'Under Iranian Nuclear Umbrella Radical State & Non - State Players Will Dare What They Do Not Today'
'Although Israel Is Threatened By 100,000 Missiles & Rockets, It Can Hit Back Very, Very Hard'
Gen. Amir Eshel, the commander of the IDF Planning Branch has presented a spell- binding look at the current and future threats to Israel. In a lecture entitled ' Planning for the Unknown - Israel's Ever Changing Strategic Reality', he outlined the challenges he has to face in the wake of the 'Arab Spring'. Speaking at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem, Gen. Eshel stressed that Iran was at the top of his priority list. Analyst David Essing sums up the major points made by the commander who has responsibility for the IDF's force build-up.
'If Iran goes nuclear it will trigger a global nuclear jungle' - that was Gen. Eshel's warning to the foreign correspondents and diplomats in the audience. First, he was sure that other players, not only in the Middle East but world-wide, would also dare to go nuclear. For their part the Iranians believed that once they have the bomb they will be immune from external pressures. They think that Libya's Colonel Gadaffi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein made 'a big mistake' by not acquiring nuclear weapons. If they had, there was no way that outside powers would have dared take them on.
Second, the behaviour of other radical players, state and non-state, would be freer to act under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. For example after the terror attack in Mombay, he had asked an Indian officer why India had not reacted when everyone knew who was responsible for the atrocity (Pakistan). The officer replied that you think twice when you know the other side has nuclear weapons. This might also apply to Israel if it felt forced to act against Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, if they were under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.
When queried about an Israeli military strike on Iran, the former fighter-pilot took evasive action; political questions should be put to the PM's office, just a few blocks away. Gen. Eshel noted that he also had to cope with Iran's El Kuds force that was acting daily against Israel as far afield as South America and Africa. It was 'an ongoing campaign' comprised of terrorism, political and economic warfare that had to be addressed.
Syria: It was a question of when, and not if, President Bashar Assad would go. But what would happen the day after? The General didn't know but he said there would be one less player in the radical camp. Syria was similar to Iraq in that it was a conglomeration of various communities: Sunni and Shia Muslims, Alewites and Kurds and S yria could end up be 'fractured' like Iraq. The danger was that huge stockpiles of chemical and biologal weapons were stored in Syria and what would happen to them? Could they be transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon? Over the past two years or so Syria, realizing it had a problem with the Israel Air Force, had invested two billion dollars in its air defenses creating new challenges for the IAF. The Syrians had also acquired huge quanties of anti-tank missiles, some of which found their way to terrorists in Gaza for 'shooting at Israeli yellow buses'. At present, the internecine warfare had brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and running out of money. The bottom line: if Assad left on his own, it might prevent a tougher civil war but it was impossible to rule out even bloodier civil strife with refugees fleeing in all directions. No one knows what the outcome will be in Syria; this was also the case with Iraq, where Iran was expanding its influence.
Arab Spring: 'The current Middle East turmoil was not an Arab Spring, it was not even close to spring!' Unfortuneatly, Israel's concern a year ago that the Arab revolutions could be hijacked by others had come true. Now its was a mixed picture of opportunities and risks, but the risks were greater than the opportunities. The forces that were taking power had a solid ideology and the picture would be Islamic dominated by the color of the Muslim Brothers. The movement has been around for eighty years and some of their values were not shared by other nations. On the other hand, the immense domestic problems they would face presented opportunies as well. In any case, as strategic planner Gen. Eshel had to focus on the core issues that were not all negative. The question was how such Islamist regimes would deal with the unbelievable problems they face, and it was difficult to see how they would find solutions for their domestic woes. In such a case, who would be in control? A case in point was Egypt.
Egypt: It has been said that Egypt needs a Marshall Plan, but who could provide it? If the economic situation did not improve, the country could turn to negative trends. The Moslem Brothers' ascendancy in Egypt reflects what is happening throughout the Middle East, although each country is a different case when one looks at Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey farther afield. But for the present, the Muslim Brothers were focused on their internal domestic issues. (Prime Minister Netanyahu has said if Egypt abrogates the peace treaty with Israel, the U.S. would probably cut off its crucial financial aid to Cairo.)
Noting that an Egyptian diplomat was in the audience, Gen. Eshel stressed: 'We don't consider Egypt an enemy, far from that!' He was not worried about tomorrow but there could be a process in Cairo that might lead to change and it was his job to face the reality. On the positive side, there was 'great cooperation' between the IDF and the Egyptian military. Meanwhile, after the Palestinian terror attack from Sinai that killed 8 Israelis and several Egptians last August, that region had become a great concern for Israel. That was not to say that Sinai was a safe haven for terrorists but terrorists, including Hezbollah, found it convenient to operate from there.against Israel. And Gen. Eshel added: 'The Egyptian military is doing something but we hope to see Egypt deal more succesfully with the terror threat from Sinai'. This was in Egypt's own national interest, also the terror activity jeopardized the peace treaty. In any case, the Egyptian military was very, very strong.
Palestinians: From his perspective, Israel had tried hard to forge a peace agreement in the Oslo Agreement of 1993 and camp David 2000. But top priorty must be given to 'solid security arrangements' in any peace treaty. The IDF has taken risks in lending its support to the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank but one thing had to be absolutely clear - agreements without security, would not bring lasting peace. (A day earler, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared that only security will bring peace: 'If I have to choose between a peace treaty or security I'll choose security'.)
Gen. Eshel also took issue with those people who argue: 'Resolving the Israeli - Palestinian conflict will bring heaven to the Middle East'. Although it might help, it was not 'the silver bullet' that would resolve regional tensions. Israel could not afford to gamble on its security because there would be no second chance in this part of the world.
U.S.- Israeli Strategic Relations: What was behind the American decision to suspend the major joint military exercise with Israel. The IDF's top strategist said it was taken by the political echelons. ( Media speculation is that Washington did not want to raise the already high tension with Iran at this time). In any case, Gen. Eshel called it an importanat exercise involving state-of-the-art ballistic missile defense systems. No other countries in the world come close to this capability. The drill was to involve integrating the American and Israeli systems; he was confident it would be conducted in the second half of the year.
The relatively short fighter pilot was asked about mounting U.S. pressure on Israel not to go it alone with a military strike on Iran's nuclear sites. He cracked: 'Just look at me when I went to Washington for talks last week I was over six feet tall and just look at me now!' In a more serious vein, he said the IDF and the U.S. military enjoyed an intimate, professional relationship: 'Pressure? We don't communicate that way'.
Summing up his current post, Gen. Eshel said it was almost 'a nightmare' trying to cope with the level of threats facing Israel today. In fact he spoke of the IDF between three different armies: to cope with terrorism, conventional warfare and the potential Iranian nuclear terrorism. His 'interesting' task was to coordinate a flexible force build-up to deal with the myriad of threats that now includes some 100,000 missiles and rockets that now surround Israel. Nonetheless, during his rivetting address, Gen. Eshel who is a leading candidate to be the next Israel Air Force commander, made this point clear: 'Israel can hit back very, very hard!'