Saturday night, November 30, Ariel Sharon’s secure direct line to the White House rang at the prime minister’s Sycamore Ranch in the Negev, northwest of Beersheba. It was US President George W. Bush calling to express his personal condolences for the deaths of two Israeli children and a tour guide in the al Qaeda attacks in Mombasa, Kenya two days earlier.
Bush told Sharon that he understood that particularly tough times were ahead of Israel now that it faced a very real threat from al Qaeda. The president then paused and said he had a request. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, he proceeded to ask the prime minister to delay any active response to the attack until US deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz arrived. He would be making a lightning 12-hour visit to Israel before his scheduled trip to Ankara and would be landing on Monday, December 2. Sharon agreed.
The decision to dispatch Wolfowitz to Israel was taken at the White House in the light of intelligence reports from Jerusalem that Israeli security and intelligence authorities had been hit with earthquake force by the attacks in Kenya. Bitter recriminations were going round over their failure to shore up security for Israeli institutions and civil aviation, despite the terror alerts coming in from mid-November regarding al Qaeda plans to strike in Kenya.
The US intelligence reports cite senior Israeli security officials as acknowledging a grave security and intelligence lapse, though naturally preferring the Israeli public to know as little as possible about it. At the same time, a senior Israeli security official, talking to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, held his hands up over the appalling possibility of the Strela missiles bringing the Arkia plane down with more than 260 Israelis aboard.
“Sharon’s government would have fallen,” he said, “and the heads of Israel’s security authorities would have rolled.” The official admitted that Arkia’s Boeing 757 had not been equipped with an anti-missile defense system despite media reports to the contrary. The aircraft was saved, and only barely, by the pilot’s resourcefulness and courage. Spotting the missiles fired from the end of the runway as he took off, he took evasive action, escaping certain death for himself and passengers by scant inches.
The US intelligence reports cited two further incidents involving Israeli civil aircraft, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources. Both were played down at the time; one was never published. Since the Mombasa attacks, Israeli security authorities are taking them far more seriously.
On November 18, an Israeli Arab tried to hijack an El Al plane flying from Tel Aviv to Istanbul. He was overpowered before he could do any harm and turned over to the Turkish police after a safe landing.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly now reveals for the first time that, on June 30, an El Al plane taking off from Zurich to Tel Aviv was forced to turn around and land after an object traveling at high speed struck its tail hard enough to dent it. This incident was defined as “an unidentified shooting at the aircraft”. It is now believed that an assailant stood on an airport balcony or rooftop and shot at the plane, grazing its tail. Had the projectile hit home, the aircraft would have crashed.
The more recent hijacking attempt has come to be regarded now as a test run to gauge security procedures aboard Israeli airliners. A Hezbollah or al Qaeda cell operating in the Arab or Bedouin community in the Galilee is suspected of having recruited the Israeli Arab hijacker, Tawfiq Fukra, to check if the Arkia aircraft – that later escaped harm – could have been hijacked in Kenya. When he failed on El Al’s Istanbul run, his controllers decided to resort to a missile attack.
Mombasa changes Israel’s rules of engagement
The mood of Israel’s security leaders is described in the US intelligence reports as grim. Focused for 26 months on Palestinian terror and its Iraqi military intelligence controllers, Israel and its security services are faced with making an abrupt switch to comprehensive action against another enemy, al Qaeda. To meet bin Laden’s network head-on, Israel would have to withdraw its special units from western Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian areas – which is impossible – and deploy them against the new adversaries in their Arabian Peninsular, Gulf and Horn of Africa bases. The reach of the Israeli air force and navy is long, but Israel does not possess sufficient combat-ready reserve resources to replace the forces assigned to fighting al Qaeda. Until now, the Sharon government has refrained from a general call-up of reserves so as not to deepen the country’s economic crisis.
The intelligence reports advised the US government to insist on Israel holding off its reprisals against al-Qaeda targets until it is able to set up a special military and intelligence task force tailor-made for the mission.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources, Wolfowitz landed unobtrusively at an Israeli air force base on the morning of December 2. He found Israel’s defense and security chiefs ready for immediate action against al Qaeda on the grounds that it would be even more dangerous to sit around and wait for the fundamentalist terrorists to let loose with chemical or biological weapons. The Pentagon official met Israeli defense minister Shaul Mofaz, chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Moshe Yaalon, Mossad chief Meir Dagan and national security adviser Ephraim Halevy. They warned that a 9/11 type mega-attack in the heart of any of Israel’s main cities would paralyze its armed forces and poison its energy and water supplies. Israel’s very survival could be in jeopardy should al Qaeda join up with Iraq to stage a missile or air attack with chemical or biological warheads.
They told Wolfowitz, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, that the gloves were now off. The Jewish state was ready to dust off the tactical nuclear arms, and the laser and infra-red weapons hidden for decades in secret depots, and use them against al Qaeda targets anywhere in the Middle East and Gulf. One Israeli general told the American visitor: “We can’t afford to play their (al-Qaeda) game with conventional bombs as you did in Afghanistan. This time, we’ll be making the rules – not al-Qaeda.”
Wolfowitz found Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in a dark mood.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and political sources in Jerusalem, Sharon realizes without admitting as much, that his entire security conception collapsed at Mombasa.
As one informed security source put it:
“Sharon sat at the center of his personal military staff and saw himself directing the war against the Palestinians and Iraq. He surrounded himself with men chosen for their loyalty and gave them key jobs in the security and intelligence hierarchy.”
The source noted that Mossad director ex-general Dagan is a personal friend, while the prime minister’s military secretary, Major-General Moshe Kaplinsky, was assigned to the army’s central command, a strategic position from which to keep the Palestinians and their leader, Yasser Arafat, under the gun and, when the time comes, to hold down a front against Iraq.
Sharon omitted to take one factor into consideration: his minions would be required to take on al Qaeda as well.
“Since the Israeli man in the street still does not appreciate what is going on, Sharon can stay mum and pretend nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. However,” the source warned, “few secrets last long in Israel. When the public gets wise, Sharon is in for a rough time unless he is somehow able to restore a semblance of normalcy.”
For the time being, at least, Wolfowitz persuaded Sharon to refrain from irreversible action until he returns to Washington at the weekend and the US leadership discusses the situation, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the US capital and Jerusalem report.