Israel can best ride out the regional storm raging around it by adopting a defensive “wall” strategy, mixed with an enhanced long-range strike capability, while cooperating with the surviving Arab powers and kingdoms, a former intelligence and operations officer told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
Lt.-Col. Ron Tira, a reservist at the Israel Air Force’s Campaign Planning Department, and author of The Nature of War: Conflicting Paradigms and Israeli Military Effectiveness (2009), is a former fighter pilot with more than 30 years of experience.
He said the Sykes-Picot system of Arab states is continuing to collapse across much of the Middle East, as Iran exploits the situation to expand its influence in areas that reach right up to Israel’s borders. Anti-state Arab actors, most of them following a radical jihadist agenda, are not far behind, filling the vacuum as well.
“The environment that we’re seeing is fundamentally changing, in that several countries that were a main concern of Israel have disappeared, are in the process of disappearing, or at risk. We have a vacuum created around us. Into that vacuum, new players enter some of them are distant, and which are far stronger than the old players; Iran is far stronger than Syria,” Tira said.
Tira recently wrote a paper published by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), in which he cautioned against Israel entangling itself in costly military adventures in an effort to “politically engineer” Arab regions.
Yet he called on Israel to ensure that it can militarily eliminate tangible, developing threats, near its borders and far from them – including targets in Iran – with assertive strikes. Israel must be prepared for the possibility of launching a military campaign that directly targets Iran, he wrote.
Israel does not have the resources to engage in political engineering, or in shaping realities in Arab regions beyond its borders, Tira warned in his paper, despite the fact that such areas are being infiltrated by Iran, its proxies, and non-state Sunni actors.
“Israel must cooperate with whomever it can in curbing the shocks, and in deepening Iran’s descent into overstretching itself. Routinely, Israel must exert military force unassumingly, in order to thwart selected concrete threats in regions where Israel has vital interests,” he added.
“Deepened Iranian penetration into Arab regions, in which Israel has vital interests, as well as the nuclear threat, obliges Israel to build up force for projecting power and for potentially even conducting an extensive campaign against Iran,” Tira said.
Israel has to have the ability to achieve “unilateral influence” over Tehran’s nuclear program, which remains an enormous threat, irrespective of the diplomatic deal being hammered out by the international community.
In fact, Tira argued, Israel made a mistake in the timing of how it orchestrated the inter - nationalization of the Iranian nuclear issue, a move that led it to lose influence over the out - come of the crisis, and resulted in “risk-averse diplomats with fewer interests at stake” taking over.
Now, the US may be seeking a grand bargain with Iran that would fail to deal with the nuclear threat, but position the Islamic Republic as a US regional partner that is even more robust than before.
Under the new reality, Israel should collaborate with regional actors to curb Iran’s hegemony, ensure that it can project force directly at Iran – and not only at its proxies – and develop the ability to con - duct a large-scale campaign against it, Tira said.
“If it becomes apparent that the US is consistent in ignoring Israel’s positions on Iran’s nuclear program, then having no other choice, Israel must seek the circumstances and method that would allow it to attain unilateral influence over Iran’s nuclear program,” he said.
The disintegration of the Arab state system has created two challenges for Israel: Instability on its borders, and the ability of Iran to directly and indirectly penetrate areas all the way to Israel’s borders, the air force reservist said.
Nevertheless, “Israel should not take part in a Great Game of the Middle East, i.e., seizing regions of influence and foot - holds.
“However, the Great Game is liable to reach areas near Israel in which it has vital interests. Accordingly, Israel is likewise unable to turn a blind eye to what is emerging beyond its borders.”
Regional cooperation with a maximum number of actors is key to the strategy, Tira wrote, even if such relations prove “temporary, fragile and discreet.”
“Israel must certainly continue to cooperate with Egypt (with respect to Gaza, Sinai and other common interests), contribute to Jordan’s security in the face of internal and external threats, and maximize the advantage of the common interests with Saudi Arabia. It should arm and participate in the funding of ethnic groups such as the Kurds, Druse and others,” he argued.
“Furthermore, there is the possibility of attaining equilibrium, even if temporary and fragile, with local groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra in the south of the Syrian Golan Heights,” Tira stated.
“For both Israel and Jabhat al-Nusra’s local group it appears more important to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from establishing footholds in that area; thus it is possible to at least attain a state of mutual disregard [with Jabhat al-Nusra],” Tira wrote. He acknowledging that such an arrangement would be “tenuous and liable to unravel at any moment,” yet it could be effective as a temporary, stabilizing act.
Israel has to hold continuous security assessments and calculations to keep up with regional changes. “If ISIS, for example, threatens to base itself in the Syrian Golan, it might be that a Hezbollah presence is actually prefer - able. Hezbollah is a more threatening force, but could be a more suitable partner in forming rules of the game that are agreed upon. In an unstable environment one cannot assume that a move of any sort will produce a stable and fixed reality; how - ever, a series of temporary measures may help ride the waves of the tumult,” he added.
Hezbollah, for its part, is expanding “beyond the scope of a guerrilla organization and is acquiring the capabilities of a strong state.”
Today, Hezbollah can operate from deep inside its territory, which in 2015 stretches far wider than just Lebanon. “Therefore a campaign against Hezbollah has new implications in terms of theater size, borders, and the threat this organization poses to Israel,” Tira said.
Turning his sights to the Palestinian question in a post Sykes-Picot era, Tira said that the “strengthening of Arab anti-state forces and Iranian hegemony” means that Israel and the surviving Arab regimes have moved closer to one another, and that a solution to the Palestinian problem is no longer a pre - condition for cooperation with the Arab powers.
Additionally, with Palestinians divided into Fatah-run and Hamas-run entities, and with Islamic Jihad continuing to operate as an Iranian proxy, “the notion that it is possible to package the three mutually hostile organizations, which represent such contradictory agendas, together with strong local Palestinian elements into a coherent, stable and peace-seeking state seems far removed from the empirical conditions.”
The 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the three wars that fol - lowed it, which have cost Israel the lives of soldiers, and more than NIS 20 billion, have failed to remove the threat in the Gaza Strip.
Tira’s recommendation is to make sure such threats are not allowed to develop in the West Bank.
“Future Israeli strategy must be based on the unilateral prevention of the emergence of threats between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River – and not on risk-taking and dealing with threats after they have emerged,” he said.
Still, he said Israel should not abandon the long-term goal of a two-state solution.
“One cannot ignore the fact that the Palestinian issue continues to disturb Israel’s relations with the West, and is exacting an increasing price. The settlements, which are perceived as frustrating the possibility for a future political arrangement, are liable to result in Israeli overstretching and the need to pay a disproportionate political and economic price,” he warned.
“Therefore, Israel must present the long-term objective of a Palestinian state and bestow it with credibility through a unilateral and unconditional cessation of settlement activity. At the same time, Israel must recognize that the objective is not attainable in the existing reality,” Tira said.