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Israel prepares for next threat — nuclear?

Israel is starting to come to terms with a burgeoning Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.

Israeli soldiers watch Israeli tanks maneuver during a military drill near Ein Zivan in the Golan Heights, Aug. 14, 2008. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

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.