Despite Iran jitters, Israeli anti-war camp muted

JERUSALEM Tue Mar 20, 2012 10:48am GMT

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - With all the talk of an attack on Iran, one might expect Israelis to be hiding in basements or marching against another war.

But though polls show about three-quarters of them would oppose Israel resorting to force against Tehran's disputed nuclear programme without U.S. support, that sense of unease has had little impact on normal life in the Jewish state [ID:nL5E8E11EK].

"In Israel, when we want to shoot, we shoot, we don't talk. I think (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is manoeuvring vis-a-vis foreign opinion," said Dedi Cohen, 36, a lawyer from Tel Aviv.

"There's been so much chatter about this that the 'Iranian threat' has become something of a joke in Israel. There's really not that much sense of urgency," he said.

It's not that Israelis, vexed over a pressing issue, have been reluctant to take to the streets in the past.

Six months ago, some 300,000 people flooded the main avenues of Israeli cities in an evening of demonstrations against high living costs - a social protest movement that began with complaints on Facebook about the price of cottage cheese.

So far, protests against armed conflict with Iran have been a fringe affair: an anti-war exhibit by Tel Aviv artists and newspaper ads placed by far-left activists. Pictures of smiling Israelis are circulating via Facebook, bearing the slogan: "Iranians, we will never bomb your country. We love you."

THREAT TO EXISTENCE

Israel regards Iran as the greatest threat to its existence and Tehran, which denies seeking atomic arms, has vowed to retaliate with ballistic missile salvoes for any attack on its nuclear facilities.

But experts say the difference between Israeli public opinion and government rhetoric is not as paradoxical as it looks.

On top of the fatalism of a people inured to war, there is scepticism about the resolve of a prime minister who, despite his veiled threats to take unilateral military action, is not famous for risk-taking.

"It's not clear that a decision has been made by the government, which has managed to convey a degree of uncertainty," said Tamar Hermann, a veteran pollster with the Israel Democracy Institute.

"Most people will say they don't have all of the information about the cost of taking action or of not taking action," she added. Their reticence reflects "a mature recognition of the complexity of the matter".

But Netanyahu raised his pitch in Washington this month, likening Iran to Nazi Germany and asserting that Israel had a right to defend itself.

Few Israelis doubt they face hostility from the Islamic Republic. But some take umbrage at the Holocaust talk, given the protection now afforded by their seasoned military, which is widely assumed to include the region's sole nuclear arsenal.

The liberal Haaretz daily said Netanyahu had painted himself into a corner by describing Iran as a genocidal threat.

"Israel must not attack Iran," novelist David Grossman wrote in Haaretz. It would be "a wild, hasty gamble, liable to change our future utterly, and I don't even dare to imagine how."

Grossman's anti-war critiques are lent weight by the fact he lost a son in Israel's 2006 offensive in Lebanon. But he allowed that Netanyahu's real goal may have been simply to focus world attention on international diplomatic pressure on Tehran.

LITTLE DISSENT

Israeli leaders traditionally confer with their political rivals ahead of major military initiatives, to ensure consensus. Netanyahu's broad-based, conservative coalition encounters little dissent from centrist opponents when it comes to Iran.

The current president, Shimon Peres, was wounded politically when as opposition leader in 1981 he criticised then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin decision to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor, an attack hailed at the time by most Israelis.

The biggest Israeli grassroots campaign against a government decision was in 2005, when right-wingers protested and staged mutinies in the army, ahead of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. The withdrawal was carried out as planned.

"I think the taste of the failure of that protest lives on today," Hermann said. People know that even 200,000 people in the streets will not prevent the state from doing what it has resolved to do."

The organiser of one anti-war artistic exhibit in Tel Aviv has accused Netanyahu of fuelling a showdown with Iran to distract from domestic ills. The cost-of-living protests last summer forced his government to alter economic policies.

Israel's top-rated television satire, "Wonderful Country", has frequently riffed on the "Iranian threat", laughing it off or showing conflict-coarsened Israelis figuring out how to cope.

Despite his chilling rhetoric, Netanyahu is lampooned, given the belief among many Israelis that he is gun-shy.

One spoof showed him flummoxed as U.S. President Barack Obama, in a dramatic reversal, gives his blessing for an Israeli attack on Iran. "Hold me back!" Netanyahu implores.

(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Jon Boyle)

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