IDF official: Nuclear Iran may curb Israeli border wars

A nuclear-armed Iran could deter Israel from going to war against Tehran’s guerrilla allies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, a senior Israeli general said on Tuesday.

The Jewish state sees the makings of a mortal threat in Iran’s uranium enrichment and missile programs, and has lobbied world powers to roll them back through sanctions while hinting it could resort to pre-emptive military strikes.

Major-General Amir Eshel, head of strategic planning for the armed forces, echoed Israeli government leaders who argue that Iran, which denies wrongdoing but rejects international censure over its secretive projects, could create a “global nuclear jungle” and fuel arms races in an already volatile Middle East.

Eshel made clear that Israel – widely reputed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal – worries that Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia as well as Palestinian Hamas Islamists who rule Gaza could one day find reassurance in an Iranian bomb.

“They will be more aggressive. They will dare to do things that right now they would not dare to do,” he said in a briefing to foreign journalists and diplomats.

“So this is going to create a dramatic change in Israel’s strategic posture, because if we are forced to do things in Gaza or Lebanon under an Iranian nuclear umbrella , it might be different.”

Eshel, who spoke at the conservative Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs think-tank, quoted an unnamed Indian officer who, he said, had described the Asian power’s friction with nuclear-armed rival and neighbour Pakistan in terms of self-restraint.

“When the other side has a nuclear capability and are willing to use it, you think twice,” Eshel said. “You are more restrained because you don’t want to get into that ball game.”

Israel waged offensives in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip in 2006 and 2008-2009, coming under short-range rocket attacks by Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are supported by Iran.

Eshel said there are now some 100,000 rockets and missiles that could be fired at Israel by the guerrillas, Iran and its ally Syria.

Despite seeing its resources strained by a 10-month-old popular uprising, Syria’s government has invested $2 billion in air defences over the last two years, and more on counter-measures against any ground invasion, Eshel said, linking both efforts to Syrian wariness of Israel.

He declined to be drawn on whether Israel might try to attack Iran’s distant, dispersed and well-defended nuclear facilities alone – or, conversely, whether it could decide to accept a nuclear-armed Iran as an inevitability to be contained through superior firepower and fortifications.

Those decisions, Eshel said, were up to the government and the armed forces would provide it with a “tool box” of options.

“We have the ability to hit very, very hard, any adversary,” said Eshel, a former senior air force officer and fighter pilot. But he cautioned against expecting any decisive “knock-out” blow against Israel’s enemies.

Writing by Dan Williams

The Temperature’s Rising

The latest eruption of violence along Israel’s northern border has spawned varying assessments of what exactly sparked the escalation — and whether it will affect fledgling peace overtures between Israel and Syria.

In a spiraling cycle of violence, nine Lebanese were killed when Israel bombed power stations and bridges near Beirut in an operation that began on June 25. The Israeli air assault came in response to Hezbollah rocket attacks that day, which killed two residents in northern Israel and wounded at least 12, one seriously.

The attacks marked the heaviest cross-border violence since a cease-fire in 1996 ended with Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israel’s 16-day campaign in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

The fighting was halted last Friday morning after U.S. officials conveyed a message from Israel to Syria that hostilities would escalate if Damascus did not rein in Hezbollah, Israeli security officials said.

The violence came against the backdrop of tentative overtures between Israel and Syria prompted by the May victory of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak, who pledged during the election campaign to pull Israeli troops out of southern Lebanon and pursue a peace agreement with Damascus.

Far from being left out of the loop, Barak gave his tacit approval to the raids, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported on Sunday.

Some Israeli defense officials are maintaining that Hezbollah used the assault to signal to both Syria and Israel that any future arrangement regarding Lebanon would have to take into account another interest — that of Hezbollah.

Israeli army officials have noted that the pro-Shi’ite organization has become increasingly daring in its efforts to oust Israeli troops from the 9-mile-wide security zone that Israel maintains in southern Lebanon to defend its northern border.

According to another assessment, the attacks that Hezbollah launched last week on northern Israel were intended as a “collective” response to previous blows it sustained in clashes with Israel and its ally in the region, the South Lebanon Army.

Defense sources also said that, given the previously restrained responses of the Israel Defense Force to Katyusha attacks, Hezbollah may not have expected last week’s forceful retaliation by the Israeli military. Israeli officials said the response was intended to send a message that Israel would not tolerate such attacks.

“We did not go to this with enthusiasm or happiness to damage the Lebanese infrastructure. We conveyed messages before we acted, and when we saw they were not received, and our patience ran out, we acted,” Defense Minister Moshe Arens said.

Echoing the oft-repeated accusation of Israeli officials, Arens said that Syria is using Hezbollah to pressure Israel.

“There is no doubt that nothing happens in Lebanon unless the Syrians want it,” Arens said.

Meanwhile, residents of northern Israel are demanding financial compensation after Hezbollah launched a series of Katyusha rocket attacks on their communities. A delegation of local leaders from communities along the northern border met Sunday with outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss whether promised aid would be forthcoming.

They also met with Barak, who promised to make the economic needs of the northern communities a top priority in his new government.

In Kiryat Shmona and other communities, residents blocked roads and called a strike to protest what they viewed as government neglect. Some 500 structures and 100 vehicles were damaged in last week’s attacks. Property damage was estimated at millions of dollars — excluding related economic losses, such as the negative impact on local tourism.