A former intelligence chief has been appointed as Israel’s new minister for homeland security, as speculation about a military strike targeting Iran’s nuclear programme intensifies.
Avi Dichter, 59, who headed Israel’s internal security agency, Shin Bet, from 2000-05, will be confirmed in the new post at a special parliamentary session this week. Dichter has previously indicated a cautious approach to military action against Iran. In February, he said Israel should not act unilaterally: “Israel is not a superpower. We cannot lead the world offensive against Iran â€¦ We need to prepare, just in case nobody plans to do anything, but to lead it will be a total mistake.”
Two months ago, he said he was glad the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan had spoken out against a military strike.
Febrile speculation over whether the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and defence minister, Ehud Barak, are close to ordering military action in the coming weeks has dominated the Israeli media in recent days. In an article on Friday in Israel’s biggest-selling daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, commentators Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer wrote: “Insofar as it depends on Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, an Israeli military strike on the nuclear facilities in Iran will take place in the autumn before the US elections in November.”
Barnea later wrote that he and Shiffer had since been “bombarded with phone calls from people who asked if it was time to hide in the bomb shelters”.
In a long interview in Haaretz, also on Friday, an anonymous figure dubbed the “decision maker” â€“ widely believed to be Barak â€“ said Israel could not “place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend”, meaning the United States.
Despite the speculation, there are questions about Netanyahu’s willingness to risk a war in the face of opposition by most of Israel’s current and former military and intelligence establishments. Some believe Netanyahu and Barak are playing a dangerous game of bluff to force the US to act; others say the risk-averse prime minister will balk at the last minute.
Netanyahu told cabinet colleagues on Sunday that Israel had been “investing billions in home-front defence” in anticipation of a possible war, including anti-missile systems, warning systems, exercises in preparedness, structural reinforcement of buildings, and provision of shelters.
He and other ministers were holding fortnightly meetings “to monitor the necessary steps to upgrade home front defence”.
According to the Israeli Defence Forces, more than 60,000 missiles are currently aimed at Israel and could be deployed in the event of an attack on Iran. Brigadier General Itay Baron told a parliamentary committee in May that Hezbollah in Lebanon had 60,000 rockets and missiles, and a further 3,500 could be deployed by Syria, and Hamas from Gaza. Iran had an arsenal of 450 missiles capable of reaching Israel, he added. Other security officials have put the estimated figure as high as 200,000.
However, Barak has previously suggested the number of Israeli casualties is unlikely to exceed 500. “There is no way to prevent some damage,” he said last November. “It will not be pleasant. There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed â€“ and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.”
On Sunday, Israel began a week-long trial of an SMS missile warning system for civilians. But 40% of the population has yet to be issued with gas masks, and about a quarter of civilians do not have easy access to a bomb shelter. A plan to evacuate thousands of civilians from northern cities, within reach of missiles fired from Lebanon, is reportedly being considered.
Dichter’s appointment comes after several candidates apparently turned down the job. Dichter was director of Shin Bet during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and served in the same army unit as Netanyahu and Barak. He replaces Matan Vilnai, who has been appointed ambassador to China.
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