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In 1992, as a freshman Labor Party MK, Ephraim Sneh says he "discovered' the Iranian nuclear threat. It was a year after the first Gulf War, when Israel's political and defense leaders believed that the ultimate regional bad guy was Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
While he was a career officer in the IDF, retiring from service in 1987 as a brigadier-general after serving as commander of the security zone in southern Lebanon, Sneh says he did not discover the Iranian threat from top secret intelligence reports but rather from open sources, like the media and think-tank papers.
After just a few months in office, Sneh decided to submit the Iranian threat as an issue to be raised during debates in the plenum. Some weeks later, he was surprised to hear that prime minister Yitzhak Rabin himself had decided to respond to the junior MK's submission on behalf of the government. Sneh remembers the exact date - January 26, 1993 - when Rabin took to the Knesset podium and for the first time declared that Iran was a "strategic threat for the State of Israel."
Close to 15 years have passed since Rabin's declaration, and Sneh, who this week wrapped up his second stint as deputy defense minister, still does not sleep well at night. With Iran racing toward a nuclear bomb, Sneh - who, as deputy defense minister under Ehud Barak from 1999 until 2001, was in charge of the Iran dossier - charges the government with not allocating enough funding for defense projects that are vital for countering this threat.
A well-respected expert on defense and diplomatic affairs, Sneh basically ran the Defense Ministry when he served as deputy to Barak, who was also prime minister. Under former defense minister Amir Peretz, Sneh again played a dominant role in defense dynamics and took the lead on a number of projects, including Iran and preparing the Home Front Command for the challenges ahead.
In an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post this week, Sneh, who was replaced at the Defense Ministry by fellow Labor MK Matan Vilna'i, paints a gloomy picture of the future of the Middle East. He claims that, contrary to public thinking, Israel is not on a collision course with Iran; the two have already collided.
"We have to forecast more cycles of confrontation with those Iran is unleashing against Israel," Sneh says. "On our every front, we have an Iranian proxy - Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank, Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria."
The international community he says, is making a mistake by putting all of its focus on Iran's nuclear program. "The world is ignoring the fact that Iran is the driving force behind global terror," he says.
LAST WEEK'S riots in Teheran against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's decision to ration fuel consumption strengthen Sneh's belief that an escalation in sanctions can force Iran to suspend the enrichment of uranium or even topple its regime. Iran, he explains, is one of the world's biggest oil producers, but sorely lacks refineries. This means that it has to import more than 50 percent of its gasoline.
"We have to concentrate on effective sanctions to stop the flow of refined oil to Iran," he says. "Sanctions are having an impact, but Iran continues, meanwhile, to defy United Nations resolutions and continues to enrich uranium."
Ahmadinejad's downfall, he believes, would open the door for peace between Israel and the Palestinians - who are financed by Iran - as well as with Syria, which as a pariah state has forged a strategic bond with Teheran.
In November, Sneh caused an international storm when he told the Post that Israel must be ready to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions "at all costs."
His comments drew a flurry of responses, and even prompted Iran to submit a complaint against Israel to the UN Security Council.
This week, Sneh stood by his controversial comment, and said that while he did not advocate the military option, "it is for me a last resort."
He plans to continue working behind the scenes to thwart Iran's nuclear program, though for now from the back benches of the Knesset, where he hopes to serve as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He adds that he would like to return to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, but next time to the minister's office on the 14th floor.
AS SNEH left the Defense Ministry on Tuesday, senior defense officials were meeting with their Palestinian counterparts in an undisclosed location in the West Bank to begin talking about renewing the security cooperation which essentially stopped with in September 2000, at the beginning of the second intifada.
While IDF regional brigade commanders have been holding talks with their Palestinian counterparts over the past year - mostly to discuss local law-enforcement problems and to keep the line of communication open - Tuesday's talks were described by government officials as the highest level yet.
The talks closely followed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meetings last week in Sharm e-Sheikh, where it was decided to take practical steps to strengthen Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party. Several plans are currently being discussed - the release of 250 Fatah prisoners; the transfer of weapons, ammunition and armored vehicles to PA security forces; a halt to IDF arrests of Fatah militiamen; and, ultimately, the transfer of security control over West Bank cities to the PA.
The first city that always comes to mind when talking about security control is Jericho, one of the quietest Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Nevertheless, Central Command sources are not enthusiastic about letting the PA take over the city.
Unlike terror capitals such as Nablus, Jenin and Tulkarm, Jericho is a city dependent on tourism, and is the stopover for all Arab tourists visiting the West Bank. Israel lifted its roadblocks and transferred control over the city to the PA in March 2005 as part of a plan to restore conditions that existed before the outbreak of violence, but the plan ultimately failed, and Israel quickly retook its positions outside the city.
Since then, terror elements in Jericho have failed in their efforts to launch a quality attack due to the IDF's ability to raid the town at its discretion. Just last month, the elite Duvdevan unit arrested members of an Aksa Martyrs Brigades' cell who were planning to shoot at cars on the Jordan Valley road.
The transfer of the city to the PA has yet to come up in the cabinet, but Olmert will face opposition within the IDF. "There is no reason to believe that the Palestinians are better prepared than they were in 2005," a high-ranking officer said this week. "Easing restrictions is a good idea, but we should first wait to see if the Palestinians really mean business this time around."
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