The upheavals and uncertainties that have characterized the Middle East in recent years will continue unabated in 2017. But amid these volatile trends that for Israel pose a high risk for violent escalation and military confrontation, new developments with potential for change can also emerge. Perhaps the biggest unknown is what the presidency of Donald Trump will bring to the world and the region.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) remains the strongest military and technological power in the region extending across Asia from Pakistan to the Mediterranean shores. The Israel Air Force – which is the country’s long strategic arm – is about to further upgrade its capabilities by integrating the F-35, the United States made “stealth” fighter, which despite its flaws and weaknesses and high cost is by far the best flying machine in the world.
Israel is also a leading superpower in the realm of cyber warfare. This form of weapon is now considered by the most advanced military nations as the “fourth dimension” in addition to land and sea, air and space capabilities. Cyber measures are increasingly becoming a major tool for both intelligence gathering and as a weapon, which, by penetrating computer systems, can paralyze or destroy strategic and military assets.
Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot had been expected to order the creation of a new cyber command similar to that of the United States Army that would combine both defensive and offensive capabilities currently split between the Signal Corps (formerly known in Hebrew as the Communication Corps) and Unit 8200 of Military Intelligence. But Eisenkot, at least for the time being, has decided to maintain the current division of labor to further study and explore the ramifications of a unified command.
The land forces of both the standing army and its reserve units have used the passing year – aside from policing duties in the occupied West Bank – to train and practice for future confrontations. According to its five-year plan, the IDF will continue in 2017 to train further and increase its preparedness.
All in all, there is no matching force to challenge IDF military superiority, not even the military buildups of Iran and Hezbollah. The conventional threat has practically vanished. Only 13 years ago Israel faced conventional threats from the regular armies of Syria, Iraq and Libya, which had millions of soldiers and huge arsenals of modern weapons of all sorts – planes, tanks, artillery guns, rockets and missiles, ships and submarines. Now all three armies have been weakened and are embroiled in civil wars.
Israel has wisely managed to stay out of the conflicts and civil wars, which are plaguing the Arab world since the “Arab Spring” in 2011. This is especially so with regard to Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon.
Thanks to Hezbollah having its best troops bogged down and bleeding in support of the brutal Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad and thanks to the IDF’s deterrence, both fronts are relatively tranquil.
Another contributing factor has been Israel’s clever non-interventionist policy. Only in rare cases, and without claiming responsibility, has the Israel Air Force operated in Syria to sabotage efforts to transfer sophisticated weaponry from Iran and Syria to the Lebanese Shi’ite movement.
Israel has even managed to deter al-Qaida and ISIS forces – militias of a few thousand warriors – deployed along its northern border on the Golan Heights. The two groups don’t dare to mess with Israel.
Fear of Israel is no less evident on its southern borders. In Gaza, Hamas is deterred and still licking the wounds inflicted on it by the mighty Israeli war machine in three consecutive battles since 2009 and especially by Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. Hamas’s military wing has struggled to rehabilitate itself from the losses it suffered especially in its underground dimensions – attack tunnels the group considered as a strategic “winning card.” Hamas’s leadership, both political and military, for the time being at least, shows no inclination to initiate another round of hostilities against Israel.
THE LAST weeks of 2016 witnessed a slow but gradual trend of reconciliation between Egypt and Hamas, which is expected to continue in 2017. This process is also a contributing factor to the possibility that quiet will prevail along the Gaza border in 2017.
More importantly, in the past year Israel has further consolidated intelligence, security and military ties with Egypt. According to foreign reports, Israel is not only providing intelligence to the Egyptian army and security forces fighting ISIS in Sinai, but has on occasion sent drones to attack ISIS positions in the north of the peninsula.
As in the south with Egypt, Israel’s eastern border also benefits from the 1994 peace treaty with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Intelligence and security coordination between the two countries has never been better.
Israel’s improved geostrategic posture is no less impressive in the nonconventional arena. In 2014 the international community, led by Russia, forced Syria to get rid of its huge stock of chemical weapons. According to Israeli intelligence estimates more than 90 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons were dismantled, and it now retains only a residual capacity. Since its military defeat in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 the Assad dynasty – father and son – equipped its army with chemical weapons to be carried and launched by missiles, planes and artillery, and had a range of chemical weapons forbidden by international law such as mustard, sarin and nerve gas.
The chemical arsenal was developed and stocked for deterrence purposes against the IDF’s military superiority and as a countermeasure against Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal.
The nuclear deal signed by the six major powers (US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) and Iran in July 2015 is another important addition to Israel’s geostrategic posture. It is estimated that Iran will continue to abide by its stipulations this year. The deal pushed back Iran’s potential to assemble a nuclear bomb from a few weeks to at least one year.
But, on the other hand, lifting international sanctions as a result of the deal as well as its involvement in Syria has positioned Iran closer to its aspiration of imposing its hegemony in the region. Even here the fear of Iran is inadvertently helping Israel. Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others want to see a strong Israel as a counterbalance to Iran and will continue to elevate their secret ties in the field of intelligence.
An important new factor in Israeli military- political thinking is the special relations cultivated with Russia. Its roots are at the tactical level, but these relations have strategic implications. They were born out of necessity when Russia rushed to help Assad and began to deploy its air force in Syria. To avoid the risk of aerial friction Israel and Russia created a “deconflicting” mechanism with direct “red lines” between the situation rooms of the two armies.
AT FIRST it seemed that Russia’s arrival in the arena would limit Israeli freedom over Syria. But later, when it didn’t stop the IAF from carrying out bombing missions, it transpired that the “deconflicting” arrangement also appears to cover Israel’s right to operate against Hezbollah.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu perhaps had in mind another hidden agenda when he deepened relations with President Vladimir Putin. Israel wanted to signal to US President Barack Obama, with whom Netanyahu had very bitter relations, that it has the ability to maneuver between the two powers and is not solely in America’s pocket. Surely, though, such thinking also plays into the hands of Putin, whose aim is to widen the wedge between the US and its allies in the region.
How will Israel maneuver in 2017? It all depends on Trump and his contradictory statements. On the one hand, he has expressed his almost unrestrained support for Israel to the point that the Israeli right feels it has a free hand to further consolidate its occupation of the West Bank, and suppress the Palestinians and maybe even annex chunks of territory. But on the other hand, Trump seems to be taking the US in an isolationist direction and may decrease the US presence and interests in the Middle East – a move that would have grave implications for Israel.
But regardless of Trump’s policy, Israel’s challenges will have little to do with Washington, and will be both external and internal.
Externally, as in 2016, the prime danger is of an incident with either Hamas or Hezbollah spinning out of control and leading Israel into a war neither side wishes for. This is especially true with regard to Hezbollah. With the Assad regime having regained the upper hand in many parts of the country, Hezbollah troops could return home from the killing fields of Syria where they have lost nearly 20 percent of their manpower. Despite their heavy losses, they are now more experienced than ever and could give Israel a bloody nose in the event of another war. Furthermore, with some 80,000 to 100,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel, military, strategic and civilian sites throughout a large swath of Israel are within range.
Another major challenge is the lack of progress on the Palestinian front, where even a minor terror attack could lead to a major confrontation. Only a renewal of peace talks and freezing of settlement expansion can reduce friction on the ground and without that we will continue to see more violence, such as that witnessed in Jerusalem when a Palestinian lorry driver rammed a group of IDF soldiers on January 8 killing four.
Nevertheless, the growing feeling among many inside and outside Israel is that the real existential threat to the country is its social-cultural divisions, the growing economic gap between the haves and the have-nots, as well as corruption and the erosion of traditional Western democratic values encouraged by far-right-wing ministers.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman