Israel Update for February 2008

David Dolan
David Dolan

With Iranian leaders bombastically stating once again during February that Israel will soon be destroyed, Israel's top military leader warned mid-month that a decisive armed conflict could break out in the troubled region at any time. He added that it would be a major test over the resolve and preparedness of the country's regular and reserve armed forces.

This came soon after the army, air force and navy were placed on heightened alert after the Lebanese Hizbullah militia vowed to avenge the assassination of its top military commander, which it blamed on Israel. Tensions escalated even further after the group's main ally Iran hinted that nuclear warheads might have already been deployed in Lebanon.

The new war jitters came just two weeks after the release of the Winograd commission report on the intense conflict Israel waged against the extremist Shiite militia in the summer of 2006. Its conclusion resulted in stepped up calls for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.

Tensions also escalated in the south as concentrated Palestinian rocket and mortar fire continued to pour down upon Israeli communities near the Gaza Strip. One exploding rocket severed an Israeli boy's leg in the besieged town of Sderot, sharply increasing public pressure on the government to do more to halt the blitz.

With IDF pinpoint strikes against rocket launchers occurring almost every day during the month, officials made plain that a major military operation to end the constant assaults was in the final stages of preparation. Meanwhile the first Palestinian suicide bombing in over one year took the life of an Israeli woman, leaving her husband critically wounded. The atrocity was claimed by Hamas.

All Out War On The Horizon?

Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi became Israel's Armed Forces Chief of Staff less than one year ago when his predecessor, Dan Halutz, was forced to resign in the wake of the controversial 2006 military stalemate with Hizbullah forces. Working night and day since then to restructure the armed forces-which the Winograd commission said generally performed poorly during the 34 day Lebanon conflict-he warned on February 20 that Israel may be facing an imminent new war that could threaten the country's very existence.

Speaking at an army officer's graduation ceremony, Ashkenazi said Israel's military forces must be fully prepared for possible conflict "in the near future." He added rather ominously that nothing less than "the continued existence and success" of the world's only Jewish-led country might depend upon the outcome of any such conflagration.

"There are dangers to our survival on the horizon and great challenges to Israeli security. The Israeli Defense Forces need to insure a rapid victory in any conflict, and I cannot guarantee that we won't need to act in the near future."

Some Israeli military analysts averred that the Armed Forces Chief was cryptically referring to an Israeli air force strike upon Iran's burgeoning nuclear program, which they assume would not only be followed by Tehran's threatened missile counterstrikes upon Israeli civilian and military targets (including the Dimona nuclear reactor), but by missile, rocket and probably ground assaults from Syrian, Hizbullah and Hamas forces. A few noted that such a wide-scale conflict could easily involve the use of non-conventional weapons, possibly even nuclear bombs, on one or both sides, which could be the "threat to Israel's very existence" that Ashkenazi referred to.

Olmert And Barak Warn Of Pending Battles

Speaking at the same ceremony, Prime Minister Olmert pronounced that Israel's military forces were "ready to face any fresh challenge" that might await them. "The lessons of the last war are being implemented at all levels of command in the Israeli Defense Forces. Unprecedented resources today allow the IDF to train more, prepare better for a time of trouble, and train commanders and fighters at all levels in the best possible manner and for all scenarios."

Making an apparent veiled reference to Israel's assumed nuclear weapons umbrella, which he spoke of more openly during a German media interview nearly two years ago, Olmert added that "The State of Israel, in its sixtieth year, is a strong nation, with military might, a known deterrent force for all those who need to know, and a nation of the most impressive accomplishments."

It is also a country led by a very unpopular Premier. Opinion surveys taken in the wake of the late January release of the Winograd commission's final report showed most Israelis want someone other than Ehud Olmert at the helm of government at this critical hour. The report rebuked the PM for taking the country to war in a hasty manner without first checking to see if military leaders had a plan on hand to rout Hizbullah forces (the report said they did not). Still, Olmert vowed to remain in power, ignoring stepped up calls by many politicians for his departure. His ability to hang tight for the time being seemed assured when Labor party leader Ehud Barak announced in early February that he would not pull his party out of the coalition, as he had earlier pledged to do after the final report was released.