Security and Defense: Explosive challenges - on all fronts

MI assessments are that the country is heading towards several major military conflicts.

yadlin 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
yadlin 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The red telephone next to his bed wakes up Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin on almost a nightly basis. A secure line that connects his home with headquarters and other intelligence-gathering units, the phone is there to keep him updated on the outcome of top-secret operations, changes in enemy militaries and other urgent pieces of information. Since 1973, the country has not faced such a large number of threats - all equal in their level of danger - as today. When Yadlin's phone rings in the middle of the night, the call could be related to one of five different fronts. It could be a call about changes in Syrian military formation, indicating that war is imminent; developments in Iran's nuclear program; Hizbullah plans to kidnap a soldier; a Hamas attack in the Gaza Strip; or Global Jihad plans to hijack a plane and ram it in to the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv. A year after the Second Lebanon War, Israel is still far from being out of danger. According to Military Intelligence's up-to-date assessments, obtained this week by The Jerusalem Post, the country is heading toward a number of major military conflicts in the coming year, possibly even in the next few months. Hizbullah is rearming and, according to the IDF, is back at the level of strength it possessed before the war. Syria is in the midst of an unprecedented weapons shopping spree and making final preparations for war. Iran is racing toward nuclear power and, if not stopped, might obtain a nuke by as early as 2009. Hamas has established an enemy Islamic state five minutes south of Ashkelon. And al-Qaida has declared Israel as one of its primary targets for the coming year. The timeline for these wars is still vague, but senior officers who spoke with the Post this week warned of growing enemy strength and a continuous deterioration of the IDF's level of deterrence. ISRAEL'S LEVEL of deterrence in the eyes of its enemies began declining in May 2000, following the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon. It increased with America's entry into Iraq in 2003, but quickly dropped again with the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, which was perceived - as was its Lebanese predecessor - as a victory for Islamic terror. In 2006, the deterrence again suffered a heavy blow with the failure to destroy Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War, and it continues to decline with America's failure to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Since the Second Lebanon War, predictions within the defense establishment have ranged from immediate war with Syria to an unprecedented opportunity to broker a peace. "If we only knew what was going on in Bashar Assad's head," a senior defense official said this week, "we might be able to understand exactly what he is planning." What is clear is that Syria is preparing for war and will be ready in the coming months, possibly even weeks. It has beefed up its military presence along the border and, copying Hizbullah tactics, has purchased advanced anti-tank missiles and other platforms which it believes can help it defeat the IDF. According to MI's assessment, if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not begin peace negotiations with Damascus, the country could find itself at war with Syria, a conflict that would be at least 10 times worse than last summer's conflict with Hizbullah. According to IDF assessments, Syria is not interested in an armed conflict but has been preparing for war since then. Due to a lack of communication between the two countries, the IDF assessment is that a war could erupt sometime in the coming year if a diplomatic resolution is not reached. MI has compared the Israeli-Syrian standoff to the "Prisoner's Dilemma" - a game theory which demonstrates how two parties, without communication, will in the end choose the worse of two options. While the game refers to two prisoners and whether they will be sentenced to 10 or two years in prison, in this case the outcome will be war. Adding to the difficulty in deciphering what Syria plans is understanding Assad's complicated personality. In contrast to his late father, Hafez, who sometimes made Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah sit outside his office for five hours, Assad receives him as a king. He has also supplied Hizbullah with his most advanced weaponry, another thing his father never did. Assad has taken a number of other risks, such as the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and the strategic bond he has formed with Iran in spite of the US and the rest of the Western world. During a visit to Iran shortly after last summer's war, Assad was told that Moscow had secretly informed Teheran that the US was planning to attack its nuclear sites this summer. He was led to believe that if that happened, Hizbullah would come to Iran's defense and attack Israel. If both his closest allies were at war, Assad decided he, too, needed to be ready. Hizbullah is still in the process of rebuilding itself. It has received in recent months hundreds of medium-range rockets from Syria. The IDF suspects it may have received even more advanced Iranian and Syrian missiles, the assumption being that any weapon small enough to fit into a shipping container has been sent to the guerrilla group. MI believes that Hizbullah is not currently interested in a conflict with Israel. However, it predicts that by next summer, it will have completed its rehabilitation and will again be ready for war. "Sooner or later," the assessment foresees, Hizbullah will attack again. THOUGH THE presence of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army makes it difficult for Hizbullah to operate freely in the South, the IDF claims that it has just moved its missile array farther north, still in range of Israel but out of range of UNIFIL detection. Israel is growing increasingly concerned with the internal political situation inside Lebanon. Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's government has been paralyzed since Nasrallah ordered the Hizbullah ministers to resign on November 11. While Jerusalem is impressed with Saniora - particularly with his decision to send troops to fight Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared refugee camp near Tripoli - it is waiting to see how he emerges from the next round with Hizbullah and other pro-Syrian factions in the government on September 25, when the parliament is scheduled to appoint a new president to replace Emile Lahoud. MI expects Iran to have mastered the necessary technology to proceed independently with its nuclear program by the end of the year. By the end of the decade and possibly in 2009, Iran will have a nuclear bomb, unless it is stopped before then. Deeply involved in tracking Iran's nuclear program, MI is working to identify and pinpoint targets in the event a military strike is launched against its nuclear facilities. It recently established a new division, headed by Brig.-Gen. Nitzan Alon, former commander of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), which is responsible for translating intelligence into real targets and information that can be used by operating units. The IDF believes the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is financially stable and determined to complete its nuclear development even at the price of tough economic sanctions. But MI does not rule out the possibility that the threat of tough sanctions could prompt Iran to strike a deal with the West and suspend its enrichment of uranium, like it did in 2002. FOR ISRAEL, this is the critical year. Unlike the US, which sees the point of no return only when Iran has a nuclear bomb, Israel has been warning that the point is actually sooner than that - when the Iranians master the technology. Yadlin believes that Israel's deterrence is based on three factors: its strategic partnership with the US; nuclear capabilities it is believed to possess; and its regular military capabilities. Since the Second Lebanon War, the partnership with the US has been dramatically enhanced, most recently during Olmert's visit to Washington, when President George W. Bush agreed to increase foreign military aid by more than $1 billion. Fear of the IDF's conventional military capabilities has decreased since the war, particularly when it comes to infantry and tank units, which suffered heavy losses in the fighting against Hizbullah. The air force is still admired as being one of the best in the world, particularly after its major accomplishments during the war in hunting and destroying Hizbullah missile and rocket launchers. But, according to Yadlin, the primary way to test Israel's level of deterrence is to see if its enemies are doing something that they have not done in the past. Time will tell.