x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Israel ambiguous over air strike on Sudan

Analysts said Israel's long-standing policy of ambiguity has been a reliable weapon along with its arsenal of F-16s, pilotless-drones and alleged nuclear bombs for softening the political fallout from decades of covert operations in the region.

JERUSALEM // Showing six massive craters covering what once was a weapons facility in the heart of Sudan's capital, the satellite imagery of the aftermath of the October 23 attack suggested an aerial bombardment of such sophistication that the culprit is hardly shrouded in mystery.

Fingers have been pointing to Israel. Because of suspicion the destroyed facility held Gaza-bound arms supplied by Iran, few doubt it would not have captured the full attention of Tel Aviv.

By neither confirming nor denying involvement in the Khartoum attack, Israel has avoided shouldering responsibility, and for good reason. Analysts said this long-standing policy of ambiguity has been a reliable weapon along with its arsenal of F-16s, pilotless-drones and alleged nuclear bombs for softening the political fallout from decades of covert operations against nuclear facilities, arms traffickers and militants in the region.

The difficulty of proving an Israeli link helps to shield allies in Washington, Europe and the Arab world from the embarrassment of being accused of having prior knowledge of - or involvement in - its attacks, the analysts said. It also makes the case for retaliation harder to prove for those struck by Israel.

Thus its leaders can nudge themselves enough room to order operations far beyond its borders, said Jeremy Pressmen, associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.

"It's hard to find cases when Israel didn't get away with it," he said.

Of course, ambiguity has not dampened suspicions of an Israeli hand in many such incidents. Psychologically, that probably works to Israel's advantage. Because it does not deny such attacks, Israel leaves open the possibility that it could have been behind them. That has helped its military and Mossad spy agency create an aura of near-omnipotence in the Arab world.

Dan Schueftan, head of Haifa University's National Security Studies Center, said Israeli officials constantly weigh the diplomatic repercussions of its operations against not acting. One of their first considerations is Washington, Israel's most important ally, he said.

"If third-world countries protest, who cares," he said in describing Israeli calculations. "If the Europeans protest, well, not that important. But if the Americans would really be against it, that's a problem."

Fortunately for Israel, Mr Scheuftan said, American-Israeli security interests have more closely aligned since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

Israeli leaders, for their part, have publicly expressed concern that Sudan had become a transit point for Iranian weaponry supplied to anti-Israel militants. Moshe Yaalon, the vice premier, told Israel Radio on Wednesday "there's no doubt that there is an axis of weapons from Iran via Sudan that reaches us, and not just us".

Although Sudanese officials denied a Tehran link to the destroyed government-run factory in the attack in Khartoum that killed four, two Iranian warships later docked at Sudan's Red Sea port.

Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general and research associate at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, said the Khartoum strike likely knocked out Iranian arms destined for the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers or militants in the Sinai Peninsula.

It would not be the first time Israel was suspected of attacking Sudan. In 2009, aerial bombardments took out a ship at a Sudanese port and a convoy of arms headed to Gaza. But because of heightened sensitivities after the Arab Spring uprisings - and especially with the new Islamist leadership in Egypt - Mr Brom speculated Israeli leaders viewed Sudan as a less-costly location for thwarting weapons flows.

"Sudan is a remote place and action there won't bear important diplomatic and political costs," Mr Brom said. But not so when it comes to Iran and its nuclear facilities, he added.

Taking them out would require a large operation akin to the Israeli air force's attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. But similar prospects for success in Iran are questionable, and any ambiguity in the aftermath has probably been undermined by Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been unusually vocal in his support of a strike.

Writing in The New Yorker magazine, David Makovsky described how striking Iran would be far more complex than Israel's 2007 attack on Syria's suspected nuclear weapons facility. By maintaining ambiguity and utmost secrecy before and after that operation, he wrote, Israeli officials hoped to give Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, enough deniability - or what they called a "zone of denial" - so he would not feel pressured to retaliate

He did not and the raid was "an unparalleled success" for Israel, wrote Mr Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a US-based think tank.

But he doubted such auspicious conditions for such an operation in Iran, which he said "differs fundamentally from Syria" because of the high risk of "civilian casualties and retaliation".

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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