Intelligence Report: Israel's deceptive calm

In short, the tranquility, calm and status quo are misleading.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman looks at Syria from the Golan Heights (photo credit: ARIEL HERMONI / DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman looks at Syria from the Golan Heights
In the last year, according to the Jewish calendar, the diplomatic and security conditions of Israel have remained stable on all fronts. This is the overall estimate shared by the research bodies of all three of Israel’s intelligence agencies – Military Intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet.
Israel was and still is the strongest military power in the entire Middle East and beyond, in North Africa, along the Red Sea and in central Asia. There are no serious threats, certainly not of the magnitude to challenge its very existence. But, unfortunately, the stability and relative calm have not been used to advance opportunities for peace or at least to improve the situations in Gaza and Syria.
The most intriguing detail is that Israel carried out in the past year more than 200 aerial strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. Since the Syrian civil war broke out seven and a half years ago, we estimate that Israel has been involved in more than 500 similar attacks.
The war has subsided, with the regime of President Bashar Assad reclaiming more and more territory, but it’s far from over. The regime has yet to conquer the last bastion in Idlib, a large northeastern enclave on the border with Turkey, populated by three million people and controlled by rebel forces. Russian and Syrian air forces began to bomb rebel positions there as the prelude for the expected land assault by the Syrian army.
A decade ago, the IDF invented a new term to describe the nature of the military battles it is involved in. It is called “campaign between wars” (CBW) or “war between wars” (WBW) and signifies that the era of traditional and classical wars with tank battles and conquests of land are over. The last two wars of this kind, which the IDF fought, were the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the First Lebanon War in 1982.
Since then, all of Israel’s campaigns were  conducted against asymmetrical guerrilla militia and forces, such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank that have transformed from a hierarchical and organized structure into one of an individual, lone-wolf and chaotic nature.
The CBWs are usually clandestine, short, surgical operations, involving the air force, the navy, and intelligence units, and it is very rare that the IDF claims responsibility for them.
The CBW operations led the IDF to strike or carry out complicated intelligence gathering in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Sudan and, according to past reports, in the Red Sea arena, too.
The numerous attacks in Syria are the best evidence that the early concerns (including of this writer) that the presence of the Russian contingent would limit the freedom and the maneuverability of the Israel Air Force were in vain. They show that the diplomatic and military coordination between the two governments and armies has never been better.
There are hot lines and direct lines between the IDF and the Ministry of Defense headquarters in Tel Aviv and the Khmeimim Air Base located southeast of the city of Latakia, which is operated by Russia. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman traveled to Moscow for meetings and so did Israeli generals, whose meetings with their Russian counterparts in Moscow have been reciprocated in Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Vladimir Putin in the Russian capital eight times in the last three years.
All these encounters resulted in Russia’s consent or turning a blind eye to Israeli operations in Syria. They were and still are aimed against Iranian and Hezbollah missile and rocket depots, shipments of guidance systems from Tehran via the Damascus airport to Lebanon, sites of long-range missiles and anti-defense systems, military barracks due to house in future pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias and factories that produce long-range missiles.
In all these operations, only one IAF F-16 was shot down by a Syrian air defense battery, and except for one Iranian effort to respond with a drone carrying a small amount of explosives, Iran and Hezbollah swallowed their pride and didn’t dare retaliate.
In that sense Russia and Israel share some common interests. Both governments and, to a certain degree the Assad regime, don’t wish to see, as the war declines, an Iranian and Hezbollah presence on Syrian soil, and hope that their forces will return to their respective homes. Further common ground is the fact that in its military operations, Israel takes into consideration Moscow’s desire to see Assad in power. Thus, Israel has gone to considerable lengths not to destabilize the regime and avoids targeting Syrian Army positions or installations except in rare instances of self-defense.
So far, the coordinated policy pays nice dividends. There has been no military confrontation between Israel and Russia, despite the impressive deployment of Russia’s state-of-the-art air defense batteries and fighter planes. Iran, Hezbollah and the pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias to a certain degree deterred. They position themselves dozens of kilometers from the Israeli border on the Golan Heights. Moreover, the Syrian Army, after defeating the rebels, has returned to its old positions along the border, based on the 1974 UN Security Council-sponsored and supervised Disengagement Agreement. To further enhance the peace and calm along the border, Russia has deployed a few hundred military police in the area. Both Israel and the US agreed to the move.
Yet, on the other hand, there are no signs that despite the heavy Israeli military pressure, Russia’s cold shoulder and the enormous economic burden at home – especially after the US reinstated economic sanctions – that Iran is ready to cave in and leave Syria. Israeli and American officials admit that Iran has no intentions in the long run of giving up its grip on Syria.
Tehran has spent nearly $17 billion on the Syrian war. The war has spilled the blood of hundreds of its military personnel, including dozens of high-ranking officers, as well as 2,000 Hezbollah combatants and thousands of Shi’ite warriors from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and even Yemen, in the killing fields of Syria. All this sacrifice was not only to help Assad and his regime survive. It has a long-term strategic goal – to increase its hegemony in the region and to establish a land corridor, a Shi’ite crescent from Tehran via Iraq to Syria and all the way to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Thus, the struggle between Israel and Iran, which has changed from cold, clandestine intelligence operations to more open military clashes, is not going to disappear and we can expect more of it.
While the Syrian-Iranian-Russian triangle is the most complicated and challenging, the Gaza front is the most volatile. The ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, which ended the last war (Operation Protective Edge) in summer 2014, is fragile and any minor incident can ignite a new round of hostilities.
The basic problems of Gaza have not been fixed. With its 1.9 million Palestinian inhabitants, the statistics are terrifying. According to UN data, the average daily electricity supply is five hours. Some 97% of the water is not drinkable and the access to piped water, measured as liters per capita per day (LCD), for Gaza residents remains well under the recommended minimum set by the World Health Organization. There is a permanent shortage of medication, gas and oil. The rate of unemployment is nearly 50% and among the young population even higher.
No wonder that Gaza, a small enclave, spread over 365 sq km, which is under a well-coordinated, double siege by Israel and Egypt, is one of the poorest and most depressing places on earth. And if this isn’t enough, the Palestinian Authority (PA), led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), is fanning the flames by refusing to bail out the corrupt and bankrupt Hamas regime. This is its revenge for the 2007 coup d’état against the PA, which brought Hamas to power in Gaza.
Hamas is ready for a long-term ceasefire if the siege is lifted and the international community provides financial assistance in order to improve sewage, electricity, running water and to ease the general conditions of the population under its grip. But it wishes to do so without surrendering its military power and terrorist capabilities. Israel refuses to accept this and demands that Hamas release two of its young and mentally ill citizens who crossed the border into Gaza, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who died in action in the 2014 war. The contrasting positions between the two sides are difficult to bridge.
Hamas realizes that it is internationally isolated, including in the Arab and Muslim world, with only two friends – Qatar and Turkey – and left with no levers to press, it will not accomplish its goals. While its political and military leaders still are reluctant to initiate a violent confrontation with Israel, fearing it may lead to their downfall and personal elimination, the leaders are more and more inclined to choose the warpath as a default option, which will extricate them from their trap. Hence the Israeli intelligence community estimates that both sides are closer to war than to a settlement.
All in all, for the time being, Israel in its 70th year, benefiting from its military superiority, enjoys the status quo. Netanyahu prides himself that his policy is the reason that leaders from all over the world, some of them cruel or controversial dictators such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, eagerly rush to visit Israel. Netanyahu has no pangs of conscience or ethical hesitation about asking himself how it happens that the Jewish state is now a magnet for far right and sometimes antisemitic leaders from all over the world. He gladly opens the doors to them and to others from Arab and Muslim nations who have found a common denominator with Israel – the fear and hate of Iran’s expansionism. They come to purchase battle-proven weapons and cyber technologies, which enable them to spy on their political dissidents and rivals.
But Netanyahu is deluding himself and the nation. The Sunni world – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – will find it hard to follow Jordan and Egypt and allow their secret military dealings with Israel to surface into the open as long as there is no progress on the Palestinian front aimed at ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
If the Palestinian problem is not addressed, there is a growing danger that Israel, which is already a highly divided and polarized society, will become a new version of racist South Africa during the era of apartheid.
In short, the tranquility, calm and status quo are misleading. It is reminiscent of the joke about the guy who falls from the Empire State Building and at floor 50, when asked how he feels, answers: So far, so good.