Tremors Jolt the Middle East
By David Dolan
Speculation was rife in Israel during October concerning the possibility of a pending unilateral IDF military strike upon Iran's nuclear production facilities. The conjecture was greatly enhanced late in the month when a respected American think tank published a jarring report stating that the extremist Iranian regime now has the capability to build a nuclear warhead in around one month's time. Previous estimates had suggested that it would take the Shiite Muslim clerical regime at least half a year to build a bomb from the time a decision was taken to do so.
Several commentators opined that the prospects for a lone Israeli military operation against Iran grew during the month largely because the credibility of the American Obama administration continued to plummet in the turbulent region. Saudi Arabia's suggestion that it might soon drop the US dollar as its preferred currency for its vast oil trade sent shock waves through world capitals and financial markets, although many economic analysts said the American public is largely ignorant of the disastrous financial consequences that such Saudi action would probably unleash.
Israeli media outlets reported during October that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deeply concerned by America's continuing decline in the Middle East, with its two longtime Arab allies and regional pillars, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, now turning away from it. After the White House announced early in the month that a significant portion of American military aid to Egypt was being immediately suspended, the new Egyptian government angrily responded that it will turn elsewhere for desperately needed economic assistance, mainly to wealthy Arab countries like Saud Arabia and Kuwait. This could potentially endanger the US-sponsored Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt and hamper Israeli military efforts to support the current Egyptian government's security crackdown on Islamic terrorist groups that have been freely operating in the lawless Sinai Peninsula.
Indicating that the Prime Minister's worries are not his alone, left leaning Israeli President Shimon Peres raised some eyebrows when he declared that Israel has significant military capabilities its enemies are not even aware of. The veteran politician made the comment in the context of speaking about the threat Iran still poses to Israel despite the recent "charm offensive" new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani engaged in during his visit to the United Nation's international headquarters in New York in late September.
While focusing on Iran during October, Israeli government and military leaders continued to also keep a wary eye on the ongoing warfare raging not far from Israel's northern Golan Heights border. Reports in a usually reliable Gulf Arabic newspaper said that Israeli air force jets carried out another military strike on a convoy of Syrian missiles being transported to Hizbullah control in neighboring Lebanon. However Israeli analysts doubted the veracity of the report. Earlier the same newspaper quoted an unidentified Israeli military source as stating the Netanyahu government is preparing for a possible military operation to destroy Chinese made medium-range missiles that Israel believes have been successfully smuggled into the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, which is controlled by the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia. Some analysts warned such a major air force operation would probably spark off some sort of military response from Hizbullah, most likely the launching of a new barrage of rocket strikes upon northern Israel. The worst case scenario would be a major attack upon the Tel Aviv region, although most analysts say this would probably only come in the midst of future IDF action against Iran.
There was a fresh uptick in Palestinian terror attacks during October, leaving a nine year old girl injured in one incident and an Israeli man dead in another. The assaults came as Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah warned that supposed 'Jewish desecration' of the Islamic shrines on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem might soon ignite a new Palestinian uprising. Many Israeli political analysts say the real, if currently hidden, aim of the Hamas leadership in igniting a violent new terrorist war of attrition would probably be to topple the rival Palestinian Authority government which rules over some 1.75 million Palestinians living north and south of Jerusalem.
Given that probable goal, Israeli leaders are said to be taking the Hamas threat quite seriously, and are making preparations accordingly. They have publicly noted many times that Israel has been among the quietest countries in the region in recent years as the clearly mislabeled "Arab Spring" swept like wildfire through North Africa and the Middle East. That the relative calm would endure forever was never what Israeli officials expected or even hoped for, given the deep hatred held by millions of regional Sunni and Shiite Muslims for what many term "the Zionist entity."
The political, military, and economic tremors shaking the roiling region were enhanced by actual earth tremors during October as a series of small earthquakes jolted northern Israel. The area was the scene of the Holy Land's last major earthquake in 1837, centered near the northern Jewish holy town of Safed in the hills above Tiberius and the biblical Sea of Galilee. Experts have been warning for some years that another major earthquake is overdue somewhere along the northern end of the great African Rift, which runs from the Red Sea up through the Jordan Valley, ending in Syria. Israeli leaders held an emergency meeting to discuss the series of small earthquakes and what they might portent for their small country.
US PARTIALLY SUSPENDS AID TO EGYPT
As has been the case for almost three years now, the main focus of Israeli government and media attention during October was not on issues or news taking place inside the small country, but momentous developments taking place in one or more of Israel's many Arab neighbors and Iran. As has been the case many times before, the spotlight was first upon Egypt after the Obama government announced on October 9 that it was suspending a substantial amount of military aid to the strategically located Arab country.
As part of the 1978 Camp David accord, the United States is committed to provide annual financial assistance to the Egyptian government, mostly to help cover military spending. Since the 1990s, the American treasury has pumped 1.5 billion dollars into the impoverished country every year. However as a result of the Egyptian military action which toppled Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Morsi from his position as President in early July, the State Department in Washington announced that President Obama had decided to withhold 260 million dollars of that annual aid in order to express his unhappiness with the military's move.
Despite the American government action, Secretary of State John Kerry quickly made clear that the administration does not intend to cut off all aid to Egypt, and will continue to help Cairo in its efforts to fight terrorist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula. "By no means is this a withdrawal from our relations or a severing of our serious commitment to helping the government meet those goals," the American diplomat told reporters during a visit to the Muslim nation of Malaysia. Even more typical of American "moralism" which demands that the rest of the world adhere to standards the United States does not even always uphold, Kerry went on to state that "We want this government to succeed, but we want it also to be the kind of government that Americans would be comfortable supporting and being engaged with." Although he was speaking in Southeast Asia, the former senator did not mention that America's main creditor in recent years has been China, a country with a deplorable human rights record.
Dismissing the Secretary of State's supposedly soothing remarks, the Egyptian government quickly denounced the Obama administration's move, as did many other regional American allies. Egypt's Foreign Affairs Minister, Badr Abdel Atty, said the aid cutoff "raises serious questions about US readiness to provide stable, strategic support to Egyptian security programs amid the threats and terrorism challenges it has been facing." A government owned news site posted a statement denouncing the decision as "wrong in terms of content and timing."
Other private Egyptian media outlets reported that both government and military leaders were furious over the American move. Solid proof of that contention came later in the month when several European diplomats confirmed that during a meeting with them in Europe, Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who serves as the country's intelligence chief, unleashed a torrent of scathing criticism aimed at the Obama administration. He revealed that his government is preparing to make "a major shift" away from its longtime close alliance with Washington. Several diplomats said he hinted that this would include dropping the US dollar as the country's preferred oil trade currency, most likely replacing it with the Euro. Economic analysts warned this would be a severe blow to the American dollar, already under growing international pressure due to mushrooming US government deficit spending over the past few decades.
Although some economists suggested that the Saudi royal family might choose the Chinese Yuen as its new currency of trade, most others dismissed that prospect as unrealistic given that China is still ruled by Communists who have suppressed the spread of Islam inside their sprawling country. Many economic analysts concur that if the Saudi government carries out its threat to drop the dollar as the country's preferred currency of trade, the Euro will most likely be chosen to replace it despite continuing economic weakness in the Euro zone (China is also experiencing an economic slowdown). They note that EU countries import significant amounts of oil from the Saudi Peninsula every month, and the royal family is on generally good terms with most European leaders who are generally seen as more in touch with Middle East realities than their American counterparts.
OBAMA'S SINKING SHIP
Realizing that his jarring remarks would undoubtedly end up in the news, Prince Bandar poured open scorn on the second-term American President for his 'misguided policies' concerning the Middle East. He reportedly told the assembled diplomats that the Obama administration had 'badly mishandled' the so-called "Arab Spring" that began in Tunisia in December 2010. He was especially critical of its actions, or more to the point its lack of action, over the deadly war tearing apart Syria and threatening its neighbors. He also charged that Obama has done precious little to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. On the issue of Iran, the Saudi royal prince was said to have expressed great unhappiness with the White House decision to attempt to mend diplomatic relations with Tehran, severed after over 50 Americans were taken hostage at the US embassy there soon after the Shiite Iranian revolution began in 1979.
The New York Times and other media outlets later reported that all of America's traditional allies in the region are disenchanted with the first ever American President to be born to a Muslim father. Included in the published list were all of the Gulf Arab states, Israel and Turkey, which recently expressed its anger with Obama's decision to cancel military strikes against the Syrian Assad regime by announcing it would purchase Chinese air missile defense systems instead of ones made in the United States or by other NATO allies. The newspaper quoted a Saudi Arabian policy expert saying that "The shift away from the US is a major one. Saudi Arabia doesn't want to find itself any longer in a situation where it is dependent. Prince Bandar told diplomats that he plans to limit interaction with the US." The policy expert added that "Relations with the US have been deteriorating for awhile, with Saudi Arabia feeling that the US is growing closer to Iran." He also noted that the Obama administration "failed to support the Saudi government during the (mainly Shiite) uprising in Bahrain" that began in February 2011. He added that "All options are on the table now, and for sure there will be some negative impact for the United States."
As usual, Israeli officials said very little publicly about the latest Obama administration blunder, which was derided as extremely naÃ¯ve by much of the Israeli press. However during an interview given while he was visiting Washington, Israeli Finance Minister and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid expressed indirect criticism of the White House's partial suspension of economic aid to Egypt. "What's most important to us is stability" he stated, adding that his government wants Egypt to have "continued interest in the Camp David Accord and to continue the fight against terrorism, especially Al Qaida in the Sinai." In other words, cutting back US economic aid to Egypt will probably trigger further instability in the Arab world's largest and most influential country, and might even endanger the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
Concerning American government policy on Syria, the New York Times printed a subsequent article that quoted an unnamed source within the Obama administration who castigated the President's handling of the recent chemical weapons crisis. Political analysts quoted by the newspaper said the comments indicate that strong dissatisfaction exists within the White House itself over Obama's apparent mishandling of Middle East foreign policy. This came as several traditional American allies, including Germany and Mexico, expressed disgust over reports that the US "National Security" spy agency monitored private telephone calls made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other unidentified world leaders, as well as private emails sent by former Mexican President Felipe Calderon. On a related matter, the Times reported that the country of Jordan-under enormous financial pressure at present over its forced absorption of hundreds of thousands of Syrian war refugees-had offered use of its air bases for the United States to carry out drone strikes on targets connected to the embattled Assad regime. Several Israeli analysts noted that Jordan is now about the only Arab country still on good terms with the Obama administration.
ISRAEL AND IRAN
Various Israeli media outlets reported during October about growing expectations that an Israeli military strike upon Iran's rogue nuclear development program may be imminent. This came after Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz warned once again that a major war could erupt in the region at virtually any time. Speaking after inspecting troop positions on the Golan Heights, Gantz said the lush agricultural plateau could be turned into "rivers of blood" in just minutes. Most Israeli military experts say the extremist Shiite Iranian clerical regime will most likely carry out its frequent threats to unleash its puppet Hizbullah militia force to bombard Israel with thousands of missiles if the IDF strikes Iran's nuclear targets.
The possibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu will order a unilateral military attack upon Iran's nuclear facilities seemed to grow when a respected American think tank released a report on October 24 estimating the Iranian regime is now capable of producing a nuclear warhead in around one month's time after a decision to do so is made. The report was produced by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which works worldwide to thwart nuclear weapons proliferation in currently non-nuclear countries and to decrease their production in nations which already possess them. ISIS President David Albright, who is a former Atomic Energy Agency nuclear weapons inspector, said his group discovered what he termed "an essential finding" that the "breakout time" it would take the Iranian regime to produce a nuclear weapon is growing constantly shorter, saying it is "currently too short and shortening further." He then added the obvious, that "Shortening breakout times have implications for any negotiations with Iran."
The ISIS think tank report came as some American politicians were discussing the possibility of easing economic sanctions that were imposed by the international community on Iran as a result of Tehran's ongoing nuclear development activities. However Ben Rhodes, who serves as President Obama's deputy national security advisor, said the administration is "not contemplating anything that removes those sanctions at the front end of any negotiation agreement, because it's going to be important to test Iranian intentions." However Rhodes heartily endorsed Obama's decision to put his toe in the water, saying the status of economic sanctions should be evaluated in light of "the progress we're making on diplomacy." Just exactly what that supposed "progress" consists of remained a mystery in Jerusalem as October came to an end.
Iran's deputy foreign minister accused Israel of attempting to sabotage his country's UN-sponsored nuclear talks with six world powers, including Russia and China. He charged Israeli leaders with insinuating that Iran has been acting in bad faith. "The entity that is occupying Jerusalem has spared no efforts in attempting to derail and place obstacles before the negotiations," he told an Arabic news outlet, adding that "the Zionists are not interested in seeing these negotiations come to a positive outcome."
During a rare visit to an Israeli air force base located near the Mediterranean coast south of Tel Aviv, President Shimon Peres warned that Iran and its regional allies should know that they will suffer greatly if they attack Israeli civilian centers. He stated that the IDF response would shock Israel's enemies. "The full power of the army and the air force is not visible to the naked eye, but anyone who is disdainful of Israel and plans to attack us should take this into account." The former Labor party leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner delivered his comment after being briefed by Benny Gantz and other senior IDF officers on the country's latest defense strategies and operational capabilities. The President told reporters he was proud of the Israeli Air Force which he called "the best in the world," both technically and in its "dedicated" human personnel. He declared that the Air Force's strength, flexibility and capability is "more relevant" today than ever before. His comments came just days before Russia's Air Force chief, Gen. Viktor Bondarev, visited Tehran to discuss Iran's request that Moscow provide it with new electronic surveillance devices, radars and Russian-made surface to air missiles.
RISING PALESTINIAN TERRORISM
As noted last month, Israeli officials have expressed concern over a growing tide of Palestinian terror attacks in recent months against Jews living or serving in Judea and Samaria, Judaism's biblical heartland. Two soldiers were killed in separate incidents last month, one in the holy city of Hebron and another in the PA-controlled city of Kalkila north of Jerusalem. On October 5 a nine year Jewish girl named Noam Glick was shot and wounded by a Palestinian infiltrator while playing just outside of her family home in the community of Psagot, not far from Ramallah. The assailant entered the Jewish community after managing to cut a hole in its metal security fence.
Several days later, a retired army colonel named Sraya Ofer was beaten to death by a group of Palestinian terrorists using iron bars and axes who invaded his home in a Jewish community near the Palestinian Authority-controlled biblical city of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. The wife of the 50 year old victim managed to escape the attackers as they were bludgeoning her husband to death and alert an Israeli couple driving near her home that a terrorist attack was underway. Israeli security forces have been reinforced in some areas in order to try to quell the rising tide of terrorist attacks upon Jews living in the disputed territories.
With more upheaval undoubtedly lying up ahead in the tumultuous Middle East, it is good to recall that "The Lord of Hosts will reign on Mt Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders" (Isaiah 24:23).
Hezbollah and Global Jihad battling in Lebanon and Syria
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon warned on Thursday that the Lebanese Shi'ite terror militia Hezbollah was engaged in a "civil war" with elements from Sunni Global Jihad groups in Lebanon. He added that Global Jihad groups are trying to drag Israel into the conflict by firing rockets at Israel and trying to make it look like Hezbollah did it. "However Hezbollah was quick to deflect responsibility, saying 'it wasn't me.' This is another example of our deterrence capability," he said, adding that Iran was arming Hezbollah with increasingly powerful weapons, fueling the danger and regional instability. Agreeing with his boss, IDF Northern Corps commander Maj.-Gen. Noam Tibon told The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Herzliya on Thursday that Hezbollah and Global Jihad groups are also battling each other in neighboring Syria, which has become and international battleground making the local fight between rival Syrian groups almost an afterthought.
Israeli warplanes on Tuesday destroyed a shipment of missiles that were to be delivered to Hezbollah near the Lebanese-Syrian frontier, according to the Kuwait newspaper Al-Jarida. The paper's story, which quotes a senior Israeli official, has not been confirmed by any other news source. There was also no word on whether the attack took place on Lebanese or Syrian soil. Israel has reportedly launched at least three attacks against convoys that were said to be delivering arms to the south Lebanon-based Shi'ite organization. The Kuwaiti daily also reported last Friday that Israel has information on the location of long-range missiles transferred from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon and is considering taking military action to destroy the weapons. The paper, quoting an Israeli security source close to Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, reported that the remote-operated missiles, with a range of 1,500 kilometers, were made in China and further developed in Iran.
According to the source, the missiles are being stored by Hezbollah in the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Al-Jarida quoted the Israeli source as saying that Jerusalem views the missiles as posing a danger to the security of Israel and are therefore examining the possibility of destroying the arsenal. Israel has said repeatedly that while it does not wish to interfere in Syria's civil war, it would act to halt the transfer of chemical arms or "game-changing" weapons to Hezbollah. "Our policy is to stop, as much as possible, any leaks of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. We will continue to act to ensure the security interests of the citizens of Israels," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stressed earlier this year. According to foreign reports, Israel has struck weaponry earmarked for Hezbollah within Syria's borders on a number of occasions in the past year.
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.