NEW GOVERNMENT IN ISRAEL
While Ariel Sharon was busy knitting together his new center-right coalition government during February, life in Israel took on a surreal quality as all waited for the imminent outbreak of Gulf War Two. In an eerie replay of 12 winters ago, pundits and politicians publicly speculated about exactly when-no longer if-the conflict might begin. Amid stepped up gas mask distributions and other pre-war preparations, the anxious Israeli public closely followed the latest statements by a US leader named George Bush to get a clue on the war's starting date, just as they did in 1991. Meanwhile Palestinians once again showed their overwhelming support for the brutal Butcher of Baghdad by marching in the streets carrying Saddam's familiar portrait.
However, one important factor is quite different in 2003: The Iraqi dictator is not threatening this time to "incinerate half of Israel." In fact, his deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, claimed after meeting Pope John Paul in Rome on February 16th that the modern day version of Babylon no longer has the capability to hit Israel with Scud missiles.
While happy that Saddam is not vowing to attack the country with poison gas this time around, officials in Jerusalem tend to accept intelligence estimates that he does possess at least 15 long-range missiles that could strike Israel, and a couple rocket launchers to fire them. Although that number adds up to a much reduced threat compared to 1991, it is countered somewhat by the much greater prospect that Saddam will deploy non-conventional warheads given that the stated US-British goal is to topple his regime.
Even if Saddam were to fire a few of his banned Scuds at Israeli urban centres, located some 300 miles west of his country, their potential to strike intended targets is much reduced now due to Israel's advanced Arrow anti-missile system. While the recently deployed, American financed system might not be totally effective during a missile barrage, it is expected to easily take out the odd rocket that Saddam's forces might hurl at Israel.
HOMICIDE JETS AND BOMBERS
Given all of the above, the threat posed by Saddam's remnant Scuds is considered to be slight. Still, officials are not resting on their beds. They are concerned about two other prospects, even if fairly remote ones. The first is that Iraq might be able to get at least one or two warplanes, or even smaller aircraft, past Israeli air defenses to drop chemical weapons on major cities. This worry increased after US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented a previously classified film at UN headquarters in New York, showing an Iraqi jet spraying mock chemicals in a practice run. Officials are especially concerned that a light airplane, possibly taking off from a rural position in nearby Jordan, might try to slip underneath Israeli radar and hug the ground before dumping chemicals on an Israeli settlement or town in the Jordan Valley or the Negev Desert. As Al Qaida's September 11 air hijackings sadly demonstrated, such a relatively low-tech attack might succeed where Scuds and jet fighters have failed.
The second concern focuses on another relatively low-tech attack: the use of chemical or biological agents, or possibly even "dirty bombs" (conventional bombs laden with nuclear waste material) by trained Palestinian agents residing west of the Jordan River. In this regard, Israeli officials were alarmed when Hamas terrorists tried to fill a small, unmanned drone aircraft with powerful explosives in the Gaza Strip in mid-February (six Palestinians were killed in the process, either accidentally or by tipped-off Israeli forces). They say Hamas was planning to direct the drone to a nearby Israeli target, mainly to test the unmanned aircraft but also to spread panic over the use of such a weapon.
Officials noted that Lebanese Hizbullah forces have sent similar drones in the past into northern Israel. They worried that if the Hamas drone had reached and destroyed its target, the next one might be filled with chemical or biological agents. Despite the failure to get the drone airborne, this still could take place at the beginning of the pending Gulf War in an attempt to sow even greater panic amongst already jittery Israelis.
The day before the drone incident, four Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip when their tank ran over a powerful landmine planted by Hamas forces. The armored vehicle was completely destroyed. Hamas leaders hailed the attack, vowing to launch more assaults upon "Zionist enemy forces" in defiance of a Palestinian Authority call for a ceasefire and return to the negotiating table. Israeli analysts said the operation was similar to those undertaken by the radical Hizbullah militia. They said intercepted communications indicated that the Iranian and Syrian-backed Lebanese force has been intensifying its financial and logistical support for escalating Hamas attacks in the Gaza Strip.
Soon after the tank destruction, Israeli security forces entered Gaza City in the deepest penetration since the crowded coastal urban area was turned over to Yasser Arafat in June 1994. Around a dozen Arabs were killed in the raid, most of them Palestinian gunmen. Army leaders said the action was mainly designed to destroy illegal Palestinian Kassam rocket factories that continue to churn out mortar shells despite ongoing operations against them.
More Kassam rockets were launched into Israel after the raid, striking the town of Sderot and wounding one civilian. The town is located just a couple miles northwest of Ariel Sharon's family ranch. Analysts said it was increasingly likely that the Israeli leader would order a fullscale military operation in the Gaza Strip, probably during the US-UK campaign against Saddam. They noted that the coastal zone was spared during last year's Defensive Shield military operation, mainly due to fears that army action could produce a fierce Arab world backlash that might harm the Bush-Blair plan to take on the Iraqi dictator.
SHOWDOWN WITH SYRIA?
Signs grew in February that Israel might be planning a military operation against the dangerous Hizbullah mini-state that has arisen in southern Lebanon in recent years. Armed forces commanders have advised PM Sharon that the rogue militia, with around 3,000 active fighters and thousands of rockets, will have to be dealt with at some point. They point out that neither UN nor Lebanese government officials kept their promise to Israel-made with much fanfare when the Barak government implemented UN Resolution 425 by pulling IDF troops out of the south Lebanon Security Zone in May 2000-to prevent the militia from taking over the border region. Therefore Israel has no choice but to act at some point, given that the radical Muslim force vows to continue its jihad war until Jerusalem is "liberated" from abhorred Jewish rule.
Some Israeli military analysts say that Sharon may view the current situation as providing the best possible opportunity to take on the militant Muslims. The reason is simple: If the IDF acts to crush the militia, Hizbullah's Syrian ally is likely to get involved, whether it wants to or not. Syrian strongman Bashar Assad would appear extremely weak in Arab eyes if he simply sat on his hands as Israeli forces crushed Hizbullah's mini-state. Analysts say Assad's main Mideast ally, Iran, would probably demand Syrian intervention since the Shiite state is too far away to give immediate assistance to its proxy militia force.
As a noted military strategist and former general, Ariel Sharon knows that any confrontation with Syria entails a significant risk that hundreds of advanced Scud C and Soviet-built SS 21 missiles could come raining down on Israel; with some possibly carrying chemical warheads. Therefore, it would be best for him to confront Lebanese Hizbullah militiamen when his civilian population is already fully prepared for war, and especially for the possibility of a chemical attack.
While some Israelis would still become casualties if Syrian missiles come crashing down, the numbers would probably be far less than if a showdown occurred at a time when the population was not prepared for imminent conflict. Analysts point out that the risks are also much greater in the hot dry months when more people are outdoors and windows open. They add that a potential clash with Hizbullah and Syria might help explain why the government is urging the public to make full war preparations at this time, despite statements by Sharon and others that the risks of a significant attack from Iraq are extremely slim.
Israeli forces were reinforced along the Lebanon border in mid-February. Additional tanks were deployed to the upper Galilee region, along with anti-aircraft batteries and other heavy weapons. Army and government leaders tried to downplay the reinforcements, but in small country like Israel that is virtually impossible to do. Israel's main commercial television channel reported the build-up, as did several newspapers. With tension mounting in the run-up to a new Gulf war, the army spokesman denied that any special measures were being taken, despite empirical evidence to the contrary.
THE DEAL IS DONE
Ariel Sharon succeeded in forming a bare majority center-right coalition government on February 24th. His desire to patch together a national unity government with the main opposition Labour party came to nothing, prompting him to sign a coalition accord with the six member National Religious Party (NRP) and the 15 member Shinui (Change) party. The small right-wing party, popular with many Jewish residents of the disputed territories, said it had secured a pledge from Sharon to bring any future peace deal with the Palestinians to the cabinet for discussion and approval before signing it.
Labour politicians charged that the Likud's deal with the NRP proved that Sharon was not serious about forming a broad centrist government. However some political pundits said the veteran leader was merely opting to form the easiest coalition at present, knowing that Labour would probably still jump on board in the future if he agrees to implement the so-called Road Map peace proposal being formulated by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Sharon has vowed to work with the quartet to secure a peace deal in the coming months, despite fears by many in his party that the Road Map will create a Palestinian state that is not nearly as limited in scope as the Premier envisions.
Ariel Sharon's main coalition partner is the anti-religious Shinui party. Since the Likud picked up two seats when Natan Sharansky's small immigration party joined it in early February, he only needed 21 more seats to secure the support of over half of the 120 member Knesset. The NRP and Shinui combination gave him a bare 61-seat majority. However the seven member right-wing National Union and the three seat Am Ehad party may also join his coalition.
The big loser in February's political sweepstakes was the Orthodox Shas party, which has participated in every government since it first appeared on the political stage in 1984. Shas is well known to foreign Christians and others living and working in the Promised Land for its nearly continuous and tight-fisted control of the visa-granting Interior Ministry. The secularist Shinui party, which is to take over the ministry, made its participation in Sharon's new government conditional on the Sephardic religious party's exclusion from the corridors of power.
In choosing Shinui over Shas (and its sister United Torah Judaism party), Sharon touched off a political earthquake with significant implications. His move-condemned by the two religious parties-angered many Likud voters of Middle Eastern background. While not ultra-Orthodox in religious practice, they generally observe the Sabbath and keep most dietary kosher laws, etc. Some are now expected to abandon the Likud when Israeli voters next go to the polls, currently scheduled for 2007.
Attempting to limit the fallout, PM Sharon has already pledged that he will not implement most of the reforms demanded by Shinui, such as public transport on the Sabbath. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid seems able to live with the reality that he will only secure a small portion of his stated policy goals, the most likely being the legalization of civil marriages and burials.
WATER FROM HEAVEN
As I write, authorities in Jerusalem and other hilly centers are gearing up for a predicted snowstorm expected to be the heaviest in over ten years. It comes at the end of a month of soaking rains throughout the land and snow on Mount Hermon, which is rapidly replenishing the severely depleted Sea of Galilee, Israel's main above ground reservoir. With at least six weeks left of the rainy season, most places in Israel have already exceeded their average annual rainfall amounts. Officials earlier warned that they would need to enact severe water rationing this summer if the winter rains were not abundant.
With over three meters of snow already gracing the peaks of nearly 10,000 foot Mount Hermon, it seems possible that the biblical lake will be filled to its long unreached brim by June-something few dared to dream just a few months ago. As dark war clouds gather once again over the explosive Middle East, the water from heaven is a wonderful reminder that our times are in the hands of Israel's loving Eternal Father and King! "Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or seen the storehouses of the hail which I have reserved for the time of distress, for the day of war and battle?" (Job38:22)