Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon (Israel Defense Ministry)
HERZLIYA, ISRAEL — While military brass and experts here differ in their diagnoses of Israel’s strategic condition at the outset of 2014, they concur that the regional turmoil sparked by popular uprisings and sectarian conflict has reduced prospects for conventional war in the coming year.
In multiple conferences last week, a veritable parade of top Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers and leading security experts provided a comprehensive picture of Israel’s strategic standing in an increasingly unstable region.
The Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) opted to emphasize the positive, citing a string of developments in 2013 that could potentially translate into strategic opportunities.
In its annual Strategic Survey, the INSS concluded that 2013 was a very good year for Israel, with “almost complete tranquility on its borders”; peace treaties preserved with Egypt and Jordan; enemies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza weakened and deterred; and the Iranian nuclear threat temporarily suspended by ongoing diplomacy.
Briefing reporters Jan. 27 prior to the think tank’s two-day annual conference here, INSS Director Amos Yadlin, a retired Israel Air Force general, said instability from the Syrian civil war raging along Israel’s northern border is favorable to Israel, at least in the short term.
“The fact that the [Iranian-backed] Syrian regime is busy with its survival, its military is dramatically weakened and its chemical arsenal is in the process of dismantlement” considerably reduces the near-term threat to Israel, said Yadlin, a former director of Israeli military intelligence.
At the same time, Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has sent more than 1,000 fighters to battle on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is weakened by manpower losses and eroded legitimacy in Lebanon and in much of the Sunni Arab world. INSS scholars noted Iranian-backed Assad Lebanese allies have not responded to repeated airstrikes attributed to Israel over the past year against “high quality weapons en route to Hezbollah from Syria.”
In Egypt, the military ouster of the elected Muslim Brotherhood regime is “most positive for Israel,” the INSS concluded, due to its clampdown on Gaza-based Hamas and Jihadist groups in Sinai threatening Israel’s southern and western fronts.
“Creation of the no-man’s lands in Sinai and in the Golan heights that was projected for 2013 didn’t happen,” Yadlin said. “Israel’s deterrence has strengthened, and Israel remains the strongest operational, intelligence and military force in the region.”
But Lt. Gen. Beni Gantz, IDF chief of staff, in a Jan. 29 address at the Interdisciplinary Center here, offered a less optimistic take. While concurring with the INSS assessment of IDF deterrence, military superiority and the low, near-term likelihood for conventional warfare, Gantz warned, “The threat of army versus army has not vanished.”
In Syria, Gantz said any scenario to emerge from the ongoing civil war would be adverse for Israel.
“Anyway I view it, it’s negative. If Assad survives, Iran will be in control. If he falls, it will be global jihad. ... And even if [Assad] remains, Syria will be divided. His divisions won’t disappear.”
More challenging, said Gantz, is instability borne from disintegrating nation states, blurred borders and new adversaries who are unaccountable to recognized governments and thus more difficult to deter and target.
“Political boundaries are being replaced by tribal, ethnic and religious lines. ... The system that used to be threatening, but predictable, is now more fluid. This disintegration is more difficult and complex,” said Israel’s top officer.
Speaking Jan. 28 at the INSS event, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon offered an example of how new Sunni actors in Lebanon and Syria — some loosely linked to al-Qaida — have attempted to provoke Israeli involvement in ongoing Sunni-Shiite struggles.
“Global Jihad elements have penetrated into Lebanon, and their main enemy is Hezbollah. One of these organizations fired at us in Western Galilee because they thought we would respond against Hezbollah, but we refused to fall into their trap.”
Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, Israel’s military intelligence chief, endorsed INSS assessments that a delegitimized Hezbollah and a weakened Hamas have temporarily eroded traditional threats from South Lebanon and Gaza. Nevertheless, Israel remains threatened by some 170,000 rockets and missiles while strategic regional shifts have sired a new “near 360-degree” presence of Jihadist elements along its borders.
The proliferation of sub-state militias means that “90 percent of Israel’s future battlefields” will be in urban areas, Kochavi told the INSS gathering Jan. 29.
“People say we’re in the best strategic situation; that today our borders are quiet,” said Gantz. “But within this world of so-called quiet, not a week goes by that we’re not required to operate.”
At another event later that day, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of the Israel Air Force, went further in disputing favorable assessments of Israel’s operational environment.
“We’re continuously challenged with a situation we call ‘war between wars,’ ” Eshel told a Jan. 29 gathering at Herzliya’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies. ■