Behind all the optimism that is being expressed in regard to the new Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks, there is great concern of a looming war in the Middle East. While reports have focused on the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and Iran, few analysts have considered that the next war might be more limited in scope -- one that could occur, instead, between Israel and Iran's proxies in the region.
Recently, an Israeli think-tank, the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, launched simulated war games, gauging international reaction to a possible long-range missile attack on Tel Aviv. Such an attack might be aimed at Israel's Defense Ministry, and Middle East experts at IDC developed possible scenarios to prepare for such developments.
Also on Israel's military agenda is a national war drill called Turning Point 4, which will be held May 23-27. The purpose of the drill is to see how civilians might respond to rocket attacks fired on the home front. Israel's Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai says the drill is not linked to fears of a looming war, and that Israel has sent messages to allay tensions that could be caused by the exercise.
In fact, Israeli leaders have been engaged in sending messages to Lebanon and Syria for several weeks now, claiming that Israel wants peace, not war, on its northern border. This follows rumors, presumably started by Iran, that Israel may attack trucks carrying massive arms from Syria to Hezb'allah. The transfer of these arms, many originating in Iran, has been going on for four years now, in defiance of U.N. Security Resolution 1701, which was implemented at the end of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Iran's reason for trying to provoke Israel to spark a new war in the Middle East may be to detract the international community from imposing further U.N. sanctions on the Islamic state.
Meanwhile, Israel is highlighting recent arms shipments to Lebanon because Syria has transferred hundreds of M-600 surface-to-surface missiles, as well as Scuds, to Hezb'allah. These missiles can reach major cities in Israel and cause extensive damage to the Jewish State. The M-600 reportedly has a range of 250 km, with a 500-kg warhead. It's an advanced weapon with greater precision, giving Hezb'allah greater accuracy when the missile is aimed at an Israeli target.
Israel is concerned that Hezb'allah now has the ability to deploy longer-range missiles than those they acquired before the Second Lebanon War. Hezb'allah could launch these rockets from northern Lebanon and still hit deep into Israeli territory. If successful, Hezb'allah would not have to conduct a war in south Lebanon, in front of U.N. troops, and this would give the terrorist army a strategic advantage.
In recent weeks, Israel and the U.S. have been warning Iran and Syria to stop the massive arms transfers. While the threat of war looms over Israel, so does the possibility of Russia transferring the S-300 advanced anti-missile defense system to Iran, which would tip the balance of power in the Middle East. Israel has threatened to knock out that system before Iran, or any other Middle East country, is able to deploy it.
Russian President Dimitry Medvedev met with Israel's President Shimon Peres in Moscow in early May and then went immediately to Syria to meet with President Bashar Assad and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. To Israel's dismay, Russia secured a deal to deliver MiG-29 fighter jets, the Pantsyr short-range air defense system, and more armored vehicles to Syria for its arsenal. Some of Russia's previous weapons sales to Syria ended up in Hezb'allah's hands and were used in the Second Lebanon War.
Since 2006, Hezb'allah has rebuilt its stockpile and now has a reported 42,000 rockets pointed at Israel. Thousands of Hezb'allah's troops are stationed in Shiite villages south of Lebanon's Litani River, also in defiance of U.N. Security Resolution 1701.
Syria, taking cues from Hezb'allah, has moved antitank missiles closer to Israel and has built ghost towns along the border with the intent of trapping IDF forces. Fortifying villages and farms with stockpiles of weapons, Syria is also training and stationing advanced commando units in the border town of Kuneitra. Both Lebanon and Syria are now on heightened alert, and any misconstrued move along their border with Israel could spark a conflict.
Though Hezb'allah has become a strategic threat to Israel, officials in Jerusalem aren't saying much about Israel's military preparations. At two recent press briefings, this reporter asked Israeli leaders what Israel plans to do about the massive arms shipments.
Israel's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence, Dan Meridor, is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's inner cabinet of seven men that make strategic diplomatic and military decisions. Meridor said that war is an easy way out of tough peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. He later commented on the current risks to Israel's security: "The number of rockets and missiles that are being deployed around us, by our enemies, unprecedented in its intensity, with varying ranges and payloads, [has] created a new security concern for Israel."
When pressed about Israel's intentions regarding this risk, Meridor responded that he didn't want to see another war in the Middle East. "We are doing our best to be strong and project strength so a war can be deterred."
Questions remain regarding just how effective Israel's deterrence is now and how long before the Jewish State will have to take measures to keep the delicate balance of power in the region from tipping in favor of Israel's enemies.
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Minister of Industry and Trade, is also an outspoken member of Israel's leftist Labor Party. He wants to see a quick resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He said time is running out, and he has fears about the strength of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.
When this reporter asked him about the recent meeting between Russian and Syrian leaders, he voiced his concern. "To tell you I am happy to say that they are selling guns to the Syrians, I'm not happy about that."
Ben-Eliezer also said that Russia's proposed delivery of the S-300 system to Iran would not help to keep the Middle East quiet. Ben-Eliezer, who accompanied Netanyahu three times to Egypt to visit Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, said that the arms buildup in the region isn't a problem for Israel alone. "With Mubarak, and members of the Egyptian cabinet, all of them are worried about the stability of the Middle East. All are worried about how we can keep the Middle East on solid ground."
Meanwhile, while U.S. President Barack Obama continues to push Israel and the Palestinians to resolve their differences through diplomatic negotiations, he also continues to voice America's commitment to Israel's security. Though not in favor of direct military action against Iran, Obama has acknowledged Israel's right to defend itself in the face of Hezb'allah's massive arms buildup.
Despite diplomatic mishaps acknowledged by the Obama administration, the U.S. has affirmed its strong military ties with the Jewish State. On May 13, America announced that it was allocating $205 million for Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which would be in addition to the $3 billion dollars in U.S. military aid to Israel each year. Most of the $3 billion is spent by Israel's defense forces to buy advanced weapons from the U.S. This creates jobs for America's defense industry, while also continuing to give Israel a qualitative edge over its adversaries.
The Obama administration is keenly aware that Israel needs good missile defense, and there are numerous costs involved in getting the Iron Dome ready and operational. This system has the capacity of thwarting short-range missiles launched at Israel. American and Israeli military experts continue to work together to refine Israel's Arrow anti-missile defense system, which is built to deal with long-range missile attacks. Skies over Israel are less vulnerable these days, but the Jewish State has a long way to go before it perfects its missile defense capabilities.
In the meantime, global leaders are focused on indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinians, while Iran continues to deliver more arms to its proxies in the region. But how long can Israel remain on the sidelines watching its deterrence capability deteriorate in the face of a massive arms buildup along its northern border?
As U.S. peace envoy George Mitchell shuttles back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah, hoping the current diplomatic process will move forward, Israel watches its enemies and wonders when the right time will be to take the necessary military action needed to level the Middle East playing field.