The worst-kept secret in the world

Practically no one today misunderstands Shimon Peres when he alludes to the strategic importance of what he helped create in Dimona 50 years ago. For the few who still don’t get it: he isn’t talking about electricity from the nuclear power plant.


In the mid-1960s, prime minister Levi Eshkol pledged that “Israel will not be the first nation to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” establishing the Jewish state’s policy of nuclear ambiguity. In 1969, according to declassified records in America’s National Security Archive, president Lyndon Johnson implicitly endorsed the wink-and-nod policy by asking Israel to “make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons” (emphasis added).


Often referred to as the “bomb in the basement” policy, this ambiguity allows Israel a valuable flexibility based on the gap between presumption and certainty. By not declaring that it has nuclear weapons, Israel avoids the scrutiny of international inspection teams (keeps the bomb in the basement); by occasionally hinting that it has awesome defensive capabilities (hauling the bomb up from the basement), Israel creates an effective deterrent against attack.


However, the veil over Israel’s nuclear weapons program, which once was quite opaque, has become transparent with time. It is said that on two occasions, during the Six Day War and during the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s existence had been sufficiently threatened that nuclear bombs were loaded onto jets for what has been dubbed “the Samson option.” Since then, although public mention of Israel’s nuclear weapons is strictly forbidden, several senior officials have let the cat out of the bag.


In 1974, president Ephraim Katzir declared, “It has always been our intention to develop a nuclear potential… We now have that potential.” In 1981, after the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor, former defense and foreign minister Moshe Dayan told The New York Times: “We do have the capacity to produce nuclear weapons, and if the Arabs are willing to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, then Israel should not be too late in having nuclear weapons, too.”


Following peace talks with the PLO in 1991, Peres has frequently dropped references to Israel’s nuclear deterrence, sometimes crediting it with encouraging the Arab states to accept Israel as a fait accompli and sometimes warning that Israel retains such power in case peace talks fail. In 1998, he said at a press conference in Jordan that Israel had “built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo.”


Even without Mordechai Vanunu’s revelations about the inner workings of the Dimona nuclear facility and 1986 estimate of up to 200 nuclear weapons in Israel’s arsenal, outside observers have plenty of reason to believe that the Jewish state has an advanced weapons program. In 1979, the US Defense Department and CIA recorded an event off the southern coast of Africa that they firmly believe was an Israeli nuclear test. Foreign defense analysts who study the open-source specifications of the Jericho missile, and peruse the publicly available satellite images of its storage and launch facilities southwest of Beit Shemesh, claim that the missile’s only logical application is a nuclear one. Israel’s request that Germany modify the torpedo design of the Dolphin submarines it donated/sold to Israel has been discussed candidly in newspapers and defense journals around the world as counterproductive for anything but a nuclear cruise missile option.


A side effect of the international scandal over Iran is highlighting the growing absurdity of Israel’s policy of ambiguity: While Israel’s greatest current strategic threat is asserting its commitment to a weapons-capable nuclear program and simultaneously pledging to “wipe Israel off the map,” not a single Knesset forum has met to discuss whether Israel should begin to develop a nuclear capability to counter such threats. Why? Because it is well known that Israel already has a formidable nuclear arsenal.


Maintaining nuclear ambiguity today is little more than a formality; it requires a willful disregard of the obvious. Should Iran declare that it has a nuclear weapon, however, Israel could do the same – creating a situation that is anything but ambiguous.


Tangling with Tehran

The call comes in the middle of the night, rousing the prime minister from his sleep with horrifying news: a Mossad spy in Tehran has just reported that the embattled clerical regime, fearing that a popular revolt is close to toppling it from power, is about to launch a nuclear holocaust on the Jewish state. In moments, the prime minister is whisked into a helicopter on his way to an urgent meeting of the country’s security chiefs in the “bunker” of the Defense Ministry, faced with the terrible prospect of absolute cataclysm.


What is Israel to do?


This scenario is not far off – neither in the spy thriller “The Chosen One” by Shabtai Shoval, in which it is depicted as taking place in 2009, nor in reality, where an increasingly radical Iran marches toward “the point of no return” on the road to nuclear weapons capability while simultaneously suppressing popular dissent inside the Islamic Republic.


Shoval, a hi-tech executive who used to devise such nightmare scenarios for IDF Intelligence to help prevent them from coming true, wrote the novel in the hopes that it would bring the looming danger to the forefront of public consciousness.


Now, as a series of weak international attempts to curb Iranian nuclear ambitions proves ineffective and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad grows increasingly belligerent in his threats against Israel, the plot of “The Chosen One” reads less like fiction and more like a plausible reality.


In either world, Israel’s situation is precarious. Without an express declaration of intent by Iran to attack the Jewish state, Israel is bound to keep its promise not to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. Israel’s second-strike capability proves meaningless, as even a single nuclear-tipped missile landing on central Israel can cause hundreds of thousands of casualties and bring about the effective collapse of the state. Hoping that the United Nations or the United States will somehow save the day carries unacceptable risks (annihilation) and low rewards (loss of Israeli deterrent vis-à-vis other enemies, despite survival). With nuclear war at stake, any move that Israel can take becomes the ultimate gamble.




If there is one person in Israel who is unmoved by the thought of a Herzliya-turned-Hiroshima it is Reuven Pedatzur. The Tel Aviv University political science professor believes a nuclear Iran is no more dangerous to Israel than Pakistan is to India, or Russia was to the United States in the 1950s and ’60s. The Cold War-era paradigm of Mutual Assured Destruction – MAD – is as solid today as it was when Kennedy and Khrushchev were testing it in Cuba, Pedatzur feels.


“Look, this is not a new discussion,” he says. “The whole back-and-forth has already taken place between the United States and Russia… the idea was not to defend against your enemy’s missiles, but to threaten a response sufficiently great that the enemy would never choose to attack with his missiles.”


For more than 50 years, MAD has kept nuclear powers sane. “No leader with nuclear weapons, who understands the implications for his nation, has acted irrationally,” Pedatzur notes.


MAD breaks down, however, in the case of an irrational regime. So the real question is whether Iran is just such a regime – whether, that is, Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are so committed to their apocalyptic Islamic ideology that they would risk the ruin of their own people to destroy Israel.


“If they are,” Pedatzur admits, “then all Israelis had better find some safer place to move to.”




By any account, the Iranian threat is extreme. It follows that Israel’s response to that threat may be extreme also – even including the possibility of extreme avoidance. One option is to defuse a nuclear arms race by simply pulling out of it.


Critics of Israel’s nuclear program – of any nuclear program, really – warn that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by one state is likely to encourage other states to acquire them as well. So, the logic goes, Iran might not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons if Israel were to dismantle its own arsenal and submit, together with the rest of the Middle East, to United Nations inspections.


Of course, the safety of such a strategy depends completely on the ability of Israel’s sworn enemies to resist the temptation to cheat.


“For Israel to surrender its nuclear deterrent would be to gamble on the intrinsic goodness of its enemies,” says the author Shoval. “That’s romantic, that’s poetry. It’s not anything connected to reality.”


It also places a huge amount of faith in a UN that has already failed to even detect nuclear weapons programs in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, much less halt their progress or deter their development.


Israel could take a much less drastic step, and still retain its undeclared nuclear weapons, by relying on the United States to carry out a preemptive strike on Iran. But that’s a long shot, too, even though Iran potentially poses an enormous threat to America.


“After having gone to war in Iraq on the false premise that its mad dictator had weapons of mass destruction, America can not now go to war with Iran – even though it is much clearer that its mad dictatorship really is pursuing weapons of mass destruction,” bemoans Shoval.


In fact, Washington-based sources told The Jerusalem Post, some in the capital are privately eager to see the Iranian threat advance to the point that Israel has no choice but to carry out a preemptive strike, sparing the United States the responsibility for doing so.


It is hard to believe, also, that a Zionist state permeated by the “never again” ethos of Massada and Auschwitz would put its very existence in the hands of others.


As former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told the Australian Broadcasting Company this past March: “To imagine that the Jewish state, whose leaders have sworn that the Jewish Commonwealth will never be destroyed again, will sit back and hope that somebody else will take care of an existential threat is simply not facing the reality of their situation.”




For those unsettled by the risks of a defensive posture, an Israeli preemptive strike is not a bad idea.


In “The Imperative to Use Force Against Iranian Nuclearization,” a paper he wrote last December, Efraim Inbar of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies makes the case that Israel can only deter Tehran if the threat of severe Israeli military action is credible.


“A clear ultimatum that includes an unequivocal threat to use force might be enough to convince the Iranians to freeze their nuclear program and wait for better times to complete it,” he writes.


It has been stated on numerous occasions that an Israeli air strike on Iran would be much more complicated than the successful bombing of Iran’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 – not least of all because Iran has scattered its facilities across dozens of sites to prevent a repeat of Operation Opera. As Inbar notes, however, such a mission would merely be difficult, not impossible.


“Many experts exaggerate the difficulties in dealing a severe military blow to the Iranian nuclear program,” he writes. “While it is probably true that intelligence services cannot provide military planners with an exact and comprehensive picture of the locations of all Iranian nuclear installations, what we know seems to be enough to allow the destruction of a large part of the country’s nuclear program. [And] partial destruction would be enough to cripple Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future.”


Much of the pessimism over preemption in the case of Iran is predicated on the incompatibility of the Osirak model: an aerial assault, whether conventional or nuclear, by F-16 fighter bombers. While the extended-range F-16Is that Israel recently acquired are capable of reaching Iran, they would need to refuel during flight in order to return home again. More problematic, they would need to violate the strict no-fly zones over Iraq – meaning at least tacit approval from the United States, which would not be able to plausibly deny its involvement in Israel’s massive strike on the Islamic Republic.


Fortunately, Israel has capabilities other than its aerial ones.


Even before the newest, long-range Dolphin-class submarines arrive from Germany in the next few years, the three Dolphins already in operation with the Israel Navy are reportedly able to launch nuclear-tipped Popeye Turbo cruise missiles. Since the distance from Israel to Iran is far greater by sea than it is by air, Israel would need submarine bases at the end of the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean in order for the Dolphins to pull within range of their targets.


As luck would have it, Israel has just such bases – according to foreign reports – in the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea; and off the coast of either India, with which Israel has a flowering military alliance, or Sri Lanka, whose ties with Israel have grown quietly over the past several years. It was off the coast of Sri Lanka that Israel successfully tested – again, according to foreign reports – a submarine-launched cruise missile in 2000.


The third Israeli nuclear option, and the one that is least talked about, is the easiest one to deliver: the Jericho missile. In development for more than 40 years, its latest variant is believed by foreign analysts to possess a range well beyond Iran. By some estimates, Israel has several hundred of the Jerichos in protected bunkers and ready for launch, with at least 50 of them carrying nuclear warheads.


Becoming only the second nation in history to use nuclear weapons would send a resounding message that Israel is serious about its survival. But it could also carry a huge price.


“Putting aside the moral questions surrounding such a strike,” says Shoval, “there is a significant possibility that doing this would destroy Israel economically, because of the international sanctions that would in all likelihood be placed on us. Israel could actually be cast out of the community of nations.”


That’s why some would prefer to see Israel’s silent warriors in action. Special forces, operating covertly, could conceivably sabotage a few of Iran’s key nuclear facilities. After the storied rescue raid on Entebbe in 1976, the assassination of Abu Jihad in Tunis in 1988, and considering reports of Israeli covert operations in Iraq during the first Gulf War, that’s not the stuff of fantasy.


“There is a capability to act quietly,” confirms Amiram Levine, who participated in the Entebbe raid and went on to command Sayeret Matkal, the elite General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.  “It is definitely possible. Contrary to what some say, Iran is not beyond our reach… I’ve seen things more complicated than this.”


Levine also served as deputy director of the Mossad in the late 1990s, but before that he was tasked with designing and overseeing the planned assassination of Saddam Hussein in November 1992.


“Dealing with” Iran’s nuclear facilities is a complicated issue, to be sure. Asked whether it is within Israel’s power to score a victory on this front like in earlier cases, Levine says, “Everything is possible. But the question is whether it’s worthwhile.”


An operation that would only partially destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities, delaying its weapons capability, could be the best compromise for Israel, Levine adds.


“Let’s say we could take certain steps that would delay the development by five or 10 years. I think we should do them,” he says, “because in the meantime, there can be changes in Iran. In our time, brutal wars achieve very little. It’s preferable today to work quietly and to help the regime leave.”




Actively pursuing regime change in Iran is not only preferable, “it is the only possible solution,” advises Raymond Tanter, of the Washington-based Iran Policy Committee. Tanter, a former researcher at the vaunted Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency who has held various positions in the White House and the Pentagon, believes America and the West are missing a tremendous opportunity by failing to support the groups that provide the strongest opposition to the Iranian regime.


“Why is it that Iran has several proxies against Israel and the West, in the form of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others, but the US has no proxies against Iran?” he asks rhetorically.


There are dozens of dissidents and would-be reformers who are trying to overthrow the “mullahcracy” in Teheran. Some are Marxists and Socialists, but many are sincerely devoted to democracy. Among them is Aryo B. Pirouznia, head of the Student Movement Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran, who advocates a secular, democratic, decentralized government and a free market economy for Iran – and a peaceful posture vis-à-vis Israel.


“I can understand the Israeli point of view. This regime is dangerous with a nuclear bomb, it really is,” says Pirouznia, who fled from Iran to France and then to the United States during the Islamic Revolution.


At the same time, he notes that most Iranians do not share the anti-Semitic fervor of their president.


“This generation has not really bought into the regime’s propaganda against the Jews,” Pirouznia says, adding, “There are 14 million people in the capital. But whenever the regime wants to have a rally against Israel, they have to bus people in.”


That’s just one sign, he says, that “this is a regime that has reached its limit. It is dead ideologically. Now, everything the clerics try to keep out is a click away on the Internet. Satellite TV is killing these guys.”


“The regime, no matter what it says, is very shaky,” claims Assad Homayoun, who served in the Iranian Embassy in Washington for 12 years until the Revolution, and now works to support the Iranian pro-secular, pro-democracy dissident movement through the Azadegan Foundation.


“The people are very unhappy because the regime has brought only unemployment, inflation, drug addiction, torture and repression. They have destroyed Iran’s economy. People also understand that the regime is taking Iran to the brink of destruction, that it wants nuclear weapons just so it can consolidate its power.”


As tightly controlled as Iran’s media are – the government dictates television and radio coverage and filters Internet content to its liking – it is difficult to gauge just how deep the anti-regime sentiment runs inside the Islamic Republic. But Homayoun’s thousands of contacts in Iran give him hope that a popular uprising truly is achievable.


“I strongly believe that we can change Iran for the better,” he says. “Iran changed within a few days after the shah. Maybe it will change in a few days again.


“Don’t underestimate the people of Iran,” Homayoun insists. “They are ready to rise.”


Even if they are ready, though, it could take a long time for the people of Iran to rise. Kenneth Timmerman, director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, believes an organized campaign of non-violent conflict could topple the government – but the optimistic activist estimates that it could take several hundred million dollars and up to 18 months. By that time, Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the mullahs could already be in control of nuclear warheads.


“The question Israel has to ask,” says Louis Rene Beres, chairman of Project Daniel, which submitted a report to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon on the strategic threat from Iran, “is whether the fallout of any action it could take would be greater than any of the dangers of not acting. And what can compare with the cost of doing nothing?”




Are all these options crazy? Should Israel reject them, there would remain an alternative that is crazier still: ensuring that the ayatollahs stay in power.


In “The Chosen One,” Arnon, the commander of the special forces team invading Iran, has two missions. The first is to enlist the anti-regime rebels in Israel’s attempt to undermine Iran’s nuclear program; the second, if that mission fails, is to stop the coup.


“Because if the coup succeeds,” Shoval explains, “and the ayatollahs know that the rebels will reach their bunker within hours, we’re done for. I mean, as long as the current regime does not feel that its back is to the wall, they probably won’t use their nukes. But if it does feel that its back is to the wall… There’s not a single psychologist in the world who can tell you with certainty that they wouldn’t choose to die as ‘martyrs’ who destroyed the Zionists.”


As topsy turvy as it seems, it’s just another of the myriad possible outcomes of a nuclear showdown between Israel and Iran – although the true resolution of this conflict may yet turn out to be even stranger than fiction.

The rhetorical flourishes of an apocalyptic regime

What does visceral hatred sound like? In Farsi, it sounds something like this:


Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, implementer of clerical rule through the Islamic Revolution


“I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [i.e., the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against their whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.” – passage in an 11th-grade Iranian schoolbook


Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani


“If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”


Further: “Jews shall expect to be once again scattered and wandering around the globe the day when this appendix is extracted from the region and the Muslim world.” –Jerusalem Day sermon at Teheran University, December 14, 2001.


Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, current Supreme Leader of Iran


“Iran’s stance has always been clear on this ugly phenomenon (Israel). We have repeatedly said that this cancerous tumor of a state should be removed from the region.” – December 2000


“It is the mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran to erase Israel from the map of the region.” – February 2001


“The Islamic world, and the Muslim youth in all the Islamic countries know that there is no way to confront the barbaric Zionist wolves and the aggression of the ‘Great Satan’ [i.e. America] except through martyrdom.” – August 2, 2006


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


“God willing, with the force of God behind it, we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism… As the imam [Khomeini] said, Israel must be wiped off the map.” – October 26, 2005, speaking at a seminar entitled “World without Zionism”


“Today, the Iranian people is the owner of nuclear technology. Those who want to talk with our people should know what people they are talking to. If some believe they can keep talking to the Iranian people in the language of threats and aggressiveness, they should know that they are making a bitter mistake. If they have not realized this by now, they soon will, but then it will be too late.” – August 1, 2006

Israel and al-Qaida

The path of jihad begins in a cave on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. From there it takes a dizzying spin through Iran, wends its way through the Middle East, and then settles, inevitably, in Israel. From Osama bin Laden’s hideout to the cafes of Haifa and Jerusalem, that path undergoes many transformations, and relies on shifting alliances.

Start with al-Qaida. In the early 1990s, bin Laden met with Hizbullah’s security chief, Imad Mughniyeh, and forged a relationship between the two organizations that included joint training in Lebanon and Iran.

Today, says Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, author of Inside Al-Qaeda, “Iran hosts a number of highly capable al-Qaida leaders – Saif Al Adel, the head of security and intelligence, Abu Mohomed al Masri, head of training, Abdul Aziz al Masri, head of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and Suleiman Abu Gaith, head of media. The quality of the al-Qaida leaders in Iran is much higher than those operating on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.”

Bin Laden has returned the favor, too.

“Despite justifying the attacks on the Shi’a population [of Iraq] for collaborating with the coalition in Iraq, al-Qaida has commented positively on the rise of Hizbullah in Lebanon and the growing Iranian influence,” Gunaratna points out.

It’s interesting that the al-Qaida leader would team up with Shi’ite Iran, notes Peter Bergen, a terrorism analyst for CNN who was the first to interview bin Laden for television in 1997, because the Sunni bin Laden “privately thinks the Shi’as are heretics.” What brings the two together, then?

More than anything, a burning hatred of Israel.

“There is a degree of integration at a strategic level between the Shi’a and the Sunni with regard to the destruction of Israel and the expulsion of the Saudi royal family,” explains Gunaratna.

(In the run-up to the first Gulf War, bin Laden denounced the royal family for allowing American troops to set up bases on holy Saudi soil, and was expelled to Sudan for doing so.) “Western leaders have often said that al-Qaida has no political aim,” continues Gunaratna, but this is not true. “The strategic goal of al-Qaida is two-fold: first, to destroy Israel; and second, to wrest control of Saudi Arabia.”

On this, at least, Iran and al-Qaida agree. But their interests converge in Iraq as well, which is “on the front doorstep of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two countries hosting the three holiest Islamic sites,” says Gunaratna.

In 1998, bin Laden’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, joined other jihadist leaders in signing the Fatwa for Jihad Against Zionists and Crusaders, pledging death to Americans for supporting Israel. Meanwhile, as al-Qaida and Iranian agents stir up trouble for the United States in Iraq, they are content to have Hizbullah attack Israel from the North. But if bin Laden hates Israel so much, why not attack the Zionists directly?

“I have always puzzled over this,” Bergen admits, “because Osama bin Laden is without a doubt a pathological anti-Semite.

“What I have come to realize,” he explains, “is that these guys really believe their own propaganda: that the Pentagon is staffed by Jews, that New York is an entirely Jewish city, etc. So in a sense, attacking America is attacking Israel.

“Besides,” he adds, “al-Qaida has attacked Jewish targets abroad – the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 2002, the bombings on Jewish targets in Casablanca in 2003, the bombings of Istanbul synagogues a few months later, the targeting of Israeli tourists in the 2004 Sinai attacks… ”

The latest war with Hizbullah, Gunaratna states, has also served as a recruitment tool for al-Qaida in a way that the September 11 attacks couldn’t.

“Al-Qaida believed that 9/11 would galvanize the jihadist groups and Muslim communities alike. The spectacular attacks, though, galvanized the jihadist groups but not the Muslim communities,” he says.

“The impetus for mobilizing the Muslim world was Iraq and, certainly, the Israeli attacks in Lebanon. Although they were initiated by the killing and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbullah, the international media reporting was able to sway international public opinion against Israel.

“It is too early to conclude the degree of impact of emotive images of death and destruction in Lebanon in the Muslim world,” he concludes, “but al-Qaida is playing on it.”

SO AL-QAIDA has a symbiotic terror partnership with Iran, and both have a similar relationship with Hizbullah. In turn, that organization has developed close ties to Hamas.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp, the former director of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is an internationally recognized expert on all three terror groups. Each one, he notes, is capable of inspiring the other.

“I will always remember the victory speech that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah made in Bint Jbail after the Israel withdrawal in 2000,” Ranstorp recalls. “‘Look what we achieved,’ he said, ‘not through negotiations, and not through the Oslo process. Ours is the only road to victory.’

“Since that day,” Ranstorp adds, “cooperation between Hizbullah and Hamas has only grown stronger. I remember when I was in Gaza: I saw organizations cropping up, completely emulating Hizbullah, even to the point of adopting its logo.”

In its rocket barrages on Haifa this summer, Hizbullah no doubt was eager to score a direct hit on one of the fuel or chemical facilities in the city.

Such a strike would have been a successful version of Hamas’s failed attempt in 2002 to blow up the Pi Glilot gas and fuel storage facility near Tel Aviv.

“They may indeed try for that again,” says Ranstorp.

Hamas, though, is the weak link in the jihad chain around Israel’s neck.

“In all the trips I ever made to Israel, whenever I lectured to the IDF,” Ranstorp says, “it seemed that no one was that concerned about Hamas because they had them in a box. They knew exactly where every Hamas leader was, and every senior operative too, because Hamas operates in a hermetically sealed environment.”

The arrest or targeted killings of Hamas members – including the assassinations of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and his successor Abdel Aziz Rantissi in the spring of 2004 – have decimated the organization’s leadership, Ranstorp notes; alongside Western and Egyptian intervention, they have combined to encourage Hamas to focus its energies on political struggles within the Palestinian Authority.

“I was watching in amusement when Sheikh Yassin and Rantissi were assassinated,” Ranstorp says, “because there was obviously no security reason for their elimination. They were merely opportune times to force Hamas into the political structure. And it has worked.”

Over the past five years, Israel has managed to carry out against Hamas the “four D” approach that US President George W. Bush has struggled to execute against al-Qaida: defeat, deny, diminish and defend. Ranstorp wonders whether Israel could achieve a similar level of success against Hizbullah.

“To be brutally frank, although the situation would get worse in the short term, I think the peace process would be strengthened if Nasrallah were to disappear. To take out him and the organization’s top 30 leaders would create a vacuum, sowing disarray,” he says. “Of course, there would be someone to immediately fill the ranks, but… ”

Stopping short of endorsing a major assassination campaign against the Party of God, Ranstorp allows himself an academic’s conjecture that “It would be interesting to see the Hamas model applied to Hizbullah.”

Even more interesting would be to see the Hamas model applied to al-Qaida.

Since October 2001, the organization has lost more than 3,000 members. In Iraq, commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in June and, this week, the reigning No. 2 man there was captured. In Afghanistan, also this week, NATO forces killed well over 200 fighters of the Taliban regime that was in league with bin Laden.

Decimating al-Qaida, obviously, is not so simple. But after all, the path to jihad that ends in Israel is linked like a series of dominoes, being pushed by zealots bent on toppling the Zionist entity. And who’s to say that Israel can’t push back?

The sabra approach to preventing a new 9/11

The changes were inevitable. The September 11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so box cutters were banned. Richard Reid smuggled explosives onto an American Airlines plane in his shoes, so passengers were ordered to remove their shoes for screening. The recent London air-terror plot was predicated on liquid explosives, so now almost all liquids are forbidden, too.

With the innumerable draconian restrictions put in place by authorities since the September 11 attacks, air travel has become infinitely less pleasant. But has it become any less dangerous?

Of the visible changes to airline security in the past five years, most have been “irrational, wasteful and pointless,” according to Patrick Smith, a long-time airline pilot and author of a popular column on air travel for The “senseless confiscation of pointy objects,” he argues, has contributed little to preventing another world-changing disaster.

Shabtai Shoval, president and founder of Suspect Detection Systems in Tel Aviv, goes a step further.

“I don’t believe the September 11 model has even been addressed at all,” he says. “I mean, let’s look at it: These guys entered the country a year before their attack; they had no real weapons to speak of; they used their own identities, not fake ones. Has anything been done since then that could prevent an attack from such people? No! To this day there is not a single tool, applied on an industrial scale, which even pretends to deal with a September 11-like problem.”

The real danger, both Smith and Shoval agree, lies in the authorities’ Sisyphean chase after the last item used to try to take down an airplane.

“Regardless of how many hobby knives and shampoo bottles we confiscate at the X-ray machine, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle dangerous items onto a plane,” says Smith. “The precise shape, form and substance of those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials; we are fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.”

In other words, airplanes are still susceptible to attack because security agents expend too much energy searching for bombs rather than bombers.

“The Western concept of searching for weapons is fundamentally flawed,” Shoval states definitively. “If a person has the intention to carry out an attack, then the means is secondary. Someone who wants to carry out an attack will figure out a way to do it, whether it’s with one thing or with another. The person is what is important; the weapon is marginal. In fact, the person is the weapon!”

How to locate people willing to turn themselves into weapons before they get a chance to do so has been the challenge since September 11. Suspect Detection Systems does it with an extremely sophisticated machine called Cogito, sort of a five-minute polygraph booth that Shoval expects to have up and running in Israel and in North America in 2007. The system, using complicated algorithms that constantly recalibrate the interrogation process, identifies people who react suspiciously to certain coded questions.

“It won’t make things easier for passengers,” Shoval says, “but it’ll keep them alive.”

RAFI RON, former head of security at Ben-Gurion Airport, has been using a simpler form of Israeli know-how at Logan Airport in Boston, from which two of the four hijacked planes used in the September 11 attacks originated.

Ron’s Behavior Pattern Recognition program is based on the interrogation methods developed by the Shin Bet and El Al for Israeli airline security – a vaunted and nearly impenetrable approach that, nonetheless, has taken a long time to catch on with the rest of the world.

“For the last four and a half years, the Israeli concept of aviation security was not widely accepted and adopted,” says Ron. “The natural tendency of the US authorities is to assume that technology can provide a solution for almost anything, so the main effort was focused on implementing technological solutions. But the understanding that this is not working well enough is leading many people in government to recognize the value of the Israeli approach.”

In the Israeli approach, he explains, technology supports people. “In America, that’s backward. In other words, here the role of people is just to operate machines. We in Israel trust our human ability to make decisions, and trust in the idea of training security employees well and providing them with the authority to make decisions. In the US, though, it seems like the goal is to limit the decision-making factor to a minimum.”

While the much-maligned US Transportation Security Administration has trained more than 43,000 agents, Ron has brought other airport employees into the loop as well, so they can alert authorities to suspicious behavior. They are a valuable security resource that has been neglected, he says, with detrimental consequences.

“One of the things we discovered was that many employees suffered from lack of confidence about what to look for and what to report. The tendency to let somebody else report something is very strong… Something that in Israel seems so natural – to see something and respond to it – needs to be learned here.”

To counter terrorists who have dedicated themselves to thinking outside the box, Ron has used very Israeli improvisational skills – as in the case of the clam diggers.

He explains that Logan is surrounded by water on three sides and clam diggers have always worked the airport’s perimeter.

Rather than treat the clam diggers as a security threat, Ron’s team turned them into an asset.

“They agreed to provide us with some pertinent information, and as a result we provided them with ID badges that allowed them to be around the area, and gave them walkie-talkies to report suspicious activity. So what we gained with the cost of a few walkie-talkies and a few classes of training is a continuous presence around the airport for most hours of the day.”

After turning the security concept upside down at Logan Airport, Ron exported his BPR program to other locales as well. It is not just about teaching security personnel to identify signs of stress and nervousness that point to criminal intent, but about turning weaknesses into strengths.

At Miami International Airport, for instance, Ron put the police through a “fundamental change” in their approach to security.

“Policemen have been accustomed for years to being responsive. In other terms, they were measured by their ability to make arrests and have people convicted. Obviously,” says Ron, “a crime has to be committed before you can make an arrest and collect evidence.

“What we are saying is: it’s all about prevention and deterrence, rather than detention and conviction. So now, instead of waiting for something bad to happen, they are going out and looking to prevent it from happening.”

BPR is now in place at airports in San Francisco and Minneapolis/St. Paul, and it was adopted at the Statue of Liberty before the monument was reopened to the public two years ago.

It is spreading because of its results – and because it seems to have won over TSA director Kip Hawley and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who have recently begun using the same kind of language that Ron uses to describe the aviation security approach that America should have.

“People have responded very well to bringing in Israeli methods,” Ron says. “Everybody who has been involved in this is highly motivated and happy with the result.”

THAT ISN’T to say, however, that America is on the verge of adopting a fully Israeli approach. To understand why, first consider the layers of Israel’s system.

Before passengers even reach Ben-Gurion International Airport, their names and passport numbers have been run through the Shin Bet database. On the entrance road to the airport, they must pass through a checkpoint manned by highly trained and heavily armed former combat soldiers. Inside the terminal, low-key agents keep an eye on the milling crowd, looking for suspicious characters.

Then, while waiting to check their bags, every single passenger is subjected to a brief questioning session. Multiple explosives detection systems are used to screen luggage, and exhaustive hand searches of luggage are common.

Numerous air marshals are present on all El Al flights.

The cost of all this security, exorbitant but imperative for Israel, is prohibitive for the United States, which services many times the number of air travelers as Israel does.

“Ben-Gurion Airport accommodates about 8.5 million passengers a year,” Ron says. “By contrast, traffic in the average large airport in the US is in the neighborhood of 30 million a year. Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta accommodate some 70-80 million a year.”

That kind of volume makes interviewing every passenger impossible, most analysts believe. Bomb-detecting systems are still not as universally employed in the US as they are in Israel, due to the cost of the machines and the construction work necessary to accommodate them. And airlines, already suffering terrible financial losses, are loath to give up even one seat to an air marshal on every single flight.

Then there are legal pitfalls surrounding the kind of surveillance and interrogation that Israel uses.

“There is a 4th Amendment issue here,” explains Ron, “which is that law enforcement officers can not question a person unless there is a probable cause, and there is a strict legal definition for what is a probable cause.” Shin Bet-like prescreening is also out of the question, Ron says.

“There is already a program that has been running since 1989 or so, after the Lockerbie disaster, known as CAPS. But it’s not a very valuable program, and it’s almost completely irrelevant now. TSA developed what it called CAPS II, which intended to use databases like credit evaluation companies, as well as other government databases, to really penetrate a person’s background. But it was rejected by Congress because of privacy issues. It could have been a very valuable program, but it could have been very intrusive as well,” says Ron.

Most Americans are also extremely sensitive to profiling methods like BPR and SDS’s Cogito system. Both Ron and Shoval reject those concerns.

“We are fighting very hard to explain that profiling is not necessarily racial profiling, as most people perceive,” Ron says. “When we started BPR, people were worried that it may have been just a fig leaf to cover racial profiling. But this was not the case, and we have developed ways to prevent this from turning into a racially discriminating process.”

“People think that profiling means that I’m only searching for someone who is, say, Pakistani,” adds Shoval. “It’s not that… This system asks questions that pertain specifically to each individual, based on objective aspects of their identity.

“Profiling is not [so simple as] saying: in Israel, if you’re Palestinian you’re suspected of being tied to terrorist groups,” he continues.

A prime example is the 1986 case of Anne Murphy, a pregnant young Irish woman who was caught before her flight from London to Tel Aviv with a bomb in her luggage. Because Murphy was unaware that her Jordanian fianc had hidden the explosives in her bag, Heathrow security did not suspect her. El Al security, however, discovered that Murphy had been told to lie about her bags, and soon discovered the bomb in a secret compartment.

Twenty years later, the West still lacks that kind of preparedness.

“What we have developed is a solution that falls short of the Israeli solution,” Ron admits.

But considering the dangers that still exist, and the billions of dollars that most agree have not sufficiently addressed those dangers, implementing a solution that more closely resembles the Israeli one may not be far off.

One of the first Israeli measures to be adopted following the September 11 attacks was to reinforce airplanes’ cockpit doors to prevent hijackings. It has taken longer to implement other elements of the Israeli security system, but another piece of the puzzle is added all the time.

“At the end of the day, more and more people realize they won’t be able to avoid using such methods,” Ron believes. “From my interaction with government people here – and I have a lot of it – I see that these ideas are sinking in.”

The sabra approach to preventing a new 9/11

Sink or swim

The tractor ambles along slowly as it tugs two heavy wagons of welded steel benches, but the kilometer-long journey from the indoor hot springs to the muddy banks of the Dead Sea takes only a few minutes. From their smiles and playful gestures toward the waves, it seems the guests of the Ein Gedi Spa actually enjoy the tram ride that brings them to the shimmering, salt-caked crags along the shore. To the old timers from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, however, the very need for the tram is deeply distressing – a painful reminder of the times when such a trip was completely unnecessary. Once, they note with sorrow, the shore was only footsteps away.

From the lawn of her home at the kibbutz, high up the orange-brown slope from the hot springs, Miriam Buta peers down toward the diminishing sea.

“You see that bay there, next to the spa?” she says, pointing to a broad, dusty arc marked off by signs warning of danger. “That entire dark brown patch once glistened with salt.”

Flipping through an old photo album chronicling her 46 years at the kibbutz, Buta finds a faded picture of the same spot – covered, as promised, in water. Below, evidence of the Dead Sea‘s former reach lies in the curved scars ringing the inlet; the water carved them as its waves receded farther and farther into the depths.

In geological terms, the change has been extremely rapid: with the water level of the Dead Sea dropping an incredible meter per year, the shoreline has practically galloped away from the line it held, with little change, for centuries. As the water level has dropped, fresh water streams that used to flow higher up in harder rock have cut into the soft, salty earth around the Dead Sea – dissolving the salts, destabilizing the earth and causing it to collapse in spots. In other words, sinkholes form.

“We know about more than 1,000 sinkholes that have opened up,” says Dov Litvinoff, head of the Tamar Regional Council, which includes the Dead Sea shore. “Although they are mostly in areas that are not usually accessed by the public, there is a fear that they will reach the highway and the built-up area.”

For a region that yearns to grow and build, the impact is severe.

“This has already affected our image, scaring off developers and prospective inhabitants,” Litvinoff adds. “If the sea continues to fall – and it will – well, we are watching an environmental disaster in front of our eyes.”

It is common for critics to point the finger of blame at the most prominent inhabitants of the southern part of the Dead Sea: the Dead Sea Works, which mines potash and other minerals from huge evaporation pools, withdrawing some 150 million cubic meters of water from the sea each year. Since harvesting minerals from a shallower sea would be easier and cheaper than having to pump them from greater depths, says Noam Goldstein, manager of the special projects division at the Dead Sea Works, “Some people say that we prefer a lower Dead Sea in the north. But actually,” he says, “it would be better for us if the northern half were higher because, as the Dead Sea declines, there is more and more pressure on us to pump less.”

Although the Dead Sea Works is responsible for some of the sea’s severe contraction, it is by no means the only factor, or even the most significant. The amount of water that once flowed naturally from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea via the Jordan River was 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. Currently, experts say, only 60 million cubic meters reach the Dead Sea – a mere five percent of the former volume.

“That means,” Goldstein notes, “that we take only a small fraction of the water that once entered the sea.”

The Dead Sea Works began its operations in the southern section of the sea in the 1950s, after about 20 years of lighter operations at the very north of the sea. But the sea’s decline, Goldstein says, can be traced instead to the construction of the national water carrier in the 1960s, and the damming of the Jordan River‘s tributaries by Jordan and Syria in the ’60s and ’70s. The national water carrier alone diverts 1 billion cubic meters of water each year. Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority use several million cubic meters a year, as well.

“When the Lebanese take water from the Litani River, no one accuses them of damaging the Dead Sea,” Goldstein complains. “And when Mekorot takes water from the Kinneret for the national water carrier, no one comes to them demanding to know why they’re preventing water from reaching the Dead Sea; to the contrary, we were raised singing the praises of the project because it was so important to our homeland. But when we take water from the Dead Sea, suddenly everyone wants to know why we’re destroying the sea.”

Not only is the factory unduly criticized, Goldstein feels, but its contributions to the state are underappreciated.

“Firstly,” he says, “we actually pay for the water we take. As far as I know, we’re the only ones who do.”

In taxes alone, the Dead Sea Works paid NIS 140 million to the state in 2005.

“The Dead Sea Works directly employs 1,400 people in the chemical industry,” Goldstein continues, “and has indirectly created a similar number of jobs in the hotel industry at Ein Bokkek. “When you come to these hotels up the road here,” he explains, referring to the Ein Bokkek resort area, “they tell you that you are at the beach of the Dead Sea. But it isn’t really the Dead Sea, it’s the beach of our evaporation pools. In essence, we enabled [construction of] the hotels, and the livelihood they provide. Further – aside from the evaporation pools, there is no other place along the Dead Sea suitable for such a thing.”

Shutting down the Dead Sea Works, Goldstein insists, would not solve the Dead Sea‘s problems, but compound them.

“If you want to close the Dead Sea Works, all you’ll get is a rise (in the water level) of about 90 centimeters. And for that, you’ll lose thousands of jobs in the Negev, and there won’t be tourism here anymore.”

Since several nations divert water from the system that feeds the Dead Sea, Goldstein says, no one factor can be held solely responsible.

“If all are guilty” in the disappearance of this resource, he says, “then all have to contribute to its rehabilitation.”

Professor Eilon Adar, head of Ben-Gurion University‘s Institute for Water Science, agrees.

“You can’t separate the issue of the Dead Sea from the larger regional water situation,” he says. “It’s impossible.”

Jordan uses almost as much of the water as Israel does, Adar notes, so even if Israel were to significantly reduce its diversion of the Kinneret and Jordan River waters, it wouldn’t help unless Jordan would also take similar measures. What’s more, Adar says, Lebanon and Syria will also have to be involved some day.

“You have to take everything into consideration,” he says. “Otherwise, nothing will happen.”

Such thinking is part of the motivation behind the so-called “Red-Dead Plan,” according to which a massive pipeline would carry water from the Red Sea at Aqaba to the Dead Sea. The pipeline would be constructed in Jordan and be funded – at least in part – by the World Bank. On its more than 160-kilometer-long journey, the water would create hydroelectricity and undergo desalination in a reverse osmosis process.

The Red-Dead plan (also known as the Peace Canal or the Two Seas Canal), however, is fraught with troubles of its own. Its multi-billion-dollar price tag is prohibitively expensive, and the amount of hydroelectricity and fresh water it would produce are both less than cheaper alternative methods could provide. On top of that, there is a strong possibility that it will do more harm to the Dead Sea than good.

“If you add seawater to the Dead Sea, you create a disaster. Bits of gypsum form in the water, and you get a milky soup that would destroy the Dead Sea Works and undo the UV-blocking effect of the Dead Sea,” insists Dan Zaslavsky, a professor at the Technion who studied the problem in-depth when he served as chief scientist of the former Energy Ministry and as the state’s water commissioner. “If you’re trying to save the Dead Sea,” he says, “you won’t do it by turning it into a milky soup!”

The Dead Sea Works is carrying out tests on small mixtures of Dead Sea and Red Sea water that confirms the findings; although it says it will support any plan to save the Dead Sea, it fears the possible repercussions of the Red-Dead project.

Galit Cohen, the Dead Sea pointwoman for the Environment Ministry, is also critical of the plan – which, although agreed upon in 2005, is still awaiting preliminary work on a feasibility study.

“To talk about the Red-Dead project as if it were some magic solution that could be executed tomorrow is to speak falsely,” Cohen says emphatically. “I’m not at all sure that it’s the only solution, or the best one, or even better than what there is already,” she says. “It’s easy to come and say, ‘Just go build the canal already!’ But what do you mean, ‘Go build the canal’? Are you sure that you want to have gypsum bubbling up from the Dead Sea? Are you sure that you want to change the chemical and mineral composition of the water? Are you sure that you want to endanger the Eilat bay [with construction of an intrusive pipeline]? And are you sure that all this is better than the situation you have now? There are lots of big questions, and still no answers.”

In Israel, the main proponent of the project has been Shimon Peres. Several sources suggested to The Jerusalem Post that the minister for development of the Negev and the Galilee finds the idea attractive not because of any proven benefit, but because it is a grandiose venture that can be marketed as an international effort toward peace in the Middle East.

A spokesman for Peres told the Post that Peres and Jordan‘s King Abdullah II were promoting the plan because they had received assurances that it would both save the Dead Sea and provide desperately needed fresh water to the region.  He criticized alternatives to the Red-Dead plan as “moronic,” but allowed that there was no time frame for the completion of the project, or even for the beginning of construction.

A National Infrastructure Ministry spokesman who deals solely with the project admitted that a World Bank feasibility study would begin in September at the earliest, and take at least two years to complete.

“The only thing there is right now,” said the Peres spokesman, “is the effort of Peres to gather a team to deal with the issue.”

In the meantime, the government is not considering any option that includes reviving the Dead Sea from the north.
“There has been no study undertaken that looks at the viability of bringing some of the water of the Jordan River back to the Dead Sea,” says Gidon Bromberg, head of the Israel office of Friends of the Earth-Middle East, who would like to see an additional 650 million cubic meters per year released to the sea. To do that, however, would be a decisive blow to farmers in the Jordan Valley and the Galilee. To Bromberg, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“We should be looking at the region’s current practice of utilizing water resources,” he says, “because, frankly, they’re unsustainable. In Israel, 30% of fresh water and 50% of total water resources go to agriculture, yet the contribution to GDP is a mere 2%. From a national economy perspective, it’s hard to justify so much water going to this.
“In Jordan,” Bromberg continues, “the situation is worse: 75% of their fresh water goes to agriculture, and its contribution to GDP is only 5%-6%.
“We have done a study with Haifa University that looks at agriculture versus tourism, and that study concludes very strongly that the tourism potential of a healthy Jordan River and a healthy Dead Sea far exceeds the economic potential of agriculture.”
Adds Adar: “We have to decide what’s more important, tourism and the chemical industry, or agriculture. It very well may be that, economically and ecologically, it makes more sense to release more water into the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.”
A major consideration is the possibility of desalination – which was unthinkable years ago but may now be cheap enough to allow for an end to pumping from the Kinneret.
“Don’t forget,” says Adar, “that, when you pump water from the Kinneret, you are pumping it from more than 200 meters below sea level, then pushing it up the heights of the Galilee and then down throughout the coastal plain. This takes a lot of energy. When the national water carrier was constructed, desalination was prohibitively expensive. But now, it may be that the cost of desalination is low enough to make it a viable alternative.”
Indeed, the cost of reverse osmosis desalination has dropped to about half of what it was only a few years ago, thanks to advances in the process. Proof is already here in the desalination plant that opened in Ashkelon last year. The world’s largest and most advanced reverse osmosis plant, it desalinates more than 100 million cubic meters of water per year, at an investment of $220 million.
Constructing enough plants to equal the output of the Red-Dead canal project would cost half the price of that plan, or less. Of course, a purely Israeli solution to the problem would discount the needs of Jordan and halt a project that very well could strengthen peace efforts in the Middle East. As Adar says, “Every time you suggest one thing, someone else will come along and say, ‘Yes, but…'”
Bromberg and Friends of the Earth suggest an immediate initiative to put the Dead Sea at the forefront of both Israel‘s and Jordan‘s agendas.
“We are calling on the governments to have the Dead Sea registered as a world heritage site because world heritage status means there has to be an integrated master plan for the Dead Sea, and an authority in place to manage such a plan. Part of the problem is that there isn’t one right now.
“There is a Rhein River Commission, a Danube Commission, a Great Lakes Commission,” he says. “Every major shared body of water has to have management in place to ensure that a fair balance is struck.     

Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty in place for over 10 years. So it’s about time that the two sides rehabilitate the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. There has to be a solution for the future.”