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About the MESS Report

Israel's security situation is fraught with a paradox. Despite the occasional incidents in the West Bank and on the Gaza border, 2009 (after Operation Cast Lead ended in January) was the quietest year in a decade in security terms. But amid this quiet, a worrying threat has developed on all sides of the Israeli home front. Most of the civilian population is now menaced by many more missiles and rockets; their range, precision and potential damage is greater than in the past. And memories of 2006 teach that we can't hope that they will rust.

A badly waged war in Lebanon, despite attempts to rewrite history, and a better-managed operation in Gaza have left behind a similar picture. The price the enemy organizations paid, as did the civilians they operated behind, has created reasonable deterrence. It seems that Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as Syria, which watched the fighting from the sidelines, has no taste for another direct clash with Israel. The Israel Defense Forces has used training and exercises to close most of the gaps in preparation for more intense confrontations.

Meanwhile, the government and General Staff face regular challenges that involve dilemmas. How should we respond to provocations by the adversary, what action should we take to prevent the enemy from getting stronger? Should Israel draw, in public or for itself, red lines regarding the terror organizations' obtaining of advanced weapons? There have been concerns lately about a flare-up in the north with Syria (amid mutual declarations and threats) and Hezbollah (regarding the organization's arming and concerns that it would retaliate for the assassination of senior member Imad Mughniyeh). In both cases, Israel's leaders acted responsibly and with restraint, and it seems the danger has abated.

In the past Israel did not risk war to stop the enemy from growing stronger, except in the case of nuclear programs that could be stopped with one operation: the attacks in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. Hezbollah today has about 45,000 rockets, whose range covers most of Israel. Two components could upgrade its ability to present a new threat: more precise warheads, which could repeatedly strike air force bases and other strategic sites, and weapons likely to upset the regional balance of power, which Syria is unlikely to risk handing to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. A similar dilemma, regarding less sophisticated weaponry, exists in Gaza. Hamas has already tested a smuggled missile with a range of about 60 kilometers.

The IDF, from the chief of staff to battalion commanders, sounds realistic these days, aware of the complexities of the conflicts and in no hurry to wage unnecessary wars. At a time when the right-wing government is sparking riots in Jerusalem, the army is the main link in maintaining the strategic ties with the United States and even with Turkey.

The distinction Gen. David Petraeus made about the damage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inflicting on the U.S. military, although it was not mentioned in talks between senior Israeli officials and the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has been clearly understood by our defense officials. The close relationship with the American generals dictates a more moderate worldview, through an understanding of the considerations of our partners. It comes as no surprise that brigade commanders in the territories, veterans of bloody battles with the Palestinians in the last decade, support stronger security ties with the Palestinian Authority.

But deterrence and coordination are not a long-term strategy; their expiration date seems not far away. Lacking a diplomatic horizon with the Palestinians and the Syrians, the cover on the bubbling security cauldron can be expected to shake loose. The prime minister is now busy with day-to-day survival, maneuvering between a crisis with U.S. President Barack Obama and trouble with the ultra-Orthodox. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who like Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi openly supports renewed talks with the Syrians, has not yet proved that the matter is a burning one for him.

Close scrutiny of the Syrian track is an essential stop on the way to preventing deterioration into a war with Iran. American opposition to an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear sites right now is a major way to stop a regional flare-up. So is the care that Ashkenazi is taking, also inspired by the forum of unofficial advisers the chief of staff and defense minister consult. If talks with Damascus are added to the mix, it might be possible to head off the threat of war with Tehran.

Posted by Amos Harel on March 24, 2010

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