Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Analysis: Israelis want rematch in Lebanon

Shaun Waterman

UPI Homeland and National Security Editor

April 4, 2007

WASHINGTON -- It seems as though some Israeli military and political leaders are champing at the bit for a rematch with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon after the bloody nose the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) got there last summer.

The difference this time around? The IDF will go into Gaza, too - and it is all part of a plan to neutralize Iranian proxies on Israel's borders, one element of a strategic effort to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons and overthrow the mullahs in Tehran.

The plan was laid out in Washington last month by Effie Eitam, a hawkish former general and darling of the orthodox hard right who now leads a small religious splinter group in the Knesset.

But Eitam is also head of the Knesset subcommittee overseeing the IDF's lessons-learned exercise following the disastrous IDF operation in southern Lebanon last year, and on this issue, some analysts say, he speaks for a significant current of opinion within the Israeli military.

What he has to say might sound scary to US ears.

Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon "are not separate issues," he said, either from each other, or from the strategic challenge posed by Iran. "They are part of a terroristic system inspired, financed, and directed by Iran," he said, citing the recent testimony of Israeli officials about Tehran's support for Hamas.

"They are part of a bigger plan," he told United Press International by telephone from Jerusalem, to use the threat of "deterrence and retaliation" to constrain Israeli options in confronting the mullahs.

The freedom these groups had to operate just outside the frontiers of the Jewish state, Eitam said, meant "they are actually Iran on the Israeli border."

Islamic militants equipped with anti-tank weapons and surface-to-surface missiles like those being stockpiled in Gaza and southern Lebanon, he said, were "something like Iranian missile batteries and Iranian infantry divisions."

He called Gaza and southern Lebanon "two arms of Tehran closing around us."

"The question is when and how those arms will be dealt with," he said, adding it would be answered "in the context of how we are going to defeat the whole ideological system" the Iranian revolution had spawned. "If we don't defeat this regime, this ideology," and Iran is able to develop nuclear weapons, "there will not be even one safe place" in the whole world.

For this reason, he said, the question was "not only an Israeli one, although we are at the front line." The mullahs "have to know that, if diplomacy fails, the alternative of a nuclear Iran is not acceptable."

"Within the planning for that" confrontation, "we will have to give consideration to their proxies here."

Eitam said that a US withdrawal from Iraq "before defeating the Iranian regime ... [would have] enormous strategic consequences."

"We would witness a total collapse of US credibility," he predicted. "The only way to bring about strategic change in the region is to defeat the Ayatollahs," he said, advocating "use [of] all means" including diplomatic measures and economic sanctions. But "some military action is almost inevitable," he warned.

"Israel has full right, morally, militarily, and legally to preempt the installation" of long-range missiles by terrorists in either Gaza or southern Lebanon.

"I don't mean we should attack tomorrow," he said. "We have some time," he added, referring to the range of five to 15 years various analyses estimate it could take Tehran to develop a nuclear weapon.

But "the window of opportunity for action is narrowing, and it could close" unexpectedly if there were any sudden breakthroughs by Tehran, Eitam said.

The experience in southern Lebanon, which he said was in part the fruit of a failure to deal with a festering problem, teaches that "The longer we wait, the tougher, the harder, the worse in terms of loss of life," the eventual reckoning will be.

However alarming such views might be in Washington, analyst and former Israeli official Daniel Levy told UPI that, when it comes to Gaza and more especially southern Lebanon, Eitam represents a significant current of opinion within the military establishment. Some officers, he said, were "champing at the bit to go back into southern Lebanon" to dispel the widespread impression that they had suffered a bloody nose last summer.

"In terms of [his] assessment that there is a need to go back into southern Lebanon, and perhaps into Gaza, too, as part of a necessary process of 'de-fanging' Iran and neutralizing what [he sees] as its proxies [Hezbollah and Hamas], he represents more than just the leader of a three-member breakaway faction from the religious right," Levy said.

If the rightwing is able to form a government, he added, Eitam could well get a cabinet post. In any case, there would be a continuing demand for more aggressive action against alleged terror bases.

"Some in the military are keen to show that they have learned the lessons from last summer. There will be pressure on the political echelon to let them go back," Levy said.

But he added that "in Israel as a whole, and certainly in today's Knesset, that thinking is still a minority current."

"There is a lot of resistance in Israeli society to the idea of re-occupation," said Levy, adding that there was also a widespread perception that the failure to respond robustly enough to the rocket attacks and logistical buildup engineered by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon had set the IDF up for failure last summer. "If you can present this as a robust response to provocation" it would be possible to build a political consensus behind it, he said.

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