by: John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent, The Australian
January 28, 2012 12:00AM
JUST before 10 am on Tuesday, something highly unusual happened. Seventeen foreign journalists were escorted into one of the most secure facilities in Israel - the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv.
When Israel is at war, this sprawling compound serves as the command centre.
We were taken into a secured room inside the main tower. Right on 10 o'clock, in walked one of the the most important figures in Israel's defence and security establishment.
We cannot name him, that was the condition of this rare briefing, but we can quote him as a "senior security source" or such like.
Some may see these briefings as further attempts to manipulate journalists.
Indeed, many of those in the room, from outlets including The New York Times, Reuters and the BBC, were in some sense cynical. The material presented was obviously authorised, not leaked documents that the IDF did not want published.
Inevitably, there was an element of spin to it all.
But there were also valuable insights into how Israel sees the changing Middle East and what it may be planning.
Perhaps the most important insight was the official's refusal to discuss Iran.
Iran's nuclear program is clearly the most urgent and serious challenge that Israel faces. The official presented us with a series of slides, one of which described Iran as "an existential threat" to Israel.
One journalist became irritated when the official would not take questions on Iran.
The journalist argued that if the official was going to say Iran was an existential threat then surely questions should be taken about it.
But one of the several military officers sitting in the room quickly announced that no questions would be taken on Iran - it was clearly too sensitive an issue.
The official who gave the briefing is likely to be engaged in a momentous decision in coming months about whether Israel launches military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The boasts by Iran's leadership that it will "wipe Israel off the map" give Israel a legitimate reason to fear Iran becoming a nuclear power.
As The New York Times noted recently, while the debate about sanctions continues "the centrifuges keep spinning".
One slide showed weapons movements around the Middle East. The map was based on Israeli intelligence assessments, and, like all intelligence assessments, they need to be taken with caution. But much of what they highlighted rings true.
The map showed a significant movement of weapons into Gaza. This is consistent with the view of one European country, as expressed recently to The Weekend Australian, that many weapons leaving Libya have been finding their way into Gaza through the Sinai in Egypt.
The Israeli official then discussed the region, country by country, and how Israel saw it.
Egypt: "Still under a military regime, but slowly moving towards democracy."
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood emerging as the big winners in the parliamentary elections, the Israeli military continues to deal directly with the Egyptian military.
The Sinai is increasingly falling under the control of Bedouin gangs, and is among Israel's biggest concerns.
Syria: President Bashar al-Assad is "bleeding to death".
Israel does not know what will replace the embattled President's regime and estimates more than 6000 civilians and up to 2000 security forces have been killed since the Syrian uprising began last March.
Israel is preparing for refugees on its border with Syria, which it will try to manage with UN officials in the demilitarised zone.
Lebanon: Hezbollah, which has "a significant military capacity", continues to consolidate power.
Iran: it is leading "the radical camp" and the source of many of the weapons finding their way into Gaza, particularly through Sudan.
Gaza: After two years of "relative quiet" Hamas, and even more so the Islamic Jihad, are increasing the number of rockets fired into Israel.
The official made clear Israel would have no hesitation in engaging in another Gaza war if "dragged in" by Hamas's continuation of rocket fire.
Israel's current assessment held there was currently "a low likelihood" of an "initiated" military campaign against Israel.
That is particularly significant: it means Israel understands that, despite Hezbollah having some 40,000 missiles in Lebanon near the border, it does not expect them to be used in the near future.
That may change should Israel strike Iran and Tehran urge Hezbollah, its Shia ally, to retaliate.
One of the most interesting features of the briefing was how low the Palestinian issue rates for Israel.
The official noted that the Palestinian Authority was doing "a good job" in security in the West Bank but, clearly, given the divisions between Hamas and Fatah, which rules the West Bank, Israel does not expect to be sitting opposite a united Palestinian negotiating team any time soon.