Editor's Notes: Taking to the skies

Editors Notes Talking

In the coming year, despite the current tranquility, Israel's best and brightest may have to act again in order to protect us. Listen to that quiet. In the communities adjoining Gaza, where children grew up drawing rudimentary pictures of square houses with grass, sun and incoming missiles, there's an unfamiliar tranquility only rarely disturbed by the occasional Kassam. Give or take the odd rogue Katyusha, all is calm on the Lebanese border, too, as Hizbullah jockeys further north to cement its political position in the drawn out process to form a new government in Beirut. Most conspicuously, all is intriguingly silent on the Iranian front. Israeli officials who, until weeks ago, spoke openly and frequently about the viability of Israel's "military option" should all else fail in the struggle to thwart Iran's nuclear drive, have now largely clammed up. "The less said the better," they intone nowadays. Which is absolutely true, of course. It's just not quite what they were saying before. In these resonant days around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Israel has closed a terrible circle with the death of Assaf Ramon. Nobody beyond these borders, however familiar with Israel, can have quite understood the extent of the grief here at the loss of the stellar son of our meteoric astronaut. This was not some mawkish outpouring of melodramatic emotion. This was, rather, an expression of both personal shock and collective heartbreak for his family. Assaf Ramon was the scion of a national hero, Ilan Ramon, who was an exemplar of courage and skill, morality and humility - our highest aspirations. Assaf had begun to inherit that mantle. And now he had been downed and shattered. Twenty-eight years ago, Ilan was the last in the line of Israel Air Force bombers to fly low over Osirak and destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor there. That was the circle we have been obsessed with closing - ensuring that the ayatollahs cannot replicate the existential danger that Ilan Ramon and his colleagues snuffed out in June 1981. But for all the shock, and after the pause for grief, Israel must now rise again, take to the skies again, as a new year dawns. We have no choice. We survive, we thrive, only because the very finest of our youth are prepared to protect us from our enemies. At all cost. And we know that the current quiet is deceptive. HAMAS IS finding it harder these days to import arms, but the smuggling and the weapons-manufacturing continue nonetheless, and the Islamists' grip on Gaza has not slipped despite Operation Cast Lead. And Hamas will be boosted further this coming year if Israel, in its understandable desperation to retrieve Gilad Schalit, pays the irrational price of a mass release of ruthless Palestinian killers. We are aware that, while we may mercifully save Schalit like this, we will likely be inviting the murders of more Israelis whose names we just don't happen to know yet. So doubtless we will play psychological games with ourselves, persuading each other that this will be the last such unconscionable "exchange." Until the next one. To the north, Hizbullah has long-since regained its pre-Second Lebanon War military capabilities, and then some. The partly successful effort to close the arms route into Gaza was the legacy of our failure to prevent Iran and Syria from replenishing Hizbullah's arsenals three years ago. Renewed confrontation with Israel may not be Hizbullah's priority or choice right now. But it does not lack the capacity. Meanwhile, anything akin to a hermetic missile shield, north and south, is a minimum of five years away. And the Iranian threat, of course, is more acute than ever. The less our leaders talk about it, you can be assured, the more seriously and urgently they are grappling with it. The erstwhile conviction that the Bush administration would handle Iran one way or another gave way first to the realization that Bush would not. That was followed by a deepening acknowledgement that the Obama administration might not handle Iran either, exacerbated in turn by the concern that the US and international community would seek to prevent Israel from doing so. If Osirak has receded in some memories, the Israeli strike on Syria's nuclear facility in 2007 is a fresher reminder of Israel's insistence on preventing enemies who seek its destruction from attaining the weaponry by which they can achieve that goal. The consequences, given Iran's control of Hamas and Hizbullah, and its capacity to export terrorism, could be devastating. But we have a prime minister today who has long been drawing comparisons between the Iran of the ayatollahs and Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany. "I have no doubt that, just as in the case of Nazism, militant Islam will eventually be defeated by the forces of freedom, the forces of moderation, both in the world and within Islamic societies," Binyamin Netanyahu told this interviewer three years ago. "The question is what happens in the interim. In the case of Nazism, it went down after it took with it a third of the Jewish people. In the case of militant Islam, it plans to take down immediately that half of the Jewish people who have converged on Israel. In the case of Nazism, the Jews were defenseless because they were dispersed and had no state. In the case of militant Islam, [its advocates] think they can do away with the Jews simply because we have concentrated in our own state. The main difference is that we didn't have the powers of statehood. We do have them now..." At what point will Israel, still formally supportive of the US attempt at engagement, still formally opining that sanctions can yet force Iran to change course, conclude that time has run out? When Netanyahu made his secretive visit to Russia last week, a trip so hamfistedly exposed by his own inner circle, was he attempting to impress upon Moscow that the delivery of its S-300 missile defense systems to Iran simply could not go ahead - that Israel would have to strike before the deployment of such systems or risk losing the capacity to strike at all? Or has Israel already concluded, from the pitiful international failure to constrain puny North Korea - a display of global impotence at which Teheran has been a delighted, emboldened spectator - that only military intervention can dent Iranian nuclear fervor? THE NEXT few days may see President Barack Obama managing to coerce a wary Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas into an awkward handshake with Netanyahu, to herald a resumption of negotiations. Some in the Israeli government believe that the diplomatic process might actually lead somewhere. It's the best opportunity in a decade, according to one senior minister, with the West Bank economy improving, vicious rhetoric disguising pragmatism among some new Fatah leaders and Hamas more conscious of its limitations after Cast Lead. Most of those around the cabinet table are far less enthralled, casting around in vain for evidence that the Palestinian leadership, and the wider Arab world, have come to terms with the fact and legitimacy of Israel's very existence. But our leaders across the board, even the most dovish among them, are unanimous in their conviction that peace - with the Palestinians, and beyond - cannot come if our enemies see the chance to overcome Israel militarily or break its will to survive. That is the preferred course. Peace is far less the heartfelt desire, far more the reluctant fallback. In the coming year, despite the current tranquility, Israel's best and brightest may have to act again in order to protect us. And act they will, Judge Goldstone, within our own clear moral parameters. We will strive and we will pray for peace and pragmatism to preempt that need. Our modern history suggests a different preemption may be deemed necessary.