March 13, 2008
Israel faces grim intelligence estimate
Last weekï¿½(tm)s terrorist attack at a Jerusalem yeshiva and the new Israeli national intelligence assessment presented to the Cabinet on Sunday underscore the acute security problems Israel faces this year and beyond.|
The terrorist shooting spree in the Mercaz Harav yeshiva, which left eight students dead, raised questions about the vulnerability of Jews in western Jerusalem to terrorists emanating from the mostly Arab eastern part of the city. The gunman was from Jabel Mukhaber, a Palestinian village on the southeastern outskirts of the capital.
While the new intelligence assessment downplayed the risk of war in 2008, it painted a gloomy picture of an Iranian-sponsored missile buildup by Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. It also said Iran is expected to pass the point of no return on creating a nuclear bomb in 2009.
As if all this were not enough, Israelis had another, more immediate concern: Did the terrorist attack in Jerusalem herald the start of a third Palestinian intifada?
Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter and the intelligence assessment say no. Dichter says there is no evidence of it, and the assessment says the probability of a widespread, sustained Palestinian uprising in the West Bank is low.
But the report added an important caveat: A new intifada could erupt if Jewish extremists attack Muslim holy sites on Temple Mount, or if new Israel Defense Forces actions in the Gaza Strip cause a high Palestinian death toll.
The fact that last weekï¿½(tm)s gunman was from eastern Jerusalem has been especially concerning here. There are no barriers or checkpoints to stop Jerusalemï¿½(tm)s Arabs from crossing into western Jerusalem.
Since Israel officially annexed the eastern portion of Jerusalem in 1968, Arabs from eastern Jerusalem carry Israeli ID cards, making it easier for them than for West Bankers to slip through police or army cordons. That is why Jerusalem often is seen as a soft target for Palestinian terrorism.
On the flip side, the Palestinian standard of living in Jerusalem is higher than in the West Bank. Moreover, as Israeli residents, the Palestinian Arabs in eastern Jerusalem receive Israeli health care and unemployment services. Many are loath to put their relatively comfortable lifestyle at risk with a campaign of terrorism.
Nevertheless, 20 percent of Jerusalemï¿½(tm)s 220,000 Palestinians have been involved directly or indirectly in terrorism, according to Israeli police sources.
The special status of Palestinian Arabs from eastern Jerusalem makes measures against would-be terrorists difficult. Dichter says he would deport to the West Bank all Jerusalemites involved in terrorism and their accomplices. But legal experts say that because the Arabs in eastern Jerusalem qualify as Israeli residents, Israeli law does not allow such deportations.
Danny Yatom, a member of the Labor Party and former Mossad chief, advocates building a fence between Jerusalemï¿½(tm)s Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. But right-wing critics say that would be tantamount to acquiescing to divide Israelï¿½(tm)s capital.
In the wake of last weekï¿½(tm)s deadly attack, the situation in Jerusalem is even more volatile due to the nature of the target.
Mercaz Harav yeshiva, founded in 1924 by then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, is religious Zionismï¿½(tm)s most influential theological seminary. It is one of the prime sources of messianic Jewish settler ideology, which sees Jewish settlement of the West Bank and Gaza as a holy mission.
Its rabbis and students are highly critical of Ehud Olmert governmentï¿½(tm)s attempts to negotiate a territorial settlement with the Palestinians, which they believe flies in the face of the divine order.
That strong anti-government sentiment was reflected in an angry confrontation Sunday with Education Minister Yuli Tamir, who was jostled and heckled when she visited the yeshiva to offer her condolences. Tamir left quickly after some students called her âmurderer.â
Prime Minister Olmert later was told by yeshiva leaders that he, too, would not be welcome at the school.
Israeli police fear right-wing extremists might take the law into their own hands and wreak vengeance against eastern Jerusalemï¿½(tm)s Palestinians. Already this week, police blocked right-wing activists from heading to the terroristï¿½(tm)s mourning tent in Jabel Mukhaber.
The alienation of religious Zionists from government -- both because of Olmertï¿½(tm)s willingness to negotiate with the Palestinians and perceived past government betrayals, including Ariel Sharonï¿½(tm)s withdrawal of troops from Gaza in August 2005 -- have Israeli police worried about Jewish right-wing violence.
Jewish threats aside, Israeli securityï¿½(tm)s main focus is on the external threats to Israel. They were summed up harshly in the intelligence assessment on Iran.
The Israeli estimate is that without any preventative measures, Iran will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon in late 2009 or early 2010. This, the intelligence agencies agree, constitutes the gravest existential threat Israel faces.
In addressing the threat, the agencies suggest Israel is more or less on its own. They do not expect any U.S. military action against Iran, and they argue that international sanctions are having no effect on the pace of Iranï¿½(tm)s nuclear program.
The assessment has a wide regional sweep, providing a country-by-country and issue-by-issue accounting of the updated âthreat mapâ as seen by Israelï¿½(tm)s intelligence agencies.
The main points include:
Still, Olmert told his Cabinet he is confident that Israel can meet whatever challenges it faces.
âWe have answers for all future threats,â he said.