- - Sunday, October 30, 2011

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to execute a 1,000-for-1 prisoner exchange this month 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 exchange of 1,027 Palestinian convicts for army Staff Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was 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 Both retired earlier this year and have been replaced by men believed to hold a different view on Iran.

According to Israeli media reports, a shift in the Israeli government’s views on Iran might have prompted Defense Secretary Leon E. 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 news 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.

Last 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 Ahronot, Alex Fishman said that for Mr. Netanyahu, who built a political career as a warrior on terrorism, the Schalit deal was a 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 terrorist activities.

“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 Sgt. Shalit went far toward achieving that.

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

He said that 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. “The day is not far off, Netanyahu believes, when Churchill will emerge from him,” Mr. Oren wrote.

Meanwhile, an Israeli aircraft struck a pair of Palestinian militants Sunday, killing one man and wounding a second in a new eruption of violence, the Associated Press reported.

The airstrike cast doubts on efforts to forge a cease-fire after the deadliest round of fighting in months. In all, 10 Palestinian militants and an Israeli civilian have been killed in a weekend of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes.