Iran's nuclear ambitions are an international dilemma, but nowhere is the threat more urgent than in neighboring Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that April negotiations in Istanbul gave a "freebie" to Iran of another five weeks-the timeframe until the next round of talks. This only increased speculation about when Israel will decide Iran's nuclear program is too close to the "point of no return" and launch an attack: This summer? Early fall? After the U.S. presidential election in November?
No one knows the plans being drafted behind closed doors, but this much remains certain: An attack on Iran-American or Israeli-would create a level of chaos and upheaval in the Middle East not seen in decades, and would lead to countless retaliatory attacks against Israel.
With rockets in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, and Gaza pointed at Israeli population centers plus increasing threats from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, one assumes the average Israeli citizen is frantically preparing for war, anxious about both the present and the future. But according to the people I spoke with in Israel, the picture is markedly different. This is "life as usual" for many Israelis. They are looking to their own political and military leaders, hoping they're prepared to defend the country and protect its citizens should the need arise.
Rebekah Harvey is an American citizen who has lived in Tel Aviv with her husband and four children for more than a year. She says it is primarily her or other Americans who bring up the topic of the Iranian threat: "My Israeli friends often comment how Israel has been at war or threat of war their entire lives." One Israeli neighbor told her that is was pointless to buy a house because it "could be destroyed at any time since none of our neighboring countries like us."
Guy Faigenboim, an accountant and lawyer from Tel Aviv, concurs with this assessment. "Every year it's quite regular that we are prepared for war," he told me, citing countless rocket attacks from Gaza into southern Israel. "Maybe on TV they say, 'do this and do that,' but people are not worried."
People are also not prepared, according to Meir Litvak, director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. "When people speak of problems, they might speak of a war in the summer. But you don't see any preparations, at least publicly," he said.
Ze'ev Bielski, the chairman of the Knesset subcommittee on Israel's home defense, agrees that the Israeli home front is not ready for a war. He told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) that although they've made improvements since the Lebanon War of 2006, "the situation is not good."
Iran has hundreds of Shahab-3 missiles, and analysts estimate that Iranian proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza have at least 60,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel. In 1996, Israel passed a law requiring new homes and apartments to include a reinforced room that could withstand missile and rocket attacks, but many contractors have found ways around the law.
The last missile assault on Tel Aviv was during the Iraq War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at Israel in retaliation for the U.S. invasion, and Bielski said close to 1.7 million Israelis-out of a population of about 7.5 million-do not currently have access to a bomb shelter or fortified room.
Given their history, Israelis are more prepared than most. Harvey's home has its own bomb shelter but Faigenboim's does not. He plans to take his wife and four kids to his neighbor's bomb shelter should missiles rain down on Tel Aviv, home for two-thirds of Israel's population.
Another option is the bomb shelter four stories underneath the plaza of the Habima national theater. The recently completed shelter has space and supplies for 2,000 people, but a report by the state controller concludes that many of the country's shelters are not war-ready.
Gas masks are also on the country's preparedness checklist. Israel has only enough gas masks-considered a necessity in the event of a chemical or biological attack-for 60 percent of its citizens.
A news report detailed the process for picking up your gas mask at one of Israel's distribution centers. A side note highlighted the unique world Israelis live in: If you have a gas mask that you received from the Home Front Command within the past two years, you do not need a new one.
Faigenboim explains that he is only a little worried because he trusts his leaders, his government, and his military to handle the situation with Tehran and its proxies.
A major television news station in Israel aired a lengthy report in April about the preparedness of the Israel Air Force (IAF) for a possible strike against Iran. The reporter, Alon Ben-David, spent weeks with pilots and military personnel, concluding that "the coming summer will not only be hot but tense."
The IAF has about 100 frontline planes waiting for orders to depart. The most powerful are the two-dozen F-15I warplanes, U.S.-made aircraft that can carry "bunker busting bombs" necessary for an airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
An attack of this proportion would likely result in counterattacks against Israel. Israel has three layers of defense in the event of counterstrikes: the Iron Dome, the Arrow, and David's Sling. The first of the three earned high praise after its life-saving performance in March when Palestinian militants fired nearly 300 rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. A U.S. State Department spokesman said the system intercepted more than 80 percent of the rockets it encountered, "saving many lives."
Israel says it needs at least 12 operating units of the Iron Dome system (it currently has three) in order to sufficiently intercept incoming short-range rockets. U.S. House Republicans drafted a plan that would allocate $680 million through 2015 for additional Iron Dome batteries and interceptors in Israel.
The second layer of defense, David's Sling, isn't scheduled for the frontlines until 2013. The system is designed to destroy incoming medium-range and long-range missiles (Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon and ballistic missiles from Iran).
The Arrow, a final layer of defense, is operational but has never been tested in real-life combat. It is designed specifically to intercept Iran's Shahab missiles, with one unit deployed in the north and one in the south. A third unit is expected to be operational in the coming months.
The defense systems are not impenetrable, though. "Some of those missiles will make it to Israeli population centers," Yifta Shapir, director of the military balance project at Tel Aviv University, told Jewish & Israel News. "Israel should be ready for a long period of attacks, perhaps even months, and this may bring commerce and other aspects of civilian life to a halt."
Israel's intelligence community is already activated. On April 21, Israel's Counterterrorism Bureau urged tourists to leave the Sinai Peninsula immediately, citing new information that terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip were planning imminent attacks against Israelis on Sinai's beaches.
Harvey describes the increased hum of army helicopters in recent months and the buzz of drones flying over her house during the barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza in March. She says her neighbors feel safer when they hear the sounds of their military in action. They trust their leaders, and ultimately they trust their allies and Iran's enemies to join forces against their common foes.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has signaled he won't be taking orders from President Barack Obama, but Litvak says Israel shouldn't do anything against America's expressed will: "It would be a disaster for Israel if the United States believes that American boys were killed because of an Israeli action carried out against American will. A long-term strategic alliance will be jeopardized if such things happen."
Both sides agree on one thing: Israel cannot go up against Iran alone. Israel has enough firepower to set back Iran's nuclear ambitions several years if a strike is successful, but the fallout from an attack would require American backup on several fronts. "For Israel, relations with the U.S are always of the utmost importance. It's a vital, strategic link for us," Litvak told me. "It's a matter of our survival-today, yesterday, and tomorrow."
Relations with Arab and Turkish neighbors are also important in a region where the Sunni-Shiite divide can work in Israel's favor. The timing and notable absence of Western powers from April's Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Jerusalem may have seemed unusual unless viewed in light of Israel's dire need for allies in the region.
"It's very difficult for any of the Gulf states to do anything with Israel because of the Palestinian problem," Litvak said. "So some measure of progress-and I don't think we can reach this wonderful 'peace' people talk about-will make it easier to do things tacitly, under the table."
Faigenboim also stresses the importance of shoring up alliances with countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the region's main Sunni-led powers, pointing out that nobody in the neighborhood wants a nuclear Iran, which is majority Shiite.
"The Sunni-Shiite divide has become the most important divide in the Middle East-much more than the Arab-Israeli divide-because of Iran," Litvak said.
Israelis may not be overly anxious or entirely prepared for attacks and counterattacks, but they do understand what's at stake. During Holocaust Remembrance ceremonies on April 18, six survivors lit torches in remembrance of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. "We used to be a question mark; today we are a strong country," Israeli President Shimon Peres said to the crowd. "Humanity has no choice but to learn from the lessons of the Holocaust and stand strong in the face of existential threats, before it is too late. Iran is at the center of this threat."