JERUSALEM — On the morning of May 9, 2006, Amos Yadlin, Israel's head of military intelligence, walked away from his parliamentary committee meeting with a sense of triumph. He knew he had successfully shifted Israel's national agenda.
He bypassed the reporters and cameramen who'd gathered outside the committee room. Those who could ran after him but were given only a curt answer by one of his aides.
"Iran. The story is Iran," said the aide, before sidestepping the group into a waiting elevator.
That morning Yadlin had told the Knesset's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense that Iran could have a nuclear weapon by 2010 if no "sanctions or roadblocks" were put in its path. The committee, which has parliamentary oversight over the military and often hears briefings from top intelligence and political officials, is officially closed to the press. But it leaks like a sieve, and officials know that what they say before it will soon be trumpeted to the reporters assigned to squat outside the committee doors.
"Everyone comes here to say something behind closed doors that they know will be leaked," said Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes. "They guarantee interest."
Yadlin's statement that morning was calculated to garner the most attention possible, and it did. The next day, it was on the front pages of all of Israeli's daily newspapers. Within months, Israeli politicians would pick up the refrain and begin routinely referring to Iran as an "existential threat." It is an expression Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is particularly fond of.
Six years later, concern over that threat has reached a fever pitch, even as the date predicted for Iran's having built a nuclear weapon has slipped. Israeli officials who once talked about 2010 now talk about 2012. The existential threat line has moved from Israeli politicians to the United States, where it is repeated by nearly all the Republican presidential candidates as well as politicians of all stripe. British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also have expressed concern about the Iranian nuclear threat.
Earlier this week, President Barack Obama took a tough line, telling a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday that the U.S. would take military action to make sure Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.
"Iran's leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon," Obama said. "And as I've made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests."
Two days later, Obama took a more nuanced approach, telling a Washington news conference that a diplomatic solution was still within reach. "That's the view of our top intelligence officials, it's the view of top Israeli intelligence officials," he said. He blasted those "beating the drums of war."
"When I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I'm reminded of the costs involved in war, " he said. "This is not a game. And there's nothing casual about it."
That more restrained approach, which came one day after the president met with Netanyahu, underscores what interviews with Israeli experts make clear: There is no certainty about how real the threat is that Iran will have the bomb or how soon it might come to pass. Or whether there is any way to stop it.