By Kevin Flower
Is Israel on the verge of initiating a military strike against Iran? If you've been reading Israel's newspapers or watching its news broadcast the last few days, you might think so.
The drums already are beating as the International Atomic Energy Agency prepares to release a report next week on Iran's nuclear program, specifically on research and development that Tehran may have carried out that would help it to build a nuclear warhead.
In Israel, the debate over how to stop Iran went critical last Friday when Israel's largest newspaper, Yedioth Aronoth, published a report headlined "Atomic Pressure" by renowned columnist Nahum Barnea that suggested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak both supported an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program.
That story was followed up Wednesday by a report in the daily Haaretz newspaper that Netanyahu was lobbying members of his cabinet to support a military strike against Iran despite the various difficulties inherent in such an operation. The paper attributed the information to a senior Israeli official, but did not disclose identity of their source.
The Haaretz story came the same day the Israeli military tested a new rocket propulsion system. The Israeli defense ministry offered few details about the test other than a cryptic statement from Barak calling it "an impressive technological achievement and an important step in Israel's advances in the realms of missiles and space".
The combination of the missile test and the publication of the two reports created heavy local media speculation as to whether Israel was in fact planning some a military operation and elicited withering criticism from two member of Netanyahu's inner cabinet known as the "forum of eight."
"A public debate about this is nothing less than a scandal. I don't think we've ever had anything like it." Deputy Prime Minister and intelligence minister Dan Meridor told the Israeli newspaper Maariv. "The public elected a government to make decisions about things like this in secret. The public's right to know does not include the debate about classified matters like this."
Minister-sans-portfolio Benny Begin told Israeli radio the public debate about Iran had turned "a crazy free-for-all" and criticized former Israeli intelligence officials for speaking too openly about government deliberations on Iran.
The prime minister's office would not comment on the newspaper reports and referred reporters to comments he made about Iran on Monday.
"Regional powers who have control in the Middle East will try to ensure they have greater influence on the new regimes - influence that will not always support us or be of benefit to us, to say the least" Netanyahu told Israeli legislators during the opening session of the Knesset.
"One of these regional forces is Iran, which continues its efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would pose a dire threat on the Middle East and on the entire world. And of course, it poses a grave, direct threat on us too..... We operate and will continue to operate intensely and determinately against those who threaten the security of the State of Israel and its citizens."
At the U.S. State Department, asked to comment on the "bomb Iran" stories coming out of Israel, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stepped gingerly through the diplomatic minefield.
"We remain committed to Israel's security," Nuland said. "We and Israel share a deep concern about the direction that Iran is taking. We continue to work with Israel, with the international community, to speak clearly with regard to Iran's nuclear obligations."
But Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calls the public discussion of an Israeli military strike against Iran a "parlor game."
"The chances of it happening are slim to none but people still love to speculate about it," he told CNN.
A senior administration official, speaking on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, dismisses the very public wrangling over whether Israel would strike Iran's nuclear program on its own.
"When I see the Israelis yammer on and on about something, I relax. It's when they go silent that I get worried they're about to do something."
Whether or not the Israeli government has moved closer to a military operation against Iran or not, the recent media uproar has succeeded in putting Iran and its nuclear program back in the media spotlight - right where Israel wants it.
CNN's Jill Dougherty and Elise Labott in Washington contributed to this report.