Security and Defense: Explosive challenges

The IDF is waiting for a defense minister who can provide the clear guidance it is currently missing.

IDF patrol Hebron298AP (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF patrol Hebron298AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
A sensitive issue throughout the defense establishment's history has been its relationship with the political echelon. In an article recently published by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, former Shin Bet chief and current Labor Party member Ami Ayalon analyzes this relationship, unequivocally stating that insufficient diplomatic clarity could lead to violence on the Palestinian front. The military, Ayalon writes, places before itself the ultimate goal of thwarting terror at any price. The political echelon, he claims, is meant to have additional, more global, considerations. In the absence of clear, comprehensive diplomatic guidelines for how to deal with these considerations, he warns, the government could get pulled into the army's way of thinking, and Israel could get sucked into cycles of violence. The way things look now, Israel's next defense minister will be Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz who, unlike incumbent Shaul Mofaz, does not have a military background. Regardless of whether Ayalon plays a role in the Defense Ministry - as some media reports indicate he might - Peretz, if granted the prestigious portfolio, will find his new desk at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv stacked with pressing and critical issues in need of answers and solutions. Israel is currently facing a number of major security challenges: how to deal with the Hamas-run Palestinian government; the seemingly unstoppable Kassam rocket fire; a 50 percent increase in terror attempts in the West Bank; the Hizbullah in the North; and last but not least, the Iranian nuclear threat. At the moment, the army is waiting for a defense minister who can provide the clear guidance it is currently missing. As Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz said just before the Israeli elections: "We will need to know where we are heading." THE DEFENSE establishment has so far drawn a clear distinction between the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority, which includes both a Hamas-led government and Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Officials have made it very clear that Israel does not plan to engage in dialogue with Abbas separately from Hamas - in other words, with a "two-headed PA, one we talk to and one we don't talk to." So, in line with Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert's policy of not talking to the PA, Halutz last week ordered IDF field commanders to suspend all security coordination meetings with their Palestinian counterparts. This move opens the door to several problems. For example, what will the IDF do when an Israeli mistakenly enters a PA-controlled city? Who will be contacted to arrange the Israeli's safe release? In addition, there are bombs placed almost daily along the Gaza Strip security fence. Until now, the IDF asked the PA security forces to demolish the bombs - something which apparently is no longer an option. Not all members of the IDF General Staff agree with the "no talking to Hamas" stance. Some generals have expressed the personal opinion that Israel needs to open a channel of communication with Hamas and to allow IDF commanders to continue meeting with their PA counterparts. Then there is Gaza. Although the IDF believes that eventually the current airraids and artillery barrages will put a stop to the Kassam fire, the Palestinian terror groups have demonstrated immense resolve. Despite threats of targeted killings and daily air strikes, they are succeeding in wreaking havoc in the western Negev. The Southern Command claims to be on the ready to enter Gaza in a massive ground operation, with the Givati Brigade deployed, on standby, along the security fence. For now, however, Halutz does not intend to recommend that Olmert order the operation. But he acknowledges that luck plays a major role in the Kassam game. And that if a rocket hits one of the unprotected chemical tankers in the Ashkelon industrial zone - or a kindergarten in Sderot - troops might be ordered into Gaza faster than he can say "Kassam." There are also the crossings. One day Karni is open and the next it is closed, giving the impression that Mofaz doesn't really know what he wants. Security officials claim that Karni is under "genuine threat," and while it was open for most of the week, on Tuesday it was closed after the number of terror alerts increased. Israel's offer that the Palestinians use the Kerem Shalom crossing was rejected, and - left with no choice and under international pressure - Mofaz decided to open Karni. The next defense minister will be caught in the same quandary between the threats to Israeli security if it is opened and the humanitarian risks if it is shut. UNLIKE IN Gaza, the IDF moves freely within the West Bank. Though tanks are not parked at the entrance to major cities like Nablus and Jenin, troops enter them daily, as at the height of Operation Defensive Shield. The army claims that it is currently facing a new terror wave in the West Bank, with terrorist-attack attempts up by more than 50 percent since the Purim holiday last month. The dramatic capture of a suicide bomber on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway two weeks ago, as well as the daily arrests made within the territories, is what has so far been keeping Israel safe. But, as the army acknowledges, there is no such thing as a hermetic seal, and bombers do get through - as last week's suicide-bombing at the entrance to Kedumim illustrates. Hamas, senior officers claim, has been putting on appearances as a terror-free organization. Fatah, on the other hand, has never completely abstained from terror activity. These officials warn that Abbas's party has switched roles with Hamas in an attempt to win over Palestinian hearts - the way Hamas originally did - through Kedumim-like attacks. Terror groups are also working together, as was demonstrated by the Kedumim attack, the fruit of such newly formed partnerships. While the bomber was a Fatah operative from Hebron, the bomb, officials said, was supplied by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) based in Nablus. With predictions of a serious escalation in terror and the possible breakout of a third intifada by the summer, the Central Command has already begun sending battalions to urban warfare centers to sharpen soldiers' skills for the long operations that can be expected within Jenin and Nablus. But even with IDF forces operating relentlessly against the West Bank terror infrastructure, a high-ranking officer recently said that as long as Iran, Hizbullah and Syria continue to transfer funds to the terrorists, it will be hard to eradicate the attacks. "As long as there is money," he said, "everyone will want a piece of the action." IF ISRAEL is under existential threat, its source is Iran. According to Military Intelligence (MI), Iran will have independent research and development capabilities within a matter of months. While this is not yet the "point of no return" for Israel, it is the stage that will allow Teheran - on its own, without external help - to manufacture nuclear bombs. Despite President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's sometimes ridiculous statements, the army takes his threat to annihilate the state of Israel seriously. Israel is currently at a crossroads. The Iranian issue has been brought to the United Nations Security Council and Israeli defense officials believe that tough and precise sanctions could suspend the nuclear program. The problem, however, is that according to MI predictions, the earliest the sanctions will kick in is September, by which time Teheran could already have the bomb. According to foreign media reports, the IAF has already begun training for a possible military strike on Iran. It is the next defense minister (together with the prime minister) who could end up being in the position of having to make the final decision to send fighter jets on what would become Israel's most daring mission to date.