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Israelis anxious over expected report on Iran nuclear program

TEL AVIV — After days of hyperbolic news coverage about what Israel might do to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, Ariel Shabazi decided to act.

"I decided I should figure out where there is a bomb shelter near to my house. It just seemed like this whole thing could get serious soon," the 26-year-old student said. He also went out and bought a first aid kit and a dozen liters of water.

Over the last week, Israelis have been stocking up on water, laying in canned goods and other supplies and in general preparing for a conflict that many worry may not be far off. Others have taken even more dramatic steps, renewing or securing non-Israeli passports that would allow them to flee the country for elsewhere in the event of a conflict.

Behind the anxiety is Israeli news coverage of a report that's expected this week from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, on the state of Iran's nuclear program.

What precisely the report will say is unknown. Its contents officially won't be made public, though its general contents are sure to be leaked by officials and others who will have read its conclusions.

Accounts in U.S. newspapers say the report will discuss apparent Iranian work to develop technology that would allow it to build a trigger mechanism needed to set off a nuclear explosion, though the accounts differ on how close the Iranians are to perfecting the technique.

For the past week, Israeli news stories have said the report will conclude that Iran is mere months from being able to build a nuclear weapon. That's set off speculation about what action Israel might take to prevent it.

Iran denies the reports, but a substantial part of the Israeli population is unnerved.

"There are only so many times that you can hear the Iranians call for Israel to be wiped off the map before you start to believe they will try to do it," Shabazi said. "I guess I just think it's better not to take any chances."

Meir Mizrachi agrees. He fears that any war will place his home in Israel's northern city of Haifa on the front line.

"If Israel goes to war with Iran, that means they go to war with Lebanon and Syria, too. That just means that all of Israel's north is at war and my home is a prime target," he said. "I hope none of it happens but I want to be prepared."

So Mizrachi, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, renewed his U.S. passport.

"I guess you just want an escape plan. When you read the stories in the paper, it sounds like the next war will be very scary," he said.

War talk has dominated Israel's news coverage for a week. While Israel's left-wing daily newspaper Haaretz has focused on discussion within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet, the right-wing paper Israel Hayom has published outlines of Israel's military capabilities if it launches a coordinated strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israelis have taken note of the war drums — and they recall that the same phenomenon occurred a few years ago, then stopped.

"It was like this a few years ago. Every day an article on Iran, a weapons test, speculation that it was all about to happen. Suddenly it disappeared and nobody understood why," said Shlomit Aloni, 34, of Tel Aviv.

The new siege of coverage began with an article by popular columnist Nahum Barnea summarizing Israel's need to "defend itself against Iran." Several other pro-Netanyahu columnists who raised attention to the issue followed Barnea, who's considered to have a direct line to Netanyahu.

The surge of Iran coverage comes as Netanyahu faces challenges to his government after a series of domestic protests this summer focused on the high cost of living in Israel. A nationwide strike planned by Israel's Labor Union this week refocused attention on economic issues, but the stories on Iran topped those headlines.

Internal polls already find Netanyahu doing well in the next elections, which must be held by February 2013, but his party is likely to benefit if Israelis are concerned about an upcoming war. A poll published in the newsletter Israel Hayom found that Israelis trusted an administration led by army veterans Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his defense minister, during a time of war.

Aloni said she thought it also was in Israel's interest to create a news media storm ahead of the IAEA report to try to influence world public opinion.

"Why not get the world on our side?" she asks.

A Foreign Ministry official who spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the subject with reporters said Israel was hoping that the news coverage would encourage world leaders to levy harsher sanctions on Iran.

"That isn't to say that we are relying on sanctions. Every option is on the table," he said. He added, however, that he didn't see a strike on Iran happening "within days."

"There are factors on the table that would make Israel wait, at least in the short term," he said.

One of those might be pressure from the United States. Last Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the administration of President Barack Obama still favored a diplomatic solution to concerns about Iran's nuclear program.

"We have said many times that we do not seek military confrontation with Iran, but we will use any means to put pressure on Iran to cooperate with IAEA," she said. "Right now the president and this administration, along with our international partners, are focused on tough diplomacy to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. We continue to believe that there is still time for diplomacy."

Israel might be deterred by the assessment of many experts that it wouldn't be able to hit all the sites necessary to cripple Iran's nuclear program. Israeli intelligence officials have said there are at least a half-dozen significant sites, many of them hidden miles underground.

Any of the various air routes that Israeli warplanes could take to reach Iran also most likely would require coordination with the United States, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Using "more covert" means would be preferable, military analyst Amos Harel said. Israel is widely thought to have been behind the Stuxnet computer worm that sabotaged Iran's uranium enrichment facilities last year.

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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