Herzliya, Israel -- Riding through sun-splattered Tel Aviv after an arduous flight from Washington, my vision is directed towards two towering skyscrapers by my driver. "Azrieli Center," he notes, "our Twin Towers." Then he adds, "They're two minutes flight from Jordan. That is why we keep the planes in the air." By "the planes" I assume he means Israeli fighters. Much as the Pentagon keeps American fighters in the air over Washington in time of heightened terrorist alert (we who live there hear them rumbling overhead), the Israelis keep their fighters in the air and on the lookout for hostile incoming aircraft that might plow into their Twin Towers and other vulnerable landmarks. Only for the Israelis the time of heightened alerts is always, not simply when the FBI gets jittery.
The warning time here in Israel is two minutes. The planes will not likely be Jordanian, but rather from states beyond Jordan. On the other hand, they could be planes hijacked in Jordan. In any event, the Israelis have no margin for error.
Israel has been on terror alert for much of its history going back to 1948. This time around the alert has lasted two years. At first the Israelis were on the alert for Palestinian killers who murdered civilians from ambush. Now there are the suicide bombers who blow themselves up in crowded public places. The current casualty list numbers close to 700 Israelis.
Students of world politics might well wonder what would follow if the Islamofascists fly a helicopter into Tel Aviv's Azrieli Center. The skies of Tel Aviv are as abundant with helicopters as any other prosperous modern city. How would the Israelis respond? There are other vulnerable buildings in Israel. Nearby the resplendent seaside city of Herzliya where I am staying there is an oil facility that if sabotaged could lead to the deaths of 20,000 local residents. Already one truckload of explosives meant for the installation failed to reach its target. What would the Israelis' response be if they suffered that kind of loss in the current struggle?
At the conference I am attending, "The New Strategic Landscape: Trends, Challenges And Responses," Israeli generals outline the difficulty they face. They might be at peace with Jordan and Egypt, but that does not simplify their defense. Major General Amos Yadlin, Commandant of the Israeli Defense Forces' Colleges, suggests how difficult peace agreements with Jordan have made Israeli defense planning. Incoming threats from Iran or Iraq would now be flying over neutral Jordan. Do Israeli defenders hold their fire until the hostile aircraft cross into Israeli territory? Israel is a tiny country. Its population and critical facilities are massed together in close proximity. Its defenders cannot wait until its borders are crossed, but what do they do?
The answer the generals suggest is "unconventional warfare." This is where their lectures lost me. Possibly they want their discussion of "unconventional warfare" to confuse listeners, which might include enemies. From all I could tell, in this war "without borders" intelligence operatives are being used and high tech. The idea has got to be to destroy outside enemies before they leave their own soil. To repeat myself, tiny Israel has no margin for error.
Interestingly, I am told George W. Bush learned this personally during a historic helicopter flight with Ariel Sharon in 1998. Sharon was not yet prime minister; and Bush, of course, was still governor of Texas. He was traveling in Israel with other American governors when an aide to Sharon, who was then foreign minister, suggested that Sharon give the Americans an aerial view of Israel. They climbed into a helicopter and flew over Samaria. At the end of the flight the Governor of the vast state of Texas turned to Sharon's aide, Ra'anan Gissen, now the Prime Minister's senior adviser, and exclaimed, "I never knew how small Israel was." Israel's vulnerability was not lost on the former pilot from the Texas National Guard. He knows Israel's strategic needs.
Israel is in a very difficult bind. Its citizens face the stress of suicide bombers within its borders and large armies beyond. Yet the people's spirits are unbowed. Asked recently if he feared that Israel could be facing another defeat similar to the defeat the ancient Jews suffered at the hands of the Romans at Masada in 73 A.D., Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quipped, "Not this time. Now the Romans are on our side." Perhaps that explains the familiar tune I heard an Israeli girl whistling when I checked into my hotel the other night. It was the American national anthem, which does have an agreeably jaunty tempo.
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