U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta - Reuers - 15.11.11
U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Photo by Reuters
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After a few weeks of relative quiet, speculation renewed this week about whether someone - Israel or the United States - would attack Iran's nuclear facilities. The catalyst was statements by two senior American defense figures, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.

Asked by CBS News anchor Scott Pelley if Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon in 2012, the defense secretary replied, "It would probably be about a year before they can do it. Perhaps a little less." He added that if Iran decides to go nuclear, the United States "will take whatever steps [are] necessary to stop it." He added, "There are no options off the table."

In an interview on CNN, Dempsey warned the Iranians not to "miscalculate our resolve," because "any miscalculation could mean that we are drawn into conflict, and that would be a tragedy for the region and the world." He noted that the United States is training for a potential military operation, and that Israel would not necessarily notify Washington before attacking Iran.

Senior officials in Jerusalem immediately declared that the change stemmed from the meeting between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and U.S. President Barack Obama last week. In the meeting, Barak told the president about the immediate danger the Iranians posed. Barak himself said this week that there's still "time for diplomacy and very tough sanctions," bragged about unprecedented American support for Israel, and claimed that the two countries see eye to eye on the situation.

But Israelis who took part in the Saban Forum in Washington earlier this month, where senior administration figures spoke, left worried about the extent of the differences on how to address the Iranian nuclear project. Their impression, based not least on Panetta's skeptical tone, was that the U.S. administration is focused more on the domestic arena. Washington is extremely concerned that an Israeli attack on Iran will cause an oil crisis, driving up fuel costs and damaging the U.S. economy.

It currently seems unlikely that Obama will order an American attack on Iran. The bottom line is that there seems to be a year left to physically attack Iran's nuclear facilities, before most of the critical assets are moved into underground bunkers. Yet there are also 10 months left until U.S. presidential elections. Obama wants to rein in Israel but not give American Jewry reason to think that he is undermining Israel's security; he also doesn't want a head-on clash with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

What we heard this week was most likely an attempt by the administration to tighten the embrace and increase the perception of support for Israel. That's a long way from American support for an Israeli attack, let alone an American military initiative.

Losing control

U.S. attention was divided this week among Iran, North Korea (the West found out that its leader Kim Jong Il had died only two days later ), Syria and Egypt.

Haaretz reported this week that close to 15,000 people have now defected from the Syrian army. It's true that this is only about one division's worth of soldiers in an army of 250,000 troops, but for the first time the defectors include relatively senior officers. The number of casualties is climbing, and is now more than 5,000. On some days, more soldiers were killed than civilians. Huge demonstrations were held in central Damascus this week after the army killed a high-school girl participating in a demonstration against President Bashar Assad. Tens of thousands came out to denounce him in the capital - an exceptional event in the nine-month-long uprising. At least four demonstrators were killed in clashes in Damascus.

Between Monday and Wednesday, more than 250 people were killed in Syria, a large number even for this deadly conflict. The carnage took place immediately after Syria signed an agreement with the Arab League to halt the violence, which involved letting the League's inspectors enter the country yesterday.

The agreement might give Assad's regime some breathing room, but it's hard to see how he will keep power in the long term. The Syrian uprising has been the bloodiest of all the Arab uprisings this year. The regime is losing its hold on remote areas. This is most visible in the northwestern Adlab district, Daraa in the south, and Homs, the heart of the resistance. The Free Syrian Army, a militia whose commanders are taking refuge in Turkey, is most active in these regions.

The Syrian military's large-scale exercise this week is a cause for concern in the West and in Israel. Assad is threatening to respond with force if foreign intervention increases. Strategically, Assad's regime could give way to one that is friendly to Israel; in any event, the president's fall will be a serious blow to Iran. Operationally, there is good reason to fear that chemical weapons and missiles will find their way to Hezbollah and even to Sunni terrorist organizations.

Courting the center

Not only analysts in Israel and the West were caught by surprise by the results of the second round of Egyptian parliamentary elections: The Muslim Brotherhood, which was certain it would win (and did ), was also thrown for a loop by the challenge from the Salafist Al-Nour party. Founded only a few months ago, Al-Nour garnered 35 percent of the second round, bringing it into a clear contest with the Brotherhood ahead of the third round of voting for the Lower House and the first round for the Upper House.

Al-Nour has traversed a very short road politically and a very long one ideologically in the past few months. A movement based on emulating the Islamic "forefathers" (which is the meaning of the word salaf ), which rejects both innovations in Islam and modern forms of government, has adopted the modern rules of the game in its contest against the Muslim Brotherhood.

This week, as his party strove to moderate its image, Al-Nour's spokesman made the surprising statement that it does not rule out dialogue with Israel, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt's Islamist bloc has gleaned a full 70 percent of the vote so far. In comparison, in Tunisia a moderate Islamist party, Al Nahda, won 40 percent of the vote, with the remainder divided among the secular parties. Still, the sharp, open enmity between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists will make it difficult for them to form a coalition. The Brotherhood will likely try to form a parliamentary bloc with a few secular parties. But competition from Al-Nour will force its rival not to be seen as overly moderate religiously or politically. Thus, while Al-Nour will try to get votes by courting the center, the Brotherhood will take the opposite tack.

In the long term, Israel will have to monitor changes in the character of the Egyptian armed forces. Currently, the high command is still secular and still views the peace treaty with Israel as a strategic asset. If the army commanders try to undercut the religious movements and the new ruling parties, however, they may find themselves removed from power, as happened to their counterparts in Ankara.

Tough customer

In February, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz will have completed one-third of his term. After a stormy period, he has restored quiet among the General Staff. He displays sangfroid in handling special operations (and there are many of them ) and rare openness to criticism. The cult of personality around the chief of staff has also disappeared. The question is what imprint Gantz will leave behind.

Last week, he declared the establishment of a new unit, the Depth Corps, and a series of appointments, some of them surprising: Maj. Gen. (res. ) Shai Avital will command the corps; Brig. Gen. Nitzan Alon will be promoted to major general and become GOC Central Command; and Brig. Gen. Noam Tibon will be promoted to major general and serve as head of the Northern Command's Corps.

The media's labeling of the Depth Corps as the "Iran Corps" misses the mark: The new unit's main task apparently will be coordinating the activity of the IDF's special units in wartime, thereby reducing the load on the chief of staff and his deputy.

The choice of Avital - who has been a civilian for 10 years - puzzled many generals. No subject preoccupies the senior officers more than the chief of staff's appointments. The best example, of course, is the affair named after Boaz Harpaz, who allegedly forged documents in a bid to keep Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant from being appointed chief of staff.

The officers believe Avital's appointment was dictated by Barak, who was Avital's commander in the elite commando unit Sayeret Matkal. "There are two possible explanations," a senior officer says. "Either Barak forced the appointment on Benny, which is bad - or Benny decided on this silliness himself, which is even worse."

The claim that Barak is running the army behind Gantz's back is unfounded. Yet Gantz may think that bringing Avital back to the army (a move which Barak certainly supports ) will pave the way for Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel to become the next commander of the air force, despite Netanyahu's support for his own military secretary, Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker.

Gantz is not a weak chief of staff. His relations with Barak are not without tension and disagreements (God knows, the defense minister is a tough customer ). He's also not argumentative, but this should not be held against him. On the other hand, it's not clear what prompted Gantz to declare Sunday, a few hours after the criticism emerged about Avital, that "the appointments are all mine." Speaking at a ceremony honoring a new military college commander, Gantz also suddenly referred to the Harpaz affair.

There was nothing accidental about that. Gantz believes he knows where the allegations of his weakness came from. Supporters of the former chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, have an interest in promoting this theory, because it ostensibly proves that the problem lies with the defense minister: Barak abuses all chiefs of staff, and the only difference is the military's response. That explanation is aimed not at the state comptroller but at the media. The state comptroller, Micha Lindenstrauss, already knows what happened in the Harpaz affair. Ashkenazi, who recently testified before the comptroller again, probably already knows he will be the big loser.

The publicity campaign is intended to reduce the affair's damage - from a knockout to a loss of points - and the main way to do this is through the media. In the public sector, Ashkenazi still holds the advantage. It's doubtful whether Barak, even if he is partially exonerated in the final report, will be able to leverage it into any more of a political success than getting Netanyahu to guarantee his place on the next Likud Knesset list.