With the escalating Iranian threat now clearly dominating Tel Aviv’s national security agenda, the new government of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is moving quickly to fortify all options to deter, defend against or possibly even pre-empt Tehran’s strategic strike capabilities.

From the White House Oval Office, where Olmert secured pledges of support from U.S. President George W. Bush, to this air base south of Tel Aviv that is home to the nation’s missile defense network, Israel is intensifying contingency planning for countering an Iranian regime that refuses to yield to international demands to halt its enrichment of potentially weapons-grade uranium.

“We’re determined that the Iranian regime must not gain nuclear weapons,” Bush said May 23 after his first summit with Olmert, whose centrist Kadima Party-led coalition government was installed May 4.

“I told the prime minister … in the event of any attack on Israel, the United States would come to Israel’s aid,” Bush said. He added that the two discussed “a variety of options,” yet reiterated the mutual objective of solving the issue diplomatically.

Growing Threat

Aside from Iran’s nuclear program, Olmert cited as a major threat Tehran’s buildup of “delivery systems and the ballistic missiles that can hit major centers all across Europe, not just the Middle East.”

As if on cue, Tehran conducted another test of its Shihab-3, a ballistic missile designed to fly 2,000 kilometers, while the U.S. and Israeli leaders were meeting in Washington. The May 23 test marked the 10th in nine years of Shihab variants, Israeli sources said.

While U.S. and most other Western intelligence agencies assess 2009 as the earliest point when Iran would be capable of testing a nuclear device, Israeli analysts are calculating the urgency of the threat according to the time remaining for effective external intervention to halt Tehran’s nuclear weapons drive.

“We must distinguish between the operative timetable and the technological timetable,” said an Israeli intelligence official. “After they have the knowledge and the material to spin those centrifuges, they have a stand-alone program that they can move underground. For us, it’s the technological threshold that is driving the threat … Once they cross it, sanctions become less meaningful and the military option becomes exponentially more difficult to employ.”

Prior to departing for Washington, Olmert assessed that Iran was months away from crossing the so-called technological threshold. “It can be measured in months, rather than years,” Olmert told CNN in an interview broadcast May 21. He also sought to shore up domestic support for the decisions that may await his government by agreeing May 21 to consult former Israeli prime ministers and political rivals Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak on strategic matters pertaining to Iran.

“Mr. Olmert can say [to the Americans], ‘There is no opposition and no coalition. In Israel, on the Iranian issue, we are all a united front,’” Netanyahu wrote in a May 22 commentary published in the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv. Describing the threat from Tehran as imminent, Netanyahu declared, “The time has come for action.”

After Diplomatic Exhaustion

In recent months, U.S. and Israeli officials have intensified efforts to coordinate responses should diplomacy fail to dissuade Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Despite such consultations, however, many Israelis insist that both countries must maintain options for independent action.

David Ivry, the former Israel Air Force commander who directed the 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, said operational coordination with Washington may not be possible if the Israeli government determines it must resort to pre-emptive military force. “This kind of operation cannot be done in consultation, not Iraq, not Entebbe and not Iran. Otherwise, it endangers the lives of our military forces,” Ivry said.

In a May 8 interview, Ivry said it took the Israeli government three years to determine that there was no diplomatic solution to prevent Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons. “From 1978 to 1981, we had our assessments and determined our red lines. Eventually, it became only a matter of devising a timetable and deciding when to launch the attack… With Iran, there are a lot more complicating factors to consider, and you need to be flexible in your assessments because there will be an accounting for resorting to military force,” Ivry said.

He added, “Deterrence is a combination of perceived capabilities and the intention and readiness to use them… Sometimes a smaller power can have a stronger deterrent effect since it has more flexibility to use force in different ways.”

While 78 percent of the Israeli public accepts official assessments that Iran now constitutes a real danger to Israel’s existence, only 37 percent believes Israel should act independently to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a Tel Aviv University poll conducted in early May.

In interviews , Israeli political and defense officials said Olmert’s Kadima-led coalition government will continue pushing for more aggressive U.S.-led efforts to rein in Tehran, while keeping inflammatory rhetoric and public acknowledg ment of military planning to a bare minimum. Likewise, milestones in defensive preparations that normally would generate public announcements and domestic fanfare have passed virtually unnoticed.

Defense Upgrades

In the coming months, Israel plans to launch its first radar satellite whose synthetic-aperture beams can spy through clouds and all weather conditions to detect changes on the ground in Iran. Similarly, the Israel Navy is working diligently with German shipbuilders to finalize contractual details for another two submarines that promise to extend Tel Aviv’s strategic ability to deter or respond to an Iranian attack.

Meanwhile, the Israel Air Force within the last month quietly declared improved Block 3 versions of the Arrow missile defense system operational. Enhancements include new interceptors, an upgraded version of the Green Pine search and track radar, and a new battle management center known by its operators as “the Cube.”

In a rare authorized visit to Arrow Unit headquarters here, the commander of the Arrow battalion said Block 3 improvements are designed to defend against larger quantities of increasingly capable Shihab missiles that could be equipped with nuclear warheads. According to the commander, a lieutenant colonel, Israel now has two Arrow batteries and two batteries of enhanced U.S.-built Patriot PAC-2 missiles available .

Battle management information from the four deployed batteries feeds into the Cube, a centralized combat information center manned by Air Force operators and technology support representatives from local industry.

Israeli air force and Ministry of Defense sources said they already are designing building blocks for the new Arrow Block 4 system, whose new radar, improved interceptors and other supporting elements will allow a departure from today’s battery- and geographic sector-oriented system to a fully integrated nationwide missile defense network.

“Block 4 will mark a quantum leap in improved capabilities. The new radar will give us a completely holographic system through which we can control all interceptors from anywhere,” one defense official said.

Planned for deployment around 2009, the new Block 4 radar, being developed by Elta Systems Ltd., will have an extended footprint way beyond today’s estimated range of some 700 kilometers, sources here said. “With the I-Green Pine [Block 4 radar], we’ll be able to handle more tracks and more interceptors by sending significantly more beams at higher frequencies than we are now capable of,” noted the battalion commander.

Meanwhile, operators of the Arrow weapon system here said they expect to incorporate additional improvements — through an incremental, software-driven Block 3.5 version of the radars and interceptors — by early next year.

Funded two-thirds by the United States and one-third by Israel, the current contract for the Arrow System Improvement Program extends through 2008. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has requested $77 million in 2007 funding for the joint program, and Israel’s Defense Ministry is seeking an additional $58 million in so-called congressional plus-ups to fund accelerated co-production of Arrow interceptors and a special study into yet more improvements driven by the prospective Iranian nuclear threat.

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