- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2012

JERUSALEM — Despite its confident saber-rattling, Israel’s concern is growing that the country is vulnerable to a devastating counterstrike if it attacks Iran’s nuclear program.

An announcement this week that a mobile rocket-defense system soon will be built just outside Tel Aviv - where Israel’s sprawling military headquarters sits smack in the middle of office towers, museums, night spots and hotels - caused some jitters.

Israeli officials cite intelligence reports that Tel Aviv would be a main target of any attack.

Increasingly, the debate in Israel is turning to whether a strike can do enough damage to the Iranian program to be worth the risks. Experts think that any attack would at best set back, but not cripple, the Iranians.

Skepticism about Israel’s ability to defend itself runs deep here.

Israelis still remember Iraqi Scud missiles landing in the center of the country 20 years ago. In 2006, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia seemed able to rain rockets at will during a monthlong conflict with the Jewish state. A scathing government report issued months ago suggested the home front is still woefully unprepared.

In a questionably timed move, the Cabinet minister in charge of civil defense in recent days resigned to become the ambassador to faraway China.

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who also serves as minister of intelligence and atomic energy, indicated Saturday that Israel is facing a new type of peril.

“Whereas in the past, there was a battlefield where tanks fought tanks, planes fought planes, there was a certain push not to see the home front affected. Now the war is mainly in the home front,” said the usually tight-lipped Mr. Meridor.

“The whole of Israel [is vulnerable to] tens of thousands of missiles and rockets from neighboring countries. So of course we need to understand the change of paradigm,” he said. “If there is a war, and I hope there isn’t a war, they are not just going to hit Israeli soldiers. The main aim is at civilian populations.”

Thousands of rockets

Both Israel and the West think that Iran is trying to develop a nuclear bomb - a charge Tehran denies. Israel thinks a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to its very existence, citing Iranian leaders’ calls for its destruction.

Israel has welcomed international sanctions imposed on the Islamic regime, but it has pointedly refused to rule out military action. In recent weeks, top leaders have sent signals that patience is running thin.

An Israeli military strike would very likely draw an Iranian retaliation, experts think, which would involve either Iran firing its long-range Shahab missiles or acting via local proxies of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza or even Assad loyalists in Syria.

Experts think the experience of the 2006 war against Hezbollah, in which the guerrillas rained 4,000 rockets onto Israel, is just a small taste of what could lie ahead. The chief of military intelligence recently said that Israel’s enemies now have an estimated 200,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel.

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