April 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
NUCLEAR IRAN AND SCUDS IN LEBANON
The diplomatic crisis between Israel and the United States seemed to ease somewhat during April as both countries apparently appraised the potentially devastating consequences of a full breach in ties. However many analysts said the failure of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to attend an international nuclear summit hosted by President Barrack Obama in Washington was a further sign that personal relations between the Israeli leader and the White House remain tense at best. This came as Iran's Shiite leaders spewed forth more defiance, saying no nation on earth would stop them from pursuing their nefarious nuclear program.
Meanwhile mixed signals were transmitted during the month concerning the strained relations between NATO member Turkey and Israel, with more negative statements about Israel coming from Turkish government leaders even while Israel was delivering heavy weaponry to Ankara. Jordan's monarch also spoke of deteriorating relations with the world's only Jewish-run state, blaming the Netanyahu government's building policy in all of Jerusalem for creating the purported crisis.
Reports that Syria, backed by Iran, has been smuggling advanced long-range Scud missiles to the Shiite Lebanese Hizbullah militia force sounded deafening alarm bells in Jerusalem. Such missiles could potentially strike all Israeli cities and towns, including the southern port city of Eilat, which was the recipient of two Katyusha rockets fired from nearby Egyptian territory in late April. Israeli leaders warned yet again that Syria itself would be targeted if Hizbullah launches another rocket or missile blitz at Israeli territory. This came as the Palestinian Hamas group said it would cease firing rockets into Israeli territory, at least for the time being.
With proposed American-mediated peace talks still on hold, a call by the Palestinian Authority government for stepped up anti-Israel activities also raised concerns in Jerusalem. Although the call was for non-violent actions, officials expressed concern that some Palestinian elements like Hamas and Islamic Jihad would seize the opportunity to escalate violent clashes with Israeli security forces.
Israel was among many countries whose commercial exports and flights to Europe were seriously disrupted in mid April due to the Icelandic volcanic ash clouds drifting over the continent. Authorities said this might mean that a recent surge in tourist visits to Israel could slow down after records numbers arrived in March. On a much more positive note, an American government report said deposits of oil and natural gas off of Israel's northern coast could be much more substantial than earlier estimated.
NETANYAHU NO SHOW AT NUCLEAR SUMMIT
US President Barrack Obama convened an international summit of over 40 world leaders during April to discuss further scaling back nuclear weapons stockpiles around the globe, plus the growing nuclear threat posed by terrorist groups and outlaw states like Iran and North Korea. The move came in the wake of a meeting in Europe between the American leader and Russian President Dimitry Medvedev, where Obama unveiled significant nuclear policy changes he plans to enact. Critics protested that the alterations would leave the US far more vulnerable to foreign attack.
It would seem that the leader of a close US ally, and especially one that is probably the most exposed country in the world to a nuclear warhead assault in the coming years, would be front and center at the American parlay. But Binyamin Netanyahu was no where to be found, instead sending his Atomic Energy and Intelligence Minister, Dan Meridor, to the prestigious gathering. Netanyahu's office had earlier announced that the Israeli Premier would indeed fly to Washington for the summit meeting. His office subsequently put out a statement saying that the unexpected cancellation had nothing to do with the widely reported crisis in relation with the Obama administration, while issuing no other viable explanation for the dramatic cancellation.
However an unnamed "senior government official" was quoted in the Israeli media verifying that the PM's no show was directly related to the obvious diplomatic strains with Washington. He said that Israeli leaders were "disappointed with developments in the run up to the conference"—which many analysts read as a clear reference to the way Netanyahu was treated by the White House during his March visit, exacerbated by continuing American pressure to halt all Jewish home building inside Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.
Still, the anonymous official also pointed to other factors that he said contributed to the Premier's decision to stay home. He noted that "the nuclear summit is supposed to be about dealing with the danger of nuclear terror, but in the last few days we have received reports about the intention of several participating countries to depart from the issue of combating terrorism and instead misuse the summit to goad Israel over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty." This was an apparent reference to statements made in the run up to the gathering by the leaders of two of Israel's supposedly friendliest regional allies, Egypt and Turkey. Both governments issued statements claiming Israel was a clear violator of some of the provisions of that treaty, with international inspections forbidden of the rather large nuclear weapons arsenal that Israel is almost universally believed to possess.
Israeli political pundits said PM Netanyahu did genuinely fear that his prominent presence at the international gathering would draw harsher and louder barbs from various summit participants, including Egypt and Turkey, concerning Israel's nuclear weapons stockpile. Still the issue did lend Netanyahu a convenient way out of the planned trip to Washington, where he was widely perceived to have been poorly treated during his last visit.
Had he attended the Washington summit, the Prime Minister was reportedly prepared to note that even if Israel has built nuclear bombs in past decades, it has never used them nor ever directly threatened to do so, unlike Iran which is still supposedly a few months or years away from possessing such weapons but already saying that Israel is about to be completely wiped off the regional map.
FOCUS ON IRAN AT THE SUMMIT
At a post summit press conference, President Obama repeated his earlier calls for all nations on earth to sign and adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, including Israel. But when he was specifically asked by a reporter about Israel's reported nuclear weapons program, he dogged the question. When pressed further, he repeated what he said was long standing American government policy on the issue: "As far as Israel goes, I am not going to comment on their program." But he added that "We've consistently urged all countries to become members of the NPT, and so whether we're talking about Israel or any other country, we think that becoming part of the NTP is important."
Energy Minister Dan Meridor told reporters that the expected criticism of Israel from Egypt and Turkey had not materialized at the summit. He added that Iran's nuclear program instead featured quite prominently in private discussions that the international leaders engaged in, as Obama had earlier stated. Meridor said "the only game in town is Iran verses the US. Who wins, who loses. We need America and its allies to win, or else the world order changes." The Likud party politician added that the possibility the current world order will be seriously altered by Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability "is a grievous development. It's not good."
An anonymous "senior American government official" gave similar statements to a Jerusalem Post reporter. "This conference, while clearly not being about Iran, demonstrates how isolated Iran actually is," he was quoted as saying, adding that it sends "a very clear message to countries like Iran that this is the future, this is the world order that everyone wants to see. They have had an opportunity to follow through with meeting their international obligations but have created considerable doubt about the peaceful intent of their nuclear program and therefore are going to be facing increasing international pressure."
That pressure was highlighted one day before the Washington summit got started when President Obama issued a joint statement with Chinese President Hu Jintoa. The two leaders said they had agreed to work closely together to suggest a series of diplomatic and economic sanctions that the UN could adopt against Iran if it continues its nuclear defiance. Despite this, Hu Jintoa later stated that his increasingly powerful country prefers that diplomatic attempts to persuade Iran to drop its program be given more time to succeed, instead of the immediate adoption of further UN sanctions against Tehran.
On the eve of the nuclear summit, visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned that Israel would feel compelled to take military action if the world does not quickly stop Iran from constructing nuclear weapons. He said a conflict between Israel and Iran would be "a disaster," adding that a nuclear-armed Iran was both "dangerous and unacceptable," especially given the "many statements made by Iranian leaders against the democracy that is Israel."
PM Netanyahu once again lamented what he perceives as a general lack of urgent concern by the world's leaders over what he solemnly termed as Iran's "genocidal plan against the Jewish people." Delivering a moving speech marking Israel's annual Holocaust Memorial Day, he said, "In the face of these repeated statements to wipe the Jewish State off the face of the earth…the world carries on as usual."
In his usual fashion, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blasted both the summit meeting and President Obama personally. And for the first time, a top Iranian official broadly hinted that the Shiite regime has more than just electric energy plants in its future nuclear plans. Behzad Solani, deputy director of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, boasted that "we do not intend to use the peaceful nuclear energy program merely for generating electricity and energy." He added that the program would eventually "boost Iran's political power in the international arena" which analysts note could only be a reference to a nuclear weapons capability.
IRAN ON THE BRINK
There were several other important developments during April concerning Iran's threatening nuclear program. In its annual report to the American Congress, the US Central Intelligence Agency noted that "Iran continues to develop a range of capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so." The report added that Iranian scientists, with help from North Korea, China and Russia, have demonstrated "significant progress" in their attempts to build ever more powerful ballistic missiles. American media reports said much of the information the CIA based its latest assessment upon was garnered from a top Iranian nuclear scientist who defected to the United States last May.
Another annual report to Congress given later in April—this time by the Pentagon—predicted that Iran's increasingly long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles might be capable of landing nuclear warheads on America's eastern seaboard in just five years time. It noted that exiting missiles can already reach much of Europe, along with all of the Middle East.
Demonstrating continuing contempt for world opinion and threats of further sanctions, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, revealed his country would soon begin enriching uranium to "a level ten times greater than the first generation" produced by its massive centrifuge program. This would make such uranium much closer in quality to that needed to produce nuclear warheads.
Meanwhile Iranian official said during April that they had developed their own anti-aircraft missile batteries after Russia responded to pressure from the Bush administration and Israel to delay delivery of its promised S-300 sophisticated system. Iran said it had taken five years to complete the new system, which an Iranian general boasted was capable of "resisting electronic warfare" directed at Iran. He added the system would be deployed before the end of this year, which analysts said might give Israeli leaders an additional incentive to launch military strikes upon Iran's burgeoning nuclear and missile programs before then.
The possibility of American military action against Iran was also in the news during the month. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that "all options are still on the table" when it comes to Iran's nuclear defiance. The Pentagon later reiterated that statement after one of Gates chief deputies maintained a military operation was off the table for the time being, being reserved as "an option of last resort." Seemingly echoing that position, America's senior military commander, Admiral Michael Mullen, told students at Columbia University that "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing, but I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome."
Republican politicians charged that the seemingly conflicting statements confirmed growing indications that the Obama administration has no coherent policy regarding Iran. The same conclusion was reported by the New York Times, despite the fact that the newspaper has been overtly supportive of the Democratic Party President that it endorsed before the 2008 national election.
HIZBULLAH SCUDS POSE MORTAL THREAT
Tensions mounted substantially in the region during April after a Kuwaiti newspaper published a report that long range Syrian Scud D missiles have been smuggled into Lebanon for use by militant Hizbullah forces. The powerful Syrian missiles are advanced versions of the ones fired by Saddam Hussein at Tel Aviv and other portions of Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. The missiles have a significantly longer range than those fired into Israel by Hizbullah forces during the summer war in 2006, meaning all Israeli cities, towns and military outposts, including Israel's two main air force bases located in the southern Negev Desert, would come under direct threat of attack. The Dimona nuclear reactor near Beersheva would also be in range of such missiles.
Israeli President Shimon Peres later confirmed that Syrian Scud missiles were either on their way to Lebanon or already there, saying this crossed a dangerous "red line" and would not be tolerated. Officials also made very clear that Damascus itself would be held directly responsible for the reported weapons transfers, meaning it would also be attacked if such Scud missiles were ever fired.
American Democratic Party Senator Diane Feinstein of California, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, subsequently said there was a "high likelihood" that Syria has indeed been smuggling Scud missiles into Lebanon for use by Shiite Hizbullah militia forces. She added that "the rockets and missiles in Lebanon are substantially increased and better technologically than they were, and this is a real point of danger for Israel." Her remarks came as the US State Department summoned the senior Syrian diplomat stationed in Washington for "consultations" over the reported weapons transfers. A State Department spokesman said the meeting was designed to address Syria's "provocative behavior" in handing over the highly advanced missiles to the Iranian-backed militia force which pummeled Israel with over 4,000 less advanced rockets during the summer of 2006.
Taking its cue from Iran's repeated denials that its rogue nuclear "energy program" is actually a cover to construct nuclear weapons, the Syrian Assad regime denied that it had smuggled Scuds into Lebanon. Syrian officials claimed that Israel was only trying to find an excuse to attack the Lebanese Shiite force in the coming months. At first, Hizbullah echoed this stand, stating that it was "none of Israel's business" whether or not it now possessed some of the deadliest missiles on earth—as if the group's obvious and only targets were not Israeli civilian centers. Hizbullah leaders later confirmed that they had received a supply of Scuds from Syria, but claimed they were only non functional "dummy prototypes" meant to familiarize the Lebanese militia group about the missiles design and use—as if that would comfort Israeli leaders who are charged with protecting their Jewish and Arab citizens from foreign rocket assault.
PALESTINIAN HARD BALL
With the Obama administration attempting again during April to jumpstart indirect peace negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, the PA government headed by Mahmoud Abbas announced it will step up what it called the "popular struggle" against Israel, designed to force the Netanyahu government to halt all Jewish home building in the disputed territories and the eastern half of Jerusalem. The official statement called for intensified non violent street demonstrations and periodic work strikes. Several Israeli analysts noted that work strikes, which were frequently held during the first two Palestinian uprisings, only weaken the struggling Palestinian economy, not Israel. The announcement also called for intensified boycotts of all products and services produced in contested Jewish settlements. It was followed by a statement from the Israeli Premier reiterating that he will not halt home construction in any portion of the capital city.
Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah criticized the PA call, telling a television audience that "armed resistance" is the only way to keep Israel from "taking over Muslim holy sites" in Jerusalem. And sticking to their usual play book, the Hamas movement also denounced the call for non violent protests, insisting that "force of arms" alone will prod the Israeli government to alter its building program. A Hamas spokesman also blasted the PA for arresting hundreds of Hamas activists in Judea and Samaria in recent months, noting that PA security forces are largely funded and trained by "the Great Satan," i.e. the United States. Hamas also protested the detention of many Palestinian school teachers and Islamic clerics who were charged with plotting to help stage a Hamas coup in PA zones of control north and south of Jerusalem, such as occurred in the Gaza Strip in 2007.
Meantime Hamas officials publicly ordered that all smuggling tunnels operating under the southern Gaza Strip border with Egypt be closed. This came after the Mubarak government threatened to use military force to seal off the tunnels after intelligence reports came in revealing that Hamas terrorists were planning to use the tunnels to smuggle Israeli tourists kidnapped from the Sinai Peninsula into Gaza. Hamas also announced that it would put a halt to all rocket firings aimed at Israeli territory in order to "give the Zionist enemy no excuse" to launch a new military offensive in the Palestinian coastal zone. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had warned that a new IDF operation might be needed to halt rocket assaults which intensified earlier this year.
Thousands of foreign tourists found their Holy Land visits prolonged when many flights to Europe were cancelled for nearly a week due to the Icelandic volcanic ash clouds floating over most of the continent. Direct flights to New York and other North American destinations were rerouted around the dangerous clouds. On a more positive note, an American government report said there may be up to 17 times more natural gas and oil than previously estimated in energy fields located under the Mediterranean Sea some 60 miles west of Haifa. If so, that might be enough to fuel all of Israel's energy needs for the foreseeable future, said Israeli experts.
While the ash clouds over Europe were obviously not a good thing, there are other clouds coming that will one day soon bring Israel's Messiah with them. "Behold with the clouds of heaven, one like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him" (Daniel 7: 13-14).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.