cabinet meeting 224.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Only a year ago, the annual national intelligence assessment was an exclusive affair. The sole purview of the commander of IDF Military Intelligence, it was presented to the security cabinet, its contents secret.
Mossad chief Meir Dagan fought to be allowed to insert more of his organization's input into the annual assessment, and ministers who were not members of the security cabinet vied to be present at the intelligence presentation.
The 2007 version was a free-for-all, with no less than five intelligence and security agencies presenting their forecasts to the full cabinet, and with the press fully briefed.
This depreciation of the national intelligence assessment is a result of two factors. The first, naturally, is the second Lebanon war, the resulting finger-pointing and the recent revelations in the media and before the Winograd Commission on who said what and when about Hizbullah and their intentions. Those who might be hauled up before the next commission now want every word on the record.
The second reason for the change is that since none of the leaders of the coalition and few of the cabinet members have a substantial defense or intelligence grounding that would enable them to challenge the intelligence chiefs, they might as well hold the assessment in a larger forum, where the politicians at least have strength in numbers.
Actually, there were two assessments. The first was presented exclusively to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz a few weeks ago. It probably included details that mere ministers aren't to be trusted with. Olmert and Peretz don't really need a special annual assessment, anyway, as Olmert is updated weekly by the chiefs of the Mossad and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and Peretz has IDF Military Intelligence brief him on a regular basis.
Sometimes the military uses the assessment to frighten its political masters into voting additional defense budgets. There's no need for that this year; after the lack of equipment and training highlighted by the summer's war, the IDF is getting whatever it requests.
So the national assessment is delivered, not for the ministers' benefit, but for PR purposes. The intelligence chiefs want to warn the public and to cover themselves in case something bad happens. On the other hand, they don't want to be seen as scaremongers.
So they write that there is a low likelihood of war this year but Iran is continuing full speed ahead with its bomb, Syria is ready to initiate an attack of its own, Hizbullah is rebuilding and the Palestinians are founding their terror-state in Gaza. In other words, you can be calm, because we don't think there will be a war, but not too calm, since we wouldn't be surprised if one did break out.
The annual assessment analyzes trends and intentions in neighboring countries and among Israel's enemies, but these are largely known quantities. No fundamental change can be expected in Arab or Persian thinking.
The two countries that wield the greatest potential to influence the future of the region over the next year are not covered by the official mandate of the intelligence services.
Israel and the United States could bring about the most significant change in the relevant theaters, with a military offensive or a new diplomatic plan. Right now, though, the government doesn't have a clue about any such plan, and it doesn't look as if Washington is that much more knowledgeable.