Friday, January 7, 2011

Israel against another incursion in Gaza

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday against initiating "any new assault" on Gaza, state-run Nile TV reported.

The warning came as the two Middle East leaders met in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to discuss the stalled peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mubarak said Egypt would reject "any new assault on the people of Gaza," Nile TV said. Two years ago, an Israeli incursion into Gaza killed more than 1,400 Palestinians, accoding to Gaza officials.

The Israeli military said 1,166 people were killed in the 22 days of fighting, 60% of whom were "terror operatives."

Nile TV said the 82-year-old Egyptian leader emphasized to Netanyahu "the necessity for Israel to reconsider their position and policies, and to take the initiative and conduct procedures that will build trust with the national Palestinian authorities."

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians ended in September after an Israeli moratorium on settlement construction in the occupied West Bank expired.

But Netanyahu said there remained a possibility for a resumption of talks.

"Netanyahu reiterated that he believes that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is possible provided that the latter are willing to end the conflict," a statement from the Israeli prime minister's website said. "He asked President Mubarak to act to persuade the Palestinians to move to direct, intensive and serious negotiations -- in which all core issues will be raised -- forthwith."

The statement added, "Netanyahu said that Israel is committed to aggressively fighting terrorist elements in Gaza that endanger its security and peace."

Palestinian officials have been calling for a halt to Israeli construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which they consider to be the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Israel, which annexed the eastern part of the Jerusalem in 1967, considers the entire city to be its sovereign capital, a claim not recognized by the international community.

Iran Cannot Produce Nuclear Bomb Before 2015

Israel has revised downward its assessment of when Iran might acquire nuclear weapons.

Israel believes that Iran will not be able to produce a nuclear bomb before 2015. That is the assessment of the outgoing head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Meir Dagan, in a briefing published on Friday. Previous Israeli estimates suggested that Iran could have the bomb in a year or two.

Dagan based his revised assessment on several factors, including domestic unrest in Iran, the bite of international sanctions and technical difficulties.

Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg says one technical problem is foreign sabotage, such as the Stuxnet computer virus, which invaded Iran's nuclear facilities. It is widely believed that the virus was planted by Israel.

"There's a lot that's happened. We've seen this worm, this virus that's attacked the computers that run the Iranian uranium enrichment process,” Steinberg said. “We've seen some scientists who have been killed and injured, people who are working on the nuclear enrichment program in Iran, and we've seen sanctions. When you put those pieces together, it makes sense to see a slowdown in the process."

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. But Israel disagrees and, although officially supporting diplomatic efforts to dampen Iran's nuclear ambitions has not ruled out the possibility of a military stirke against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Steinberg believes that in light of the new assessment, an Israeli attack is now on the back burner.

"A military operation has always been the last resort, the least desirable option,” Steinberg added. “So that if now the assessment is that Iran is not up close to the finish line and will take some time to recover and the world’s got another four or five years to stop Iran; then I think that the military option is still going to be on the table, but it's going to be way in the back."

Still, Israel wants the world to step up the pressure on Iran. Israeli officials say the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is to impose tougher sanctions backed up by a credible military threat.

Ticking clocks and threats

As new people take the top spots in the army and Mossad, Iran will continue to be a major focus of their concern. In addition, the possibility of Israeli military action must remain on the table.

It's a safe assumption that outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan and outgoing Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, devoted considerable effort to thwarting the Iranian nuclear threat during their tenures. Dagan's eight-year term ended yesterday; Ashkenazi's four years will reach their conclusion in mid-February.

There were significant developments regarding Iran during these years: breakdowns of the centrifuges, shipments that did not reach their destination, revelations of embarrassing intelligence information at critical moments - and even exploding scientists. The international media, and sometimes the Iranians themselves, attributed these events to various Western espionage agencies.

Ashkenazi and Dagan are both said to have followed a pragmatic, moderate line concerning key strategic issues that are worrisome to Israel. Despite almost unavoidable turf wars between the heads of the security branches, a well-coordinated alignment was fashioned between them, along with the head of the Shin Bet security service, Yuval Diskin (who will be concluding six years in office this May ).

In the last part of their terms, the three established a strong, influential axis that was difficult to bypass on crucial decisions. The Iranian issue is now being passed on to their successors. It will occupy a high place on the agenda of the new Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, and of the chief of staff-designate, Yoav Galant.

To date, neither Pardo nor Galant has expressed himself publicly on the subject. Galant's image here - and, perhaps more important, as perceived by Israel's neighbors - is one of a charismatic commander driven by a "can do" mentality. Still, it would be wrong to infer, from his relative hawkishness on Gaza, his views about a future confrontation in Lebanon or with Iran. The weight of responsibility is very different when one holds the top job.

The year ahead will see a few processes converging. In the international arena, the impact of the sanctions on Iran will increase, and the United States will grope its way out of neighboring Iraq. In Israel, along with the changes in the top ranks of the defense establishment, there might be a reshuffle of the coalition and possibly elections.