Sunday, September 11, 2011

Israeli Tensions Rise over ‘Radical Islamic Winter’

by P. David Hornik

A battle raged in Israel this week—for the time being, a verbal one. It started with some words from the homefront commander, Maj. Gen. Eyal Eisenberg, in a conference at Tel Aviv University on Monday.
First it should be noted that the Israeli Homefront Command only goes back to 1992, when it was set up in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks on Israeli cities during the First Gulf War. Since that time, in fact, attacks on Israel—whether suicide-bombing campaigns and other terror, or rocket and mortar barrages from Gaza and Lebanon—have been waged primarily against the civilian population, that is, the homefront.

Eisenberg indeed mentioned that during the most recent barrage from Gaza last month, a “new weapon” was fired and as “a result we instructed the public to take extra precautions and to seek cover under two roofs and not just one.” That remark fell within the purview of his post.
It was more far-reaching statements by Eisenberg, though, that sparked controversy. As he said:
The revolutions and upsets in the Arab world, coupled with the deteriorating relations with Turkey, might lead to an all-out regional war…. What is called the Arab Spring can become a radical Islamic winter, which increases the likelihood of an all-out regional war, and this might even involve weapons of mass destruction.
The “deteriorating relations with Turkey” Eisenberg mentioned got even worse in the course of the week as Turkish prime minister Erdogan, in a tizzy over the fact that the UN’s Palmer Commission mainly blamed Turkey for last year’s Mavi Marmara incident and the fact that Israel refused to apologize for its soldiers’ self-defense against a violent Turkish mob aboard that ship, reacted by drastically downgrading diplomatic ties with Israel, ending defense trade between the two countries, threatening Israel with naval warfare, and hinting at forming an anti-Israeli alliance with Egypt.

The latter country also figured in Eisenberg’s statements when he said: “The Egyptian military has been overwhelmed, effectively losing its grip over the Sinai; what was once a manifestation of Egypt’s strategic choice to maintain peace has now been supplanted by terrorism.” As for Jordan, he said its stability was far from assured; and as for Iran, he noted that its nuclear program is moving “full steam ahead.”

The first one to take issue—sharp issue—with Eisenberg’s words was Amos Gilad, political adviser to Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Calling the homefront commander’s assertions “too simplistic and incorrect,” Gilad said in a radio interview on Tuesday:
Our security situation has never been better: There is no terrorism inside Israel, we have deterrence in the north and south, we are not facing a coalition of Arab armies and the regimes in the region are stable, although there are some processes underway that we must watch closely.
In other words, it seemed as if Eisenberg and Gilad, both professionals in the area of Israeli security and related matters, were living in different worlds. And later on Tuesday, it was Defense Minister Barak himself who came out against Eisenberg’s statements, saying after a tour of the Lebanese border: “We do not see a reason why any of our enemies would launch a broad attack against Israel at this time.”

As for Eisenberg’s warning about mass-destruction weapons, Barak said: “They know full-well why they should not even think about using chemical weapons against Israel.”

In turn, Barak’s claims drew a particularly bitter riposte on Thursday from Israel Harel, one of the few hawkish voices at the left-wing daily Haaretz. Regarding Barak’s supposedly cowed, passive enemies who would not launch an attack, Harel asked:
None of them? Really? Not even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Why exactly has [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah been stockpiling thousands of rockets [in Lebanon]? Have we really heard no hostile voices coming from Egypt? Why are missiles, some of them capable of hitting Ben-Gurion International Airport, being smuggled into Gaza? And does anyone really know what might happen next in Amman?
And as for the adversaries’ supposed knowledge that using chemical weapons against Israel would be unwise, Harel retorted:
Sorry, but they don’t know. Because Barak and his ilk, the serial threateners, have taught them that threats like “It’s not worth it for them” are idle threats.
Who’s right?

Was Eisenberg, the homefront commander, needlessly scaring the citizens with visions of all-out war and WMD attacks? Or was he raising timely warnings?

First it should be pointed out that Eisenberg himself subsequently qualified his words by saying they referred to a “worst-case-scenario situation.” But with that caveat in mind, it has to be stated with regret that Eisenberg—and Harel, and those like them—are talking sense while Barak and Gilad—yes, the defense minister and his adviser—and those like them are mouthing folly.

Particularly astonishing are Gilad’s statements; there is “no terrorism inside Israel” only if rocket fire doesn’t count as terror, and meanwhile on Thursday the Shin Bet (internal security service) announced the arrest of 13 Hamas cells on the West Bank that were in advanced stages of planning attacks—which were, in other words, narrowly averted. And if Israel’s “deterrence in the north,” in Gilad’s phrase, is arguably working for now (while Hezbollah amasses rockets), residents of southern Israel, who just a week ago were scampering to air raid shelters in the middle of the night, can only be perplexed to hear that it’s been working there, too.
Even stranger, though, is Gilad’s assertion that “the regimes in the region are stable”—as the post-Mubarak military clique in Cairo wavers before the Islamist tide, and the Assad regime in Syria fights for its life. True, the fall of the latter would be a blow to Iran’s alliance; but the possibility of Assad’s Alawites being replaced by an extremist Sunni regime that could become part of no-less-threatening alliances is very real.

As for stable regimes, there are indeed some in the region—such as Erdogan’s in Ankara, becoming more Islamist and menacing by the day, and that old mainstay, the mullahs in Tehran, with Ahmadinejad continuing to foretell Israel’s demise and the IAEA sounding the alarm about its nuclear progress.

Overall: the post-“Arab spring” regional situation is fluid to the point of chaotic, hence unpredictable. Worst-case scenarios from Israel’s standpoint need not materialize; but to discount them is irresponsible folly. That the administration in Washington views Israel’s possible action against the current fulcrum of hostility—Iran—as perhaps the greatest evil, to be prevented at all costs, may be the most unsettling datum of all.

P. David Hornik


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