Analysis: Israel's hand on hilt, eye on peace as region roils

HAIFA, Israel Mon Feb 21, 2011 9:13am EST

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HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - Anxious about political upheaval in Egypt and other U.S.-aligned Arab states, Israel will boost military preparations but try to avoid confrontation unless it sees an enhanced threat from arch-foe Iran.

This was the finding of the first Israeli war game held after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Many international analysts agree that the dissident movements sweeping from Cairo to the Gulf pose no immediate danger to Israel.

"I don't think Israel need concern itself about a strategic shift vis-a-vis Egypt for now," said Tzachi Hanegbi, a former head of parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who played Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the simulation.

"In fact, the Arab regimes' current difficulties could make them even more reliant on American help in their stabilization efforts," Hanegbi said.

Yet brinkmanship risk abounds. Some destabilized Arab powers are less likely to oppose Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Israelis have prophesied their Tehran-style takeover by local Islamists.

Iran appears to be testing the new state of affairs with a bid to sail warships through Egypt's Suez Canal. An unprecedented Iranian naval transit to the Mediterranean was among scenarios envisaged during the February 11-18 war game by retired Israeli statesmen, ex-generals and academics at Haifa University's National Security Studies Center (NSSC).

Another posited move by Iran, the stockpiling of missiles for Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, was seen triggering an Israeli air strike and border clashes with thousands of dead.

Asked why the "mock Israel" had not sent troops to the Lebanese interior or against Hezbollah's next-door patron Syria, Hanegbi said forces had to be husbanded "ahead of a (military) intervention in Iran, should that be decided on."

The "obvious weakness of the moderate Arab camp" and the Obama administration's vacillations meant Israel had even less faith in foreign efforts to deny Iran -- which says its nuclear project is for energy only -- means to make a bomb, he said.

PACE AND PACTS

Commenting on the war game, Mark Fitzpatrick of London's International Institute for Strategic Studies said, "There is no strategic change in Iran's (nuclear) program that would necessitate any attack in the immediate future."

He noted that Western assessments still put Iran, which denies it intends to build atomic weapons, some two years away from military nuclear capability.

"Iran is visibly delighted at what's happening in the Arab world and presumably will be even less interested in making concessions on its nuclear program," Fitzpatrick said.

"It may well welcome a situation in which Israel fires the first shot, enabling it to portray itself as the victim of 'Israeli aggression'."

Fitzpatrick played down prospects of Gulf Arabs quitting the U.S. orbit and defense perks in the face of an ascendant Iran.

Similarly, Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, voiced cautious confidence in the endurance of the Jewish state's ties with neighboring Arab allies.

"Thus far, there is no hard evidence to suggest that Egypt or Jordan will turn away from their treaty obligations with Israel," Kurtzer said.

"Israel is likely to continue to assess the Iranian nuclear program in its own context. I do not believe Israel will attack the program solely out of regional security concerns connected to the current upheavals."

With Netanyahu having announced expanded defense expenditure Sunday, Kurtzer predicted Israel would shore up its conventional border garrisons as well as a missile shield designed to fend off Iran. Yet implementing a major shift in military spending and deployment would take several years.

Kutzer said Israel could win American sympathy for its new worries by being more accommodating of the Palestinians.

Indeed the war game, which was observed by Netanyahu government strategists and intelligence officers, had Washington coaxing Israel toward a regional peace summit that would include Syria.

That tapped fissures in Israel's leadership. Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- played by one-time Barak adviser Michael Herzog -- urged engaging the Syrians at the cost of giving them back the Golan Heights. He was vetoed by Hanegbi. The simulation ended in mid-2012 without much change to Israel's circumstances.

"It comes down to duration," said the NSSC director Dan Schueftan, reflecting on the Arab world's woes. "Best case, we are seeing a temporary setback. I think it's more reasonable to assume the region is moving in a direction that is not good."

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Michael Roddy)

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