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Page last updated at 15:22 GMT, Thursday, 4 September 2008 16:22 UK

Israel military sees world of threats

Israeli military exercises in the Golan Heights in August 2008
The Israeli military sees threat from every direction - even Egypt and Jordan

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Jerusalem

Israelis sometimes say they can lose only one war. They worry that defeat could mean the destruction of their state.

That's why this tiny nation has, reputedly, the world's sixth largest nuclear arsenal. It is a reason to think the Israelis aren't bluffing when they talk of attacking Iran to stop the Iranians getting their own nuclear weapons.

The Israeli military and intelligence community are haunted by their failure to predict the 1973 war with the Arab states. They are determined that such a failure will not be repeated.

Today, the view from the Israeli defence establishment is of a nation still surrounded by numerous threats to its survival.

Listing Israel's enemies, or potential enemies, a senior security source told me: "They are building their forces and are not yet ready to strike."

[The Iranians] think history is with them. They think the US is weakening. They believe this is a generational struggle
Israeli military official

We were in a government building in Tel Aviv. The man speaking at the head of a large conference table wore the badges of senior military rank on his epaulettes.

He had carried out dangerous, covert missions abroad for his country. He is listened to by the prime minister and the chief of staff.

When he talked to them, he said, their simple question was always: "Will there be war?" For 2008, the answer was no. "But I am more cautious about 2009."

Hotline

With self-deprecating humour, the official described the emergency hotline to his home.

Since it often rang in the middle of the night, his wife refused to allow the phone in the bedroom.

It was 10 metres away in the hall and in walking those ten metres, he said, he always asked himself which of five things the call would be about: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas or al-Qaeda.

Iran, said the official, was Israel's "most problematic enemy".

"They think history is with them. They think the US is weakening. They believe this is a generational struggle."

The damage to Lebanon wasn't enough to deter [Hezbollah last time]... when the terrorists become the government, the list of targets is longer
Israeli military official

He went on: "Iran has a high priority to develop a nuclear weapon but the strategy is not to have the bomb as soon as possible. It is to advance the programme with the minimum cost from the international community."

Iran denies that it is doing anything other than developing a peaceful, civil nuclear industry. But warnings that an Israeli attack might be "unavoidable" have been made by senior figures such as Shaul Mofaz, a government minister and former head of the Israeli army.

There has been speculation that Israel might strike after the November presidential election in the US, but before January when the winner takes office.

The official I spoke to seemed to imply that Israel felt it had more time than that, saying Iran would not have a nuclear weapon until at least 2010.

"The worst case scenario is by the end of the decade and that may be pessimistic."

Talk of war

If it did come to war, the official said, the Iranians had a "terror network" in Iraq which was working at only 10-20% of its capabilities.

They could also close the Straits of Hormuz that links the Gulf to the Arabian Sea and make use of Hezbollah in Lebanon. They had North Korean missiles with a range of 3,500km.

Hamas will take over the West Bank if Israel leaves now
Israeli military official

Perhaps all the talk of war with Iran is designed to frighten the Iranians but this official, and other senior politicians and generals I've spoken to over the past few months, all seemed deadly serious about military action if the diplomacy failed.

However, the official said Syria was a bigger threat than Iran if measured by the tonnage of conventional explosive that could be launched at Israel.

He did not view the Syrians as sincere in the indirect negotiations they were conducting through Turkey. "They speak about peace from time to time, while sending weapons to Hezbollah."

Lessons learnt

Hezbollah itself was for the time being concentrating on building its strength within Lebanon rather than threatening Israel, the official said.

He accused them of stockpiling weapons in central and northern Lebanon for use in a future internal conflict there.

If there was another war with Israel, he went on, the Israeli military had learned the lessons of 2006.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas: A chief without Indians who could lose the West Bank to Hamas?

Rather chillingly, perhaps, he said the next war would see far more bombing and far more damage to Lebanese infrastructure.

"The damage to Lebanon wasn't enough to deter them [last time]," he said. Next time, Hezbollah would not enjoy air-conditioning in their bunkers because there would be no electricity.

Hezbollah's presence in the Lebanese government now was actually helpful from an Israeli military point of view, he explained.

"When the terrorists become the government, the list of targets is longer," a point he said also applied to Hamas in Gaza.

Both military intelligence and the Shabak - as the domestic intelligence agency is sometimes called here - had been against Israel's truce with Hamas, the official revealed. But the politicians had ignored them both, as sometimes happens in a democracy.

Breathing space

The ceasefire was very important to Hamas in Gaza, he said, because it gave them a breathing space from Israeli military operations to smuggle in far more powerful explosives.

They had been relying on home made explosives, which deteriorated after a month or two.

Now Hamas had stockpiled rockets numbering "in the low thousands" with the more potent explosives.

Hamas would of course say that the truce helped ease the crippling economic blockade of Gaza.

In the West Bank, it would be at least six years before the Palestinian security forces were ready to assume their responsibilities fully, the official said.

The Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad, were "chiefs without Indians."

He added: "Hamas will take over the West Bank if Israel leaves now."

He said Israel had had to wait almost 25 years for Yasser Arafat to recognise their right to exist. It might take a similar time before Hamas would do the same. Since that was Israel's pre-condition for talks with Hamas, it could expect a long war.

It was a pessimistic view of the world, all the more so for the fact that the official's list of potential future enemies included countries like Jordan and Egypt, now officially at peace with Israel.

The official did not believe there would be an all-out attack, as in 1973: Israeli capabilities, especially air superiority, would ensure that.

But the danger was of an event which did not reach the bar of all-out attack but which could easily escalate into a war between Israel and an Arab state or states.

That was the basis of his warning that the likelihood of a war in the Middle East would grow in 2009.




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