Early Elections in Israel
By David Dolan
Israeli voters will be heading to the ballot box next January 22 after the Knesset voted overwhelmingly during the month to dissolve itself in preparation for early national elections, which were previously not scheduled to take place until October 2013. With all opinion polls projecting that Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party will win the lion's share of the vote, many analysts said the Premier most likely wants to secure a fresh mandate from his citizens before ordering a potential military strike upon Iran's threatening nuclear production program. However opposition leader Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima party predicted that he would replace Netanyahu as Israel's Prime Minister despite polls showing that outcome to be highly unlikely.
Meanwhile the ongoing proxy war between Israel and the Shiite Muslim Iranian regime escalated during the month as Iran's surrogate Lebanese militia, Hizbullah, boasted that it had sent an unmanned spy aircraft into Israeli airspace. The drone surveillance aircraft was reported to have flown over Israeli territory for nearly three hours before being shot down over the northern Negev Desert by pursuing IDF warplanes. The Iranian-built UAV was said to have transmitted live pictures of top-secret Israeli military installations back to Hizbullah militia headquarters in Beirut Lebanon, along with shots of IDF troops preparing to hold joint military exercises with visiting American forces. Even more alarmingly, the drone apparently flew close to Israel's main nuclear reactor in the town of Dimona, near the southern city of Beersheba. Iranian leaders have vowed to destroy the reactor if Israel or anyone else launches a military strike against their nuclear production sites. An Iranian military leader claimed similar drones have penetrated Israeli airspace "dozens of times" in recent years, an assertion quickly denied by the IDF. Meanwhile international economic sanctions imposed on the Iranian regime by the United States and many other countries led to a sharp fall in the value of Iran's currency during the month, igniting anti-government demonstrations in Tehran.
Palestinian rocket attacks upon Israeli civilian centers near the Gaza Strip intensified during the month. Over 500 Palestinian rocket and mortar attacks have been launched so far this year. Later in the month, a Russian-built Strela anti-aircraft missile was fired for the first time at an Israeli army helicopter as it was hovering over the Hamas-ruled Palestinian coastal zone. Analysts said the rocket probably came from the large weapons arsenal that fell into Muslim fundamentalist hands after Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi was killed last year. Israeli government officials publicly warned Hamas leaders that another major military campaign to curb the escalating rocket attacks could be in the offing if the assaults continue. Israeli government and military leaders have been warning that similar sophisticated Libyan weapons have probably been smuggled into the Gaza Strip over the past year, mostly via Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt. Meanwhile a senior terrorist leader linked to Al Qaida was killed by an IDF missile near Gaza City.
Israeli military forces remained on high alert along the country's tense northern border as fighting continued to rage in Syria. A car bomb linked to Hzibullah exploded in Beirut, killing several people including a senior security official. Other ominous signs that the Syrian conflict is spreading to neighboring countries took place during the month, including the firing of Syrian shells upon a Turkish border village, killing two women and three children and wounding many others. The attack prompted the Turkish government to call for an emergency meeting of all NATO members, which includes the Muslim nation that ruled the entire Middle East until the end of World War One nearly 100 years ago. Turkish artillery was then directed at Syrian military bases near the border, prompting fears that a regional or even a fresh world war could be sparked by the intensifying fighting.
Syrian commercial air flights were banned from Turkish airspace after a jet bound for Damascus from Moscow was forced down in Ankara. Syrian officials responded by blocking all commercial Turkish Air flights from flying over their war-torn territory. Inside Syria, human rights groups revealed that the embattled Assad regime has begun dropping deadly cluster bombs on civilian areas controlled by opposition Muslim forces fighting to oust the Syrian dictator. To the east of Israel, a large anti-government rally was held in Amman, demanding that the moderate Hashemite Jordanian monarchy be replaced by a Muslim fundamentalist government. This came just one week before Jordanian officials said they had thwarted a major terrorist attack being planned by local Al Qaida-linked Muslims.
On a more positive note, Israeli water authorities said the biblical Sea of Galilee—Israel's main above ground fresh water reservoir—is currently at a higher level than during previous Octobers, which marks the end of the annual dry season in the Holy Land. This means that if upcoming winter rains are normal or above average, Israel would have extra water supplies to cope with any large fires that are expected to spring out of any future missile bombardments from Iran and/or its Hizbullah surrogate militia force. Sufficient water supplies could prove to be vital, especially if Iran's threatened missile blitz was launched after the winter rains end.
Prime Minister Netanyahu announced on October 9 that he had decided to call for early national elections, which were previously scheduled for this time next year. His proposal to dissolve the current Knesset and head to the polls was approved without any opposition by 100 Knesset members, who have already begun campaigning to hold on to their political positions. The veteran Israeli leader said he made his decision after it became apparent he could not get the current Knesset to approve his government's spending plans for 2013. He added that "my obligation as Prime Minister is to put the national interest above all else, and therefore I decided that the good of Israel requires going to elections now, as soon as possible." He also pointed out that "a three-month election campaign will be more preferable for Israel than a long campaign that would last an entire year and harm the economy. So after four years, we will go to elections. I will seek a new mandate to continue to lead the people of Israel." It was subsequently revealed that Israeli political leaders had agreed to schedule the next round of national elections for Tuesday, January 22.
In a speech he delivered to what turned out to be the last session of the outgoing Knesset, the Israeli leader said, not surprisingly, that the greatest challenge facing the next government is the existential threat to the Jewish State posed by the extremist Shiite Muslim regime governing Iran. Netanyahu repeated once again that he would not be the Prime Minister who sits and watches as radical Iranian leaders carry out their oft-stated vows to annihilate the world's only Jewish State. However he also noted that unlike his three predecessors, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, he has not been in office when any of Israel's sworn enemies launched assaults against the country that resulted in the outbreak of major conflicts. He was apparently referring to the Palestinian Al Aksa attrition war, which began when Barak was Premier and carried on into Sharon's time in power, and the two conflicts that broke out during Olmert's rule: the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the IDF Cast Lead military operation, which began in December 2008 after thousands of Palestinian rockets were aimed at Israeli civilian centers from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
In the wake of the Premier's decision to hold early elections, Israeli pollsters quickly went to work taking the political pulse of the country. One survey commissioned by the Ha'aretz newspaper predicted the ruling Likud party will pick up additional seats in the upcoming Knesset election. It projected that current coalition member parties would end up with around 68 seats in the new parliament, with only 52 or so going to the center-left block. It takes 61 seats to from a viable Israeli government. The Kadima party, which was formed by then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2005, is expected to lose many of its current seats. This prediction was bolstered when five current Kadima legislators announced that they would leave the party and contend for positions on the Likud list. The polls also projected that former Labor leader Ehud Barak, who formed his own "Independence" party when he broke away from Labor early last year, will not even make it into the next Knesset, marking the possible end of his long political and military career.
Part of Kadima's decline in the polls is being attributed to a bitter feud that raged for several years between former party leader Tzipi Livni and current leader Shaul Mofaz. When Mofaz replaced Livni as party leader last May, the former Foreign Minister resigned her seat in the Knesset, indicating her political career had come to an end. However in the wake of Netanyahu's decision to hold early elections, Livni announced she was forming a new political party with former Labor party star Haim Ramon, who fell from grace after being convicted of forcefully kissing a female army officer against her will. Six Israeli woman's rights groups issued a joint statement in October condemning the move, saying "We expect Livni to publicly condemn the sex offense Ramon committed, and declare that because of it, she will not join him politically." The critical statement added that, "It is regrettable and infuriating that someone who has been convicted of a sex offense, even if it does not formally constitute moral turpitude, can return to public life."
Earlier opinion polls suggested Kadima would have lost more seats under Tzipi Livni than it is projected to do under the leadership of former Defense Minister Mofaz. The new surveys showed that only around 28% of the voting public would like to see Livni win the Premier's chair, with over 50% naming Netanyahu as their first choice. Some pundits speculated that Ehud Olmert would run in the winter election, posing the only viable threat to Netanyahu's leadership. However most consider this unlikely given that the former Kadima leader is still on trial for financial corruption charges after his earlier conviction for breach of trust.
HIZBULLAH DRONE PENETRATES ISRAELI SKIES
Many political pundits and military analysts around the world speak of the seemingly growing possibility of war breaking out between Iran and Israel. However the reality is that a fairly hot war has already been raging between the two countries for many years now, initiated by the rogue Shiite regime. Using Iranian- supplied weapons and under Iranian training and sometimes even direct command, both the Lebanese Hizbullah militia and several Palestinian groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have been bombarding Israeli civilian areas with rockets and mortar shells while launching terror attacks upon Jews, and even some rival Arabs, since the mid 1990s. Even before that time, Hizbullah forces were regularly lashing out at IDF forces stationed in southern Lebanon and along the international border. For its part, Israel is widely believed to have been involved in covert cyber attacks upon Iran's nuclear production program over the past few years and in the apparent killings of several leading Iranian nuclear scientists and others directly involved in the program. Therefore to say that warfare is simply a future possibility is to ignore the conflict that has been actively raging for many years now at Iran's instigation, even if it is not yet a full-scale war.
October 6 is the infamous calendar date in 1973 when a joint Soviet-backed military attack was launched by Egypt and Syria on Israel's holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. This year, it was both the only Sabbath day during the annual Feast of Tabernacles and the date when the Shiite Hizbullah militia, which basically rules Lebanon, sent an unmanned drone aircraft (UAV) into Israeli airspace. The pilot-less aircraft first flew out over the Mediterranean Sea before infiltrating over the coast south of Tel Aviv. Press reports from London and elsewhere claimed the drone spent nearly three hours flying over Israeli territory before being shot down by pursuing IDF warplanes near the town of Dimona, where it was apparently being directed by its Hizbullah handlers to transmit live surveillance pictures to Beirut.
Unconfirmed foreign media reports, based on unidentified Israeli sources, said the spy plane had earlier managed to capture pictures of sensitive IDF military bases where over 1,000 American military personnel in Israel, and over 2,000 more at regional US military bases, were preparing to hold joint anti-missile exercises with their IDF counterparts. Postponed from earlier this year, the anti-missile drills, which began on October 21, are the largest ever held between the two longtime allies.
Initially it was not clear who had sent the hostile aircraft into Israeli airspace. However after carefully examining the remains of the downed drone, Prime Minister Netanyahu declared it had been built by Iran and sent into action by Hizbullah. Averring that the Jewish State is weak and about to disappear, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah later confirmed this, taking "credit" for the UAV infiltration, with his television station boasting that it "penetrated a depth of 100 kilometers and created much tension in Israel." In a similar fashion, Iranian leaders frequently mock Israel's military capabilities, which are vaunted around the world, with one official recently calling Israel's air defense systems "feeble." Some reports said Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating with Hizbullah forces in Lebanon had actually launched the drone and commanded it during its flight time.
In the wake of the jarring Hizbullah airspace penetration, an American-made Patriot anti-missile battery was rushed to the northern city of Haifa, close to the Lebanese border—just in case Hizbullah leaders decided to launch rocket assaults in the wake of the downing. Top military and government officials met to discuss the incident and its implications for Israel's defense community. Several noted that UAV drone aircraft are technically capable of being armed with missiles and bombs, noting they have already deployed such weapons in the ongoing US-led Western action to curb the radical Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan. Analysts say one of Israel's greatest fears is the chilling prospect that Iran might attempt to drop either a chemical or even a small nuclear warhead on Tel Aviv from an undetected drone flying in from the adjacent Mediterranean Sea.
Further inspection of the downed drone revealed it was constructed of a type of lightweight fiberglass that is designed to absorb radar beams, which is undoubtedly why it was able to successfully penetrate Israel's sophisticated air defense radar system. Experts said Iran had most likely copied some of the technology contained in the American UAV RQ-170 drone aircraft that was intercepted in Iranian airspace last December. Several also noted that the successful penetration occurred at the start of a major military mobilization exercise carried out by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in probable coordination with Iran and Hizbullah.
In Vienna, the UN's Atomic Energy Agency reported in mid October that the extremist Iranian regime is continuing to install uranium enrichment centrifuges at its deep underground Fordo nuclear facility. "We think that their pace has continued the same as it was, which was pretty rapid," said one official after the report was issued, adding that the work is "nearly complete." Quoting Israeli nuclear sources, Israeli media outlets reported two clusters of enrichment centrifuges, numbering over 300, have been moved to the hardened bunker in recent months. The apparent Iranian goal is to protect the centrifuges from any Western and/or IDF military attack designed to destroy them. Israeli leaders fear Iran plans to quickly convert its centrifuges from 20% to 60% enrichment of uranium, which they note is merely a short step before 90% nuclear weapons grade enrichment can be achieved. Meanwhile the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is ready to hold direct face to face talks with Iran's militant leaders in order to discuss the burgeoning nuclear development program—an assertion that was quickly denied by the White House.
In other news during the month connected to Iran, Israeli officials were heartened when they learned that pugnacious Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's personal cameraman, Hassan Gol Khanban defected to the United States late last month. He did so while he and his boss and entourage were in New York City for the annual opening session of the United Nations General Assembly. Media reports said he handed over a virtual treasure trove of recent photographs showing Ahmadinejad and other senior Iranian officials touring some of the most sensitive and secret nuclear and ballistic missile sites in the Shiite-dominated Islamic nation. Expert analysts are now busy examining the photos for further clues about the extent of the country's openly-declared uranium enrichment program.
In Tehran, hundreds of Iranians staged a rare anti-government demonstration in early October after the value of the country's currency, the rial, fell by around 40% against the US dollar in just one week. Economic analysts said international sanctions imposed on Iran in an attempt to get its feisty leaders to halt their nuclear development program were the main factor bringing the currency down. This came as the European Union imposed additional sanctions on the Iranian regime. Analysts said food and consumer goods prices continue to shoot up in the wake of the sanctions, mainly due to the fact that few international ships are now willing to land at Iranian ports, causing serious shortages in the country of nearly 60 million people.
Responding to the protests in Tehran, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Iranian currency's severe decline was "a good sign." However he also noted that while the sanctions are successfully harming the Iranian economy, the centrifuges enriching uranium "are still spinning." He called for even tougher sanctions to be imposed, and for further international isolation of Iranian leaders combined with what he termed "a credible threat of military force" if the nuclear program is not curtailed. The former IDF Chief of Staff also pointed out that the Iranian clerical regime "is still investing vast sums" in propping up embattled Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
SYRIAN-TURKISH CONFLICT DEEPENS
Warnings by UN and other officials that the internal war rocking Syria might spread to other regional countries seemed to be coming true during October as Turkish leaders ordered their gunners to shell Syrian army positions in northwest Syria in retaliation for a Syrian attack upon a Turkish border village. They also invoked their NATO treaty with the US and its European allies to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the attack and possible responses to it. Several days of sustained Turkish shelling followed the border bombing. Many analysts said Ankara apparently wants to create an army-free corridor along the shared border with Syria, which would allow more civilian and military aid to rebel forces fiercely fighting to topple the Assad regime.
In another ominous sign that the regional war could directly draw in other world powers, Israeli media reports said Russian military personnel have begun to move advanced S-300 anti-missile interceptors to the country's southern border region near Turkey. This was widely viewed as a warning from the Kremlin that Turkey could face active Russian opposition if it intervenes any further in the growing conflict. Other reports said Hizbullah has begun moving many of its heavily armed militiamen from southern Lebanon to northeastern border areas near the besieged city of Aleppo, despite the possibility that Israel might yet respond militarily to the earlier Hizbullah drone penetration. This came as a powerful car bomb exploded in Beirut, killing several people including the Lebanese head of the government's Internal Forces Information Bureau, who had earlier led a raid that targeted pro-Assad Lebanese fighters.
American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta warned during October that chemical warfare may break out in the region if the Syrian war continues to escalate. Israeli PM Netanyahu warned for the first time mid-month that Israel might be forced to take military action to prevent Assad's massive chemical stockpiles from falling into rebel hands. Panetta later revealed that America's sworn enemies, particularly Iran, have been heavily attacking American banking and other web sites in recent weeks. Other devastating assaults were launched against several Israeli sites and the Saudi Arabian oil company, ARAMCO. Meanwhile security analysts said the Assad regime gained more ground against its armed opponents during the month, due mainly to heavy ground assistance from Iranian and Hizbullah fighters and commanders and from continuing armaments flowing into Damascus from Russia. In Jerusalem, clashes took place in and around the Old City during the Feast of Tabernacles between rioting Palestinian Muslims and Israeli security forces. Further south in the Gaza Strip, an IDF missile killed a senior Palestinian terrorist leader linked to Al Qaida. Palestinian shelling of surrounding Jewish civilian centers intensified in the aftermath of the action. Over 50 rockets were fired in one day alone. Analysts said the assault was probably ordered by Iran in an attempt to keep IDF forces occupied in local action, thereby lessening the chances of any military attack being launched against their nuclear facilities.
As these dramatic days continue to unfold in the crumbling Middle East, let us "watchmen" who love Israel's Sovereign Lord continue to "remind the Lord, taking no rest for yourselves…until He establishes and makes Jerusalem a praise in all the earth" (Isaiah 62:7).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.