Iraq’s Defeat Raises Fears of Iran Threat

On the face of it, the U.S. military victory in Iraq has significantly enhanced Israel’s national security, removing a threat from weapons of mass destruction and opening new chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

However, there is a downside: Israeli leaders are concerned that Iran could emerge strengthened from Iraq’s defeat and continue to promote terror, while developing nuclear weapons that could pose a threat to Israel’s very existence.

One worry is that the defeat of Iraq could lead to a fundamentalist backlash in the region spearheaded by Iran, using its close ties with Syria and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah to wage a campaign of terror. Another is that Shiite Iran could build close ties with a new Shiite-dominated Iraq, projecting fundamentalist influence across the region.

However, of most concern by far is that, according to some Western experts, Iran is barely two years away from producing a nuclear bomb.

Israeli officials maintain that the two prongs of the Iranian threat — nuclear weapons and terrorism — are related. Ra’anan Gissin, a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, declared that Iran uses terror to "create deterrence as it builds a nuclear weapons capability that has not yet become operational." In other words, the threat of Iranian-inspired terror is intended to make the United States or other would-be aggressors think twice before taking military action to stop Iran’s nuclear program.

Over the past few months, Sharon has been urging visiting U.S. legislators and administration officials to take action to stop Iran from going nuclear. The message seemed to be getting through: After mid-March meetings in Jerusalem, U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton announced at an Israeli-American strategic forum in Washington that "the U.S. will focus on stopping Iran getting nuclear weapons."

But it could be too late.

Over the past few years, undetected by the world’s most vaunted intelligence agencies or the United Nations’ watchdog International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran developed two sites capable of producing the fissile materials from which nuclear bombs are made.

One, near the desert town of Natanz, 200 miles south of Tehran, will be able to produce weapons-grade uranium. The other, farther west at Arak, will be able to make plutonium from heavy water.

The tip-off on the two sites came last August from an Iranian dissident group, the National Council of Resistance. Until then, the Iranians had claimed that the Natanz site was for "desert irrigation."

Satellite photos released in December by the American Institute for Science and International Security proved otherwise. When Mohammed Baradei, an Egyptian who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited the Natanz site in late February, he counted 160 new centrifuges capable of producing weapons-grade uranium, as well as parts for assembling 1,000 more.

Baradei’s Iranian hosts acknowledged that by 2005, they planned to have 5,000 centrifuges fully operational at the desert site. Experts say that would enable Iran to produce enough enriched uranium for at least two nuclear bombs a year from 2005 onward.

Experts believe Iran had some help from Pakistan in developing the Natanz technology, but the centrifuges are unique in shape and clearly were engineered by the Iranians themselves. Moreover, Iran has begun mining its own uranium ore in the Yazd area, 400 miles southeast of Tehran.

Taken together, these two facts mean that Iran has passed the point of no return: Its nuclear program can no longer be stopped by getting third parties to withhold materials or technologies.

The same is true of Iran’s missile technology.

"The Iranians cannot be stopped anymore," said Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense program. "They have their indigenous capability now, and they will continue their programs, regardless of what the international community thinks."

One of the Iranian-developed missiles, the Shahab-3, has an estimated range of nearly 800 miles, able to reach targets in Israel from western Iran.

What makes the Iranian threat most chilling is that Iran’s fundamentalist leaders remain formally committed to Israel’s destruction. For example, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former Iranian president who retains an influential post, in December 2001 called publicly for the Muslim world to develop nuclear weapons in order to annihilate Israel.

Iran also has shown a marked capacity to act against Israeli interests. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran was behind the 1992 and 1994 terrorist attacks on the Israeli Embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires; regularly supplies Hezbollah with weapons, including long-range rockets, through Damascus, and in 2002, tried to sell arms to the Palestinian Authority for use against Israel.

Israeli experts say it was the January 2002 interception by Israel of the Karine A, a vessel loaded with Iranian arms for the Palestinians, that led President Bush to include Iran in the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address later that month.

So what can be done to contain or assuage the Iranian threat? First, Israeli experts say, Israel must enhance its defensive and deterrent posture.

The Arrow, which could intercept incoming Shahab missiles, does both. Moreover, according to foreign sources, Israel has mounted special launchers on its submarines that are capable of firing nuclear warheads. This would give it a "second-strike" capability, hopefully deterring potential enemies from contemplating a first strike.

To weaken Iran’s terrorist capacity and ability to spread its fundamentalist message, Israeli experts propose putting pressure on Syria, rather than Iran. Syria, they maintain, is more susceptible to Western pressure and also has the power to disarm Hezbollah relatively quickly.

Once Hezbollah is disarmed and Damascus distances itself from Tehran, Iran’s scope for terror and political influence will decline, the argument goes.

No one in the Israeli establishment believes that after the war in Iraq, the United States will be in any mood for a far more difficult military campaign against Iran. Moreover, many are convinced that it is too late to stop Iran from going nuclear; therefore, they argue, the best way to neutralize a nuclear Iran is to promote regime change from within.

David Menashri of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center proposes a dialogue with young reformist forces in Iran, while hanging tough with the conservative clerics who run the country today. That way, in case of regime change, at least the weapons would be in more enlightened hands.

Moreover, Menashri adds, if the reformists come to power, the once-flourishing ties between Israel and Iran might even be renewed.

Israel Joins Global Anti-Terror War

Nov. 28, 2002, may go down in history as Israel’s Sept. 11.

Despite two years of relentless Palestinian terrorism that has claimed nearly 700 Israeli lives, last week’s coordinated attacks on Israeli targets in Kenya are being seen as a watershed: They herald Israel’s full-blown entry into the global war against terrorism, according to defense sources.

"Only" three Israelis died in a suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel near Mombasa, and missiles fired at an Israeli passenger plane narrowly missed, causing no casualties. But the potential for damage — had the missiles hit the plane, which was carrying 261 passengers and crew, or had the car bomb caused the entire hotel to collapse — was enormous.

As Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz noted, "The attacks should be judged by their intention, not their results."

In its planning and daring, the Kenya assault represents just the sort of "mega-terror" attack that Israeli officials long have feared. Because they came against defenseless tourists in a distant and idyllic corner of the world, the attacks have made Israelis feel that no place is safe.

Already hard-pressed to deal with Palestinian attacks in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Israelis now face serious questions about how to defend themselves against dispersed terrorists without a clear "return address" — the same sort of questions, in short, that America has been grappling with since Sept. 11.

Observers here say that from now on, things will never be the same.

The attacks have left Israelis "with a sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that there’s no way out, no solution, no refuge," one diplomatic analyst wrote in the daily Ma’ariv newspaper. "Even going abroad is no longer the liberating respite it once was. They seek us here, there and everywhere, all the time. Fear is all there is."

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put the Mossad in charge of investigating and responding to the attacks. For some, this was reminiscent of Israel’s use of the Mossad to track down and kill the Palestinian terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

From now on, defense sources say, the Mossad will devote more resources and play a more active role in gathering intelligence and tracking the architects and proponents of global terror. Moreover, it will do this alongside American, British and other major intelligence agencies.

This collaboration has important diplomatic implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: International terror against Israeli civilians, in the name of Palestinian rights, may well lead the West to identify Israel’s fight against Palestinian terrorism with the global war on terror.

After the attacks, Israeli arguments that Palestinian terrorism is part and parcel of the international jihad against the West may carry more weight. Israel will be seen as on the "right side," while the Palestinians will be tied to the axis of evil. In addition, they say, Israeli requests for American aid to offset the intifada’s economic burden are likely to get a more sympathetic hearing.

In an Internet statement whose authenticity has not been confirmed, Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks, seemingly confirming Israeli suspicions that Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network was behind the attacks.

Several days before the attacks, a "Letter to the American People," purportedly from Al Qaeda, was released on the Internet. For the first time, the letter defined Israel as the main reason for Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on America, and argued that American citizens were fair game because of America’s support for Israel.

But the message seemed likely to backfire: By declaring in one breath that both Americans and Israelis were targets for terror, the organization seemed to be making the case for an Israeli-American alliance against common enemies. It also might undermine those who have tried to argue that attacks on Israel are somehow legitimate because they are part of the Palestinians’ war of independence, and are different from terror attacks on Western countries.

U.S. officials at first stepped back from Israeli assertions that Al Qaeda appeared responsible. Now, though, the American government also believes the evidence points to Al Qaeda.

Two missile launchers recovered from the attack site are from the same production batch as one used by an Al Qaeda operative who tried to down a U.S. military plane in Saudi Arabia in May, the U.S. officials said Monday.

Israel’s army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon, was quick to draw the connection between Al Qaeda and Palestinian terrorism. Palestinians working as Al Qaeda operatives have been uncovered in the Palestinian territories, Ya’alon said. Moreover, he added, Al Qaeda recently has declared holy war against all "infidels," Christians and Jews alike, a statement that highlighted the cultural affinity between Israel and the West.

What defensive measures can Israel take against the new threat? One obvious need is greater intelligence gathering and access to more shared intelligence, so that Israelis abroad can be alerted to danger. There also is a need for more sophisticated protection of Israeli institutions abroad.

As for civilian aircraft, Rafael, the Israeli weapons development authority, claims to have developed a system to counteract the kind of heat-seeking missiles that were fired in Kenya. In the event of an attack, the device, which would cost around $2 million per plane, sends out a beam that diverts the oncoming missile. With adequate financing, Rafael scientists say, the system could be fully operational in a few months.

Inside Israel, there has been a greater sense of urgency to improve defensive measures since an expose in the Yediot Achronot daily showed how vulnerable most Israeli airfields and helipads were to terrorists armed with rockets or shoulder-fired missiles.

Especially at risk, according to the expose, are the prime minister and defense minister, who use helicopters on an almost-daily basis.

Most observers believe the heightened sense of insecurity following the Kenya attacks will help Sharon and the right wing in the Jan. 28 elections. The more insecure Israelis feel, the more wary they are of change and the more they may look to a father figure like Sharon for protection.

Though the campaign has barely gotten off the ground, Sharon is trying to draw a connection between terrorism and the Labor Party’s more conciliatory policies toward the Palestinians, harping on the fact that Palestinian leaders express a clear preference for Labor leader Amram Mitzna.

When it comes to international terror, observers note, Mitzna has little to offer. His panacea — separation from the Palestinians, with or without an agreement — may convince voters that it can work against Palestinian terrorism. But most observers say it seems woefully inadequate, not to say irrelevant, in the theater of international terror.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

Partners in Dysfunction

Israel and the United States have a lot more in common these days, and it’s not just because the Bush administration has apparently adopted an Israeli military tactic they previously criticized: targeted assassinations.

That became apparent last week when a CIA-operated drone plane blasted a group of alleged Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen.

No, there’s more: both nations have utterly demoralized, dysfunctional opposition parties. For Americans, that became clearer on Nov. 5, when President George W. Bush defied the conventional wisdom that parties in the White House always lose seats in Congress in midterm elections.

And it is even more apparent in Israel, where new elections in January will really just be a contest between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership.

The Labor Party and others that oppose the current government’s hard-line policies are officially in the race, but it is universally expected they will lose ground.

Like the Democrats in this country, Labor doesn’t have a message for voters. So not surprisingly, the once-proud party will be just so much background noise in the upcoming elections.

The Democrats, reeling from last week’s midterm election loss, should take a good, hard look at the sorry state of Israel’s once-dominant Labor Party.

For two years, Labor leaders stuck like glue to a "unity" government whose leader, Sharon, played them for chumps. They rationalized that they were keeping the government from swinging too far to the right, but in the end all they did was convey the impression that their only real goal was to hold on to whatever scraps of power were thrown their way.

Their leaders are weak and vacillating, right out of the Tom Daschle playbook; they spend more time fighting each other than fighting Likud. The impression they create is of petty politicians worried mostly about their own jobs, not principled leaders worried about the country.

Many Laborites fear Sharon is leading the country to economic and strategic disaster, but their fears of being labeled soft on security — and perhaps their own lack of creative ideas — have turned off a worried electorate.

They seem to feel that if they’re vague enough, voters may mistake them for Likudniks, but the public isn’t buying their political camouflage act.

After last week’s congressional elections in this country, the Democrats may be heading in the same direction. They took a pasting not because voters didn’t like their ideas, but because voters couldn’t figure out what the heck those ideas were.

A timid, confused congressional leadership tried to act as an opposition party without really opposing a president they feared.

Democratic candidates across the country tried to blend in with the mostly Republican landscape, and then acted surprised when voters didn’t see them. When they did take on the Republicans, it was just to carp and criticize, not offer creative new ideas for dealing with the nation’s problems.

Many Democrats distrust the president’s rush to war with Iraq — like a big chunk of the electorate — but were too fearful to speak out when they had the chance. And they were loathe to offer any new ideas of their own on how to deal with the undeniable menace of rogue and terror states that are rushing to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Many Democrats believe that Republican economic policy — tax cuts, tax cuts and then more tax cuts — will make a bad economic situation much worse and create enormous pressure to cut vital health and social service programs.

But those criticisms were muted to the point of inaudibility during the long campaign, mostly because Democrats were petrified of being tarred with the "tax and spend" label. Indeed, many had earlier swallowed their misgivings and voted for a big tax cut they regarded as destructive. Not exactly profiles in courage.

Ditto the issue of corporate malfeasance. There is a widespread feeling in Democratic circles that the Republican administration and Congress have no intention of bringing about serious reforms that will prevent new Enrons and Worldcoms, but the fear of going out on any limbs has rendered the party elders speechless.

Instead, Democrats have worked hard to blur their message. Not surprisingly voters see less and less reason to vote for them. In two years, the Democrats will try to unseat Bush, but without stronger leadership and a clearly defined message, their hopes will be just as futile as Labor’s in the upcoming Israeli reelection.

The reality in both countries is that the conservatives know what they want and aren’t afraid to go after it aggressively, while the liberals are so worried about getting left behind that they serve up indigestible, unpalatable milquetoast.

Labor long ago abrogated its responsibility to offer an assertive, intelligent opposition, and the result is that the party is rapidly becoming marginal in Israeli politics. Here, the Democrats are in danger of following the same self-destructive path.

What To Do About Kosovo?

Israelis are divided over NATO’s military campaign against Serbia — and opinions and policy are being informed as much by history and the Holocaust as by current political realities.

Israeli sympathy for the Serbs, who were fellow victims of the Nazis during World War II, is countered by the images of massacres and streams of refugees as ethnic Albanians flee their native Kosovo.

Some 72 percent of Israelis support Israel’s relief efforts for the ethnic Albanians who are fleeing Kosovo, according to a poll by the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke for many when he said last week: “Israel condemns the massacre being carried out by the Serbs and denounces any mass murder.”

Others, recalling how some Albanians actively supported the Nazis, find themselves less sympathetic to the plight of the Kosovar Albanians.

And still others, believing that the “friend of my enemy is my enemy,” are focused on the outside support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which spearheaded the fight for independence from Serbia before Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic clamped down on the region with an iron fist.

Elyakim Haetzni, an outspoken supporter of Israeli nationalism, lashed out last week at the “leftists” who, in their support for the Kosovo refugees, are “ignoring the fact that the KLA was collaborating with the Iranians and other enemies of Israel.”

But even left-wing Israelis are not unanimous in support of the NATO raids.

Among them is Raul Teitelbaum, a veteran journalist who, at the end of 1943, was among the Jews of Prizren, Kosovo, who were put on a transport to Bergen-Belsen by members of an Albanian division that was working on behalf of the Nazi SS.

“Of course, there were among the Albanians those who fought against the Nazis,” Teitelbaum told JTA. “But those who now say that the Albanians were known to have given shelter to the Jews are manipulating history.

“Clinton says the bombings in Yugoslavia are a lesson of the Holocaust. How can one compare this with the Holocaust? How can tiny Serbia be compared with a world power like Nazi Germany? How can Milosevic be compared with Hitler?”

Teitelbaum also questioned the effectiveness of the NATO raids.

“In a way, President Bill Clinton is the best ally of President Milosevic,” he said. “Thanks to the bombings, there is no longer any [internal] opposition to Milosevic. Thanks to the bombings, Milosevic is able to carry out ethnic cleansing on a scope he had never dreamed of before.”

On the other side of the divide, people such as Labor Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Ami, a historian, had only praise for the NATO operation. In his view, the operation has changed international norms of behavior in the face of atrocities that used to be considered “an internal matter.”

“Kosovo is a belated response to the Nazis,” said Ben-Ami. “From now on, intervention on a moral and humanitarian level is justified.”

Just the same, he conceded — as the Pentagon has already done — that the NATO strikes were unable to stop Serbian roundups of the ethnic Albanians.

“Alas, even the greatest military power in the world, the NATO alliance, cannot prevent a genocide,” said Ben-Ami.

As the public debate continued, the Israeli government, caught up in an election campaign, appeared uncertain how to respond to the NATO offensive.

Israel’s relations with Serbia have been problematic ever since the disintegration of Yugoslavia earlier in the decade. Despite memories of the Serbs as fellow victims of Nazi oppression and despite the fact that Bosnian Moslems were being aided by volunteers from Iran, Israel could not allow itself to support Milosevic, an international outcast.

Israel’s diplomatic relations with Serbia were resumed only three years ago, after the war in Bosnia had cooled. Since then, Israel’s arms industry has sought to sell military equipment to Serbia.

The Serbs have reportedly appealed to Israel for military supplies, according to the April 1 edition of the newsletter Foreign Report. In addition to what the London-based newsletter described as a “shopping list of military equipment,” it says the Serbs are also seeking medicines and credit. The Israeli response is not known.

It was not until March 31, a week after the offensive began, that Netanyahu, denying allegations that he had failed to express his position on the Kosovo crisis, came out in support of the NATO operation.

But his foreign minister, Ariel Sharon, was less enthusiastic regarding the NATO strikes. In remarks quoted last week by Yediot, Sharon told a closed-door audience that Israel had reason not to support the strikes, out of fear that the Jewish state might one day be similarly targeted.

The newspaper said that he asked his audience to imagine what might happen if the Arab residents of the Galilee ever demanded that their region be recognized as autonomous — with links to the Palestinian Authority. Would NATO strike at Israel under such a scenario, as it had done in the wake of the Kosovo Albanians’ attempts at autonomy, Sharon asked.

“Israel must look to the future. It should not give legitimacy to an intervention like that exercised by NATO,” Yediot quoted Sharon as saying.

Sharon subsequently denied the report, as he stated that Israel expects “NATO forces do their utmost to end the misery of innocent people and renew the negotiations between the parties as soon as possible.”

But the subject came up again during a meeting with European ambassadors, when Sharon was asked by the ambassador of Italy what Israel would do if the Palestinians asked for international intervention, as the ethnic Albanians had.

“I hope the question remains hypothetic,” said Sharon. “Israel will never succumb to international pressure.”

While most Israelis are spurning such historical analogies, one journalist saw a parallel between the Kosovo Albanians and the Palestinians.

Harking back to the 1948 War of Independence, Gideon Levy of Ha’aretz wrote: “Kosovo has already been here. At the time, there was no NATO and no television from all over the world, but during 20 months, between December 1947 and September of 1949, between 600,000 to 760,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were deported from their homes and turned overnight into refugees.”

Meanwhile, as the debate continues, Israel has begun sending aid to the Kosovo refugees.

Last Friday, an Israeli plane carrying warm clothes, tents, medicines and other equipment was sent to help those refugees who had fled to the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

And during a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, the government agreed to send additional aid, including a medical team of eight doctors to set up a field hospital in either Albania or Macedonia. Health Minister Yehoshua Matza is leading the mission.

JTA correspondent Douglas Davis in London contributed to this report.