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18 Dec, 2009 12:28

Israel can withstand Iranian missile strike - experts

Israel can withstand Iranian missile strike - experts

A leading Israeli missile expert said this week that the damage Iranian missiles are capable of causing Israel is limited, whereas Israel is capable of setting back Iran’s nuclear program by several years.

Prof. Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, a retired general who headed the army’s weapons development branch, said that Iran at present had several hundred operational Shahab-3 missiles which can hit Israel, 1,300 kilometers distant.

Addressing a conference at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, he said that no more than about 80 Shahabs were likely to penetrate Israel’s anti-missile defenses, which are also being buttressed by American missile defense systems.

In the 1991 Gulf War, he noted, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel, most of them at Tel Aviv. Some 3,300 apartments were damaged or destroyed, but only one person was killed. In part, the low casualty figure was because residents were in shelters and in part because many had left to small towns or places like Jerusalem, which Saddam was considered unlikely to hit because of Islamic holy places, and which he did not in fact hit.

The Iranian Shahabs, said Ben Yisrael, have the same size warheads as the Iraqi Scuds. If the damage caused by Iranian missiles with conventional warheads would thus be twice the damage caused by the Iraqi Scuds it would be unpleasant but sustainable, he said.

In order to guard against the warheads becoming nuclear, he suggested, Israel might feel the need to attack Iran’s nuclear installations. “We have the capacity to hit them and to delay their program by several years,” he said. For this, Ben Yisrael believes that Israel needs only to damage several key facilities, not the entire nuclear network. The question, he said, was whether the international community would utilize the time thus gained to good purpose. If not, he said, Israel could strike again in the future, but he expressed the hope that other solutions could be found.

The military scientist, who is currently chairman of the Israel Space Agency, said that the Iranians are likely to respond to an Israeli attack by striking at Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. "It would not be much different,” he said, than the attacks in Buenos Aires in the 1990s against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center that Iran is accused of carrying out. More immediately, he said, the Iranians would unleash Hezbollah, which would resume firing rockets into Israel as it did in 2006, when it fired more than 4,000 in a month-long war. “We can do much to shorten the war next time,” he said.

That point was elaborated on at the conference by Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland, a former head of the Israeli National Security Council. Given Hezbollah’s overt participation in the Lebanese government, he said, the next time its military wing attacks, Israel will consider itself at war not with Hezbollah but with Lebanon. “It will be a war between the state of Israel and the state of Lebanon. It won’t happen again that they’re sitting in cafes in Beirut while we’re in shelters in Haifa.” Israel for the most part spared Lebanon’s national infrastructure in the 2006 conflict, and in Beirut attacked only the Hezbollah quarter.

Although Israel has dropped broad hints in recent years that it would attack Iran if its nuclear program is not halted, these threats have subsided since President Barack Obama came to office and announced his intention to seek a dialogue with Tehran. Given the lack of substantive progress in negotiations, Washington has been threatening an imminent tightening of sanctions against Iran. The Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz reported Thursday that Obama told Chinese President Hu Jintao during their talk in Beijing last month that the US would not be able much longer to keep Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. His statement was reportedly part of his efforts to persuade China to support strict sanctions against Tehran. The newspaper cited Israeli officials who were briefed by American counterparts as the source.

By Abraham Rabinovich