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The commander of the Israel Air Force's anti-aircraft division, Brig. Gen. Daniel Milo, dined last week in Tel Aviv with an honorable American guest: Lt. Gen. Henry A. "Trey" Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency at the Pentagon. Obering met with his Israeli counterpart and the head of the Homa missile defense program, Aryeh Herzog. He also met with the head of the Defense Ministry's research and development authority, Shmuel Keren, Air Force Commander Ido Nehoshtan and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

There was no argument about the goal: defense against Iran's missiles. But there was a dispute about the means. The Israeli defense establishment, along with Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing, wants to develop the next-generation missile-defense system, the Arrow 3. The competing companies, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, are trying to market a ground-to-air version of the Sam-3 surface-to-air missile, which is launched from ships.

When the first Arrow missile - the grandfather of the Arrow 3 - was born, it had no American competitors; the grandson does. Obering's hosts were afraid that pressure from the leading manufacturers and members of Congress would influence him. They were relieved when at the end of a thorough analysis, a compromise was found in favor of the Arrow 3. Israel will develop and deploy the missile, but to be on the safe side, will be able, if it desires, to purchase the Sam-3 as well.

Contrary to the public impression, a military confrontation with a nuclear Iran is not imminent. Israeli and American intelligence now both predict that it will take at least a year or two before Iran has a nuclear capability liable to produce nuclear weapons within the next five years. If the Iranians are foolish enough to launch Shihab missiles - three to 11 minutes of flying time to Tel Aviv, more than enough time for a satellite warning, sirens and a dash to a shelter - at least nine out of 10 missiles will be downed. The one liable to get through would cause damage equal to that of a suicide bombing.

The Iranians are determined to go ahead with their nuclear program, come what may. That is the most fixed variable in the semi-clandestine confrontation on Israel's northern border. As long as the Iranians believe in "restraint today for a nuclear tomorrow," they will enforce discipline on Hassan Nasrallah.

The Hezbollah leader now has two big problems: He is an official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is subordinate to the committee responsible for activity in Lebanon, and he is a lifelong prisoner of Israel, under house arrest, as it were, lest he end up like Imad Mughniyeh.

Strategy dilemma

Even if Nasrallah wants to strike at Israel, he has to consider the population's dissatisfaction, especially in the south, which does not want to suffer again, as well as Tehran's preference to get stronger in general and go nuclear in particular.

Although in the summer of 2006 there was fighting in Lebanon, as far as Israel was concerned it was not the Second Lebanon War, but the First Iran War: A limited war, via a proxy, Hezbollah, which embarked on a hasty path without its dispatcher's permission. Next time around, in the Second Iran War, which is years rather than weeks away, the arena will not be limited to Lebanon.

Attitudes toward Iran's nuclear armament divide the Israeli leadership. There is a division between those who are postponing the inevitable (Military Intelligence, Northern Command) and those who are spurring on the inevitable (the Israel Air Force, the Mossad, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert).

This is an echo of the indecision in Washington. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has twice warned that a war with Iran, at the height of the U.S. Army's dual involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, would be catastrophic. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, is particularly afraid of undermining stability in the region. But according to Mullen, stability is liable to be undermined after an Israeli attack on Iran, but not if Iran succeeds in going nuclear.

In the final analysis, there will be no escaping a belligerent operation against Iran, but now it is essential to concentrate on Iraq and Afghanistan and stabilize the troops returning home from these war zones. This would prevent them from feeling bitter and guarantee a constant stream of enlistees. For the Americans, Iran is currently fourth in the order of priorities, so the Pentagon is emphasizing defense preparations, including radar deployment and launchers for anti-missile defense in Europe, rather than a policy of attack.

The Americans are more concerned about Iranian competition in Iraq and the threats by the Revolutionary Guards to disrupt the movement of tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. In June there was a joint exercise, the first of its kind, of the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, to intercept Iranian missiles with the same Sam-3 missiles being offered to Israel.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell responded sharply this week to the boasting by Revolutionary Guards' commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, who claimed that Iran has the power to interfere with the transport of oil. They'd better not try, recommended Morrell, their economy is more vulnerable and is almost totally dependent on oil revenues.

Bitter lesson

Despite the Iranian custom of telling tall tales after missile tests, the bitter lesson of the surface-to-sea missile that was secretly delivered from Iran to Hezbollah and hit the INS Hanit forces us to assume that new missile capabilities will soon reach Lebanon, too, and from there threaten Israel Navy ships, the merchant marine and shore-based targets. This time Israel will probably be stricter about monitoring arms deliveries from Iran via Syria into Lebanon.

Hezbollah's rocket arsenal, which was discussed two days ago in the ministerial committee on security issues, has increased not "threefold" as was mistakenly reported, but by one-third. But the IDF has gotten stronger similarly, and even more so. Its divisions are stronger and better trained and are benefiting from improved intelligence and communications - as evidenced by dozens of new antennae that have cropped up in the region.

During the First Iran War, 40 Israeli civilians were killed on the home front by about 4,000 Hezbollah rockets during 35 days of fighting. The IDF shot into Lebanon - not with record precision and efficiency - about 180,000 bombs, shells and missiles, about 50 times the amount of ordnance Hezbollah dropped on Israel. The IDF believes that this was a deterrent and wants the other side to know that next time they can expect a similar approach.

This bloody calculation does not include the expected dozens of casualties on the military side of the equation. Once again there will be a need for divisions to capture rocket-launching sites on the ground, conduct village-to-village and occasionally house-to-house searches, and hold areas until the dismantling of Hezbollah outposts.

The first stage will take a week to two weeks. The second stage will take weeks to months. The cumulative result, if we recall Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank and the version of it taking shape in Gaza, will be that in all three sectors Israel will return, partially, to its situation in the 1990s.

Under the threat of an Israeli operation on the one hand and Iranian restraint on the other, the IDF estimates that Hezbollah will not choose to launch rockets against Israel in revenge for Mughniyeh's assassination.The main alternatives are an attack on Israeli or Jewish targets abroad and terrorist activity in the territories or in Israel, via the organization's unit in the territories. Hezbollah is advising and employing members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, enlisting Israeli Arabs and preparing attacks abroad.

The General Staff and Northern Command recommend that Israel change the rules of the game and Hezbollah's area of operations: to react harshly inside Lebanon to any attempt to bring down air force planes on reconnaissance sorties and to attacks in Israel or abroad, to launch an offensive operation against the transport of weapons from Syria, and not to be deterred from hitting Nasrallah.

This is not a convenient time for Iranian involvement in a renewed campaign between Israel and Hezbollah, nor for Syrian intervention. In October 2003, after the slaughter of 21 Israelis in the attack on Maxim's Restaurant in Haifa, the air force attacked the Palestinian training camp in Ein Sahab near Damascus. The attack shocked and humiliated Syrian President Bashar Assad; he vowed not to show restraint in the event of another attack.

Some people in Israel were afraid that Assad would react to last September's attack on the nuclear reactor he had imported from North Korea. Assad knew that Syria is not Lebanon, that its army is not Hezbollah and that his assets are exposed to a severe Israeli attack. He was not crazy about getting involved in the First Iran War and will try to remain in the bleachers in the next war as well. His role: to observe, not to attack.