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How Israel's Conflict With Iran Will Be Different in 2020

As Netanyahu's associates talk about an Iranian effort to deploy a ring of fire around Israel, a think tank is skeptical about the chances for a truce with Hamas

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Iranian Officers of Revolutionary Guard, with Israel flag drawn on their boots, during a graduation ceremony for student officers and guard trainees in Tehran, Iran, September 13, 2019.
Iranian Officers of Revolutionary Guard, with Israel flag drawn on their boots, during a graduation ceremony for student officers and guard trainees in Tehran, Iran, September 13, 2019.Credit: OFFICIAL KHAMENEI WEBSITE/ REU
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The rumors about the death of “the war between the wars” were greatly exaggerated. It didn’t die, it just changed form.

Iran’s attempts to respond on the northern front to Israeli attacks and the massive fire by Syria’s air defense systems with every bombing have apparently spurred the Israel Defense Forces to alter its mode of operation. Accordingly, the frequency of attacks seems to have declined. But the basic reasons for the friction between the two sides – Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, its arms smuggling into Lebanon and Israel’s attempts to halt both these things – haven’t changed. The friction can be expected to continue.

At the start of this week’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned once again that Israel will respond to any aggression by Iran and Hezbollah. Netanyahu quoted a senior general in the Revolutionary Guards who threatened that Iran would destroy Tel Aviv with rocket fire from Lebanon. “If Hezbollah dares to attack Israel, it and Lebanon, which allows attacks from its territory against us, will pay a very heavy price,” the prime minister said. A few days earlier, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett threatened to turn Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam.”

Top politicians and their advisers have been speaking even more bluntly – surprisingly, also in meetings with colleagues from abroad; sometimes it's enough to make their interlocutor flinch. In recent months, cabinet members have gotten used to hearing Netanyahu speak in apocalyptic terms whenever he talks about his favorite strategic issue, Iran. His associates are talking about an Iranian effort to deploy a ring of fire around Israel – to deploy missiles and rockets that would threaten all of Israel on several fronts: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza. They add that a resumption of the attempt to build production lines for precision weapons in Lebanon would be sufficient reason to go to war.

Bennett, who has eased the pace of his pronouncements after receiving pushback from the IDF, still believes in an aggressive stance and in taking the initiative in the north. For him, waiting and containment aren’t an option. Iran is sensitive to losses of its men. The defense minister believes that the foreign military forces and militias can be kept out of Syria via a well-managed move.

This week the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security published a forecast for the coming year. The institute, where Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, is a top member, predicts that “Iran will continue to strip the JCPOA [the nuclear agreement] of any content, and will escalate its enrichment of uranium, perhaps even dramatically so. Washington’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ (economic sanctions) will continue to drain Iran’s economy, posing significant challenges to the ayatollahs.”

What are the implications for Israel? “High probability of more Iranian aggression, and even broader conflict with Israel if, in the latter half of 2020, Iran ramps up uranium enrichment. Israel must be ready to tackle Iran on its own.” The forecast for northern Israel is no rosier: “Israel must be ready for escalation, including preemptive warfare" with Hezbollah.

The tension in the north – this week the IDF drilled a mock commando attack by Hezbollah from Lebanon and the seizure of Israeli border communities – could be highly influenced by developments in three areas: the Iranian provocations in the Gulf, at least some of which are designed to get the United States resuming talks on the nuclear accord; the mass demonstrations in Lebanon, Iraq and (briefly) Iran that are challenging the regime in Tehran; and Netanyahu’s legal and political woes.

As I’ve noted a number of times, the prime minister has usually been cautious and responsible in handling the northern sector. Still, the current situation requires special sensitivity and caution by defense officials, with awareness of the magnitude of their responsibility, rather than automatic acceptance of a script where there's no escape from war because Iran continues to embed itself across the border. This is all the more true given that the prime minister now heads a caretaker government, has failed twice to form a governing coalition and faces a triple indictment on corruption charges.

Elusive truce

At the start of this month, two Palestinian delegations, from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, held talks in Cairo with Egyptian intelligence about the possibility of a long-term truce with Israel in Gaza. After the talks, Wisam Afifa, the director of Hamas-aligned Al-Aqsa TV, said Israel could quadruple the number of work permits for workers from Gaza from 5,000 (many of whom are classified as businesspeople).

Still, a paper by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, which cites Afifa’s comments, is skeptical about the odds for a long-term truce in Gaza. Hamas continues to oppose a 10-year period of calm. The paper's authors say Hamas is aiming for agreements like those reached with Egyptian arbitration after the 2014 Gaza war and which lasted until the Gazans’ protests at the border fence began in March 2018: humanitarian aid and an easing of the blockade in return for halting the rocket fire and demonstrations. In Hamas’ view, such an arrangement can last for a few years but not for a decade.

In recent weeks, I’ve written about IDF assessments on the odds of a significant breakthrough with Hamas. The General Staff sees an opportunity given Hamas' straits and the fighting in Gaza in mid-November in which Islamic Jihad was hit. The officers worry that Israel's calling of another general election means the politicians will have less maneuver room, precluding the possibility of any broad agreements.

A Palestinian youth flashes the victory sign during a march in Gaza city marking the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the Islamist movement Hamas, December 14, 2019.Credit: AFP

Col. Michael Milstein (res.), who headed the Palestinian division at Military Intelligence during the 2014 Gaza war, is even more skeptical. In an article on the website of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Milstein writes that despite the optimistic signals, very powerful obstacles remain that make it difficult to obtain a long-term truce. He says it’s hard to say with any certainty that Hamas has decided to seek an arrangement, as many of its leaders fear an abandoning of the idea of muqawama, violent resistance to Israel.

Hamas has yet to neutralize the problem of “the rebellious ones” in Gaza, nor has it completely exerted control over other factions that sometimes fire rockets into Israel. Nor has Hamas decided to forgo terror attacks in the West Bank, whose success could undermine stability throughout the Palestinian areas. Also, Milstein writes, it’s doubtful whether Israel would be ready to make serious and binding concessions during an election campaign.

Worrisome delays

Retired Gen. Gary L. North, a vice president at Lockheed Martin, visited Israel this week with some good news. In deals with Israel, the company expects the price of a single F-35 to fall below $80 million, probably to $78 million. Three years after the arrival of the first F-35s, the air force now has 20 of the planes and has started making them operational.

Israel and the United States have agreed on an acquisition of 50 planes, enough for two full combat squadrons. The average price per plane has gone down (in the first purchase deal it topped $100 million), and the doubts about how the F-35s would function have also gradually faded.

Israel's first F-35 takeoff at Nevatim Airbase, March 12, 2017.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

At first, the project in the United States was marred by extensive delays, enormous costs and numerous problems, all of which got many people in the administration and Congress wondering about the plane’s effectiveness and even questioning the need for the fifth-generation stealth fighter. Some of these arguments seeped into the debate in Israel, but the air force insisted and, as usual, won the day. Now air force chief Amikam Norkin shares his American colleagues’ bullishness on the plane’s capabilities.

This still doesn’t solve the question of whether the air force’s next acquisition deal should include another squadron of F-35s or – to preserve a mix of different types of aircraft – a squadron of older planes like the Boeing F-15. The air force must acquire its next planes by the middle of the next decade to replace jets that will be 50 years old by then and the IDF will want to retire.

A decision on this has been postponed for two years for various reasons – a new air force commander, a new IDF chief and a wait for the budget picture and the IDF’s multiyear plan to be clarified. And now with Israel’s third election campaign in 11 months and the attendant caretaker government, a further delay is to be expected. North, the Lockheed Martin vice president, was too polite to comment on this directly, but for the Israeli air force, the added delay is surely damaging and worrisome.