JERUSALEM — There might not have been a mad rush in Israel to dust off gas masks following the announcement that world leaders had reached an interim deal over Iran's nuclear programs, but given Israelis' fears over the Islamic republic and their growing distrust of the Obama administration, many found it reassuring to have them close by, just in case.
While few here expect the Israeli military to stage a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities anytime soon, they know it is a possibility.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said as much during his Sunday Cabinet meeting. "The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat," he said. "Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability."
In a mid-November poll by Israel Hayom-New Wave Research, 52.4% of Israeli Jews favored a solo strike on Iran's nuclear sites, and 68.8% thought an independent military strike against Iran would succeed. Another poll, conducted by Israel Radio during the Geneva talks with Iran, found that only 31% of Israeli Jews trusted the U.S. to safeguard Israel's security.
Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, said Netanyahu is "backed by a wide coalition" of ministers, including several doves, who share his resolve to stop Iran from creating weapons of mass destruction.
"The reason is simple: We have an Iranian regime that has backed some of the most outrageous terrorist activities in the world, a regime that is anti-Semitic," Diskin said. "Its leaders have said, over and over, that it is determined to erase Israel from the map."
Ephraim Asculai, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at Tel Aviv University, said Israelis are "understandably afraid" of a potential nuclear breakout and that any final agreement with Iran must "provide for a situation where Iran cannot create nuclear explosives or weapons."
The international team of inspectors charged with monitoring Iran's nuclear program "cannot prevent anything," he said. The group's job is "to inspect. It has eyes, it has measurements, it can report to the world what it sees there" but nothing more, he added.
Asculai estimated it would take Iran "four to six months" to create a nuclear explosive device and carry out testing. It would take "some additional time beyond that" to create an operational weapon of mass destruction, he added.
Diskin said he doesn't know the extent of Israel's military capability to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, or whether it would be able to deal with a retaliatory strike by Iran if Israel attacks it unilaterally.
"But if Israel does have the capability — and some analysts say it does – and has information that Iran is about to achieve nuclear capability, it will do everything necessary to stop it," Diskin said.
Emily Landau, a senior research associate INSS, said she is "pretty convinced" Israel has the means to conduct "targeted" strikes against "limited" Iranian facilities "but whether it should use it is an entirely different question."
Landau said it would be impossible for Israel or anyone to completely destroy Iran's "vast" nuclear infrastructure because "it's dispersed, widespread, fortified, underground."
For this reason, she said, "we're not talking about going to war with Iran" in the conventional sense. Should military force be deemed necessary, "it should mean targeted attacks that send a message of determination and pressure."
Landau doubts Netanyahu will conduct even targeted strikes in the foreseeable future, not least because "it would be against the wishes of the U.S.," she said. "I find it hard to believe such a scenario."
If it turns out that Iran is duping the P5 +1, "it is really an international issue and international actors are in the lead, as well they should be," Landau added.
Policing Iran's compliance "isn't Israel's role or responsibility," Landau said.
Israelis are bewildered by the deal as well as the Obama administration's steadfast support for it.
"I'm frustrated," said Itzhik Fettermann, a salesman in a Jerusalem store that sells tiled flooring. "I see both the U.S. side and the Israeli side."
Fettermann, an Israel who lived in Los Angeles for 25 years before returning to Israel four years ago, said he understands why the U.S hopes the deal "will avert bloodshed" via diplomacy.
At the same time, Fetterman asserted Israel's right to defend itself. "The world sees us as a thorn but unless you're living here, it's not easy to know what Israel is facing."
Fetterman said he feels a growing uneasiness in the country.
"I feel war is coming, and not only between Israel and Iran," he said." Something is brewing."