Israel prepares for next threat — nuclear?

NABLUS, West Bank — During the Palestinian intifada, I sat on a dusty hilltop overlooking this most violent of West Bank towns with a dozen of the top Israeli officers in the area. The brigade commanders told their regional chiefs that all the police work and house-to-house fighting of the intifada had made their troops ill-prepared for a real war. “If we had to fight in Lebanon, my men wouldn’t know what they were doing,” shouted one.

In 2006, that prediction was proven largely true, as Israeli forces were matched on the ground by Hezbollah’s militia. The air- and missile-warfare that went on over their heads was devastating to Lebanese and Israeli civilians, but Israel’s military planners were shocked by the difficulties faced by their ground troops.

For Israel, the threat these days is clear. Nablus is quiet, its gunmen subdued by Palestinian police who are trained with American help and the economy bolstered by American aid. Next week, Israeli soldiers will run through a series of exercises to practice for a potential conflict with Hezbollah on the country’s northern border.

The main unknown in those exercises: How long does Israel have before the threat of nuclear attack will come into play?

Israeli government officials and security chiefs are reluctant to talk about how Israel might respond if Iran succeeds in obtaining nuclear weapons. They prefer to emphasize the destabilization of the international balance of power should such a situation arise. “We should focus on prevention,” Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor told international journalists last week. “Prophylactics, rather than dealing with unwanted results.”

So the disdain in Jerusalem was absolute for the Turkish-Brazilian deal announced earlier this week under which Iran would ship some of its uranium to Turkey. To use Meridor’s biological analogy, that was about as much use as a prophylactic with a big hole in it. The Iranians were playing for time, Israeli officials said, and the United States was right to override the deal and go for strong sanctions.

Trouble is, most Israeli officials don’t expect those sanctions to work any more. Israel is starting to come to terms with a burgeoning Middle Eastern nuclear arms race. It will start the race with a lead — it has had nuclear weapons for four decades. But with Iran coming up on the rails and Saudi Arabia and Egypt, unwilling to be potentially threatened by Tehran, soon joining the competition, the dangers to the Jewish state are considerable.

It’s de rigueur for international strategists to say that Israel isn’t the country that should be most worried by Iranian nuclear ambitions. Instead, they posit the Gulf states, Shia Iran’s Sunni Muslim rivals, as the most at-risk.

There’s something to that. Yet Iran’s biggest success in exporting Islamic Revolution has been through Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also now has a direct line to Gaza with Hamas, which it helps to bankroll. Both would be easy places from which to use nuclear capability to influence regional — or even world — events.

Israel’s response to the Iranian move toward nukes is complicated. Its actions are limited. A potential aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be difficult without bunker-buster bombs or coordination with the U.S. and the Arab countries over which Israeli jets would have to fly.

Diplomatically, Israel has little faith that sanctions can do anything more than delay an Iranian bomb. Why? Because it has experience of its own in negotiating about an issue so long that its negotiating partner in the end accepts a sliver of what it had originally asked for — and even then the negotiations can start again without reference to previous deals.

That’s a familiar tactic in Jerusalem, which has frequently confounded Western negotiators. Just as Iran has infuriated Washington with the sanctions issue, agreeing to something when total breakdown seemed imminent and pulling back just before it was required to act.

In public Israeli officials are forced to push for stiff sanctions. But rather than believing Iran’s nuclear program will be ended, they view the sanctions as a way of buying time for Israel to prepare its troops exercises like those next week and to ready more advanced missile defenses.

Congress this week voted for President Barack Obama’s plan to give $205 million to Israel to fund its short-range missile defense system. That’s vital to Israel now, given Hamas’ rockets in Gaza, which have Tel Aviv in range, and Hezbollah’s ability to hit any place in Israel with some of its 42,000 missile arsenal. But it will only be more important once the equation has a nuclear component.