Matt Gurney – National Post June 8, 2011
Even as the Palestinians plan to petition the United Nations for a unilateral declaration of statehood, Egypt struggles to pick a new government and Syria teeters on the brink of a civil war, for the Israel Defense Forces, Iran remains the primary threat. This was made clear to me during a recent briefing with a senior Israeli military officer (who requested anonymity) visiting Canada to meet military and political officials.
While the West remains absorbed with the Palestinians and the Arab uprising, Iran is still busily working on its nuclear weapons and increasing its influence around the world, especially in Latin America. Israel is prepared for “different scenarios” with Iran, he said without elaborating, but has reconciled itself to the reality the United States will not attack Iran and destroy its nuclear program. The officer was openly dismissive of the effectiveness of sanctions.
“Sanctions are just an inconvenience for Iran,” he said, adding, “It won’t stop them from building a nuclear bomb. It just makes the bomb more expensive.”
As to the rest of the Middle East, he was surprisingly sanguine. Asked if he thought Israel might find itself in increased danger as destabilizing neighbours attempt the tried and true tactic of blaming the Jews for the Arab world’s ills, he said, “The anti-Israeli ideology has been proven false. Protests racked Egypt, which made peace with us, and some said that it was because they made peace with us.
“But now Syria is falling apart, and Hamas and Hezbollah have their own problems to deal with — both are terrified of uprisings among their own people and they’ve certainly never been interested in peace. The Arab dictatorships failed, no matter how they dealt with us. Israel can’t be blamed anymore.”
While the official hoped Egypt might have a positive outcome, he was less optimistic about other Middle Eastern countries, especially Syria.
“[Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad has gone past the point of no return,” he said, adding there are already signs its military is starting to fragment.
Israel fears not only the instability a Syrian collapse would entail, but the fate of Syria’s large stockpile of chemical weapons, second in size only to Russia’s.
Rogue actors, perhaps aided and abetted by Damascus, would be delighted to acquire some of that arsenal, and Israeli civilians would be the main target. The threat posed by loose Syria chemical weapons would be a more immediate danger than the belligerent but historically stable Assad regime.
The basic problems of the Middle East, he stressed, remain: Unemployment is high, sectarian tension rife, and the youthful populations of the Arab world might quickly move from euphoria to bitterness and disillusionment if, months after toppling their dictators, their lives remain largely unchanged.
In such a scenario, the officer worried, democracy might be the most destabilizing force of all — impatient young voters would be inclined to listen to the loudest voice promising the fastest results.
The extremists, he pointed out, have the advantage there, and are already adept at providing social services along with their political and religious rhetoric.
Given the new regional instability and the constant risk of fighting on all of its borders, he stressed Israel’s focus can no longer be on winning the major conventional war, but in having ready a series of phased defences: Deterrence; early warning of emerging threats should deterrence fail; the ability to win a decisive victory (something Israel failed to do in its 2006 war with Lebanon but handily accomplished in the Gaza Strip in 2008); and, most important, ensuring the home front remained secure from foreign invasion or terrorist attack.
He said, “The threat to Israel, and the free world, is growing. Responsible governments must be prepared for the worst, and that means having a system that expects crisis, and is prepared for it. Israel must think ahead.”