Despite the fact that most experts, including U.S. military leaders, are clear that Iran has not yet made the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, there has of late been a great deal of speculation as to when (not if) there will be a military attack on Iran. The hysteria was only enhanced by President Obama’s recent meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.
When considering this hype, however, one should examine the views of the Israeli public on military action. Shibley Telhami, a nonresident Senior Fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at the University of Maryland, has conducted a poll, in partnership with the Dahaf Institute in Israel on Israeli public opinion with regard to Iran.
According to the results of the poll, which was concluded on February 26, 2012, only 19% of Israelis surveyed believed that Israel should strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, even without the support of the U.S. This number increased to 42% when the question was whether Israel should strike Iran with the support of the United States. However, a significant percentage of respondents – 34% – responded that Israel should not strike Iran.
Only 22% of respondents agreed that a strike on Iran’s nuclear program would delay the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon by more than 5 years. Nearly the same number – 19% – believed that an Israeli strike would have no effect on Iran’s nuclear program. These results show us that while the Israeli government is trying to ramp up its rhetoric on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Israeli people appear to be less sure about whether the military option is the best course of action.
At a Brookings Institution event on February 29, 2012, Telhami presented the poll data and discussed the political situation in Israel. Commenting on the data was Natan Sachs, a Fellow at Brookings. Sachs noted that although Israeli elections aren’t due until 2013, Netanyahu would almost certainly want elections to be concluded before considering a military strike on Iran. In other words, he would want a clear demonstration of support from the Israeli public, rather than try to win an election while at the same time coordinating a military attack on Iran.
Therefore, it will be critical to watch when Netanyahu calls for elections in Israel, because this could be a sign that he is considering a military strike soon after these electoral questions are resolved, assuming of course he remains Prime Minister.
And if it seems like there’s discord in Israel over this issue, it’s even worse in the United States. A CNN/ORC Poll conducted between February 10-13, 2012 found that an overwhelming 60% of those polled agreed that the U.S. should engage in strong diplomatic and economic efforts in response to the current Iranian nuclear program. Only 17% of respondents would attack Iran right now. Interestingly, during the same time (February 12-15) in 2010, the number of Americans who would attack Iran was even higher than it is now. Additionally, a poll conducted by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) found that the American public is strongly opposed to a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities.
It is worth noting that since the rhetoric on Iran has ramped up, so has the amount of polling that has been done on this issue. These polls, however, have yielded contrasting results. For an explanation of why you may have seen poll results that contradict the polls I am presenting here, check out this article.
So it is clear that while the Iran war hype might make for good media, it’s not representative of current public opinion trends. And we do know that public opinion is a factor that leaders consider in their decision-making process. So hopefully, the voices of their constituents will give them a reason to think carefully before acting.