The Hottest Fronts of 2018

As the end of 2017 approaches, Amir Rapaport lays out Israel's security challenges in the coming year, as well as its opportunities in the turbulent Middle East. Special column

Photos: AP

2017 has been relatively calm for Israel, defense-wise, but as it ends – the situation on the various fronts remains extremely tense.

Iran & the Northern Front

The northern front presents the most substantial challenge to Israel. The bizarre internal events that took place in Lebanon (including the escape and subsequent return of Prime Minister Hariri, in late 2017) demanded much of Hezbollah's attention – at the expense of the Israeli enemy. However, the Iranian moves, which include the establishment of a permanent base on Syrian soil, are of tremendous significance: Iran is setting up to upscale the threat it imposes on Israel, in anticipation of the possibility of an attack against its nuclear installations. Consequently, the official Iranian presence on Syrian soil is extremely dangerous.

The greatest concern is that in the future, Iran will deploy to Syria its latest air-defense batteries and cutting-edge shore-to-sea and surface-to-surface missiles. This will have a serious effect on both maritime and aerial traffic – and that would be just the beginning of a massive missile war.

Behind the scenes, worldwide diplomatic efforts are underway in an attempt to prevent the Iranians from consolidating their foothold in Lebanon. Israel has invested massive efforts in Washington to alert the US Government of the danger (not just for Israel, but for the other neighbor within the 'border triangle' – Jordan), but the Americans are not really interested in Syria.

The party that actually controls Syria following the victory of Bashar al-Assad in the civil war is Russia. The Russians are telling each one of the parties involved whatever that party wants to hear (and that includes Israel), while doing whatever is best for Russia. At this point, the Russian interest is fairly consistent with the Iranian interest, so the Prime Minister of Russia had no problem proclaiming that the Iranian presence in Syria is 'legitimate', only two weeks after the Russian Defense Minister had visited Israel and offered a lot of sympathy and cordiality but very few practical measures against the Iranian expansion.

By the end of 2017, it would seem that the Iranian entrenchment in Lebanon (with Russian approval) is an irreversible fact. From now on, the Syrian Golan Heights, and not just Lebanon, will constitute an inseparable part of any northern front. As long as Iran and Israel are obstinately digging in, tensions will continue to mount. The story is far from ending. Will the mass protests against the policy of the Ayatollah regime, which broke out in the final days of 2017, will lead to a change in Iran's policy? It is difficult to tell. Will the nuclear agreement between the superpowers and Iran be revoked in 2018? This matter is just as difficult to predict.

Tunnels & RPAVs from the Gaza Strip

As 2018 begins, tensions opposite the Gaza Strip, still dominated by Hamas, run very high. Iran is extensively involved in this theater, too. The Iranians channel substantial funds mainly to the Islamic Jihad organization, which, in exchange, is required to 'warm up' the situation. Hamas, as the dominant organization in the Gaza Strip, is not interested in the opening of an immediate front opposite Israel, but nevertheless prepares as efficiently as it can for the next war.

The seminal event for 2017, as far as the Palestinians were concerned, was the reconciliation agreement signed between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah, which dominates the Judea and Samaria district. Thus far, however, the reconciliation process has had very few practical manifestations beyond the posting of Palestinian Authority observers in the border crossings around the Gaza Strip – which are hardly operational.

In Israel, there are concerns that Hamas is preparing a major surprise for the next round of fighting, which could turn out to be a fleet of armed RPAVs launched into Israel. Israel is preparing, first and foremost, to provide a solution for the surprise of the previous operation (Operation Protective Edge of 2014) – the underground tunnels penetrating from the Gaza Strip into the territory of Israel.

The solution for the tunnel challenge is both technological (the development of tunnel detecting measures, led by IMOD's Division of Defense Research & Development – DDR&D), as well as structural: over the course of 2018, the Israeli defense establishment will complete a comprehensive operation of spotting the tunnels and erecting an underground wall, at the cost of billions of ILS.

The massive construction operations create tensions of their own, as every time the IDF closes in on a tunnel, concerns of a major escalation mount – just as Operation Protective Edge started following the blasting of an underground tunnel by the IDF. The parties might find themselves being dragged into a round of fighting none of them is really interested in.

Religious War & Individual Terrorist Attacks

Just before the end of 2017, ISA Chief Nadav Argaman said that the relative quiet in the Judea and Samaria district is misleading. According to Argaman, under the surface things are sizzling. Admittedly, there has been a decrease in the number of attacks, but the main reason for it was the successful prevention of hundreds of attacks, including severe terrorist attacks.

Argaman added, in his review at the Knesset, that Abu Mazen, the Head of the Palestinian Authority, is very weak, and that in the event of a reshuffle, it would not be inconceivable for Hamas to dominate the Judea and Samaria district, as was the case in the Gaza Strip. The ISA does not expect the Palestinian reconciliation agreement to last very long. The scenario Argaman outlined is the nightmare scenario as far as Fatah is concerned: the Israeli defense establishment is aware that the real reason for the security cooperation in the prevention of terrorist attacks is not altruistic love for Israel, but concerns about Hamas' ascent to power, like the murderous coup in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

At the bottom line, the security coordination between the Palestinian security forces and ISA is still on-going. It has helped, to a considerable extent, reduce the surge of individual terrorist attacks that reached a peak in early 2017. Opposite that surge, Israel was very wise to avoid imposing a heavy blockade on the Palestinian cities, and to enable the Palestinians to go on with their normal life.

On the other hand, the declaration by US President Donald Trump in late 2017, to the effect that the USA would relocate their embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, poured oil on the fire. Jerusalem is a highly volatile issue, and President Trump's declaration introduced elements of a religious war into a conflict that is essentially political and territorial.

Individual terrorist attacks (which could also be staged by Jews against sensitive Muslim sites) might set the situation ablaze in 2018, in the event of a particularly severe attack.

Strategic Assets: Egypt, Jordan & Saudi Arabia

Not everything is negative – in 2017, there were some positive developments for Israel, strategically. The fact that Iran is developing a Shi'ite axis with a territorial continuity and reaches out to every corner of the region (including a bloody war in Yemen) has led to the emergence of an opposing moderate Sunni axis.

As far as Israel is concerned, the strategic alliance with its neighbors to the east and to the west, Jordan and Egypt, is of tremendous importance, but the more distant allies, notably Saudi Arabia, are also a part of the anti-Iranian axis. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad Bin Salman al Saud, who actually rules Saudi Arabia, has emerged as a courageous leader determined to block the Iranian threat, who does not hesitate to fight the Sunni terrorist organizations – ISIS (which suffered a crushing defeat in the past year) and al-Qaeda. The aforementioned continuous cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian security forces in the Judea and Samaria should not be taken for granted.

Lebanon is currently undergoing internal processes that would make it difficult for Hezbollah to provoke Israel without rousing the Shi'ites and the other factions within that country (all of whom are concerned about an Israeli response). Generally, the fact that the conflict with Israel is conceived more and more as just one of countless other conflicts around the world, and not as the ultimate conflict, serves the Israeli interest.

***

The full article will be published in the new issue (No. 40) of Israel Defense Magazine

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