Israel's strategic environment: Challenges and policy recommendations

Israeli leadership ought to display determined statesmanship by resolute defense of the judicial system and law enforcement, the IDF and other security organs, and other gate keepers of democracy.

Amos Yadlin ahead of INSS Conference
SEVEN YEARS after the onset of the upheaval in the Middle East and two years of the nuclear deal between the world powers and Iran, the main contours of the region’s emerging reality – the actors, rivalries, partnerships, front lines, power relations, and behavior of the major powers – are becoming clear. Now, after one full year, the nature of the Trump administration and its impact are also coming into sharper view. These factors shape Israel’s current strategic environment and its different policy alternatives. As Israel approaches the 70th anniversary of its independence, it can be confident in its strong national security balance, facing new challenges and significant opportunities.
Interview with Gilead Sher
Elements of Israel’s strategic environment: A strong and stable Israel with quiet borders
Israel maintains its military superiority in the region and its ability to deter state, hybrid and non-state adversaries. Israel’s proven willingness and capability to take action when necessary to exact a maximum price, even at the risk of escalation, explains the relative calm along Israel’s borders in spite of resolute activity against shipment of weapons to Hezbollah and against the tunnels in the south. Israel’s non-military balance is also positive: in contrast to the destruction and decay in the surrounding Middle East, the Israeli economy is strong and stable. Despite the negative impact of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians, Israel has managed to preserve its foreign relations, particularly with the major powers.
The US under the Trump administration
Jerusalem Post interview with Nickolay E. Mladenov at the 2018 INSS conference
The Trump administration is friendly to Israel, and the two States see eye-to-eye the Middle East strategic picture. However, the United States’ regional influence is waning. On the positive side are: US strengthening its relations with major allies in the region; the US view of Iran as a major rival and threat to regional stability that must be contained; US response to use of chemical weapons in Syria; support of Israel in the UN; and recently, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
On the other hand, it is still unclear where the administration stands, between isolationism and a focus on American domestic problems, and its rhetoric on the need to strengthen US military power and use of massive force against foreign enemies. Its ability to engage systematically in management of a variety of complex issues is also limited. In the Middle East, after victory over the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq Washington appears to be tempted to proclaim “victory” and detach itself from the region. The polarization in US politics and Israeli closeness to Trump makes it difficult to position Israel as a bipartisan issue resulting in a growing rift between Israel and American Jewry on top of Israel’s controversial policies on issues of religion and civil society.
Jerusalem Post interview with Dr. Abdullah Sawalha at the 2018 INSS conference
Russia emerging as a major victor in the Middle East
In spite of economic weakness and isolation because of Ukraine, Russia managed to solidify its status in the Middle East through its military intervention in Syria. Russia used a limited but high intensity power, and changed the direction of the civil war. It proved the efficacy of military solutions employed correctly and with determination. Russia’s protégé, the Assad regime, recovered most Syrian territory, and Russia achieved preeminence as the political actor shaping and stabilizing Syria, marginalizing the United States. It established a long term military, naval, and air strategic presence in Syria. It avoided entrapment in a “quagmire,” (President Obama’s warning) and maintained good relations with all the actors in the Middle East: Iran and Saudi Arabia; Israel and the Palestinians; Turkey and the Kurds; and Egypt and Qatar.
Jerusalem Post interview with Brig. Gen. (ret.) Meir Elran at the 2018 INSS conference
Israel’s relationship with Russia is complicated: in the short term and tactical level, through strategic dialogue and operational de-confliction channels, Israel maintains a certain freedom of operation in Syria without friction with Russian forces. On a strategic level, a fundamental conflict of interest exists between Israel and Russia, which has allowed Iran and its proxies to establish themselves in Syria, undermining American influence. Russia also continues to support Palestinian positions voting for anti-Israel resolutions in UN forums.
China: An economic powerhouse with a low strategic profile
Jerusalem Post interview with Emily B. Landau at the 2018 INSS conference.
China has positioned itself in the global economic system as a leading responsible actor and in international institutions. China’s primary interest lies in Asia and the Pacific, where there is growing competition between the superpowers. In the Middle East, China has left the political-security domain − and its military and international political costs − to Russia and the United States. In the meantime, it continues to focus primarily on the economic realm and engage in symbolic diplomacy, while having a minor military presence in areas such as peacekeeping and anti-pirating. Chinese strive to have parallel relations with all relevant rivaling parties in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Iran. It has relations with Israel, perceived an important source of innovation and technology. Politically China’s supports the Arab-Muslim block, as do its voting patterns in international forums. There are early signs of a change in policy. China’s interests in the region in terms of investments, projects, and Chinese workers are intensifying, as well as m its energy needs and its interest in the security of shipping routes. The strategic One Belt, One Road initiative (“The New Silk Road”) adds potential for Chinese involvement in the economies and infrastructure of the region. This may lead to a moderate increase in the profile of its political activity in the region.
Iran and the nuclear program
Jerusalem Post interview with Zvi Magen at the 2018 INSS conference
Although the Trump administration opposes the nuclear agreement with Iran referring to it as “the worst agreement ever seen,” the JCPOA has been honored over the past year. Although Trump decertified it recently, the President did not yet decide on withdrawal from the agreement. Parties within the United States and US allies assuming that the agreement’s annulment would do more damage than good persuaded the administration that it would be preferable instead to seek its rectification. President Trump emphasized the need to rectify the sunset clauses lifting most of the restrictions on Iran; the quality of supervision of its undeclared sites and weapons-related activity; and lack of ballistic missile limitations. Yet it is unclear how the agreement could be improved unilaterally when the other world powers are unlikely to cooperate. That implies pressure will eventually be exerted on President Trump to fulfill his promises and withdraw from the agreement, but any US unilateral action should be evaluated as to whether it does more harm than good on this complicated issue, In the meantime, no preparations take place for the period after the end of the agreement’s limitations, when Iran will be free to resume massive operation of its nuclear infrastructure significantly reducing its breakout time to a nuclear weapon.
Iran posing a challenge to Israel in Syria
Jerusalem Post interview with Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilad at INSS Conference 2018
The war in Syria has been decided in favor of the pro-Assad coalition, strengthening Iran and its supporters. The regime is regaining control over most of its lost territory and the opposition has been significantly weakened. However, the civil war has not ended, and the politics of shaping Syria’s future will be complicated. Israel’s main challenge is the solidification of Iranian presence in Syria, which might allow it to pose threats on a new scale. The growing cooperation of the Iranian- Shiite camp and the Sunni political Islam camp –Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood movement – demands ongoing scrutiny. Still, “the Iranians are not at Israel’s fences” and the threat is still in initial stages of evolution. Iranian military deployment in Syria also presents major limitations for Iran (high costs and long supply lines) and provides Israel with relatively easy intelligence gathering and attractive targets.
Defeat of Islamic State and its evolvement
Jerusalem Post interview with MK Zehava Gal-On at the INSS 2018 Conference
The past year has witnessed significant weakening of the Salafi jihadist forces following decisive action taken by the global and regional coalition to destroy them. The Islamic State lost its entire territorial stronghold in Iraq and Syria. It still possesses limited strongholds in other places (e.g. the Sinai Peninsula and North Africa). “Islamic State 2.0” – the return to a non-territorial terror group or a shift to new locations – is likely to evolve. The ideology is still attractive among Muslim populations. Islamic State cells, and individuals inspired by the group, continued to engage in terrorist activity and undermine stability in Arab countries and around the world.
A weakened pragmatic Sunni camp, with a significant change in Saudi assertiveness. It has failed to stop the tide of Iranian successes – in Syria; in Yemen, where the Houthis launch missiles into the heart of Saudi Arabia; and in Lebanon. It has also failed in its campaign to cut Qatar off from Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq has likewise increased the influence of Iran and the Shiite militias. The perception of the Iranian-led axis as victorious has motivated Sunni states to invest greater resources in their struggle against Iran.
Interview with Sima Shine at the 2018 INSS conference
They are led by Saudi Arabia, which is currently undergoing a leadership change. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who in practice runs the kingdom, is establishing control over the centers of power, working to moderate the religious establishment, and implementing a more aggressive policy against Iran. Success of his policies, and a peaceful succession of King Salman, could advance a model of a non-violent top-down “Arab Spring.” However, a failure would have a major impact on the Middle East.
In the Palestinian arena: Deadlock, reconciliation, and opportunities
Interview with David Ignatius at the 2018 INSS Conference
2017 saw continued deadlock in the Israeli- Palestinian process. Security wise Israel has continued to maintain deterrence and relative calm vis-à-vis the Gaza Strip, and suffered a low number of attacks and casualties from Judea and Samaria. Nonetheless, uncontrolled escalation in Gaza as a result of incidents on the ground is still possible.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s strategy of internationalizing the conflict was also blocked this year by the new US administration. The failure of the three strategies pursued by the Palestinians – violence, negotiations and internationalization – might push them to a “strategy of one state.”
Interview with Tzipi Livni at the 2018 INSS Conference
Some internal developments embed the potential of change. First is the desire of Abbas – being aware of the imminent end of his tenure – to leave a legacy and shape the future of the Palestinians before leaving. Quite uncharacteristically, he has displayed much greater assertiveness and a willingness to take risks. Second is the rise of a new leadership in Hamas that understands the price of its political isolation and its failure to extricate the Gaza Strip from its current economic and social misery. Consequently, Hamas is attempting to draw closer to Egypt while maintaining military ties to Iran. Hamas largely kept the ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and concluded a reconciliation agreement with Fatah. The two sides probably will not succeed in achieving full reconciliation, requiring an agreement on the fate of Hamas’s military wing, Hamas’s joining the PLO, and elections. It is also still unclear whether the two sides are capable of honoring a more modest implementable agreement. Still, there is a better chance of preserving the stability in Gaza, and resuming a dialogue between Israel and the government in Ramallah with Hamas unable to disrupt it.
Underlying this effort is President Donald Trump’s desire to broker the “ultimate deal” for Israel and the Palestinians. However the team led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief negotiator Jason Greenblatt has still no achievement to show. Signs of doubts are emerging in Trump’s midst regarding the feasibility of negotiations for a final status agreement to achieve this “deal,” perhaps reflecting a preference to adopt more modest goals and a process-based approach of incremental progress. Moreover, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital prompted a Palestinian announcement on “a halt to the political process and the refusal to accept the Americans as an honest broker.” It is still unclear whether the administration will issue a document of principles for an agreement in early 2018. If he does, Israel and the Palestinians, who are concerned about the reactions of an unpredictable president, will likely focus on blaming the failure of the initiative on the other side.
Interview with Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret at the 2018 INSS Conference
In Israeli society: Risks to cohesion and resilience
The trend of waning solidarity and diminishing sense of a unified goal in Israel continues to unfold. The tension between right and left is on the rise, fed by irresponsible fanning of the flames by politicians and opposite views on the way to keep Israel a Jewish, democratic, secure, and just state. Exposure of corruption in government has become increasingly common damaging public trust in the state institutions. Aggressive legislation against democratic attributes of the state, damage to the delicate balance among the different branches of government, and a systematic campaign aimed at weakening the media, the law enforcement authorities, and other gatekeepers of democracy have exacerbated the polarization in Israeli society. Attacks by extremist elements and reckless campaigns on social media against the President, the judiciary, the IDF and other security organs, and the repercussions of the dispute surrounding the shooting of the immobilized terrorist in Hebron have not abated. The tension between the country’s Jewish population and the Arab minority has also continued to fester, and attempted legislation seeking to hurt the Arab minority and present it as an enemy in spite of only very limited involvement in terror attacks has added fuel to the fire. On the eve of 2018 severe political crises and fundamental tensions among the country’s different tribal identities continue to challenge Israeli society’s cohesion and resilience.
Interview with MK Tamar Zandberg at the 2018 INSS Conference
Challenges, dilemmas, and recommendations
Over the past decade, Israel has adapted successfully to the changing reality of the Middle East, gaining more military and political power, and avoiding serious confrontations and wars. However, the window of political and military opportunity provided by the regional crisis and the nuclear deal with Iran appears to be narrowing. Consequently, Israel must address ten key medium term and long term threats and opportunities.
The "short-of-war" campaign against Iran and in the northern front. Israel’s major challenge will be to contend with the infrastructure established by Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. Activity against Hezbollah buildup over the last decade evoked no significant retaliation so far. From now on, a wider and more challenging campaign against the three enemies in the north: Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria is essential to address both Tehran’s buildup there, and possible retaliation by the Assad regime, Iran, and Hezbollah, avoiding escalation under tougher conditions. The main dilemma will be the tension between impairing enemy buildup and future threat, and risking imminent escalation. It is needed to draw rules of the game for the new environment, through military action and strategic communication with the adversaries and Russia, a significant actor. Israel possesses significant leverage against Iran and Russia: its ability to undermine their achievement in preserving the Assad regime and progressing stability in Syria.
The ‘first northern war’ (the Third Lebanon War)
Israel and Hezbollah are not interested in another war. Nonetheless, the Israeli action against Iran and Hezbollah, coupled with lesser urgent need to rescue Assad in Syria, could lead to escalation to “the first northern war”. This war could expand into Syria, and perhaps also involve the Syrian army. That might be the largest military confrontation since 1973. Israel must address the strategic and operative priorities involved in conducting a campaign against three enemies: Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran, under Russian presence.
Specifically, Israel must prepare for three scenarios: war in Lebanon alone; war in Lebanon and Syria including Iranians and Shiites operating in Syria; and war with Iran itself. Israel has announced that the rules of the game in Lebanon changed since 2006 because Hezbollah and Lebanon are a single political/military unit, and the rules for conducting the campaign will change accordingly. It will be necessary to engage with new military threats: accurate ballistic missiles, air defense systems, UAVs, anti- ship missiles, and possible attempts to invade populated locations in the Galilee.
Amending the nuclear deal and containing Iranian expansion. The joint view of The US and Israel must be translated into a “parallel agreement” engaging the Iranian threat as a whole and focusing on the nuclear agreement at its core. It should determine a joint strategy against the range of Iranian threats with three aims: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or approaching “zero distance” from a nuclear weapon; curbing the subversive Iranian activity and its support of terrorism; and preventing military capabilities serving solidification of its influence in the region.
The understandings must be on three layers: A joint response to the weaknesses of the nuclear agreement in the short and long terms. In the short run keeping the agreement is better than its collapse. It will enable Israel and the United States to prepare for the more significant threats in the future. If Iran is not caught violating the agreement, it would be ill advised to withdraw from it. The “parallel agreement” should define possible Iranian violations, including a breakout to a bomb, and the responses to them. It should ensure that Israel can stop Iran if it decides to break out, and that it is not dependent on a delayed international response. Other necessary items of the agreement include coordination of the intelligence efforts on top of the international monitoring, and preventing further nuclear proliferation in the region.
Parameters for amending the nuclear agreement
Extending the sunset (on major nuclear restrictions) clauses, or making them conditional on a change in Iranian behavior in the non-nuclear realm; improving monitoring of the Iranian sites suspected of military nuclear activities; passing a new UN Security Council resolution clearly prohibiting testing of missiles and cruise missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead; and conditioning end of the military embargo on weapons supply to Iran on change in Iranian behavior.
The struggle against non-nuclear Iranian threats
Israeli-American strategy must hold Iran accountable for the actions of its proxies paying a high price for their subversive activities. Consequently, the strategy against Iranian assets must be designed in response to its expansion strategy, as well as its tactical provocations, denying Iran economic and military means, including by expanded secondary sanctions against foreign banks. Finally, a joint strategy striving to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran, using issues on which they might disagree – Assad’s future and Iranian military presence in Syria – and on curbing the Iranian missile threat.
Renewing the Israeli-Palestinian political process
The Trump administration might present a plan for the “ultimate deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. Its content – principles, parameters, and way of reaching the agreement) – is still shrouded in secrecy, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital added complications. The Israeli government may try and use the excellent relations with the Trump administration to ensure the parameters are unacceptable to the Palestinians winning the “blame game”. However, more important is the need to take advantage of the current favorable conditions – a supportive US president, changing Arab attitudes toward Israel, and Israel’s strategic posture.
It is a historic opportunity Israel cannot afford to miss. Even when chances of a final status agreement now are slim to non-existent, the plan might set parameters (better than the Clinton parameters) that could determine a future agreement; and help in stopping the slide toward a one-state reality. The Israeli government should also adopt a proactive plan to ensure the feasibility of a future agreement that preserves the four pillars of the Jewish people’s national home: a Jewish, democratic, secure, and just state.
Israel should engage with the challenge of internal Palestinian reconciliation and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip. The reconciliation is supposed to return the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, but did not address the major problem from Israel’s perspective of Hamas’s military wing. The reconciliation agreement will likely fail due to Palestinian disagreements. Still, humanitarian and moral reasons dictate the need to promote reconstruction of devastated Gaza. The crisis in Gaza can also overflow to Israel. Specific reconstruction efforts must be guided by two criteria: avoiding Hamas misuse for military buildup, and denying the terrorist group political gains. A correct reconstruction effort, with strong political backing of the Arab states, could also constitute a platform for gradual change in Gaza’s government.
Israel’s alliance with the Sunni Arab world
Israel is enjoying unprecedented cooperation with neighboring pragmatic Sunni Arab states. Common interests and common threats of Iran and radical Islam led to deeper cooperation with Egypt and Jordan, as well as with Gulf States, with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations. With Egypt operational cooperation against the Islamic State in Sinai, and Israel’s support of the el-Sisi regime in Egypt as well as 40 years of a peace treaty are the basis for cooperation. With Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, it is the common Iranian threat and the value of Israel’s intelligence, technological, and economic assistance. The rise to power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pursuing proactive and risky policies presents Israel with space for strategic actions, alliances, improving its geostrategic situation. The key for moving from limited covert cooperation to overt cooperation is progress on the Palestinian issue. Rectifying the crisis with Jordan over Jerusalem and the incident with the Israeli embassy guard in Amman is essential for advancing the cooperation with Jordan.
The challenge of Islamic State
The territorial Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been defeated. However, its remaining footholds in Libya, the Sinai Peninsula, Afghanistan, and the Golan Heights, may attract fighters escaping areas they lost. Terror cells around the world are still active, and new ones are evolving. Most important, the idea of the Islamic State is alive and well in social networks and mosques with radical imams. Following the loss of its territorial basis the Islamic State may attempt to demonstrate its vitality through showcase attacks throughout the Middle East – including Israel – and elsewhere. Bringing an end to the Islamic State presence in the southern Golan Heights should be part of the stabilization of Syria, and support for Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula should continue. No one should assume for intelligence and operational purposes that this group no longer poses a threat.
The security budget and the security doctrine
Chances of a large military confrontation in the northern front in 2018 are greater than at any time in the past decade. This requires accelerated preparations, including allocation of the necessary budget. The new type of confrontation requires preparations at all levels, from the political level to the military level. Understandings on the fundamental concepts of deterrence, decision, maneuver, and firepower ought to be developed requiring the senior political and military echelons to begin discussing the goals and targets of the possible campaign; its start, management, and exit stages; its boundaries; and its operational efforts. The cabinet should engage in discussions and planning long before the confrontation.
Maintaining Israel’s legitimacy
Israel faces a significant problem of legitimacy among large populations in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. The campaign against Israel consists of a unique combination of three different groups – radical Islamists, the hyper-liberal left, and the hyper-nationalist right –sharing the goal of undermining Israel’s right to exist. These groups employ soft but effective kinds of warfare. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main joint platform for the campaign against Israel and the Jews. They argue the conflict is solely because of Israel’s intransigence. The protracted conflict feeds accusations of a perpetuated occupation, racism, a policy of apartheid against the Palestinians, colonialism and oppression of the indigenous population, the violation of human and civil rights, war crimes, and genocide. These claims enable the campaign against Israel to appeal to a variety of audiences and mobilize them against Israel using a variety of agendas.. Israel’s support among members of the political establishment reflects only a temporary advantage among an older and relatively established segment of the population. The anti-Israel campaign affects also younger Jews. Improving significantly in recent years, Israeli response still suffers from dispersed tactical management and a lack of major systemic undertakings. Responding to this challenge requires integrated government and civil society organizations action in Israel and abroad.
Reaching understandings with US Jewry
Because of the growing estrangement between Israel and many in US Jewry a troubling reality is developing in which Jews are finding it increasingly difficult to defend Israel against its critics, when they are unable to resolve the tension between their sense of ethical identity as Jews and the State of Israel. Israel that remains faithful to its role as the national home of the Jewish people and committed to its future and security both within its borders and in the Diaspora, it is obligated to take resolute action to heal these divisions, bringing the world’s two largest Jewish communities closer together, and infusing the relationship with new content. That could also include an updating of the 1950 agreement between Ben-Gurion and Yaakov Blaustein (of the American Jewish Committee) that defined the close relations between the State of Israel and American Jewry institutionalizing them on a strong partnership.
Revitalizing solidarity and reconciliation, reducing the tensions within Israel. Israeli leadership ought to display determined statesmanship by resolute defense of the judicial system and law enforcement, the IDF and other security organs, as well as other gate keepers of democracy. Silence in face of attacks on these institutions, along with support of those who undermine them, leads toward a non-democratic future. There should be a public discourse on the balance between Jewish values and democratic values, removed from extremist rhetoric. It is also important to continue implementing programs aimed at advancing and integrating the Arab minority, refrain from legislation against this population, and promote broad dialogue between streams in Jewish and Arab society in order to set rules for the cultural-political discourse.
Defining a grand strategy
Addressing these issues has several important assets:
• Military power, security stability, effective state performance, and notable economic strength, as opposed to the crises plaguing the Middle East.
•An improved relationship with the US administration and a supportive president.
• Good relations with Russia and an effective dialogue with the Russian leadership.
• Rapidly rising economic relations with Asia’s two major powers, China and India.
• A Sunni Arab Middle East with increasing openness to the possibility of dialogue, improved relations, and cooperation, albeit on a low profile.
• Reaching a “parallel agreement” between Israel and the United States on the Iranian nuclear program and a campaign against the malignant activity of Iran with its proxies in the Middle East, and Syria in particular, is part of a necessary overall strategy for 2018. The United States and the pragmatic Sunni world expect Israeli flexibility and progress in the process with the Palestinians. Beyond the expectations of others, it is an Israeli interest of the highest magnitude to shape its borders and its character. Israel now has a rare strategic window of opportunity. It would be wise to maximize this opportunity.
A necessary condition for utilizing these external conditions is internal cohesion – centered around a properly functioning government, public trust in the system, social unity, solidarity, and a shared vision of the future involving not only Israelis, Jews and non-Jews alike, but also the world Jewry. 
This article appears in its entirety in the INSS Strategic Survey for Israel 2017-18.
Amos Yadlin is Executive Director of the Institute for National Security Studies. Amos Yadlin will be participating in the 11th annual international conference of the INSS on January 29-31. Given the high demand, there are no remaining tickets. We invite you to watch the conference live here and on the INSS website,