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Of All Threats Facing Israel, Army Believes Palestinian Front Is the Most Volatile

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An IDF tank on the Lebanon border, January 25, 2015.

The most current document outlining the strategy of the Israel Defense Forces, distributed within the army about two months ago, described the Palestinian arena as potentially the most volatile from Israel’s perspective. But in the hierarchy of threats the document says the IDF army is preparing to deal with, the Palestinian front is presented as secondary.

Ahead of it, from the General Staff’s point of view, is the Shi’ite threat represented by Iran and which in the past two years increasingly included Syria alongside Hezbollah in Lebanon. The third most significant threat, according to the army, is posed by Sunni extremist organizations, first and foremost Al-Qaida and the Islamic State.

In the summer of 2015, six months after Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot became chief of staff, he took the unusual step of composing a strategic document, whose nonclassified version was made public. The document sparked extensive discussion among researchers and experts, mainly because Eisenkot took on sensitive topics, such as the security doctrine and the IDF’s objectives in combat, that political leaders had consistently avoided. When the document was released, Eisenkot said it would have to be updated based on military developments. In November, a revision was completed that was not made public. Its main points are reported here for the first time.

One update is the division of the region into “areas of confrontations” (threats to Israel) and “areas of cooperation” (countries that are friendly or with which some coordination is possible). Also stressed is the growing importance of Israel’s “battle between the wars” against terror groups and analysis of the application of military force as a blend of achieving a decisive outcome and of preventing war.

The supreme test

According to Eisenkot, the IDF’s supreme test is to implement its strategy and to prepare for challenges. “Our goal is to protect and win,” Eisenkot wrote in the introduction to the new edition, copies of which were distributed within the army and sent to members of the inner cabinet after it was shown to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The new document contains an updated discussion of the cooperation between moderate countries in the region and world powers, first and foremost the United States. It stresses that the army’s actions are intended to strengthen Israel’s international and regional position.

“Looking ahead to the coming years, Israel has an established strategic position and a positive balance over all its enemies,” the document states. It ascribes this state of affairs to U.S. support for Israel, the postponement of the Iranian nuclear threat, the weakening of Arab states and the focus of states in the region on domestic issues, the waning likelihood of an Arab military coalition against Israel and Israel’s military advantage over its enemies.

The update emphasizes Iran’s role in the threats facing Israel. The paper’s first edition was written during the regional window of opportunity that followed the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal, about which Eisenkot was more optimistic than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The latest edition notes that Iran has been instrumental in strengthening Shi’ite influence and the possibility of a potential conventional warfare threat by deploying Shi’ite militias along Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. While the Shi’ite threat is growing, the Palestinian arena is the more volatile one. The document mentions for the first time the threat of “lone wolf” attacks, manifested in the wave of knife assaults that began in October 2015.

Army officials attributed the revisions to widespread changes in the region since the first edition was published. These include, in addition to growing Iranian involvement in Syria, Russia’s heightened presence there as well as Israel’s construction of a tunnel barrier on the Gaza border and the increased threat from Islamic State in Sinai.

Progress by the enemy

The army sees progress by the enemy in a number of areas, including more precise fire that can cause major damage to infrastructure in Israel, the acquisition of advanced weapons that can hinder the mobility of ground forces, the growing threat of cyberwarfare from “numerous players,” at attempts to wage what the document calls a “war for consciousness, legitimization and law.” The IDF has identified an “ongoing and growing trend to move the fighting to our territory,” it states.

The IDF defines the principles of Israel’s security doctrine as deterrence, reducing threats and deferring military conflicts if needed, offensive action during war and adhering to the principles defined by David Ben-Gurion: taking the fight to the enemy and shortening the war to restore normal life as soon as possible.

Beads for the natives

Netanyahu was right again. The current U.S. administration is the most pro-Israeli ever, as was underscored by the visit this week of Vice President Mike Pence. Whether this necessarily benefits Israel’s strategic situation in the region is another question altogether.

The friendship itself is a good thing. With the Middle East in such a tumult of contradicting trends, and stability so far away, it’s good to know the United States is on our side. But there is a dissonance between the Trump-Netanyahu alliance and the inaction of the United States in the region. Pence was enthusiastically received during his Knesset speech that recalled the warm welcome of the Republican senators to Netanyahu when he spoke in Washington against the nuclear deal in 2015. Pence’s declaration that the U.S. Embassy would move to Jerusalem by the end of 2019 was greeted with cheers by the cabinet members and many MKs. But while Pence was handing out beads to the natives, as one listener put it sarcastically, the United States was disappearing from a no-less important region, Syria.

The real drama this week was in northern Syria, where Turkey mounted an offensive against the district of Afrin, near the border, as part of its war against Kurdish militias. Those militias are part of the “Syrian democratic forces” that with robust U.S. assistance played an important role in driving Islamic State from its self-declared caliphate in Raqqa and Deir el-Zour. The United States also hoped to use these militias to thwart Iran’s establishment of a land corridor from Tehran through Syria to Damascus and Beirut. That was the foundation of what was left of U.S. strategy in Syria, which seems to have dissipated entirely this week. The Turks invaded, coordinated with the Russians or the Iranians, or perhaps they turned a blind eye to the incursion.

Considering the lack of American action, the high level of coordination reached by Netanyahu and President Donald Trump is surprising. It seems for the moment that some of the Israeli right’s fondest dreams are about to come true. The Americans, who are finding it hard elsewhere to walk and chew gum at the same time (said, famously, about President Gerald Ford), are showing remarkable synchronization when it comes to Israel, so much so that when Trump contradicted Netanyahu’s assessment about the timing of the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, a statement is immediately issued toeing the line with Israel — and the date, entirely by chance, coincides with Israel’s next scheduled election year here, a fine gift to Netanyahu. Did someone say diplomatic isolation?

The U.S. is showing the same determination toward Iran. At the Knesset, Pence reiterated Trump’s pledge not to sign an extension of the nuclear agreement in four months if it is not improved. Jerusalem rejoiced, without questioning how this was to happen and how the five other powers that are partners to the agreement would respond.

At the moment it seems that the daylight between Washington and Jerusalem doesn’t leave room for even a pin. The motives of the Republicans here are interesting: Is it a simple response to the expectations of their voters, a sign of the impact of the evangelical audience or the hope to obtain Jewish votes, which traditionally go to the Democrats, in the next election?

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is Trump’s much-touted Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative. But Netanyahu’s close relationship with the U.S. administration raises the possibility that such an initiative will be stillborn, with no chance of acceptance by the Palestinians. The initiative is likely to be postponed, with U.S. Ambassador Jason Greenblatt occasionally whispering in the ears of diplomatic reporters a few details of the plan.

Pence’s speech this week conveyed an important message to the region about the solid alliance between Israel and the United States. It also dispelled any remnant of the United States as a fair broker vis-a-vis the Palestinians. Will this push the Palestinian Authority into a corner, giving it an excuse to reignite violence? Only time will tell.

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