JERUSALEM War with Iran would probably turn into a month-long conflict on various fronts with missile strikes on Israeli cities and some 500 dead, Israel's civil defence minister said in an interview published on Wednesday.
"There is no room for hysteria. Israel's home front is prepared as never before," Matan Vilnai, a former general who is about to leave his cabinet post to become ambassador to China, told the Maariv daily.
The interview coincided with Israeli media reports over the past week suggesting that Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. presidential election in November.
U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said on Tuesday that Washington does not believe Israel has made a decision on whether to strike.
"I don't want to be dragged into the debate," Vilnai said, when asked if Israel should go to war against Iran. "But the United States is our greatest friend and we will always have to coordinate such moves with it."
Echoing an assessment already voiced by Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Vilnai was quoted as saying hundreds of missiles could hit Israeli cities daily and kill some 500 people in a war with Iran, which has promised strong retaliation if attacked.
"There might be fewer dead, or more, perhaps ... but this is the scenario for which we are preparing, in accordance with the best expert advice," Vilnai said.
"The assessments are for a war that will last 30 days on several fronts," he said, alluding to the possibility Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and Palestinian militants in Gaza would also launch rockets at Israel.
Israel has built a sophisticated missile shield likely to stop some of the salvoes and regularly holds civil defence drills to prepare for rocket strikes.
Vilnai made no mention in the interview of the impact a month of conflict would have on Israel's economy should Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre, be hit by long-range missiles.
Tel Aviv was not struck by missiles during Israel's three-week war in the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009 and in a 34-day conflict with Hezbollah in 2006. But it came under Scud rocket fire from Iraq during the 1991 Gulf war.
War jitters with Iran, which denies accusations that it is striving to develop nuclear weapons, caused steep declines in Israeli financial markets on Monday although some of those losses were recovered on Tuesday.
"Just as the citizens of Japan have to understand they are likely to be hit by an earthquake, Israelis must realise that anyone who lives here has to be prepared for missiles striking the home front," Vilnai said.
Vilnai is set to leave office by the end of August. Netanyahu announced on Tuesday that he will be replaced by Avraham Dichter, a previous head of the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency.
(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Crispian Balmer)