With Upheaval in Arab World, IDF Facing Future of Threats Unlike Any in the Past

The challenges from the region's conventional armies seem to be diminishing as dangers grow from non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and al-Qaida.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israeli soldiers simulating a battle with Hezbollah in an army drill.
Israeli soldiers simulating a battle with Hezbollah in an army drill.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It is becoming increasingly obvious that in the years ahead Israel will face security challenges that are radically different from those of previous decades. Various officials continue to warn about the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear project and to have their pictures taken against a backdrop of army maneuvers on the Golan Heights, as though a Yom Kippur War scenario loomed there. Now, however, the immediate danger with which Israel must cope is more closely related to the implications of upheavals in the Arab world vis-a-vis the situation along the country’s borders.

The Iranian threat is still out there. In a public speech this week, the minister for everything and nothing, Yuval Steinitz, called the nuclear project in Iran “40 times as dangerous as the North Korean one.” But the probability that Israel will attack the apple of the ayatollahs’ eyes this year appears quite low, given the current approach of the United States and the international community, and the election of a relatively moderate president in Iran. At the moment, it seems that an Israeli decision in this regard will be deferred to 2014, and that if a compromise, however problematic, is eventually worked out between Iran and the six powers, Jerusalem will be forced to accept it.

The threat posed by conventional armies in neighboring countries in the near future also appears to have disappeared for the time being, as any tour of the border fence on the Golan Heights will show. The Syrians’ tank bases in the Golan have pretty much been emptied out, and their guns now aim eastward, possibly to suppress the popular uprising against the Bashar Assad regime. The Syrian army is bruised and battered from the prolonged war of fighting the rebels. It will take years for Damascus to rebuild a military capability that would be relevant when engaging Israel in a direct confrontation.

The threat from the eastern front, in which Iraqi reinforcements were supposed to come to the aid of the Syrians, disappeared a decade ago with the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraq has since then been mired in a civil war of its own.

Egypt represents a possible danger of a different kind. It has a relatively modern army, which is based on American combat doctrine and weaponry ‏(in place of the Soviet equipment with which it launched its last war against Israel, in 1973‏). But the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is holding firm. One could conjure up an extreme future scenario, in which the absence of a way out of the internal crisis prompts the Egyptian leadership ‏(the present regime? the next one?‏) to try to turn the enmity of the populace away from it and toward Israel. However, that does not appear to be a realistic possibility at the moment, not least because the Egyptians are dependent on American security aid, which would be cut off instantly in the wake of any sign of concrete aggression against Israel.

Given all this, the main occupation of the Israel Defense Forces at present is contending with the situation on the borders. More specifically, it is the danger that a local incident sparked by one of the armed organizations that operate on those borders will generate a deterioration into a wider conflict, even ‏(in extreme circumstances‏) a regional confrontation. Accordingly, the IDF is altering the deployment of its command posts in the Golan Heights, after already having established a new regional brigade on the border with Egypt. The IDF is also deploying higher-quality troops, building new fences and installing intelligence-collecting devices.

But the army also has to think about the next stage: how to deter and prevent activity by a non-state adversary on the other side of the border. And about how to deploy for the possibility that a local clash will set off a chain of events resulting in thousands of missiles and rockets being fired into Israel’s population centers, which have never experienced warfare of that intensity.

The last week or so, but in fact almost any given stretch of time since the start of the year, provided a variety of examples of the emergence of the new regional reality. Immediately after the military coup in Egypt last week, Islamic squads from the Bedouin tribes in Sinai initiated a terrorist offensive against Egyptian military and police bases. On July 4, a rocket was fired from Sinai at Eilat, but landed in an open area outside the resort city.

That same night, a mysterious attack took place in the port city of Latakia, in northern Syria. A few days later, Internet sites with connections to the Syrian opposition claimed that this was an Israeli operation, and that it destroyed Russian-made Yakhont missiles. These are accurate shore-to-sea missiles whose delivery to Hezbollah, Israel has already declared, would constitute a red line that will compel it to act. Israel did not comment on the reports from Lebanon.

In the pre-dawn hours of this past Tuesday, a series of explosions took place in Damascus, probably the work of the Syrian opposition. A few hours later, a booby-trapped car blew up, this time in the heart of Dahiya, the Shi’ite quarter of Beirut. Dozens of people were wounded in that attack, which was aimed at Hezbollah’s area of control in the city. This incident, too, is attributed to Sunni organizations, from Lebanon and possibly from Syria, which sought revenge against the Shi’ite organization for its part in the massacres the Assad government is perpetrating against its opponents in Syria.

Throughout this period, the fighting between Bedouin and the Egyptian army continued in Sinai, and mass demonstrations were held, accompanied by violent clashes and fatalities in Cairo, Alexandria and in Egypt’s provincial cities.

Seemingly, Israel is only marginally connected to this long sequence of events. In only one case, Latakia, was Israel directly accused, though the international media did not follow this up because of the huge drama that was continuing to unfold in Egypt. Still, it would be imprudent to underplay the potential risk. In Sinai, on the Golan Heights, and to some extent in Syria, failed states are in charge but are unable to bring the situation under control.

Their failure leaves the arena to non-state organizations ‏(Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamist groups influenced by Al-Qaida in Sinai and on the Golan Heights‏). For now, they are focused on internal Arab struggles, but they are armed to the teeth and hostile to Israel. A local incident could escalate, even if that line has yet to be crossed. In the IDF, the incident in Beirut, which Israel was not involved in, was a subject of discussion this week. If Hezbollah had accused Israel of planting the booby-trapped car, the organization might have considered firing rockets into the country.

Defection of Hamas

The situation of Hamas offers another example of the regional instability. The civil war in Syria confronted the Palestinian organization with a serious dilemma. Its longtime patrons, Iran and Syria, are at odds with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Hamas’ ideological basis of identification. Gradually, Hamas defected from camp A to camp B: The members of its political bureau abandoned Damascus and afterward began to issue hesitant condemnations of Assad’s deeds. Concurrently, they drew very close to the government of the

Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, from which they received political and ideological support. They adopted the Egyptian fiat to observe a full cease-fire with Israel after Operation Pillar of Defense last November.

The break with Assad had a price. In Lebanon, Hezbollah activists attacked Hamas followers in the Palestinian refugee camps. As for the supply of Iranian weapons to Hamas in Gaza, it died out, partly for tactical reasons − the aerial bombings of weapons convoys in Sudan and the improved Egyptian handling of the tunnels from Sinai to Rafah − but also apparently because Tehran is no longer eager to arm those who are identifying with its sworn enemies in Syria.

Now, though, Hamas is in a bind. The violent ouster of President Morsi took the

organization’s leadership by surprise. Its military wing is highly critical of the civilian leadership, notably Khaled Meshal, for having drawn close to Cairo and thus curtailing vital aid from Iran. The Egyptian security forces, the new bosses in Cairo, are blocking the passage of goods through the tunnels. A few days ago, a condemnation of Morsi’s removal from power emerged from Hamas. The organization’s leadership quickly denied that it was behind the statement, for fear of further aggravating the tension with Cairo.

A Hamas under pressure is not necessarily good news for Israel. The organization could try to find an outlet by reigniting tensions along the border area or by letting loose the most extreme Islamist groups. Thus, in Gaza, too, as in Egypt and Syria, the situation is confusing and the near future very hard to predict.

Very little of all this has imprinted itself in the consciousness of the average Israeli citizen − maybe for the best. This year, the dissonance between the potential of the growing threat and the relative quiet brought about by the respite in Palestinian terrorism has grown. The Fajr rockets that struck Metropolitan Tel Aviv last November have long since been forgotten, and the incidents on the Golan Heights are too few to affect the mood of most Israelis. The agenda has become social-economic, and the army is finding it more difficult to explain its needs, in the light of the new circumstances.

Calculated risk

Not long after the start of the social-protest movement, in the summer of 2011, the General Staff grasped that the change in the public atmosphere and in the political arena would lead to the implementation of needed cuts in the defense budget. At the same time, the implications of the upheaval in the Arab world were gradually being internalized. Authorization of the IDF’s multiyear budget was postponed twice, first because of the protest movement in Israel and then because of the early general election. The new multiyear plan, “Te’uzah” ‏(daring, valor‏), will be submitted to the security cabinet and the full government for approval soon.

The IDF sees a regional window of opportunity of two to three years in which it will be able to initiate relatively extensive changes in the structure of the forces and in their manner of implementation. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, his former deputy, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, and the current deputy, Maj. Gen. Gazi Eizenkot, coordinated the planning of the budget over the past year. However, the budget cuts struck the reform plans more quickly and more deeply than the General Staff expected. The IDF now has to slash NIS 1.5 billion from the defense budget by the end of this year and another NIS 3 billion in 2014.

The key elements of the plan were presented this week. Newspaper headlines are focusing on what was cut, but it’s also important to underscore what Gantz wants to create in place of what is lost: He is talking about a change in operational perception, based on the areas in which great improvements have been achieved in the IDF’s capability, and above all on their interaction. In essence, this involves the air force, military intelligence, fire capability and the cyber realm. The improvement of intelligence coverage and the possibility of transferring accurate data rapidly to the air force make aerial attacks more effective. The commander of the air force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, likes to explain that a squadron of four war planes is now capable of dealing with the same number of targets that required an entire squadron in the first Lebanon war, 30 years ago.

Gantz’s emphases are based on the understanding that in the event of a broad war, the IDF must bring the fighting to an end as quickly as possible, in order to reduce civilian suffering and damage. Of course, the army is also playing up its commitment to preserve its land-maneuver capability ‏(the use of infantry and armored forces in an offensive‏). It is here, however, that questions crop up. First, because the past decades have shown how fearful the political leadership and public opinion are with regard to soldiers being killed in a ground action, and how much more they prefer a short, ostensibly “clean” war fought from the air. And second, because the units of the ground army are slated to take the biggest cuts, while acquisition of new capabilities for the units that will remain depends on budget clauses that have not yet been approved by the politicians. Significant cutbacks in training for both the regular army and the reserves on the ground do not augur well, either.

Contraction is also built into the multiyear plan. The IDF is getting ready to fire 4,000 or 5,000 career-army personnel, a high percentage that is unparalleled in any other state body. Tank and artillery units will be disbanded, hundreds of tanks will be removed from the order of battle, two operational air force squadrons will be cancelled and two navy ships will be cut. These would appear to be obligatory moves. The IDF underwent a long process, originating in the Yom Kippur War trauma, in which the order of battle was inflated. Afterward, the state budget was subordinated to security needs, producing what economists call the “lost decade” of the economy, beginning in the mid-1970s.

If the old wars, with their massive use of tanks, have disappeared, there is logic in the risks being proposed by the General Staff. The policymakers, as expected, are less eager to share the responsibility. Two months ago, in the meeting of the inner cabinet during which the blueprint of the state budget was approved, the National Security Council suggested including a clause in the resolution to the effect that the ministers understand the implications of the cuts for the state’s security. Some ministers objected, and the clause was dropped.

On Wednesday, when the main points of the multiyear plan were made public, the Finance Ministry reacted in a Pavlovian manner, attacking the defense establishment for trying to frighten the public. This time, though, the criticism is off the mark. That was not the chief of staff’s intention. His test will lie in his ability to put the plans into practice.

A first glance suggests two potential weak points. The first is that the upgrading of capabilities remains dependent on budgetary increments for which the army has received only vague promises, for two years down the line. Those increments are contingent on the implementation of the cuts now planned and also on the future state of the economy.

The second weak point has to do with actually taking the calculated risk. There are many reasons for Israel’s relative failure in the Second Lebanon War, but one of them is the fact that the abduction Hezbollah carried out on the northern border caught the IDF in the midst of a period of cutbacks, in which training was completely paralyzed. In the next two years, a broader cut in the order of battle is planned.

Today, on July 12, the seventh anniversary of the outbreak of the Lebanon war, that too is a danger that’s worth bearing in mind.

Chief of Staff Gantz. He’s talking about a change in operational perception, not just cuts.Credit: IDF Spokesman’s Office

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