Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Israel can hit Iran’s nuclear sites, general says

by Sheldon Kirsher

Israel can deal a crushing blow to Iran’s budding nuclear program, an Israeli general says.

At an Oct. 22 press briefing in Toronto for a small group of Jewish journalists, the high-ranking Israel Defence Forces officer warned that Israel has the military capabilities to destroy or damage it.

“We have to be prepared for any eventuality,” the brigadier general said.

He said Israel would even be content with damaging Iranian nuclear sites.

“Delay can also be helpful,” he noted, delivering these threatening comments against the backdrop of mounting tensions with Iran.

Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni called for additional United Nations economic sanctions to be imposed on Iran, while Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, said Israel should always be ready “to pre-empt, to deter, to defeat” threats to its existence.

For more than a year now, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has openly called for Israel’s destruction. Repeating his mantra most recently, he described Israel as a “fake state.”

The general acknowledged that UN sanctions have had “some positive effects,” but they have not deterred Iran from moving closer to acquiring a nuclear arsenal.

Claiming that Iran is very close to crossing the technical threshold that will enable it to build an atomic device, he cited Western estimates that Iran will be a nuclear power anywhere between 2010 and 2015.

“We don’t see anyone trying to stop Iran,” he declared, adding that diplomatic measures have neither been sufficient nor effective.

“There is another option,” he said in an allusion to military means.

The officer admitted that, compared to Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, hitting Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be a far more formidable challenge, since it is widely dispersed and buried deep underground in bunkers.

But Israel could overcome these disadvantages by detecting “weak points” in Iran’s defences, he said without elaborating.

Israel’s policy until now has been to support international efforts to contain Iran, he said. “We preferred to play a background role.”

But Israel’s patience is wearing thin, he observed, saying that Iran should not only be its problem.

If Iran goes nuclear, allies like Hezbollah and Hamas would feel emboldened, while Arab states would try to match Iran’s achievement, he predicted.

Accusing Iran of meddling in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli officer said, “Iranian fingerprints are all over the Middle East.”

He charged that Iran is attempting to dominate the region. “Iran is leading the radical resistance movement,” he said in a reference to Hezbollah and Hamas.

Iran is also trying to undermine western influence in the Middle East and sabotage a possible Israeli rapprochement with the moderate wing of the Palestinian movement, he added.

Turning his attention to the Palestinians, the general expressed doubt whether Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, is strong enough to implement a peace agreement with Israel.

Hamas, which already controls the Gaza Strip, would seize the West Bank from Fatah should Israel withdraw from the West Bank, he said.

The general allowed that Israel might well be able to deal with Hamas politically if it abides by international conditions and recognizes Israel’s existence, disavows terrorism and accepts agreements that Israel and the Palestinian Authority have signed since the mid-1990s.

Charging that Egypt is not doing nearly enough to staunch the flow of smuggled arms into Gaza, he said, “Gaza is not only Israel’s problem, but a problem for the Palestinians and Egyptians.”

He said the Israeli army may yet be forced to launch a massive incursion into Gaza in an attempt to eradicate the Palestinian network responsible for firing short-range Qassam missiles into Israel.

Asked whether such a raid would be on the scale of Operation Defensive Shield, carried out five years ago in the West Bank, the general agreed that the possibility remains high.

“But not now,” he said, explaining that Israel has no intention of undertaking a big military operation on the eve of the regional Mideast peace conference, set to take place later this month in Annapolis, Md., under the sponsorship of the United States.

The Israeli general said that Hezbollah, 15 months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, is rebuilding its military infrastructure in southern Lebanese villages, which are off limits to United Nations peacekeeping troops.

“Hezbollah is building capabilities for the future.”

But due to the presence of the Lebanese army and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Hezbollah doesn’t have the same freedom of movement it enjoyed before the summer of 2006, he noted.

Nonetheless, Iran and Syria have both transferred advanced anti-tank and surface-to-surface missiles to Hezbollah since the ceasefire in Lebanon.

Asked if Israel and Hezbollah will fight a second round, the general replied, “It’s very difficult to say.”

He would not be drawn into a discussion regarding reports that the Israeli Air Force bombed a partially built, North Korean-manufactured nuclear reactor in Syria on Sept. 6.

“To keep a secret in Israel is a great challenge, and I’m not going to break it now.”