiety about the possibility of war with Iran, in large part because they have not been told that it involves a risk of Iranian missiles destroying Israeli neighborhoods and key economic and administrative targets.
"People are not losing sleep over this," Yossi Alpher, a consultant and writer on strategic issues and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, told IPS in an interview. "This is not a preoccupation of the public the way the suicide bombers were a decade ago."
Alpher says one reason for the widespread lack of urgency about a possible war with Iran is that the scenarios involving such a war are "so nebulous in the eyes of the public that it's difficult for them to focus on it."
Aluf Benn, the editor in chief of Haaretz, told IPS in an interview, "There is no war mentality," although he added, "that could change overnight." One reason for the relative public calm about the issue, he suggested, is the official view that Iran's ability to retaliate is "very limited."
Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in Bloomberg on March 20 that "Some Israel officials believe Iran's leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture rather than declare all-out war."
But Uzi Rubin, who was in charge of Israel's missile defense from 1991 to 1999 and presided over the development of the Arrow anti-missile system, has a much more somber view of Iran's capabilities.
The "bad news" for Israel, Rubin told IPS in an interview, is that the primary factor affecting Iran's capability to retaliate is the rapidly declining cost of increased precision in ballistic missiles. Within a very short time, Iran has already improved the accuracy of its missiles from a few kilometers from the target to just a few meters, according to Rubin.
That improvement would give Iran the ability to hit key Israeli economic infrastructure and administrative targets, he said. "I'm asking my military friends how they feel about waging war without electricity," said Rubin.
The consequences of Iranian missile strikes on administrative targets could be even more serious, Rubin believes. "If the civilian government collapses," he said, "the military will find it difficult to wage a war."
Rubin is even worried that, if the accuracy of Iranian missiles improves further, which he believes is "bound to happen," Iran will be able to carry out pinpoint attacks on Israel's air bases, which are concentrated in just a few places.
Some Israeli analysts have suggested that Israel could hit Iranian missiles in a preemptive strike, but Rubin said Israel can no longer count on being able to hit Iranian missiles before they are launched.
Iran's longer-range missiles have always been displayed on mobile transporter erector launchers (TELs), as Rubin pointed out in an article in Arms Control Today earlier this year. "The message was clear," Rubin wrote. "Iran's missile force is fully mobile, hence, not pre-emptable."
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