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Belmont Club

Where the Old Flotilla Lay

May 30th, 2010 - 11:33 pm

The ‘aid flotilla’ bound for Gaza met the immovable object and the resulting clash, under circumstances yet only sketchily described, may have resulted in 16 protester deaths and 6 IDF personnel injured. The LA Times reported that “Israel had vowed to intercept the boats, by force if necessary, and tow them to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where passengers would be arrested or deported.” The Turks, who were heavily represented in the flotilla, have already called in the Israeli ambassador.  There is almost certainly going to be an denunciation of Israeli actions from Europe. The incident will mean that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Washington will be even frostier and more difficult than expected.

Relations between Washington and Israel were already at near historic lows. Now it looks like we ain’t seen nothing yet. But the immediate headlines should not obscure the 3 trends which are driving up tensions in the region and threaten to drive them up further. The first is Iran’s continuing search for a nuclear weapon, a development which Israel views as near existential threat. The second is the buildup of Hezbollah missiles which can reach all the major Israeli population centers from launching sites in Lebanon.  And the third are the unintended consequences of President Obama’s diplomacy which has resulted in the singling out of Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal at the month long Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference in New York. Like a circular-running torpedo it managed to miss its every intended target — missing North Korea and Iran — while hitting Israel.

The United States got few of the specific goals it sought at the conference, such as penalties for nations that secretly develop nuclear weapons, then quit the pact (think North Korea). … And the conference’s final document singled out Israel’s suspected nuclear program — but not Iran’s secret facilities, which many think are part of an effort to build an atomic bomb.

Eli Lake, writing for the Washington Times, notes that the NPT conference threatened to unravel the long standing policy of turning a blind eye to Israel’s nukes in exchange for an assurance not to brandish them.

Israel and the U.S. have since 1969 had a secret understanding on the Jewish state’s nuclear arsenal. Avner Cohen, a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and the author of the definitive account of Israel’s nuclear history, “Israel and the Bomb,” has called the understanding “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In exchange for Israel not publicly disclosing its nuclear weapons, the United States does not pressure Israel to join the NPT and shields Israel from pressure to join the treaty.

In May 2009, Mr. Netanyahu received assurances from Mr. Obama that this secret understanding was still in effect.

Whether this is still believed is a matter for debate. The Washington Times article quotes a senior Republican staffer who works on nonproliferation issues as saying “this is the first time a U.S. administration has placed a greater priority on getting a consensus NPT review conference document than on America’s traditional role as protecting Israel’s nuclear ambiguity.” Certainly the Palestinian Authority believes that a yawning gap has opened up between the US-Israeli alliance, if indeed it can still be said to exist. The Jerusalem Post quotes the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper as saying, “President Abbas told Mitchell that the Israelis are no longer peace partners as much as the Americans are … the Palestinian Authority is negotiating with Washington and not with Tel Aviv.”

Together those three developments — the shadow of the Iranian nukes, the missiles of Hezbollah and the loss of American support — may have fostered a regional perception that Israel is vulnerable.  Certainly the flotilla organizers could not have been insensible to the rising pressure on Israel and were determined to exploit it, nor was it lost on the IDF that if they showed weakness in the face of the flotilla there would be more to follow. In one sense the flotilla put to sea on the perceived political tides and were met by IDF elements sailing on the contrary currents. The result was a clash inconsequential in itself, but not in the sparks that it may generate.

The problem is that the strategy of pressuring Israel to win brownie points with the Arab world and get the peace negotiations moving is a two edged sword. Its proponents may hope that it will provide space for the diplomats to maneuver. Having failed for decades to pull on the Arab side of the rope, they will now try the Israeli end. But it also emboldens Israel’s enemies and makes the Jewish state that much more paranoid. The combination of Syrian and Iranian thrusting and the Israeli determination to defend itself at all costs can lead to a dangerous situation.  Certainly there is enough explosive in the region to make things dangerous. Recently, the Times of London reported that Israeli nuclear armed submarines are now on rotating patrol off Iran’s coast.

Three German-built Israeli submarines equipped with nuclear cruise missiles are to be deployed in the Gulf near the Iranian coastline.

The first has been sent in response to Israeli fears that ballistic missiles developed by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, a political and military organisation in Lebanon, could hit sites in Israel, including air bases and missile launchers.

The submarines of Flotilla 7 — Dolphin, Tekuma and Leviathan — have visited the Gulf before. But the decision has now been taken to ensure a permanent presence of at least one of the vessels.

The flotilla’s commander, identified only as “Colonel O”, told an Israeli newspaper: “We are an underwater assault force. We’re operating deep and far, very far, from our borders.”

Each of the submarines has a crew of 35 to 50, commanded by a colonel capable of launching a nuclear cruise missile.

The vessels can remain at sea for about 50 days and stay submerged up to 1,150ft below the surface for at least a week. Some of the cruise missiles are equipped with the most advanced nuclear warheads in the Israeli arsenal.

The ruins of the American “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards Israeli nukes lie before the diplomats like a lost city in a Hollywood B-movie. Unlike the Israeli Air Force, those missiles do not require American permission to transit Iraqi air space to retaliate on Iran.  But the bad news is that unlike manned airplanes, missiles are harder to call back and their payloads are likely to be unconventional in the extreme. This exemplifies why the attempt to put the heat on Israel and link its undeclared nuclear arsenal to Iran’s is a dangerous undertaking. Turning this ‘key’ to peace is like trying to safe a complicated bomb where any short, any jar, any wrong move can set off the mechanism. Even the proponents of this strategy should recognize that it risks intensifying regional tensions along the way to their supposed resolution.

What could go wrong? Plenty. But the greatest danger would be missiles fired out of Gaza and Lebanon by Hamas and Hezbollah, two nonstate actors which have shown the willingness to open up into Israeli territory. The London Times quotes an expert as saying “there are more missiles per square foot targeting Tel Aviv than any other city”. With tensions running high in the wake of the flotilla incident there is always the danger that rhetoric will ratchet itself up to the point where some damned fool missile in the Middle East can set off a war involving both Gaza and much of Lebanon. It would have tragic consequences for Lebanon, which would be wrecked yet again by the Israel response, a response that would have to go penetrate exceedingly deep to put the Scuds out of business. And it would be fraught with great peril for the region and beyond.

Turkey has accused Israel of violating International Law. The government of Turkey was in emergency session. The Associated Press is now reporting that protesters are storming the Israeli consulate in Ankara. And only hours have gone by.


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