Analysis

Landmark Arrow 3 Tests Marred by Israeli Concerns Over New Trump-Iran Deal

The technological achievement doesn't give Israel total protection from missiles, nor does it allay fears of 'nuke deal 2.0'

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ambassador David Friedman watch Arrow 3 test launch, Jerusalem, July 28, 2019.
Kobi Gideon/GPO

The series of successful tests of Arrow 3 missile defense system in cooperation with the American Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which were reported both by Israel and the United States on Sunday, constitute a technological and operational achievement, while also having strategic implications in a regional context.

The American involvement in the tests, which were conducted in Alaska, conveys the continuing U.S. commitment to help Israel defend itself against missiles. Given the tension between the United States and Iran, it also signals to Tehran that any effort to harm Israel by firing missiles at it – at present an extreme scenario that seems unlikely – will be facing an effective defense system.

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This is the third time that the Israel's defense establishment concluded a successful test in shooting down targets with the Arrow 3 system. The target missiles launched, on three separate occasions, were fired from long range at high speed and were all intercepted outside the atmosphere. The Americans didn’t only contribute a generously sized testing ground, but also their X-ray radar, whose parallel system has been regularly deployed for the past decade on Mount Keren in the Negev.

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The radar, whose deployment in Israel is part of the defense measures supplied by the United States to Israel back during the Bush administration, has also been used in tests to track incoming missiles and direct the interception system, in addition to its discovery capabilities.

Israel says Arrow-3 missile shield aces U.S. trials, warns Iran

One can understand the festive tone in which the defense establishment announced the successful tests. Every such series of tests involves a tremendous effort invested over many months. It was somewhat overshadowed by the way the media was handled, when on the one hand politicians were scattering hints of an achievement for several days, while on the other hand the military censor was blocking publication of the details, some of which were already known to journalists. It’s a clumsy and pretty ridiculous game of concealment.

Meanwhile, the gushing superlatives following the success would best be taken with a grain of proportion. Israel’s multilayered interception system has made amazing progress over the past decade, but it still has a few significant gaps. The Arrow 3 system doesn’t have the same abilities as the mid-range missile interception system known as David’s Sling (formerly known as Magic Wand). On the other hand, the Iron Dome defense system, which has successfully handled with the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, won’t be enough to fully fend off the threat of rockets from the north, should a war with Hezbollah ever break out.

The tests were scheduled far in advance and have nothing to do with ruling party Likud’s election campaign. Nevertheless, they integrate into the party’s message well. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has launched another billboard campaign presenting him as “in a different league” compared to his electoral rivals and documenting his moments of closeness with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The message is the same message – Netanyahu’s in control, and his close ties with the leaders of the superpowers enable him to steer Israel through the stormy waters of regional and international realities.

But the fine details are more complex. Putin, whom Netanyahu is proud to call his friend, hasn’t fulfilled his commitment to keep the Iranians and their proxies 70 kilometers from the border with Syria on the Golan Heights, with Hezbollah being very active there, and according to reports in the Arab media, the recent Israeli attacks on the Syrian Golan were aimed at the terror infrastructure the organization has gone back to building along the border. As for Trump, despite his open affection for Netanyahu and his total enlistment in helping him get reelected, it’s doubtful whether Israeli leadership can fully depend on him with as far as Iran is concerned.

Speaking to reporters at the White House on Friday, Trump hailed his negotiating skills. "Iran wants to make a deal; I can tell you that right now.  But if I’m Iran, I’ll probably say, 'Man, if I can hold out, I’m going to wait for Sleepy Joe Biden instead of Trump, because Sleepy Joe, we can make any deal we want with him. He doesn’t know what’s happening,'" Trump quipped.  

Israel tests Arrow 3 system in Alaska, the U.S.
IDF's Spokesperson's Unit

Nevertheless, some two months after the crisis in the Persian Gulf commenced, it’s clear that despite his tough rhetoric at times, Trump isn’t seeking a war with Iran but rather to renew negotiations with it. There have even been various hints that a preliminary dialogue, whether direct or indirect, has started or is about to start.

In the summer of 2012, when Netanyahu and his then-defense minister Ehud Barak were still toying with dreams of bombing Iran, it was clear to them that the Obama administration’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was coordinating covert talks with the Iranians on nuclear issue. Those were the negotiations that led to the signing of an interim agreement around a year later, and to the formulation of a final nuclear deal in Vienna in 2015; naturally they scuttled any possibility of an Israeli attack.

Under certain circumstances, the story could repeat itself this year or the following. But unlike with former President Barak Obama, Netanyahu will have a hard time coming out publicly against a deal formulated by Trump. It seems as if deep down that's a scenario that would worry the prime minister: A new nuclear deal that he doesn’t think is good enough, but which Israel will have to applaud because of Trump’s sensitive and vulnerable ego.

In Trump’s management of America’s foreign policy – with China, North Korea, the Palestinians and now maybe also with Iran – one can discern a regular pattern: Maximum pressure, mostly economic; a suggestion to enter talks and in the end promises of a historic agreement whose worth no one really knows. In the background, tightly connected to all decisions, the elections clock is ticking – in the United States, where Trump will be seeking to be reelected at the end of next year, and in Israel, where Netanyahu’s political and legal fate will be determined in less than two months.