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Beyond Iran: Four Long-term Challenges Facing Israel

Arab demographic growth could tip the scales and make the occupation unsustainable ■ The Israeli military's intense PR efforts can't compensate for its collapsing draft model ■ Can Israel protect its cyberspace?

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Soldiers gather for a ceremony marking Israel's annual Memorial Day in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday.
Soldiers gather for a ceremony marking Israel's annual Memorial Day in Tel Aviv, on Wednesday.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The daily media coverage in Israel is devoted almost exclusively to the here-and-now. In the security-strategic realm, it’s rare for the press to devote time or thought to what is lurking beyond the horizon, at a distance of more than a few weeks. A random survey of the headlines in the past year will turn up the usual mix of threats: Iran, Hezbollah and more frequently Palestinian terrorism, from the launching of rockets in the Gaza Strip to attacks by lone terrorists in the West Bank. But Israel needs to look far past this. Here are four of the acute problems facing the country, without a word (almost) about Iran.

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More Arabs than Jews

In the past two years, at least two security bodies have conducted an unofficial examination of a sensitive issue: Israeli-Palestinian demography. The two reviews, which were based on the collection and analysis of data from various bodies that deal with statistics, reached a similar conclusion: At some point around 2020, the tipping point arrived. Since then, for the first time in many decades, the number of Arabs between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River has slightly exceeded the number of Jews. A range of ethnic groups within those boundaries, bearing legal status of different types, number a little more than 14 million souls. When they are all added up – Jews on one side and on the other Arabs who hold Israeli citizenship, Palestinians from East Jerusalem who hold Israeli citizenship, Palestinians from the West Bank and Palestinians from the Gaza Strip – the result is almost equal, with the Arab side having a slight numerical advantage.

This is a significant point, because these trends are set to continue over time and the disparity will likely increase somewhat, because of the difference in the birthrates between the different groups (despite an expected further decrease in the birthrate among Arabs). In the longer term, awareness of this fact will be heightened in the international community as well. In these circumstances, Israel will find it even more difficult to maintain an eternal occupation in broad swaths of the West Bank, with some of the Palestinians there under its full control, some under partial control (checkpoints, arrests, trials) and all of them lacking the right to vote for the elected institutions in Israel.

The claim that this is only a temporary phenomenon, stemming solely from security circumstances which in the meantime are not amenable to a solution, is being viewed ever more suspiciously in the West. At the same time, surveys conducted in recent years among the Palestinians in the territories show growing support for the one-state idea. More and more Palestinians, particularly from the young generation, are abandoning support for the two-state solution in favor of the assumption that in the end things will work themselves out to their benefit. Their demographic advantage will ultimately engender intolerable international pressure on Israel, compelling it to make concessions and to unite with the Arab majority.

Jewish settlers and Israeli security forces face off near Nablus, as settlers block the road following Palestinian vandalism at the site of Joseph's tomb in April.Credit: Moti Milrod

For years, former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw it as one of his chief goals to torpedo the establishment of a Palestinian state. He resorted to every delaying tactic imaginable, and was abetted by the inflexibility of the Palestinian leadership, even if the person who heads the national faction, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, is apparently that movement’s most moderate leader ever. Under considerable pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama, Netanyahu recognized the two-state solution (in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech) and also agreed to a temporary construction freeze in the settlements. In practice, the years passed, the Arab world underwent an upheaval, and Obama lost faith and interest in the prospect of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu, who never believed in a solution from the start, reprised his original views on the subject, and as of 2017 also enjoyed a gusty tailwind provided by Obama’s successor, Donald Trump.

Construction in the settlements, which even during the freeze didn’t stop altogether for a minute, resumed full-steam. Not long ago, two former heads of the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the West Bank, went on a comprehensive tour of the West Bank after a lengthy break. Their conclusion was clear: The systematic construction by the settlers in recent years, in the form of outposts, agricultural farms and in the expansion of existing settlements, is creating a new reality there, which has made the idea of a separation between the two populations all but unachievable. On the other hand, a contrary Palestinian construction effort is discernible in Area C, which under the Oslo Accords is under Israeli security and civilian control. Both sides are creating facts on the ground, gradually decreasing the viability of the two-state solution.

Netanyahu didn’t make do with that. For years, the Israeli right wing had argued it was feasible to separate the conflict with the Palestinians (while maintaining the existing situation) from Israel’s international relations, even with the Arab world. The left, in contrast, insisted that without a withdrawal from the territories, Israel’s international position would be harmed and that it would be impossible to make new diplomatic inroads in friendly countries in the region. The alliance with Trump supposedly helped Netanyahu refute that notion: The Abraham Accords and other moves produced normalization and an upgrading of relations with four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

The prime minister from Likud and his supporters saw this as overwhelming proof of the rightness of his arguments. As they see it, even the Arabs are no longer taking an interest in the occupation, and are ready, given an appropriate incentive by Washington, to ignore it in favor of a strategic and technological alliance with Israel, in light of the growing threat from Iran. When the close relations with Trump were at their height – and before the former president lashed out at Netanyahu in a livid interview with journalist Barak Ravid – Netanyahu thought he had managed to put the Palestinian state idea into deep freeze.

That policy is continuing, in large measure, under the present government as well. The argument being put forward this time is slightly different: This government unites center, right and left (and even an Arab-Islamic party) behind one goal only: keeping Netanyahu away from the helm. Because the differences between the parties over the Palestinian question are so great, and because the Palestinians in any case are not showing signs of readiness to make concessions, the diplomatic negotiations are not relevant, hence the status quo needs to continue.

In the background is the residue of the second intifada, which seems to be the most formative experience for local public opinion in recent decades. The fear of death that the suicide attacks left here, however repressed, also instilled in the Israelis a deep suspiciousness of the Palestinians and apprehension of territorial withdrawals. The conventional wisdom, on the right and even in part of the political center, holds that every piece of territory that was returned to the Arabs – in the West Bank, in the Gaza Strip, even in Lebanon – was afterward exploited as a site for launching rockets or dispatching suicide bombers.

Young Arabs walk the streets of the Old City of Jerusalem during the celebrations of the beginning of the month of Ramadan in April.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The result is a Catch-22 almost as perfect as the one Joseph Heller conjured up 60 years ago. If the Palestinian arena is relatively quiet and terrorist attacks have decreased, there is no pressure on Israel to move ahead toward examining a diplomatic solution (and in the meantime, the settlements thrive); and if, nevertheless, the situation escalates, then compromise is out of the question, because any negotiation in those circumstances means a humiliating capitulation to terror.

In this situation, which has been going on for years, no one is issuing precise instructions to the military commanders in the field about how to behave. The expectation is that they will understand without words, certainly without documents, what the political decision makers want. So we have a situation, dating back to when Ariel Sharon was prime minister in the early 2000s, in which the Israel Defense Forces declare on the one hand that settler outposts are illegal because they were built on privately owned Palestinian land, and on the other hand the IDF provides them with security for fear the inhabitants will be harmed. (Sharon went even farther, holding nighttime meetings with the settlers’ leaders to work out detailed plans for new outposts – from which he dissociated himself in the morning when pressed by the Americans.)

The Palestinians have ways of their own to grab us by the collar and remind us of their existence, as shown by the recent wave of terrorism, which began in the second half of March. The extreme, militant speech delivered last weekend by Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, illustrated how far off the mark the evaluations in Israel about Hamas’ supposed moderation were. In the background, the efforts by extremist Palestinians and Israelis to seed the confrontation with as powerful a religious strain as possible are continuing unabated.

The intelligent behavior by the IDF and Israel Police in the past month proved that it’s sometimes possible to curb violent escalation, but we are still in the hands of what used to be called in the army the “strategic corporal” – a mistake by a lone soldier, or a junior commander at a checkpoint, is liable sometimes to send the whole region up in flames.

Governance crisis

The tension in the territories has redirected attention there in the past few weeks, but it’s worth recalling how the present terror wave began. The terrorists who perpetrated attacks in Be’er Sheva and in Hadera were Arabs who were Israeli citizens and supporters of ISIS – indeed, two of them served prison terms because of their ties with the organization. Those two attacks, which were followed by copycat attacks in the West Bank, reflect part of a far wider problem. Namely, the state’s ongoing withdrawal from all activity – from policing to tax collection and the day-to-day work of government ministries – in the Arab locales. The consequences of this years-long policy, of omission and commission, have been seen in the past year on two levels: in the severe nationalist violence that erupted during Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza last May, and in the steep rise in murders among Arabs due to disputes between crime hamulas, or clans. The new government, to its credit, is taking a greater interest in this issue than its predecessors did.

The police, under directives of the Public Security Ministry, is making a considerable effort to confiscate illegally-held firearms and is trying, for the first time, to cope with the organized criminal gangs in the Arab locales. Since the start of the year there has been a 40 percent decrease in murders, following last year’s record 136 cases. In response to pressure exerted by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the Shin Bet security service stepped up its activity in collecting intelligence about dangerous crimes among the Arab public. Straddling the seamline between nationalist and criminal events, the Shin Bet is focusing on the struggle to reduce the availability of weapons.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during a visit to Rahat with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Labor Minister Meir Cohen in December.Credit: Noam Rivkin Fenton/Flash 90

Two weeks ago, public attention focused momentarily on the Bedouin city of Rahat in the northern Negev. Two hamulas clashed in a dispute partly involving the collection of protection money from businesses, and armed gangs shot at one another for hours all across the city. Shortly before this, armed individuals sabotaged the Electric Corporation’s transformers outside the city, disrupting the power supply in the area. At the same time, someone sabotaged the rail line near Kiryat Gat. One can only imagine the furor that would have arisen, and how the state would have reacted, if the power supply had been affected or the railway service disrupted as a result of rocket fire from Gaza or an Iranian cyberattack.

The situation in the Arab locales has arisen not only due to deliberate avoidance of policing activity, a development that can be dated to the aftermath of the 2000 Galilee riots, when 13 Arab citizens were killed in confrontations with the police. Governmental inaction goes beyond this, affecting almost every aspect of life, from education to employment. The Netanyahu government actually initiated a welcome policy change in 2015, allocating 30 billion shekels (about $7.8 billion) for a six-year plan to assist the Arab population. The tragedy is that a large portion of the money did not reach its original targets, because crime organizations terrorized the local authorities and grabbed large sums for themselves, without projects being implemented.

At a later stage, the all-out war that Netanyahu launched against the law-enforcement authorities as part of his effort to avoid criminal trials, weakened the police and the state prosecution, thus making enforcement in the Arab locales more difficult. Bennett found an almost paralyzed leadership in the police and in the Prisons Service, with the heads of those organizations entangled in dramatic investigations over the Mount Meron disaster on Lag Ba’Omer (the police) and the escape of security prisoners from Gilboa Prison (the Prisons Service).

That’s one reason for the longevity of the large bubbles of non-governance in the Arab locales. It also remains a problem that no government will be able to ignore, whether because criminal activity will slide into the mixed cities and elsewhere, or because it will be translated into nationalist violence in case of another flare-up between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bennett and the alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, took a step forward by deciding to hook up with the United Arab List in the coalition. In the eyes of many, the new cooperation with the UAL and statements made by its leader, MK Mansour Abbas, show for the first time a possible model for life together. If the coalition collapses in the near future, that could have a negative impact on Jewish-Arab relations within the Green Line, with the extremists among the Arab public gaining renewed momentum.

IDF: The collapsing model

In recent years the IDF has been engaged in a large-scale PR effort to show that the enlargement of the defense budget translates into a considerable improvement in army firepower, intelligence gathering, cyberattacks and other actions. The multiyear plan called Tnufa (Momentum), spearheaded by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, did launch ambitious, far-reaching processes intended to give the army a clear advantage in the event of a war with Hezbollah or Hamas. But the plan does not solve two of the long-term problems from which the IDF suffers: the gradual collapse of the existing draft model, and the conceptual bewilderment about the use of ground forces in a future confrontation, which will occur mainly in densely populated urban areas.

In my view, the personnel crisis is the major threat to the IDF, if not to Israel’s security overall. When only about half of the 18-year-olds do army service – the situation among Jewish men is better, but even there it’s only 70 percent – there is no longer much point in talking about “equality in sharing the burden.”

The problem is less political than it may seem. For the most part, it does not stem directly from frustration at the immense proportion of Haredim who do not serve (about 15 percent of those obligated to serve), or from reservations about the policing activity in the territories. It has more to do with changes in Israeli society and in the character of the draftees.

Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police in at a protest over the arrest of an Orthodox man who refused to enlist in the military in Jerusalem, on Tuesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The IDF, thanks to a number of bureaucratic acts of magic, is able to show that there has been a rise in motivation to serve in combat units in the past few years. But that conclusion would seem to stem largely from changes in when and how the questions are put to the draftees. In practice, there has also been a large rise in the proportion of those being exempted from service – up to 12 percent of the men in the most recent draft calls. That phenomenon could be aggravated by the serious psychological consequences of the coronavirus epidemic among the country’s youth.

Those developments connect to other phenomena: “selective motivation,” when young people are ready to invest effort only in specific tasks bearing high prestige, or which have other advantages (such as learning a useful profession); a not inconsiderable dropout rate from combat units during service; and a phenomenon which the army is careful not to admit to – a continuing decline in the quality of command in units that are considered less prestigious. The ranks in Training Base 1 Officer School are full, but the question that needs to be asked is: Who exactly is filling them? There is a covert crisis in which a number of high-quality combat personnel are refraining from volunteering for officer training, and others are hesitating about whether to embark on long-term command tracks, in the spirit of a generation that does not tend to make long-term commitments.

To its credit, the army has improved and streamlined the classification and draft processes. There is little attempt to impose a combat track, as the army knows that coercion does not create motivation to fight. In contrast, the quality potential among female recruits is being tapped far more efficiently. Most tasks are now available to women, and their number in combat units is rising steadily. (This year saw a rise of 12 percent, and the number of female fighters in a call-up is already the equivalent of two brigades.)

But the less than brilliant state of the ground forces is also related to another issue: their growing marginality in the IDF’s offensive operations. To begin with, the bulk of Israel’s offensive activity is now taking place in the “campaign between the wars,” in which the attacks occur far from the border, and in which the ground forces play almost no part because the operations rely on the air force and intelligence. And second, even when Israel has been dragged into offensive operations in the Gaza Strip in recent years, it has made do with a very limited deployment of the ground forces (Operation Protective Edge, 2014) or refrained from it entirely (Operation Guardian of the Gates, May 2021). In this situation, it’s not surprising that service in combat units in the ground forces is less attractive to draftees, and certainly signing up for long-term career service looks less appealing to officers.

By contrast, when the Russian army – which the IDF viewed until recently with considerable professional admiration – fails completely in its war in Ukraine, complex professional questions arise. Does the Russian failure stem only from particular problems of the army there (low morale, disgraceful logistics, an unjust war of choice), or is it a difficulty that Israel will also encounter if it finds itself fighting a guerrilla army that is defending itself in densely built urban areas? 

Increasing cyber offensives

Another question, which gets very little attention, has to do with Israel’s growing exposure to cyberattacks. Israel takes pride in the fact that its security arms, and also part of its private industry, are at the cutting edge of world technology, both in defense and in the realm of cyber offensives. There are often reports, mainly in the foreign media, about Israeli successes in striking at an Iranian civilian infrastructure by means of a cyberattack.

But at the same time, Israel is facing a vast scale of counterattacks, some of them state-sponsored, others carried out by hackers linked indirectly to states, and still others perpetrated by independent attackers, either for ideological reasons or to extort money.

The majority of the media coverage in Israel is devoted to attacks attributed to Iran, sometimes to Hezbollah and Hamas, which are considered to have extremely limited capabilities. About two years ago, Iran attacked a pumping facility of Mekorot, the national water company, in a way that could have disrupted the water supply in some parts of the country.

An attack last year, which disrupted the activity of Hillel Yaffeh Medical Center in Hadera, caused more severe damage. Yigal Unna, the outgoing head of the National Cyber Directorate, told the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth last January that Israel is deep in a “cyber war” with Iran.

On Monday, the communications minister, Yoaz Hendel, announced that communications suppliers in Israel would have to abide by stricter standards, in order to be able to withstand cyberattacks. Hendel stated that Israel “suffers from thousands of cyberattacks, some of them against critical infrastructures. We know of intentions to execute additional attacks.” Unna's successor, Gaby Portnoy, spoke of “state defense, a type of Iron Dome,” which will be crafted in the face of the cyber threats.

Those are undoubtedly steps in the right direction. However, what’s not being talked about publicly is that Israel is worried about other cyber powers, notably China and Russia. The Chinese are engaged here, via cyber and in additional dimensions, mainly in industrial-technological espionage whose aim is not to hurt Israel directly, but to steal secrets from it. Russia’s intentions are more complex, and some of them are implemented via ostensibly independent groups of hackers.

The bottom line is that the cyber threat is intensifying, while Israel’s defensive deployment is still far from providing a comprehensive and appropriate response to a threat that is developing and expanding. It will exact a high price from the country in the years ahead.

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