Thursday, August 02, 2007

Skyguard Now, Peace Later

According to Haaretz, Israel’s leading newspaper, the government has revised its decision and may now start developing the advanced laser-based Skyguard missile protection system, which can be operational within 18 months.

The Skyguard project began in 1996 as a partnership between Israel and the U.S. It was originally meant to counter Hezbollah's 122mm Katyusha rockets. The current model is an improved version of the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL/Nautilus) project.

The laser-based project has passed performance tests in the U.S. with ease, racking up a nearly 100 percent successful interception rate. Northrop Grumman Space Technology's is in partnership with Israel in the project.

Despite successful tests, and the continuous rocket attacks from Gaza, and even Lebanon, the project was dropped about a year and a half ago. According to Haaretz, a strong lobby group, including many former defense ministry officials, have now asked Public Security Minister Avi Dichter to get the project going.

But the moribund, perhaps corrupt, Ministry of Defense had decided on another system, titled Iron Dome, (“Kipat Barzel" in Hebrew), which was to be developed by Rafael, the national authority for the development of weapons and military technology. The Iron Dome was based on intercepting rockets rather then using laser beams to destroy them, and was expected to take at least three years to build. An unnamed foreign country has reportedly agreed to allocate considerable funds toward developing the system.

Skyguard proponents stress that Skyguard was nearly completed, requiring minimal further investment to make it operational. The experts believe the best solution is to develop both systems. The Skyguard project was killed by former Minister of Defense and current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Some analysts believe it was the emergence of Ehud Barak as Defense Minister that brought Skyguard back from oblivion. Barak has also tightened his fist in striking against Hamas. Reportedly, Hamas has learned that sending rockets into Israel is now countered with Israeli commando raids into Gaza, as well as targeted attacks against Hamas leaders.

Another move by Barak is apparently in the Golan Heights. Analysts say that Bashir Assad was intent on striking what he perceived as a weak Israel in order to obfuscate a UN investigation into allegations that he was responsible for the assassination of Lebanon’s late and extremely popular anti-Syrian Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. According to Dr. Guy Bechor, writing in the Yideot Achronot newspaper, Assad was astounded by the success of Hezbollah against Israel and thought Israel was weak enough to attack, and defeat. However, the analysts point out that once Assad saw that the Israeli troops were massing on the Golan Heights and on the Syrian Border, ready to strike, or counter-strike, he decided against an attack. According to Bachor, Assad realized that an attack on Israel might well mean a Syrian defeat, and the end of his Alawite clan’s rule. According to Dr. Bachor, “Syria realized that the IDF is an army positioned at the gates of Damascus, and not the other way around.”

This move of the army may well be attributed to Barak’s decisions as Defense Minister. Writing in Yideot Dr. Bachor said, “There is also no doubt that the arrival of a serious defense minister who is closely familiar with the Syrians and their ways has also contributed to the force of the message.”

It is more the shame, then, that a new expose by the Yideot Achranot newspaper alleges serious election fraud during the last election for Labor Party head, which Barak won in a close race. According to the expose, Yedioth Aharonoth has obtained a tape of an observer’s testimony alleging threats and bribery in Arab town’s polling stations, and ballot-box stuffing in Ehud Barak favor. According to Barak's office: These are old accusations that were dismissed.

Moti Zaguri, an observer of the polls in the Arab town of Shaab during the Labor primaries run-off between Ehud Barak – now party chairman and Defense Minister - and Ami Ayalon on June 12, said, that "People were threatened… Vote counters tallied the votes… young children arrived and started to vote. They said, if you are with us, we'll beat you and kill you… Zidan Ganaim, chairman of the polling station, began to cooperate. He received NIS 5,000 (about $1190) from the vote counters… I have no party affiliation, but when I saw what was going on… I couldn't believe that such a thing exists in this country," Zaguri was recorded as saying.

The descriptions of what happened in the polling place smack of old stories heard around the infamous Tammany Hall, or prohibition-era Chicago. The expose alleges blatant fraud in a number of polling stations in Arab and Druze towns, with illegal people voting, including children voting, flyers advising people not to seal their envelopes with their ballots in them, and ballots counted over and over again.

Ehud Barak won the election by a narrow margin but before the Arab votes were counted his competitor Ayalon was ahead 25,918 to Barak's 25,247. Some of the voting stations in the report showed an unbelievable advantage for Barak, even though Ayalon was a clear favorite among the Arab voters. In Shaab Barak reportedly received 228 of 231 votes (98.8%), in Yefia Zaka, he received 91.3%, in Shfaram 97% and in Julis, nearly 80 percent.

It is not clear if Bark knew about these alleged irregularities or if they were carried out by over-zealous party members. In either case, he won the election. However, the expose further revealed that the chairman of the elections committee, retired judge Amnon Strashnov, did not sign off on the elections protocol officially.

Barak’s office dismissed this report as old news that was already disproved. Others consider it a good sign. Barak, they say, knows how to get things done in this country. In that he and Ehud Olmert are made from the same cloth, they say. Given Israel’s enemies and the critical decisions that must be made, perhaps playing by the rules is not a way to win, and that those who do play by the rules are weak.

Others point out that the current diplomatic efforts by U.S. Sec. of State Condeleeza Rice to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table is an example of high-minded weakness. Pundits writing in Israel’s media make it clear that the Palestinian President Abbas has no power and less authority. Any deal made with him would be a hollow diplomatic victory. They point out that even the deal he signed with Israel that guaranteed the Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades would lay down their weapons fell apart. Only 60% of the Fatah men turned in their weapons in exchange for an Israeli amnesty, even though the other 40% had also signed the forms.

Dr. Rice wants to hold a summit in Washington in November, and include the Saudis. But it is also not clear how important a Palestinian-Israeli peace deal is to the Saudis. What is clear is the importance of the $20 billion in weapons that the US is holding as a carrot on a stick in front of the Saudis, enticing them to attend the summit. Analysts are skeptical this summit provide any meaningful results. U.S. Sec. of State Rice wants a diplomatic success to cap her tenure in office. Analysts say that both she and U.S. President Bush believe that if they can help give birth to a Palestinian State they will have made their contribution to peace in the middle east, and perhaps even receive recognition from the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

But others have received that prize, the critics say, like Yassir Arafat, who never had any intention of making peace. The prize was just a means to distract the world while he waged war on Israel, they say. In that case, this new summit, some of the critics point out, might serve Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas in the same way. While the world thinks peace is on the table, they will be planning their next stage of the war to drive the Israelis from the Holy Land.

Since PA Chairman Abbas has no power to implement a Peace, and the Americans have no power to enforce a Peace, the summit may be like academics attending a conference where they read their papers then return to their ivory towers with no practical implementation as a result. Except that the Saudis will get their weapons, the US will feel that they’ve kept the Saudi pipelines open, and the Israelis and Palestinians will go on with their cold war. Even if a Palestinian State is declared, the odds of it standing on its own two feet for long are slim.

What Dr. Rice has misunderstood, pundits say, is that the Israeli Palestinian problem is not the key to peace in the middle east. The problem is one of Israel and the Arab world, a western democracy against a nascent Moslem theocracy. The emergence of a Palestinian State will not change that equation.

Meanwhile, the experts say the best course is to stick to reality, not academic discussions. Reality means the Skyguard, and the Iron Dome. Reality means prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Reality is that Israel is not better off with a hollow peace accord than an effective missile defense system: a system which will render the rocket and missile threats of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas irrelevant.