Thirty years after the traumatic Yom Kippur War, Israel's military superiority over the Arabs is greater than ever.
That, at least, is the assessment of Tel Aviv University's prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. In its annual report, the think-tank cited the quality of Israel's weapons systems and the U.S.-led victory in Iraq as reasons for a major strategic shift in Israel's favor.
But the report acknowledged that Israel still faces major threats from terrorism and nonconventional weapons.
And some analysts warned that the report's talk of Israel's superiority and strategic gains could lead to the same type of complacency that cost Israel so dearly in the 1973 war, when Israel was caught unprepared by an Egyptian and Syrian attack and suffered heavy losses in the first few days of fighting.
After the initial setbacks, Israel's ultimate victory -- the war ended only after the Soviet Union threatened to intervene to stop Israeli tanks from rumbling into Cairo and Damascus -- was as impressive as its success in previous engagements with the Arab nations.
Still, Arab countries consider the war a monumental victory, and many Israelis consider it a defeat of sorts -- primarily because it punctured Israel's aura of invincibility following the 1967 Six-Day War.
The shock of the Yom Kippur War left deep scars on the national psyche that affect Israelis even today. Foremost among them is a gnawing anxiety that the national leadership is so locked into a "conceptzia" -- a shared strategic concept that determines the leaders' worldview -- that they may be misreading reality and ignoring opportunities for peace.
Some now warn that the assessment in the Jaffee Center report reflects a similar, misplaced confidence.
Commenting on the report's claim that Israel is now better off strategically than at any time in its history, the military analyst for the Ma'ariv newspaper, Amir Rapaport, observed wryly that "the last time we boasted that things were never better was in the autumn of 1973."
One of the Middle East's main problems is its instability, Rapaport noted.
"What seems crystal-clear today could change totally tomorrow," he warned.
The report highlighted the fact that in the recent land war in Iraq, the United States and its allies needed just four military divisions to defeat 23 Iraqi divisions. That, the report said, drove home to the Arab states the huge disparity between the quality of modern Western armies and their own.
That has two major implications for Israel, the report said:\n
• By defeating Iraq on the battlefield, the United States wiped out the biggest Arab army in the Middle East and nullified the possibility of an eastern-front coalition of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, united against Israel.\n
• Since Israel has many of the same capabilities as the U.S. military -- not just American or Western weaponry, but superior control-and-command systems, real-time intelligence-gathering facilities and so on -- the allied victory enhanced Israel's own deterrent posture.
Shlomo Brom, a former deputy head of planning in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and one of the report's authors, observed that Israel's standing army is not only far bigger than the American force used in Iraq, but also has many of the same battle systems.
Therefore, Brom concluded, the one remaining eastern-front foe -- Syria, which is weaker in land forces than Iraq was -- "would have no chance in a military confrontation with Israel."
Brom said the war also helped Israel's strategic posture by enhancing American deterrence, underlining the Arab world's fragmentation and increasing pressure on Iran, Syria and Hezbollah to stop fomenting violence against Israel and the West.
But the Jaffee researchers acknowledged that some of Israel's new strategic gains depend on whether the United States manages to stabilize the regime in Iraq or whether it gets bogged down. If the latter happens, some of Israel's gains could be wiped out, they said.
Still, Brom maintained that the eradication of the eastern threat provides a rare opportunity to downsize the Israeli army.
There is "a window of opportunity to review the IDF's real needs," he said.
Brom said the IDF should now be asking whether it really needs so many tank divisions. And he suggested that the IDF could save huge sums of money by shutting down production and development of Israel's own Merkava 4 tank, considered by many experts to be the most advanced of its kind in the world.
The defense establishment remains unconvinced, however, arguing that scaling down land-based forces could encourage an enemy to attack. Thus, despite its cost and the cuts in next year's defense budget, the Merkava project still is on.
The Jaffee report suggested that, given the changed strategic situation, Israel should focus less on threats from conventional weapons and more on terrorism and nonconventional warfare. Israel should brace for terrorism and spend more on developing sophisticated methods to fight it, the report suggested.
The report also sees no end in sight to the Palestinian intifada. On the contrary, Brom said, Palestinian society is in an advanced state of disintegration, and therefore no Palestinian government is ready to act against terrorism.
That, some left-wing Israelis warned, is precisely the type of "conceptzia" that prevents the government from seizing the initiative and making the Palestinians a generous peace offer that might induce them to lay down their arms.
But Brom warned that the Israeli government is not prepared, as long as terror attacks continue, to take steps like dismantling settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
"Only the U.S. could do something," Brom said, "but its commitment is low."
The second big issue for Israel is nonconventional weapons. According to Ephraim Kam, Jaffee's deputy director, Iran is only three to four years away from producing a nuclear bomb and is emerging as Israel's "next main problem."
Kam says Iran is not only closer than ever to nuclear capability, but there is a significant increase in Iran's involvement in terrorism against Israel.
Yoram Schweitzer, another Jaffee researcher, took Kam's analysis a step further, warning of the threat of terrorists armed with nonconventional weapons.
The war in Iraq did nothing to advance the fight against international terror, he said.
"Al Qaeda still has significant and proven capabilities of carrying out mass terror," Schweitzer said. "But unless bin Laden the man is liquidated, Al Qaeda will not be defeated. And Al Qaeda could target Israel, too."
According to the Jaffee figures, Israel has 538 warplanes, nearly 4,000 tanks, 8,000 armored vehicles, about 630,000 soldiers, 1,348 field guns and 236 helicopters.
Syria can more or less match this for size, but not for quality. Egypt, which also has Western weaponry, lacks Israel's sophisticated command-and-control and intelligence systems.
Ironically, the Jaffee report came out just days before the 30th anniversary of the 1973 war against Egypt and Syria.
Then, too, the prevailing military theory was that Israel was far stronger than any combination of its enemies. The "conceptzia" on which Israel based its security thinking then was that no country or countries would dare attack Israel because of its clear superiority.
The initial Syrian and Egyptian gains in the war came partly because their massive joint attack, on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, took Israel by surprise.
Israeli intelligence officials had warned of the possibility that a war was brewing, but the country's leaders had been told by the United States not to launch a pre-emptive attack, as they had done in 1967.
In any case, Rapaport noted, the war in Iraq -- from which Israel supposedly has derived so much benefit -- is not yet over.
"What message will be given if the U.S. is forced to flee from Iraq with its tail between its legs, as it did from Vietnam?" Rapaport asked.
For Israel, the message could be dire.
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