Storm Clouds on the Far Horizon

In Israel at the moment, neither an economic nor a diplomatic apocalypse is discernible. But if you can take your gaze away from the partying, with the help of a telescope, you'll see a distant bank of clouds.

Investors on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange have made a strategic decision: Things are going to be just fine. The same goes for buyers of luxury apartments in upscale towers. When share indexes soar 33 percent in half a year, when one square meter on Rothschild Boulevard costs $20,000, when you can't get a table at a posh restaurant on New Year's Eve, it's clear what kind of mood we're in. Unlike early 2009, it's an optimistic mood. Everything's going to be just fine, just great.

The exhilaration springs from relief. Against all the gloomy forecasts, a global economic holocaust never happened. In Israel at the moment, neither an economic nor a diplomatic apocalypse is discernible. The calm on the security front plays its part, too. In the past 11 months, only one Israeli has been killed inside the Green Line in a terror attack. Both the northern and southern borders are quiet. There's no war in the offing. The economy is flourishing, even under Benjamin Netanyahu's unwieldy government.

But if you can take your gaze away from the partying, with the help of a telescope, you'll see a distant bank of clouds. Yes, Pakistan is far away, but it's relevant. Afghanistan is remote, but what happens there has local repercussions, and Afghanistan is in deep trouble. Iraq is nearing the moment of truth when the American forces leave. In Yemen, Al-Qaida is making itself felt. Much closer to home, in Egypt, the end of the Mubarak era is nearing, and there's always Hezbollah. Even Turkey is playing with fire. If all this isn't enough, for the last three years, out of sight, Israel's national security has undergone attrition in three different spheres.

Iran: In 2007, Iran had only a few active centrifuges for enriching uranium. In 2008, the number increased, but their efficacy was still limited. Early in 2010, Iran has 8,000 centrifuges, of which 4,000 are operating well. This does not mean that the end is nigh, but it does mean that Israel has failed to keep Iran from the nuclear-weapons threshold. With 1,800 kilograms of enriched uranium already stockpiled in underground bunkers, Iran has the capability of putting an atomic bomb together within one year.

Missiles: In 2006, Hezbollah had around 15,000 rockets, most of them with a range of 20 to 40 kilometers. In 2010, the Shi'ite militia has around 40,000 missiles, some with ranges of hundreds of kilometers. The next confrontation with Hassan Nasrallah will not involve only southern Lebanon and northern Israel, but also areas deep inside both countries. The longer-range, greater firepower and accuracy of Hezbollah's arsenal have fundamentally changed the strategic situation. And when Hamas' rockets and Syrian and Iranian missiles are factored in, a worrying picture emerges. Not since 1948 has the Israeli home front been menaced as today.

Legitimacy: Both in 2006 and in late 2008, the international community displayed far-reaching patience for Israeli use of force. In 2009, this changed radically. The belated response to Operation Cast Lead showed that the world is sick of Israel, for whom it now has zero tolerance for any use of force. As a result, even in areas where Israel enjoys military superiority, it's not clear to what extent it will be able to use it. The assault on Israel's right to defend itself has damaged its deterrence, security and stability.

The implications are clear: Israel must prepare seriously for the possibility that another round of fighting will be forced on it, while it must do everything it can to avoid a flare-up. Seen from this angle, the bid to get talks going with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is positive.

But this won't be enough. Experience has shown that it is very doubtful a clear-cut outcome can be reached with Abbas. This highlights the need to relaunch talks with Syria. An end to the conflict between Jerusalem and Damascus is the sole diplomatic move that could provide a bulwark against the negative regional trends encircling Israel. Only an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty can spur an immediate, positive strategic turn in the Middle East.

It's hard to say if this is feasible. Bashar Assad leads a double life. In the daytime he faces west, but at night he plays forbidden games with the East. With one eye he puts out peace signals, with the other he winks at the terrorists. No intelligence agency can predict which way he'll go in the end, when he has to choose. But when the horizon is as cloudy as it is, Israel has no choice but to make an effort.