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Military Intelligence had clear information about an impending kidnap attempt by Hezbollah shortly before the Lebanese group carried out its cross-border raid on July 12. However, the information - which could, if properly handled, have prevented the kidnapping of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser - was not analyzed and passed on to the troops in time, according to an internal inquiry conducted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF Spokesman's Office, asked about this report, has refused to either confirm or deny it for the last three days, saying that the issue is still being investigated by Military Intelligence (MI) and the Northern Command.

The inquiry into the intelligence aspects of the kidnapping is being conducted by Brigadier General Avi Ashkenazi, who was appointed by outgoing GOC Northern Command Udi Adam. But even though his investigation - which could alter the entire picture of the abduction - is not yet completed, he is slated to present his report to Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and other senior IDF officers this week.

The report will apparently focus solely on the events of July 12, and will not deal with previous, similar kidnapping incidents that were foiled.

If intelligence information was indeed mishandled, this would hardly be the first time such an event has ever occurred. Army sources cited the case of the glider-borne assault on northern Israel in 1987 when, due to an error by MI's signals intelligence unit - which misreported a key word as sayara rather than tayara - troops prepared for an attack by ground-based rather than aerial vehicles. Similarly, America's National Security Agency taped crucial conversations by Al-Qaida members on September 10, 2001, but the conversations were only translated on September 12 - a day after Al-Qaida destroyed the World Trade Center in New York.

Ground forces at IAF's expense

Meanwhile, senior Israel Air Force officers warned yesterday that an apparent move by the General Staff, the Defense Ministry and the government to invest more in the ground forces at the expense of the IAF, as one lesson of the war that followed the kidnapping, is liable to severely harm the IAF's preparedness for future wars, which may well be different from the recent one in Lebanon.

The sources warned that the impending cuts were liable to force the IAF to cut back on manpower and training, and perhaps even to shut down complete fighter squadrons. Halutz, a former commander of the IAF, has said in the past that he would rather shut down a tank division than a fighter squadron, but the officers fear that the public backlash generated by the war may force him to abandon this stance.

According to these officers, the principle threats now facing Israel are Syria, which could view the outcome of the recent war as encouragement for attacking Israel in order to regain the Golan Heights; Iran, should it succeed in obtaining nuclear weapons; and Egypt, should President Hosni Mubarak be succeeded by a regime hostile to Israel. Moreover, they said, Israel could face war on two or all of these fronts at once, requiring it to be able to shift forces quickly from one front to another - something at which the air force obviously excels.

The officers also claimed that ground troops might never be employed at all in wars against any of these countries. However, they added, if ground forces were employed, air force cover would be needed to give them freedom to maneuver.

The officers said that for Israel to retain air superiority over Arab and Muslim states, some of which are now being armed with the most advanced American weaponry, the IAF needs about 100 new planes a year. In the coming decade, the IAF would like to acquire three or four squadrons of F-35 planes, the successor to the F-16, and a smaller number of F-22s, successor to the F-15 - at a cost that is liable to reach $200 million per plane.

While the IAF has been preparing for some time to defend Israel against Syria's network of Scud missiles, it fears that Hezbollah's success in launching thousands of short-range rockets - including some of Syrian manufacture - at Israel during the recent war might encourage Syria to make use of this arsenal, which numbers some 5,000 rockets. Moreover, since Syria makes some of these rockets itself, it could replenish its supply even during wartime.

Thus far, Israel has detected no attempts by either Syria or Iran to replenish Hezbollah's rocket supply, but if such attempts were spotted, the IAF would presumably be ordered to attack the shipments. It might also be ordered to attack Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, should he emerge from his bunker.

On the first day of the war, the intelligence agencies narrowed the search for Nasrallah to four buildings in Beirut. However, the government elected not to bomb them, for fear of causing hundreds of casualties and generating international pressure to stop the war before its goals had been achieved.