JERUSALEM – Israelis are evenly divided over whether their country should carry out a military strike against Iran's nuclear program, according to a poll published Thursday.
The poll was released following reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to persuade Cabinet ministers to authorize such a strike and after Israel successfully tested a missile said capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran.
Israel insists Iran is working on nuclear weapons, despite Iranian denials. It was unclear whether Netanyahu actually favors a military strike or is trying to prod the international community into taking a tougher line on Iran. Ordering an attack is not a decision he would take alone, but rather he would need the approval of his Cabinet ministers.
Forty-one percent of those questioned by the Dialog polling institute said they would back an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, which many Israelis believe were built to produce bombs.
A similar number -- 39 percent -- oppose such an attack, which would be fraught with logistical difficulties and risk a deadly Iranian counterstrike and regional mayhem. Twenty percent were undecided.
The survey, published and commissioned by the Israeli Haaretz daily, surveyed 495 people on Wednesday and quoted a margin of error of 4.6 percentage points. The Dialog agency said its random sample represented Israeli adults.
Although the poll appeared to reflect a divided nation, the fact that four out of 10 Israelis would support a strike is noteworthy, given the implications. On Wednesday, Iran's military chief threatened a fierce retaliation against Israel should it attack Iranian nuclear installations.
Previous polls over the years have indicated similar divisions, with significant numbers of Israelis in favor and against military action. The numbers reflect the gravity in which the public perceives both the threat from Iran and the consequences of an Israeli attack that could trigger an all-out war.
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest threat, citing Tehran's nuclear program, its president's repeated references to destruction of the Jewish state and Iran's support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups.
For years, Israeli leaders have appealed to the world community to impose tough economic sanctions to pressure the Iranians to dismantle their nuclear installations.
They have also said Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran and consistently have not ruled out a military attack.
There are precedents for such a strike. In 1981, Israeli aircraft bombed an unfinished nuclear reactor in Iraq, destroying that country's nuclear program. Israeli warplanes also destroyed a site in Syria in 2007 that the U.N. nuclear watchdog deemed a secretly built nuclear reactor, though
Israel's government never acknowledged responsibility for the attack.
An attack on Iran's program would be substantially more difficult because Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered, and some are mobile and built underground. Because they are not concentrated at a single site, it would be extremely difficult for Israel to cripple the program in a single airstrike.
In this charged climate, the Israeli military reported on Wednesday that it successfully tested an advanced long-range missile said to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Iran. Military officials also confirmed the air force conducted a drill last week with Italian warplanes in Sardinia.
The Israeli military's home front command is carrying out a drill this week, ending Thursday, simulating a variety of attack scenarios, such as rocket barrages, chemical and biological attacks.
The military said this exercise had been in the planning for months.
International powers doubt Iran's claims that its nuclear program is designed to produce energy, not weapons, but sanctions have so far failed to persuade Tehran to put all of its nuclear facilities under international inspection.
The U.N. nuclear agency is due to focus on the Iranian program at a meeting later this month. The West wants to set a deadline for Iran to start cooperating with an agency probe of suspicions that Tehran is secretly experimenting with components of nuclear weapons.