Analysis

Iran in the North, ISIS in the South: These Are the Threats Israel Is Facing in 2018

With Trump increasingly detached from Mideast events and more concerned with North Korea, Israel has picked a very bad time to neglect its relations with U.S. Jewry

Protesters burn an Israeli flag during a Hezbollah demonstration in the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon on December 22, 2017
AFP PHOTO / Mahmoud ZAYYAT

World developments in recent months will likely continue to gather momentum in the early part of 2018. The main focus for the United States – and therefore for the rest of the international community, too – is no longer the Middle East but what’s happening far from these parts, in North Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent threats have so far failed to budge North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un. It won’t be easy to find a peaceful way to dissipate this tension. If the verbal escalation continues, even war cannot be ruled out.

Plenty of strategic experts say there’s a high probability of a military confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang sometime in 2018. If that does happen, it will be the first time the United States is going to war against another country boasting a nuclear capability. America’s most recent wars, in 1991 and 2003 against Iraq, would look like child’s play in comparison.

Trump appears to be weighing military action, despite the reservations of his security advisers. The polls currently predicting Republican losses in the Senate and House in the 2018 midterm elections next November might also act as a catalyst for a military move.

People watching a TV screen showing images of U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, November 21, 2017.
Ahn Young-joon/AP

The Americans are also attaching more significance to the country’s political and economic rivalries with Russia and China, respectively. The Middle East has taken a back seat.

Although in recent weeks the U.S. administration has been making a concerted effort to give the impression that America is in the Middle East to stay, Israel sees it differently. The United States is packing up and leaving the various parties to their wars.

The U.S. military presence in Syria is minimal and not expected to grow. Now the Americans so kindly got the Islamic State out of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s way, his regime and its supporters are seizing control of most of the territory abandoned by the crumbling caliphate. And Russia and China (the latter so farto a lesser extent) are gradually entering the diplomatic vacuum left by the Americans.

Beyond the United States’ dwindling interest in Syria and the ongoing stagnation of the peace process with the Palestinians, the increasing risk of a war on the Korean Peninsula will greatly reduce the attention Washington pays to Israel’s security needs and expectations.

Up to now, whenever Israel has become embroiled in a local military conflict in Lebanon or Gaza, the United States has generally been there to help – either by working to achieve a cease-fire or by sending increased aid shipments to restock depleted emergency stores.

In the event of another war erupting here, we can probably count on Trump to fire off a strongly worded tweet in support. But a continuing crisis with North Korea on the verge of boiling over will necessarily monopolize Washington’s focus, and overshadow any escalation on one of Israel’s borders.

In 2017, dramatic changes occurred in nearly every arena concerning Israel. Yet the predictions of the intelligence agencies for the coming year haven’t radically shifted.

Instability on the various borders slightly increases the risk of war, despite all parties’ clear desire to avoid a military confrontation at this time. Internal shocks accompanied by local tensions with Israel could degenerate into a war that Israel doesn’t want. Gaza is the most volatile area right now.

The most dangerous possibility is a flare-up with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which could also spill over to the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Like most countries in the West, Israel was surprised by the rate at which the Assad regime reclaimed control of about 70 percent of Syrian territory this year – with the help of Russian air support and the additional troops provided by Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.

The Assad regime’s return to the Golan Heights now looks inevitable, and the chances that Israel will extend aid to the Sunni rebels’ villages are not high.

There are conflicting views within the defense establishment about the gravity of the threat posed by Iran’s influence on Assad’s regime. In public statements, Israeli spokespeople frequently cite the need to keep Shi’ite militias away from the border in the Golan Heights.

A Palestinian protester kicks a flaming tire during clashes with Israeli security forces north of Ramallah, December 22, 2017
ABBAS MOMANI/AFP

But another argument is being made that the main focus should be on Iran’s attempts to rebuild Assad’s surface-to-surface missile battery, which was nearly depleted in the civil war. This would enable Iran to threaten the Israeli home front, via proxies, from three fronts: Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.

In Lebanon, the big Saudi gambit in November ended in a total fiasco. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was extricated from his forced stay in Riyadh and then rescinded the resignation announcement that had been dictated to him by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

For now, Hezbollah’s political and military power has not been dented. The organization has no clear reason to start a war with Israel, but it will keep on building up its power – and with the fighting in Syria subsiding, it will be able to devote more resources to this.

In the West Bank, Trump’s December 6 announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital effectively threw the Palestinian Authority a lifeline (as Alex Fishman wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth this week).

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas feared he would soon be faced with a new U.S. peace initiative that was much closer to the Israeli negotiating positions. The protests throughout the Arab and Muslim world enabled Abbas to get ahead of the curve by declaring he no longer believes the Americans can be a fair mediator in the peace process, thus delaying any discussion of the administration’s proposals by weeks, if not months.

It’s a convenient situation for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, too, since even a pro-Israel U.S. proposal would be opposed by Habayit Hayehudi and part of his own Likud party, which would further rattle his already shaky governing coalition.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left shaking hands with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul during an emergency summit on Jerusalem, December 13, 2017.
Yasin Bulbul/AP

However, Trump’s announcement did not resolve all of Abbas’ problems – and it also created some new ones. His participation in the protest summit organized by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan following Trump’s announcement angered the Saudis and jeopardizes Saudi support for the PA – which amounts to some $30 million per month. And although the PA is keeping the weekly anti-Trump protests on a very low flame, the leadership cannot guarantee that things won’t get out of control.

In Gaza, the stalemate in reconciliation talks between Hamas and the PA is causing Hamas to become more financially strapped and exacerbating its strategic woes. Hamas’ new leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, essentially already abdicated management of Gaza when he announced that responsibility was being transferred to the PA. However, fearing a trap, Abbas is not about to rush in and the PA’s presence in Gaza remains minimal. The money is still stuck, too.

Israel is concerned that this combination of circumstances could push Hamas to take another gamble on a military escalation, even though Hamas leaders are well aware of the potentially devastating implications.

In Sinai, the ISIS offshoot Wilayat Sinai has notched up some recent successes. Egypt is far from subduing the organization – despite the massive assistance it receives from Israel, according to Arab media reports.

For now, Wilayat Sinai is concentrating on attacking the Egyptian security forces. But Israeli defense officials are aware of the possibility it could attempt a showy major attack on the Israeli border, using the attack capabilities it has shown in operations against the Egyptians.

Israel’s intelligence agencies are trained and authorized to observe and analyze what is happening on the “red” (enemy) side of the map. In their security assessments, they do not include what is happening on the “blue” (Israeli) side.

But there is one ongoing process that has the potential to do vast strategic harm to Israel, and warnings about it are frequently heard in talks with security officials. This is the rift between the government and the Reform and Conservative movements in America, following Netanyahu’s retreat on the Western Wall agreement and his government’s derisive attitude toward much of American Jewry.

The behind-the-scenes role played by Jewish organizations with regard to Congress and the U.S. administration, ensuring U.S. military aid to Israel and promoting legislative initiatives of vital strategic importance to Israel, is barely discussed by the Israeli public.

The argument could be made that some of this support is excessive and gives right-wing Israeli governments too much maneuvering room whenever a U.S. peace plan is presented. But we also cannot ignore the crucial role Jewish activism plays when there are urgent security needs – from joint funding for missile defense systems like Iron Dome and Arrow, to getting sanctions imposed on Iran to slow its military buildup.

A visit to the Western Wall by senior Reform rabbis was punctuacted by pushing, punching and shoving from ultra-Orthodox worshippers and the police. November 19, 2017
Noam Rivkin Fanton

Netanyahu allowed the Western Wall plan to be buried because he placed internal coalition needs – relations with the ultra-Orthodox parties – above the long-term alliance with American Jewry.

Ariel Kahana reported in Makor Rishon last month that, in private conversations, Netanyahu tells people that he thinks the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in the United States will disappear within two generations due to assimilation and a low birth rate, so there is no point investing in ties, Instead, he says, the focus should be on securing the support of Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians. (Netanyahu’s office said the comments were taken out of context.)

This assessment disregards how much Israel relies on American Jewry – from its philanthropy directed at civil society here, to ensuring defense aid and diplomatic support in Washington. This could turn into a very damaging trend in the long run.

The IDF fesses up

In recent years, in academia and then later in the media, there has been discussion about young people being channeled into specific jobs in the Israel Defense Forces based on their economic background. Pricey prep courses for service in the cybersecurity units; the IDF’s requirement that candidates for certain jobs take and pass the psychometric exam at their own expense; the decline in the percentage of youngsters from “high quality groups” enlisting for combat service – all of these reflect a clear trend the army has been doing its best to suppress for some time.

During an event at the Dov Lautman Conference on Education Policy earlier this week, a partial acknowledgement about the situation was heard for the first time. Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz, head of the manpower directorate, was taking questions from the audience.

Someone asked, “Is there a division in the IDF that perpetuates the social gaps rather than having the army serve as a melting pot? Are new recruits from the outlying towns going to combat service while those from the Sharon [the wealthy coastal region encompassing Tel Aviv] are going into technological areas?”

To which Almoz replied, “There is no institutional division. I can cautiously say this: We would like it to be more mixed. We would like for it not to be divided that way. I also think it’s our job to say so out loud, and there are organizations in this country that are helping us. It shouldn’t be that if you tell me your socioeconomic situation, I can basically decide right now what your path in life will be – that I’ll know from the start where you’ll go to school, where you’ll serve, what university you’ll go to, what your profession will be and what kind of income you’ll earn.

“I think there needs to be a little more of a mix, and we’re addressing that,” Almoz added.

In other words, the IDF is recognizing the problem and is, for the first time, publicly stating it is taking steps to change the situation.