Israel heading into 2015: Strong on tactics, weak on strategy

2014 was a good year for Israel from a military standpoint, but a number of threats still remain.

January 1, 2015 15:58
Merkava tanks

Israeli army Merkava tanks churn up dust as they race towards targets during a live-fire exercise. (photo credit: REUTERS)

In the euphoric years between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the leaders of Israel, with defense minister Moshe Dayan chief among them, had a tendency to boast that “our situation has never been better.” Within a relatively short time, reality flipped on them and the illusion died at the painful price of some 2,700 fallen soldiers.

Since then, the same turn of phrase has been avoided.

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Nonetheless, there is not a better definition to encapsulate Israel’s military situation in 2014. According to most estimates, evaluations, and analyses by experts and all those correctly viewing reality – without any personal, political, or ideological bias – Israel’s military situation improved in the past year and its qualitative edge over its enemies has grown.

In all actuality, Israel is the strongest military power, not only in the Middle East, but in the entire region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

There is not a single state or coalition of states that has the military ability to threaten Israel’s existence or defeat it on the battlefield.

In the East, the two large armies that made up this front in the past, Syria and Iraq, which in the past were considered major threats by Israel, have completely receded. Iraq today is a country deteriorating into three or four parts. Despite the tens of billions of dollars invested by the US in Baghdad’s army, it collapsed like a house of cards in the battles of the past half-year against Islamic State.

In Syria, the civil war continues and March 2015 will mark four bloody years of conflict with no end in sight.

Syria is a completely dismantled state. Bashar Assad’s regime controls about a quarter of the country’s territory, mostly Damascus and its surroundings, the coast, a few other cities, and the roads connecting them. Assad’s army has suffered heavy losses in battles with the various rebel groups, both on the battlefield and through the desertion of tens of thousands of soldiers, including high-ranking officers.

Led by the Americans, the international community rid the regime’s army of its chemical weapons, which were developed and produced in order to answer the nuclear capability attributed to Israel. Even if the Syrian regime retains some “residual” chemical ability with Sarin gas, as is estimated among Israel’s intelligence community, it still does not pose a real threat. This is evidenced by the fact that the defense establishment stopped producing gas masks and distributing them to the public.

In the North, Hezbollah has been significantly weakened over the past year. The group is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, in which it serves as Iran’s military wing and spearhead in defense of the regime in Damascus.

However, the price that Hezbollah is paying for becoming more and more of an Iranian proxy and less and less of a Lebanese Shi’ite group is very heavy.

Hezbollah has lost hundreds, if not more than a thousand of its best fighters in the Syrian war. Among those lost are senior commanders with abundant battle experience. They are being buried in the dead of night in order to hide the ugly reality from the group’s supporters. The morale of the group’s members is down. Many in Lebanon, especially within the Shi’ite community on which the group relies, are asking the key question: Why do young Lebanese men need to sacrifice their lives for a foreign regime? In a certain manner, Syria is Hezbollah’s Vietnam.

At the same time, the war in Syria is crossing over into Lebanon itself. Islamic State and and extremist Sunni organizations such as Jabat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, are transferring the war to Lebanese territory.

They are blowing up car bombs in the heart of Shi’ite strongholds, including Dahia, the “Kiriya” of Hezbollah in Beirut, planning ambushes on the Shi’ite group’s fighters, and forcing Hezbollah to take cover and defend its home.

In the South has occurred perhaps the most interesting and important development of 2014. Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation the like of which has not been seen before, not even at the height of secret contacts between the countries when Hosni Mubarak was president and intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman was at home at the Mossad’s Glilot headquarters. Israel and Egypt, under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, see eye-to-eye on everything connected to Gaza, Hamas, and terrorism in Sinai.

The regime in Cairo sees Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which it hates with all its soul, and treats the group as an enemy that it must humiliate, subjugate, and isolate. Egypt accuses Hamas of increasing terrorism in Sinai by helping Ansar Bayit al-Maqdis, al-Qaida’s local branch, which has recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

Egypt’s army and security forces, with strong backing from Israel – only a little of which is made public – are waging an uncompromising war of destruction on the terrorist organization in Sinai. In the past year they have had important achievements, but have also suffered heavy losses. The war on terrorism in Sinai will continue in 2015.

The cooperation and understanding between Israel and Egypt were seen last summer in the war against Hamas in Gaza. The IDF struck a painful blow to Hamas, something that also contributed to Israel’s military strength. Hamas of 2015 is not just another terrorist organization as the Israeli government and the IDF call it.

It is a regime that controls a territory and organizes its forces as a semi-regular army.

It is a mix between a guerrilla organization and an actual army. But it is a weakened army, that lost two-thirds of its rocket capabilities (some 6,000 rockets were destroyed or launched), that had almost all of its attack tunnels into Israel, which served as a strategic tool in war, exposed and destroyed from the air, by detonation, or by flooding with sewage.

Hamas is trying to rehabilitate its military power and to get out from under the blockade it has surrendered to, by swallowing its pride and crawling back into the arms of Iran, which is not rushing to take it back into its bosom.

Hamas is internationally isolated, subject to naval and land blockades from Israel and Egypt that are choking it with a strong grip, and it is also gradually losing its main source of support, Qatar, which has recently been trying to make peace with the Egyptian regime.

Militarily, Israel is challenged, at least potentially, by three things: radical Islam, Hezbollah and Iran.

The extremist Islamist terrorist groups are near Israel’s borders. Jabat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, controls almost all of the border strip from Jordan to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Ansar Bayit al-Maqdis is active in Sinai, not far from Israel’s border, and Islamic State is trying, unsuccessfully for now, to infiltrate Jordan. All of these are threats, but as of now, there are no signs that these terrorist groups are showing interest in Israel and their interest is in acting against the states they are currently in: Syria and Egypt.

Despite becoming weaker due to its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah is still considered a serious military power. The group has tens of thousands of missiles that cover almost every point in Israel, including airports, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, army bases, and power stations.

Hezbollah fighters are also gaining experience on battlefields in Syria, which will give them improved military capability in the case of a conflict with Israel. However, the Israeli deterrence which has existed since the Second Lebanon War is still holding. Hezbollah does not want war with Israel.

The second threat to Israel comes from Iran. It has hundreds of Shihab-3 missiles, which can hit any target in Israel. Iran is Hezbollah’s patron. In recent months, Hamas leaders led by Khaled Mashaal have been making an effort to make peace with Tehran in order to again get financial and weapons aid, even if it means they will be humiliated and have their status damaged. But they have no choice. Iran, however, which is finding it difficult to forgive Hamas for its disloyalty upon the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, has not yet answered the group’s entreaties.

In the eyes of the Netanyahu government, Iran, which is trying to obtain a nuclear weapon, is an existential threat to Israel. There are senior experts in the defense establishment who believe differently: that more than Iran is really an existential threat to Israel, the leadership, chiefly Benjamin Netanyahu, make Iran into such a threat for domestic political reasons.

Iran is already a nuclear threshold state, anywhere form a matter of months to a year away from having the ability to build its first bomb.

If Iran wanted to, it could have already built a bomb.

However, as of now, Iran is not interested in building a nuclear bomb, mainly due to the economic crisis it is facing due to UN and Western sanctions, and also due to the falling price of oil, which is its main source of income.

The first months of 2015 will be focused on the nuclear talks between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran to reach an agreement that will end the nuclear crisis, which has continued for the past nine years. If an agreement is reached and Iran allows tight inspections and limitations for a number of years on its ability to enrich uranium, it will probably be the most interesting development in the international arena in the coming year.

If Washington renews relations with Tehran, Netanyahu’s foreign relations and security policy – which is built on inflating the Iranian threat, frightening the Israeli public, and abusing the memory of the Holocaust – will be rendered useless.

But there is still no guarantee that such an agreement will be reached. The ball is in the court of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to decide to compromise at the cost of “national pride,” and in doing so save his country from economic crisis and isolation.

Israel’s unquestioned military superiority stems from the deterioration of states in the Arab world (Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq) from the radical Islamist threat on Arab regimes and mainly from its constant efforts to preserve its technological and scientific advantage over regional opponents.

This qualitative edge was created with the help of the strategic alliance with the US, but in the past year there have been cracks in this alliance.

True, relations and cooperation in the field of security and intelligence on the operative level of both states have been preserved and even improved. But Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to President Barack Obama and his government, as well as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s overheard insults that he makes sometimes (and then half-heartedly apologizes for), are damaging Israel’s most important asset: its intimate relations with the US.

As a result of the policies of Netanyahu-Ya’alon (ironically, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has exhibited a serious and responsible approach on this matter and has looked like the gatekeeper), Israel is having difficulty leveraging its military advantage into strategic achievements, which combine military ability with foreign policy and international status.

Strategically, Israel has gotten weaker in 2014 because of the deterioration in relations with the US and, as a result, and perhaps even to a greater degree, with European states. This deterioration stems firstly from the government’s lack of desire to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority and from the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, to the point that, soon, any chance of an agreement that includes evacuating settlements and withdrawing from territories in exchange for security arrangements and an end to the conflict will be blocked.

On this matter, the end of 2014 saw the dam burst: European states, including Israel’s traditional friends, such as France, are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state and are not afraid of being blamed for having an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic approach.

The Palestinian issue remains Israel’s No. 1 problem and it will also be an important challenge, perhaps an existential one, in 2015. Without the breakthrough of a diplomatic agreement, one of two scenarios is liable to occur – or perhaps both of them together: a popular Palestinian uprising in the west bank, whose buds we already saw in the outgoing year; or Israel falling into a situation that will resemble the former apartheid regime in South Africa. This would mean the deepening of Israel’s international isolation, possibly to the point of sanctions being levied against it, without the US rescuing it with the help of a veto.

The writer is an Israeli journalist and writer who specializes in security and intelligence affairs. He is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.

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