The challenges and opportunities for Israel’s national security in the coming year

 

 

By the Institute for Policy and Strategy Team, IPS, Executive Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead | September, 2021

 

Insights-30-9-21-E
Photo: VOA, Wikipedia Commons

 

The strategic competition between Israel and Iran, parallel to a new American administration taking the helm, have constituted core meta-forces shaping the Middle Eastern arena in the past year. Along with this, the volatile state of the Palestinian arena in the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria; Hezbollah’s progress in force design and particularly progress on its precision project; the end of the civil war in Syria and entrenchment of the Iranian and Russian presence in Syria; regional competition over energy resources and influence in the Mediterranean Basin; the deep economic crisis in Lebanon; the Covid pandemic; escalating regional economic crisis; and the return globally of the Jihadist challenge with the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan underscore the scope of change in the region, and its implications for Israel’s national security.

 

In this framework, the ‘resistance axis’ is investing in force buildup, and development of advanced capabilities (nuclear, precise firepower, cyber warfare and more) while refraining at this stage from employing these enhanced capabilities. At the same time, logic is not lineal, and when strategic opportunities present themselves or are called for to advance its national-religious agenda in response to a concrete event (Jerusalem, Israeli aerial operations against targets in Lebanon…), the ‘resistance axis’ doesn’t recoil from a response, and is even prepared to escalate the situation. This analysis demonstrates the power of regional dynamics; the limitations of Israel’s deterrence; and system-wide volatility that calls for formulation of an Israeli strategy that will provide a proper response to developing threats, but also to opportunities.

 

 


Drivers of Strategy


1. The New American Administration - Curtailment of Strategic Presence in the Middle East

 

The new focus of American national security is accompanied by a growing sense of crisis in light of the challenge China and Russia present to American hegemony that has sharpened during the past two American administrations. Escalating competition shaping the world order has accelerated the “East Asia turn in orientation” of the administration’s current focus, carrying ramifications for its policy and actions in the Middle East.

 

In this context, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan that has garnered bilateral support in Washington, expressed first and foremost the desire of the government to focus on core strategic threats to American security. On the other hand, the withdrawal is perceived in the Middle East as ‘a victory of the resistance and its resolute stand’ against American imperialism and is liable to lead to increasing pressure from Iran and ISIL on American forces in Iraq and Syria with the objective of accelerating their departure from the region. The government of the United States will have to revalidate its guarantees to the security of its regional alliances, and to formulate a balanced policy that can move between focusing on strategic competition in the face of China and Russia, and continuing to invest in the Middle East while curbing Iran’s undermining and destabilizing policy in the region.

 

Parallel to this (and as part of the comprehensive policy that derives from this perspective) the American administration is striving to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, an objective it views as a crucial strategic interest that it feels will enable Washington to rebalance its commitments to regional stability and security, and America’s need to make room for addressing burning domestic issues (the economy, Covid), and growing competition with China and Russia. President Biden’s declaration to Prime Minister Bennett at the White House that ‘Iran won’t have nuclear weapons on his watch’ doesn’t express an American commitment to prevent Iran developing a nuclear capacity or even being transformed into a nuclear power; it focuses solely on the concrete narrow realm of nuclear arms development. At this stage, Iran "decoded" American strategy, and is in no hurry to return to the nuclear agreement that limits in this stage its efforts to develop advanced technological capabilities that can be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations, and to position Iran as a nuclear threshold state.

 

In this comprehensive context, Israel needs to anchor America’s commitment to Israel’s security by bolstering strategic cooperation, maintaining its qualitative edge, and ensuring support behind its military force design processes. Israel needs to try to influence negotiations in Vienna by working with the Administration, based on an understanding of America’s national priorities and cognizance of the possible price to American-Israeli relations in a scenario where Israel openly opposes moves taken by Washington. Parallel to this, the American move strengthens Israel’s ‘equity’ for the Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan in the struggle to rein-in Iranian regional impact and constitutes potential to deepen regional cooperation.

 

 

2. Strategic Competition between Israel and Iran is Heating Up

 

Strategic Competition between Israel and Iran is Heating Up Over the past year, friction between Israel and Iran has stepped up against the backdrop of Iranian resolve in its efforts to increase Teheran’s influence and entrenchment in the region (Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon); the confrontations in the maritime arena and a quantum leap towards nuclearization that takes Teheran forward to a very problematical ‘threshold position’ from the perspective of Jerusalem and the international arena. Israel, on the other hand, has devised a regional architecture with Washington for restraining and deterring Iran - “the Abraham Accords”. In addition, the Israeli military-operations-short-of-war in Syria aims to curb Iranian -entrenchment and prevent military buildup. Furthermore, according to foreign sources Israel's covert preemptive operations within Iran itself was designated to slow down progress towards nuclearization.

 

In light of the step-up in strategic competition and military friction between the countries, Israel needs to develop a strategy that will allow it to set boundaries to friction in the arenas where Israel enjoys military superiority, parallel to leading a diplomatic battle to delegitimize Iranian actions in the Middle East with the objective of exacting a diplomatic and economic price from the Iranian regime for such behavior. Integrating military tools in delineated arenas, with broad investment in third-circle military force design, alongside adoption of aggressive diplomacy in the international arena will strengthen the Israeli deterrent effect, and well position Jerusalem vis-à-vis its regional allies.

 

 

3. Iran is Progressing towards Nuclearization

 

Strategic Competition between Israel and Iran is Heating Up Over the past year, friction between Israel and Iran has stepped up against the backdrop of Iranian resolve in its efforts to increase Teheran’s influence and entrenchment in the region (Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon); the confrontations in the maritime arena and a quantum leap towards nuclearization that takes Teheran forward to a very problematical ‘threshold position’ from the perspective of Jerusalem and the international arena. Israel, on the other hand, has devised a regional architecture with Washington for restraining and deterring Iran - “the Abraham Accords”. In addition, the Israeli military-operations-short-of-war in Syria aims to curb Iranian -entrenchment and prevent military buildup. Furthermore, according to foreign sources Israel's covert preemptive operations within Iran itself was designated to slow down progress towards nuclearization.

 

In light of the step-up in strategic competition and military friction between the countries, Israel needs to develop a strategy that will allow it to set boundaries to friction in the arenas where Israel enjoys military superiority, parallel to leading a diplomatic battle to delegitimize Iranian actions in the Middle East with the objective of exacting a diplomatic and economic price from the Iranian regime for such behavior. Integrating military tools in delineated arenas, with broad investment in third-circle military force design, alongside adoption of aggressive diplomacy in the international arena will strengthen the Israeli deterrent effect, and well position Jerusalem vis-à-vis its regional allies.

 

 

3. Iran is Progressing towards Nuclearization

 

With the backing of the major powers and the international community, the United States is determined to return to the outlines of the nuclear agreement, despite Iran’s subversive and destabilizing actions in the region. Iran for its part, is expanding its nuclear project parallel to mired negotiations in Vienna, and leverages its technological progress on the ground to extract additional gains. Against this backdrop, in the past year the Iranian program to develop a nuclear weapon had made significant steps forward, bringing Teheran within a few months of assembling a nuclear device. Progress at this stage hinges on a decision from the supreme leader of the regime more than technological progress - which has already reached most of the requirements to do so. The one thing that apparently has yet to be completed is outfitting the explosive device within a military launching platform.

 

One can assume thateven if diplomatic steps - that is, talks of renewal of the agreement between the major powers and Iran (the JCPOA) - reach fruition, Iran will not return to the status that existed in 2018 when the United States walked out of the agreement. Teheran will remain with all the technologies and know-how needed to continue the project, if the decision is taken to do so. If Iran agrees to give up its stockpile of enriched uranium of various levels, it will be able to make up for the loss-delay this would cause, within a short time, using advanced enrichment systems it has developed.

 

Iran must yield in two key areas for the work of the major powers to roll back Iran’s achievements: Close surveillance of all critical aspects of nuclear development particularly on the track developing the nuclear fission mechanism, and lengthening significantly the agreement’s timetable so under the agreement the Iranians will not be able to continue to develop nuclear weapons.

 

Iran as a nuclear power or even as a nuclear threshold state constitutes a threat of the highest magnitude to Israel’s national security. The only state of affairs that can prevent a military crisis with Iran is if Teheran will agree to give up military nuclear development, under strict and comprehensive long-term international surveillance. This is highly improbable.

 

Therefore, Israel must develop a credible military threat to bolster its deterrent facing Iran, and pressure that in the next round of talks in Vienna, the objective will be defined as complete stoppage of nuclear technology development, while clarifying that from Jerusalem’s standpoint ‘all options are on the table’. As well, Israel needs to act to strengthen its strategic alliance with the United States, and tighten military-security collaboration - so essential to maintaining and promoting Israel’s capability to take action. Along with this, Jerusalem needs to amplify in Washington and European capitals that a nuclear Iran constitutes a strategic threat with broad ramifications for the safety and stability of the world. Thus for example, Iranian progress on nuclearization is highly likely to lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and undermine the international status-quo on proliferation of nuclear military capabilities.

 

 

4. The Palestinian Arena: Judea and Samaria as a strategic opportunity alongside a growing challenge from Gaza:

 

The last year has been marked by an ongoing strategic reality in Judea and Samaria in contrast to a negative change and intensification of threats from the Gaza arena. Thus, in Judea and Samaria the basic ‘formula’ that has made over a decade of strategic stability possible for Israel - that is, maintaining and improving daily realities in the civic sphere as a foundation for calm in the security sphere–so that curbing broad public mobilization against Israel. In the Gaza Striphowever - there is a marked and continuous effort on the part of Hamas to change the equations and the ‘rules of the game’ facing Israel, and perpetuate continual unrest through violence that raises the likelihood of escalation in this arena.

 

This stands out in particular in the course of the ‘Guardian of the Walls’ Operation when for the first time, Hamas initiated an offensive attack - embarked on in the context of friction in Judea and Samaria and in Jerusalem. This raises questions regarding the ‘arrangement doctrine’ that Israel has tried to promote in recent years in dealing with Hamas, and demonstrates that Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar is prepared to pursue his ideological objectives while violating the ‘arrangements’ (in a ‘trial and error’ fashion) under the assumption that at the present time he can always fall back to the previous arrangements prior to the campaign, without facing any significant damage or being forced to make heavy concessions - particularly on the captives and MIAs issue.

 

Looking forward - complex realities behoove Israel to continue and even to bolster its current policy vis-à-vis Judea and Samaria, that has proven effective in the face of numerous crises (including Guardian of the Walls) and is likely to continue to be effective in the ‘day after’ Abu Mazen, as well. In this framework, what is needed is continuation and further enhancement of the fabric of civil life in Judea and Samaria, and strengthening diplomatic and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority - even if no breakthrough in the diplomatic realm is in the cards. All these are likely to facilitate strategic stability in Judea and Samaria in the immediate future and for the mid-term. While it is not an alternative to a permanent settlement in Judea and Samaria - particularly a Two-State that would mark a parting of ways between Israel and the Palestinians (a scenario that in practice is becoming increasingly slim due to the ‘tangled’ demographic and geographic situation on the ground in Judea and Samaria that is bringing the two sides closer to the realities of One State.

 

In the Gaza Strip, it is recommended that Israel free itself from the paradigm that has gained a following in recent years of ‘arrangements’ under prevailing conditions. It appears this does not bring quiet in the long-term; rather, it is accompanied by an ongoing effort by Hamas to maintain constant friction at a level just below the bar that would spark a major operation. Under Hamas’ assessment - in this manner they can extract significant benefits from Israel in the civic sphere. This pattern of behavior by Yahya Sinwar is not about to change; it is a situation that requires Israel to prepare for an operation against Hamas, perhaps in the near future. In this context, it is recommended that shortcomings uncovered in the course of the Guardian of the Walls Operation be fixed - first of all, an offensive initiative on the part of Israel that will inflict a harsh blow to the top echelon of Hamas leadership parallel to taking a resolute stand in shaping any future ‘arrangements’ that will prevent the terms being dissolved, undermining perception of Israel’s deterrent - as occurred in the aftermath of Guardian of the Walls.

 

 

5. Dramatic Change in Arab Society in Israel

 

The past year embodied a dramatic change in Arab society in terms of Israel’s national security. This was expressed in events in May (in the shadow of the Guardian of the Walls Operation) that showed unprecedented violent friction between Jews and Arabs within Israel (particularly from entities within the Arab public) that have taken unparalleled inspiration from occurrences in the Palestinian system on happenings within Arab society in Israel. This side-by-side with continuous worsening of crime and violence in Arab society that reflects an increasing loss of governance in a significant part of Arab society (primarily in the south), paralleled by the threat of crime-based violence limited to Arab society spilling over into security-based violence that will go beyond the confines of the Arab public (whose buds were seen in May events). Internally, as a phenomenon, the violence reflects fundamental problems of detachment of the young Arab generation in Israel and a serious loss of the influence of Arab public’s political leadership over its constituency.

 

In this manner, what is taking place in Arab society is being transformed into a strategic challenge of the first magnitude - that did not exist in the past with the same force, and demands a multidimensional response. On one hand, the state needs a broad scope effort in law enforcement and policing -- particularly combating crime gangs and the presence of weaponry on the Arab street; on the other hand, the state must provide solutions to the deep civil distress - that serves as a ‘seedbed’ where a large portion of the acute problems troubling Arab society develop. In this regard, along with expansion of fiscal resources allocated to the Arab sector, projects need to be forwarded whose content can improve the circumstances of the young generation (including initiatives for a civilian national service that a large percentage of the Arab public is open to). Also, financing channels within the Arab sector (‘tight credit’ that serves as a core source feeding ‘gray market’ financing) need to be improved. Along with this, an ongoing effort must be made to improve the ‘loaded’ relationships between the Arab public and the police, even to expand mobilization of Arab personnel within the Israel Police Force.

 

 

6. First Anniversary of the “Abraham Accords” - a strong but challenged alliance

 

The Iranian threat still constitutes the unifying factor behind the Abraham Accords signed in August 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. In this context, the past year has witnessed an historical step up in strategic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, expressed in unprecedented economic-civic-cultural cooperation, and willingness to continue to deepen bilateral ties between the countries. Saudi Arabia for its part, despite its ‘intimate’ strategic cooperation with Israel and the United States, is not prepared at this point in time to take relations to the next level.

 

The Gulf States fear that the effectiveness of the deterrent facing Iran has been undermined in the face of therevealed strategy of the United States in the Middle East, that raises question regarding Washington’s commitment to their security. The rushed American military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and apprehension that a similar scenario will be repeated in Iraq and Syria, drive formulation of a pragmatic strategy by the Gulf States regarding Iran.

 

ln this context - the Baghdad Summit held last August with the objective of subduing regional tensions and promoting cooperation – an event indicative of the movement of the Gulf states for a dialogue with Iran, despite the deep rivalry and fundamental distrust that still exists between the sides. In the framework of the summit, for the first time leaders from Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, France and heads of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, as well as the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia met and discussed regional security issues, energy and climate change. This trend, should it accelerate, might fracture the security relationships and bilateral ties cemented between Israel and the Gulf States, and the ability of Jerusalem to establish an effective regional axis for power projection designed to restrain and deter Iran.

 

Looking forward, Israel must act to anchor commitments of the Biden administration behind the Abraham Accords and to leverage Israel’s special relationship with Washington to bolster support in the White House for the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan in the security and the diplomatic realm. Along with this, Israel needs to deepening its strategic cooperation with the Gulf states, particularly with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to found a regional system to curb Iranian influence. Israeli ‘equity’ facing Washington, parallel to establishment of effective security and economic cooperation, can enable preservation of the diplomatic achievement engendered in the signing of the agreements and even their further development and expansion as a counterweight to Iranian strategy.

 

In the first place, Israel needs to take action to deepen strategic cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, in the face of growing shared challenges. The stability of Egypt and Jordan constitute a strategic interest for Israel that require strengthen the ‘soft’ aspects of cooperation (water and desalinization technologies, agriculture, energy and more), and not just the military-security aspects -- although the probability of progress towards normalization is low.

 

 

7. The Disintegration of Lebanon and Empowerment of Hezbollah

 

The mammoth political and economic crisis in Lebanon accelerates processes that are dismantling the Lebanese polity, showcasing the utter dysfunction of government ministries; the loss of governance and severe blow to the quality of life of the Lebanon’s citizenry (power outages, shortage of basic goods and medicines, a rise in poverty and more). Under such worsening conditions, Hezbollah - with Iranian backing - is operating to further establish and expand its seizure of the country through the flow of humanitarian assistance and energy supply (petroleum). Overall deterioration doesn’t prevent Iran and Hezbollah from continuing to accelerate their military force design - particularly the precision missile project intended to establish a deterrence equation towards Israel, parallel by progress on their preparedness for the next round with Israel. While Hezbollah has no interest in embarking on a military conflict with Israel considering the current arduous situation in Lebanon and the price it is likely to pay in the domestic arena for such a move, but the potential for escalation in the event of an Israeli preemptive attack on such materialization projects in Lebanon remains high, in light of the sensitivity Hezbollah would manifest in the face of attrition to prevailing equations, and Hezbollah’s need to preserve its status as “Lebanon’s protector”.

 

Therefore, Israel needs to bring a halt to the military buildup process in Lebanon- even at the price of increasing the risk-taking in the short of war operations in Syria. A determined action is required that will make clear to the Assad regime the price of its support of Hezbollah, that is, driving a wedge between the Syrian interest (rehabilitating the country) and the Iranian interest (force design and transferring capabilities to Iran’s proxy forces). While this necessity will raise the bar of tensions and risk of escalation, it can bring a change in behavior by the Syrian player, in line with Israeli interests. In this context, strategic diplomatic and security coordination with Russia constitutes a critical Israeli interest that needs to be further bolstered to preserve freedom of action for the IDF operationally in the Syrian arena. As for the Lebanese polity, in light of the deep crisis dismantling the Lebanese state, Israel needs to prod the regional and international system to strengthen the forces that oppose Iranian influence – parties that can balance and curtail the growing influence of Teheran over Lebanon. Thus, curbing Iranian influence in Lebanon, and establishing restraints on Hezbollah’s further empowerment hinges on an ‘assistance package’ that should include movement of natural gas and petroleum via Egypt and Jordan to Lebanon; grants and loans from the Gulf States and economic and military aid from the United States and Europe.


 

 

 

Authored by the Institute for Policy and Strategy Team, IPS, Executive Director Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead

 

 

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