With international efforts to increase sanctions against Iran at a standstill, many Israelis believe their nation alone stands in the way of Tehran eventually building nuclear weapons
But officials and analysts in Jerusalem also acknowledge that a unilateral attack is fraught with danger and might fail to cripple Iran's bomb-making abilities. Much of the international community quietly wants Israel to launch a strike, the officials say, but only if it succeeds.
"They will be very happy if we do their dirty work for them," said Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University. "The world is moving into 'What can we do about it?' mode. There is a strong instinct here to do it on our own."
To many in Israel, the situation is reminiscent of 1981, when the Jewish state acted on its own in bombing the Osirak reactor in Iraq, and last year, when it launched a unilateral strike on a suspected nuclear site in Syria.
A wild card in the equation is Israel's political situation. With a national election to select a prime minister on the horizon, no leader in Jerusalem is a dove concerning Iran.
This month, the UN Security Council voted to extend sanctions, but failed to add more strictures. Immediately after, Israeli Cabinet Minister Benjamin Ben-Elizer charged that "the world has resigned itself to the fact that Iran is going to be a nuclear power. . . . This means only one thing: that we have to look out for ourselves."
Patrick Clawson, a longtime Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes an Israeli strike on Iran would be received with gratitude in some capitals - provided it worked. "Success would have a thousand fathers," he said. "A lot of Arab countries would be pleased."
Several Sunni Arab governments, especially the Persian Gulf states, openly worry that a nuclear Iran, a predominantly Shi'ite nation, would extend its growing regional influence.
In Israel, the issue of whether to strike first against Iranian nuclear facilities remains a steady topic of debate.
"I don't know which direction this is going to go in Israel," said Emily Landau, director of arms control and regional security programs at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.
While noting the "pressure is rising" domestically toward undertaking a unilateral attack, Landau said public sentiment is still in flux.
Tehran has consistently maintained that its nuclear program is for peaceful power generation. And David Kay, a former US and UN weapons inspector, recently said in a speech that he thought it would be two to five years before enough fissile material could be produced for a bomb.
A US National Intelligence Estimate last year said it would be possible but "highly unlikely" to reach that goal by the end of 2009.
But some in Israel see a narrow window in which to act. "Time is running very, very short right now," said Ephraim Asculai, a longtime veteran of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission and senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.
US officials fear that an attack would trigger bloody repercussions, most notably a wider regional conflict that would inevitably force the entry of American troops.
Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said publicly that he did not intend to get involved in another war when he has his hands full with two others in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Admiral William J. Fallon resigned in March as chief of the US Central Command, which oversees military operations throughout the Mideast and Central Asia, after news reports that he was at odds with the White House over Iran policy. Fallon reportedly had been pushing President Bush to avoid a military option in Iran.
General David Petraeus took over Friday as head of the Central Command and was traveling to the area yesterday for meetings with regional government leaders.
An August report by the Institute for Science and International Security, which studies nuclear proliferation, said the dispersed nature of Iran's nuclear facilities and the still-sketchy Western intelligence make it impossible for a single air strike to succeed.
Within Israel, there are rising voices against a unilateral attack.
Meir Javendanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst and director of Middle East Economic and Political Analysis, said Israel's military establishment knows an effective strike would be difficult.
It also could prompt a large Iranian retaliation against Israel and against US troops in Iraq, he said.
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