There doesn't seem to be a more hazardous situation for the citizens of Israel than the combination between upcoming elections and discussions on the defense budget. Suddenly it turns out that Israel is just minutes away from such a terrible threat to its existence, the fear of which requires two courses of action: increasing the defense budget, and voting for Ariel Sharon.
Leaks, "revelations" and declarations galore, coming from the Israel Defense Forces and "senior sources" who are not particularly far removed from the Prime Minister's Office, are grabbing the headlines these days, with everything boiling down to the terrible danger the state is facing. The head of Military Intelligence, Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, has stated that if the Iranian nuclear program isn't halted by March, it will be too late; and reports tell of the purchase of air-defense missiles by the Iranian regime, the improved accuracy of Syria's missiles, and the impressive progress made in the development of the Iranian Shihab missiles.
The main problem with this fear mongering is that there is nothing new in it, and it certainly has no bearing now on Israel's strategic situation or on the balance of power between Israel and its rivals in the region. Iran has been developing nuclear arms for quite some time; the Shihab-3 has been operational for a long time; the acquisition by the Iranian military of the air-defense missiles is the continuation of a natural, expected and logical armament process that does not constitute a real change in the Israel-Iran power balance; and the improved accuracy of Syria's missiles is insignificant on the strategic level. In any event, Israel's deployment vis-a-vis these missiles is based on deterrence, and thus, the degree of their accuracy is of little importance.
Since the early 1990s, in an an almost fixed cycle, MI has been declaring that Iran will have nuclear arms "within five years." These are the most fixed five years in the history of intelligence. Some two years ago, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz determined that Iran would pass "the point of no return" in its nuclear program already in 2004.
It all comes down to the fact that MI does not have solid information on the progress of the Iranian nuclear program - and as such, it is in good company. No other Western intelligence organization has better particulars and information. And this is the backdrop against which Ze'evi-Farkash's declaration with regard to March 2006 as "the point of no return" in the Iranian nuclear program should be judged. The same goes for the statement by International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, that if Iran renews its uranium-enrichment activities it will be just a few months away from the production of nuclear arms.
Nuclear arms and ballistic missiles are always a tried and tested recipe for sewing panic among the citizens. But more so than anything else, the statements are directed at the cabinet and Knesset members, who have the power to influence the fate of the defense budget. And like it always does, the fear mongering is again expected to prove effective. Which MK will dare to demand a cut in the defense budget at a time when the threat to the country's existence is growing by the day? Especially when the defense minister himself, who is agonizing so much over poverty and unemployment, has made it clear that his ministry's budget must not be touched, and that Israel has already reached the red line due to a shortage of resources being channeled to the defense establishment.
The upcoming elections also play a part in magnifying the threats and the intimidation. After all, what could be more vital than placing at the helm a man who understands, is capable of and could in the future take action to undermine the Iranian threat? Of course, the man for the job could only be a battle-rich general, a defense expert, who has a clear-cut advantage over someone whose entire agenda is a civil-social one. When the missiles threaten, one must not put one's trust in someone who has never commanded divisions and has never steered the IDF's war machine.
And when Sharon says that Israel "can't have a situation in which Iran will become a nuclear power, and we are making all the necessary preparations for scenarios of this kind," the prime minister is conveying two hidden messages. First of all, we are preparing, and preparations cost a lot of money. And second, only someone who really understands defense can lead Israel in its deployment in the face of the worst threat of all.
The prime minister's determination - backed up by senior military officers - that Israel cannot come to terms with a nuclear Iran poses a challenge to the state, a challenge it is unlikely to be able to meet. After all, it means that if the international community fails in its efforts to put a halt to Iran's development activities, Israel will be left with no alternative but to act on its own and carry out a strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities.
This is a dangerous determination, particularly when Sharon is fully aware of the limitations of an Israeli military operation, which boil down in practical terms to the IDF's inability to put paid to the Iranian nuclear program by military means.
Naturally, Benjamin Netanyahu couldn't let himself be left behind, and he spoke out even more severely when calling on Israel to adopt "bold and daring" measures against Iran, in keeping with the action taken by Menachem Begin against Iraq.
Iran may well come to possess nuclear arms. And if this happens, Israel will have to learn to live with the Iranian threat and to neutralize it by means of credible deterrence. An important component of this deterrence will be the fortitude of the public, which will support the policy adopted by the government. The current fear mongering is not particularly good for the public's fortitude.
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