Anyone listening to the arguments of the Israeli leadership these days, especially anything having to do with the anticipated cease-fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, may get the impression that the Strip no longer tops the agenda. Notwithstanding the continued suffering of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip - and the genuine concern about the ability of the kibbutzim and moshavim in the western Negev to hold on after having suffered three dead recently - it is also a question of legitimacy and proportions.
Israel finds it hard to explain to the world what is very clear from its point of view - the unacceptable threat posed to Sderot, Ashkelon and other areas. A foreign minister from a European country, who recently visited Israel, asked his hosts how many civilians have died since the Qassam rockets began falling. When he was told that there have been 15 dead in seven years, less than those killed in a large suicide bombing, the minister's response was almost disdainful.
If nothing happens at the last minute, Israel is heading toward a tahdiyeh [lull]. It is doing this, paradoxically, at a time when the terrorism of Hamas in the Gaza Strip is the less troublesome threat. Israel will opt for a cease-fire for several months, even though it has no illusions where things are headed: toward a future confrontation with Hamas, which may involve a conflagration on other fronts - for example, a strong response from Hezbollah to fighting in the Gaza Strip.
Several years ago, in a relatively rare presentation, Iran's Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani unfolded the defense doctrine of his country: the concept of "from afar and near." Hezbollah, it was hinted, will serve as the forefront of the Iranian effort, in case the U.S. or Israel target Iran's nuclear installations.
Since then, Israel has been readying for the likely scenario where a future attack on Iran will result in Shihab ballistic missiles being fired from Iran, but also barrages of rockets fired by Hezbollah, Hamas, and possibly also Syria.
The recent developments in Beirut is keeping Israel's intelligence awake at night. Hezbollah's display of power against its Sunni allies reflects a great deal of self confidence, there as well as in Tehran. The show of force was received with a mixture of helplessness and indifference on the part of the West and the Arab countries, even though in some capitals - in France and Saudi Arabia - they vowed to defend the moderate Lebanese "14 March" camp.
At the same time, the extent of the Iranian involvement - right under our noses in the Gaza Strip - is gradually emerging. Yesterday the Shin Bet announced that last month it had arrested a Palestinian from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, who had returned from Iran where he had undergone military training.
The depth of cooperation between Syria and Iran is at times presented to cabinet members, but most of the details do not appear in the media because of the limits imposed by the censor. A security source said that we are now dealing with a more sophisticated adversary from those we have faced in the past, as the chess game against us is taking place on three parallel fronts.
It was reported that Iran's nuclear program has held center stage in the talks of President George Bush in Israel last week. Israel presented Bush with data which it says is convincing, and which allegedly contradict the conclusions of the American National Intelligence Estimate from December 2007 - that Iran froze its nuclear arms program in 2003. Will this be enough to alter the position of the administration on the possibility of a U.S. strike of the nuclear installations in Iran? It is not clear.
What is known is that from Israel's point of view, time is running out: according to Military Intelligence, estimates on the stage at which Iran will cross the "point of no return" that will enable it to produce nuclear arms ranges between the pessimistic - end of 2009 - and the optimistic - during 2010. The difference is not great. And the closer Bush comes to the end of his tenure, he is certainly thinking about the legacy of his presidency, beyond the contentious war in Iraq.
Perhaps the pessimistic forecast recently voiced by Israeli leaders is merely a political spin, whose purpose is to prevent early elections. This does not seem reasonable though, because the concern is shared by the trio at the top: the prime minister, who is interested in putting off the elections, the foreign minister, who wants early elections, and the defense minister, who is not thrilled about elections but is gradually reaching the conclusion that it will not be possible to delay them beyond the end of 2008.
Nonetheless, the prime minister is now saying that new elections, at this time, will undermine Israel's ability to deal with the strategic threats it faces. On the other hand, if it turns out in the future that the suspicions against Olmert were true, how did a person with so many suspicions against him consider himself a worthy leader, in light of the upcoming challenges.
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