Analysis |

Israeli Confab Tackles Iran, Cyber and Gaza. But There Was an Elephant in the Room

A seminar involving ex-army brass and academics paints a mixed strategic outlook for Israel, all in the shadow of Netanyahu's political future

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a visit to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, February 20, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a visit to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, February 20, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

In another time, five or ten years back, this could have been a meeting of the heads of Israel's intelligence services at the Prime Minister's Office, but the participants at the conference held last week by two left-leaning organizations no longer hold official office.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 63

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Most of them spent long years in defense agencies and served at the highest levels, working closely with Benjamin Netanyahu for at least some time. Others at the conference organized by Molad – the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, a think tank, and Blue White Future, a civil society organization, were experts from academia and think tanks. The fact that they chose to attempt an event led by two groups identified with the left probably attests to their degree of enthusiasm over the prime minister's functioning, even if only a handful of them have so far spoken out.

The conference dealt with the past decade in international relations and security and the challenges of the decade to come. But the background, there seems to have been an elephant in the room – Netanyahu's political future.

The same Netanyahu only recently boasted that the past decade, under his leadership, was the best ever for Israel's security. And on social media, he somewhat bluntly took credit for the Israeli military's relatively low fatality figure for 2019.

The past decade was Netanyahu's decade, also it comes to the field of defense. The indictments filed against him appear to herald the end of his political career, but for now his views are still shaping Israel's standing and stances at a new decade's outset.

Palestinian refugees attend a protest against a U.S.-brokered peace proposal, next the UN building in Gaza City, February 20, 2020.
Palestinian refugees attend a protest against a U.S.-brokered peace proposal, next the UN building in Gaza City, February 20, 2020.Credit: Mohammed Abed/AFP

When it comes to the Palestinian issue, some of the conference participants spoke of a lost decade. The diplomatic process has been completely stalled, U.S. President Donald Trump's initiative, which purports to pull the process out of the mud, appears to have slim prospects for success, and the political and physical gaps between Gaza and the West Bank have worsened, as part of a deliberate policy on Netanyahu's part.

Close security coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has continued and helped prevent a large number of attacks, despite the periodic rough spots. For the time being, there hasn't been an accumulation of negative energy in the West Bank that might herald a third, mass intifada, despite the anger over America's "deal of the century."

Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet security service, who moderated the discussion, told Haaretz: "Contrary to the public discourse and the position presented by the government, Trump's plan, in the view of defense figures, will strengthen the radical forces supporting terrorism among the Palestinians, weaken the pragmatic forces and do harm to the security of the citizens of Israel."

"The public debate hasn't made the necessary distinction between security and the settlements," Ayalon said. "Since back in the late 1980s, from the first intifada, the settlements haven't been presented by the defense establishment as part of the security concept. That is reflected for the most part now in defense officials' opposition to unilateral annexation and the application of Israeli law in the territories."

Fighters from the Lebanese Resistance Brigades, a paramilitary group affiliated with Hezbollah, march through Beirut's southern suburbs, February 14, 2020.
Fighters from the Lebanese Resistance Brigades, a paramilitary group affiliated with Hezbollah, march through Beirut's southern suburbs, February 14, 2020.Credit: AFP

On the question of Iran, there have actually been successes chalked up in the past decade: For four and a half years, the controversial nuclear agreement froze Iran's progress toward the creation of an atomic bomb. The Israeli and American effort to halt the Iranians' aspirations to achieve regional hegemony has had considerable success. Iran's Precision Project, aimed at providing Hezbollah with a sufficient quantity of precision missiles, has not yet come to fruition. And at the end of 2018, Israel deprived Hezbollah of a highly important strategic asset for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia movement, when it uncovered and destroyed six attack tunnels under the Lebanese-Israeli border.

On the regional level, Israel had five and a half years without a significant military campaign. Operation Protective Edge, during the summer of 2014, was the last, and it was carried out on a limited scale. Instead, the Israeli army focused on the so-called campaign between the wars, which was mostly a series of low-profile blows against Iran and its proxies.

It will take a few more years before Israel will have to deal with an actual risk posed by a conventional army. It depends upon the recovery of the Syrian military, but still it isn't very likely that it would seek direct confrontation with Israel.

In the course of the coming years, the main threat to Israel would still remain terrorist and guerilla organizations, and primarily an unprecedented threat of missile and rocket fire targeting the Israeli civilian home front.

Iron Dome air defense system intercepts a rocket over southern Israel, November 2019.
Iron Dome air defense system intercepts a rocket over southern Israel, November 2019.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The conference participants described an improved strategic balance, alongside a reality that will continue to be volatile. Defense agencies continue to serve as a sort of an insurance policy: In war, Israel is nearly undefeated. But their main concern has to do with the growing cracks in the iron wall that it has created, due to internal disputes among what President Reuven Rivlin describes as Israeli society's various tribes.

A considerable portion of the presentations and briefings at the conference were devoted to developments in the field of cyber warfare and to the development of offensive capabilities that can bring a country to the brink of financial collapse, disrupt domestic order and manipulate portrayals of reality.

The attendees spoke about distortions caused by social media and the massive flood of false information on the internet, a considerable portion of which comes from Russia and is designed to sabotage the democratic system in Western countries.

They described a growing difficulty that citizens encounter in verifying what reality is, distinguishing between truth and falsehood and relying on the traditional "truth-tellers," the press and the judicial system. These circumstances, they said, increase the danger of an unplanned miscalculation and security escalation.

Lebanese protesters chant slogans during clashes with the security forces in Beirut, February 11, 2020.
Lebanese protesters chant slogans during clashes with the security forces in Beirut, February 11, 2020.Credit: Ibrahim Amro/AFP

The regional picture too is not an optimistic one. Within around five years, the population of the Arab world will grow to about half a billion people, more than half of whom will be 30 or under. The proportion of both young educated people and unemployed will grow. The Middle East could become an economic time bomb in the absence of adequate markets and employment opportunities.

The social contract that serves the basis upon which most of the region's regimes have survived – jobs for the citizens in exchange for quiet and stability – is already edging toward collapse. The expected result over the course of the next decade: a Middle East that is more polarized, divisive and poor, from which millions of refugees are seeking to flee to the West.  

At the same time, the world powers will pay decreasing attention to what is happening there, against the backdrop of changes in the energy market and America's decreasing dependence on Arab oil. The sentiment of several of the participants was that this reality does not portend good things for Israel.

Election campaign posters are seen at a printing house in central Israel, February 20, 2020.
Election campaign posters are seen at a printing house in central Israel, February 20, 2020.Credit: Amir Levy

Time in the Middle East is working in favor of those who take the diplomatic initiative – and it's better to do so from a position of strength.

In such discussions, it's customary to look for possible black swans – unexpected phenomena that seemingly come out of nowhere and exert an influence on regional events. In the current timing, it seems that there isn’t too much to look for.

The coronavirus, which is still far to the east, is already shaping the global economic reality, at least in the first year of the decade. In recent weeks, Israel's political leadership has devoted more time and resources to it than any other subject, with the exception of the election campaign.

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