Risk Management Israeli-Style

By John Barham, International Editor

The outlook for peace in the Middle East, never good, may have taken yet another turn for the worst as Iran forges ahead with its nuclear plans, Iraq falls apart, and radical Islamic groups grow deeper roots throughout the Muslim world.

In a meeting of the Israeli Defense Force’s high command to discuss the army’s five-year plan, strategic planners said they still see a nuclear Iran—and possibly a radicalized Pakistan—as a critical threat. War with Syria, hostilities against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and continued confrontation with the Palestinians are all likely to remain perennial threats.

The generals also mulled over other, less-well-publicized scenarios. These include a possible freeze in relations with Egypt if the current government of Hosni Mubarak were to lose power, upheaval in Saudi Arabia, rebellion by Israel’s one million-strong Arab minority, and the fall of the Jordanian monarchy. Conventional warfare still presents a critical threat to Israel, but insurgencies and civil unrest are also serious concerns.

With regard to neighbors, Syria remains a foe, and has ramped up military spending. Israel in September reportedly launched an air raid against targets in Syria. The Syrians did not retaliate, and analysts doubt it will launch a conventional attack on Israel.

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, says that Syria might instead direct guerrilla warfare at Israel, as it already does indirectly from Lebanon. “I doubt very much that Syria might go for a war, but it may emulate Hezbollah and the Palestinians,” says Inbar.

Inbar, a specialist on Middle Eastern security, says the other threats that the military is considering are less probable. These include the collapse of the Jordanian monarchy and a mass revolt of Israel’s Arab minority. He says, “An uprising of the Israeli Arabs has been a scenario for many years.”

He acknowledges a “slow radicalization of the Israeli Arabs” is underway. However, Inbar notes, “most are law abiding citizens and are unlikely to engage in an uprising.”

Others speculate about the potential for some surprising—even positive—outcomes in the years ahead. For instance, Amir Oren, defense and security correspondent at Israeli newspaper Haaretz, commented on the possibility of a peace agreement with Syria and some of the ramifications that might have. These would have little to do with true peaceful coexistence and the absence of an arms race. For example, he suggested, Syria might gradually discard its Russian and Chinese weapons and replace them with Western, mainly U.S., systems instead. These would be similar to those used by the Israelis, which would make it easier to assess Syrian strength and intentions in the future. The U.S. and its allies would also be able to control Syrian access to military hardware.

Like most members of the Israel security establishment, Inbar is alarmed at the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear arsenal. He believes it is likely that Israeli forces will strike against Iran’s nuclear research installations, and the most likely target would be its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz.

Israel has attacked nuclear targets before. In 1981, jets destroyed Iraq’s Osiraq reactor. Natanz, located in central Iran, is further from Israel than Osiraq, but the Israelis are acquiring 100 long-range F-35 jets that would be able to evade Iranian air defenses.

“We should be prepared to hit their facilities. It would be totally irresponsible not to be making preparations,” says Inbar. “We cannot eliminate the whole program, but we can harm it and slow it down. It will take imagination, maybe an attack by our commandos to make sure it is hit.”

These various threat scenarios underpin the Israeli government’s new five-year plan to spend $60 billion on military hardware, from tanks to satellites and antimissile systems. The plan is predicated in part on continued U.S. funding; it anticipates a proposed new $30 billion, ten-year U.S. military-aid package, which about matches what Israel typically gets from the United States over a decade, although in recent years, American financing for Israeli arms purchases has been declining.

Support has declined every year since 2003, when it totaled $3.68 billion. In 2006, Israel got an estimated $2.53 billion in military aid and requested $2.46 billion in 2007. As the U.S. government faces its own budget woes, pressures to cut foreign aid will likely continue.


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