Brig.-Gen. Danny Efroni, the IDF’s Military Advocate General, likes books.
Behind his desk in the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv is a
floor-to-ceiling bookcase lined with heavy law books, Supreme Court decisions
and analyses of the international laws of war.
On one of the shelves, a
black book with yellow writing stands out. It is called Preemption, coauthored
by Harvard Prof. Alan Dershowitz. The book analyzes the modern terror threats
that the Western world faces and argues that it will need to shift from a policy
of deterrence to one of preemption.
This book is sitting on the shelf for
a reason. On Wednesday, several hours after a bomb went off in Damascus, killing
members of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s inner circle, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-
Gen. Benny Gantz convened a meeting with senior military officers. There were
representatives from Military Intelligence, the Northern Command, the Israel Air
Force as well as Efroni, the military advocate general.
It is quite
understandable why the other three branches would need to be there. MI gives a
review of the situation in Syria, the Northern Command reviews its preparations
along the border and the IAF speaks about its level of alert. Efroni was there
to speak about some of the legal questions that could emerge from the upheaval
One possible scenario could occur if Israel were to learn of
Hezbollah plans to move Syria’s chemical weapons out of the country and into
Would Israel have the legal right to preempt the move and attack
the facility? The same can be asked about Iran’s nuclear program.
At the moment,
Israeli intelligence admits that the Iranians are not yet building the bomb.
Does that mean that Israel has or does not have justification to launch a
preemptive strike against its nuclear facilities?
In absence of that
justification at the moment, Israel could potentially use the attack in Bulgaria
to justify retaliatory action against Iran or Hezbollah.
could then lead to a larger conflict – one that could ultimately include an
Israeli bombing of Syria’s chemical weapons bases and of Iran’s nuclear
The question, though, is whether Israel would want something
like that to happen. At the moment, that decision is up to Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet, which will have to calculate their response
to the attack in Burgas.
This is unlikely to happen due to the context
within which this attack occurred. The bombing on Wednesday in Syria and Assad’s
continued loss of control over the country presents Israel with unbelievable
challenges, particularly with regard to the possible proliferation of chemical
weapons. Shooting from the gut in response to the attack in Bulgaria could have
greater repercussions and ultimately distract Israel from the greater threat it
is facing in the North.
Netanyahu and Barak’s phone calls on Wednesday
night with US President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were
partly about expressing condolences over the attack but were probably more aimed
at gauging what Israel is planning to do. The Obama administration does not want
to be surprised.
There is, however, another side to this
If the government does not respond, it will knowingly be
contributing to the deterioration and erosion of Israel’s deterrence and will
basically be signaling to Iran and Hezbollah that such attacks are tolerated and
That is why, in the meantime, the Israeli response will
focus on the diplomatic track. The Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Shin
Bet (Israel Security Agency) are already hard at work compiling an intelligence
dossier with concrete evidence about Iran and Hezbollah’s involvement in the
Bulgarian attack as well as in the others thwarted this year in Thailand,
Cyprus, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India and Kenya.
overseas are going to be calling on foreign ministers and state leaders in their
respective countries to urge those – particularly in Europe – to impose
additional sanctions on Iran and to declare Hezbollah an illegal terror
organization like it is, for example, in the United States.
investigation into the attack will be conducted in conjunction with Bulgarian
authorities. Ties between the countries are long-standing.
Just a month
before the bombing, Mossad officials were reportedly in Sofia for talks with
their counterparts, and in January the two countries apparently worked together
to prevent a similar attack against an Israeli tour bus. In 2010, then-Mossad
chief Meir Dagan visited Sofia and met with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko
Borisov. The Bulgarians released a rare photo of the two meeting at the
For now, the main focus of the investigation will be on identifying
the bomber, how he obtained his explosives, who assembled the bomb for him, how
he entered Bulgaria, where he came from and why he selected that specific tour
Once the investigation is completed, changes can be expected in
security measures throughout the country.
What was telling for Israel,
though, was the fact that the attack took place on the 18th anniversary of the
bombing of the AMIA Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires – an attack which
was carried out by Iran and Hezbollah which killed 85 people.
Then, a van
with hundreds of kilograms of explosives rammed into the AMIA center, killing
dozens and wounding hundreds.
Wednesday’s attack was carried out by a
suicide bomber. While severe, it is not of the scale of what happened in
The use of a suicide bomber is a break from Hezbollah’s classic
tactics for carrying out attacks, usually with means that leave less of a
footprint. In previous plots that were thwarted recently, there were attempts to
shoot down Israeli airliners with shoulder-to-air missiles, to plant bombs on
diplomatic cars or to assassinate Israeli diplomats. Nothing that could leave
Defense officials said they understood the use of a
human bomber to mean that Hezbollah had learned lessons from its previous
failures and realized that in order to succeed, it needed to make sure that a
person was there to press the trigger and get close to the target.
choice of the target is also interesting.
If Hezbollah was looking to
avenge the assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was
killed in a blast – attributed to the Mossad – in Damascus in 2008, it would
have likely tried to attack a more valuable target like an Israeli diplomat,
embassy, consulate or a Jewish institution.
A tourist bus is a
“second-tier” target, one that is on the one hand easier to attack, since it has
fewer security measures around it, but is on the other hand not as valuable and
would not immediately have the same strategic consequences for Israel as an
explosion in an embassy would.
Iran’s interest in the attacks is twofold:
Firstly, it wants to avenge the assassinations of its nuclear scientists and the
terror chiefs it believes the Mossad has killed over the years. Secondly and
possibly more importantly, it wants to show the world that it has an operational
capability with global tentacles and that if it is attacked it will be activated
to wreak havoc everywhere.
Either way, the attack comes at a time when,
no matter how one looks at it, Israel and Iran appear to be on something of a
collision course. With talks between the P5+1 and Tehran not progressing, the
possibility that Israel will take unilateral military action might be
Jerusalem’s quiet on the issue – after a year of open
saber-rattling – adds to the world’s concern.
The other reason is that we
are now in July, just months away from when Barak originally said that Iran
would be entering the so-called immunity zone, the point from which an Israeli
strike will no longer be effective.
While he has since changed his tone,
saying that Iran will not enter the immunity zone within weeks but that it will
also not take years, there is still an operational window until the end of the
year that Israel might not want to pass up.
Historically, this is the
window that Israel has used to attack two previous reactors – Iraq’s nuclear
reactor in June 1981 and Syria’s reactor in September 2007.
because the summer provides pilots and reconnaissance teams with good visibility
for locating targets and post-strike damage assessments.
consideration could be the upcoming joint Israeli-US missile defense drill
scheduled for October, which will see the deployment of American missile defense
systems in Israel and provide the country with an additional layer of
Summer in the Middle East is always, hot but it might be on the
verge of getting even hotter.