TEL AVIV, Israel, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Israel has test-fired a ballistic missile believed to be a nuclear-capable Jericho-3 and the type of weapon that could be used in any assault on Iran's nuclear program.
The launch gave an added urgency to a swirling national debate that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is pushing his Cabinet to support a pre-emptive strike against Iran despite stern opposition from many in Israel's defense establishment and from the United States.
The liberal daily Haaretz reported that opponents of military action hold "a small advantage" in the Cabinet.
Against this backdrop, the missile test Wednesday at the Palmachim air base south of Tel Aviv, confirmed by the Defense Ministry, took on added significance.
The ministry said the test, focused on its propulsion system, "had been planned for a long time. The ministry didn't identify the type of missile involved but Israel Radio's military correspondent said a ballistic missile had been launched.
The Jericho series, developed in the 1960s, is the only ballistic weapon the Israelis are known to possess.
The Jericho inventory, spearheaded by the Jericho-3, likely an advanced variant of the Jericho-2B, has been seen as a component of large-scale air attacks involving all of the air force's 25 F-15I Ra'am and 101 F-16I Sufa jets, or as a wholly alternative means of hitting Iran.
Many Western military analysts argue that with winter closing in an air force assault on Iran would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because thick clouds would obscure the targets.
In those conditions, Jericho missiles, armed with high-explosive warheads and accurate to within a few yards, would seem to be a preferable option to more vulnerable aircraft that require at least two in-flight refuelings for such an operation.
The three-stage, solid-fuel Jericho-3 has an estimated range of 3,000-4,000 miles. As far as is known the Iranians have no air-defense system capable of stopping it.
U.S. analysts estimated in a 2009 study it would take 42 Jerichos to knock out Iran's main, heavily defended nuclear facilities. These include the uranium enrichment centers and Natanz and Fordo, near the holy city of Qom south of Tehran, the heavy water reactor at Arak to the southwest and the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan further south.
The debate over pre-emptive strikes against Iran has been simmering for some time but mostly within the corridors of power.
However, it burst into the public domain like a hand grenade several months ago when Meir Dagan, outgoing director of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, branded an attack on Iran as "the stupidest thing I've ever heard" because it would trigger a region-wide war in which Israel would suffer heavily.
He said that he and other senior defense figures -- now mostly eased out of office by Netanyahu -- firmly opposed overt military action and favored clandestine operations to sabotage the Iranian program as well as harsh international sanctions.
Dagan claimed that he and others, including Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, prevented Netanyahu and Barak, a former chief of staff, from unleashing pre-emptive strikes.
But the debate took another dramatic turn Saturday when veteran commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily suggesting that Netanyahu and Barak may have decided, without seeking the approval of other Cabinet ministers, to hit Iran's nuclear infrastructure.
The newspaper's decision to run Barnea's column as the main story under the headline "Atomic Pressure," "repositioned the debate on Iran from closed rooms to the front page," Haaretz observed
At a Cabinet meeting Monday, Netanyahu warned of Iran's growing power and the spread of its influence westward toward Israel.
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, a former chief of Mossad, said he preferred a U.S. attack on Iran to a unilateral Israeli one as a last resort.
But he stressed that if international sanctions fail to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, in the final analysis Israel could depend on no one but itself.
"We must aspire to a situation in which the righteous work will done by others, but act as if, 'if not us, who?'," he said.