"It will be possible to stop Iran's nuclear program until approximately May 2007. If it is not curbed, Iran will realize its ambition to reach a situation similar to that of Japan - to achieve the capability and to stand on the brink of desire, just weeks away from producing a nuclear weapon." - Eli Levite, deputy director, Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

"The right word to describe what is happening within the Palestinian society is no longer 'anarchy' - it is 'atomization.' It is fragmenting. There is no entity and no authority, and this is not going to change for the better, from Israel's point of view, after the elections there next week." - A senior figure in the defense establishment, who closely follows developments among the Palestinians in general and in the Gaza Strip in particular.

"The Hezbollah operations to kidnap soldiers will continue, and in the end, one of them is liable to succeed. The consequence will be a large and immediate flareup on both sides of the Lebanon border." - A major general on the General Staff.

"The regional and global trends are negative for Israel and do not allow us to tread water. There are clear signs of this in the American and European approach. Dialogue with the Palestinians will not produce results. The next government will have to consider seriously a unilateral move in the West Bank." - A deputy director general in the Foreign Ministry.

This is the season of intelligence assessments and strategic appraisals, which this time differ from one another mainly in shades of black - light black, pitch black, and dismally dark. Everyone agrees that 2006 will be a year of crisis. Military Intelligence (MI), which a year ago was tempted to believe that 2005 would be a turning-point year, and the Mossad espionage agency, were to present their assessments to the security cabinet on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry next week, the Shin Bet security service at about the same time, and the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) Plans and Policy Directorate (PPD) was considering if and when to update the assessment it presented last fall.

But the timetable, which was set before the latest medical and political developments, was disrupted. The assessors breathed a sigh of relief. It is better for them to get through the Palestinian elections without fear of getting their forecasts wrong. And it is also worth waiting for the new balance of forces in the Israeli government to become clear, because the acceptability of the assessment is influenced in part by the status of the assessors, and that depends on the status of their superiors.

Karadi implements lessons

In the present governmental see-saw, the (new) foreign minister is rising and the defense minister is falling. Three days before his second stroke, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon growled at Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister, in a discussion that included Mofaz's initiative to abridge the term of compulsory military service. In contrast, Tzipi Livni, who appears to have very good prospects of remaining in the Foreign Ministry and retaining senior status in any government centering on the Kadima party, will find a convenient infrastructure for her desired diplomatic moves. The intelligence unit of the Foreign Ministry - the Center for Political Research (CPR) - has grown stronger in recent years under its director, Harry Knei-Tal. This week Knei-Tal was off to The Hague to take up his post as Israel's new ambassador to The Netherlands. His replacement at CPR, Nimrod Barkan, has an ambitious plan to upgrade the unit further. In a document he sent to the ministry's director general, Ron Prosor, Barkan envisaged for CPR a "crucial role" in consolidating the Foreign Ministry "as a collecting arm on the one hand and as the initiator of political and military-political moves in parallel, on the other hand."

The dissolution of the boundary between the prevention of terrorism and subversion and internal security was reflected this week in the invitation that was extended to police major general Moshe Mizrahi, formerly head of the police Investigations Branch, to teach the doctrine of combating corruption to cadets in the National Security College. The cadets formed the impression that one of the main problems is the contradiction between suspicions and investigations, and the kowtowing of public figures to suspects. During his tenure in the Investigations Branch, Mizrahi said, no one would have dared drive Arcadi Gaydamak, the Russian tycoon, in luxurious style in the car of the mayor of Jerusalem.

The heads of the branches and sections at Shin Bet headquarters this week became acquainted with the majors general of the Israel Police. It was a familiarization meeting of the two headquarters, consisting of about 30 men and two women. The coordination between the two bodies is quite efficient, but the question of responsibility and authority to collect intelligence about Israelis in the West Bank has not been decided - not between the Shin Bet and the Israel Police, and not between those two bodies and the IDF.

After Baruch Goldstein massacred Muslim worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron 12 years ago, a clumsy demarcation emerged between the responsibility of the army for an "envelope" of disruptions of order by Israelis, and the police responsibility for the inner ring. The settlers and their collaborators exploited the vagueness and the fact that the government, the officer corps, the state prosecution and the courts were recoiling from bringing them to justice. On Sunday, after viewing the scenes of the rioting in Hebron, Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi decided not to wait for interministerial agreement to be reached. Karadi applied the lessons of the evacuation of the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria settlers: the immediate quenching of flames that are beginning to leap up requires a "rapid critical mass" to instill deep respect. He therefore reinforced the Shai (Samaria and Judea) District of the police with 250 tough Special Forces police, along with their mounted units and spray-vehicles. The rioters, masked and otherwise, were filmed, and the police took as a compliment their complaints about the use of excessive force.

Conglomerate within a conglomerate

The security-intelligence-policy corporation consists of eight enterprises: the IDF, Shin Bet, Mossad, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, Israel Police, National Security Council and Atomic Energy Commission. Each of them zealously guards its strength, its powers, its budgets and, in the case of those that are engaged in active collection, especially its sources. The question that crops up naturally is who guides the collection of intelligence, either at his own initiative or to clarify follow-up questions?

In some cases, personal friction is presented as being organizational. The director of the PPD, Major General Yitzhak (Haki) Harel, has been a close friend of the chief of the Mossad, Major General (res.) Meir Dagan, for almost two decades. If in the past few years Harel had been the director of MI, instead of Major General Aharon Farkash-Ze'evi, the relations between MI and the Mossad would not have deteriorated to their present nadir.

The largest of the enterprises, effectively a conglomerate within a conglomerate, is the IDF. Assessment machines on three assembly lines are chugging away there - in MI, in PPD and in the Operations Directorate - with branches in air force intelligence and naval intelligence and in the intelligence units of the generals of the territorial commands. In the opinion of the chief field intelligence officer, Brigadier General Guy Lipkin, the GOC Army Headquarters also needs an intelligence research unit, just like his colleagues in the air and at sea.

The Field Intelligence Corps has been operating within Army Headquarters, separately from MI, since the spring of 2000 to collect combat intelligence, through observation sites, for example. It is now under threat, because of the fashion of mergers and cancelations, of being unified with the Artillery Corps in the "Combat Support Corps." The explanation for the unification idea is the close connection between the creators of the targets and their destroyers, but this is not persuading the intelligence officers, who note that although there is no fire without intelligence, there definitely is intelligence without fire.

Less think tank, more tank think

In the 30 years between the Yom Kippur War and Sharon's initiative to evacuate the settlements in the Gaza Strip, the assessments of PPD, and of the strategic planning division within it, played an important role. In the spring of 2004, Major General Harel submitted a gloomy assessment about the impact of the evacuation. Mofaz, Sharon's junior political partner, did not like the assessment and claimed that Harel had forged an alliance with the previous chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon, the evacuation skeptic, who for other reasons sought to reduce the involvement of PPD in political processes. The chief of staff who was appointed to implement the evacuation, Dan Halutz, is continuing to reduce the IDF's political visibility.

The task of translating the government's directives into military terms was placed under the responsibility of the head of the Operations Directorate, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, and will be carried out in a department to "shape the battle" under Colonel Ariel (his surname cannot be published), who was Kaplinsky's intelligence officer in Central Command. This will eliminate the post held by Brigadier General Amos Lehman, who was the aide to the chief of staff (Ya'alon) for "thought processes," and thus the Halutz-Kaplinsky-Eisenkot alignment will leave its mark.

In addition, Halutz, who sought to make the Operations Directorate the leading branch in the General Staff, has set about restoring MI to its natural dimensions. MI had grown accustomed to behaving like a sovereign kingdom, with separate duchies such as Unit 8200. The previous chief of the Operations Directorate, Major General Yisrael Ziv, succeeded after a considerable effort in bringing a representation of MI into the operations "pit." The deputy chief of staff, Moshe Kaplinsky, was astonished to discover, while holding discussions with the officers responsible for force building in the various branches, that just one chief of staff arrived from each of land, sea and air, whereas intelligence sent nine different officers - an officer for each formation and unit, without a general mechanism for personnel and their training. Halutz and Kaplinsky intend to impose order and discipline on intelligence; Unit 8200, for example, is expected to increase in terms of its professional staff but to shed superfluous management layers.

Halutz is peeling away the aura of intelligence: not omnipotent, not omniscient, not omni-responsible. The intelligence branch that will be established under him will be stronger than in the past internally, with more centralized control in its units than used to be the case, but weaker externally, in regard to the General Staff branches and the state-political level. The pretension of producing world-embracing reflections will give way to the professional terminology of coordinates in mission orders; in other words, less think tank and more tank think.

Because MI, by government decision, is still responsible for the national assessment regarding war, in the sense of warning against an enemy attack, and is directly accountable to the prime minister rather than the defense minister in this regard, its director will be a senior aide for military intelligence with the rank of brigadier general, probably an officer who has commanded a regular division and is on his way to becoming a major general. This officer, rather than the head of MI's research department, will represent MI in discussions convened by the chief of the Operations Directorate.

Reinforcement from America

To lead the revolution in intelligence, Halutz looked for a major general who would fit two conditions: agreement to the seniority of operations, in the air force format, and readiness to view the directorship of MI as a final, lengthy and satisfying station in his military career - not an interim station on the way to trying to become chief of staff, as was the case with three of Halutz's four predecessors. This ruled out the candidacies of Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz. Halutz preferred to import a reinforcement from America: the military attache in Washington, Amos Yadlin.

Yadlin is a distant relative of Yigael Yadin: his mother and Yadin's wife, Carmela, were cousins of the pre-1948 aristocracy in the Jewish Yishuv, from the Hacohen-Ruppin family. The similarity between the names is just a coincidence, but as it happened, Yadlin's taking control of MI, two weeks ago, heralded an intention to reconstruct the British model that was in force in the IDF when Yadin was chief of staff - intelligence as the servant of operations, not lording it over operations or even equal in status to that branch.

Yadin's successors deviated from his path, but his approach was again heard when he became the senior security member of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the opening stages of the Yom Kippur War. Under Yadin's influence, the commission's report differentiated between the intelligence assessment and the situation appraisal, or, synonymously, the commander's appraisal. The report called for the punishment of those who were found responsible for the flaws in the intelligence assessment - the director of MI at the time, Eli Zeira, and his aides - and the commander who has the responsibility to formulate a situation appraisal, to which the intelligence assessment contributes and is weighted within it, but is not identical to it. According to the tendentious finding of the report, the commander in question was the chief of staff, David Elazar, while Golda Meir, the prime minister, and Moshe Dayan, the defense minister, escaped punishment, even though under the Israeli regime, command of the army is effectively in the hands of the government and in practice mainly in the hands of the prime minister and the defense minister.

Halutz and Yadlin are among the last of the career army personnel who remember firsthand the experience of the Yom Kippur War. Other than them, the only other graduate of October 1973 on the General Staff is the commander of the navy, Rear Admiral Dudu Ben Ba'ashat. If the inconceivable happens and Shimon Peres is not a member of the next government, whose horizons are covered with dark assessments, it will be the first government of which none of the members was either a minister or a Knesset member before that war.