Israel’s Security Situation after 70 Years of Conflict

Amid rising tensions between Israel and Iran and the latest series of strikes in Syria, Ehud Eilam analyzes Israel’s military posture in the Middle East as the Jewish State celebrates its 70th anniversary. Opinion

Photo: IDF

Last month, Israel celebrated 70 years of independence. Since 1948, the Jewish State had managed to survive several wars and thousands of skirmishes and incidents in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1948, there were only 600,000 Jews in Israel. Now, there are more than six million. They have all kinds of problems, but they have also achieved much. Their economy is doing pretty well, and they possess a powerful military, thanks also to their strong ties with their American patron.

Israel had a series of high-intensity wars (1948-1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982). Since the 1990s, there has been a decline in the probability of a high-intensity war between Israel and an Arab state, let alone a war against a coalition of Arab states. Israel has peace with two of its previous foes, Egypt (since 1979) and Jordan (since 1994). While the peace with those states is quite cold, both Egypt and Jordan work together with Israel on security issues, such as the Israeli assistance to Egypt in the fighting against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel’s main enemy is a non-Arab state, Iran. There is a cold war between the two states. There was never an actual war between them, but it might happen. Israel’s biggest concern regarding Iran is the latter’s nuclear program, and Jerusalem is watching to see if Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon. While most of Israel’s conflicts have been in countries and territories surrounding Israel, Iran is more than a thousand kilometers away. If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites and Iran retaliates, Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, would probably join the fight.

Israel’s wars since 2006 have been with non-state organizations, i.e., Hamas and Hezbollah, which have developed hybrid capabilities and possess vast arsenals of rockets. In recent years, there has been tension and sometimes even a rift between Hamas and Iran and the Assad regime, following the civil war in Syria. Hezbollah, however, still enjoys the support of its Syrian and Iranian allies. Furthermore, Hamas has been isolated in the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli and the Egyptian policies. Both those states consider Hamas to be their enemy. In spite of Hamas's weakness, Israel wishes to avoid an escalation that might bring another war (the last one was in 2014).

In the West Bank, while Israel tries to prevent a third intifada, there have been several clashes and waves of violence throughout the years. Furthermore, there are no talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority on reaching an agreement to end the conflict. There is, however, ongoing and productive cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces against their common foe in the West Bank, namely Hamas.

Israel strongly opposes any Iranian military presence in Syria, one that could serve as a base of operations against Israel. This situation already exists since 2000, in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has up to 150,000 rockets and missiles that cover all of Israel. One major risk is that Israeli actions inside Syria, aimed at hindering the Iranian entrenchment there, might spark a war in Lebanon as well. Israel’s last war in Lebanon was in 2006, and since then the IDF has been preparing for another round. Yet Israel has been striving to avoid such a war, which might cost it dearly, even if Hezbollah suffers much more.

Israel kept staying out of the Syrian civil war, except for extending some humanitarian aid for more than 3,000 Syrians. Since 2012, Israel has launched more than a hundred airstrikes, aiming to stop the delivery of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah – an Israeli "red line." Other "red lines" include stopping chemical agents or weapons from reaching a terror group and not allowing a violation of Israel’s sovereignty, especially in the Golan Heights. Israel declared its willingness to use force, and indeed, it did.

Israel's airstrikes in Syria did not bother Iran and even Assad that much, since Israel's pinpointed attacks did not threaten the Assad regime, certainly not as his domestic enemies did. Furthermore, Iran and Assad have been well aware that a war between Israel and Assad might topple the latter since Israel could quickly destroy Assad's air force and his elite units. Nevertheless, Iran and Assad recently became more aggressive toward Israel.

Russia, which has been officially involved in the Syrian civil war since late 2015, supports Assad. Russia has relations with Israel, and the two states have an understanding about Syria. Yet there is a growing tension between Israel and Russia, stemming from the Syrian issue. Israel should be careful not to get entangled in a war in Syria unless there is no other choice. Israel certainly has to avoid military friction with Russia, let alone one that might drag the United States into it.