Page last updated at 11:06 GMT, Saturday, 12 July 2008 12:06 UK

Iran and Israel's war of words

Tensions may be rising between Israel and Iran after Tehran's latest missile test, but the BBC's Jonathan Marcus suggests it is too early to assume the worst.

On the beach at Palmachim, there is little obvious sign of the escalating diplomatic tensions between Israel and Iran.

An Iranian missile being test fired
Iran has been testing missiles capable of reaching Israel.
Palmachim, the site of a kibbutz established in 1949, is just to the south of Israel's main city, Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean coast.

It is a working day, so the beach is relatively quiet.

A few sunbathers are soaking up the rays. Swimmers are showering after a dip in the sea, and there is a couple playing beach tennis.

In the background, an old Bob Dylan song is providing an accompaniment to the regular sound of the surf.

But if I turn around to look inland, there is a jarring reminder of the geo-strategic tussle that some fear could bring Israel and Iran to the brink of war.

Easy target

A high barbed wire fence marks the perimeter of the Palmachim air base.

You can easily see the launch containers for US-supplied Patriot air defence missiles, large green rectangular boxes canted up at an angle of 45 degrees.

But it is what is not visible that makes Palmachim Israel's front line in the growing war of words with Tehran.

For this is also the base for a battery of Arrow interceptors, the weapon Israel is counting on to defend itself against a potential missile attack from Iran.

The coastal belt, north and south of Tel Aviv, contains the overwhelming bulk of the country's population and makes an easy target.

Israel, the United States, and many of its Arab allies in the region are eager to contain the rise of this new Persia
But for all the rhetoric coming from the politicians, both here and in Tehran, the mood is surprisingly calm.

I asked one man in East Jerusalem what he thought.

Was he worried about an Iranian missile attack?

"Not at all," he replied with a grin.

"You remember Saddam Hussein's rockets," he said. "Well, look what happened to him! The Iranians will go the same way."

A 'new Persia'?

That the views of a Palestinian from East Jerusalem should be so in tune with the Israeli mainstream illustrates the curious coalition that Iran's regional prominence has created.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Photo: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images)
Even Israeli doves see President Ahmadinejad as "a problem"
Israel, the United States, and many of its Arab allies in the region are eager to contain the rise of this new Persia.

Not all Palestinians of course see Iran in this way. But it is the predominant view of Arab elites which gives the tussle between the West and Iran, and between Israel and Iran, a peculiar, regional dimension.

Attitudes in Israel towards Tehran, however, are surprisingly mixed.

Just as in the US, you can easily find those of a more hawkish persuasion who believe the only way of dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions is through the optics of a bomb sight.

Such commentators refer to the Holocaust, to phrases like "never again", and see the only recipe as decisive military action.

Politicians, of course, have to talk tough wherever they come from, and here Israel's leaders need no lessons from outside.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Ehud Olmert faces an investigation into allegations of corruption
Everything now is influenced by domestic politics.

The weakness of Israel's embattled Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, beset by allegations of financial irregularity, means that the battle to replace him has already been joined.

But even the rhetoric of the Defence Minister and Labour leader, Ehud Barak, is more nuanced than some of the press reports would suggest.

Sure, there are the veiled threats to Tehran, but equally there is the continuing emphasis on the need to let intensified sanctions and diplomacy take their course.

Historical allies

For a rather different take on the Iranian crisis, I sought out Professor David Menashri, Director of the Centre of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University.

In his small office on the sun-drenched campus, the professor - a slight, softly spoken man - told me that he did not share the views of the hawks, who see Iran simply as dominated by an irrational clerical leadership with a default position against compromise.

There was, he said, no good reason for Israel and Iran to be in conflict.

They had no territorial claims against each other and they used to have very good relations up until the Islamic revolution.

And as if to underscore that in this part of the world, history - even ancient history - still matters, he said that Iran had a very good name among the Jewish people because Emperor Cyrus the Great had allowed the Jews back into Jerusalem 25 centuries ago.

The two countries, he insisted, were not doomed to be on a collision course.

Iran's current rulers were, he accepted, a problem. But, in his view, the Israeli government needs to restrain itself too.

There should be less talk and fewer public statements, he told me. Iran knows Israel's capabilities. Why stoke the war of words?

So if you cut through the fog of war - or at least the fog of the war of words - the Middle East is not on the brink of conflict this week.

It looks like the sunbathers at Palmachim have got it right.

This is not the time to make a drama out of a crisis... at least not yet.

Map showing Iran, Iraq and Israel

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 July, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

The Australian EARLIER: New missile tests as US raises stakes - 15 hrs ago Barak hints at Israel's readiness to strike Iran - 15 hrs ago
Arab News 'Iran threat justifies shield' - 16 hrs ago
The Independent Israel hints at pre-emptive attack on Iran - 16 hrs ago Israel Defense Minister Hints at Iran Strike - 16 hrs ago

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