WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is sincere in his hard-driving determination to boost Israel's ballistic missile defenses as quickly as possible. But he also sees that achievement as a stepping stone to two other huge goals -- becoming prime minister and reviving the long-moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Barak sees the creation of a massively expanded, super-effective missile defense shield as essential to restore to the Israeli public the sense of security they must have before they are prepared to make any more territorial concessions to the Palestinians. But while he sees strong BMD program and territorial withdrawals as complimentary processes, others fear they may be mutually contradictory.
Barak, who leads Israel's Labor Party, is a political dove -- as is his current boss and coalition partner, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Back in 2000, during his troubled term as Israel's prime minister, Barak was ready to cede 90 percent of the West Bank and Gaza back to the Palestinians at the Camp David II peace conference. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, however, rejected the offer and not long afterward presided over the bloody Second Palestinian Intifada, which cost the lives of more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and possibly three times that number of Palestinians in Israeli retaliatory strikes.
Since then, the mood of the Israeli public has hardened dramatically, following the suicide-bomber onslaught in the Second Intifada. Barak would still like to revive the peace process, but that would mean more Israeli territorial concessions, and right now that would mean political suicide for Barak and Labor in future elections. The Israeli public would only agree to more concessions if it once again felt strong and secure. Boosting the country's BMD defenses to levels that can cope with the ever-escalating and unprecedented number and intensity of threats it now faces might fit that bill.
This is the political background to Barak’s bold comments Tuesday on Galei Zahal -- Israel Army Radio -- that he was determined to create an at least 90 percent effective defense against all the ballistic missile threats Israel faces. He publicly pledged to protect the country from the ballistic missile threats that assail it on every front.
The Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz cited Army Radio as reporting that Barak made the pledge in testimony before the State Control Committee to discuss the state comptroller's report on domestic defense and security. The Israeli Defense Forces' recently appointed Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Ashkenazi, appeared at the same meeting.
Barak and Ashkenazi both took up their positions within the past year after the disastrous failures of their predecessors, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, to defeat Hezbollah, the Shiite Party of God in southern Lebanon, in the July 2006 mini-war.
Halutz was a former Israel air force commander and the first ever to rise to the top IDF job. But his ignorance of the basics of ground warfare and his inflated confidence in the ability of his beloved air force to clean Hezbollah out of its deeply entrenched fortifications and underground refugees cost the Israelis a humiliating setback. Ironically, the air force performed extremely well in neutralizing Hezbollah’s longer-range ballistic missile weapons.
Now the irony has been reversed. It is Barak, a former chief of staff and veteran elite forces, or commando leader -- in fact, the most legendary in the history of Israel -- who is now betting big on ballistic missile defense rather than on ground forces.
Barak went further than any previous Israeli defense minister or chief of staff in promising that within a few years, Israel would have ballistic missile defense assets in place to defend itself from no less than 90 percent of missiles fired against it.
The greatest of these obviously remains the one from Iran posed by its nuclear-capable Shahid-3 IRBMs and the dozen cruise missiles secretly sold to it by Ukraine over the past 15 years, as confirmed by Ukraine‘s current pro-American President Viktor Yushchenko. But the ballistic missile dangers have been rapidly proliferating.
Israel already has its own advanced Arrow system and the lower-altitude U.S. Patriot PAC-3, widely regarded as the best systems of their kinds in the world, to defend itself from Iran's intermediate-range Shahid-3 missiles, or IRBMs.
But the Jewish state also faces the threat of Syria's recently acquired, Russian-made Iskander-M ballistic missiles, and it is pushing ahead with what it calls an Iron Dome program to develop defenses against these very-short-range Katyusha and Qassam threats.
Barak is surely correct in focusing resources and imposing priorities to deal with the ever-escalating BMD threat. But his confidence that this program can be complimentary to more concessions on the peace process faces major hurdles.
(Next: The problems Barak faces)