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Ross Cypher-Burley is a former researcher to a Conservative MP and worked as a speechwriter in Washington D.C. He currently lives in Tel Aviv.

Moving to Tel Aviv in July was a stressful time for my
family and I, though not particularly for the reasons that we envisioned. From
the driver’s small talk in the taxi from the airport, to watching the evening
news, and to my first glass of beer with bright young Israeli policymakers,
there was a palpable sense of apprehension about Iran. The country was divided
over whether the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a
pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent, in his view,
the Ayatollahs acquiring the capacity to build a nuclear weapon. Every day
newspapers were full of stories and quotes from leading Israeli politicians and
generals, emphasising the IDF’s ability to carry out such a strike. As I
commuted to work, I passed car parks being converted to impromptu bomb
shelters. Stalls were set up in shopping centres where families could acquire
gas masks. I received stark text messages on my phone informing me of the
whereabouts of the nearest shelter. All against the backdrop of increasingly
heated political rhetoric in the media. One evening I shared a drink with an
Israeli diplomatic correspondent. I asked him the likelihood of Netanyahu going
for it. “Right now… 80%,” he said. Perhaps he was trying to scare me. It worked.


Israelis have a tremendous capacity for stoicism. I asked my
Israeli colleagues at work if my apprehension was misplaced. “If it happens, it
happens. It’ll be over quickly.” Most people thought that if war did break out,
it would be over in a matter of weeks, even days. I couldn’t help reminding
them that some of the worst wars in history were expected to be ‘over by
Christmas’. Other colleagues maintained that the very public vilification of
Iran was an annual occurrence merely used by politicians to distract from
domestic problems.

Political leaks to the media gradually made clear in
September that a decision to attack or not would be made in the days before
Netanyahu’s now infamous appearance at the UN General Assembly. At the same
time, interventions from U.S. administration officials, namely Leon Panetta,
made clear that Israel did not possess the military capability to successfully
neuter Iran’s nuclear program. Panetta argued any action would require American
assistance to succeed, and that such assistance would not be forthcoming.
Panetta’s somewhat damning putdown poured cold water on any expectation of an
immediate strike. I and the rest of Tel Aviv could breathe slightly more easily.

It was around this time that our Prime Minister intervened.
As David Cameron explained in his recent UJIA speech, he made
clear in conversation to Netanyahu that now was not the time to attack Iran,
and instead Israel should hold fire and let the sanctions imposed by the West
to do their work. It is a position in harmony with the United States, France
and Germany. It’s a good example of how Cameron, despite having very little
foreign policy experience before Number 10, has shown a solid grasp of
statecraft, ably supported by a very capable Foreign Secretary. His message on
Iran has been consistent since Opposition. He has communicated it often and
clearly to the Israelis, and he has worked closely with his international
partners to stick to one coherent policy.

Cameron’s challenge is to second guess an Israeli Prime
Minister at war with himself over Iran. Netanyahu fears, rightly, that Iran
simply cannot be trusted to possess any nuclear material sufficiently enriched
that it can be used in a nuclear weapon; the consequences for Israel would be
catastrophic. Yet, the position as espoused by William Hague, Cameron and their
international partners seems to be working. The Iranian economy is wilting. Oil
exports have fallen by 45%, the value of the Iranian currency has plummeted and
inflation is estimated at 50% and rising. Netanyahu doesn’t want to be
remembered as the Prime Minister who took Israel to war when there was no real
need to. At the same time, he abhors the thought of being the Prime Minister
who sat by and let Iran develop nuclear weapons unopposed. Wedged in the middle
of this fine line is Cameron and the rest of the ‘carrot and stick’ club. 

My Israeli friends tell me next spring we will witness the
cycle start anew. The rhetoric will begin to heat up, stories will appear with
ever increasing regularity about Iran’s progress in developing nuclear weapons,
and editorials will call for pre-emptive action. ‘Bibi’ will again draw a
metaphorical line in the sand. The challenged for Cameron is to continue to
stay Israel’s hand and ensure sanctions enveloping Iran are tightened even
further. He has to hope that Iran’s leaders realise that they simply cannot
afford to continue their nuclear program. If Netanyahu believes next year that
the sanctions have failed to stop Iran’s ambitions, then the annual cycle will
indeed come to the end. The rhetoric will no longer be empty. And I and the
rest of Tel Aviv will have to find those bomb shelters.

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