Once a week, the security chiefs who assess the relentless threats posed by enemy forces to the physical well-being of the State of Israel are required to give an assessment to their political bosses: Is war going to break out in the very near future?
The requirement is a legacy of the intelligence failures ahead of Yom Kippur, 1973, the last time that Israel’s neighbors launched a concerted conventional attack on Israel – on an Israel unprepared.
The good news – this week – is that concerted conventional attack is not deemed imminent.
The bad news – this week and for many past weeks, months and years – is that concerted conventional attack is not what the defense establishment is most worried about. What keep the security chiefs burning the midnight oil are concerns about missiles and terrorism, about nonconventional payloads and secret programs, and about the vulnerability of the Israeli home front – the new battleground. And their focus is not primarily on the traditional military capacities of our immediate neighboring states, but rather on the nonconventional threat to do us harm as posed, in escalating order, by al-Qaida, Hamas, Hizbullah, Syria... and Iran.
All five of those players are incontrovertibly scheming, right now, to damage Israel. And there is another quintet – Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Libya – which, in the dispassionate, nondiplomatic analysis of the intelligence community, cannot be discounted as potentially joining them.
By our relative standards, things have been a whole lot better in the recent past. Just six, seven years ago, for instance, Syria was being forced out of Lebanon, Libya was stopping its nuclear program, Yasser Arafat was dying, the United States was disposing of Saddam Hussein, and Iran, fearing that the US was heading its way next, was freezing at least parts of its nuclear program.
Now, though, Hizbullah has reconstituted itself as a threat from the north, Hamas controls the Palestinian parliament and runs Gaza, the US is still embroiled in Iraq, Iran is speeding toward that nuclear capability, and the belief that Israel can be destroyed has gathered ground around this region.
Not everything is grim. Day-to-day security for ordinary Israelis has rarely been better. Both Hizbullah and Hamas were deterred by the Israeli attacks on them, respectively, in 2006 and last year. And the international community is taking the Iranian threat more seriously, even as internal opposition continues to challenge the regime in Teheran.
But it is a mark of Israel’s concern about the centrality of Iran to much of what most endangers us that these days, on the one hand, our politicians are again becoming talkative about the Iranian challenge while, on the other, our military chiefs have fallen quiet.
Not too long ago, uniformed Israelis, when asked about the threat posed by a fundamentalist regime in Teheran dedicated to the elimination of Israel and acquiring the weapons for the task, were stating curtly but firmly that Israel was ready to do whatever was necessary to protect itself. Senior politicians, meanwhile, were habitually insisting that the Iranian nuclear drive should not be depicted as a challenge primarily to Israel, but rather to the whole international community, and that Israel should be pushing behind-the-scenes for more concerted pressure on the mullahs rather than leading the charge.
Today, the generals are silent and the prime minister is spearheading calls, as he told EU ambassadors this week, not for “moderate sanctions or watered down sanctions,” but for “crippling sanctions... right now.”
THURSDAY’S IRANIAN Revolution anniversary was another test of domestic opposition resolve and of the regime’s authority. Plainly, the mullahs’ readiness to kill their own protesting people has marginalized if not quashed the open forces of dissent. But as our valiant, intermittent Teheran correspondent Sabina Amidi has stressed in her reports from the capital over recent months, the regime’s opponents extend far beyond the ranks of the Westward-looking set who have satellite TV dishes hidden in their air-conditioning units, to encompass devout Muslims who supported the revolution in 1979 but believe Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors have betrayed it.
Most assessments, furthermore, remain that Teheran is acutely vulnerable to sanctions, and there are those who argue that the regime is tottering. There is no consensus, however, about whether the regime will actually fall, much less when; no consensus about whether heavier economic pressure will weaken the mullahs or rally the suffering people around them; no consensus about whether a different regime would be any less committed to a nuclear drive that has been successfully marketed to ordinary Iranians as their legitimate national right.
And the concern that has mounted in Jerusalem in recent years – that, ultimately, Iran will proceed to a nuclear weapons capability unless someone intervenes to stop it – continues to escalate.
ISRAEL’S INTELLIGENCE chiefs philosophically acknowledge the extent to which they are hampered by working in a democracy. Every detail of every briefing they give to the cabinet is liable to turn up online, on the radio, on TV and in print within hours. The same, it can safely be said, does not apply to the deliberations of the Iranian leadership.
“The enemy hides away everything of value in schools, mosques, tunnels, mountainsides, and it keeps its secrets better than we do,” observed one Israeli intelligence chief recently, adding dryly, “They don’t give cabinet briefings.”
Here, by contrast, it is known that Israel would be deeply discomfited by Russian delivery of S-300 anti-missile systems to protect sensitive installations – which Teheran insists it has been promised, and on which Moscow is staying silent at present. But still, the defense establishment does not regard such defenses as insurmountable.
It can also be assumed that, while an Iranian response to attack would be several times more damaging than Hizbullah’s 2006 Katyusha onslaught, Saddam’s Scuds, and the terror attacks on Israeli-Jewish targets in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994 combined, this would still be a small price to pay if it were determined that Iran was about to get the bomb and might use it.
Iran about to get the
bomb – a possibility openly raised, and rejected, by President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad on Thursday for the first time? It’s getting closer every
day, and shows no signs of changing course.
And if it attained that capacity, would it use it against Israel –
directly, or via a third party, non-state actor? That’s not so simple.
Indeed, when they are asked for their assessment on these most pressing
of questions, this 2010 equivalent to the conventional war assessment
that was so delinquent in 1973, our intelligence chiefs are
hard-pressed to come up with definitive answers.
“Iran’s is a radical regime, but not an irrational one,” they stutter
sometimes, to the frustration of a political leadership that, one day
soon now, may have to make one of the most fateful decisions in the
history of modern Israel.
Or still more unhelpfully, “Iran is rational... but its definition of rational is not the same as ours.”