Security and Defense: The politics of preemption

After suicide bombing in Burgas, Israel is studying its options with Syria crisis, Iran nuclear threat looming.

July 20, 2012 00:02
Truck carries bus damaged in terrorist attack

Bugras Bus Bomb (370). (photo credit: Stoyan Nenov/ Reuters)


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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.

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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 in Syria.

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 Lebanon.

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.

Such action 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 facilities.

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 argument.

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 can continue.

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.

Israeli ambassadors 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.

Israel’s 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 time.

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 bus.

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 1994.

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 behind evidence.

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.

The 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 increasing.

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.

This is because the summer provides pilots and reconnaissance teams with good visibility for locating targets and post-strike damage assessments.

Another 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 defense.

Summer in the Middle East is always, hot but it might be on the verge of getting even hotter.

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