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Playing peace to target Iran

Despite the impression that some in the government are eager to convey, Israel is deeply divided over the prospect of any strike against Iran, writes Saleh Al-Naami

Although many Israeli commentators have tried to explain Minister of Defence Ehud Barak's decision not to reappoint General Gabi Ashkenazi as chief of staff of the country's armed forces for a fifth year as a result of a personality conflict, others well connected to decision-making circles in Tel Aviv say that the decision has been caused by Ashkenazi's rejection of possible military action against Iranian nuclear installations.

One such commentator is Ben Kasbet, a senior political and security analyst at Maariv, the second-largest newspaper in Israel. Kasbet wrote that Barak was fed up with the armed forces' reluctance to strike at the Iranian nuclear programme, which is in direct contrast to Barak's own position.

However, Barak's decision not to reappoint Ashkenazi does not mean that there is now any general in the Israeli army who would be prepared to support a strike against Iran's nuclear programme.

Ashkenazi's predecessor, General Dan Halutz, has stated in recent interviews that Israel is incapable of attacking Iran, based on his knowledge of the Israeli army's capabilities and the nature of the Iranian targets.

According to Halutz, Iranian nuclear installations are spread over a large area, and they are built deep under ground, limiting the ability of the Israeli air force to reach them. At the same time, Israel would need immense logistical capabilities before it could cause any real damage to Iran's nuclear programme.

Retired Israeli Reserve General Yigal Shauli believes that Israel would only be successful in destroying Iran's nuclear installations if neighbouring Arab countries cooperated in any attack by allowing Israeli to use their airspace.

However, Shauli has said that even if Israel were able to overcome such obstacles, there would still be no guarantee that Iran would not be able to destroy many Israeli fighters. This would make the operation a failure from Israel's point of view, even if it destroyed a number of Iranian targets.

There is a consensus in Israel that the implications of attacking Iran would be very serious, since Tehran would respond in a manner that could threaten both the security of the region and that of the world as a whole.

Many Israelis believe that attacking Iran would be a gamble because an Iranian response could cause the US to interfere, and one of the reasons why the US is currently preventing Israel from striking Iran is because US president Barack Obama is concerned that Tehran would deliver a painful blow to the US presence in Iraq in return, presenting a grave danger to US interests.

The possibility of the US having to interfere in an Israeli conflict with Iran is one that the Obama administration wants to avoid, since it knows it was not elected to start any new wars, but rather to correct the mistakes of the previous administration, which launched wars that have harmed Washington's international standing.

Meanwhile, a number of Israeli studies have warned against any conflict between Israel and Iran because this could be destructive and prolonged and could expand to include several fronts. According to a study by Israeli analyst Moshe Ferd published by the Begin-Sadat Research Centre, if war broke out between the two countries it would not be because of the Iranian nuclear programme alone, but would also be due to religious and political animosities.

Ferd's study predicts that if it attacks Iran, Israel will likely become involved in a prolonged war similar to the first war in Lebanon in 1982, especially if it decides to invade Lebanon as well in order to prevent missile attacks by the Lebanese resistance movement, which would be launched in response to an Israeli attack on Iran.

The study further indicates that Iran would also attempt to shore up its strength by sending large military reinforcements to Syria and Lebanon to participate in the fighting and that it would seek to make use of the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of this year.

Iran might also seek to manipulate regional shifts in order to send supplies, weapons and volunteers to Syria via Iraq and Turkey. Ferd's study warns that this would make it difficult for Israel to conclude a war on land and would likely lead to a prolonged conflict in which Iran might seek to target Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and Israeli international interests.

Some in Israel also believe that it would be unwise for Israel to strike Iran because of the advances the latter has already made in its nuclear programme. Israel's former air force chief of staff Raoufian Bedihstor believes that an Israeli strike, no matter how successful, would only delay the Iranian nuclear programme by a few years and that Iran would use the strike as an excuse to intensify its activities.

Writers in the Israeli media have reported that there is a realisation in Tel Aviv of the grave dangers involved in attacking the Iranian nuclear programme, but at the same time Israel has refused to promise Washington that it will not carry out such an attack. This is because, such commentators believe, Israel is trying to manipulate the US into agreeing to lead international efforts to recruit more countries to support further sanctions against Iran.

Israel is also aware that the Obama administration fears the negative repercussions of any Israeli strike against Iran on American interests. The US is currently undertaking unprecedented international efforts to convince China not to veto UN Security Council sanctions against Iran, and in order to render such efforts more effective the US has not hesitated to threaten China and other countries with the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran that could put oil supplies at risk.

However, Israel and the US have not made much progress in convincing the rest of the world of the importance of imposing further sanctions against Iran, even if all the signs suggest that decision-makers in Tel Aviv believe that the risks of an Israeli strike against Iran outweigh the benefits.

Some in Israel are calling on Tel Aviv to accept the idea that Iran has the ability to become a nuclear power and to find alternatives to guarantee its own security.

Eitan Haber, a journalist and former bureau chief of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabbin, believes that Israel must be ready to accept the idea that Iran is capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the near future, since Israel can do nothing to prevent it.

Haber is more concerned about a possible alliance between Iran, Syria and Turkey, and in a recent article that appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, he wrote that the recent arrest of a number of senior Turkish army officers confirmed that it was no longer possible to rely on contacts between Israel and senior Turkish army officers to prevent any such scenario.

Haber advised Israeli decision-makers to sign a defense pact with the US, saying that this step should be taken as soon as possible despite fears that Washington would impose restrictions on Israel by limiting its ability unilaterally to carry out military operations against its enemies.

Many commentators in Israel have urged that the dangers posed to the country by Iran should convince the present Israeli government not to antagonise the Obama administration on the issue of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as only Washington can stand up to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Former Israeli minister of justice Yossi Beilin has criticised Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's challenge to Obama by continuing the Israeli settlement building in Jerusalem and the West Bank and embarrassing the US in front of its Arab allies, while at the same time expecting the US to take charge of the threat facing Israel's very existence represented by the Iranian nuclear programme.

There are many inside Israel who are calling on Netanyahu to abandon his right-wing allies and to include the Kadima Party in government, as well as to adopt a different policy with regard to negotiations with the PA in order to convince Washington to continue its efforts to frustrate the Iranian nuclear programme.

However, despite the impression of strength which it is trying to convey, Israel's options in dealing with Iran's nuclear programme are very limited. Tel Aviv does not seem confident about the military option, but at the same time the Israeli government is unlikely to be prepared to pay the political price of Washington's taking the lead in imposing further sanctions against Iran

The link: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2010/996/re1.htm

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