Gulp fiction: Israel faces a region in turmoil

Gulp fiction: Israel faces a region in turmoil

A usual summer read for me is Daniel Silva’s annual installment in his Gabriel Allon series. For those not familiar with Allon, he is a talented restorer of classic Italian masters. He is also a spy and assassin who works for an Israeli foreign intelligence service, known as the “Office.”

Silva, a former New York Times reporter, is always on top of current news. The latest installment relates to the existential threats facing Israel. Silva’s “ripped from the headlines” approach about the tenuousness of Israel’s existence was brought home by news stories this week involving Iran and Egypt.

Early in August, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking to ambassadors from Islamic countries, said the ultimate goal of world forces must be the annihilation of Israel, adding that “liberating Palestine” would solve all the world’s problems.

Not long after, Hizbullah MP Walid Sakariya told HizbullahTV, “If Iran becomes a nuclear state, the entire equation in the Middle East will change.… This nuclear weapon is meant to create a balance of terror with Israel, to finish off the Zionist enterprise, and to end all Israeli aggression against the Arab nation.”

As Allon would ask, “Why doesn’t the world think Israel’s enemies mean what they say?”

The same day that Sakariya made his statement, Ha’aretz reported new intelligence information obtained by Israel and four Western countries indicating that Iran has made greater progress on developing components for its nuclear weapons program than the West had previously realized.

Later, Yediot Ahronot reported the National Intelligence Estimate report, recently submitted to the White House, paints a bleak picture of “significant progress” in Iran’s “arms group” — the people and facilities focused on the manufacturing of a nuclear warhead.

The Obama administration denied these reports.

If the Iranian threat is not credible, why is the United States assisting Gulf State allies in creating a regional missile defense system to protect the Persian Gulf from an Iranian attack? Also, does the construction of a missile defense system imply that the U.S. has accepted a nuclear Iran while hoping to contain it?

Moreover, the countries involved in the system are Arab. Israel — the only stated target of Iran’s threats — is excluded. This is similar to the exclusion of Israel, a major target for terrorism, from the U.S.-sponsored Global Counterterrorism Forum.

The administration, in this election year, proclaims Obama the best friend Israel ever had. But Israel and the administration are at odds over Iran, especially over the use of military force to deter Iran’s nuclear program. Importantly, the administration does not want an October Surprise coming from Israel in the form of an attack on Iran.

However, at the time of the kerfuffle over whether there was a new NIE on Iran’s nuclear program, Yediot Ahronot reported Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak would like to attack Iran’s nuclear sites before the November election but lack crucial support within their cabinet and military. The report also referred to Netanyahu’s certainty that Obama will not stop Iran’s nuclear development in time.

Things are also heating up on the Egyptian border. A week ago, gunmen in Bedouin attire drove up to an Egyptian Sinai border post at Kerem Shalom and opened fire, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers, before crossing into Israel in stolen armored vehicles. The two vehicles were destroyed, one of which exploded by itself and the other was attacked by an Israeli helicopter.

This action prompted scrutiny of the relationship between Israel and the newly-elected Egyptian government headed by President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Morsi government’s relationship with the Egyptian military. A New York Times editorial called the Sinai incident Morsi’s “first crisis.”

For years, Israel has complained about the growing lawlessness in Sinai and the porous border, particularly the smuggling tunnels used to bring weapons into Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot.

In response to the Sinai attack, the Egyptian military dispatched troops to secure the border. Days later, Morsi fired his intelligence chief and other top security officials.

In what could be considered a quiet coup, Morsi forced the retirement of his defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, a move designed to reduce the political power of the military. He also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military, that had minimized presidential authority, replacing it with his own declaration that gave him broad legislative and executive powers. While some might celebrate this as a democratic break from military rule, it could allow Morsi to recreate the authoritarian power of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The New York Times said it was unclear on Sunday whether the generals would accept Morsi’s latest moves. The moves took Washington by surprise.

Threats of annihilation from Iran to the east. An increasingly unsecure border on the south. Disagreements with Washington on intelligence and even the lack of intelligence in Washington. These can affect the very existence of Israel.

As I read my Silva book, I wonder what the Office and Allon would do.

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