The strategic map: Achievements in the face of mounting challenges
Written by the Institute for Policy and Strategy Team, IPS
Executive Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead
|Photo: Map - Виктор В | CC BY-SA 2.0|
Although Israel is currently experiencing a lull in its security reality, the challenges to its national defense are mounting. Israel’s adversaries have been focusing more on building force and less on using it, and are avoiding escalating the friction in view of the high price that would be exacted from them, to say nothing of their own serious internal problems that also need to be addressed. At the same time, in view of these processes involving mounting challenges and force buildup, the strategic threat to Israel’s security is growing.
The thwarting of Hamas’s terror infrastructure in Judea and Samaria highlighted the seriousness of the terror threat and the success of Israel’s security forces in maintaining stability and security. As in the case of the escape of the Islamic Jihad operatives from Gilboa Prison, the ability of the security forces to rapidly close the circle prevented a tactical event from turning into one of strategic significance. This success represents an impressive operational triumph, but at the same time highlights the fragility of the security lull and the considerable potential for rapid, overall escalation.
In Judea and Samaria, Israel is working to improve the day-to-day reality as the basis for security calm, so as to prevent broad public enlistment in the struggle against Israel. Hamas, on the other hand, is trying to challenge this equation and position itself in Palestinian society so that it is poised to take control of the PA's political system after Abu Mazen demise. The Hamas infrastructure discovered in the recent IDF operation is the largest and most significant uncovered since 2014 and reflects an ongoing effort on the part of Hamas to rebuild its strength on the West Bank. In the Gaza Strip, the efforts to reach an agreement, brokered by Egypt, are moving ahead, and at this stage, it is in the interest of both parties to contain the situation and not provoke another round of fighting. At the same time, the ongoing endeavors on the part of Hamas to maintain low-intensity friction in order to extract more significant achievements could lead to yet another campaign in the near future.
In the political-diplomatic sphere, the speech given by the Israeli prime minister in the UN and the one given by the chairman of the Palestinian Authority highlighted the yawning chasm separating the sides, along with the fact that there is no actor on the international scene willing to exert pressure to jumpstart the political-diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians.
On the Israeli domestic scene, the situation in Arab society is developing into a strategic challenge of the first order. The widespread crime, proliferation of weapons, loss of deterrence on the part of law enforcement and loss of governance in much of Arab society (especially in the south) require a multidimensional civilian and security response. The potential of criminal crime to develop into terrorist crime was recently demonstrated in Operation Guardian of the Walls, further highlighting how urgent it is to develop a response at the national level.
In Iran, the negotiations to renew the nuclear deal have not yet gotten off the ground, and Teheran has expanded its nuclear project in order to establish itself as a “threshold state,” so that when talks are renewed, it will already have the technology and knowledge to continue the project once the decision to do so is made. In consideration of this situation, even with an agreement that requires the dismantling of Iran’s stockpiles of enriched uranium, Iran will be able to fill the gap using the advanced enrichment systems it developed relatively quickly.
At the same time, Iran continues to expand its regional clout and establish advanced capabilities that can pose a systemic threat to Israel. In concrete terms, Iraq and Yemen may become challenging arenas for Israel in the event of escalation scenarios. In this context, Iran has expanded its assistance to force buildup of its proxies. Israel’s Defense Minister recently revealed that Iran is training terrorist operatives to fly advanced drones at the Kashan base, Iran’s key base for the training of terror operatives to operate aerial weapons.
The United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to send shockwaves throughout the region and affect America’s credibility among its regional allies. These include question marks regarding the United States’ continued presence in Iraq and Syria, Washington’s pursuit to renew the nuclear deal with Iran and the cracks in the wall of sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria. All this plus the absence of a clear American strategy in the region are leading to regional agitation that crisscrosses camps and alliances.
In Syria, the United States has allowed Egypt and Jordan to move the gas pipeline to Lebanon through Syria, but is unwilling to lift sanctions against the Assad regime. The strategic dialogue between Russia and the United States has not proceeded, and Washington has still not yet offered a coherent strategy regarding Syria. At this stage, there is no expectation of a withdrawal of American forces from eastern Syria, where they hinder Iranian expansionist efforts and Turkish endeavors in the region. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff called a “strategic failure,” constitutes a barrier to further withdrawals from Syria or Iraq, at least for the time being.
Although Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf States are cautious not to fully legitimize Assad’s regime, they are making use of economic and political “carrots” to establish their influence in the country. King Abdullah’s conversation with Bashar Al-Assad (3 October), in which the king expressed his support for a united, sovereign, and stable Syria, constitutes a significant step in bringing their countries closer together and in recognizing the legitimacy of Assad’s regime. The United States is not enforcing the sanctions and its lack of response allows the continued talks and steps taken between the countries.
In Lebanon, international efforts in recent weeks to stabilize the political system, led by France and the United States, have intensified, while completely ignoring the continued buildup of Hezbollah's forces and its presence in the new Lebanese government. Hezbollah continues to fortify its political and military power in Lebanon undisturbed, and the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a friend of Bashar al-Assad, has neither the will nor ability to curb the organization's activities. The problem of Hezbollah’s growing power grows worse as the organization continues to arm itself with precision missiles and other advanced capabilities.
Drivers of Strategy
What this means for Israel
The Israeli government must use the current security lull to prepare itself and build its force in order to contend with future clashes and threats taking shape.
- First and foremost, the Iranian nuclear challenge requires full coordination with Washington, further to the development of a credible military response to strengthen Israel’s deterrence and impact the nature of the future agreement so that it meets Israel’s security requirements. Jerusalem must lead a diplomatic campaign in the international arena that will highlight the far-reaching implications of a nuclear Iran for the security of the region and the world, while at the same time making it clear that “all options are on the table.”
- In Judea and Samaria, Israel must continue to reinforce its current policy of improving the fabric of civilian life and strengthening the political-security coordination with the Palestinian Authority. This strategy can prevent broad escalation in Judea and Samaria, but it is not an alternative to a permanent political settlement. The lack of a settlement based on the concept of separation will inevitably lead to the reality of one state.
- The decision made by the Ministerial Team to Combat Violence in Arab society to the effect that the Israel Security Agency (ISA) and the IDF will assist the police in dealing with illegal weapons in the Arab communities constitutes a significant step towards addressing crime in the Arab sector and the recognition that this is a national endeavor that requires cooperation among all the branches of Israel’s security forces. At the same time, it is necessary to complement the security effort by offering a comprehensive solution to the severe hardships that exist and by promoting projects aimed at improving the situation of the younger Arab generation and bolstering the affinity of the Arab citizen to Israeli society and the State of Israel.
- In the Gaza Strip, talks to reach an arrangement continue, brokered by Egypt, and at this point, the shared interest of all the actors is to avoid escalation. Nevertheless, Hamas’s consistent strategy under Sinwar, aimed at maintaining a constant level of friction below the campaign threshold in order to extract significant civilian achievements, means that Israel must prepare for a scenario involving renewed escalation.
- The Arab world is gradually legitimizing the Assad regime without opposition from Washington. The absence of an American strategy is leading to an erosion of the sanctions regime and a change in the status of the Syrian regime on the regional and international level. Israel must formulate a strategy where Syria is concerned and initiate a dialogue with Moscow and Washington to make sure that the future developments are consistent with Israel’s national security interests, as long as a window of opportunity for influence remains open.
- Lebanon – Hezbollah’s growing power under the auspices of the Lebanese government and prompted by Iran constitutes a strategic threat of the first order. Should the diplomatic tools and the steps to prevent the transfer of arms from Syria to Lebanon fail, Israel will have to make a strategic decision whether to launch a preemptive strike and risk war, or come to terms with the presence of precision firepower in Lebanon held by a Teheran-led organization.
The bottom line is that Israel’s activity in the campaign between the wars is focused on aspects of the use of force, but it has refrained from taking action against the ongoing buildup of force that continues almost undisturbed in all arenas for fear of finding itself in an all-out war. This situation intensifies the dilemma Israel finds itself facing and highlights the need to prepare with force buildup of its own and the development of an appropriate operational approach, further to the consolidation of a comprehensive strategy that will define the goals of the campaign and the way in which they can be realized over the long term.
In this context, the challenge of the Islamic state, the expansion of Iranian influence in the region and the economic hardships in face of the basic conditions in the region’s countries and the effects of the pandemic strengthen Israel’s equity in the region and create potential for the further establishment and expansion of the Abraham Accords to form a regional architecture to curb Iran.
This document was written by the team of the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS)