Israel needs to prepare for the possibility that its battle to keep Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria may have to be expanded to Lebanon or to Iran directly.
That is one of the recommendations that appeared in the Institute for National Security Studies Strategic Assessment for Israel 2018-2019, which was released and rolled out by the Tel Aviv-based think tank at a ceremony at the President’s Residence on Wednesday.
“Israel maintains a very strong basic deterrent against security challenges that are below the threshold of war,” according to the report. “At the same time, most of the fronts facing Israel are very volatile: Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. In all three, despite the existence of mutual deterrence between the sides, there is a potential for escalation toward a broad confrontation and a general war, more than one front at a time.”
According to the report, the most serious threat facing Israel in 2019 would be an all-out war in the north – the First Northern War – that would include Iran, Hezbollah and Syria. Such a confrontation would also likely spill over to the south, and Israel would additionally find itself battling terrorist organizations from the Gaza Strip.
This “whole case” scenario, according to the report, “is a possibility that Israel must be prepared for.”
That “whole case” scenario is also the worst-case scenario.
The report also broke down the threats individually, and ranked them according to their severity.
“As for the threats, there is an inverse relationship between the severity of the threat and its degree,” the report read. In terms of severity, it listed the threats in the following order: the Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah, Iran’s activities in the northern arena, and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But in terms of urgency, the report noted, it is precisely the situation in Gaza that is liable to escalate in the immediate future, more than in other arenas.
Regarding the Iranian nuclear program, the report asserted that US President Donald Trump is adopting a “tough policy” toward the Islamic Republic and has made getting it to alter its behavior in the Middle East a central component of US foreign policy, because this behavior harms US strategic interests and America’s chief allies: Israel and Saudi Arabia.
At the same time, the assessment asserted that “it is important to understand that the United States is focusing its efforts on Iran on the diplomatic and economic levels and is not ready for a military confrontation.” This reluctance to get into a military confrontation in the Mideast was “clearly exposed,” the authors of the report said, by Trump’s recent decision to withdraw US troops from Syria.
The report recommended that Israel work at reaching clear understandings with the US regarding intelligence sharing and deterrence efforts vis-a-vis Iran, defining clear redlines in case Iran stops complying with the 2015 nuclear agreement, and preparing a joint diplomatic and military plan to stop Iran if it crosses the redlines.
“In view of Trump’s departure from the nuclear agreement and the possibility that Iran will resume its nuclear activities, the defense budget and Israel’s deployment and force buildup should enable operational readiness for a move against a nuclear Iran,” the report read. “There is also a need for understandings with the United States, according to which if a new version of the nuclear agreement is formulated, the compromises required to formulate it will not harm Israel’s interests.”
Regarding Hezbollah, the report recommended that Israel continue to systematically prevent the transfer of high-quality weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as long as the strategic conditions allow it. In addition, Israel must prepare itself for action against the precision missiles in Lebanon and the technological infrastructure for their production.
“Iranian support for Hezbollah’s power buildup in Lebanon is not new, but the quality of the weapons transferred over the past two years to Hezbollah is worrisome,” the report read. “The main sources of concern for Israel are the project to convert inaccurate missiles and rockets into precision missiles, to improve Hezbollah’s air defense capabilities, and to supply long-range sea-to-sea missiles to the organization.”
The report said Israel’s efforts against Iran’s “precision-missile project” in Lebanon will take place under different and more complex conditions than in Syria in recent years.
“Since the Second Lebanon War (in 2006) there has been a mutual deterrence balance between Israel and Hezbollah, in which the two sides understand that military action on the other side’s territory will cause a major conflagration that could cause serious damage to both,” the report read. It stated that Israel’s recent actions against Hezbollah tunnels demonstrated to the organization Israel’s intelligence superiority and its determination to thwart its aggressive efforts.
Regarding Iran’s efforts at entrenching itself in Syria, the report stated that “for the time being” Israel can continue to base its campaign on preventing this on its intelligence superiority and its “various offensive precision capabilities.”
At the same time, the report said, “Israel must also be prepared for the possibility that the war will expand to Lebanon or Iran directly. The process of rehabilitation of the Syrian army has already begun, and it is liable to lead to a greater assertiveness of the regime against the actions of the Israeli air force in Syrian skies. Every effort should be made to avoid a clash with the Russian forces there.”
The time has come, according to the report, “to weigh additional operational possibilities.”
REGARDING HAMAS, the report said that Israel needs to prepare an operational plan for delivering to Hamas’s military wing a quashing blow, without intending to reoccupy the Gaza Strip.
“The military wing of Hamas has not suffered a severe blow in the three rounds of conflict between the organization and Israel over the past decade, and it is important that it – and not the [Gaza] population – pay the price in the event of a confrontation,” the report said.
The report put the likelihood of military confrontation in the south as “extremely high” in 2019. It listed the main reasons for this as the ongoing deterioration of the socioeconomic situation in the Gaza Strip, the pressure exerted by the Palestinian Authority on Hamas in Gaza, and the erosion of Israel’s deterrence built up during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014.
As to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the report said that this “has been and remains Israel’s fundamental problem in its relations with its neighbors in the region and with the international community. The Trump government’s initiative for the ‘deal of the century’ is being delayed, and the rupture between the American administration and the Palestinians will make it difficult to advance the process. However, the United States and the pragmatic Sunni Arab world will expect an Israeli move that will renew confidence in Israel’s good intentions.”
President Ruby Rivlin praised the assessment, which acknowledges that Israel’s military and diplomatic power, despite all the challenges, is at an unprecedented level. He also lauded the patriotism and courage of the researchers to be critical of government policy and decisions; and to list the various threats confronting Israel, including possible changes in the relationships with the US and Russia.
“We do not have the privilege of indifference,” said Rivlin.Greer Fay Cashman contributed to the report.
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