Analysis |

Israel Maintains Its Edge, but Will Be Challenged by Iran, Hezbollah in Coming Year

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מפגינים פלסטינים ליד גדר הגבול בדרום רצועת עזה, בשבוע שעבר
Palestinian protesters by the Gaza border, last weekCredit: Said Khatib/AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The usual laments notwithstanding, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 2021, Israel is still the strongest country in the Middle East. Its military prowess is still the greatest, as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak used to say, from Tehran to Tripoli in Libya. The foundations of Israel’s military superiority have not changed. They remain the capabilities of the state and its security agencies in intelligence, technology and human resources, along with extensive political and economic support from the United States.

The edge has also been preserved thanks to Israel’s willingness to pursue proactive policies. This approach can clearly be seen in so-called “battle between the wars” of the past decade. But the best example of this was seen even earlier, precisely 14 years ago Monday, with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s decision to launch an aerial attack on the nuclear facility North Korea had built for the Assad regime in northeastern Syria. The balance of power in the region might have been completely different today if Olmert had not nipped Syria’s nuclear program in the bud.

Military prowess has another critical element: Israel, at least the Israel within the Green Line, is the only democracy in the Middle East. The fact that the government was changed at the ballot box and the prime minister was ousted after 12 years in office, is a significant source of strength for the country. During former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last years in office, there was some cause for concern about the future of democracy here due to his efforts to avoid trial and systematically undermine the country’s institutional gatekeepers.

The fact that the public cast him off is encouraging, even though the new government is inexperienced and far from being a dream team, even in the eyes of those who voted for it. Any comparison with the regimes of our friendly (Egypt and Jordan) and hostile (Syria and Lebanon) neighbors shows a clear Israeli advantage. It can also be seen in Israel’s dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, despite the deficiencies of the two governments that have presided over the crisis.

On the negative side, Israel still faces the difficulty of developing a proper response to the main threat posed by Israel’s enemies, especially since the Second Lebanon War in 2006: missiles and steep trajectory rockets. The Arrow, Magic Wand and Iron Dome intercept systems have provided an effective defense against massive fire from the Gaza Strip, but they will have difficulty achieving the same degree of success during a war with Hezbollah or in a multifront war that brings thousands of rockets raining down on Israel at the same time from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.

A still frame from a video showing 'before' and 'after' pictures of the site of an Israeli air strike on a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007.Credit: IDF/Handout via Reuters TV

The Israel Defense Forces suffers from additional problems, which include a decline in the status and capabilities of the ground forces and increasing concern over fielding them when needed for extensive action in enemy territory, the lack of training for reserve units and a decline in motivation to serve in combat units by the most capable draftees. The IDF General Staff has difficulty relating to the concerns and fears of the civilian population, which has contributed to sagging public faith in the army.

The following is a brief picture of the situation on the main fronts that will occupy the attention of the government and the army in the year ahead.

Iranian nukes

The White House had planned to sign a nuclear agreement with Tehran in the first months after President Joe Biden took office in January. Washington even considered first lifting the unilateral sanctions on Tehran as a confidence-building measure. But the Iranian refusal disrupted those plans. For its part, the IDF suspects that the leadership there has fallen a little in love with the Trump administration’s hard line. Now, Biden is ready to consider a slightly less hard line than that of the Obama administration when it signed the original agreement in 2015 (President Donald Trump withdrew from it three years later).

Israel and the United States agree that the Iranian regime is in dire straits, both economically and due to the coronavirus. Iranian military capabilities vis a vis the West are limited, restricted to small-scale attacks against targets associated indirectly with Israel, such as ships owned by Israeli companies. But Washington realizes that the current treading of water, during which Iran continues to enrich uranium, does not serve American interests. Biden is now seeking an alternative plan.

The Israeli-linked Japanese owned vessel Mercer Street following the July 29 attack on the vessel, over which Iran was suspected, and which killed two crew members. Credit: Karim Sahib/AFP

One possible scenario sees the Americans increasing economic pressure on Iran, perhaps accompanied by clandestine acts of sabotage for a few months, in the hope of persuading the Tehran to come back to the negotiating table and show more flexibility. Some senior Israeli security officials still consider this a reasonable possibility. The agreement that follows would once again postpone the realization of Iran’s nuclear project for a decade or more. This time, Israel would have to take better advantage of the time at its disposal to develop a realistic military response, if Iran reneges on its obligations or the agreement collapses.

As was reported extensively in the international media, Israel had been preparing for an assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities on a few occasions between 2009 and 2013. Netanyahu had reportedly allocated 11 billion shekels ($3.4 billion) for the operation, although some estimate put the cost much lower. In fact, he never ordered an assault, and there are doubts as to whether at the time Israel’s operational capabilities were sufficiently developed for the task.

Over the past two years Netanyahu, had promised the General Staff a special budget to prepare for Iran. Finally, last month a larger defense budget was approved under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, including a for Iran. Since Bennett took office he has hinted a number of times that his predecessor neglected the military preparations and had not been ready for the possibility that the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement in 2018 might bring Iran significantly closer to the manufacture of a nuclear bomb.

At the end of Biden’s meeting with Bennett at the White House last month, the president pledged that Iran would never attain a nuclear weapon, and explained that if need be, other, non-diplomatic options would be examined. The Israeli government expressed satisfaction at the statement. But Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, head of the Policy Institute at Reichman University, is less enthusiastic.

President Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet at the White House, Aug. 27, 2021. Credit: EyePress via AFP

Gilad told Haaretz that Biden spoke publicly only about preventing a nuclear weapon, that is, a missile with a nuclear warhead. “In any case, this won’t happen for the next two years. But Iran can meanwhile develop and even test-explode a nuclear device. This is a perfectly reasonable scenario, which means that we’ll be in trouble, because Iran will have become a threshold state, and the United States won’t act military against it.”

Netanyahu hoped to change the balance of power in the Middle East by means of the normalization agreements he signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain a year ago. These agreements are a welcome breakthrough and have already begun to bear fruit economically and in defense. But Israel is being gradually weaned from the fantasy that the UAE or Saudi Arabia (which has not normalized ties) will fight shoulder to shoulder with it against Iran. The Saudis didn’t even dare retaliate against Iran’s attacks on Aramco oil facilities two years ago.

The U.S. and China

The main reason the United States withdrew from Afghanistan ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks is because it is turning its gaze eastward to technology competition and battles over influence with China. Central Asia, like the Middle East, is becoming less important to Washington. Biden divested America of a bad investment in Afghanistan, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will evacuate American soldiers from Iraq or Syria anytime soon. The assumption in Israel is that the U.S. will maintain a military presence so as not to broad Lebanon  cast complete capitulation.

There is a price Israel will have to pay to America’s agreeing to Israeli requests, and it will come in ties to China. Beijing was not mentioned at all in the public part of the Biden-Bennett meeting, nor in the interview the prime minister gave to The New York Times. But sources in Israel’s defense establishment say the U.S. has increased its pressure on Israel to allow fewer infrastructure deals with China in the future and to more closely monitor agreements already made.

Although the Americans were the patrons of the agreement between Israel and the UAE, they have concerns about the implications for Israel of closer ties between the UAE and China. The Gulf’s sheikhs were warned not to sign an agreement with Chinese companies to deploy a 5G cellular infrastructure in their countries; it was even hinted that the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE might be at risk.

On September 1, the new Haifa Port was inaugurated, a civilian facility built by a Chinese company. In recent years, unofficial American sources have warned that the Chinese presence at the port would make it difficult for the ships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet to dock in the adjacent Israeli naval base.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, head of the Israel-China program at the Institute of National Security Studies, wrote last week in Haaretz in Hebrew that the first signs of change may soon be appearing in Israel’s policy toward China.

According to Orion, over the past decade, Netanyahu had worked to deepen ties with China and to soften American demands to keep China at bay. Bennett is now developing a new policy that will define ties with China as a national security issue and take U.S. concerns into account. Orion wrote, “In this era of the ‘great powers competition,’ Israel must find a way between strengthening its strategic relationship with the U.S., its most important ally, and promoting a fruitful and secure relationship with China, a very important economic partner.” However, it seems that the priorities in Bennett’s term will weigh toward preferring America.

Lebanon and the home front

Israel has achieved a fair degree of success in the “battle between the wars.” It has boxed in Iran’s ability to maneuver, thwarted many attempts at smuggling weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and, in recent years, has disrupted some of the efforts by militias backed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to gain ground in Syria.

But in another area Israel is approaching a crossroads that will require it to rethink its policy. Despite all its efforts, Israel has not completely stopped Hezbollah and Iran from developing independent production lines to upgrade the organization’s rocket-launching capabilities. This precision-guided-rocket project threatens to alter the balance of power between Israel and Hezbollah. The latter apparently have 100 or more such rockets, along with preliminary capabilities to manufacture them on an industrial scale in Lebanon. If this arsenal continues to grow, in wartime it will allow Hezbollah to more effectively target civilian and military infrastructure in Israel.

Cars line up to fill up at a Beirut gas station, June 11, 2021, amid severe fuel shortages in Lebanon.Credit: Anwar Amro / AFP

Through the years, Israel has not risked initiating a war to thwart its enemies’ efforts to arm themselves and build their forces, with two exceptions, both involving nuclear weapons – the bombings of the Iraqi nuclear facility in 1981 and the Syrian facility in 2007. The precision-rocket project greatly increases the potential danger to the Israeli home front. This is the dilemma that the Bennett-Lapid government, or any government that replaces it, will face in the coming years.

At the moment, Israel’s defense establishment believes that Hezbollah is too busy with internal troubles in Lebanon and too intimidated over another clash with the IDF to heat things up. On the face of it, this is a logical analysis. But a look at all the recent battles in Gaza and Lebanon, from 2006 onward, shows that in every case, neither side properly assessed the situation in advance and did not plan for the possibility of a deterioration into a broad military clash.

The Palestinian arena

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week in Ramallah points the way to how ties the PA are likely to develop in the year to come. Bennett is not interested in meeting Abbas himself, but he will allow closer coordination between the defense establishment and the Palestinians and take steps to provide economic relief.

The main danger of a flare-up is in the Gaza Strip, possibly in the coming months. Bennett is taking that into account. The IDF chalked up a number of operational successes in Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, but the claim that calm will prevail for years vis a vis Hamas will almost certainly crash against the wall of reality. Israel, which pledged that “what was, will no longer be,” has already given up most of its bargaining chips with Hamas (restricting the fishing zone, barring the entry of Gaza laborers to Israel), without Hamas pledging to adhere to a long-term cease-fire or a solution to the Israelis missing and captive in the Gaza Strip.

The Jala Tower in Gaza City being hit in a Israel airstrike, May 15, 2021.Credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP

Israel will have to take an important change into consideration: The Biden administration’s sympathy for Israel is self-evident and strong, but the wiggle room it will give Israel in the event of a clash in the territories will be less than what the Trump administration granted. Already during Operation Guardian of the Walls in May, heavier pressure was brought to bear on Israel to agree quickly to a cease-fire than either of the two sides will admit in public.

In any future conflict, Israeli officials believe that the U.S. will find it more difficult to quickly send security assistance, especially if it involves precise-assault weapons. The reason for this is the growing strength of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing, which could impede any such undertaking in Congress. This is a challenge that Israel did not face in either the 2006 Second Lebanon War or the 2014 war in Gaza. It could restrict the IDF’s freedom of movement in wartime.

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