This isn’t exactly the new Middle East of which Shimon Peres dreamed, but a new regional reality is crystallizing. It's a bit difficult to keep track of all the events on Israel’s borders, especially when the media’s ears are more attuned to other, more fateful questions – like election videos and the Netanyahu family’s profligate spending. However, the regional changes have already had implications for Israel’s security situation.
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The Israel Defense Forces is still the strongest army in the region, as outgoing Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said early last week at the changeover ceremony with Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot. But it would seem the army is a bit less sure of its supremacy now, especially its ability to translate that into an undisputed victory in a war.
The most significant change, at the start of the fifth year of instability in the Arab world, is occurring on the northern front. On Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon, there is a confluence of three events: the success, contrary to most early assessments, of Syrian President Bashar Assad's efforts to survive; development of the perception of a multi-arena struggle against Israel; and a marked increase in Iran’s military involvement in the region, which is also evident in border skirmishes with Israel in the Golan Heights.
At the moment, Assad is looking like the big winner in the regional VIP survivor contest. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's veteran Middle East correspondent, was invited to Assad’s Damascus palace at the beginning of February to conduct a rare interview with the tenacious president. According to Bowen, Assad agreed to his request after months of rejections because he is now feeling more confident about the stability of his regime. This looked inconceivable only a year or so ago, but the Syrian tyrant responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his countrymen in the civil war is already beginning to lose his leper-like status in the international community.
During the past few months, the United States has reined in its rhetoric against the Syrian president – even though the regime is continuing to employ murderous battle tactics against civilians and opposition groups in the areas under their control. Relatively, it is the extremist rebel organizations that are flourishing: the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) and the Nusra Front (the Al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). But since the Americans are concentrating their air attacks against these groups, Assad is benefiting from this as well. It turns out that, sometimes, even the wicked have their work done for them by others.
The stabilization of the regime’s defense efforts allowed Assad to embark on an attack some two weeks ago in southern Syria, where his army has occupied a number of villages a bit to the east of the Golan Heights border with Israel. Alongside thousands of Syrian army soldiers, some 2,000 Hezbollah fighters are also taking part in this attack alongside officers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force.
The attack in southern Syria is aimed at distancing the threat to Damascus, but also to block what Assad and his partners see as the danger of the creation of a sort of "pro-Israel" security strip, controlled by some of the rebel organizations along the Golan border. A renewed hold on the border, of which the regime currently controls only the northern part, could also serve to strengthen a future threat against Israel. The radical Shi’ite axis, like Israel’s other enemies in the region, is trying to establish an extensive multi-arena threat, from where it will be able to attack Israel (principally with rockets) from several directions.
The rules have changed
As reported last Wednesday, the Arab press is publishing statements from Hamas about its intention to establish a terror infrastructure that will enable it to launch rockets into the Galilee area from inside Lebanese territory, in the event of an additional conflict with Israel in the Gaza Strip.
But Hamas isn’t the only one interested in such a concept. Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah declared, in a speech at the end of January, that the rules of the game in the north have changed, and hinted at the formation of a single front – a front where Hezbollah will be able to act against Israel from Syria in response to an attack on Lebanon, or to choose action from Lebanon in order to respond to an incident in Syria. Journalists close to Hezbollah have been writing a lot in recent weeks about Nasrallah describing a front stretching from Rosh Hanikra in the west to Quneitra, in the Golan Heights, in the south.
Iran, too, is thinking about a number of arenas in parallel. A document released this week by MEMRI – The Middle East Media Research Institute – listed no less than five statements by senior Iranian officials about the need to arm Palestinians in the West Bank so they can carry out terror attacks. The Arab media has reported on a meeting between Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, and Hamas' political leader Khaled Meshal, in an attempt to upgrade relations between the two sides. These had cooled to near zero in the context of the civil war in Syria, where Hamas supported the Sunni opposition to the regime.
If we ignore the pathos, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is right. At a time when Iranian obduracy is apparently successfully bending the international community to its will in the nuclear negotiations, Tehran is edging closer to Israel on the northern front. The question is whether Netanyahu’s planned speech in Congress isn’t making the problem worse rather than advancing its solution. The prime minister’s insertion of himself as a barrier between the Democrats and the Republicans – the two pillars of bipartisan support for Israel – will make increasing the sanctions against Iran more difficult. The United States' current tightfistedness in transmitting information to Israel about the nuclear talks is a first, worrisome, harbinger of things to come.
In an extreme scenario, if the conflict with Netanyahu is exacerbated, the Americans are liable to create problems with the supply of weaponry and spare parts to Israel, whose dependence on their aid was demonstrated in last summer's Gaza war. Gantz’s hint in his farewell speech at the need to deal with distant threats with the help of close allies was anything but coincidental.
The events mentioned here sharpen the Israeli dilemma over the question of dealing with the next Hezbollah arms convoy that tries to go from Syria to Lebanon [foreign media outlets have attributed previous attacks on such convoys to Israel]. Will Hezbollah attempt, in the near future, to challenge the transitional government in Israel or the new chief of staff, and how they act? Until now, it seemed that the alleged Israeli mode of action in the north worked quite well. It was a sober strategy, which combined what the international media described as limited, initiated actions (the bombing of Hezbollah convoys), and indirect alliances of interests with some of the opposition groups in the Golan.
The main deviation from the cautious approach came – again, according to foreign media – in the airstrike in which an Iranian general and six Hezbollah fighters were killed on the Golan on January 18. Ten days later, Hezbollah chose a limited response – the anti-tank ambush in which an officer and soldier from the Givati Brigade were killed on the slopes of Har Dov. This round of blows was not all that far from deteriorating into a war.
Intelligent and restrained
The new reality in the north obligates Israel to behave in an intelligent and restrained manner. The changes on the border are occurring very rapidly. There is no certainty that Israeli intelligence is reading the enemy’s intentions correctly, even if in principle it seems clear that Assad and Hezbollah have no interest in engaging in an all-out war against Israel at this time. However, not only Hezbollah but also some of Assad’s foes – the more extreme organizations in the opposition camp – are liable to try to ignite the border.
Given these circumstances, the new chief of staff has been forced to work very fast. The series of appointments Eisenkot announced this week, the second in the space of a month (the previous round was agreed by him even before he officially became chief of staff), will complete the restaffing of about a third of the major generals on the General Staff.
Unlike Gantz, who was called upon to become chief of staff at the last minute (following the cancelation of Yoav Galant's appointment over allegations of a criminal act), Eisenkot has had enough time to prepare his plans, even if Netanyahu dithered over authorizing his appointment. The new chief knows he needs to make his mark quickly, and that there is no certainty the current security quiet will continue.
Therefore, Eisenkot is staffing the top military echelon as quickly as he sees fit, without pausing over possible insults and criticism. The message is clear: There is a new broom at the General Staff. At his very first meeting with his major generals last Monday, Eisenkot announced that the forum would now convene once a week, rather than the previous two, “because there isn’t a directorate in the world that meets twice a week” and it is preferable that the major generals use their time working. Later, he hinted that, during the coming year, he will have to bid farewell to a considerable portion of the forum’s members, because he does not have enough positions for major generals in a second term – that is, he is looking toward making the General Staff younger and promoting a number of additional brigadier generals.
Now for the hard bit
The appointments are the easy part, though. The real question concerns the army’s level of preparedness and fitness for a northern conflict, if one breaks out there in the near future. However, the chief of staff does not have the luxury of focusing on just one arena. Last Tuesday – the day after he took up his position – Eisenkot visited GOC Southern Command, which has recently taken a more central place in the IDF’s order of intelligence priorities.
The sharpening realization in the security establishment is that the combination of the freeze in rehabilitation measures, the continuation of the rift between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and the increasing harshness of the Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip is once again pushing Hamas to the wall. Israel usually builds its deterrence on demonstrating the price that the other side has to pay. It's doubtful that will suffice this time when, as the inhabitants of Gaza see it, they have nothing to lose.
The situation in the West Bank is no more encouraging. GOC Central Command is readying for the possibility of escalation there in the spring, in light of the diplomatic stagnation and the Palestinian application to the International Criminal Court at the beginning of April. Israel's prolonged freeze on the transfer of tax monies to the PA – a step all the heads of the Israeli defense branches have opposed – is liable to cause the economic situation in the West Bank to degenerate and undermine any Palestinian security coordination with the army and Shin Bet security service.
“There is one thing I can promise you,” said Netanyahu to Eisenkot last Monday, at the ceremony. “You will not have a single moment of grace.” The prime minister refrained from adding that he himself is creating some of the problems for the army.