LOSING THE EDGE

Mideast military balance shifts ever further in favour of Israel's enemies

Since Israel's rebirth 49 years ago, the Jewish state has fought a war a decade, while suffering endless terrorism and cross-border attrition in between.

Today, with the advent of Israel's 50th anniversary, a war is looming which threatens to overshadow those that have gone before. And no matter how many Israel has won, if she loses the next war she will have lost them all.

In early August, IDF Chief of Staff Major-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak informed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Syria was preparing an offensive option against Israel. In a message to Americans shortly afterwards, Israeli ambassador Eliyahu Ben-Elissar affirmed that Damascus was gearing up for war, stressing that the continual supply to the Arab states of US up-to-date weaponry was fast eroding Israel's qualitative edge over Syria.

With "Oslo" in shreds, Israeli officials (together with many experts and ordinary citizens) believe that the Arab states have already decided to wage another war, and have been preparing for it even as Arab-Israeli negotiations have progressed. Since the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Middle East arms purchases have increased by over 400 per cent.

On August 11, the London-based newspaper Arabic al-Awsat reported Syria had signed a major new arms deal with Russia after Iran and a number of Gulf States agreed to help settle Syria's $12 billion arms debt to Moscow. On Damascus' shopping list are 48 MIG-29s, 14-24 Sukhoi-27s, SAM-11 and SAM-12 surface-to-air missiles, M300BMU--a development of the SAM-10 claimed superior to the American Patriot--and 300 T-80 tanks. The deal is believed to be part of a general strategy towards a Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance.

According to Yossef Bodansky, an expert on the Middle East, "Russian experts who studied the needs of the Syrian Army for tanks and combat vehicles concluded that Damascus was looking for new [equipment] as replacements for anticipated attrition of its current arsenal--the outcome of a major war." The down-payment on this weapons deal (several hundreds of millions of dollars) was made by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, after top Syrian officials visited them last May. "The speed with which these Persian Gulf States transferred the funds cannot but reflect their sharing Syria's sense of urgency and imminence of a major war with Israel," says Bodansky.

Last December, Iran reportedly supplied Syria with 25 jet fighters that are currently stationed at airports around Damascus, and transferred to Syria 50 Scud-C surface-to-surface missiles. Iran also recently accelerated its purchases of foreign weapons systems, including Russian submarines and Chinese missile boats, while aggressively developing its own arms industry, announcing plans to build naval destroyers, armed personnel carriers and tanks.

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti paper Al-Siyassa (August 12) quoted Iraqi sources as confirming that Syria is seeking an understanding which would enable the opening of a land route from Iran through Iraq for Iranian ground forces and military vehicles to travel to Syria in the event of war with Israel--thereby overcoming Syria's inferior military position vis-a-vis Israel's.

The Missile

The most dramatic and far-reaching change in the Middle East war scenario came about with the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on Israel in 1991. As Israel's enemies watched TV pictures of Jews huddled in security rooms and behind gas masks, they realised nothing would ever be the same again. Now they believe that:

A recent investigation by the German Federal Intelligence Service [BND] found that a number of Third World countries are intensely pursuing production programs for weapons of mass destruction. The BND report singled out Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and North Korea as main culprits, with Iran at the centre of proliferation activities.

Wrote the Moscow daily Moskovskiye Novosti last April: "The Israelis are turning out to be practically helpless in the face of the missile threat from aggressive Middle Eastern regimes."

Jess Sadick of the Public Policy and Arab Studies department at Georgetown University in Washington DC says: "Middle East experts interpret the recent election of Mohammed Ali Khatami to the presidency in Iran as a sign of moderation. Recent news reports, however, affirm that regardless of this change in leadership, Iran's pursuit of unconventional weapons, including nuclear capabilities, proceeds unabated."

According to Sadick, the Italian newspaper La Stampa "recently reported that a 'meticulous intelligence operation' regarding Iranian atomic capability revealed Tehran's capacity for acquiring nuclear weapons within five years." Moscow and Beijing are believed to be involved in assisting Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Meanwhile, on June 22, Yediot Ahronot reported that "Syria is investing its main effort, in its preparations for a possible imminent confrontation with Israel, in accelerating improvement of its missile arm."

The paper said Western and Israeli intelligence agencies believe that "the heads of the Syrian army estimate that Israel has no sufficient military response to the ballistic missile threat, and that its home-front is particularly vulnerable to an attack of this kind. Reports in Israel indicate Syria has increased extensive construction activity on missile launch sites, including some far from the border with Israel. Launch sites for Scud "B" and "C" missiles have been fortified against air attacks. At the same time, intensive efforts are underway to determine whether Syrian-made warheads carrying nerve gas are compatible with these missiles."

The enemy within

Spread across the Samarian and Judean mountains, and crammed into the narrow Gaza Strip, just 50kms from Tel Aviv, the PLO Authority's "security forces" comprise a well-equipped Arab army up to 80,000-strong, ready and eager to strike at Israel from within. Israel has surrendered much territory to Yasser Arafat's PA, and has lost its intelligence network in these areas, making it largely blind to what is taking place behind the scenes. For his part, Arafat has again openly embraced Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, and continues to incite his people to violence, and to war. Meanwhile, the PLO leader has built himself a four-storey deep command bunker in Gaza, and is stockpiling anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons in contravention of the Oslo Accords.

US and Israeli security analysts have warned that a central aspect of the emerging Arab strategy for an attack on Israel sees Arafat's more than dozen security organisations loosing a combined assault to tie up thousands of IDF troops, even as massed Arab armies attack from the north, south and east. Exercises recently carried out by the IDF have shown that it would be extremely costly to try and reassert Israeli control over the areas given to the PA. Even so, some Israeli officials reportedly believe that the government regards the retaking of these areas as of paramount importance, and is planning accordingly.

The unknown: Israel's Arabs

The loyalty of Israel's Arab citizens, who comprise about 19 per cent of the population, is increasingly being brought into question. While some Israeli Arabs did assist their country in past conflicts--the Yom Kippur War saw hundreds of Galilee Arabs participate in the Israeli war effort, and many an Israeli Bedouin and Druse has fallen battling Israel's enemies in southern Lebanon--incidents in recent years testify to a growing, possibly already overwhelming, shift by the country's Arabs in support of the Arab states' struggle to destroy Israel.

Concerns were heightened recently after pro-Syria training camps for Druse were uncovered in the Golan Heights and, more specifically, after a delegation of Israeli Arab Knesset Members visited Damascus for a week in August, there to publicly play down their Israeli citizenship while making radical pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel statements.


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