Binyamin Netanyahu, usually an exemplar of self-restraint, lost his temper last week. In a closed-door meeting discussing the military and intelligence chiefs who oppose an air strike against Iran, the Israeli prime minister snapped, “I'm responsible, and if there's a commission of inquiry later it's on me,” according to well-orchestrated leaks by his aides.
Netanyahu seems to feel a historic — almost messianic — calling to stop Iran's nuclear programme. Even if retaliation by Iran and its allies in Hamas and Hezbollah takes the form of a lethal rain of rockets on Israel, he is adamant that a nuclear-armed Iran would be far worse.
His latest set of outgoing signals seemed to suggest that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities may be likely before America's presidential election in November. It is unclear if that is a coincidence, because of assessments that Iranian progress in uranium enrichment and bomb design will have reached a highly dangerous point by then; or maybe it is based on Netanyahu's calculation that President Barack Obama will be more supportive of Israel prior to election day — and perhaps not at all after he wins or loses on Nov 6.
Some of Israel's security chiefs, who do not hide their opposition to bombing Iran, say privately that they cannot discern if their prime minister is bluffing. Netanyahu may be creating the impression that an attack is imminent so as to goad the US into a firm promise to obliterate Iran's nuclear plants.
He is certainly sincere in his concern about Iran's radical Islamists, who time and again call for the liquidation of the Jewish state.
In this sense Netanyahu walks in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, prime minister from 1977 to 1983, who had a doctrine named after him: the absolute Israeli determination that no other nation in the Middle East will have nuclear weapons.
The Begin doctrine was successfully implemented twice: by Begin himself in June 1981, when Israel's air force destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor; and in September 2007, when Ehud Olmert sent Israeli warplanes to flatten a Syrian nuclear reactor. Olmert's decision was even
bolder than Begin's: President George Bush had refused to order an American air raid, but Israel went ahead anyway. And, unlike Iraq, Syria is an immediate neighbour and had thousands of missiles that could hit every conceivable installation in Israel.
Netanyahu may well be encouraged by the world's reaction. In 1981, even the pro-Israel president Ronald Reagan denounced the bombing of the Baghdad reactor; but a decade later, during Desert Storm, the US was thanking Israel for having ensured Saddam had no nuclear arms.
In 2007 the initial reaction was less harsh, because the air raid on Syria was never acknowledged by the attackers in Jerusalem.
But Israeli leaders justifiably feel that the international community might now be grateful to them again. There is concern in the US and Israel that Syria's chemical weapons might fall into the hands of Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. Just imagine if the danger now involved what proliferation experts call “loose nukes”.
The unspoken motivation of both attacks was to preserve Israel's nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. While the Israeli arsenal is not confirmed officially, it is taken as a regional fact of life, even as Israel cannot countenance other nations in the region having the same weapons. For reasons both overt and covert, then, it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu may be feeling that a third time — in Iran — could be another attractive option. Hopefully it is not too late to prescribe an important dose of caution. Netanyahu and his few cabinet supporters ought to know that the situation is different from 1981 or 2007.
Iran is not Iraq or Syria. The Iranians have drawn lessons from those two events. They dispersed their nuclear facilities and buried them underground, making them more difficult to reach and destroy. Success is thus less assured. Instead of a quick, surgical strike, Israel will likely find itself in a long war of attrition against Iran and Shia Muslims everywhere. In defending its Islamic revolution, Iran was willing to lose millions of people in a long war against Iraq through the 80s.
Above all, perhaps, Israeli leaders must consider that striking Iran could drag the US into a war against its wishes. This would be bad for one of Israel's core survival strategies: the defence and intelligence alliance with America. It would be far wiser for Netanyahu and the defence minister, Ehud Barak — Israel's prime decision makers — to focus their efforts on helping the international community do everything possible to eliminate the Iranian threat.
They have to guard against talking themselves into a simple but bloody bilateral conflict that Israelis could well come to regret.
Netanyahu can be satisfied his sabre-rattling has persuaded the world that Iran cannot be allowed to procure nuclear weapons.
Yet the wiser course now would be to tighten the alliance with the US and stand together against a common enemy.
By arrangement with the Guardian