Israel waging war of nerves against Iran and Hezbollah
Some Israeli officials seem ready to make explicit, public declarations to both Iran and Lebanon.
This week's reports by The Times of London give the impression that Israel is raising the bar in the war of nerves against Iran and Hezbollah. On Monday the newspaper reported that Iran had completed its nuclear research program, and that its progress toward building a nuclear bomb depends only on the decision of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The following day, it warned of the danger of escalation between Israel and Hezbollah on the Lebanese border.
Both articles were written by the paper's foreign news editor, Richard Beeston, who was in Israel last week.
The report on Iran's nuclear program is based on anonymous "Western" intelligence sources. But at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee briefing on Tuesday, the head of the Military Intelligence research brigade, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, used almost identical terms to those of The Times.
Iran, Baidatz told the MKs, will soon reach the point where it can "charge forward toward a nuclear weapon." Beginning in 2011, he said, use of the Iranian nuclear bomb will depend only the decision to deploy it, not on technological factors.
Sources for the newspaper's report on Israel-Hezbollah tensions are not known. The Times quotes Israel Defense Forces Deputy GOC Northern Command Alon Friedman as saying the northern border could "explode at any minute."
The timing of the articles implies that someone in Israel's defense establishment wanted to deliver an explicit, public declaration on both the Iranian and Lebanese fronts. The fact that this source allowed a senior British journalist, to meet with and quote the Northern Command's number-two officer appears not to have been accidental. Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, and other top officers, seldom grant interviews, much less to the foreign press.
Last week, in the wake of the mysterious explosion at a Hezbollah Katyusha rocket storehouse in southern Lebanon, Haaretz reported on rising tensions on the northern border, though both Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Ashkenazi rushed to make reassuring statements.
But Friedman's remarks to The Times are in stark contrast to those of the other top brass. Perhaps Israel has changed tack, or Friedman simply did not receive the army's talking points before his interview. Or maybe Friedman gave the customary response to his foreign guests - ("Don't misjudge this quiet, on the other side the enemy is making preparations"), and the visitor interpreted this as an immediate threat.
The possibility of a confrontation with Hezbollah as a direct result of an Israeli strike appears in every Western assessment of potential developments in the region. But The Times also reported on another, aspect of the conflict, one which had already been hinted at in an Israeli newspaper.
Israel has issued several warnings recently to both Syria and Hezbollah against introducing "destabilizing weapons" to Lebanon. The entry of antiaircraft missiles into the country would seem to be a "red line" from Israel's perspective, one that could lead it into deterrent action against Hezbollah.
But there are two caveats: It will be exceedingly difficult to rally international support for a Third Lebanon War, particularly if it were to erupt over surface-to-air missiles, which are already today deployed in Syria. And if a confrontation erupts between Israel and Iran, Israel is unlikely to ignite a secondary front that would divert resources from the main theater.
Everything related to Iran seems to be related to the wider picture. In recent months Israel has tried to flex its muscles over Iran's nuclear program. In press briefings IDF officers no longer hesitate to refer explicitly to the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran - a taboo subject for officers until a year ago. Top Air Force officers take pains to stress their pilots' elevated state of readiness for battle, should the need arise.
And there are still more transparent processes underway. Missile-equipped Navy ships and submarines passed through the Suez Canal several times recently with Egyptian assent in what appears to be an implied threat to Tehran. Every few months, foreign journalists receive leaks on comprehensive long-range aerial exercises.
The backdrop to all of this is the nuclear timetable - Iran's progress, the deadline for U.S.-Iranian talks and the possibility of heightened international sanctions.
In this light Israel must stress the concreteness of the military option. Washington, which to Jerusalem seems helpess regarding Iran, finds it convenient to cultivate talk of an Israeli strike to pressure Tehran.
But it could be that Israel is indeed accelerating its preparations for a strike, out of a circumspect reading of the situation and a growing belief that Washington will not come to its aid.