Israel Update for January 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

The Middle East remained poised on a knife's edge during January as American and European officials stepped up efforts to jump start the moribund Road Map peace process. This came as Israeli army leaders released an official assessment that a major regional conflict may erupt during 2007 involving Israel, Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinians and Iran.

Meanwhile violence escalated during the month between rival Palestinian factions amid renewed attempts to form a national unity government to help prevent a full blown civil war. Neighboring Lebanon crept ever closer to widespread civil conflict as the radical Shiite Hizbullah militia, backed by Syria and Iran, stepped up efforts to overthrow the duly elected Sunni-led government, which triggered intense street clashes in Beirut.

Israeli newspapers published details on January 12 of an official army assessment warning that a major regional conflict is likely to erupt later this year. The annual military strategic assessment noted what was understatedly termed "a decline in regional stability in the Middle East, giving rise to the possibility of hostilities involving Lebanon, Syria, the Palestinian Authority and Iran." The army said its dire assessment took into account the "lessons learned" during the inconclusive 2006 summer war with Hizbullah militia forces operating out of Lebanon.

Israeli military analysts said the main reason for growing regional instability is stepped up Iranian meddling throughout the Middle East.

They noted that the oil-flushed theocratic Muslim regime in Tehran is pumping copious amounts of financial aid and weapons to its Syrian, Lebanese Hizbullah and Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad allies, along with material aid going to Iranian-backed Shiite militias operating next door in violence-torn Iraq. Coming against the ominous backdrop of Iran's escalating nuclear uranium enrichment program, the mullah's meddling is succeeding in destabilizing the entire region, adding to growing prospects that major portions of the tense Middle East will erupt into full-scale warfare during 2007.

Israel Takes The First Shot?

The IDF annual strategic assessment did not mention the prospect that Israel might essentially take the first shot in the apparently brewing conflict, aimed at thwarting Iran's jihad-fueled vow to destroy the world's only Jewish-ruled state in the coming days. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his often-voiced pledge during January to wipe Israel off of the regional map, stating again that it will happen suddenly and soon.

The Shiite leader's shrill threats were voiced as some Iranian media outlets reported that Ahmadinejad had recently told his closest supporters that he expects the so-called "missing Madhi"-a long revered Shiite religious leader who supposedly disappeared down a well in the Middle Ages-to reemerge on the world stage sometime before the annual spring equinox occurs on March 21. The reports were received with considerable trepidation in Jerusalem, since Israeli officials understand that the Madhi is expected to surface amid massive worldwide turmoil, such as an Iranian nuclear strike on tiny Israel, or even a preemptive American or Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear outposts, would undoubtedly spark off.

Adding to the prospect of a full-blown regional conflict later this year, Israeli security officials said that the global Al Qaida movement, operating from its notorious Iraqi branch, has succeeded in organizing new terror cells based in Sunni Palestinian neighborhoods located in southern Lebanon, as they had earlier done in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip.

Brigadier General Amos Yadin told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on January 9 that up to 100 Al Qaida agents had traveled to Lebanon from Pakistan and Iraq with the intention of organizing local attacks against United Nations and Lebanese Army forces operating in southern Lebanon in the wake of last year's war. He said the anticipated attacks would be designed to repeat the massive terrorist atrocities that drove American, French and Italian peacekeeping forces from Lebanon in 1983, leaving the war torn country open to indirect Iranian control via its Syrian and Hizbullah surrogates.

Turmoil At The Top

Israeli governmental and military leaders were caught entirely off guard when besieged Armed Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz suddenly resigned as overall military commander on January 16. His move came in reaction to increasing calls from many quarters for him to be quickly replaced in the wake of the widely perceived IDF failure to defeat Hizbullah forces during the 34 day war that ended last August 14.

The first chief of staff to rise to the top from the ranks of Israel's world renowned air force, Halutz said he could no longer adequately command the armed forces, given that confidence in his abilities had sunk to such a low level. The resignation prompted renewed calls from many politicians and media pundits for embattled Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz to follow suit and resign from their high governmental positions.

Dan Halutz quit his senior command post in anticipation of a special commission report that is expected to lambaste his performance both before and during the war. The report, to be issued in early March by the Olmert-appointed Winograd Committee, is expected to severely rebuke Halutz for relying too heavily on air power in the summer war at the expense of Israel's substantial ground forces. Military analysts say over reliance on air force bombings led to relatively high Lebanese civilian casualties during the conflict, which in turn gave the extremist Hizbullah militia a strong propaganda advantage, especially in the Muslim world, but also with Lebanon's large Sunni and Maronite Catholic sectors who are normally wary of the Iranian-funded militia.