Israeli military prepares for the worst

JERUSALEM, Nov. 13 (JTA) – A year ago, Israeli intelligence officials reached the consensus that war between Israel and its Arab neighbors was unlikely.

Now, with more than six weeks of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip continuing unabated, the Israel Defense Force is preparing itself for all possibilities.

The intelligence community now considers a full-scale military confrontation with the Arab world more probable than at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“With the exception of Saddam Hussein, Arab leaders do not want war,” said Meir Litvak of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

“However, they may well be dragged into such a war.”

One trigger for a regional escalation was removed this week, when the Palestinian Authority decided once again not to issue a unilateral declaration of statehood.

Palestinian officials realized that neither the United States nor Europe would recognize such a state. Moreover, they were worried about Israel’s threat to annex large swathes of the West Bank if the Palestinians unilaterally declare a state.

Just the same, violent clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops continue on a near-daily basis.

On Monday, Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis during two closely timed ambushes on cars traveling near the West Bank town of Ramallah.

The attacks, which also wounded eight Israelis, prompted an Israeli government spokesman to say that the Palestinians are no longer engaged in a civil uprising, but in “warfare and terrorism.”

Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was quoted as saying that he had ordered the army to respond with unspecified “steps.”

Not coincidentally, Barak’s popularity has dropped dramatically during the past few weeks.

In a recent poll published by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot, only 34 percent said Barak is coping well with the unrest in the territories. Some 65 percent said Barak has been “too soft” in dealing with the Palestinians.

People living in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, who have been subject to almost daily gunfire from the nearby Arab town of Beit Jalla, are among those who say they fail to comprehend why the Israeli army has not taken more drastic measures against the gunmen.

And many in Israel share their frustration.

A Gallup poll for the Ma’ariv newspaper showed that only 36 percent support a policy of restraint. By contrast, about 59 percent demand tough reprisals against the Palestinians.

Barak has been telling his army officers to maintain a measured response because he is well aware of the terrible price the country could pay for a further escalation.

Among the various scenarios if the conflict escalates:

• A major terrorist attack inside Israel with many civilian casualties leads Israel to take drastic punitive measures against Palestinian targets also with many civilian casualties;

• Israel’s Arab population renews its riots, as it did shortly after the current unrest began. Civil war looms when the nation’s Jews strike back;

• Hezbollah gunmen resume bombing Israel’s northern communities, and Israel responds with strikes inside Lebanon. Syria’s inexperienced leader, President Bashar Assad, is drawn into war with Israel – with Iraq soon following suit; and

• Jordan and Egypt are not able to stand idly by – and the entire region goes up in war.

In the case of Jordan, at least, it would not be the first time that the Hashemite Kingdom found its foreign policy forced by the local populace, more than two-thirds of which is Palestinian.

“Ten years ago, during the Gulf War, King Hussein of Jordan was dragged into supporting Saddam Hussein following massive pro-Iraqi demonstrations in the Jordanian street,” said Professor Yosef Nevo of Haifa University. “This may very well happen to King Abdullah as well.”

For now, Israel’s plan for dealing with the Palestinian violence has been to keep cool and not be dragged into a cycle of action and reaction dictated by the other side.

Army drawers are filled with contingency plans, from conquering Beit Jalla and putting an end to the shooting at Gilo all the way to the conquest of Damascus.

For now, however, Israel is trying to find ways to react without expanding the circle of violence.

The almost universal opinion among military and Middle East experts, however, is that things are going to get worse before they get better.

Among those who are somewhat more optimistic is Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

Just as the 1987-1993 Palestinian uprising led Israel and the Palestinians to reach the Oslo accords, he said, the current violence could prompt them to recognize each other’s minimum demands – and ultimately lead to a final peace agreement.

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