JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's prime minister on Tuesday appointed a former internal security chief as his Cabinet minister in charge of civil defense, reflecting the serious concerns about a potential retaliatory strike if Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear installations.
Israel and the West believe Iran is aiming to develop nuclear weapons, a scenario that Israel considers to be a threat to its existence. Recent comments attributed to Israeli leaders have raised speculation that Israel is preparing to attack. Such a strike would almost certainly draw Iranian missile fire toward Israeli population centers.
Avi Dichter, who headed the Shin Bet internal security service a decade ago, replaces Matan Vilnai, a former deputy military chief of staff who has been responsible for civil defense for the past five years. Vilnai stepped down to become Israel's new envoy to China.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had considered former generals for the post before offering it to Dichter. Israel's "home front command" was harshly criticized for poor readiness during the country's 2006 war, when the Lebanese Hezbollah fired about 4,000 rockets at Israel. Authorities have been working to improve a nationwide system of air-raid sirens, shelters and other emergency services.
Dichter previously served as minister of internal security after decades in Israel's secretive Shin Bet.
"He is now charged with a very important mission: to continue doing what he has been doing his whole life - contributing to the security of the country," Netanyahu said.
Israeli officials believe the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, Israel's main business and population center, would be a main target of any Iranian attack. A mobile rocket defense system will soon be built just outside Tel Aviv, where Israel's sprawling military headquarters sits in the middle of office towers, museums, night spots and hotels.
Israel has welcomed international sanctions imposed on Iran, but it has refused to rule out military action. In recent weeks its leaders have sent signals that patience is running thin.
Dichter has said Israel should not be the leading country trying to stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon. He has also said that sanctions alone will not stop the program.
Despite the tough rhetoric, many suspect Israel's leaders are essentially bluffing in order to compel the world to get serious about the issue. Israeli leaders are aware that an attack on Iran would be difficult logistically, likely provoke a counterstrike, send global oil prices skyrocketing and could potentially lead Iran to also target American troops stationed in the region. U.S. officials have pressured Israel not to attack and give diplomacy more time to work.
The issue has generated unprecedented debate in Israeli society over whether an attack to prevent Iran from going nuclear is warranted. While Netanyahu and Barak are believed to favor military action, a number of top former defense officials oppose it.
A group of prominent Israeli authors released a letter this week urging Netanyahu not to attack Iran without permission from his Cabinet. In the letter, the authors threaten to take legal action if Netanyahu doesn't commit to a vote in his 30-member Cabinet by the end of the week. Among the signatories is acclaimed author Amos Oz.