A low-profile war in the region has been underway for some time, and its intensification over the past year has finally led to the reveal of some of its tightly held cards this week. Iran launched a missile attack on what it described as an Israeli intelligence base in Iraqi Kurdistan; the circumstances of a massive Israeli attack in February, in which heavy damage was made to the Iranian drones project, were revealed; and a group of Iranian hackers boasted that they had penetrated the mobile phone of the Mossad chief’s wife and published negligible details from it.
These events are unfolding while world powers and Iran appear to inch closer on the nuclear talks in Vienna. Russia, and perhaps Iran, are raising last-minute difficulties, but the general direction continues to point towards the birth of a new agreement. On Wednesday, Tehran released two British-Iranian citizens who had been imprisoned for years on false charges of plotting to overthrow the regime and of spying for Israel. In exchange, Britain paid $550 million to Iran, funds Tehran has sought since the Shah ruled Iran.
These gestures could forecast an imminent signing of a new agreement, one that Israel will not be pleased with. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his ministers don’t make a habit of squabbling publicly with the Americans, but they have plenty of complaints about flaws in the new agreement, which they believe will leave Israel in a more dangerous position than after the original 2015 nuclear deal. At the same time, the Israeli government is beginning to recognize what opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu vehemently denied seven years ago when he was prime minister: the original agreement from 2015 wasn’t all that bad for Israel, and above all, it bought Israel time. No military attack on the nuclear sites would have produced a similar achievement.
The problem is that Netanyahu's legacy – particularly convincing former U.S. President Donald Trump to abandon the nuclear agreement in 2018 – left the country with two substantial deficiencies. Firstly, the Iranian violations greatly shortened their path to stockpile enough enriched uranium to build a bomb; and secondly, Israel did not take advantage of that time to hone and polish its military option.
If no last-minute change occurs yet again, we seem to be approaching a new strategic reality. Iran will return to the nuclear agreement, with a certain measure of international supervision, but from a position in which the knowhow available to it (and perhaps also some of the material it has accumulated) is drawing it closer to building a bomb than in 2015. Once the economic sanctions are lifted, tens of billions of dollars will be freed to Tehran. The level of international interest in events in the Middle East will continue to wane, given the extension of the crisis in Europe and worsening U.S.-China relations.
In the military arena, a variety of long-term confrontations between Israel and Iran is to be expected, which will likely continue even after an agreement is signed. The new rules of the game, which the Iranians are already declaring publicly in the American media, call for a response to every Israeli attack. There isn't necessarily a correlation between the scale and place of an attack and the character of the response. It could be missiles, drones, RPVs (remotely piloted vehicles), an extensive cyberattack (like the midweek attempt to attack government websites in Israel) or just target-specific trolling.
The exchanges of blows between Israel and Iran bring to mind water polo, where most of the violence takes place below the eye-level of the audience and the referee. The danger is that uptick in attacks, many of which are by now taking place on the adversary’s soil and not in nearby territory such as Syria or Iraq, will eventually lead to a miscalculation resulting in a broader military clash, even if Iran's nuclear project is again put into deep-freeze. In closed forums, Bennett is talking about a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts” that he is spearheading against Iran. However, in this campaign, Israel too could at times be cut and find itself bleeding.
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Far from the public eye, a behind-the-scenes drama played out in the Knesset in the past two weeks. It was in fact a missed opportunity, because it’s doubtful that what went on there served the public good. It raises questions, both about the unholy alliance that was struck this time between the defense establishment and the ultra-Orthodox parties, and about the accuracy of the information that the IDF provides to the legislature.
The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee discussed a series of bills whose passage will significantly affect the relations between the IDF and Israeli society. In what is emerging as a major package deal, which unites the government coalition with parts of the opposition, three different bills are making progress: reducing the age of exemption from military service for Haredi yeshiva students to 21; postponing for another two and a half years the planned two-month abridgment of length of compulsory service for men; and approval career army pensions. These moves were pushed forward during many hours of discussions at the beginning of the month: both in regard to ultra-Orthodox service and the pensions, the state is obligated to provide responses to petitions submitted to the High Court of Justice.
Another matter has to do with the abridgment of regular army service. In 2014, compulsory military service for men was reduced from 36 months to 32 months, a decision approved by a committee headed by Ayelet Shaked. It took effect a year later and was backed up by a broad series of understandings between the defense and finance ministers at the time, Moshe Ya’alon and Moshe Kahlon, respectively. Under the original agreement, a further reduction of two months would have gone into effect in 2020. But in the meantime, a new chief of staff took over – Aviv Kochavi succeeded Gadi Eisenkot – and the IDF’s position changed.
Kochavi, who wasn’t enthusiastic about the first reduction, believed that the second one would be extremely harmful to the army and set about annulling the decision. The new IDF chief believed that the extra reduction would adversely affect the execution of the army’s missions. The IDF’s training model is not built for 30 months, he argued, and the reduction would be harmful both to training and to the level of operational readiness. Last week’s legislative move is a victory for Kochavi. Compulsory service for men will be set at 32 months for more than two more years, until July 2024, when the subject will come up for discussion again.
To ensure that these bills – which are important to Defense Minister Benny Gantz and to the IDF top brass – will pass, the ultra-Orthodox parties got their cut: improved conditions for those who are exempted from service, in that the possibility of drafting them will no longer be viable when they reach the age of 21 (within the framework of the 26th Amendment to the Defense Service Law). Legislation that serves a confluence of vested interests of pressure groups was moved forward, far from the knowledge of the country’s citizens, preserving the coalition’s stability. The problem, as Knesset sources knowledgeable about the legislative procedure remarked, is that these deals are liable to erode even further the public’s confidence in the IDF, and thus to boomerang on the defense establishment.
At the beginning of the month, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel asked Gantz and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, MK Ram Ben Barak (Yesh Atid), for clarifications about the legislation. The movement takes note of an apparent contradiction between the claims of the defense establishment and the coalition in favor of cancelling the abridgment of compulsory service for men, and their behavior in regard to lowering the exemption age for ultra-Orthodox.
On the one hand, the movement writes, a shortage of combat soldiers is cited as an argument against reducing the length of service, but on the other hand, there is an intention to implement a sweeping exemption and an abridged length of army service for tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. The movement asked Gantz and Barak how they reconcile the contradiction between the two moves and the two contentions.
In the committee hearings, Dr. Idit Shafran Gitelman, from the Israel Democracy Institute, stated that because imposing compulsory service is a severe infringement of basic constitutional rights, it must be done only according to need. “The manner of conduct over the question of the length of service attests to a frivolous and disrespectful attitude toward those who serve and their fundamental rights,” she said.
“It is impossible to ignore the fact that in the same room, discussions are held week after week which seem to belong to parallel universes. In one room it’s assumed that there is a surplus of manpower, and in the other room it’s argued that reducing the length of service will harm the state’s security,” she added. The legal adviser to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, attorney Miri Frenkel-Shor, harshly criticized the arrangement that the defense establishment is pushing for, in two legal opinions she submitted to the committee last month and this month. “Retroactively extending compulsory service raises very considerable difficulties.”
Frenkel-Shor also notes, politely, that earlier estimates by the IDF about its personnel situation did not pan out. This is a particularly sensitive issue against the background of the findings of a committee two years ago. The committee, headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, confirmed reports by Carmela Menashe, from Kan public broadcaster, that the IDF had for years systematically inflated data about the number of ultra-Orthodox draftees, in the light of the political decision makers’ expectations to hear good news about the success of the model for ultra-Orthodox military service.
“Extending the service for all IDF soldiers in order to cope with a disparity of a very low, one-digit percentage” – between the army’s needs and the number of soldiers it will have available after the reduction of service – “raises considerable, very substantial difficulties,” attorney Frenkel-Shor writes. She notes that the issue is one of specific disparities in units dealing with combat, combat support and technological tasks. In her view, the army needs to deal with these issues on a specific basis, such as by adding slots for short career service for essential tasks, instead of retroactively imposing a longer term of service on all the soldiers in the regular army. She notes that according to the IDF’s original forecast, the shortage of soldiers was supposed to be twice as high.
The committee’s legal adviser cautions that the arrangement adversely affects soldiers who have already been drafted and relied on the understanding that they would do shorter service. The two-month abridgment of service was set to have taken effect for soldiers who were drafted beginning in July 2020. However, it turns out that IDF authorities informed these soldiers when they began their service that the two-month abridgment might not apply to them. Frenkel-Shor remarks that “it was not possible” (meaning that it was forbidden) to tell this to the soldiers without the matter having been regularized in primary legislation by the Knesset.