The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held more than 30 meetings during the past three months in anticipation of the Palestinian plan to request UN recognition of a state later this month. Government and military leaders were invited to present their assessments for September.
Committee chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) believes the country isn't ready, as he said in a report published this week. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is not providing even the slightest of diplomatic openings to let the international community persuade the Palestinians to pull back. The gap between the Palestinians' expectations and the practical significance of the diplomatic moves could lead to a new conflagration in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which could spark a violent regional conflict.
Senior officers in the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service offer three scenarios: nonviolent popular demonstrations that the Palestinian Authority is able to keep under control; wider clashes accompanied by terror attacks by Hamas cells in the West Bank and the release of prisoners from Palestinian prisons; and finally, a massive escalation - violent processions to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and IDF roadblocks, with isolated settlements defending themselves, revenge attacks by settlers, frequent terror attacks in the West Bank and attempted suicide attacks within the Green Line.
That third, most extreme scenario could include massive rocket fire by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on strategic targets within Gush Dan, including Ben-Gurion International Airport.
A senior minister in the octet inner cabinet says the alarmist scenarios are unlikely to come true. "There is no diplomatic tsunami," he says, refusing to take seriously an earlier forecast made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. There is no social ferment, and the current Palestinian leadership is not interested in violence. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not Yasser Arafat, who openly encouraged terror.
Even Jordan is calling on the Palestinians to tone down their UN initiative. The Palestinian leadership knows what this diplomatic move could cost it. The American administration has already made that clear.
The Mofaz report was supposed to have been a professional report issued by the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. But it is signed only by the committee chairman. The Prime Minister's Bureau forced the Likud members on the committee to disassociate themselves from the report, which transformed it from an official committee document into "the Mofaz document."
Meanwhile, concerns that some of the report's findings would embarrass friendly neighboring countries led Mofaz to decide not to release the full document.
The security establishment considered Mofaz's predecessor, his faction colleague Tzachi Hanegbi, to be the perfect parliamentary partner. (Hanegbi's critics said this was part of a sophisticated move to position himself as a responsible politician while he was standing trial. ) Mofaz takes an entirely opposite approach and frequently attacks the government and the defense establishment. This gives him public prominence, useful in his campaign to unseat his Kadima rival, opposition chair MK Tzipi Livni. He possesses significant security experience as a former defense minister and chief of staff.
The project was coordinated by MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ), who worked systematically and effectively, much like he did last year in his report for the Knesset on ultra-Orthodox army service. The author of the report, Dr. Barak Ben-Zur, is also a serious professional with a long career in Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet. Many of the people who have read the classified version say it is a profound document that would have been produced by a national security council in a more orderly country.
Most newspapers pushed the document aside in favor of the latest scandal involving Sara Netanyahu and her father's Nepalese caregiver, or the indictment of singer Margalit Tzan'ani. Mofaz knows publicity is not the only test. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has done its real job: supervising the executive branch. It has issued its warning - to the prime minister, the cabinet ministers and the public, too. If a fire breaks out in September (though October sounds more likely ), the report will be reread.
Some members of the committee recalled how Prime Minister Golda Meir appeared before it a few days before the Yom Kippur War broke out. War was not discussed at all at that meeting. In retrospect, had Meir and Moshe Dayan been pressured to launch a diplomatic initiative with Egypt, maybe that terrible war could have been prevented.
A more relevant example involves the Second Lebanon War. Seven months before that war broke out, the heads of one of the committee's subcommittees initiated an unusual press briefing in the wake of distressing information about reduced IDF manpower. That was the day that businesswoman and former model Pnina Rosenblum was being sworn in as a Likud MK. When the swearing-in began, most of the reporters present abandoned the committee meeting and rushed to the plenum hall. In the newspapers the following day, there were no warnings about the grave state of the IDF. Rosenblum's photo, however, was on the front pages.
Prepare for the worst
On Monday, a General Staff forum devoted five hours to summarizing Seeds of Summer, the preparatory operations for September. Next week the final touches will be put in place at the Central Command, in coordination with the police. Changes of command in the territories have been postponed so that new officers will not be responsible for handling any eruptions.
In the wake of last year's Marmara flotilla affair and the Arab Spring, Military Intelligence has expanded its surveillance of Arab social networks and websites. Since the issue is mass psychology, the army knows it cannot really predict what is going to happen, just as it was impossible to anticipate that the initial riots in Tunisia would later lead to the fall of the regimes in Egypt and Libya.
Is the Central Command not devoting too much time and resources to September, as it did with the minuscule aid flotilla to Gaza two months ago? Officers recalled U.S. President Barack Obama's statement just before Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast: "We all hope for the best, but we have to be prepared for the worst."
One of the big unknowns about September is how Gaza's Hamas leadership will respond to events. The Mofaz report presents a worrisome scenario, whereby an escalation in the West Bank will lead to massive rocket fire from Gaza.
After the escalation that began two weeks ago, politicians are debating whether Hamas, which was not directly involved in the terror attack near Eilat or the subsequent rocket fire, is still deterred by Israel. People within the government and the General Staff say yes: It was careful not to get dragged into the fighting and the moment it understood its infrastructure was in danger, it sought to renew the truce. Kadima's leaders attacked the government for its helplessness and argued that the decision to quickly halt aerial attacks on Gaza was interpreted as Israeli weakness.
In the last round, more than 150 rockets were fired from Gaza, including dozens of Katyushas that hit Ashkelon and Be'er Sheva. The experience of the past several years shows that one round of fighting ends where the next round begins.
At the same time, the terror attack on Highway 12 showcased a significant new threat: 230 kilometers of porous border, which both the Gaza terror organizations and Bedouin cells inspired by Al-Qaida have identified as an Israeli weak point. The General Staff's investigation into the attack was a source of great frustration. A relatively focused intelligence alert from the Shin Bet led to a massive deployment by the Southern Command and the Eilat Division. But the prolonged nature of the readiness eroded the forces' alertness, while the terrorists were tracking the IDF's preparations and choosing their infiltration route.
The appearance of the defense minister, the chief of staff and the GOC Southern Command at the scene of the incident a bit more than an hour after it began - while terrorists were still in the area - was a serious security blunder that nearly culminated in another disaster.
The mistake that stirred the most public discussion - the decision not to close the road on the morning of the attack - turned out to be an understandable error of judgment, and definitely not a manifestation of carelessness. The GOC took responsibility, the chief of staff backed him and the minister responded sarcastically (in Ehud Barak's case, actually, it is more likely he was being unintentionally insensitive ).
Far more important than this drama are the investigation itself and the gaps in the deployment.
The swiftness, if not the alacrity, with which the media was told about the Shin Bet's warning angered the General Staff. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen spent hours talking over the past two weeks to sort things out. The attack planners evinced relative sophistication, with parallel attacks and mutual cover, reminiscent of Hezbollah's attacks in southern Lebanon at the end of the 1990s.
This week there was already a new intelligence alert about an attempt by Islamic Jihad to carry out a similar attack on the Egyptian border. The IDF has redivided the border into three brigade sectors, in place of two, and has positioned in one of them an infantry brigade commander. In the meantime, the third Iron Dome battery has been deployed in Ashdod.
The army's attempt to plug the huge hole in the Egyptian border will rely on more mobile forces and intelligence, along with speeding up construction of the fence (the new target date is December 2012, half a year earlier than originally planned ) and increased focus from the operations and intelligence branches.
The recent escalation did not end up with IDF ground forces entering Gaza. The impressive functioning of the Iron Dome batteries played a considerable role in this, as during the previous escalation in April. A Katyusha that hit Be'er Sheva killed one civilian; the interception of the other Katyushas in that barrage prevented more deaths, which might have compelled the government to launch an extensive campaign. Even if another ground operation is unavoidable, the Israeli leadership would prefer to enter it with more Iron Dome batteries, to diminish public pressure and increase its maneuvering range.
There were diplomatic considerations, too: Israel cannot be dragged into a high-casualty war when the United Nations is about to discuss a Palestinian state. It is also a question of personality. Netanyahu, who was burned twice in his first term in office by security adventures gone wrong (opening the Western Wall Tunnel and the failed attempt to assassinate Hamas official Khaled Meshal ), has thus far leaned toward not taking military gambles.
Israel is also seeking to contain the crisis with Egypt, but more terror attacks from Gaza and Sinai may make this argument a secondary consideration.
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