What type of Middle East will the IDF meet after COVID-19?

While Iran is still there, the IDF has noticed a drop in Tehran’s appetite to keep this fight up for long.

Iran launches a military satellite in April 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iran launches a military satellite in April 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The global battle against the novel coronavirus might have overtaken the news cycle, but under the radar, Israel’s shadow war against Iran has yet to miss a beat.
Just look at the past two weeks. On April 18, two missiles targeted a Jeep Cherokee driving along the Syrian border with Lebanon. The first missed and the second hit. Two days later, close to a dozen missiles struck a military base near Palmyra. And on Monday night, another strike took place south of Damascus, killing around 10 people, some openly identified as Iranian operatives.

There were also four known attacks in March: one at the beginning of the month against a Hezbollah operative involved in a sniper attack against Israel; another a few days later against Iranian bases in the north of the country; and a third toward the end of the month against Iranian militias near the city of Homs. In the middle of the month, a top Iranian commander was killed in Syria. And the list goes on – there were at least four known airstrikes in February, and another two in January.

By whom? Ah. That remains a mystery.

Almost all of the strikes are attributed to Israel. The IDF admitted involvement after some, but has remained silent with most, neither confirming nor denying any role. 

Either way, top defense officials openly confirm that Israel has struck thousands of targets in Syria in recent years, mostly Iranian. While the above list is merely the attacks that the public knows about over the last three months, there are believed to be many more carried out far below the radar.

So while the world and the general public remain focused on COVID-19 and the global effort to curb its spread, Israel has not only not taken its foot off the pedal in the war against Iran, it has even upped the campaign to try to stop the regime and Hezbollah from entrenching themselves in Syria. The goal, as Defense Minister Naftali Bennett says in his regular meetings with IDF officers, is to have Iran understand that it will lose more than it will gain by remaining stationed across Israel’s northeast border.

Despite Iran’s presence there, the IDF has seen a drop in Tehran’s appetite to keep up this fight for long. This is a far cry from yet declaring victory, but it is believed to be the result of a combination of the aggressive policy Bennett brought with him to the Defense Ministry when he took up the post half a year ago; the impact the virus has had back in Iran; and the drop in the price of oil, a key source of revenue for the Islamic government.

Upon entering the Kirya in Tel Aviv last November, Bennett immediately pushed for a more aggressive approach to fighting Iran in Syria, which mostly meant keeping up a steady pace of the attacks with very little break in between. The idea has been to prevent Iran from being able to create an infrastructure in Syria along the scope and scale of Hezbollah’s missile arsenal in Lebanon, which today, whether Israel likes it or not, has created a level of deterrence – while Israel regularly attacks Syria, it does not strike in Lebanon. The reason is because Hezbollah could potentially retaliate with its 150,000 missiles capable of striking anywhere inside Israel. Syria, so far, cannot.

“If we let Iran do what it wants in Syria, then a point will come in the future when even if we suddenly decide to start doing something, it will be too late,” a senior defense official explained recently. “Will that happen after they get 1,000 rockets, 5,000, or 10,000? Either way, we cannot let the mistakes of Lebanon be repeated in Syria.”

Before the full extent was known of the havoc corona has wreaked on the world, Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate released in January its 2020 assessment, warning that on its current trajectory, Iran could have enough enriched uranium to produce one nuclear bomb by the end of the year, and a missile capable of carrying that nuclear bomb within the next two years.

Is that still the case? Can Iran continue at the same pace? Will it keep investing hundreds of millions of dollars in its Syrian adventure, or will the drop in oil prices, the impact of the virus on the regime, and the continued international sanctions change that calculation as well?

Moreover, the full impact of the assassination of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in early January has yet to be completely understood. What all intelligence agencies seem to agree on though is that his successor, Esmail Ghaani, is nowhere near the same caliber.

There is no clear answer whether Iran will continue on its course. While the Islamic Republic may have been hit hard by corona and seems to still suffer under existing sanctions, it is nevertheless plowing ahead with its nuclear program, evident by the installation of a new cascade of advanced centrifuges in recent months. 

More proof? Its successful launching of a military spy satellite last week showed the world that while the virus might have officially infected nearly a hundred thousand citizens and killed at least 6,000 – eighth most in the world - this has not yet undermined the regime’s ability to close technological gaps.

What is clear is that the virus has changed everything. The IDF’s intelligence assessments from early January are no longer relevant. Neither are any previous IDF multi-year procurement plans. That is why Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi will gather on Monday all IDF officers above the rank of brigadier-general for a two-day seminar on the changes that have taken place in the region since the outbreak of the virus. 

The challenge for Kochavi – who has spent the last six weeks formulating a new strategy, together with the Intelligence Directorate and the Planning Division – is twofold. First, predicting what will happen in the region is becoming all the more complicated while the role the pandemic plays in national security calculations is still unclear. Does Iran’s satellite launch show a determination to keep moving ahead even during this health crisis, or is it more about showing off, so that its adversaries – Israel and the US – will believe that nothing has changed when in reality, so much already has?

At the same time, Kochavi will have to find a way to adapt to new budget constraints that are certainly coming – assuming a government is established – sometime in the next few months.

The multi-year plan “Momentum” that he unveiled with great fanfare last year has turned out to be irrelevant, as have declarations by Netanyahu – like in October – that he will add billions to the defense budget. The coronavirus has upended all of that, and every ministry is bracing for the cuts that are now inevitable. With a million Israelis still out of jobs and countless businesses collapsing, extra money for defense will not so easily be found.

There are already some officials inside the Defense Ministry who are concerned whether the $3.8 billion in defense aid Israel receives annually from the US will be continued. With the US facing a recession and some 30 million Americans already out of work, is the defense aid a sure thing this year? So far the Trump administration is telling its Israeli counterparts not to worry, but the concern is still there.

For a chief of staff used to getting his way, Kochavi will face what might be the greatest challenge of his career in fighting for a new budget. There is skepticism within the Treasury whether Kochavi will even bother trying to approve a new multi-year plan – he’ll need to first hold on to what he already has, and everyone knows that in the new age of corona, that will be nigh impossible.
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One of the regular features of Israel’s Independence Day is the International Bible Quiz. After 26 years in Israel, I’ve probably watched it a handful of times. Most years I’m out with my family on a hike somewhere, enjoying good weather and grilled meat. This year, of course, there was no venturing outdoors. So what better way to spend part of the day then to watch a group of teenagers fire off verses from the Bible that I, a graduate of Jewish day school and yeshiva, have, embarrassingly, never even heard of?

The young men and women from around the world who participated in the quiz knew their stuff. It was impressive. What shocked me though was the arrogant condescension and hurtful way host Dr. Avshalom Kor spoke to the contenders from the Diaspora.

At one point, when there was a delay in the Internet feed for one of the contestants from Argentina, Kor said: “There is a delay. In the exile everything is slower. Here in Israel, everything is faster.” 

A few minutes later, after Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz asked why one of the contestants from Teaneck, New Jersey, was not smiling, Kor said: “Why should he smile? He lives in the exile.” 

And to the contestant from South Africa he said: “Trust me, here it is better than all of these Capetowners.”

Besides being insulting and disgusting to these young, brilliant Jewish contestants, Kor – one of Israel’s most famous linguists – knew exactly what he was doing: he purposely used the word “Exile” (Gola in Hebrew) as opposed to “Diaspora” (Tfutzot in Hebrew) when referring to Jews from overseas. He intentionally used a word that is meant to put down and patronize Jews who live abroad. He wanted the contestants to know that they live in exile, and that in the eyes of Israelis like himself, they are “less,” and that they are living an unnatural and incomplete Jewish life.

Kor’s sense of superiority is wrong, misguided and out of place. One could argue that he was just being mean to the young contestants, bad enough as it is, but it was more than that. By referring to those who live abroad as living in exile, he was degrading millions of Jews who wake up every morning smiling and proud to be part of the Jewish nation.

Since the destruction of the First Temple, a significant percentage of the Jewish people has always lived outside the Land of Israel. Once it was Babylonia; now it is the United States.

The Jewish people, spread out across the globe, have enough problems. Allowing those like Kor to use a state platform to foster strife and division should not be tolerated.

Here’s an idea: stop using Kor as the host of the quiz. It’s time he be sent into exile.