The comings and goings of US and Israeli military chiefs between the two countries in the last six weeks will be capped by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s trip to Washington in the next few days, followed by chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi.
Mossad director Meir Dagan was there first. He paid an unannounced trip this week.
Prime minister Ehud Olmert will be on his way to attend Nicolas Sarkozy’s Mediterranean conference in Paris on July 13, along with Syrian president Bashar Asad. The intense military travels have included two visits to Israel in the space of three weeks by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He was preceded and followed by more top-ranking American military chiefs.
Now all this motion appears to be drawing to a close and some resolution.
As to their purpose, one theory that the two military establishments were busy coordinating an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations has been knocked down. The Pentagon and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates are against this.
So has another theory, that the American military chiefs covered all that distance to keep a tight rein on Israel and avert a unilateral strike that would expose US forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East to a backlash from the Islamic Republic
That could have been achieved quite easily by a couple of phone calls from President George W. Bush at the White House to Olmert in Jerusalem, or from defense secretary Gates to Barak, telling them that there was no green light for a lone Israeli attack.
Those calls were not made.
Washington would not deny Israel permission to strike Iran
To the contrary, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that the Bush administration’s view on the subject can be summed up in this sentence: Despite hints of discouragement from top level administration officials, especially Pentagon officers, the administration would not deny Israel permission to strike.
So what was the hectic palaver all about? And why does Barak’s forthcoming Washington trip look like a final summing up?
After Dagan huddled with his opposite numbers in Washington on intelligence, a decision in principle is up to Barak, after which Ashkenazi will take charge of execution.
For Israel at this time, Plan B makes the most sense.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources conclude that, for now, the Bush administration does not look like exercising its military option against Iran; neither has Israel made any final decisions on a timeline for an attack, i.e. Plan A. Therefore, Israel is looking hard at Plan B, meaning first striking Iran’s Middle East surrogates: Hizballah in Lebanon and the Palestinian Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Israel’s war planners hammered this plan out with the visiting American military chiefs. The pros will be presented by the Israeli defense minister next week to Vice President Dick Cheney, Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US intelligence chiefs
His principal argument will be, according to our military sources, that attacking Iran first – Plan A – would expose Israel to the risk of three inflamed borders and the need to fight Syria, Hizballah and Hamas as well as Iran. It would make more sense to first disable Hizballah and Hamas before broaching Plan A.
One of the cons posed by American military chiefs was that an attack on Hizballah might invoke Iran’s commitment to back its proxy by unleashing long-range missiles against the Jewish state, so dragging the entire region into war.
Barak replied, according to our sources, that no one knows for sure that Tehran really will rush to the aid of its Lebanese Shiite proxy – just as no American or any other military or intelligence body in the Middle East knows for certain that Hizballah is bound to strike back at American targets should Israel attack Iran.
Israel‘s Plan B would snap Tehran’s tightening noose
Tehran could decide in an instant not to deliver on the commitment to its Lebanese ally.
But even if Tehran does deliver, Israel’s strategists are playing down the damage Iranian long-range missiles can inflict on Israel as manageable (as shown in the lead article in this issue), whereas a wholesale Iranian-Hizballah-Hamas onslaught would put Israel’s back against the wall.
Resorting to Plan B would have the further advantage of driving a hole in the hostile noose which Tehran is constantly tightening around Israel’s borders. This is long overdue, in the view of Israel’s military chiefs.
Another of Barak’s arguments will be that Tehran will think twice before throwing its not very large arsenal of missiles at Israel, preferring to prudently reserve at least half – 40 at most – for a later stage of the confrontation, when they might be needed to hit American bases in the region.
Furthermore, an exchange of missiles between Israel and Iran need not automatically spark a full-scale war between them, which the Americans are anxious to prevent.
With regard to Syria’s role in the conflict, the Israeli defense minister will hold up Israel’s key strategic goal, as promoted by prime minister Olmert, to join the American-French effort to break up the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah-Hamas axis.
Barak like Olmert believes the chances of pulling Damascus away from its ties with Hizballah and Hamas are better now than ever before. The two Israeli leaders do not expect Assad to go to war on behalf of the Lebanese Shiites (See a separate article on first signs of a break in Syrian-Hizballah relations) when he even refrained from hitting back for Israel’s attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor.
Should this scenario not pan out, and Bashar Assad does opt for war, then Israel will have to contend with this threat too.
A cold shoulder from the CIA director
CIA director Michael Hayden cold-shouldered Israel in a conversation he had on Tuesday, July 8, with Bloomberg staffers in New York.
He pointed out that Hizballah may not be willing to attack American interests and provoke a global fight in retaliation for a U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran.
Like the American military chiefs who visited Israel and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander, Gen. Ali Jafari (in an interview to Jam-e Jam on June 29), Hayden differentiated clearly between Hizballah’s potential reprisals for an US attack on Iran and for an Israeli strike.
Hayden stressed that the costs of an attack on US interests “are different than Hizballah operating against Israel.''
These comments were made hours before the Israeli security cabinet was suddenly called into session Wednesday, July 9, to discuss the situation on its northern borders, and were further evidence, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Washington sources, of the steep slide in Israel’s strategic standing. The Olmert government’s security partnership with the Bush administration has suffered a bad knock, they say, from the quiet understandings US negotiators have reached with Tehran on an oil price ceiling, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Hayden stressed: “If Iran was attacked and pressured Hizballah to retaliate, the Shiite group may be especially reluctant to disrupt international oil supplies for fear of triggering a backlash.”
Hizballah would need to weigh whether any action it took against the U.S. would involve it in a war,” the CIA Director went on to say.
“Is it in Hizballah's interest to become involved in a global war against the United States of America?” he asked. “That's a question to be answered.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and military sources interpret the CIA director’s words as an American signal to Hizballah that, in the event of an attack on Iran, its best interests would be served by ignoring advice from Tehran to hit back at US Middle East interests.
The inference from his omission of Israel and its interests, traditionally included in such American litanies, was that to hit Israel was okay.
Hizballah trebles its strength, plants cells in the Gulf
Apparent from one of his comments was the revelation that Hizballah was now in position to join the Revolutionary Guards in attacking oil routes in the Gulf region: “…the Shiite group may be especially reluctant to disrupt international oil supplies for fear of triggering a backlash.”
(This disclosure is enlarged on in the lead article of this issue.)
Any reference to Hizballah’s enhanced capabilities stirs alarm in Jerusalem.
Since the 2006 Lebanon War, the prime minister’s office has spent two years sweeping under the carpet the uncomfortable facts that Hizballah has been able in the interim to treble its military strength, dig a chain of new fortified bunkers, lay a road network and build an independent military telecommunications system encompassing Lebanon’s strategic hubs.
Systematic smuggling from Iran and Syria, under the noses of UN peacekeepers, has crammed into the Shiite extremists’ arsenals 40,000 missiles and rockets, more than three times the 12,000 with which Hizballah went to war in the summer of 2006.
Hizballah’s new rockets can now reach Tel Aviv from southern Lebanon – or even Beersheba and the Dimona nuclear center in the Negev.
UN Security Council resolution 1701 which ended the war with a ceasefire conditional on Hizballah disarming its militia, in line with previous resolutions, is gathering dust.
Tuesday, July 9, Barak was on the phone to a row of European foreign ministers, and Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni took her Italian opposite number on a trip to the North, both seeking to drive home that it is imperative to enforce the resolution now or never.
Whether Israel will get anywhere with promoting its Plan B depends very much on how persuasive Barak and Ashkenazi can be in Washington.
Bush may decide that it is not worth jeopardizing his joint venture with Sarkozy for pulling Damascus away from Tehran by encouraging Israel to attack Hizballah. Other options are at least as chancy. But the volatile Middle East rarely waits for rational decision-making before it explodes in unexpected ways. Whatever is decided, Israel is skating on very thin ice.