Step Away From the Bomb Shelter - for Now

The young man in shorts who was waiting for the elevator in the General Staff building recently looked, at first glance, like a settler without a skullcap. He wore an "End of the Road" T-shirt of the kind that soldiers like to order after finishing a significant chapter of their military service. A rifle was slung over his shoulder and by his side was another young man, also in civilian clothes. The first young man held a large envelope inscribed with the Sayeret Matkal number, and stamped three times - in full and in abbreviation - "Top Secret." The two went up to the floor where the office of the head of the intelligence branch, Amos Yadlin, was located, handed the envelope to his bureau chief and returned to their units.

The classified document that the Sayeret Matkal sent Yadlin, one of the thousands of items supplied every day to the Israeli intelligence gathering agencies, was another grain of sand in the hourglass of Military Intelligence, which is supposed to reflect a trend, a direction, a pace. Hourglasses don't ring. On the other hand, what startles Yadlin is the ring of the red phone - and there's no knowing what news it will bring, from which arena, about which threat, from which enemy. Sometimes it's a report about a positive achievement. But good news can usually wait until morning.

The most certified intelligence assessment for the first week of July 2007 seeks to distinguish between the grave and the immediate. The danger of the Iranian nuke is the gravest of all, but it is not immediate. A war with Syria may be near, but with a cautious policy it could be prevented. The movements that are not prepared to accept Israel's existence - Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaida - are not capable of compromising with it; they will only postpone their assault until they acquire sufficient power and the circumstances are right. What the assessment boils down to, for now, is that there is no need to be in leaping distance of the bomb shelters, since Bashar Assad hasn't yet decided to go to war; but in the long term, a rise in hostility toward Israel is expected.

Military Intelligence does not say this explicitly, but it appears the threats to Israel will increase from 2009 onward: Iran will hold back and not go nuclear until the end of U.S. President George Bush's term, and the latter will have trouble justifying an attack on Iran, and his successor will withdraw most of the forces from Iraq; the resistance front facing the West and Israel, i.e., Tehran-Hezbollah-Hamas-Islamic Jihad, will feel bolstered and cheer the success of its strategy. After Friday (the toppling of the regimes supported by the West in Iraq: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt) will come Saturday (Israel) and Sunday (the West).

In the view of Military Intelligence, up until 1967, small, vulnerable Israel was threatened (with the support of Soviet policy) by large and strong Arab armies, which surrounded it. The unequivocal victory in the Six-Day War caused the Arab states to focus on the effort of getting back the territories; then came the War of Attrition, the Yom Kippur War and the diplomatic bargaining that got Anwar Sadar the return of the Sinai in exchange for tpeace.

In the 1980s, Hafez Assad lost two key supporters, one after the other. First Egypt and then the Soviet Union. Assad essentially adopted David Ben-Gurion's principle of not going to war without the the support of a great power and a coalition. Therefore, despite a string of crises verging on war and some exchanges of aerial and land assaults with the IDF, from 1974 on he refrained from starting a war. In the view of Military Intelligence, Hafez's son Bashar may come to believe now that he has the support of a regional power (Iran), in addition to a coalition (Hezbollah-Hamas). As in 1967, when the Soviets encouraged Damascus to feel threatened - partly due to a struggle within the U.S.S.R. leadership - the fear in Israel now is that the Russians, with or without connection to the battle over the succession to Vladimir Putin, are contributing to Syrian apprehension over a potential Israeli attack.

The range of possible Syrian military responses, as envisioned in Tel Aviv, consists of four parts - two reactive and two proactive. The reactive measures could come in the wake of an aerial sortie that infringes on Syrian sovereignty, or in the wake of an IDF move against Hezbollah, which will act on Iran's orders after an American or Israeli operation against it. A "small" Syrian response could be shooting limited in terms of its target and its duration. A broader response could be firing on many more targets in Israel, including the use of missiles and rockets to fire on army bases and even civilian locations, in the Golan Heights, for example.

The proactive steps could be opening fire, a quick attempt to conquer the Hermon or a locality in the Golan, or "resistance" (terror attacks, subversion by Druze who oppose the annexation of the Golan Heights to Israel). Or it could go so far as to launch a full-scale war, including an armored assault on the Golan Heights. The assessment of Military Intelligence is that Assad has no intention of fully exposing himself this way, even if the preparations in the field enable him to do so, should he change his mind.

The position that Yadlin will present to the political echelon is very clear: Syria is wavering between current extremism, especially on the issue of Lebanon, and possible moderation; it could try a limited military move against Israel to break the stalemate and bring about the return of the Golan Heights via diplomatic means; Israel will have to convince it, by omission and commission, that a war between them would be pointless.

After examining opinions, let's return to the facts: Iran and Syria have restocked Hezbollah's arsenals, but the organization, which sustained heavy blows, has yet to rehabilitate its command structure and its teams of weapons operators who require extensive training. A renewal of the conflict with Israel before the spring or summer of 2008 would not be convenient for it. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah's secretary general, continues to act like a suspect in hiding from Israeli pursuit. And he is not being paranoid; this is a quite reasonable interpretation of the reality. His two nightmares, say those in Military Intelligence who purport to read his thoughts, are the Israeli air force and Israeli intelligence.

Hamas' efforts to imitate Hezbollah, by acquiring Iranian support (though without the presence of the Revolutionary Guards in Gaza; Hamas activists are training in Syria and Iran) and through a transition to a quasi-military structure, are turning an elusive underground organization into a prominent and very vulnerable target. The takeovers of the headquarters of the security apparatuses and the Fatah offices, for example, provide a clearer address for Hamas leaders and Hamas units. In a comprehensive action against Hamas in Gaza, which is not being waged as yet, Military Intelligence would support a systematic and continuous assault on the heads of the organization, following the formula of the strikes on Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi. This type of strike on their leaders, so Military Intelligence believes, will weaken Hamas and make it difficult for it to quickly find authoritative and capable replacements.

Over the past year, Military Intelligence has been called upon to explain the discrepancies between what was desired, what was envisioned and what occurred in the problematic campaign in Lebanon last summer. One of the explanations, or excuses: The faulty order of priorities, in 2003-2004, which gave insufficient weight to the North, of then defense minister Shaul Mofaz, chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon and Military Intelligence chief Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash.

Today, too, Military Intelligence sources say the intelligence that was collected over the years regarding Hezbollah's method of placing rockets in a "nature reserve" (the hiding places from which they were fired) did not include an exact pinpointing of their location, without which there is no way to strike at them from the air or the ground. According to Military Intelligence, the intelligence was kept secret and not conveyed to the forces before the war - not for fear of exposing its sources, but because if it were leaked prematurely, this would have caused Hezbollah to build other rocket batteries.

And while it apologizes for the oversights of the past, Military Intelligence must also continuously live up to its responsibility to provide a national intelligence assessment, particularly in terms of giving a warning of war. This is a constant tension, between a false warning of sleepy complacency on the one hand, and focusing on recommending what Israel ought to do. To borrow from the world of fighter pilots, who are supposed to first consider their adversary as better than them and then prove otherwise, Military Intelligence must take seriously all the signs that indicate war and point out what can be done so that these portents do not come true.

This last task does not fall under the authority of the intelligence community. It belongs to the statesmen and, alongside them, the National Security Council and the Planning Branch, which deal with a "bottom-line" assessment of the balance of power between Israel and the other parties and with the reciprocal influences of various moves. In the Israeli reality, the intelligence community is still much stronger than these other elements.

Even if in wake of the State Comptroller's report from last summer and the Winograd Committee's interim report, the National Security Council is strengthened, Military Intelligence will object to the establishment of a new intelligence center in it - which would come in addition to the hundreds of investigators of Military Intelligence and dozens of Mossad investigators and the personnel of the Diplomatic Research Center (known by the Hebrew acronym Mamad) in the Foreign Ministry. It would ask to make do with less. Not an intelligence "chef" who writes recipes, obtains products and cooks up dishes, but just an intelligence "waiter," as Yehoshafat Harkabi, the intelligence adviser to the prime minister in the 1970s put it.

The parallel between the three intelligence branches is misleading. The Mossad and Shin Bet deal primarily with foiling attacks; this is the aim of the intelligence that they produce and consume. The entire IDF, too, is essentially an entity aimed at foiling military threats. Military Intelligence is its intelligence arm, and its national responsibility complicates its functioning. One of the main lessons Military Intelligence learned from Lebanon is the need to improve service to the heads of the branches and commands and the fighters who are in contact with the enemy.

The establishment of the "activation brigade" (hativat hahaf'ala), headed by Brigadier General Nitzan Alon, is meant in part to address this. Alon, a former Sayeret Matkal commander, will not be part of the chain of command between the head of Military Intelligence and the head of its operations department. The field-intelligence corps, which belongs to the ground forces command, could split. The intelligence gathering and observation battalions would remain in it, but the officers' training would return to Military Intelligence.

Relations between the heads of the intelligence community, once full of tension, have improved a bit recently. The Mossad and Shin Bet continue to argue and are not beyond making sharp comments behind the backs of the top ranks of Military Intelligence, but there are frequent, close and apparently fruitful work contacts. Official and unofficial meetings of the Heads of Services Committee are held frequently. The heads of Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet get together two or three times a week for either work or personal meetings. The division between the organizations is not clear-cut. The Shin Bet also relies on the intelligence gathering capabilities of Military Intelligence Unit 8200. The heads of the Shin Bet districts in the south and the center of the country are the additional intelligence officers of the heads of command.

For example, in assessment discussions held by Southern Command Head Yoav Galant, the participants include the commander of the Gaza division, the command's intelligence officer, the head of the coordination and liaison administration (who reports on the current mood in the Gaza Strip) and the head of the southern district in the Shin Bet. The division of responsibility is vague and only becomes clear in the event of failure, as in the abduction of Gilad Shalit: then the Shin Bet severs contact and leaves the IDF, and military intelligence within it, in the field.

Despite the differences and disagreements between them, it appears that all the intelligence heads agree on one vital matter: They do not say they will support Ehud Olmert, openly or quietly, in initiating a military move out of political or personal considerations, whose justification and timing are dubious.