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Israel, Iran & New Year

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon: 'No Guarantee Iranian Regime Will Survive 2010 - U.S., Russia & China Ready To Impose Sanctions, Possibly This Month'

IsraCast Asssessment: New Sanctions On Iran Should Be Designed To Deter Regime While Not Harming Popular Momentum For Democratic Change

Shabak Security Chief Diskin: 'Release Of Marwan Barghutti & Influx Of Hard Core Terrorists To West Bank Could Spark Intifada III'

Israel has entered 2010 facing with a wide range of both dangers and prospects in the security and foreign affairs arena. The Iranian regime is now battling for its political survival at home against a mounting campaign for democratic reform while time has apparently run out for its clandestine nuclear weapons project. At year's end, the international reach of Islamist terrorism struck again at Schiphol Airport and at a CIA base in Afghanistan, while a divided Palestinian camp remained split over terrorism or negotiations. Analyst David Essing assesses the situation from an Israeli perspective.

 Iran: 2010 is shaping up as the year that the crisis over Iran's nuclear weapons program will come to a head. After entering the White House last January, the new U.S. President Barack Obama offered Tehran dialogue and international legitimacy, in place of George Bush's tough talk and threats. However, both have failed to divert President Ahmadenijad and his Ayatollah masters from proceeding full tilt to going operational with the bomb. Neither America's carrot or stick policy has worked so Obama, as in Afghanistan, is also faced with the option of wielding the proverbial 'big stick' with Iran after his ultimatum has expired. As anticipated Iran again made some non-committal comments about possibly sending some of its low-grade enriched uranium to Turkey. But no one seems to be taking that seriously, not even the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna now that Dr. Mohammed al Baradei has departed.

In brief, the Iranians have now produced 1,800 kilos of low- quality uranium of some 4% that they ramp up, whenever they decide, to 93% weapons grade, enough for one nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, as revealed recently by the Times of London, they are also trying to buy black market components for the bomb itself. Their ballistic missiles are capable of delivering a nuclear warhead not only to Israel but also parts southern and eastern Europe, including Russia. So, as President Shimon Peres once said: 'Every intelligence service in the world, worth its salt, knows Iran is building the bomb!'.

The Iranian Missile Range

But has Iran now reached a hitch? The Associated Press reported: ' Iran is close to clinching a deal to clandestinely import 1,350 tons of purified uranium ore from Kazakhstan'. The AP story was based on an intelligence report from a member state of the IAEA. The conclusion was that Tehran was running out of the material known as 'yellowcake' which it needs to feed its uranium enrichment program. The U.S. State Department spokesman said such a sale would be in violation of the existing sanctions already imposed by the UN Security Council. Iran was ready to pay $450 million dollars for the shipment but Kazakhstan had been approached by an international player with the goal of blocking the deal, which if carried out, might enable Iran to eventually produce up to 150 nuclear warheads. The report sounds plausible and makes sense when compared with the amount of yellowcake Iran was known to have bought years ago from South Africa. However, this could be another trick up the Iranian sleeve. What if Tehran does have a sufficient supply of yellowcake and has initiated the Kazakhstan purchase, knowing it would fall through? If the impression were then created that Iran was running out of yellowcake, the international community would have far less to worry about and this would weaken an American move to impose stiffer sanctions, something China and Russia are loath to support. The result would be that Iran would buy more time for producing the bomb. In any event, the Iranians have shown no qualms about defying Obama and enter the new year apparently as determined as ever to acquire nuclear weapons. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has noted the Iranian leadership views itself as restoring Iran's ancient historical role as a regional power, comparable to that of India and Pakistan (both of whom are nuclear weapons powers).

The trick for Obama is now twofold - not only to mobilize international backing for harsher sanctions but to also design new sanctions that will exert greater pressure on the regime without rallying Iranian public opinion behind Ahmadenijad and the Ayatollahs. The protesters, who are fed up with living under an Islamist dictatorship that rigged the recent election and is responsible for rampant unemployment and the deteriorating standard of living, appear determined to bring about a regime change. Their dissatisfaction is also linked indirectly to their government's nuclear weapons project. Most Iranians are living in abject poverty although they live in an oil rich state because their government is channeling huge sums into the nuclear program at the expense of rational economic development. For example, although Iran is a major oil exporter it has to import some 40% of its own gasoline because it has not invested in refining facilities. The dissidents vow not to give in while the regime warns it will enforce even harsher measures to suppress the popular movement. So far, Iran's armed forces have been watching from the sidelines while the regimes' loyal 'Besijj' militia, recruited mainly from rural areas, and the Iranian police have been battling the demonstrators in the streets. During the Khomeini revolution in 1979, the Iranian army eventually turned against the Shah; a key question is how will the Iranian military react if the internal situation deteriorates further as it very well may? Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon has said: ' There is no guarantee the current regime in Tehran will survive 2010. The U.S., Russia and China all realize the peril of Iran's acquiring nuclear weapons and are ready to impose new sanctions, possibly this month'.

Meanwhile Israel, number #1 on Ahmadenijad's hit list, watches and waits - hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. At an impressive graduation ceremony for new Israel Air Force pilots at the Hazerim base in the Negev, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke of the regional challenges, headed by Iran, that will face the new pilots after receiving their 'wings'. Barak told the pilots: 'The scope of the threats facing Israel have greatly increased, but Israel is the strongest and most deterring country within a radius of fifteen-hundred kilometers from Jerusalem. The Israel Air Force, one of the best in the world, conveys this strength and serves as our central pillar facing every threat'.

Islamist Terrorism: What is similar between the explosion that killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan, Schiphol Airport and the ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that highway 443 that runs through a Palestinian areas must be reopened for use by Palestinian vehicles. According to news reports, the suicide bomber was an Afghan soldier who was let into the well-fortified base apparently to be an informer. For some reason or other, he was not searched and was able to detonate his explosives killing the seven CIA agents and wounding six others.

Schiphol Airport: Self- evident that the terrorists will strike anytime, anyplace and anywhere.

Case#3: Israel's Supreme Court has ruled in favor of reopening Highway #443 that runs through a Palestinian area of the West Bank to Jerusalem.

After five Israelis were shot dead by terrorists, the IDF barred the road to most Palestinians for obvious security reasons. Now the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned for the reopening of the highway to Palestinians and the court ruled in its favor giving the state five months to do so. The case of Highway #443 illustrates the frequent confrontation in Israel between balancing civil rights of the Palestinians with real concerns for the security of Israelis. Its closure to Palestinians had nothing to do with apartheid or segregation - pure and simple, Palestinian terrorists were exploiting free passage on the road for drive-by machine gun attacks on Israelis civilians, as well as hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks.

The IDF and Shabak Security Service will now have to find solutions to protect the some 40,000 mostly Israeli vehicles that travel the road daily. This could include setting up checkpoints at entry points to the highway from Palestinian areas. But then again, that could arouse new criticism, even from the U.S. about how Israel is infringing on Palestinian freedom of movement. Now coming back to that CIA base in Afghanistan the problem is this: Whether it's in Afghanistan, Schiphol airport or the West Bank, Islamist terrorists will exploit every opportunity or loophole to insert a suicide bomber. This is the sad lesson that Israeli security has learned over the years from terrorists who have no problem with packing explosives inside a Palestinian schoolboy's and then sending him on a suicide mission, or placing the explosives inside a woman's panties to escape detection. If true, that the suicide bomber in Afghanistan was not searched before he entered the CIA base, it again illustrates that someone must go back to the drawing board. The same applies to the U.S. failure to sound the alert about the would be suicide bomber who took off from Schiphol Airport. And for Israeli security, when having to contending to the Supreme Court that reopening Highway#443 to Palestinians will be exploited for fresh terror attacks on Israeli civilians. In effect, the Court appeared to reply: 'That's your problem and that's your job!' The independent role of Israel's Supreme Court is an ongoing issue in the internal public discourse with its critics charging that no country in the world grants similar powers to its judicial branch to intervene in crucial security affairs. Its decision to reopen the #443 highway to Palestinians will sharpen this debate in the months ahead. As one critic caustically queried: 'Will our Supreme Court also take responsibility for the murder of Israeli civilians when the terrorists again start machine-gunning Israeli civilians in drive-by attacks?'

Hamas Terrorists in Gaza Strip

Palestinians: On New Year's Eve, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza reminded Israeli civilians that the quiet since the IDF launched Operation Cast Lead early last year is very relative. A Grad missile exploded in the outskirts of Nativot, an Israeli town in the Negev. There were no injuries or casualties. Henry Kissinger once cautioned that intelligence chiefs often tend to adopt assessments that fall in line with the views of their political masters. In his semi-annual briefing to the Knesset Foreign affairs & Defense Committee this week, Shabak Security Chief Yuval Diskin pulled no punches 'calling it as he sees it'.

After last year's Cast Lead Operation, there had been a marked decrease in terror attacks from Gaza while the IDF, Shabak and now the Palestinian security forces had kept a tight rein on Palestinian terror in the West Bank. Fifteen Israelis had been killed, including nine IDF soldiers in Cast Lead. Terrorists killed 36 Israelis in 2008. There were no suicide bombings in 2009 but Diskin added: ' That doesn't mean they didn't try.' In Gaza, Hamas was now working hard to restore its terror capabilities that were decimated by Cast Lead and preparing for another round with Israel - but for the time being Hamas was interested in maintaining the relative quiet. This could change overnight if Hamas came to the conclusion that it was stuck in the current stalemate, had not ended the Israeli 'siege' or achieve their prisoner demands for captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. In such a scenario, Hamas might drop its ban on rocketing by other Palestinian groups and again join in the rocketing of Israel. Therefore, Hamas also attaches great importance to the Shalit deal. Overall, the Hamas military capability was probably greater today than before Cast Lead and it would continue its buildup in the coming year. It was trying to smuggle in more rockets with a range of fifty or more kilometers as well as anti- aircraft and anti-tank missiles. Although the Hamas leadership was angry over Egypt's construction of underground pylons to plug smuggling from Sinai, it believed the problem could by overcome by tunneling even deeper.

On the other hand, Hamas was concerned the World Jihad was infiltrating Gaza and competing for the support of splinter terror groups. For her part, Israel had succeeded in blocking much of the money flow from ' charity' organizations abroad.

Judea & Samaria (West Bank): Since their bloody expulsion from Gaza by Hamas in July 2007, 'President' Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority had strengthened their hold on the West bank. Directed by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, the PA building a civilian infrastructure and institutions and Palestinian security forces had been deployed in many towns and villages. As Diskin put it: 'Life is far better there than in the past'. The PA's counter-terror operations against Hamas had improved and the motivation of PA security personnel was high - they remembered that their Hamas rivals had thrown some of their colleagues off the roofs of high-rise buildings in Gaza during the coup. In brief - the Palestinian security forces on the West Bank were operating with 'zero tolerance' toward Hamas. ( On this score, Israel also signaled that by tracking down and killing the three Palestinian terrorists who murdered an Israeli settler that she also has zero tolerance for terrorists who attack Israelis. U.S. General Keith Dayton has trained the PA security personnel and Washington had asked Jerusalem why, if the Shabak had tracked down the terrorists, the PA had not been informed). In Diskin's view, a reconciliation between Hamas in Gaza and the PA in the West Bank would not auger well for Israeli security.

Although Hamas still had the capability to launch attacks from the West Bank it had not been able to gain strength in its internecine conflict with the PA. Overall, Diskin estimated there was a low probability for Intifada III erupting on the West Bank in 2010. But he also warned this could be affected adversely by a number of possible developments: if Israel released Marwan Barghouti who, although he is serving five life terms in an Israeli prison for his role in the murder of Israeli civilians, is viewed by some Israeli politicians as a favorable successor to Mahmoud Abbas. Diskin told the Knesset committee: 'Barghouti has made a fool out of some Israelis by learning to say what they want to hear and if released he could be very bad for Israel!' Bargutti's release combined with an influx of hard-core Palestinian prisoners into the West Bank could also trigger a new intifada. (However, Diskin stressed that he had not decided where he stood on the terms of a Shalit exchange because there was still no deal on the table). Another source of Shabak concern was Jewish terror provocations, particularly at the Moslem sites on the Temple Mount. ( Israeli police have arrested a seventeen year old Israeli suspect, the nephew of Rabbi Meir Cahane, on suspicion of involvement in the torching of a West Bank mosque in December.) Diskin also warned that Jewish terrorists might perpetrate attacks, including on Israeli Arabs, in order to keep Israeli security forces busy and weaken their capability to participate in the evacuation of illegal outposts on the West Bank.

As for political prospects, Mahmoud Abbas was now at a crossroads. The West Bank Palestinian leader still supported a negotiated agreement with Israel, but he might resign if there no progress in 2010. The problem was that Abbas was insisting that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu resume peace talks where they had left off with the massive concessions offered by Ehud Olmert (and which Abbas had refused to accept). Netanyahu is insisting on no prior conditions. U.S. envoy George Mitchell is expected to return shortly apparently with a new proposal to break this logjam and solve the Abbas demand that Israel halt all building not only in the Judea & Samaria, but in eastern Jerusalem to boot.

David Essing

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