Merkel’s Israel visit highlights defense commitment, but no support for showdown with Iran
16 March: German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives in Israel Sunday, accompanied by seven of her top cabinet ministers. She will launch joint German-Israel cabinet-level consultations to take place in the two capitals in turn once a year and Tuesday, become the first German chancellor to address the Israeli parliament. Her four-day trip honors Israel’s 60th anniversary.
debkafile comments: This initiative marks the Merkel government’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. At the same time, the chancellor, while promising pressure on Tehran, is known to hold fast against an extreme showdown with Iran over its covert military nuclear program. Her statement on the eve of her trip – “The threats to which the Israeli state is exposed are also threats to us”- neatly bridges the two positions.
Israel A Force may buy vertical-takeoff planes to dodge Hizballah-Hamas rockets
17 March. The expanding Palestinian and Lebanese Hizballah’s missile threats to its southern and northern air bases have persuaded Israeli’s Air Force to consider switching its procurement plans from 100 US F-35A stealth jets to the F-35B Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version, designed to serve the US Marine Corps when under fire.
Israel’s southern and northern air bases have come within range of rockets from Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas from the Gaza Strip, respectively, and possibly from the West Bank too. “Air base survivability is no longer hypothetical,” said one retired air force general.
Only 4 percent of Israelis support Olmert’s policy of restraint towards Hamas
18 March. The “Peace Index” survey conducted in February 2008 also found that no more than 30 percent of Israelis believed the government headed by Ehud Olmert could be trusted to uphold national security. The survey was conducted by Prof. Ephraim Yaari and Tamar Herman of Tel Aviv University’s Peace Research Institute. They also reported that 71 percent of those canvassed were opposed to Israel accepting an informal truce with Hamas and 53 percent said Palestinian rockets was not a factor in their decision to live in Israel.
New poll shows rising Palestinian support for violence – report
19 March. Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki told the New York Times in Ramallah that 84 percent of the Palestinians polled supported the March 6 attack on the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in which 8 young students were killed,.
He reported 64 percent supported the Hamas’ missile offensive against Israeli towns and 75 percent though the negotiations between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas were without benefit and should be terminated.
Shikaki said he was shocked by the survey taken last week because it showed greater Palestinian support for violence than any other he had conducted in the past 15 years.
US Military Option on Iran Is Back on the Table
19 March: The talks US Vice President Dick Cheney is holding in Oman, Saudi Arabia and Jerusalem focus on two aspects of the Iranian nuclear threat:
1. The Bush administration’s decision to distance itself from the National Intelligence Estimate released last December. Its conclusion that Iran’s nuclear arms program was shelved in 2003 and so rendered America’s military option superfluous is now deemed a mistake.
2. The administration now buys British, German, French and Israeli intelligence estimates that Iran is indeed pressing forward with programs for building nuclear weapons, warheads and ballistic missiles for their delivery.
The vice president will listen closely to his hosts’ ideas about joint efforts for containing Iran’s aggressive expansionist thrusts across the Persian Gulf and Middle East and halting its progress towards nuclear armaments.
The vice president’s choice of capitals for his tour is a pointer to the fact that the military option, off since December, may be on again.
Oman hosts the big American air bases, which are the core of the defense system for the Strait of Hormuz and the US Navy, Marine and Air Force units deployed in the Persian Gulf.
Saudi Arabia is the senior Gulf and Arabian trendsetter and the key to pan-Arab endorsement for a US offensive against Tehran. Riyadh has opposed military action until now.
Israel is the only regional nation willing to actively participate in an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, and its military has been putting together plans for going it alone.
Turkey is a pivotal element in any war plan because American warplanes and missiles heading for Iran will have to transit its airspace and take off from air bases on its soil.
Hizballah more than trebles its rocket arsenal to 40,000
22 March: Hizballah’s heavy armament will figure large in the talks US Vice President Dick Cheney is holding with Israeli leaders on the Iranian nuclear threat
debkafile‘s military sources disclose that Hizballah has built up its rocket arsenal to three and-a-half times its pre-2006 Lebanon War stocks. Some of the 40,000 rockets – most of Syrian manufacture in recent months – can hit Israel targets as far south as Beersheba.
Not only is Tel Aviv within range, but Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza can between them cover most of Israel except for its southernmost tip at Eilat.
Syria has also been sending Hizballah quantities of anti-air weapons, including shoulder-borne rockets and scores of Russian-made anti-aircraft ZSU-100 automatic 14.4 mm caliber cannon, which are most effective against low-flying aircraft, helicopters and drones.
On his arrival, Cheney pledged that his government would not pressure Israel to take steps that threatened its security. “America's commitment to Israel's security is enduring and unshakable, as is Israel's right to protect itself always against terrorism, rocket attacks and other attacks from forces dedicated to Israel's destruction.”
Cheney discusses Iran’s nuclear threat and expansion drive with Israeli officials
23 March: The visiting US Vice President joined thousands of pilgrims from around the world at an Easter service in Jerusalem Sunday, March 23.
Israel’s opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu reported that the fate of Jerusalem came up in their discussion of the Iranian threat and Tehran’s pursuit of forward bases in the region, from Gaza to Lebanon, including Jerusalem. Any part of the city evacuated by Israel would be overrun by Hamas, Iran and its affiliates, Netanyahu warned. They would pose a menace to peace, Israeli’s security and the freedom of worship for millions of non-Islam believers who now flock to the city’s holy sites.
On his arrival Saturday night for two days of talks, Cheney said the US wants a new beginning for the Palestinians, but will never pressure Israel to take steps that would jeopardize its security.
The Vice President’s most important discussion – centering on Iran and its heavy rearmament of Hizballah (40,000 extended-range surface rockets and Russian-made anti-aircraft weapons) – takes place with defense minister Ehud Barak. Cheney has also asked to meet the Mossad director and the chief of staff.
US and Saudi Arabia agree to bring oil prices down to $85-90
24 March: debkafile‘s Gulf sources disclose that US Vice President Dick Cheney persuaded Saudi leaders to raise production in order to curb rocketing world oil prices, during their talks in Riyadh on Saturday, March 22.
King Abdullah thereupon convened the Supreme Council for Petroleum and Mineral Affairs Sunday, to underline the kingdom’s commitment to stabilizing the international oil market “by ensuring adequate supply.”
While the extent of this downward trend is hard to predict, oil producers are looking favorably at prices of $85-90 in the short term, which are realistic given the protracted US dollar slump.
Barak: Israel’s army and intelligence poised for instant response to Hizballah attack
24 March: debkafile‘s military sources report that Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak placed the armed forces on guard in view of indications that Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah may seriously intend making good on his threat of “open war” against Israel, whom he accuses of the Feb. 12 killing of Imad Mughniyeh.
The Israeli Air Force, according to our sources, has prepared two command and control airplanes capable of reacting to terrorist attacks in places far from Israel. Magen David Adom nationwide has doubled its usual complement of ambulances and crews on standby.
Barak was reacting to fast-moving events across the northern border.
1. Syria has pushed Palestinian terrorist groups under its shared control with Iran – an estimated 3,000-strong – into the Lebanese Beqaa Valley. They have taken up battle positions and delivery of large quantities of the latest weapons and ammunition.
2. Syria has speeded up arms shipments to Hizballah – notably anti-aircraft weapons.
3. Syrian armored divisions are massed along its Lebanese border.
Israel’s military chiefs read these moves as meaning that Hizballah and Syria are preparing to attack Israel and absorb reprisals. They are taking into account large-scale, multiple-casualty attack on an overseas Israeli or Jewish target coordinated with strikes inside Israel.
Cheney: Hamas, with Syrian-Iranian support wants to torpedo peace
24 March: Before heading for Turkey, Monday, March 24, US Vice President Dick Cheney met Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem a second time. Sunday night, defense minister Ehud Barak told the Vice President that Iran’s military buildup endangers the stability of the region and the entire world and that no option should be taken off the table regarding its nuclear program.
In Ramallah, Palestinian leaders asked Cheney to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion. He responded that terror and rockets against Israel not only killed innocent people but also Palestinian hopes for a state.
Top Hamas missile expert in group released by Egypt
25 March: debkafile‘s military sources report Hamas terror heavyweights were in the last batch Egypt released of 124 operatives captured in Sinai after Hamas smashed through the border wall earlier this year. Among them were Nafez Abu Najj, Hamas’ director of missile production, Saber Darimali, commander of its leaders’ guard unit, and at least two deputy heads of Hamas intelligence. Their return to Gaza was a concession made by Cairo to the Palestinian jihadists amid truce negotiations in which Israel is an indirect partner, despite its denials.
Officers of Israel’s southern command voiced dismay at the government’s failure to intercede and prevent the return to the fray of the hard core of Hamas’ command echelon. The 124 Hamas operatives were picked up on their way back from big purchasing expeditions for missile and arms for smuggling into the Gaza Strip along with Hamas fighters back from training in Iran and Syria.
Mixed signals from Jerusalem ahead of Rice visit
26 March: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Israel over the weekend before the Arab Summit opens in Damascus. She will make sure of Israeli concessions to Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas to make it worth his while to stick to the US-promoted peace track.
Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak has announced permission to deploy in Jenin, a West Bank terror stronghold, 600 Palestinian security men trained in Jordan under a US program. He will also authorize the delivery of 20 APCs from Russia for Abbas’ security forces and may also remove a couple of temporary roadblocks. Easing travel restrictions for Palestinian businessmen, he described as “a calculated risk” to improve the climate of talks with Palestinians. But he stressed that Israel will retain overall responsibility for West Bank security.