In recent weeks, the Israeli media has been dominated by speculation about a unilateral strike on Iran. If reports are to be believed, this could take place before the US presidential election in November. The time pressure is partly due to it being politically difficult for Barack Obama to oppose a strike, faced with a hawkish and pro-Israel rival in Mitt Romney. "If I was an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks," Mossad chief Ehraim Halevy told the New York Times last week, in a quote that has been much repeated. Panicked reports have questioned Israel's readiness for such an attack, with one newspaper noting that only 40 per cent of the population have gas masks.
Faced with this anxiety, the Israeli government is presenting the appointment of a new homeland security minister, Avi Dichter, as an important investment in security. He headed up Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency, from 2000-2005, a period which covered the second intifada. Dichter is an old army friend of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, having served in the same elite unit. As the two men agitate for war in the face of opposition from much of Israel's current and former military and intelligence establishments, the appointment of an old comrade could appear to be an attempt to shore up support for a unilateral strike within the cabinet. So keen was Dichter to take up the post that he resigned from the centrist Kadima party in order to join the cabinet. The job had reportedly been refused by several other candidates after Matan Vilnai left to become ambassador to China.
However, Dichter's position on the current military question is not simple, and he has openly advocated caution in attacking Iran. In February, when he was running for a leadership post within Kadima, he wrote an article for the Israel National News website in which he said that Israel shouldn't attack without the US:
"Israel is not a superpower. We cannot lead the world offensive against Iran. We have to participate, we have to give all kinds of information and intelligence that we have. We need to prepare, just in case nobody plans to do anything, but to lead it will be a total mistake by the State of Israel."
He also said two months ago that he was glad the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan had spoken out against a military strike. Nor is he alone in expressing concern about a unilateral strike. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who led the Israeli army in the late 1990s, echoed Dichter's view that the US, not Israel, should lead an attack on Iran: "I assume that the decision makers have the same information as the heads of the security establishment. I ask myself, how is it that the security officials and the politicians can arrive at such different conclusions?"
Of course, none of these politicians or military figures are advocating for peace, simply for pressurising the US into acting instead of going out on a limb and acting unilaterally. It has even been speculated that Barak and Netanyahu's emphasis on taking action before the US presidential election is a dangerous game of brinkmanship to force Obama into taking action.
Given his previous statements, it is difficult to see Dichter revoking his words and suddenly supporting a unilateral strike, though personal u-turns in the name of political expedience are hardly unheard of. It was widely expected that Netanyahu would appoint someone who supported his military strike – with some even suggesting that Barak himself could take up the post – so it is unlikely that Dichter will be too vociferous in his opposition to an attack. But will he eat his words? We will have to wait and see.
*Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist and former New Statesman staffer. She is also a published fiction writer.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.