Mideast Collapse – Israel’s Concerns
The Jewish State has never been so secure, and its neighbourhood so unpredictable
The turmoil in the Middle East is affecting, directly or indirectly, the security and stability of all of the states in the region. In Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, the central government does not control the entire territory of the country. The power and legitimacy vacuums in these states have enabled jihadist organizations to penetrate into significant territories, and to use these as a base for conducting attacks against rivals or local populations.
As a consequence, the level of violence in the region is extremely high. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in fighting – most of them in Syria and Iraq, but also in Libya, Yemen and Egypt. Millions of civilians have been displaced – including half of Syria’s 23 million population – and many have become refugees in other countries. Bref, acute uncertainty reigns in the Middle East today, and no one knows when the deterioration will end. Countries that have not been affected by the turmoil might face disasters in the near future. Leaders of Middle East states do not know whether they – or indeed leaders of neighbouring states – will survive, and therefore face serious difficulties in policy planning and implementation.
Israel is among the few countries in the region that has not been directly affected by the general deterioration. Its regime is stable, it has no power vacuum, and the new militant Islamist organizations have not penetrated into its territory. It enjoys significant military and technological superiority over its regional rivals. By contrast, the Arab world is suffering from strategic weakness. Arab leaders are preoccupied with their survival and domestic problems, and face difficulties in advancing inter-Arab policies or organizing Arab coalitions in order to deal with regional problems. Moreover, part of the Arab threat toward Israel has disappeared. Many erstwhile Syrian military capabilities have been destroyed in that country’s civil war. Iraqi military power, of course, disappeared in toto after the First Gulf War and the American occupation in 2003. And for the time being, Israel has managed to deter non-state organizations from launching substantial attacks against Israeli targets.
Having said this, the Middle East crisis has created certain challenges for Israel. Indeed, the jihadist organizations – especially ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra (affiliated with Al Qaeda) – are currently fighting against each other in Syria, as well as against the Syrian army and the Assad regime. For them, the armed struggle against Israel can wait. Still, Israel remains a very important enemy for these groups, and they may well direct their attacks against it before long. Once jihadist organizations decide to launch attacks against Israel, it may be difficult to deter them – not only from Syria, but also from the Sinai Peninsula, and perhaps even from Jordanian territory.
The unrest in Jordan is still limited, and the Hashemite regime is stable. However, a threat to its stability will negatively affect Israel’s security, as its survival is a critical asset and strategic interest for Jerusalem. Moreover, any material deterioration of stability in Saudi Arabia, if it occurs, will endanger the stability of all of the moderate states in the Middle East, including Israel, and create a major setback for the US and for Western governments.
In the short run, of course, the most severe threat to Israel’s security is terrorism or asymmetric attacks. The most dangerous organization, in this respect, is Hezbollah, acting mostly in south Lebanon. Hezbollah has a small army, combining terrorist and military capabilities, and is equipped with sophisticated weapons. Above all, it has a huge arsenal of 130,000 rockets, with ranges that cover the entire territory of Israel. Few countries around the world have such a huge arsenal. Over the last decade, Israel has succeeded in deterring Hezbollah from attacking its territory. Moreover, since 2014, Hezbollah has been deeply involved in the fighting in Syria, suffering hundreds of casualties in that theatre. However, under Iranian influence, Hezbollah has been working to open a new front against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights, whence it might well launch a rocket offensive against Israel at some point in the future.
For its part, Hamas has not tried to provoke Israel from the Gaza Strip since Operation Protective Edge was carried out in mid-2014. Still, it is not clear how long Hamas will be deterred, and whether the suffering of the population in Gaza will induce Hamas to resume the firing of rockets and mortars. More importantly, Hamas continues to dig and construct cross-border attack tunnels, which penetrate from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, with a view to abducting and killing Israeli civilians and soldiers. In response, Israel is developing a technological system to detect the tunnels.
The Palestinian organizations – especially Fatah, but also Hamas and Islamic Jihad – maintain a ceasefire in the West Bank as well. And yet, since October 2015, a new threat has emerged – the so-called ‘knives uprising.’ This uprising is not organized by any particular organization, though Hamas has encouraged it. Instead, the attacks are carried out by young, unaffiliated Palestinians who, motivated by social media, decide independently to stab Israelis both inside Israel and in the West Bank. The impact of these attacks has been limited, and their number has dropped significantly (although not irreversibly so). Still, it is more difficult to collect intelligence about the intentions and activities of – and therefore to prevent attacks by – young Palestinians previously unknown to the security services.
In the longer run, the main threat to Israel comes from Iran’s potential nuclear capability. The nuclear agreement, concluded with Iran in July 2015, has negative and positive aspects. The positive aspect is that the limitations imposed by the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme postpone the timetable needed for acquiring nuclear weapons, as long as Iran does not violate the agreement. On the other hand, when these limitations are removed, after eight to 10 years, Iran will be allowed to develop a huge enrichment programme, in which it could in principle enrich any amount of uranium, including weapons-grade uranium. At this future stage, it would be far more difficult to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, if Tehran decided to move in this direction. And the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would create the most severe threat to Israel’s security.
Even without an extant nuclear capacity, Iran still has a large arsenal of ballistic missiles – the largest arsenal in the Middle East. This arsenal – in addition to Hezbollah’s huge arsenal of rockets, supplied by Iran – has created the most significant threat to Israel’s home front. The principal Israeli answer to this threat has been the standing up of a qualitative anti-missile defense system, though its interception capability in the event of a massive missile attack is still not clear.
Against the background of these threats, there have, to be sure, been recent improvements in Israel’s international posture. On the one hand, the relationship between the Obama administration and Netanyahu government has been tense – mostly due to disagreements in respect of the Palestinian and Iranian issues. Both issues may affect the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington in the future, though much depends on the nature of the next US administration. (The infrastructure of security cooperation between the two governments has not been damaged, and will likely continue to develop in the future.)
On the other hand, Israel has managed to improve its relations with other governments. Israel has an ongoing dialogue with the Russian government, at the highest levels. This dialogue includes the unprecedented establishment of a joint senior military committee to coordinate Russian air attacks in Syria. (Evidently, the improved relationship with Russia is not an alternative to Israel’s special relationship with the US.)
In June of this year, Jerusalem and Ankara agreed to resume normal diplomatic ties, ending a six-year deterioration following the Israeli naval operation against the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara on its way to Gaza. The improvement will probably not bring back the close defence contacts that existed between the two countries in the 1990s. (Turkish officials have emphasized that the severe domestic crisis in Turkey will not negatively affect the improved bilateral relationship with the Jewish state.)
No less important are Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan. The two Arab states share significant common interests with Israel in the context of the present regional instability, including in respect of threats created by the Islamist organizations. Indeed, relations between Israel and the two governments – especially with Egypt, and particularly in terms of military cooperation against jihadist attacks – are in principle better than ever.
Bref, Israel’s current security concerns are limited. However, these challenges may well grow in future – above all, due to the implications of the Iranian nuclear threat, the missile-cum-rocket threat to Israel’s home front, and also further regional deterioration. The severity of these threats will depend largely on Israel’s counter-measures, including its preservation of strategic superiority, its deterrence capabilities, its domestic resilience, and also its cooperation with various partners.
Ephraim Kam is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel-Aviv. He previously served as the Deputy Head of the Research Division, IDF Military Intelligence.