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Israeli Satellites Keeping Eye On Iran

Senior Israeli Defense Official: 'OFEK 9 Will Help Israel Keep Tabs On Iran'

IDF Intelligence Officer: 'Latest U.N. Sanctions Have sent A Symbolic Message to Tehran But More Rigorous Measures Must Be Imposed To Persuade Iranians To Halt Nuclear Weapons Program'

Prime Minister Netanyahu Ponders Proposals For Palestinian Peace Before Summit With U.S. President Obama On July 6th

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

In defiance of the latest UN Security Council sanctions, President Mahmoud Ahmadenijad has made clear that Tehran has no intention of halting her nuclear weapons program. Within days Israel launched 'OFEK 9', a space satellite that will provide up to the minute photos from inside Iran. At a closed door briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, a senior IDF intelligence officer presented the latest intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program. Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu also spoke of some of the challenges he was facing in the 'uneasy days' before his next meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House on July 6th.

'OFEK 9' is now orbiting the earth at an altitude of 540 kilometers, keeping a closer eye than ever on Iran. The successful launch of the latest Israeli satellite could not have come at a better time. One senior Israeli intelligence official has been quoted as saying: "We will now be able to keep tabs on Ahmadenijad nearly every minute". Equipped with a camera developed by the Israeli company Elbit, 'OFEK 9' from its perch in space can spot objects of half a meter in size. It joins five other Israeli satellites that are also, presumably, keeping an around the clock watch on what Prime Minister Netanyahu has called: "Iran's gallop to acquire new weapons". 'OFEK 9' will transmit 'high-resolution' photos back down to a special Israel Air Force headquarters that serves as the IDF's space command. From there the information will be distributed to relevant IDF branches and Israeli intelligence organizations. Although the project is top secret and few details have been released, the all-Israeli satellite project, including the launch missile, is a big morale booster for the Israeli public. While Iranian leaders repeatedly threaten to wipe them off the map, Israelis were reassured that their defense establishment is, more often than not, keeping its eye on the ball in more ways than one.

In this vein, Iran's President Ahmadenijad responded to the fresh UN sanctions by quipping: " We will throw them in the trash basket like a used hankie!" So the Iranians will continue their drive for the bomb without a second thought about the latest sanctions. What then is the Israeli intelligence estimate of how far they are from acquiring the bomb. One June 21st, a senior IDF intelligence officer briefed the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee on the current situation.

IDF INTELLIGENCE ASSESSMENT: The latest UN Security Council Resolution 1929 indicated a growing international consensus for the necessity to step up the pressure on Iran. It has sent an important symbolic message to Tehran. However, in order to reach a 'critical mass' of pressure capable of persuading Iran to moderate her stand, much more rigorous moves must be imposed by the international community. (The need to examine the effectiveness of this current pressure may even give time to Iran to proceed with her nuclear plans, before the international community adopts any additional steps.) Inside Iran, the internal protest continues one year after the events of the recent elections, but the regime has succeeded in quelling the unrest, by deterrent steps and oppression by force. Iran is positioning herself in range of the nuclear threshold under the guise of legitimacy (peaceful nuclear development). This allows Iran to keep acquiring capabilities that will eventually enable her 'to storm ahead ' to uranium enrichment of high grade for the production of nuclear weapons. The implication of Iran's going nuclear is clear and grave for the strategic reality of the Middle East.

At the same time, Iran has encountered difficulties that will delay her nuclear program more than she had anticipated. However, Iran was advancing and narrowing the gap in acquiring a military nuclear capability by amassing enriched material ( approximately 2.5 tons of enriched uranium at 20% grade, development of advanced centrifuges, and preparing for the operation of new sites. This in addition to the sophisticated know-how she already has in the field of weaponry.

Benyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

POLITICAL ASSESSMENT: Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu anticipates 'uneasy days' ahead. There could be more flotillas on the way to Gaza organized in Iran and Lebanon, although both countries may be reconsidering, in light of Israel's determined stand to do what it takes to maintain the maritime blockade. Even Turkey may be having second thoughts after the Marmara case. One one hand, Israel was hauled over the coals by Palestinian supporters and by some of international media but Oded Granot, Channel One's Arab Affairs expert, sees signs in the region that ' it's best not to mess with Israel'.

Netanyahu has managed to allay some of the international uproar by easing nearly all restrictions on the flow of goods and produce to Gaza through Israeli land terminals. Only weapons and 'dual-use' products (that could have military use) will be barred from now on. This, the Prime Minister argues will undercut the pro-Palestinian propaganda that Israel is 'starving the children of Gaza'. The fact is that while Gaza is certainly not flourishing economically, even the UN has confirmed that Israel has permitted adequate supplies of international aid to be trucked into the Strip through land crossings. Netanyahu also contended that the lifting of these restrictions will enable Israel to maintain her maritime blockade of Gaza which according to Israeli expert Prof. Ruth Lapidoth is 'absolutely legal'.

Now Israel's interception of the 'Freedom Flotilla' after it refused to change course to the Israeli port of Ashdod has been branded as 'illegal and piratical' by all and sundry including the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and some 'experts on international law '. However, Lapidoth pointed out these experts never explain why the Israeli blockade was illegal. Lapidoth contends that any expert worth his or her salt should know that international law permits a country to proclaim a maritime blockade during a state of war. The obvious goal is to prevent weapons from reaching the enemy. (Since the Palestinians in Gaza have been fired over 11,000 rockets and mortars into Israel for years now, no one should have any doubt about whether there is a state of hostilities. Once the blockade has been announced it can be enforced legally and is not limited by international waters. It is not an ' act of piracy on the high seas' as recently declared by Turkey's Foreign Minister. There is a condition that the blockade cannot be enforced within the territorial waters of a third party.

Is there any doubt that the U.S. for example enforces a maritime blockade around Iraqi ports to prevent al Qaeda or Iran from smuggling in weapons to its supporters. International law also stipulates that all neutral vessels are legally obligated to comply with the blockade. In any case, IDF Chief Of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi summed up Israel's position by saying: "We have no intention of allowing Gaza to become an Iranian port!" Now that an Israeli non-governmental inquiry has been set up with a seal of approval from President Obama and EU leaders, Netanyahu appears to have weathered the clash at sea.

Incidentally, Israel Radio has reported that a separate military inquiry into the Israeli naval commandos operation has revealed several failings. First of all , due to faulty intelligence the Israeli force force that boarded the Marmara never expected to be attacked by any of her six hundred passengers. According to military reporter Carmella Menashe, high powered water hoses and tear gas grenades should have been used to clear the deck of any resistance and only then should the commandos have dropped aboard from their choppers. But under the circumstances, the commandos behaved properly, that is they only opened fire with live ammunition after their paintball bullets had failed to deter the bands of men who attacked with knives, clubs and crowbars. Nine Turks were killed in the clash.

Barack Obama

But when Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke of 'uneasy days' he also had in mind his upcoming meeting with President Obama, now set for July 6th - a prior date had to be scratched after Netanyahu had to rush home from Canada to cope with the Marmara incident. Obama's envoy George Mitchell has been acting as middle man in the ongoing ' proximity talks' between Israel and the West Bank Palestinians. The goal of these contacts is to find a 'corridor' back to direct negotiations where Israel and the Palestinians could hammer out their differences for a future peace settlement. However, Obama's outreach to the Arab world combined with the Netanyahu government's stronger stand on settlements and Jerusalem have weakened Israel's position both internationally and with the U.S. administration.

The Israeli Prime Minister is well aware that Middle East politics 'abhor a vacuum'. If Israel and the Palestinians cannot show any movement, someone else will step in with their own peace plans. In other words - an imposed agreement. In fact, Netanyahu told a closed door session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee: "The Palestinians are actually expecting the U.S. to give them an imposed agreement" - that is one that will be to Israel's detriment. Netanyahu should take a page out of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's book. Back in 2003, President George Bush was in deep trouble after his unilateral pursuit of the war in Iraq.

Bush needed support from both the Arab world and the European Union which insisted on the need for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track. The result was that Bush presented Sharon with a fait a' compli - the Roadmap peace plan for Israel and Palestine. Sharon, didn't much like the Roadmap but reckoned that it would not be in Israel's national interest to tangle with a wounded U.S. President. The Roadmap was a sort of imposed settlement although very broad in outline and one that Sharon could live with. Sharon himself had often warned that Yasser Arafat was always angling for the 'internationalization' of the conflict, rather than having to make concessions to Israel in direct talks. The Israeli Prime Minister Sharon trusted that Bush would stick by commitments to Jerusalem, Israel which was indeed the case. Netanyahu realizes the importance of keeping the Palestinian track open and not bogged down. However, he must solve several problems. Although all previous U.S. administrations have opposed Israeli settlement building on the West Bank, Obama is the first to actually take the position that settlements must stop now - Obama appears to have sided with the Palestinians and made this a condition for direct peace talks.

President George W. Bush

Forced into a ten month settlement freeze that expires at the end of September, Obama will be expecting to hear what Netanyahu plans on doing next. Although Israeli ambassador Michael Oren has said Israel would be ready to discus an extension of the freeze if the Palestinians agreed to direct negotiations, such a step would spark a political firestorm in the Right-wing coalition. For example, hundreds of central committee members of the Likud's central committee have just passed a resolution calling for building throughout all the Land of Israel including Judea & Samaria (West Bank). This sentiment also prevails among Netanyahu's Right - wing coalition partners. Netanyahu and several key cabinet ministers found reasons not to attend the party meeting. So a lot could be at stake at the July 6th meeting. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has concluded his visit to Washington by again declaring the need for the Israeli government to launch a new peace initiative. The question is whether he has succeeded in forging some kind of framework with the Obama administration that Netanyahu can promote when he arrives in Washington next month.

David Essing

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