The Iranian argument threat

Normally we wait till it's too late, so let's get this clear in advance. The usual pattern - manifested during the Lebanon war of 2006 and again during Operation Cast Lead - is that we diaspora Jews are apparently caught by surprise by Israeli military action, then plunged immediately into debating it, defending it, debating whether we should be defending it or defending the fact that we're debating it.

Let's see if we can break the pattern this time. For one thing, it'll be hard to claim we were taken by surprise. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Ehud Barak have talked of little else but action to avert the threat of a nuclear Iran for several years. The Israeli press is currently full of apparently well-sourced reports confident that the country's ruling duo are resolved to act, the chief controversy being when, not if. The much-respected Yedioth Ahronot columnists Shimon Shiffer and Nahum Barnea say Bibi and Barak hope to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities this autumn, ahead of the US presidential election on November 6.

Of course, they might well just be messing with Tehran's mind. But I wouldn't want to bet it's a bluff. As former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy puts it: "If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks."

Given that military action is at least a strong possibility, those who care about Israel should start contemplating that prospect now. Mostly that will mean deciding whether we believe an Israeli airstrike on Iran is a good or bad idea. On that, there will be wildly differing views. But there's one aspect on which I reckon we should be able to agree right now. Whatever else those who oppose such action might be called - "naïve" is always a favourite - they will not be anti-Israel.

Do we think an Israeli airstrike is a good or bad idea?

For if Bibi sends in the Israeli jets, he will be doing so in the face of the most colossal internal Israeli opposition. I don't mean from the usual suspects, the peaceniks or the Ha'aretz editorial writers. I mean from the very heart of the Israeli political and military establishment.

Start at the top, with no less than the President. Shimon Peres interrupted last week's drumbeat for war by declaring that Israel should not attack Iran alone, that "we need to go together with America". That brought on his head the full wrath of Bibi, as the Prime Minister's aides slammed Peres for exceeding the ceremonial limits of his office. (Bit rich, that, in my view, given how happy Bibi has been to use Peres for political duties, for example on the Palestinian issue, when the two have been in agreement.)

But on this Peres spoke for more than himself. The list of senior security figures who have denounced military action is long and illustrious, including the current IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and the ex-Mossad boss Meir Dagan, who's warned that a war with Iran would be "devastating" for Israel and "the stupidest idea I've ever heard". According to Shiffer and Barnea, "there is not a single senior official in the [defence] establishment, neither among the IDF top brass nor in the security branches… who supports an Israeli strike." Opinion polls too show only a minority of Israelis backs unilateral action.

So, when the time comes, support a solo military strike if you want to. You can say you're pro-Bibi, pro-Barak and pro that Israeli minority. But those who oppose it will be equally able to say they're pro-IDF, pro-Mossad, pro-Peres and pro a larger chunk of the Israeli people. What those voices of opposition will most certainly not be is anti-Israel.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

Last updated: 12:03pm, August 24 2012