Six Major Factors That Must Impact Israel's Strategy

Six factors must be at the heart of Israel’s strategic thinking and form the basis for decision making.

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Islamic State fighters in Syria, May 2015. More Israeli Arabs are joining up.
Islamic State fighters in Syria, May 2015. More Israeli Arabs are joining up.Credit: AP

Not since the War of Independence has Israel faced such a complex and difficult challenge of terror and violence. The relatively successful handling of the daily acts of terror will not calm the Palestinian street, which is fueled by despair, frustration and ever-growing anger.

The security cabinet’s assessments of the situation, which are aimed at responding to the bleak reality on the streets of Israel, the West Bank and along Israel’s borders, are focused on tactical and operative matters, and do not touch on the core problems and strategic challenges we face. They are based on the premise that preserving the status quo on all levels is the least bad alternative for Israel. At this time, though, a serious and in-depth approach to Israel’s situation is urgently needed in order to change the bleak reality.

The wider developments around us on the diplomatic-security front, and their cumulative effect, require thoughtful analysis, and immediate change to our policies and foreign relations. Israel cannot be isolated from what is happening around us and the international arena. At the same time, our strategic decisions must not be influenced solely by the current wave of severe terrorism.

Six main factors must be at the heart of our required strategic thinking, and form the basis for Israeli decision making.

I’ll begin with the conflict with the Palestinians. It seems clear now that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has completely lost his relevance and that we must prepare for the next era. In recent months, the Palestinian perception of Abbas as weak has also been growing and this has increased the feelings of impotence and despair, pushing Palestinians toward a greater use of violence.

A significant shift in the intensity of the violence is also due to the false idea that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is in danger, and a deepening sense of identification by some Israeli Arabs with the Palestinian cause and its justness. The belief of growing numbers of Palestinians – as well as Israeli Arabs and Arabs in other countries – that Israel is violating the status quo on the Temple Mount is stirring up a wave of deep religious emotions and Arab-Muslim solidarity.

In such a situation, some Israeli Arabs are becoming more involved in violent actions and identifying more strongly with the Palestinian national cause. If Israel focuses exclusively on maintaining the status quo by looking for military-security solutions alone, and is unprepared to contend with a substantial change in the components of the conflict, the chances for bringing about a lasting lull in the violence are reduced.

Second, the intensifying Sunni-Shi’ite war continues to fan the flames in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. The growing struggle between the radical Shi’ite axis, led by Iran, and the jihadi Sunni camp, led by Islamic State and other radical jihadist organizations (such as Nusra Front, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood), also threatens the stability of regimes in the region. This war is not only spilling over Syria’s border with Israel in the Golan Heights and altering the situation there; it is also affecting the imaginations and hopes of young Palestinians, serving as a model for them and as a catalyst for increased violence. In this mighty clash, each side is pulling in outside forces to help it win.

Third, the nuclear deal between the major world powers and Iran is now signed and sealed. It has already begun to be implemented, even though the embargo on Iran won’t formally be lifted until early 2016. This deal bestows legitimacy on Iran’s policy, boosts its standing as a regional power and gives it the economic wherewithal to continue promoting muqawama (“resistance”) as the way to resolve conflicts. The involvement of the Al Quds Brigades, led by Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, in Syria has now become overt. Its importance to Iran was also illustrated by the visit of the force’s commander to Moscow to coordinate its military moves on the ground, for which Russia will provide air support.

Despite the reduced risk that Iran will be able to obtain a nuclear weapon in the near future, the legitimacy Iran gained for developing its nuclear capacity is irreversible. There is no doubt that Iran will violate the agreement. Already, in early October, it carried out a test launch of its long-range Emad ballistic missile. In wake of the nuclear deal, Iran is becoming a regional power whose involvement in conflicts in the region will only increase.

Exerting pressure on Israel

Fourth, the Arab “tsunami” that has shaken the region over the past five years highlighted the power of the masses to take their fate into their own hands. The people’s message to their leaders has been, “You must do your job and see to it that we have education, employment, equal rights, security, etc.” The people’s understanding that they can influence their quality of life is one of the key elements behind the seismic shock that occurred in the Arab world.

The upshot is that Arab states are focusing more on solving their urgent internal problems. In this situation, priority is given to the survival and security of state and non-state organizations over resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This development has implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Abbas justifiably feels isolated, seeing how little interest the Arab states show in the Palestinian Authority. Given this situation, his actions and policies aimed at exerting pressure on Israel via the international community increases the difficulty of holding talks and dealing with the conflict’s fundamental issues.

Fifth, regional developments have left a vacuum that is being filled by Iran, and now Russia. The Middle East is not new to Russia. In the early 1970s, the Soviet presence and military involvement in the region reached a peak. There were 20,000 Soviet troops in Egypt, along with Soviet air defenses, interceptor planes, surveillance planes and electronic warfare equipment; the Soviet fleet also had a strong presence in the Syrian ports of Tartus and Latakia, and elsewhere.

These forces played an active role in combat in Egypt and Syria, including through the use of Soviet military advisers. This involvement was meant, above all, to serve Soviet interests in the region, and it affected Israel and the Arab states.

There is no question that the renewal of the Russian presence in Syria in the past year is designed to protect and guard Russia’s interests, primarily in its rivalry with the United States. So it’s little wonder that the vast majority of Russian airstrikes in Syria have been against Assad opponents and not ISIS forces.

The closer ties that developed between Iran and Russia surrounding the nuclear deal, the need to safeguard the Alawite regime in Syria, and Russia’s influence there and in the region, and the blows struck at (Sunni) jihadist Islam far from Russia, all serve Russian policy, as Russia exploits U.S. weakness in the region to bolster its own presence there.

With regard to the United States, the Obama administration’s policy has remained consistent and unchanged – despite the dramatic developments in the region, which include: Iran’s growth as a nuclear power with an ideology of solving conflicts through violence (muqawama); the emergence of Islamic State and growing strength of non-state Islamist organizations; an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intensifying violence and heightened religious aspects; and the Arab masses in different countries becoming more willing to take their fate into their own hands.

Terrible consequences

The severe consequences of the U.S. administration’s policy of not getting involved in the civil wars that developed in the region are clearer than ever now. These include a massive humanitarian catastrophe in the form of hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other countries; millions of refugees both inside and outside the Arab states, and a refugee influx that will have a drastic impact on Europe; a serious blow to the stability of pro-Western Sunni regimes like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states; and the growth of ISIS and Salafi jihadist forces.

These terrible consequences, which have also hurt friendly nations like Israel and some of the Arab states that depended on American aid and support, are hard to justify. As noted, the vacuum has been filled by Russia, China, Iran and non-state players. It’s hard to see any significant shift in U.S. policy occurring in the near future.

This strategic picture alters the reality in which Israel lives and adds to the challenges we have to contend with. Israel cannot afford to act like an island in a stormy sea and view the status quo as the optimal solution for the changing reality. This changing reality requires – in addition to an immediate and firm response to the violence and restoration of quiet – serious thinking about forming a coherent policy to address all the challenges before us.

It is also important to stress that this changing reality creates opportunities and not just threats. Therefore we must:

Return to a very close relationship with the United States as a central objective of Israeli policy;

Build ties with states in the region that are interested in Israeli aid (the Kurds, for instance);

Strengthen ties with the states of the former Soviet Union with which we have common interests;

Formulate policy for an age in which the Middle East is again becoming a playing field for the superpowers;

Deepen Israel’s cooperation with the powers involved in forging the nuclear deal with Iran and ensure that the deal is not violated. In this way, we can help the international coalition that wants to prevent Iran from becoming a military nuclear power;

Strengthen ties with European countries that wish to halt the waves of Muslim immigration to the continent and are wary of a nuclear Iran;

Build and strengthen ties with leading countries in Asia, which are the major growth engines of the 21st century.

Formulating a coherent policy to deal with what is occurring around us, and the emerging political, security and military reality, is the order of the hour. Trying to do nothing more but preserve the existing situation will have grave consequences for our survival and future. The new situation and all the changes it has brought requires us to come up with a new comprehensive policy in many areas. Such a process will have a positive impact on national unity, and strengthen the public’s sense that the government is formulating the right policies to ensure our security and improve our quality of life.

The writer is a major general (reserves) in the IDF and a former director of Military Intelligence.