Defense in a Turbulent Environment

With the advent of 2015, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, Director of INSS, addresses the complex reality expected in the coming year

Between the summer of 2007 and the summer of 2014, Israel enjoyed seven good years of defense stability and strategic superiority, with no significant conflicts and without having national security as a major burden on Israeli society and the national economy.

Impressive military capabilities, strong deterrence toward states and terrorist organizations possessing state-like characteristics, stable peace agreements with its neighbors and the events of the regional upheaval that swept the Middle East in recent years minimized the severity of the threat imposed on Israel (although not the hostility toward it). The countries of the region concentrated on their attempts to cope with their domestic difficulties, and the non-state organizations became entangled in internal conflicts. The primary threat imposed on Israel was a distant potential one: the Iranian nuclear threat.

The developments of the last year and their potential implications could lead to a change of direction and affect Israel, either directly – with the violence intentionally directed at it, or indirectly – as a result of the implications of the regional instability. Israel is approaching a point where it would be compelled to cope with familiar threats along new ones and make important decisions regarding several core issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear program and Israel's relations with the Arab countries and with the USA. The present strategic balance retains most of the favorable trends of the seven good years, but also contains the potential for turns for the worse and the outset of a more difficult security period – the "seven bad years"?

This column presents the strength of the primary elements of Israeli national security along with the weaknesses that could develop during the coming years generally and in 2015 in particular.

Israel faces no existential-military threat, but it does face BDS: the conventional, unconventional and asymmetrical military threats facing Israel are challenging, but pose no existential military risk to the State of Israel. At the same time, outside the military battlefield, the de-legitimization campaign against Israel is conducted energetically on the international arena, and is gaining disturbing acceptance in today's global, flat world. One of the prominent aspects of this threat is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions) effort that has both ideological and practical implications. Its practical manifestation is the boycotting of Israeli products and services and the call for sanctions to be imposed on Israeli organizations, in the context of an attempt to inflict economic damage. Its ideological manifestation is the attempt to tarnish Israel's image and picture it as a negative, racist and aggressive element. This trend, which gained considerable momentum in Europe over the last few years, has recently infiltrated into intellectual circles in the USA and could expand into additional arenas.

The IDF is the strongest military in the Middle East, but the challenge is asymmetrical: Israel is conceived as a power that relies on a high-quality, strong and deterring military in the eyes of both state and non-state players in the region. At the same time, Israel's military power, as well as the power of other regular armed forces in democratic countries, finds it difficult to obtain overbalance in asymmetrical confrontations. Over the last few decades, the terrorist organizations have developed solutions for the technological superiority of western armed forces and Israel through various capabilities and combat tactics (including the launching of rockets with varying accuracy and range characteristics, blending into the local population and using protection and camouflage measures), all intended to hit the "soft underbelly" of western society. Western society is highly sensitive to casualties, and even more so to casualties among the civilian population. The restrictions of international law and on-going international public criticism also hinder the ability to effectively subdue such complex threats.

Deterrence is solid, but it is a perishable commodity: Israeli deterrence is solid, and its effectiveness is apparent vis-à-vis the neighboring countries and the "hybrid" terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah, whose characteristics include governance and a certain liability toward the population whose territory they dominate. At the same time, deterrence is not an absolute concept, and the ability to measure it is applied in retrospect, with no guarantee that it would last into the future. The end of deterrence could be the result of miscalculation (namely – a situation where both sides are not interested in a confrontation, but are nevertheless dragged into it reluctantly, as was the case in the summer of 2006), or alternately as a result of enemy evaluation according to which the balance of considerations and potential benefits justifies a certain provocation against Israel.

The peace agreements have survived, but the masses are hostile: the political upheaval in Egypt and the instability in Jordan raised concerns about the future of the peace agreements with Israel. These agreements have survived for the time being, and Israel and its neighbors continue to maintain a cooperation that has even intensified in security and economic fields. However, the challenge could hail from "the streets", namely – from the masses, who remained hostile (and even more active) toward Israel. These masses identify with the Palestinians' plight and are themselves frustrated owing to the absence of any practical improvement in their own circumstances.

Syria is weakening as a threat, but the Golan Heights have evolved into an active front: the Syrian Army, preoccupied with the civil war, has weakened dramatically. It suffered considerable erosion and lost a lot of materiel to the extent that it no longer constitutes a real threat on Israel (both conventionally and unconventionally). At the same time, the low governance level and the loss of control over various areas of Syria enabled the consolidation of Global Jihad elements and other radical groups, and raised the probability of the Golan Heights evolving into an active front that could threaten the inhabitants of the border area, the northern region and beyond.

Hezbollah has become bogged down in the Syrian mud, but has not relinquished the struggle against Israel: the intensive involvement in Syria drew on the power and resources of Hezbollah and neutralized, to a considerable extent, its ability and intentions to open an additional front opposite Israel. At the same time, Hezbollah has not relinquished the struggle against Israel, either rhetorically or practically. Thus far, Hezbollah signaled its intentions through pin-point, limited attacks, mainly in order to maintain the tension and rehabilitate its internal legitimacy. The relative quiet could change the moment Hezbollah has identified the appropriate timing for regaining its status as the leader of the armed resistance against Israel.

The common interest space shared with the Sunni countries – no breakthrough so far: the extensive overlapping of interests between Israel and Arab countries belonging to the moderate Sunni world (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Jordan) provides an opportunity for regional cooperation. Such a cooperative alliance will be based on a similar perspective and identical interests vis-à-vis the developments associated with Iran and with Syria, and more recently – vis-à-vis the threat imposed by Global Jihad organizations. This potential has not been implemented in a significant manner thus far, among other things, because of the internal instability in the moderate Arab countries, their commitment (if only rhetorically) to the Palestinian issue and the lack of Israeli willingness to adopt, even partially, the Arab peace initiative. These factors have thus far hindered the establishment of a stable and lasting cooperative alliance.

The Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process – facing a political Intifada? The failure of the "Kerry effort" to reach an agreement and the internal Palestinian split have pushed Abu-Mazen to adopt a contrarian stance and concentrate his efforts on the international arena, in a manner that bypasses the direct arrangement channel. Meanwhile, a string of declarations by several European parliaments and governments regarding their recognition of a Palestinian state has given momentum to the Palestinian effort and undermined the principle of direct negotiations. Israel should consolidate a strategic alternative to the failed negotiations that would enable it to shape its borders even without Palestinian consent, but subject to coordination with the international community headed by the USA.

The Iranian nuclear program was halted but not withdrawn: international attention to the resolution of the Iranian issue has been significant and has prevented the continued rapid development of the Iranian nuclear program. At the same time, the postponement of the signature of the permanent agreement has once again placed Israel in a strategic position that would necessitate a decision upon the realization of any one of the two scenarios – consolidation and signature of a "bad agreement" or the total collapse of the talks. Israel must ensure that the Iranian options of progressing toward nuclear power along the uranium and plutonium paths are eliminated, that the Iranian nuclear program is placed under constant monitoring and that a long-term agreement is signed that would allow a gradual lifting of the sanctions in exchange for a complete fulfillment of the Iranian commitments. Additionally, Israel must retain a credible military option in the event that all of the other alternatives should fail.

Finally, a defense solution that fulfills the public expectations vis-à-vis the budget restrictions: the ability to provide a comprehensive, satisfactory solution to the high expectations of the Israeli public for maximum security is a significant challenge. Coping with limited but highly volatile asymmetrical threats along with momentous strategic issues such as the Iranian nuclear challenge make it difficult to acquire the ability to produce a coherent force build-up process and necessitates in-depth deliberation of the implications and risks of the absence of a multi-year plan for IDF.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin is the Director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) and formerly the Head of Israeli Military Intelligence.

Carmit Valensi is a research associate at INSS and a doctoral student at the Tel-Aviv University.