JERUSALEM, July 9 (JTA) – Israel is facing a dire threat from rogue Islamic states — and is taking unprecedented steps in publicizing its capabilities to counter that threat. Ephraim Halevy, the chief of the Mossad, hardly ever makes public statements on Israel’s strategic assessment. But that is precisely what he did in Brussels in late June, when he appeared before 19 NATO ambassadors and urged them to do all they could to prevent the Middle East from going nuclear. The terrorist attack on America on Sept. 11, Halevy said, “was the official and blunt declaration of World War III.” The strategic threat would come from the lethal combination of suicide terror and weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Islamic regimes inimical to the West and its values. To win the war, Halevy argued, Western nations would have to work together to fight terror and keep the Middle East from turning into a forest of nuclear-tipped missiles. Otherwise they risk the renewal of nuclear brinkmanship, the possibility of nuclear terror or even all-out nuclear war. Halevy’s remarks came as reports surfaced about specific U.S. plans to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But his strategic assessment went beyond Iraq. So why did Halevy choose to go public in the NATO forum? Israeli arms control experts say there was no major new development in any of the rogue states on President Bush’s “axis of evil” to trigger the Mossad chief’s warnings. But, they say, the ongoing nuclear intentions and efforts of countries like Iraq and Iran, and the highly specific warnings Israeli intelligence has picked up on Palestinian plans to commit acts of mass destruction or mega-terror in Tel Aviv, were enough to prompt Israel’s decision to share its strategic concerns with the NATO allies. Halevy used the opportunity to spell out the common threats to Israel and the West and to suggest that NATO and Israel were on the same side in “the third world war,” whereas the Palestinians, under their present leaders, were siding with the enemy, and employing the same modus operandi. Halevy’s statement served a dual purpose — to alert NATO to a genuine perception of threat and to further delegitimize the Palestinian use of terror. Halevy’s address was part of NATO’s “Mediterranean dialogue,” launched in 1994 with a number of North African and Middle Eastern countries with a view to promoting regional stability. Although the exchanges with Israel have been the most intense and sustained, the address by the Mossad chief raised contacts to an unprecedentedly high level. Gerald Steinberg, an expert on arms control at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan, says that over the past few months, the mood in Europe and NATO has changed. There is more sympathy for Israel’s predicament and more respect for Israeli claims, he said. “There is greater NATO readiness to listen to the Israeli position and that in itself is extremely important,” he said. In his presentation, the Mossad chief singled out four rogue states — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya — all of which, Israeli experts agree, have biological and chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them. That poses a considerable threat in itself. But the danger would be far more acute if any of the four were to acquire nuclear weapons. So far, only Iran and Iraq have anything approaching the necessary infrastructure to make a nuclear breakthrough. According to Halevy, both Tehran and Baghdad are doing their utmost to produce a bomb as soon as possible. Iran, he said, is developing “weapon-grade capabilities,” but that for “obvious reasons” he could not provide the evidence. According to Israeli intelligence sources, Iran could be as little as three years away from producing a bomb; American intelligence thinks it could take as long as 10. And although neither intelligence service has spelled out exactly how or where the Iranian military nuclear project is moving ahead, the bottom line is that, if not stopped, Iran will have the bomb within a relatively short time. As for Iraq, Halevy said it had been very close to producing nuclear weapons when the Gulf War erupted in 1991, and that it was reasonable to assume that it renewed its efforts as soon as United Nations inspectors left in 1998. Still, it seems, the Americans don’t think Iraq is about to go nuclear overnight. If they did, America wouldn’t have taken as long as it has to plan an invasion, analysts say. What can Israel do to meet the threats? Steinberg sees three major approaches: slowing the technology flow, military action and deterrence. Halevy’s speech, he says, was in itself an appeal to the NATO members to tighten control of technology exports. Moreover, there are signs that others are starting to listen. Russian President Vladimir Putin has reportedly promised the United States that Russia will apply more stringent controls on the ostensibly nonmilitary nuclear reactor the Russians are helping Iran build. And in early July, Chinese officials promised David Magen, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee, that Beijing would not supply nuclear technologies to any country that might use them against Israel. As for military action, despite its successful destruction of the Osirak reactor near Baghdad in 1981, Israel would clearly prefer not to have to repeat the exercise, and hopes that this time an American-led coalition will do the job in Iraq and, if necessary, in Iran too. Israeli officials are said to be pleased that the American plan of attack in Iraq reportedly includes a ground force sweep to destroy Scud missile launchers aimed at Israel. In 1991, the Iraqis fired 39 missiles from western Iraq at Israel, all of them then with conventional warheads. But Israel has been most active lately in the third approach — deterrence — letting the rogue states know they will pay a terrible price if they use weapons of mass destruction. This was the apparent purpose of a recent spate of news leaks about Israeli nuclear and other capabilities. According to the leaks, Israel is the fifth largest nuclear power in the world, with about 400 nuclear bombs, a missile system that can deliver warheads to any point on the globe and state-of-the-art submarines armed with nuclear rocket launchers that would give it a “second strike capability,” that is, the ability to respond, even if a nuclear attack destroyed most of the country. Yet another Israeli leak warned that a mega-terror attack on high buildings in Tel Aviv was liable to fail, since the Israeli Defense Force has deployed anti-aircraft missiles in the city center. It remains to be seen how seriously NATO takes Halevy’s warnings. Israel, it seems, has no option but to believe the worst.
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