Israelis conducted the country’s largest emergency exercise ever Tuesday, apparently not only for internal readiness but to send a signal to its enemies Hezbollah and Iran, both of whom are facing elections in the coming days.
“The exercise told Israelis that this is something we have to face and to deal with — a missile attack or one from chemical or biological weapons,” explained Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“It transmits signals to Iran and Hezbollah that Israel is prepared to deal with such an attack,” he added. “It says to them that if they are going to fight us, we will be more prepared than you are.”
Since its last war with Israel in the summer of
2006, Hezbollah is said to have re-armed and to now have more missiles aimed at Israel than ever before. And Iran is continuing its quest for nuclear power, which it insists is designed strictly for nuclear energy but which the West believes is aimed at developing nuclear weapons.
This week’s Israeli drill was part of a weeklong, countrywide war exercise that simulated war on the northern and southern borders and an internal uprising by Israeli Arabs. The country’s 2,300 sirens were sounded at 11 a.m. — some malfunctions were reported — and residents were asked to enter designated safe rooms and remain there for 10 minutes. Schoolchildren were led to bomb shelters and then shown a 20-minute film on safety procedures.
The exercise came as citizens of Lebanon prepared to go the polls Sunday to elect a new parliament. The Western-backed, anti-Syrian March 14 coalition is hoping to retain its narrow majority. But the Hezbollah-backed March 8 coalition, which is widely favored to win, is seeking to wrest control of parliament; it currently has veto power over any parliamentary decision.
The BBC recently interviewed a Hezbollah fighter who said the decision by the United Kingdom to deal with Hezbollah’s political arm and not its military wing was basically a sham.
“We have two arms but we belong to one body,” he said. “There is no such thing as the military wing or the political wing of Hezbollah — we are all part of one resistance.”
Hezbollah has claimed it was created in the early 1980s to compel Israel to end its occupation of southern Lebanon. Yet Israel has been out of southern Lebanon for nearly a decade and Hezbollah’s military wing continues to thrive and last fought a war with Israel in 2006.
In explaining that paradox, the Hezbollah fighter said he believed another war with Israel is likely and added: “Hezbollah will become a purely political party only when Israel ceases to exist.”
Some Israeli observers believe an election victory for Hezbollah would make it easier for Israel to justify pre-emptive attacks because such action would be against the state of Lebanon. Criticism before had been that Israel’s military actions against Hezbollah were weakening the Lebanese government.
Another election Israelis are watching with great interest is the one for president of Iran next Friday, June 12. The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is facing a challenge from two reform candidates and from a fellow hardliner, Mohsen Rezaei. Analysts claim Rezaei is cutting into Ahmadinejad’s base of support among working-class families, war veterans and other supporters of the Islamic Revolution.
Supporters of the most popular reform candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi, say the best they can hope for is that Rezaei splits the conservative vote with Ahmadinejad, clearing the way for his victory.
However, some analysts speak of a possible political alliance between Rezaei and the reformers if Ahmadinejad is defeated. Rezaei is no darling of the West. He is one of six people wanted by Interpol for the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish Center in Argentina that killed 85. Iran has disregarded the arrest warrant as politically motivated, and the charges have not been a factor in the campaign.
An estimated 60 percent of the Iranian population is under the age of 30, and observers found that many are upset with the way Ahmadinejad has handled himself on various issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue and Iran’s quest for nuclear energy.
Mehdi Karroubi, the other reform candidate, said Iran should be more transparent and rational in its nuclear program.
Steinberg, the political science professor, said a defeat for Ahmadinejad might not necessarily be a good thing.
“He is seen as the evil face of Iran, the one who leads on such issues as Holocaust denial and who uses the term, ‘Wipe Israel off the map,’” he said. “It would make it easier for the U.S. and Europe to take a strong position against Iran” if Ahmadinejad remained in power.
Even if one of the reform candidates wins, Iran’s foreign policy is unlikely to change because the president is really “only a figurehead.”
“He may have a kinder, gentler face and language, but the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei controls everything,” Steinberg said, referring to the country’s highest political and spiritual authority.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has been making overtures to Iran in order to launch a dialogue with its leaders. He told the BBC that he was not against Iran developing nuclear energy, but wanted to make sure it did not develop nuclear weapons.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov applauded such outreach this week in comments following a meeting in Moscow with Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Although saying such overtures have increased the chances of resolving the confrontation over the nuclear issue, Sergey did not indicate whether Russia was now more willing to increase pressure on Iran to resolve the standoff.