Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was among the first world leaders to understand the dangers of the coronavirus. He locked down the country in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus. Even so, the country’s economy has been hammered by the pandemic. The economic slowdown has been painful. Business has ground to a halt and unemployment is through the roof. Israel will come out of this crisis in a deep budget deficit.
The government’s economic rescue package, currently totaling 6% of GDP, will go a long way to keeping the country intact. But there will be some difficult decisions about how to disburse it. The distribution of public funds in Israel has always been a rather straightforward process. Defense gets the first priority, followed by entitlements, health, and education. But this will all likely to change now, given the greater needs in the healthcare sector and the economic fallout.
It is almost certain that the multi-year TNUFA (“ideation”) defense plan will be impacted by these changes. But the government must not cut IDF plans too deep. The plan is crucial for the country if it is to properly face future threats.
At a staff meeting before the pandemic, in discussing the implementation of the TNUFA plan, Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said, “The threats are not waiting for us, so we are underway.” The IDF already began to implement parts of the plan, which was to receive between four and 10 billion shekels in supplemental funds per year, on top of the existing budget.
The plan was the brainchild of Kochavi, who sought to aggressively confront some of Israel’s most dire threats. This includes: the Iranian nuclear threat, the challenge of Iranian-backed terrorist groups in Syria and Lebanon from Hezbollah, Iran’s attempts to usurp Syria, and the threat of groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.
The US exit from the flawed 2015 nuclear agreement has prompted Iran to test the patience of the international community by violating the terms of the deal. Revelations by the Israelis after extracting damning documents from Iran’s atomic archives have also raised tensions in the nuclear area. The documents proved that Iran had violated its basic Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (CSA) and Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations, resulting in an unprecedented report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Israeli decision-makers and the IDF general staff are therefore placing the Iran nuclear program back at the top of the list of immediate threats. This means the IDF must maintain readiness and develop operational capability to stop the project (pending political decisions) in the next few years.
ISRAEL HAS also shifted its policy away from primarily containing or defending against enemy rockets, missiles and drones, to pre-emptively targeting these weapons. This is already evident in Israel’s “war between wars,” which has remarkably continued during the corona crisis, targeting sensitive weapons across the region, even in far-flung places. The IDF had planned to address gaps in spare parts, smart weapons, and high-end manpower.
To help in both of these areas, the IDF had begun to expand its “digital capabilities.” Already a dominant player in the realm of cyber, Israel was doubling down.
The plan, in the end, was to build forces and capacity that would shorten the duration of the next war while achieving a clear and decisive victory. Specifically, the IDF sought to increase its efficiency by being able to neutralize up to seven times the number of targets during the first days of fighting, using new and old technologies, including thousands of drones, anti-tank missiles, precision munitions, cyber and electronic warfare. The balance will be 70% in attack measures and 30% in defensive measures.
In Gaza, TNUFA lays out other plans. Among them will be the construction of a smart border, both below and above ground. It will be monitored robotically. Meanwhile, the IDF plans to roll out a new Iron Dome missile defense “layout scheme” to prevent the need to constantly rotate batteries to the North or South, depending upon the threats. Also, new interceptors are slated to be integrated into Iron Dome, granting the system greater ability to cope with mortars or missiles with evasive measures.
The importance of these plans and upgrades are difficult to overstate. Yet, the budget required for the full implementation of TNUFA may not be available. This is not because the threats have dissipated, but because for the first time in the history of the country, funding the IDF will not be the top priority.
The very role of the IDF is changing. The military’s main task, beside keeping the borders safe and functional continuity, is to help control the civilian population. The IDF’s penchant for “outside the box” solutions, logistics and technology are now being put to use now in the fight against COVID-19. The Home Front Command and the Medical Corps, which are not usually on the front, are now the first line of defense.
Meanwhile, IDF intelligence, ground forces, logistic command, infantry special forces, the navy, air force and all the technology units, have had to abandon their “normal” line of work and to confront a microscopic enemy they cannot see.
But this must all be seen as a temporary shift. Iran continues to arm and fund its proxies. It continues to advance its nuclear program. And the regime’s behavior could become more reckless, particularly if it is able to convince the international community to grant sanctions relief.
This would be a significant unforced error on the part of the international community. Rather than spending that money at home on its suffering population, the regime is more than likely to deploy those assets abroad to advance its military aims. Israel will be in the regime’s crosshairs.
EVEN WITHOUT sanctions relief, it is clear that Iran is pushing ahead with its plans to provide its proxies with precision-guided munitions. The Israelis call these “game changing weapons.” If Hezbollah or other Iranian-backed actors acquire enough of these, Israel will need to act. And the limited budget will not have any impact on this decision.
But barring an immediate crisis, Israel will return to the hard questions of planning. TNUFA, at least as it was conceived, will likely not go forward as planned. The only way it can is if the new government envisions a radically different kind of economy, one in which the deficit is significantly larger than Israel historically allows.
Indeed, Israel’s economic and fiscal policies have always been very conservative. This would represent a major change. Fortunately for Israel, the country entered the crisis with a strong economy, which would support certain less conservative policies, if necessary.
To further enhance its security, Israel has now an opportunity to work jointly with the United States to develop weapons and technologies of the future, such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, quantum sensors and computers, super-computing and more. Such cooperation should not be centered around security assistance, but rather the joint harnessing of technological capabilities and ingenuity that can benefit both countries well into the future.
To ensure this cooperation, Israel must also reconsider its growing business ties with China, particularly as tensions between Washington and Beijing continue to rise. Should Israel rise to this challenge, defense ties and cooperation will only deepen.
The actors set to fill the expected unity government in Israel will have a mandate to both provide for the health of the population to protect them from threats abroad. The government is expected to include a number of senior figures from both sides of the political map, with a security background. They have a particularly good working relationship with the IDF leadership, but at the same time they recognize the health and economic needs of the civilian sector. Once the government is formed, it will have to begin negotiating and updating the multi-year plan for the IDF. Prioritizing will not be easy.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel is a visiting professor at the Technion aerospace faculty and a senior visiting fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He previously served as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor and head of the National Security Council. Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, and a senior vice president for research at FDD.