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With Economy Expanding, Bennett Eyes New Toys for the Israeli Army

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Bennett and Gantz.
Bennett and Gantz.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is seeking to make additional allocations to the defense budget in the future to improve the military’s offensive capabilities, particularly in the area of missiles and precise munitions for the air force. He believes Israel’s accelerated growth and anticipated rise in the gross domestic product – if the coronavirus pandemic ends in the coming year – can be exploited to increase spending on strengthening the IDF.

This summer Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman agreed on raising the defense budget to 57.8 billion shekels ($18.7 billion) – excluding the $3.8 billion annual military aid from the United States – despite Israel’s pandemic-fueled economic crisis. Much of the money will go toward the IDF’s preparations for war in the “third circle,” Iran. In addition, the Biden administration has promised another $1 billion to help defray the costs of Operation Guardian of the Walls, Israel’s war with Gaza in May.

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As defense minister in 2016-18, Lieberman ordered the IDF to establish a “missile corps” based on surface-to-surface missiles and rockets, which was meant to complement the air force’s defenses against the rocket arsenals of organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. The IDF began carrying out the plan in a limited manner, but the political leadership now seems set to expand it. Bennett sees a need to accelerate Israel’s missile manufacturing efforts with increased funding, while taking advantage of the expected rise in GDP. The plan is to permit the IDF and the Defense Ministry to sign long-term procurement deals with Israeli defense manufacturers. Israel is not counting on the promised extra $1 billion in U.S. military aid. Just the opposite – the mood in the Democratic Party’s left wing points to a decline in bipartisan support for aid to Israel.

The defense establishment will also advance the electronic-laser-based missile and rocket interception project led by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems, designed to complement the existing Arrow, Magic Wand/David’s Sling and Iron Dome missile-based intercept systems. The assumption is that within 10 years the laser, whose cost to use is much lower than existing systems, can be integrated and gradually displace the missile-based systems. Bennett has recently said in various closed forums that the laser interceptors are likely to be a game-changer that will force Israel’s adversaries to reexamine the efficacy of launching large rocket salvos into its territory.

Gearing up for nuke pact

Iran is scheduled next week to renew the talks with the world powers on returning to the nuclear agreement. Israeli political and military officials are very pessimistic. The intelligence agencies expect Iran’s representatives to hang tough and the United States (which will not participate in the discussions directly) to agree to nearly any concession, as long as a deal is signed. Israel has made it clear to Washington that it opposes Tehran’s demand that all the sanctions against it be lifted in exchange for returning to the agreement and ending its violations, while ignoring the progress made in Iran’s nuclear program in the past two years.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Iran will begin the talks in Vienna with over 11 times the amount of enriched uranium it was allowed to have under the 2015 agreement, including a large amount of 20-percent and 60-percent enriched uranium. In light of the Biden administration’s demonstrable disinclination to tangle with Tehran, Sunni Muslim states in the Middle East are increasingly expressing support for a return to the agreement. The national security adviser of the United Arab Emirates is slated to pay a rare visit to the Iranian capital within several days.

The New York Times reported last week that an October 21 drone strike on the American part of a military base in eastern Syria was Iranian retaliation for Israeli air strikes on pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias in Syria. There were no casualties in the attack because most of the American troops evacuated after Israeli intelligence warned them of the imminent strike. The U.S. has not responded militarily to the attack, to Israel’s disappointment.

Israel intends to continue its offensive activity against Iran. This includes, according to foreign media reports, cyberattacks in Iran and occasional sabotage in the country’s nuclear facilities, together with frequent air strikes in Syria. Government officials reject opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that Bennett or Lapid promised Washington that Israel will not surprise the U.S. with an unusual attack on Iran and will request permission before any offensive measure. Political leaders believe the Iranian regime is vulnerable to various types of attacks and that it’s best to persist with actions that will weaken it.

The number of strikes in Syria has increased in the past two months, including with warplanes and relatively long-range surface-to-surface missiles. This could be a bid to take advantage of a convenient window of opportunity before winter descends on the region, but it also reflects Israeli policy as well as Russia’s tacit consent to the attacks, despite their awkwardness for the Assad regime. Moscow has no real objection to Israel’s harming Iranian interests in Syria, as long as its forces in the country are not in danger.

Smoke rises in the countryside of Damascus, following what Syria said was an Israeli airstrike, two weeks ago.Credit: Omar Sanadiki/AP

Loosening chains on Gaza

For the first time in a while, the government is cautiously optimistic about the situation in the Gaza Strip. An agreement is shaping up between Israel, Egypt, Qatar and Hamas on a way to transfer to the Strip the last third of Qatar’s monthly aid to the territory, $10 million. After Operation Guardian of the Walls, Israel announced it would no longer permit cash transfers. After a few months of talks, it now seems Egypt will deliver the Qatari aid to Hamas in the form of fuel, in a move coordinated by Gantz.

In addition, there is a consensus in the cabinet on the need to continue economic relief measures for the Strip. Israel previously allowed 10,000 laborers and traders (mainly the former) from Gaza to enter Israel for work, and talks are continuing on doubling that number. The shift in policy followed the changing of the guard in the Shin Bet. Ronen Bar, the new head of the security service, appears more flexible than his predecessor on this matter. The Shin Bet is still formulating various security measures, including requiring all laborers to agree to cellphone monitoring a few times a day, in hopes of preventing them from potential involvement in terror activities.

In addition, the Rafah border crossing, between the Strip and Egypt, is to expand its operations. Israel will agree in exchange for Egypt’s promise to increase supervision to prevent the smuggling of arms and dual-use materials, but Cairo has failed to meet such promises in the past. Israeli officials are satisfied with Egypt’s destruction of tunnels in the Rafah area, which thwarted some of Hamas’ smuggling industry. But despite the significant efforts of Egyptian intelligence, no concrete progress has been made on a deal to exchange prisoners and captive civilians between Israel and Hamas.

The cabinet is on track to approve additional economic relief measures in the West Bank as well. The most senior ministers are in favor of increasing the number of Palestinians permitted to enter Israel proper for work, which they view as preferable to bringing in laborers from eastern Asia. Bennett believes that as long as there’s no rise in terror originating in the West Bank, restrictions on the Palestinian economy should be removed as much as possible. At the same time, however, he publicly expresses reservations about renewing peace talks, saying this doesn’t fit the agenda of a coalition that includes right-wing parties. As reported in Haaretz last week, Israel has asked the Biden administration to pressure European donor states to increase their aid to the Palestinians to shore up the government in Ramallah and prevent its collapse.

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