Israelis returned to work after the Passover holiday to learn of a failed terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, contradictory information regarding a prisoner swap, unconfirmed reports that an Israeli Arab Knesset member has fled the country to avoid arrest, and of Iranian boasts of nuclear progress. And the thread tying together all four seemingly unrelated events is Iran and its quest to control the Middle East.
Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, pointed out that Iran is providing money and weapons to support Israel’s enemies in Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip “as a point of leverage in dealing with threats against its nuclear program.” Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran’s atomic energy program, reiterated this week Tehran’s long-held claim that it eventually will install 50,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium at its facility in Natanz — reportedly enough to produce 15 nuclear bombs annually.
Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad announced Monday that Iran had begun industrial enrichment of uranium, a process needed to make nuclear bombs. The announcement, which included the claim that Iran had 3,000 centrifuges already in place in Natanz, marked a shift from experimental enrichment work Iran had done until now. Gold questioned why Amadinejad felt it necessary to announce that 3,000 centrifuges were in place.
“Does he want to establish that Iran had a minimum capacity so that in the future if his program is frozen at this level, he could continue development surreptitiously?” Gold asked.
Mordechai Kedar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, said he believes the statement was made to allow Amadinejad to “regain his image as a powerful entity” following his unconditional release last week of 15 British sailors and marines Iran had held for two weeks.
“I believe the hardliners in Iran criticized the release,” he said. “But I think the Iranians received warnings from Britain and the United States that if the sailors were not released, an attack was coming on its nuclear program. Since it was a clandestine warning, it gave the Iranians a chance to release the [hostages] as a gesture and not under pressure.”
Gold noted that Iran is proceeding with its nuclear program in defiance of United Nations resolutions at the same time that it is beefing up the military arsenals of Syria, Lebanon and Hamas. “The Syrian defense budget is mushrooming and we are seeing the procurement of a lot of rockets as Syria prepares for another confrontation in the next year,” Gold said. “Their military buildup seeks to exploit Israeli vulnerability. It is spending more money on long-range missiles like the Scud D that has a 500-mile range and is more difficult for Israel to cope with. … It is also building missile forces that go well beyond Israel … to strike deep into Europe. Israeli military intelligence disclosed Syria had a North Korean missile that could strike as far as France.
“So with its assistance to Syria and Hezbollah and Hamas and its longer range missile programs, Iran wants to neutralize all the parties that seek to attack its illegal nuclear facilities,” Gold added.
Israeli reports cleared for publication this week told of a failed Hamas car bombing planned for Tel Aviv over the Passover holiday. The reports only served to buttress calls for Israeli military action against Hamas in the Gaza Strip — even though the failed attack was reportedly planned by Hamas members in the West Bank. A total of 19 Hamas members were arrested by Israeli security forces in the West Bank Israeli Arab city of Qalqilya after the plot was discovered in March. The security service said in a statement that more attacks are planned.
“This reflects the ongoing dedication of Hamas to fight Israel,” said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “An action against Gaza is militarily inevitable,” he continued. “We have to do in Gaza another version of the Defensive Shield we did in 2002 [in the West Bank after the Passover massacre in Netanya]. Israeli forces are preparing for it, and the longer we wait, the more difficult it will be.”
Inbar said such an attack in Gaza is needed to halt the Kassam rocket attacks that are fired from Gaza daily at communities inside Israel.
“It is just a matter of time before they hit a kindergarten or a school,” he added. “We have been lucky so far.”
But Eran Lerman, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel/Middle East office in Jerusalem, said there are some who believe a military assault is being held up while negotiations for the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit continue. Shalit was abducted last June 25 in a cross-border raid by Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups.
Hamas this week released a list of 450 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails that it wants freed in return for Shalit’s release. The Israeli government initially said it was “disappointed” with the list, but Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, said there is a “lot of contradictory information” regarding the list, who is on it and whether all the groups holding Shalit would release him if those on the list are freed.
He said the Olmert government has not yet decided how to respond, but that those released from Israeli prisons might be sent into exile — another country or the Gaza Strip — rather than being allowed into the West Bank to carry out more terrorist attacks. Such an arrangement was carried out once before involving Palestinians who used a church to avoid capture by Israeli forces.
Also seeking to avoid arrest this week was the controversial Arab Israeli Knesset member Azmi Bishara, who a Nazareth newspaper reported had requested political asylum in Qatar two weeks ago.
The Jerusalem Post said Bishara was planning to resign because of “serious allegations” against him. He reportedly left the country two weeks ago and is now in Jordan.
Kedar said the Israeli courts have placed a lid of secrecy around the case, which usually happens when a judge is convinced that the disclosure of details might compromise the case. He said there were rumors that Bishara had given Hezbollah secret Israeli military information during last summer’s war with Israel or that he was involved in money trafficking between Israel and Syria. But Jamal Zahalka, another Israeli Arab Knesset member, told Israel Radio that Bishara was simply vacationing in Jordan and planned to return.
Bishara was “always the most radical” of the Israeli Arab Knesset members, Kedar noted. “Because he is a Christian perhaps he felt he had to justify his loyalty to the Palestinian nation, which is mostly Muslim, and to show that he is more Catholic than the Pope,” he said. Erman said Bishara’s reported troubles are “symptomatic of a crisis in Arab political leadership in general, and it is getting uglier and more paradoxical because I am not sure they truly represent the undercurrent among Israeli Arabs.”
He cited a report that an increasing number of Israeli Arabs are voluntarily signing up for Israeli national service, although not the military. “Something very complicated is taking place among Israeli Arabs and the Bishara case is radicalizing the debate that is occurring,” Erman said, alluding to calls by some Israeli Arabs for an alternative constitution and for a new national anthem that eliminates references to Israel as the Jewish homeland.
Erman added that the Bishara case is “bringing into the open the relationship of Arab politicians and whether they are serving their public or downplaying the emerging elements of coexistence.”