The fear-mongering campaign has resumed. As if following a set pattern of behavior, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz are promising that - lo and behold - Israel is facing a terrible threat to its very survival. Once more the finger is being pointed at Iran.
In a series of well-orchestrated declarations, senior members of the defense establishment are explaining how great this danger is. "Iran's program for arming itself with non-conventional weapons and the capability of its army's long-range missiles are definitely a threat to Israel's survival," the chief of staff stated at a session of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
Once more, Israel's upper defense echelons are building up needless tensions in the region and are fueling a dangerous process that they might not be able to control once it gets underway. Although Iran is a bitter, determined enemy, the chief of staff and the cabinet ministers are mistakenly failing to distinguish between terrorist acts in which the Iranians are involved and Iran's attempts to arm itself with non-conventional weapons. When the chief of staff links the possibility of an Iranian missile attack on Israel with the Iranian regime's support of Hezbollah and the Palestinian Authority and when he states categorically that these actions pose a threat to Israel's survival, he is not only stretching the truth - he is also insulting common sense.
Although Iranian involvement in terrorism in the region is a source of concern and inflicts damage, it cannot be seen as posing a threat to Israel's survival. On the other hand, a nuclear weapon in Iran's hands could present a serious danger, if Israel follows a wrong-headed policy. Thus, Israel should seek to establish a demarcation line between these two kinds of threats. Moreover, nothing has actually changed in Iran's operational capability recently.
Chief of Staff Mofaz is keenly aware that, even if the Iranians possess missiles capable of hitting Israel (such as the Shihab-3 missile), they will not fire them unless they have a very good reason to do so. Thus, why does he felt obliged to argue, in declarations well covered by the media, that "Israel has a defense capability and `another capability' that can be used against Iran"?
Beyond the misleading impression such a declaration makes (Israel does not have the capacity for intercepting missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers, which is the Shihab-3's range), that statement unnecessarily escalates the already tense situation in the region. The use of the - very broad - allusion to Israel's "other capability" constitutes a waste of deterrent potential. When remarks by the Iranian defense minister are used to prove that Israel is threatened, this behavior can certainly be called manipulation. Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani has explained, in simple terms, that Iran will retaliate if Israel attacks it the way it attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Apparently, the chief of staff and the upper echelons of Israel's defense establishment are trying not only to jump on the bandwagon of America's war on terror but also to set the pace of the bandwagon's progress. Instead of staying on the sidelines, continuing to clandestinely supply the Americans with intelligence data on Iran's armament plans and to wait for American President George W. Bush to make good on his promise to put an end to the Iranian nuclear program, Mofaz and other defense leaders are stubbornly trying to position Israel as a combatant, threatening to spearhead this campaign.
Thinking simplistically on this issue, the prime minister and the chief of staff tend to believe that, the greater the tension in the region, the greater will be Israel's standing in the American administration's eyes.
To the credit of the senior members of the Israel Defense Force's Military Intelligence division, it must be said that the assessments they submit to the politicians are devoid of any tones of panic or saber-rattling. Although they admit that they cannot predict the precise time when Iran will become a nuclear power, they stress the rational component in the Iranian regime's behavior. The problem is that the chief of staff uses these thoughtfully balanced intelligence evaluations to throw the Israeli public into a panic.
What Sharon and Mofaz fail to understand is that, in order not to miss an historic opportunity and in order to enable the Americans to neutralize Iran's armament plans, they must restrain their urge to wave the scarecrow of a "threat to Israeli survival" whenever their policies enter a dead-end street. Sometimes, saber-rattling declarations create a dangerous dynamic.
Instead of threatening the Israeli public with a basically non-existent danger to national survival, the chief of staff should be broadcasting a message of calm. By doing so, he would be contributing to the cooling down of tensions in the Middle East, even if that contribution might make things somewhat difficult for him in the next debate that he will soon be initiating - the need for a larger defense budget.
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