TEL AVIV — While war will continue to rage in much of the region writ large, Israeli military forecasts for 2017 are cautiously optimistic that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) may get through the year that began Sunday without having to wage major combat operations.
"The probability for war in 2017, generally speaking, is low," a senior defense official here said. "But I have to note how wars start today: It can be that both sides want to go to war; one side wants to go to war; or both do not want war. Today, the most probable war is one in which both sides didn't want it, but due to the dynamic of escalation, we might find ourselves in it."
As a result, the senior official said Israel must be mindful of the unintended consequences of its actions with regard to neighbors at home — Hezbollah in the north, Gaza-based Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — as well as countries much farther way, foremost among them Iran.
"We, as the strongest side that I believe knows better, should calculate our steps in a better way," the official said. "The dynamic of escalation is something we have to watch carefully."
In an intelligence assessment shared with reporters here, the official characterized threats to Israel in 2017 this way:
- The most probable source for instability will come from the West Bank.
- The threat that can be ignited "in the easiest way" will come from Hamas in Gaza.
- "The strongest force "in front of us" is Hezbollah, "but the probability is low as long as we don’t get into a dynamic of escalation."
With regard to Syria, the official cited Israeli angst over the prospect of Iran and Hezbollah remaining entrenched in the war-torn country once Russia and other powers reduce their footprint there.
"I believe that Israel has strong enough advantages to cope with Bashar al-Assad," the official said of the Syrian leader. "Our concern is that Iran and Hezbollah will grow ever more confident in Syria when the superpowers leave or reduce their presence … and that will not be a good end to this story."
He estimated that Hezbollah has about 8000 personnel in Syria today. Since war erupted there in 2011, he said the Lebanese-based organization suffered 1700 deaths and about 6000 injured. But despite Hezbollah being "stretched" in Syria, the official said the organization continues to arm itself for a future confrontation with Israel, which elevates the probability for war, particularly if Israel deems it necessary for preemptive attack.
"They haven’t stopped for one day their buildup against Israel … and we don’t want to wait for the first day of the war," the official said in clear reference to preemptive operations.
"When you let so many weapons systems get into Lebanon, you push a higher probability of a war. Because [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah speaks almost every week about the day they will conquer Israel. And if he speaks like that every week, why wait? Why give him a feeling of being strong enough?"
The official also suggested that Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces in Syria could turn on Russia with advanced arms, particularly anti-aircraft weapons. "When an organization gets weapon systems that are very important, it’s a problem for all of us. It’s a problem when this organization decides to use these weapons against a civilian airliner."
He added: "If I had opportunity to give advice to President Putin, I’d say you should keep an eye on Hezbollah if you want a stable Middle East and if you want to protect your gains in Syria."
As for Iran, the official noted that while the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Tehran and world powers removes the immediacy of the nuclear threat, Iran’s actions in Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and "within some terror groups" in the West Bank constitute an ever-present threat to Israel.
On the nuclear agreement itself, the official assessed that Tehran "is fulfilling its side of the deal" and that the historic accord "should be an opportunity to improve stability."
When pressed about anticipated consequences should US President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress seek to annul or renegotiate the nuclear accord, the official offered this politically circumspect, yet clear response:
"After almost one and a half years since the signing of [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)]… is it time to reassess this agreement? I’d say: Iran is still the main cause for terrorism in the Middle East. Its ballistic missile program, since July 2015, has been expanding and we’ve seen a growing number of launches. And what happens after 14 years? I think the international community should strengthen the answers we have to these three problems. It can be carrot and sticks. … But the agreement should be an opportunity to improve stability and we shouldn’t miss this opportunity."
The official noted that 2017 promises to be a "year of tension" in Iran leading up to presidential elections in May. "[President Hassan] Rouhani wants to focus on internal issues while the supreme leader, together with the [Islamic Revolution Guard Corps] want to export the revolution. … The election will be a kind of tool to calibrate the flames of this tension."
He noted that Rouhani’s camp emerged stronger from parliamentary elections last June while Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is ill. Nevertheless, he noted that the Khamenei "speaks sharply" and remains strongly in control of "the system" he leads.
"He’s also smart about knowing his limitations," the official observed about the Iranian supreme leader. "There’s a limit to how much pressure they can put on the population."