As Israel approaches its 70th anniversary, the Jewish state’s strategic situation is almost the strongest it’s ever been, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel told The Jerusalem Post at the 11th annual Institute for National Security Studies Conference on Wednesday.
“The assessment of the strategic situation of Israel is almost the best since the state was founded,” said Dekel, who is the managing director and a senior research fellow at INSS. “But,” he stressed, “We have gone from the threat posed by Iran as a source of undermining stability to the Shi’ite axis, which is spreading across the Middle East.”
Most Sunni Arab countries, which in the past had seen Israel as their main enemy, have changed their viewpoint and look at Israel as a potential friend, a country with which they could potentially cooperate with, Dekel said.
While the country’s strategic situation is “very good” – the existential threat has gone away, the tightening of relations with the Trump administration and strategic understandings with Putin – “we must be aware of scenarios which can escalate the situation, including miscalculations, especially in Israel’s northern arena where Iranian proxies presence and the proliferation of long-range and precise weaponry poses significant risks to the home front,” Dekel explained.
The pragmatic Sunni Arab countries – Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and several of the Gulf states – have understood that the main threat to the region, is not Israel, but is a militant Iran which is trying to take advantage of unstable situations and create a new reality of Iranian dominance on the ground.
In Dekel’s view, while Israel, along with the Americans and Sunni Arab countries understand the risk posed by the Shi’ite axis, Europe and Russia don’t understand the threat and the negative consequences of Iranian hegemony in the region.
While it is clear that all players in the Middle East have their own interests, they are operating according to their short-term and not long-term interests.
“Iran is designing a comfortable environment for themselves by carrying out ethnic cleansing,” Dekel said, explaining that people who are view Iran favorably are being settled in these areas as Tehran is trying to shape the Syrian-Lebanese space as in Iraq. “Someone has to block the Iranian negative influence. And it’s not enough just to talk, you have to do something.”
He explained that one idea which came from the conference was to develop a dual strategy where at the same time that the international coalition is fighting the Islamic jihadist terrorist groups, alongside with blocking the Shi’ite axis, to focus on stopping the development of ballistic missiles in Iran, and to minimize the Iranian influence in the Middle East.
The duel strategy discussed at the conference can also relate to the Iranian nuclear deal, In order to enlist Europe into a dual coalition, it is possible to remove from the international table the cancellation of the agreement, provided that Europe joins the efforts to contain Iran and to stop the distribution of surface-to-surface missiles and rockets, the deployment of Shi’ite militias and the aid in money and weapons to terrorist groups.
“Despite the strategic advantages of Israel, the security margins are narrow, and there are scenarios and trends that can lead to a security escalation. For example, Israel has decided to prevent the dominance of Iran, and the deployment of Iranian and other Shi’ite proxies in Syria, and there is potential for escalation there, as they [Iran] may respond to that,” Dekel said.
Referring to comments made by Israeli officials that Iran has been trying to build missile factories in Lebanon, Dekel said that “if Israel tries to prevent that, what will happen then? I assume Hezbollah will try to respond.”
If and when a war breaks out on the northern border, it will affect the entire northern arena and see both Lebanon and Syria take part in the fight against Israel.
ACCORDING TO Dekel, Israel is not looking for any escalation with Hezbollah unless there is an “imminent threat that we must respond to. That is Israel’s policy
“Of course in any scenario of escalation on the northern front Iran and Hezbollah will try to convince others in Gaza to operate against us,” Dekel said, adding that the country has experience in fighting in two arenas at the same time referring to the Second Lebanon War where Hamas starting carrying out terrorist attacks in Gaza.
But Israel has to be ready for a third arena, with an escalation in the West Bank as well.
While most of the discussions at the two-day long conference in Tel Aviv addressed the threats posed to Israel by the Iranian Shi’ite axis and the balance of power in the Middle East, panels also addressed the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict.
According to Dekel, the conflict is main obstacle stopping pragmatic Sunni Arab countries from increasing relations with Israel, such as having a Saudi Arabian embassy, “not in Jerusalem but in Tel Aviv.”
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as important for them as it was before, but they are afraid of making official relations with Israel without any major movement on the Israeli-Palestinian issue,” he said. “Without that movement, the people on the street will ask them ‘for so many years you told us that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important problem. How can you accept that Israel is controlling the West Bank and is not giving Palestinians any rights?’” It is because of that, Dekel said, that the Arab countries prefer to keep relations low-profile and under the table.
“If we would like to promote the relations, Israel is required to prove that it seeks a two-state solution vis-a-vis the Palestinians.”
During the conference, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is not looking for any agreement with Israel, but is looking to buy time and stall the peace process.
Referring to the 2007 Annapolis Conference where Dekel was the head of the negotiating team with the Palestinians under the government of Ehud Olmert, Liberman accused Abbas of trying to “undermine Israel gradually.”
“The Annapolis peace talks revealed how far Olmert went for a peace deal. Olmert made a generous offer to the Palestinians, and Abbas decided not to respond to the proposal.”
According to Liberman, it is too ambitious to reach a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians, and instead, the country is left with managing the conflict and trying to establish an ongoing interim arrangement.
Echoing Liberman, Dekel said that as Abbas is not able to make the tough decisions necessary, there is currently no possibility of a permanent-status agreement with the Palestinians.
“The problem today, and this was also discussed during the conference, is that there is no real ability to promote a peace process with the Palestinians. We don’t believe we can achieve a permanent-status agreement in the near future,” he emphasized.
“But we have to do something. Especially because of our strategic advantage, now is the time,” Dekel told the Post. “We cannot wait on the issue. If they are not ready to cooperate with us, or go back to the negotiating table, Israel has to start to do things which will shape the two-state reality – which is the preferred option to preserve Israel as a secure, moral and democratic Jewish state – on the ground. And this is something we can do today.”
Dekel stressed that he was not referring to annexation or applying Israeli law in Palestinian territory, but instead creating separation between Israel and the Palestinian territories under the control of the PA. “A separation in terms of geo-demographics and politics between the two sides,” he said, “The continued construction in settlements that are not in the blocs and the postponement of the solution reduce the scope of Israel’s political options in the future.”
According to Dekel, the government’s policy of just managing the conflict is not the right policy as it does not address the negative trends on the ground, which risk slipping into the possible inability to separate Israel from a future Palestinian state.
“In order to build the future, you must create option,” he said. But, “what we are doing now is blocking any future deal.”
AS THE country heads into a new decade of independence, the Jewish state has the opportunity to grab it by the horns and thrive in a region wracked by violence and uncertainty.
“When you look around the Middle East it is a story of failure, an ocean of failure, and Israel is the only place of success,” Dekel said. “And despite some feeling that time is on our side, we cannot rest.”
“These strategic advantages give us the opportunity to develop a better future. We are celebrating our 70th anniversary, but we need to look to our 100th anniversary,” he concluded.
This article was written in cooperation with the INSS.