With Hezbollah war barely over, Israel perceives threats on horizon


JERUSALEM — Less than three months after the guns fell silent between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli military intelligence has warned the government to be ready for a new outbreak of fighting with the Lebanese Shiite militia as early as next spring.

Military intelligence also is warning of the possibility of war with Syria next summer.

And there’s an even greater concern: With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert hinting that Israel might take military action to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the upshot could be a showdown with the complete Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis sometime next year, a much wider war than last summer’s confrontation with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.

But to what extent is the Israeli assessment based on hard evidence, and how much of it is spin designed to persuade other actors to take firm action? In other words: Is Israel trying to goad the United States and other leading players into taking stronger action against Iran — and, at the same time, warning Syria and Hezbollah not to test its patience?

Clearly, the biggest threat to Israel comes from Iran’s nuclear program.

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Olmert argued that Iran must be made to fear the consequences of continuing its presumed nuclear weapons push. The Israeli position is that unless the mullahs in Tehran are worried about a military strike that could topple their regime, there’s little chance they’ll drop their nuclear drive.

Israel believes that strictly applied sanctions, coupled with a credible military threat, might deter Iranian leaders without the use of force.

The new tough talk by Olmert and other Cabinet ministers seems intended to create a credible military threat, analysts say. In dealing with Iran, “we have many options,” Olmert told Newsweek.

But not everyone in the American administration is buying the Israeli line. A senior U.S. official recently told journalists in Tel Aviv that he doubted that Israel really has a military option; Iran is too big and its nuclear installations are too well protected and too widely scattered, he said.

Iranian leaders treat Israel’s veiled threats with contempt. Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Husseini declared that if Israel is foolish enough to attack, Iran’s response “will be quick, strong and destructive, and will take just a few seconds.”

Husseini indicated that Iran was in no mood to be deterred, promising to have 3,000 centrifuges capable of producing weapons grade uranium operating by next March.

Israeli officials are convinced that the issue goes far beyond Iran: If Iran is allowed to go nuclear, they believe, other Middle Eastern countries will attempt to follow suit.

In early November, six Arab countries — Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — declared that they intended to adopt more robust nuclear programs. They claim the programs would be for civilian purposes only and under strict International Atomic Energy Agency control.

But analysts say the six clearly were spurred to action by fear of a nuclear Iran and will want to develop a “security hedge” — the technological capacity to produce nuclear weapons at short notice if they feel threatened.

Some Israeli analysts see in this a very dangerous development.

“If the six or some of them develop a bomb, this will herald a lot more than a ‘new Middle East:’ It will be a new world, significantly more dangerous than the world that existed during the Cold War period,” strategist Reuven Pedatzur of the Netanya Academic College wrote recently in Ha’aretz.

In contrast to the bilateral model of mutual deterrence between two rational players, which kept the Cold War within manageable limits, the “existence of a large number of circles of deterrence — each with its own rules of the game and different strategic considerations — will necessarily lead to instability. The dangers of miscalculation, of misunderstanding the actions of an opponent and of uncontrolled use of the bomb, will increase dramatically,” Pedatzur warned.

He and other Israeli strategists argue that unless Iran is stopped, the international nonproliferation regime could collapse, with disastrous consequences for world peace.

On Syria, military intelligence is taking a more ambivalent line. After warning of possible war with Damascus in the summer, intelligence officials now are urging the government to talk to the Syrians. If it works, such an approach could pry Syria away from the Iranian-Hezbollah orbit and take it out of the war equation.

Yet the government is unlikely to move soon. For months Syria has been making peace overtures to Israel, while warning that their rejection could lead to war. But most Israeli leaders see the overtures as a trap, a Syrian attempt to use negotiations with Israel to score points in the international arena without really breaking with Iran or Hezbollah.

The Bush administration shares that view. Unless Syria stops serving as a conduit for Iranian arms to Hezbollah, harboring Palestinian terrorists, interfering in Lebanon and aiding anti-American forces in Iraq, Israel should not consider peace talks, American officials say. Yet the concern is that ignoring Damascus could create new tensions.

Moreover, intelligence analysts believe that in a situation where Israel faces growing tension with Syria and Iran, their Lebanese proxy Hezbollah could spark new hostilities. According to both Israeli and American sources, rockets and other military supplies continue to flow to Hezbollah from Iran via Syria, despite the call for an arms embargo on Hezbollah in the U.N. Security Council resolution that ended this summer’s war.

Military intelligence estimates that Hezbollah now has about 20,000 rockets — slightly more than when the Lebanon war began in July. Indeed, Israel finds itself facing pretty much the same threat as it did before the war, which suggests that important war aims were not achieved.

The name of the game in Israel is to remedy as quickly as possible the flaws in the Israel Defense Forces that the war exposed, and develop new methods of countering Hezbollah rockets. But will the IDF be able to do all that while keeping an eye on the bigger Iranian threat?

To put it more starkly: Will the IDF be ready in six months or so to cope with a multiple threat from Hezbollah, Syria and Iran?