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Israel's strategic standing in the Middle East has improved and its security forces have registered impressive achievements in their war on terror in the past year, according to Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies.

At the same time, the motivation of Palestinians to continue their struggle against Israel has not been undermined, says "The Middle East Strategic Balance 2003-2004," this year's volume of the Jaffee Center's annual publication, which was released yesterday to the media.

According to the Jaffee Center report: "From its current position of strength, Israel is striving to advance its planned disengagement from the Palestinians."

Alongside the successes, notes the head of the Jaffee Center, Prof. Shai Feldman, the past year has also been characterized by a failure to exploit opportunities - first and foremost in the disregard shown for signs of Syria's willingness to renew peace negotiations.

The Jaffee Center publication also notes that alongside Israel's supremacy in the region's conventional balance of power, the past year has seen dangerous developments in Iran's nuclear program.

The deputy head of the Center, Dr. Ephraim Kam, said the United States seemed closer to the possible use of force to prevent Iran from completing its nuclear program. According to Kam, any Israeli military operation against Iran would require dialogue with the United States because U.S. forces are currently positioned between the two countries.

Prof. Feldman believes the improvement in Israel's strategic standing is not limited to the field of conventional warfare only, and notes that Israel has maintained exclusive capabilities in the non-conventional field too. He also stressed, however, that the last year had seen significant advances in Iran's nuclear program, particularly in the field of uranium enrichment.

Thus, noted Feldman, Iran is now closer than ever before to the production of fissile material, which is essential for the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Feldman added, however, that global attention to the inherent dangers in Iran's nuclear efforts had increased, especially among the United States and key European states.

Dr. Kam noted that the current situation in Iran was more complex than existed in Iraq on the eve of the Israel Air Force's strike on the latter's nuclear facilities in 1981. Iran, Kam said, had 4-5 nuclear reactors, and maybe even additional ones that had been built in secret. Hence, he said, multiple strikes may be needed in order to neutralize Iran's nuclear capabilities completely.

Kam said that the coming two months would be critical with respect to the international community's attitude to the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Over this period, he said, the International Atomic Energy Agency would have to decide whether to ask the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution against Iran's nuclear program.

At the same time, Kam added, Israel and the United States would have to decide whether to consider a military option.

Jaffee Center researchers Brigadier General (ret.) Shlomo Brom and Yiftah Shapir came to the conclusion that despite Egypt's acquisition of advanced American arms, the IDF has preserved its qualitative edge in the Egypt-Israel military balance.

Brom said the balance of power between states was not measured only in terms of the quantity of weapons each had, but also on the ability of each to operate its arms and command and control systems.

"Underlying the ongoing gap is Egypt's failure thus far to implement fully the Revolution in Military Affairs - that is, to integrate information technologies and advanced means of command, control and communication completely to allow optimal use of force in the battlefield," the Jaffee Center report notes.

Brom said he did not believe that Egypt could surprise the IDF as it did during the Yom Kippur War because Egypt currently relied on U.S. technology and U.S. experts in Egypt were reporting on the status of the Egyptian military.

The Jaffee Center researchers believe that the biggest danger facing Israel today stems from the non-conventional field and the increased activity of terror organizations.

According to the Jaffee Center, "Iraq has now become a convenient arena for jihad ... With the growing phenomenon of suicide bombing, the U.S. presence in Iraq now demands more and more assets that might have otherwise been deployed against various dimensions of the global terrorist threat."

Prof. Feldman also warned that Israeli leaders were suppressing the threat that international terrorists could get their hands on non-conventional weapons.

Jaffee Center staff member Yoram Schweitzer warned of the danger of the terror seeping out of Iraq, with one of its possible objectives being to exploit the instability in Saudi Arabia and take control of the country from within. "Conquering Saudi Arabia is Bin Laden's wet dream," Schweitzer said.