Israel-Iran faceoff || In wake of Bulgaria bombing, Israel must prepare to face more Iranian attacks
This is not the first time we've heard talk about 'a moment of truth' with respect to an Israeli decision to attack Iran. Eventually, however, that moment will arrive. In the meantime, Tehran is doing all it can to hurt Israel, as witnessed in Bulgaria this week.
Israel's ambassador to Bulgaria, Shaul Kamisa Raz, who visited the site of the terrorist attack in Burgas on Wednesday night, is no stranger to the potential damage of bombs planned or manufactured in Iran. Toward the end of the 1990s, on the eve of the Israeli army's withdrawal from South Lebanon, Kamisa Raz examined many such explosive devices, as the intelligence officer and later deputy commander of the Israel Defense Force's liaison unit to Lebanon. In February 1999, Kamisa Raz saw his superior, Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein, killed by explosives planted by Hezbollah on the road from the Druze town of Hasbaya. Another senior officer who arrived on the scene was Aviv Kochavi, at the time the commander of the eastern section of the liaison unit and now director of Military Intelligence.
In the situation appraisal conducted on Wednesday by Israel's top security officials, Kochavi's staff offered the assessment that Iran was behind the attack in Bulgaria, possibly with the aid of Hezbollah. Last February, the Iranians, with Hezbollah's assistance, tried to attack Israeli targets in India, Georgia and Thailand. Two of the planned attacks were foiled, but in the third (in India ), an Israeli diplomat's wife was wounded. Since the beginning of this month, even before the serious incident in Burgas, there have also been reports about planned attacks that were thwarted in Cyprus and Kenya.
The Iranians and Hezbollah are trying to attack targets for which Israel cannot provide substantial security. Clearly, their preference would be to strike at a more "prestigious" target: an embassy, a senior diplomat or politician on a visit abroad, an Israeli plane. Because the Iranians have not succeeded in this so far, and because it is important for them to exact a price from Israel for the assassinations of Iranian scientists and Hezbollah leader Imad Mughriyeh, they apparently consider even a tourist bus a worthy target. There is no reason to be impressed by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah's denial of any connection to this week's attack. Israel should deploy for the possibility of more attempts to perpetrate more of them.
A model plan
The assassination of senior figures of the Syrian regime in a bold attack carried out in the heart of its security compound, the wholesale defection of high-profile generals and the outbreak of pitched battles in Damascus itself, just a few hundred meters from the presidential palace - these are among the growing number of indications that the collapse of the Assad regime is imminent.
The Arab world and the international community have long awaited a decisive act that would undo the tight knot binding Assad and his foes in a grim deadlock. The assassination of Assef Shawkat, the president's brother-in-law and No. 2 figure in the regime, in the attack on Wednesday could supply the rebels with the momentum they need to cut the knot.
Assad discovered this week that the rebels are capable of getting to his personnel in the very center of Damascus and that his close inner circle is susceptible to attacks from the outside. The explosion two days ago took place at the most sensitive site of the Syrian security establishment, during a meeting of the crisis unit that Assad himself appointed to manage the fighting against the opposition.
The president is now dependent on the weakened loyalty of the group of generals who still remain around him and on the dubious support of Russia, which for some weeks has been spreading rumors about the removal of its military experts from Syria. Assad has recovered before and shown that forecasts of his rapid collapse were mistaken. However, the blow he sustained Wednesday could accelerate the talks aimed at replicating the "Yemenite model": an agreement to allow the safe departure of the despot's family from the country. Western intelligence agencies have had difficulty in assessing whether Assad himself would choose to stay and fight to the death, as Muammar Gadhafi and Saddam Hussein did before him.
The regime's nervousness is attested to by the reports about the frequent movements of the units that handle Syria's chemical weapons stocks and its long-range missiles. Part of the regime's effort is aimed at ensuring a separation between different components of the chemical weapons, so that the opposition will not be able to use them even if it captures them. Israel, while keeping a close watch on these developments, for fear that whole stocks of chemical weapons will disappear, as happened last year in Libya, is also concerned about the morning-after scenarios.
At the moment, even the largest of the opposition groups, the Free Syrian Army, does not appear capable of taking over from the present regime. This week, the day before the assassinations in Damascus, MI head Kochavi spoke about an accelerated process of "Iraqization" in Syria - the splitting of the country into subdistricts ruled by different sects and extremist groups. It is possible that Syria's "way out" will be to try to imitate the Egyptian model: the takeover of the country by a group of generals, most of them Sunnis, who were not involved in the massacres of civilians, in an attempt to forestall a murderous war of succession.
Slouching toward Tehran
The abrupt dissolution of Israel's unity government this week is not expected to affect the Israeli decision about whether to attack Iran. Contrary to some of the analyses voiced at the beginning of May, Kadima's leap into the arms of Likud stemmed almost solely from considerations of its own survival. The Iranian nuclear project was almost certainly not taken into account, one way or the other. The same test of political profit-and-loss underlay Kadima's decision to leave the coalition this week over the dispute concerning the drafting of yeshiva students. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not need Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz to consolidate broad support for an attack on Iran and does not need him now, either. The prime minister and no one else will make the final decision.
The "forum of eight" ministers (which actually had been nine but has now been reduced ) is a relevant body for making situation assessments and strategic decisions on issues of principle. But as it has no legal standing, the final say on such matters lies with the security cabinet. And there, according to assessments in both the political and defense establishments, Netanyahu will get a majority for whichever decision he makes. The opponents of an attack would appear to be pinning their hopes excessively on the conjectured stance of the professional echelon, the IDF top brass and the Mossad.
However fateful it may be, a directive to bomb Iran's facilities will be a legitimate decision. None of Israel's top generals are likely to resign in protest. The substantive question revolves around the nature of the reservations which will be voiced by the professional elements in the decisive meetings of the forum of eight and the security cabinet, and if they will be enough to delay an attack - either because the ministers will think twice or Netanyahu will be concerned that the public will find out about the warnings from a future commission of inquiry.
Despite the firm opposition to an attack by the three most-recent former security chiefs - Gabi Ashkenazi (IDF ), Meir Dagan (Mossad ) and Yuval Diskin (Shin Bet ) - they are not the ones currently sitting around the table. It is also worth taking into account a recent statement by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. He told the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee last month that many of those voicing opinions about a possible attack on Iran are not adequately informed about the current situation. Those who heard him formed the impression that he was referring to two things: progress on the Iranian side, and an improvement in Israel's ability to respond militarily.
We also heard reports about being in the "home stretch" and about the Iran question being at a critical crossroads in the summer and fall of 2010 and 2011. However, the development of the threat and Israel's progress in preparing a response would seem to make the dilemma more acute now. There are apparently other reasons for this as well. First, the political echelon in Israel has already been contemplating this issue for three years, since the establishment of the Netanyahu government. Ultimately, the time will come when a decision must be made. And second, the latest data released by the International Atomic Energy Agency suggest that the aggressive campaign waged by the West against the Iranian program, one that has involved sabotage and mysterious assassinations, has probably almost run its course.
The choice now is between continuing with the economic sanctions or a military attack, and Netanyahu and his close associate, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, have already let it be known on numerous occasions that they don't believe economic sanctions will work.
The series of visits by senior American officials will conclude, for the time being, with the arrival next week of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. His last visit took place in October 2011, at the time of the previous peak in speculation about an attack. Panetta, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week, can mainly deliver stern messages from President Barack Obama. To date, in contrast to his Republican rival Mitt Romney, Obama has shown no signs that he intends to visit Israel before the November elections.
Such a visit by Obama would send an unmistakably strong signal both to the Israeli leadership and public of America's commitment to Israel's defense, but also of America's hope that Israel will refrain from attacking Iran at this stage.
A second element that could influence a decision is a domestic political one. The division into camps in the cabinet on the question of an attack - doves versus hawks - is more or less known. The major question is how the Shas ministers will vote. Over the years, the ultra-Orthodox party was the deciding factor on policy questions, from the Oslo accords and the 2000 Camp David conference to the Lebanon war. Considering the advanced age of the party's spiritual mentor, the 91-year-old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, it is hard to know how informed he is about the current strategic discourse.
Still, at times we seem to place too much emphasis on the stance of Chief of Staff Gantz and Mossad head Tamir Pardo on this issue, while giving too little thought to the moves of President Obama or the opinion of Rabbi Yosef.
Blood and economics
If Kadima's resignation from the coalition this week bears any relevance to the Iranian story, it might be in connection with what our colleague Yossi Verter referred to on Wednesday as "political shoddiness." After Kadima's surprising entry into the coalition two months ago, Netanyahu enjoyed a brief period of glory in which he was again heralded as a "political magician." But the magic wore off fast. War, even more than politics, is the realm of the uncertain. Many times what looks like a bold military move turns out afterward to be a costly campaign that lasts longer and exacts more losses and economic damage than had been projected by all forecasts.
The latest examples are Israel's two wars in Lebanon and what the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 fomented. (There are also a few opposite examples, such as the bombing of the nuclear facility in Syria in 2007, which foreign sources attribute to Israel and which did not ignite a war. )
It would be a mistake to downplay the Iranian threat significantly, and there is no reason to question the sincerity of Netanyahu's belief that it needs to be dealt with. Netanyahu and Barak also deserve credit for the way they made the issue a focal point on the international agenda during the past two years - something that would not have been possible without the threat of a credible military response by Israel. But people who talk to the duo sometimes come away with the feeling that they are painting overly optimistic scenarios about the effect an attack on Iran might have.
What would such an attack do to relations with the United States, especially if Obama is reelected? What would be the long-term impact on the global oil market? Will the international community intervene to stop Iran and its satellites from plunging the region into an all-out war, or will it feel that Israel has to learn that there is a price to be paid for acting alone in the face of warnings to the contrary?
Another disturbing question, one that should never be far from mind, is the readiness of the home front. A few months ago, Barak unfortunately let slip a statement to the effect that a war with Iran would exact fewer than 500 fatalities in the civilian rear. He was drawing on evaluations by operations research experts, which are as likely to prove false as they are to be accurate. What Barak did not mention is the vast disparities that remain in the preparedness of the home front, mainly with respect to the divisions of responsibility between the Defense Ministry, the Home Front Defense Ministry, the National Emergency Authority and the Home Front Command. There is no comparison between the level of protection that those in the national emergency center, in fortified bunkers below ground in Jerusalem, will get and the personal security of the residents of nearby neighborhoods. The director of MI said this week in the Knesset that Hezbollah is thought to have between 70,000 and 80,000 missiles and rockets. Previous Israeli estimates spoke of 60,000 such weapons. These are numbers that are not easily ignored.
Col. (res. ) Ronen Cohen, formerly deputy head of the research division of MI, believes that Israel has underestimated Iran's ability to inflict damage on the country over the long term. Iran, Cohen says, will activate terrorist and guerrilla organizations against Israel.
"In warfare against guerrilla forces, the main thing is not the number of casualties but its ability to disrupt the enemy's normal way of life," Cohen notes. "We are treating war with Iran as though it were another war in Lebanon, more or less. That is a mistake. You have to listen to Nasrallah's speeches since the war. He talks about blood and economics, blood and economics. For the Iranians and for Hezbollah, the long-term damage to the Israeli economy is no less important than inflicting casualties."