January 2012 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
US-ISRAEL STRAINS GROW OVER IRAN
Tensions grew in January between the governments of Israel and the United States as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that Iran has begun building a nuclear bomb. The Israeli leader reiterated his earlier statements that the Shiite Muslim nation cannot be allowed to construct nuclear warheads. Although American President Barack Obama said virtually the same thing during the month in his annual State of the Union address to Congress—insisting that no option, including military strikes, should be taken off the table—officials in Jerusalem admitted that disputes over exactly how to deal with Iran continue to divide the two allies. This prompted the White House to send the overall US military commander to Jerusalem for urgent talks with senior Israeli officials.
Meanwhile radical Iranian clerical and military leaders issued fresh threats to shut down the narrow Straight of Hormuz sea outlet if US warships remain in the area. However the threats did not stop the Obama administration from ordering a US navy aircraft carrier and support ships from entering the Persian Gulf in late January, accompanied in a clear show of unified force by British and French naval vessels. Despite their bellicose words, the Iranians took no immediate action in the wake of the ship sailings.
The dire situation in Syria and the electoral victory by Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt were also the subject of intense Israeli government and military scrutiny during the month. Fresh statements of support for Syria's repressive leaders by Russia, coupled with the stationing of more Russian naval vessels in two Syrian Mediterranean ports, brought renewed concern in Israel that the Syrian internal struggle—now morphing into a full blown civil war—could spark off a regional conflagration or possibly even a larger east-west conflict. Iran confirmed for the first time that Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militiamen, under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, are actively aiding the Assad regime in its battle to stay in power. This came as the Arab League stepped up its efforts to resolve the domestic Syrian crisis, calling upon Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to immediately leave office.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's "Freedom and Justice" political party triumphed once again in the third and final round of elections held in December and January for the Arab country's lower house of parliament, sealing the party's dominance over the law-making chamber. A Muslim Brotherhood candidate was elected as speaker on January 24th. Earlier in the month, party leaders said they intend to put the 1978 Camp David peace accord with Israel to a nationwide referendum, knowing full well that opinion surveys show a majority of Egyptians will vote to repeal the treaty. The news caused additional stress in Jerusalem since the accord has served as the cornerstone for overall Israeli security policy over the past three decades. This came as the interim Egyptian military government, which assumed power after President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office one year ago, announced that the "state of emergency" that has been in effect in the impoverished country for many decades is finally coming to an end. It had allowed previous governments to take many far-reaching actions without needing parliamentary approval.
Closer to home, renewed efforts by the so-called Quartet—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—to unfreeze stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks proved unsuccessful as the Palestinian Authority again demanded that all Jewish home building in the disputed territories and Jerusalem be halted before renewed negotiations can get underway. The PA also insisted that PM Netanyahu agree in advance that the final borders of a Palestinian state will coincide with the 1949 ceasefire lines that were still in existence when Israeli military forces captured Jordan's self-proclaimed "West Bank" during the 1967 Six Day War. Meanwhile Palestinian Hamas leaders, who are closely connected to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, vowed to defend the Gaza Strip if Israel launches another major military incursion. Warnings that a large-scale IDF operation might be imminent followed the firing of more Palestinian rockets into Israeli territory during the month.
On a more positive note, heavy snow and rain fell in the north and center of Israel several times during January, casing the Mount Hermon ski resort to briefly shut down as snow levels choked off the only road to the resort. While welcoming the much needed precipitation, water officials noted that the Sea of Galilee fresh water reservoir still remains at near record lows, meaning renewed water usage restrictions will undoubtedly be necessary once again during the upcoming hot summer months.
NETANYAHU: IRAN BUILDING NUCLEAR BOMB
Speaking at the end of a state visit to Holland, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on January 19th that Iran has taken a firm decision to construct nuclear weapons in defiance of the international community. The Israeli leader noted that the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had earlier confirmed that Iran has been engaged for some time in pre-production testing for such a destructive weapon. As he has done many times before, he went on to urge world leaders to urgently "take all the necessary steps required" to prevent Iran's militant Shiite Muslim leaders from building nuclear bombs. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had earlier stated that Tehran had not yet come to a final decision on whether or not to actually construct nuclear warheads. Just exactly what new information might have come to light which prompted Netanyahu to issue his dramatic statement was not revealed, but Middle East analysts said it was another strong indication that an Israeli military attack upon Iran's rogue nuclear program might be in the offing.
Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that the UN report, issued last November, confirmed Israel's long-held assertion that Iran has been working on nuclear weapons technology and development for over one decade. The IAEA report stated that in the year 2000, Iranian leaders began constructing special hardened vessels to conduct nuclear weapons tests. Computer models depicting nuclear explosions were already being created by Iranian scientists in 2008, said the UN report. Throughout the first decade of the new millennium, Israeli leaders had been repeatedly saying that Iran was actively engaged in efforts to develop nuclear weapons. They added that Iran only briefly halted those efforts following the 2003 American-led military campaign to oust Saddam Hussein from power and to rebuild Iraq. At the time, many international military analysts and some world leaders said Israeli officials were simply crying wolf, which is now abundantly clear was not at all the case.
One day after Netanyahu spoke, French President Nicolas Sarkozy essentially confirmed the Israeli leader's contention that Iran is indeed pursuing the production of nuclear weapons. He told reporters in Paris that Iran is engaged in "a senseless race for a nuclear bomb." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast decried the blunt statement, maintaining that Sarkozy was "looking for a pretext to put pressure on the Iranian nation." The spokesman added that "any sensible observer" could tell that Iran's nuclear program is "transparent" and "in cooperation" with the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. This came as a large IAEA delegation was heading for the Shiite Muslim country to conduct fresh inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities. However Israeli analysts noted that in its report last November, IAEA officials complained that Iran had hidden some of its nuclear weapons test facilities from UN inspectors during earlier visits. They said this revelation should produce strong doubt that Iranian leaders will fully open the doors at the present time, when they are much closer to actually constructing the ultimate bomb, if not already proceeding to do so as PM Netanyahu indicated is indeed the case.
The European Union announced on January 23rd that it was imposing tough new economic sanctions on Iran, in particular banning the importation of all Iranian oil into the EU while freezing Iranian Central Bank assets that are located inside the EU. Trade in gold with Iran was also outlawed. The United States had earlier taken similar action, although it imported very little oil from the Shiite nation. By contrast, the combined EU countries have been Iran's second biggest petroleum customers following the number one importer, China. The Communist giant is not expected to copy the EU action, although Chinese leaders did call once again during January for Iran to open up its nuclear facilities to full international inspection. Economically stricken Greece and Italy rely heavily on Iranian crude oil imports, causing EU leaders to postpone the actual implementation of the oil import ban until July 1st, giving those countries extra time to secure other petroleum sources. Australia also announced that it would enact similar sanctions, designed to harm the Iranian economy and force the country's extremist leaders to back away from their nuclear weapons ambitions.
JOINT US-IDF DRILL POSTPONED
It has been clear since Benjamin Netanyahu was elected as Israeli Prime Minister in February 2009 that the Likud Party leader's conservative political policies were not always in accord with America's liberal Democratic Party President. Differences reportedly surfaced behind the scenes once again in January as Barack Obama tried to extract a commitment from the Israeli leader that he would not order a military strike on Iran's far-flung nuclear facilities without coordinating such action in advance with the United States. Israeli media reports said Netanyahu was not willing to give the President such a pledge, apparently fearing that news of a pending attack might be deliberately leaked in order to thwart any IDF action.
The political tussle came to the surface when a massive anti-missile defense drill between Israeli and American military forces was postponed in mid January. Said to be the largest joint military exercise with the United States ever scheduled, the drill had been code-named "Austere Challenge 12." Military analysts said the moniker was probably an allusion to the likely, if unnerving, prospect that Israel would be struck by intense enemy missile fire if it attacks Iran's burgeoning nuclear facilities during 2012. Iran has vowed to hit Tel Aviv and Israel's nuclear reactor in the town of Dimona near Beerhseva and other targets if PM Netanyahu orders a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. It is now expected that the drill will be held sometime this coming summer, although some media reports said it might not take place at all.
The official reason for the postponement was given as budgetary considerations in both Israel and the United States, with both governments paring back military spending this year, especially in the United States where the defense budget has been cut by 450 billion dollars. However media reports in Israel said the main reason for the postponement was actually Washington's concern that the joint exercise—designed to test Israel's ability to withstand a missile blitz not only from Iran, but also from heavily armed Hizbullah militia forces in Lebanon, Hamas and Islamic Jihad forces in the Gaza Strip, and possibly also from Iran's closest Arab ally, Syria—might be seen as giving a green light to an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear program. In announcing the joint drill in early January, the Israeli Defense Ministry maintained it was "not in response to any real world event." Still, it was clear to all that Iran's apparent determination to build nuclear bombs was the impetus behind the missile defense drill.
DEMPSEY IN ISRAEL
The rising tensions between the Obama administration and the Israeli government was said to be the trigger for a previously unannounced visit to Israel by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey who was appointed as the senior American military commander by the President last October. Dempsey was greeted by an official honor guard at a ceremony held at IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on January 19th. He later met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and with the IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, before meeting with PM Netanyahu.
In a statement issued after his meeting with Defense Minister Barak, the US military leader said the talks had been designed to "bolster communication between the US and Israel," which many viewed as a thinly veiled reference to America's demand that Israel notify Washington in advance of any plans to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Dempsey went on to state that the two allies "have many interests in common in the region in this very dynamic time, and the more we can continue to engage each other, the better off we'll all be." During a visit to Afghanistan one month earlier, the American military chief raised eyebrows when he stated that contingency plans are in the making for a potential US strike against Iran's nuclear program. During an interview with CNN, Dempsey also acknowledged that there is "no guarantee" that Israeli leaders would give Washington any advance notice of an IDF military operation against Iran. One week later, the Israeli Defense Minister said the world must quickly stop Iran from reaching the point where even what he termed "a surgical military strike" could not prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons
During a subsequent meeting with Israeli President Shimon Peres, General Dempsey declared that the threat posed by Iran's nuclear ambitions is "a challenge shared by Jerusalem and Washington." He went on to say that what he termed "the deep trust" between the two allied countries "will protect our shared value of freedom." In an apparent attempt to lessen concerns that the Obama administration might work to thwart any Israeli government decision to bomb Iran's nuclear sites, he added "We respect you as our partner in the fight for freedom, not only in this region, but also in the entire world." President Peres was equally sanguine, telling the senior American military commander that "I'm sure we will win this battle too, in the struggle for a free and safe world for all nations. Israel and the United States stand on the same front."
Neither General Dempsey nor PM Netanyahu issued statements following their meeting in Jerusalem. However after a subsequent visit to the Yad Va Shem Holocaust Memorial in the southwest portion of Israel's contested capital city, Dempsey spoke with emotion to reporters, saying "I have studied the Holocaust and visited concentration camps in Europe. Nothing is so profound and moving as this site." He added that the United States is "committed to ensuring that such a human tragedy never happens again. God bless the victims and protect Israel."
CIVIL WAR IN SYRIA
Israeli government and military leaders watched with increasing concern as the ten month old anti-government revolt in Syria morphed into a full blown civil war during January. During the first few months of the uprising, the mostly Sunni Muslim army remained loyal to the Assad family regime that has ruled the country for nearly four decades. The regime is mainly comprised of members of the Alowite Muslim sect, connected to the minority Shiite wing of Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, and many have never been happy with hard line Alowite rule. However they remained fairly docile until last year, recalling that the current dictator's father, the late Hafez Al Assad, viciously crushed a Sunni Muslim rebellion in the city of Hama in 1982, killing untold thousands of Syrian civilians in the process.
Defections from the army began in earnest last August, when several mid ranking army commanders crossed over to the opposition side. This came after anti-Assad leaders formed the "Syrian National Council" as a sort of shadow government, gearing up to assume power if the Assad regime is successfully driven from power. With the growing desertions of many Syrian army commanders and foot soldiers, the Council announced the formation of the so-called "Free Syrian Army" to buttress and command the spreading street revolt against the repressive Assad regime. Council leaders proclaimed in January that they will not negotiate with the regime unless all violent government suppression ends and jailed opposition leaders and fighters are released. By the end of the month, rebel forces had taken control of many parts of Syria, including several suburbs of the capital city, Damascus, where fierce battles raged with government forces. As more innocent civilians got caught up in the fighting, additional soldiers defected to the opposition army, refusing to fire on their fellow Sunni Muslims. According to human rights and opposition sources, the death toll is nearing 10,000 in the fractured country.
The Arab League formally called upon Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to step down during January, saying he should be replaced by Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, who previously served as foreign minister. However the regime put out a statement denouncing the call as a QUOTE "flagrant interference in Syria's internal affairs." All this occurred just before the Arab League pulled its "monitors" out of the torn country, saying they could no longer help to protect the civilian population from harm. Some Israeli analysts said this step might indicate that an outside attack upon the Assad regime is in the offing, either by Arab League member states or possibly by NATO forces, as occurred last year in Libya.
The intense situation in Syria was taken to the United Nations once again in late January, soon after the French foreign minister accused the Assad regime of committing "crimes against humanity." However serious UN action was not expected since the Russian government, which holds veto power at the Security Council, continues to stand by its longtime regional Arab ally. The Russian foreign minister warned once again against "outside interference" in the intensifying internal Syrian conflict, virtually echoing the Assad regime's earlier statement quoted above. This came after additional Russian warships were sent to dock in two Syrian Mediterranean seaports, sending a concrete signal that any outside forces attempting to intervene in the growing conflict will meet Russian military resistance. Meanwhile Iran—Assad's closest regional ally—confirmed for the first time in January that its Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah puppet militia force is directly aiding the regime in its desperate struggle to remain in power, with militiamen guarding strategic government positions that were formally protected by the crumbling Syrian army.
WORLD WAR THREE?
Israeli military analysts are increasing warning that we might be witnessing the foundations for a third world war being laid in the unraveling Middle East. Such a conflagration would pit Iran and Syria and allied groups like Hizbullah and Hamas, actively backed by the Kremlin and supported on the sidelines by China, against NATO forces led by the United States, France and Britain, plus Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. Israel would of course be at the center of the conflict. However most analysts think that Russia's leaders would probably back down before any warfare escalated to the point of becoming a full blown East-West clash, knowing that the United States and its allies still possess superior forces overall, although that might change if China became an active participant on Moscow's side.
Adding to the prospect of a major regional conflict breaking out, the extremist Muslim Brotherhood Movement triumphed once again in the third round of parliamentary elections in the turbulent country of Egypt. Anti-western Muslim fundamentalists now control over two-thirds of the seats in the Egyptian Lower House, and are expected to win the presidential election scheduled for next June. The fact that they apparently intend to dissolve Cairo's peace treaty with Israel and revert to the path of jihad against the Jewish state only increases the chances for a major regional conflict, said some Israeli analysts. Meanwhile IDF leaders warned once again in January that the small Jewish state needs to be ready for all contingencies in the explosive region, where revolutions and potential conflicts are currently flaring to the north, south, east and west of Israel.
With the Middle East engulfed in crisis, it is reassuring to recall an ancient biblical prophecy that depicts the glorious future time when Israel's righteous Messiah will rule the world with justice from the holy city, Zion, bringing full peace and rest to Jerusalem and to all the earth: "Violence will not be heard again in your land, nor devastation or destruction within your borders. But you will call your walls salvation, and your gates praise." (Isaiah 60:18)
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.