Ten or a dozen years ago, life was simpler. Israel was coping with urgent security problems in which it was the primary wielder of force (in the confrontation with Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon security zone, and in the second intifada) and not a secondary player. The Iranian nuclear threat was a vague issue that was taking shape slowly on a faraway horizon, and was engaging only a few policy makers and members of the intelligence community. Israel’s borders, whether established through peace treaties (Jordan and Egypt) or based on a cease-fire (Syria), were generally quiet.
One of the consequences for Israel of the current upheaval in the Arab world is the large number of arenas with which the country’s leaders and the intelligence organizations have to cope. Not all of them become volatile at the same time, nor do all of them necessarily pose an immediate danger to Israel. However, the picture is definitely becoming ever more complicated. What follows is a snapshot of the situation during a typical week − this past week, as it happens − under the new rules of the game, clockwise: from north to south, then westward.
According to the latest assessments of the Israel Defense Forces, Hezbollah has sent between 3,000 and 5,000 of its men (nearly a quarter of its total military force, and from the best-trained units) to assist the Assad regime in the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah has employed company-size units in the fighting and accumulated valuable combat experience, although it has also sustained significant casualties. The organization is thought to have lost about 100 of its troops in the late-spring battle for the town of Qusair, in addition to hundreds who were wounded. The dead are buried at night in Lebanon, in an effort to minimize public awareness of the losses.
The Sunni counteroffensive in Lebanon is continuing. Nearly 100 people were killed in incidents during the past few months, as the country’s ethnic rift has been deepened by the civil war in neighboring Syria. In the middle of this week, a senior Hezbollah activist was reported to have been killed in an ambush near the Syrian border. The media photograph of the incident is illuminating. Three accurate hits are clearly visible in the Hezbollah jeep: one in the engine, the second in the front windshield on the driver’s side, the third on the passenger side. This was the work of professionals.
An incident that stirred considerable attention earlier this week turned out to be much ado about nothing. An IDF night patrol on the Golan Heights spotted suspicious movement in an abandoned army outpost near the security fence. The soldiers opened fire and were fired upon in return. No one was hurt. The next day it turned out that the suspicious figures were probably trying to steal scrap metal, and that the return fire from across the border came from Syrians who thought the IDF was shooting at them. That is the kind of incident that can happen when a civil war continues to rage on the eastern side of the border.
At the same time, Israel did not respond when a few mortar shells landed in its territory in the Golan on Tuesday. The IDF’s impression was that the mortars were probably fired accidentally into the Israeli-held area by Syrian army troops aiming at rebels. The recommendation was to ignore the incident this time.
But the true drama in Syria is occurring elsewhere. The American media belatedly reached the conclusion that the July 5 attack in Latakia, on the Syrian coast, was carried out by Israel against Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles stored in a warehouse. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the incident constituted “the fourth known air strike by Israel inside Syria this year” (to date, the foreign media have counted exactly that number of attacks). Not surprisingly, Russia − whose weapons were included in at least two of the shipments that have been attacked − announced that it would step up the supply of its new S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Damascus.
The Israeli approach to the war in Syria is undergoing gradual changes. Initially, and without saying so, Jerusalem preferred a victory by President Bashar Assad, based on the assumption “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” Later, Israel began to wish both sides success, based on the assessment that the best of all alternatives is mutual attrition among both the hostile regime and the rebel groups, some of which are extremist Islamists. Now, after Assad’s recent successes, Israel is concerned that the very fact he has survived, despite the efforts of the opposition, will be perceived as a victory of the radical axis (Iran-Assad-Hezbollah). This may also account for the hyperactivity attributed to the IDF in Syria lately.
The view in the General Staff is that the Assad victories are unimportant and that he has no chance of reversing the situation and regaining control of the whole country. In contrast, The New York Times claimed yesterday that the momentum has shifted to the president’s side. Some of the rebel groups have launched a murderous internal struggle within the ranks of the opposition, have lost public support and have withdrawn from various urban areas near Damascus, as well as from neighborhoods of other big cities. Even if it’s unlikely that Assad will ever again be the ruler of all of Syria, there is no doubt that his situation has improved concretely.
The security coordination between Israel and Jordan continues to be maintained effectively, and as far as possible from the eyes of the media. The fact that King Abdullah has launched few public attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the past year − indeed, he has even let slip a few partial compliments regarding Israel − apparently reflects the strength of the ties between the two countries. However, Amman continues to be extremely concerned about two interrelated developments: the exacerbation of the civil war in Syria, and the establishment of an enclave under the control of extremist Sunni organizations, which are among Assad’s opponents, in southern Syria close to the border of the two countries.
A joint American-Jordanian military exercise, code-named “Eager Lion” and involving the participation of thousands of U.S. troops, concluded late last month. At the king’s request, no fewer than 900 American soldiers remained in Jordan after the exercise, along with an F-16 squadron and a Patriot anti-missile battery; a U.S. Marines vessel also continues to patrol the waters opposite Aqaba.
U.S. President Barack Obama stated that his government’s aid is needed to preserve the security of Jordan. As expected, Russia and Syria were critical of the American moves. According to an article on the website of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, there is also domestic opposition to this policy, due to the fear it will over-commit the United States. However, Jordan is facing a severe economic crisis, is barely able to absorb 600,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict, and is fearful that the shock waves from the Arab Spring will destabilize its territory, too. At this stage, the king, who has surprised many in Israel with the staying power and maneuverability he has shown in the past two years, will take all the help he can get to survive.
With or without a connection to the month of Ramadan (which continues through the first week of August), the West Bank has returned to a state of relative security quiet. For a change, the major developments are occurring on the diplomatic front and include U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s optimistic efforts related to the possible resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the sharp measures initiated by the European Union against the settlements.
In July 2013, the Palestinians appear to be holding better political cards. If the Kerry initiative fails, they will resort to an alternative in the form of applying for membership in various international institutions. Popular protest − a new intifada − is only third on the list of options. But the grass-roots level has ways of its own of playing havoc with political considerations. The ongoing stalemate in the negotiations, or local incidents with the army or involving settlers, could ignite a fire. Farther down the line, it is hard to see how Israel will be able to isolate the Palestinian public from the effects of the upheaval in the Arab world, as the people of the neighboring nations continue to take their fate into their hands.
This past week, the residents of Egyptian Rafah and El Arish witnessed an unusual sight: tanks, for the first time since the Six-Day War. With Israel’s consent, the Egyptian army has now beefed up its forces in Sinai with tanks, attack helicopters and two infantry battalions, as part of the relatively extensive campaign it is waging against Islamist terrorist groups operating among the Sinai Bedouin, particularly in the northern part of the peninsula. Reports about the operation are fragmentary and not very reliable, but apparently thousands of troops are taking part and enjoying some success against the armed squads. The Egyptian struggle was ratcheted up a notch after the military coup in Cairo. Terrorist attacks against military vehicles, the killing of Egyptian soldiers and the bombing of the natural-gas line to Jordan prompted the army to throw its operation into higher gear.
Little of the violence has spilled over into Israel to date − in fact, only one rocket was fired into an open area near Eilat a day after the coup in Cairo. Looking a little further into the future, though, Jerusalem is worried about the implications of the confrontation in Sinai, and the uncertainty of relations between Hamas and the Cairo regime, vis-a-vis the comparative quiet that has existed on the southern front in the past few months. Israel’s supreme interest is to preserve its towering strategic asset: the peace treaty with Egypt. To that end, Jerusalem will adopt a tactic of containment and be as careful as possible not to create unnecessary tension with Cairo.
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