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'The Phase of Strategic Decisions'

9:56 AM, Aug 9, 2012 • By DANIEL HALPER
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John Hannah, writing about his recent trip to Israel:

 I recently returned from a trip to Israel. I met with a handful of very senior foreign policy and defense officials, but did not speak with any member of the "Forum of Eight" -- Israel's security cabinet that is responsible for key decisions concerning war and peace. With that important caveat, I thought I'd share several random impressions:

First, Israelis realize full well that they're in the middle of a geo-political hurricane. The pillars that have anchored their national security strategy for a generation are being washed away, swamped by a rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak and Camp David is no more. Jordan, Israel's other critical peace partner, is under enormous strain. The once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has withered. Syria is awash in blood, raising the specter of loose WMD, a jihadist safe haven, and generalized chaos on what for nearly four decades (despite the Assad regime's enduring hostility) has been Israel's quietist front. All this, of course, on top of the pre-existing threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon with 50,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, and patrons in Tehran hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which to terrorize the Middle East in service to their particularly virulent brand of anti-Zionism.

Second, while deeply concerned with the turmoil that surrounds them, Israeli officials exude a degree of quiet confidence that they can weather this storm. I detected no sense of panic, but rather a steely-eyed determination to do what was necessary to secure Israel's core interests. Given the degree of uncertainty inherent in the current regional upheavals, it would be an exaggeration to say that Israelis are yet at the point of developing any new grand strategy. But one can discern some basic principles that have emerged to help navigate the turbulence that will continue to roil the region for the foreseeable future. Three in particular stand out:

1. Be ready, militarily, to respond to and contain sudden crises on very short notice. The triggers for conflict have multiplied exponentially and could come from any direction, at any time -- a terrorist attack from a newly-lawless Sinai (as witnessed just this past weekend); chemical weapons in Syria; a Hezbollah-manufactured clash in the north; or large-scale instability that threatens Jordan's monarchy. The possibilities are endless. Adding to the challenge: The fact that the region's sweeping political changes (untested leaders, haphazard decision-making structures, populist pressures, etc.) increase the risk that a relatively minor incident could escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.

2. Unless directly threatened, exercise enormous caution in approaching the volatility on Israel's borders. Now is not the time for rash moves. Rather, it's a time to watch, analyze, and gather intelligence; to prioritize challenges and husband national resources, to avoid diverting energies by being drawn unnecessarily into the vortex of the Arab revolutions. Indeed, I found Israeli officials extraordinarily humble when assessing their ability to influence the historic drama now playing out across their neighborhood.

3. Do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear military capability. Amidst all the sturm und drang created by what many believe is the unraveling of the Middle East's post-World War I order, Israeli officials have maintained a laser-like focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Stop the mullahs from fulfilling their atomic ambitions, Israeli officials opine, and the chances of coming out the other side of the Arab Awakening in relatively positive fashion increase dramatically. Fail to do so, however, and the dark shadow of expanding radicalism, nuclear proliferation, and violent instability will quickly descend upon the region, posing an unprecedented -- and unacceptable -- threat not only to Israel's survival, but to vital U.S. interests as well.    

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