An assessment of Israel’s national security situation in early 2019 indicates impressive military, political, technological, and economic strength. At the same time, however, there is the risk of military conflagrations on multiple fronts, and there are limits to Israel’s current policy, which focuses on military actions but lacks determination to exploit political opportunities.
In most aspects of national security – with the exception of preventing Iran from consolidating its power and influence in Syria and transferring weapons to Hezbollah – Israel has chosen to maintain the status quo rather than take a proactive approach that would help advance its strategic national objectives. These insights, which relate to the local, regional and international realities as they affect national security, were among the main insights discussed at the Institute for National Security Studies’ (INSS) 12th annual international conference, which was held on January 28-29 in Tel Aviv, with the participation of dozens of speakers from Israel and abroad.
The era of polarization
Many arenas are marked by a reality where contrasting elements exist side by side, leading to duality and structural complexity. This duality is to a large extent the result of the discourse that takes place particularly in social media, which is characterized by short statements that highlight polarized positions. As the gaps between the contrasting positions become sharper, it becomes more difficult for Israel to specify its strategic objectives and implement them.
Some strategic obstacles
1. The “campaign between wars”: It is doubtful whether Israel’s military success in waging the “campaign between wars” on the northern front has achieved the dual strategic objectives of removing Iran from Syria and stopping the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. Indeed, it may even have set back these objectives, because the political leadership has refrained from using this campaign as a basis for advancing a complementary political action.
2. Maintaining deterrence: Israel and its enemies – Iran, Hezbollah, and even Hamas – do not want war. Mutual deterrence has been maintained. Despite belligerent rhetoric from their representatives – and Israel’s ending its policy of not taking responsibility for its attacks in Syria – all of the parties are interested in keeping the conflict’s intensity level below the threshold of war.
However, the arms race and military buildup of Iran, Hezbollah and other proxies in the northern arena have intensified, and caused incidents that increase the risk of escalation. Similarly, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and Hamas’s attempt to deflect the pressure placed on it toward Israel enhance an already volatile situation.
3. The United States trend withdrawal from the Middle East: The dissonance is especially prominent in the policy of President Donald Trump. On the one hand, Trump is fighting for the United States’ standing as the leading global superpower. On the other, he has defied the principles of the current world order, undermining alliances that were among the bases of American power and abandoning the Middle East to Russian dominance.
In order to achieve Israel’s critical objective – halting Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and even pushing it out of Syria – American involvement is necessary: for example, blocking the Iranian land bridge from Iraq to Syria as well as leading the international processes that would bring about the departure of foreign forces from the war-torn country, first and foremost Iran and its proxies. Unilateral American withdrawal from the area and abandonment of the arena to the hands of Iran and Russia, however, would make it very difficult to achieve this objective.
4. Israel and the United States: The close relations between Israel and the US in the era of the Trump administration reflect the strengthening of the alliance between the two countries. At the same time, Trump could change his mind about Israel, too, if it takes steps that could involve the US in another war in the Middle East and place American forces at risk. The Trump administration is working on a peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which seemingly would benefit Israel, and has taken steps that shift the US from its role as the impartial mediator accepted by both sides.
However, it seems not to have taken into consideration the consequences of another failure of the political process between Israel and the Palestinians. In this respect, too, relations between Israel and the Trump administration could be undermined if the Israeli government were to reject Trump’s plan once it has been placed on the table. Another factor that could negatively affect these relations is Israel’s developing relations with China, which are bothersome to the US.
Close relations with the Trump administration also have a negative impact on the connection between the State of Israel and large parts of the American Jewish community, who oppose Trump’s policies. This joins growing disputes between Israel and American Jewry regarding different stances toward democratic and liberal values and Jewish pluralism.
5. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the regional and international context has declined relative to other issues. Nonetheless, Israel’s relations with Gulf states, and with Arab and Muslim countries in general, have not been formalized, despite thriving unofficial relations and unprecedented cooperation based on overlapping interests, especially against Iran’s pursuit of regional influence. The main barrier to upgraded relations is the lack of political progress with the Palestinians.
6. Israel’s loss of initiative with respect to the Palestinians: Ostensibly, the Israeli government supports a political process, but in practice it focuses on maintaining the status quo. Jerusalem claims that it does not have a partner for negotiations toward an agreement – even though the Palestinian Authority supports political agreements in principal – because of doubts about the ability of the PA to implement agreements if they are reached. Meanwhile, despite its declarations, the Israeli government cuts deals with Hamas – an organization that carries out terrorism against Israel and denies its right to exist.
Presumably, the understandings with Hamas will not last over time, unless there is an international effort, including an inter-Arab one, to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip in accordance with the principle of “reconstruction in return for no military buildup.” For the long term, Israel should strive to create the conditions that will enable the PA to regain its hold over the Gaza Strip, including disarming Hamas’s military wing and its ability to threaten Israel. This should be done in order to achieve demilitarization of the Palestinian entity in the Gaza Strip, as well as in the West Bank.
7. Separation from the Palestinians: Israel’s national security index, prepared and analyzed by INSS, shows that over the past three decades, there has been a dramatic decline in the value of peace in the eyes of Israel’s Jewish population, as well as in the confidence that Israel can implement a two-state solution. This is so even though the two-state solution is still the preferred option for the majority of the public (58%). Meanwhile, the desire of even more of the public (around 70%) to separate from the Palestinians, based on the basic political principle of dividing the Land of Israel, is gradually increasing.
8. Israeli democracy: Israel’s Arab population is in an especially polarized reality. On the one hand, it is gradually integrating within Israeli civilian society and benefiting from government policy, which in practice advances the five-year plan for investing in Arab municipalities. On the other hand, the Palestinian identity of large portions of the Arab population encourages incitement and violent discourse from Jewish Israelis who see it as a fifth column, and undermines the status of Arabs as equals. The Nation-State Law has exacerbated the gap between the Jewish and non-Jewish populations.
While the law itself, despite the nationalistic rhetoric and the bleak public atmosphere, does not change the civil reality in Israel, it dishonors the Arab population and undermines its sense of belonging. Some see this and other steps taken by the Israeli government as a threat to Israeli democracy: the Nation-State Law, the Regulation Law, the Loyalty in Culture Bill, the bill regarding the Override Clause, and attacks on the Supreme Court. To a large extent, the gaps lie in different definitions of democracy.
9. Harsh discourse: The current global discourse is polarized, with technology, social media and official statements that are sometimes limited to a small number of characters fomenting and intensifying contradictory positions. The discourse on social media does not examine the complexities of challenges, and refrains from discussing solutions to tensions and dilemmas that would take into account this polarization and enable the bridging of contrasting principles or their coexistence.
The main strategic challenges
More than in previous years, and following recent regional and global processes, it seems that Israel is now alone in facing its two main strategic challenges: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran’s consolidation of its power in the northern arena.
Currently, Israel does not have a clear vision, public or hidden, regarding the fundamental question that is on the agenda: separation – political, territorial and demographic – from the Palestinians, based on dividing the Land of Israel, or annexing the West Bank and accepting responsibility for some 2.5 million Palestinians. It seems that Trump’s “deal of the century” will not be a game-changer, in the sense of being attractive to Israel, to the Palestinians, or both. And unless there are surprises, it will not lead to a solution.
Thus, it would be right to adopt a strategy that enables flexibility and adjustments in accordance with developments and constraints, with a variety of possible scenarios. The strategic framework for the Israeli-Palestinian arena presented by INSS focuses on the path that must be taken in order to make progress in separating from the Palestinians, prevent sliding (intentionally or without examining the implications) into a one-state reality, maintain the ability to advance political arrangements in the future, and help solidify Israel as a safe, moral, Jewish democratic state.
In the northern arena, too, the political moves are vital. Iran will not abandon its two main strategic objectives – nuclear capability and regional influence. But it is expected to adapt these plans and the way to achieve them to the changing regional and international reality, and in accordance with them perhaps to delay their implementation. Thus, Iran will not willingly remove its forces and proxies from Syria. It has invested too many resources there to give up on its achievements within Syrian territory, which is central in Iran’s strategy for regional influence, and specifically to solidifying the western Shi’ite arm.
TO THIS END, Iran has deployed a network of capabilities that includes forces – local and foreign – which are currently assisting Syrian President Bashar Assad in reconsolidating his control, and that could (also) be used against Israel if this were to serve Iran’s interests. Tehran is striving and working to “Shi’itize” areas of Syria in which it has strategic interests, such as the Syria-Lebanon border, and is even operating educational and cultural mechanisms to instill its views among various populations in Syria. In taking these steps, Iran is solidifying its long-term influence, while working slowly and determinedly, in order to appease the Assad regime and not excessively challenge it.
There is no way to stop Iran’s consolidation of its power in Syria through military actions alone: political moves are also required. Russia, which sees itself as a party that balances forces to suit its interests, is the central actor in this respect. Accordingly, Israel has to advance complementary processes based mainly on Russia but also on the Assad regime, in order to convince them that the continued buildup of Iranian outposts in Syria will harm the regime, and its ability to stabilize the situation in Syria and begin the process of reconstruction.
Israel can also form a coalition with the pragmatic Sunni Arab states, which would be willing to invest resources in rebuilding Syria, conditional upon the removal of Iran and its influence. The “campaign between wars” that Israel is waging against the consolidation of Iranian power in Syria could create situations – harming Russian forces or severely harming the Assad regime – that would change Moscow’s attitude toward Israel and its activity in Syria, and lead to decisive steps by Russia with the intention of blocking Israel’s ability to operate in Syrian airspace.
The way to improve Israel’s strategic situation is to advance its regional standing, in light of overlapping interests with the main Sunni Arab countries, especially in order to block Iran’s increasing influence in the region. The key is to make progress in the political process with the Palestinians. A positive development in this direction would in effect be relevant not only for this arena, but would also help Israel cope with its main strategic challenges. The general trend of the US distancing itself from the Middle East strengthens the assessment that Israel could even solidify its regional standing if, in coordination with the US administration, it takes upon itself tasks that contribute to regional stability that had been in the hands of the United States.
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