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Israeli prisoner swap may be prelude to attack on Iran

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ANALYSIS:

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to execute a 1,000-for-1 prisoner exchange last week despite his frequently voiced opposition to such lopsided deals is seen by several Israeli military commentators as an effort to "clear the deck" before possibly undertaking an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Amir Oren, the veteran military analyst for Ha'aretz newspaper, took note of Israel's exchanging 1,027 Palestinian convicts for army Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who had been captured by Hamas in 2006. Mr. Oren wrote that the price paid by Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak "can be interpreted only in a context that goes beyond that of the Gilad Schalit deal."

He noted that Israeli leaders in the past have shown a readiness to absorb "a small loss" in order to attain a greater success, generally involving "some sort of military adventure."

Mr. Oren also noted that, until recently, Mr. Netanyahu had faced opposition to attacking Iran from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad intelligence chief Meir Dagan. Both retired earlier this year and have been replaced by men believed to hold a different view on Iran.

The Islamic republic has not been a top agenda item since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Yet Iran's nuclear program, which Western nations believe is geared for making an atomic bomb, has remained a key concern, despite Tehran's denials that it is seeking to build a nuclear weapon.

According to Israeli media reports, a shift in the Israeli government's views on Iran might have prompted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Middle East visit in April: His main mission was to pass on a warning from President Obama against any unilateral attack on Iran.

At a press conference with Mr. Barak in April, Mr. Panetta stressed that any steps against Iran's nuclear program must be taken in coordination with the international community.

This week, Jerusalem Post military correspondent Yakov Katz wrote that, with the Schalit chapter behind it, "Israel can now move forward to deal with some of the other strategic problems it faces in the region, such as Iran's nuclear program." Had Israel first attacked Iran, Hamas' patron, it would have endangered the Schalit deal, Mr. Katz said.

Writing in Yediot Achronot, Alex Fishman said that for Mr. Netanyahu, who built a political career as a warrior on terror, the Schalit deal was a very courageous step, particularly in view of an estimate by Israel's security services that 60 percent of Palestinians who are released in such exchanges return to terror.

"He took a risk in a certain area and thereby focused all our attention on much more troubling fronts — in distant Iran and in the Arab revolutions around us," Mr. Fishman wrote. To deal with these problems, national consensus is necessary and the freeing of Gilad Shalit went far toward achieving that.

Mr. Oren offered another insight that he says may point Mr. Netanyahu toward military action against Iran.

Although the prime minister failed to make any enduring mark on history during his previous term or so far during his present term, Mr. Netanyahu may see Iran as an opportunity to achieve his Churchillian moment, Mr. Oren wrote. "The day is not far off, Netanyahu believes, when Churchill will emerge from him."

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