Sunday, December 16, 2007

Annual Israeli Intelligence Estimate

Israel's strategic position has improved in the last year- but with it also the military capabilities of its enemies: the Qassam threat has worsened- and a potential hudna will only serve Hamas; Syria is waiting to "get even" but is not expected to start a war; Iran is likely to procure a nuclear bomb by 2009 and the American NIE leaves Israel almost completely alone in the campaign to stop the Persian menace. Deep pessimism alongside cautious optimism- those are the two key principles that emerge from this year's Annual Israeli Intelligence Estimate. The report will be presented to the security cabinet in several days time by IDF Intelligence Chief Major-General Amos Yadlin, but the highlights are here for you now in a Ynet exclusive report.

The aforementioned pessimism concerns Iran's nuclear ambitions. The American National Intelligence Estimate "dropped quite a bomb" on Israel's struggle against Iran's nuclear program, said officials within Israel's defense establishment. The US report only diminishes the likelihood that the international community will impose harsh, effective sanctions on Iran and also that the US itself will strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

"It is clear to us now that no one will do the work for us," one of the report's authors told Ynet, Israel can now rely solely on its own military capabilities, if and when the Iranian nuclear program achieves its aims.

The differences of opinion among the Israeli and American intelligence communities stem from different methodologies for analyzing raw data. Washington and Jerusalem are in almost total agreement regarding the known facts, as the two supply each other with whatever information they posses.

The difference, then, lies in interpretation: Israeli intelligence does not know for certain that Iran renewed its attempt to develop a weapon, i.e. the bomb itself, after it froze the program in 2003. But sources are saying that if Iran restarted its efforts in the winter of 2005/2006 to convert uranium into gas (for enrichment purposes) as well as its uranium enrichment purposes – then it is reasonable to assume that the weapons development program was also reactivated.

The fact that we do not know for certain that this was done, say sources within the defense establishment, indicates only that we do not know enough – and that Iran's attempts at concealment are effective; we must, therefore, work harder. On the contrary, the American intelligence community, after learning a bitter lesson from its experience with Iraq, is taking a stance marked by meticulousness and caution: we posses information that the Iranians did not renew attempts to develop a bomb, therefore – given the absence of solid material proving the opposite – we believe what the information we have.

The only ray of light Israeli intelligence has to offer on this issue is information that Tehran has thus far encountered multiple technical difficulties in the process of obtaining fissile weapons-grade uranium through enrichment. The time for difficult decisions will arrive, however, when Iran crosses the "technological threshold" in the enrichment process – an event which may soon come to fruition. According to Israeli intelligence, Iran may have acquired enough fissile material (5 Kg) for one nuclear bomb by 2009.

Stronger enemies

The second central conclusion reached by the Israeli intelligence community is one marked by relative optimism: Israel's strategic position has improved over the course of the previous year. But even here, Intelligence has reservations, pointing to the also-improved military capabilities of Israel's enemies – more dangerous at year's end than beginning. In plain language: the threat of rockets and missiles to the home front has only increased in 2007 – but the probability of a potential comprehensive assault on Israel in the next year or two has diminished.

According to military intelligence, the reasons for this are Israel's deterrent capability - which grew substantially in the last year - and positive developments in the region.

The Annapolis Conference, for example, improved the regional standing of Israel and the United States. The intelligence community expresses grave doubts regarding the ability of the peace process to bring about a Palestinian-Israeli agreement, but the conference's very existence demonstrates that regional states are willing to cooperate with Washington and Jerusalem in their efforts to neutralize the threat of extremist Islam. The political crisis in Lebanon constitutes a regional development which keeps Syria and Hizbullah occupied while complicating their position vis-à-vis the international community. This crisis represents, therefore, one of the factors which has decreased the chances for war in the coming year.

According to the intelligence community's estimate, the threat from the northern arena is second only to the Iranian threat among dangers the state must be prepared to combat, as it represents the potential for the eruption of full-scale war. Intelligence sources know for certain that Syria has amassed tens of thousands of missiles, heavy rockets, and Katyushas, placing them in sites from which it will be possible to sow destruction and harm on almost all of Israel, including the southern city of Beersheba. Hizbullah has also replenished its heavy rocket arsenal, which has increased quantitatively and qualitatively from what it had before the war. The potential threat to Israel from the north and northeast has thus increased significantly.

Sanctions on Nasrallah

The good news is that Syria and Hizbullah, according to military intelligence, will not initiate an all-out attack in the coming year, as Israeli deterrent capacity has increased dramatically in the previous year for two reasons. Events in the northern arena have proven not only Israel's long range capabilities in airpower and intelligence, but also, and more importantly, they have demonstrated Israeli determination to thwart all threats and an ability to manage risks and take difficult decisions related to defense.

The second reason for Israel's improved capacity for deterrence: Iran, Syria, and Hizbullah have analyzed, in-depth, the results of the Lebanon war, and reached the conclusion that under current conditions, rocket and missile attacks on the Israeli home front will harm them and their interests more than Israel. Iran, for example was shocked by Israel's ability to annihilate Hizbullah's entire heavy-rocket arsenal in less than an hour, long before the organization could launch even a single "Zelzal." Furthermore, in a development published here for the first time, the Israeli Air Force was able, with the support of ground forces, to destroy all of Hizbullah's medium rocket launchers (220mm and 306mm) after they were used once or twice.

As a strategic response, the Iranians had given Hizbullah a heavy-medium rocket launching system to act against Israeli alongside their nuclear facilities. The near-total destruction of this system in the wake of the "local provocation" which Nasrallah initiated in July 2006, caused great anger in Iran as well as a reevaluation of relations with Hizbullah. As a result, Iran agreed, with Syrian aid, to renew and enlarge the rocket array in Lebanon – but henceforth Hizbullah had to receive explicit permission from Iran before activating that system. Representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Lebanon will thus supervise the execution of these orders. Tehran, it is believed in Israel, will grant this permission only if and when it serves Iran's strategic interests, which is highly unlikely in the next year or two.

During the last week, however, a caveat has cropped up in Israel's perception of the strategic situation: according to Israeli intelligence officials, the American NIE has removed the looming threat of an American attack from over Iranian heads. Therefore, from Tehran's perspective, this deterrent rocket system in Lebanon is less essential, which means that Iran is now more likely to permit Hizbullah to initiate rocket attacks on Israel even in a situation that will serve local, Hizbullah interests rather than only the regional interests of Iran.

The Syrians have registered the extent of damage Israel sowed in the Shiite Dahiyeh neighborhood of Beirut and on the Lebanese road system, and they have come to the conclusion that their national infrastructure is also likely to suffer irreversible damage in the event that they initiate a war with Israel before installing reliable anti-aircraft defenses. It is for this additional reason, Israeli intelligence believes, that Bashar Asad's fever for war has chilled, and the Syrians have doubled their efforts at procuring anti-aircraft systems and new aircraft from Russia.

But even here, sources point to a serious reservation: any substantial damage caused to Syria will be considered serious harm to national honor by the Syrian regime. "This is an account which from their perspective must be settled with us," a senior security source tells Ynet. "The Syrians are patient and have a long memory, and it is entirely possible that they will attempt to carry out limited revenge attacks to settle the score with us." Such a move could manifest itself in a terror attack on an Israeli target or Jews abroad, or even a direct hit on Israel – maybe even the nuclear reactor in Dimona or even a large attack on Syria's behalf from Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

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