The Weaknesses in Israel's Policy for the Northern Theater

The tension in the north has broken all past records this week, with the US threatening to attack in Syria following the chemical attack against the rebel strongholds and the strike attributed to Israel against the Syrian airbase T4. The confrontation with Russia, into which Israel seems to be drawn, does not help the situation. Amir Rapaport's weekly column

PM Netanyahu leads a security cabinet tour in the Golan Heights, earlier this year (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

In a week when the tension in the north has broken all past records, Israel's "Red Line" policy seems to be raising more question marks than ever before.

According to this policy, Israel is determined to prevent Iran from establishing bases in Syria. This is Israel's official and explicit policy, as stated last Tuesday – once again – by Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman during his visit to the town of Katzrin on the Golan Heights: "To allow the Iranians to consolidate in Syria is like putting a noose around our own neck, and this will not happen."

These declarations were accompanied by actual strikes, for some of which Israel assumed responsibility in the past. This week, an attack took place in Syria and promptly attributed by Iran and Syria to Israel (which refuses to comment). Iran has claimed that several Iranians were killed in the Israeli attack, declaring that it will not take this lying down, namely – a vengeful response is to be expected.

Regardless of this threat, at least four weaknesses may be identified with regard to the northern theater, as far as the Israeli policy is concerned.

1. Explicit "Red Lines" and their Inherent Risks. The objective of setting public "Red Lines" is to enhance deterrence. It is assumed that the party setting a "Red Line" will be committed to standing behind it, and this is intended to lead the other party to think twice (or three times) and eventually avoid the move the threatening party wants to prevent.

The problem is that with regard to Israel's northern theater, the other party, Iran, does not think exactly "by the book." Each party is currently playing by its own rules.

Strikes for which Israel assumes responsibility compel the other party to respond, so as to "save face."

Moreover, publicly stated "Red Lines" exact a heavy toll, as they have an adverse effect on the flexibility of the threatening party's decision making.

The historic experience gained with regard to territorial "Red Lines" has not been particularly successful (refer, for example, to France's Maginot Line and Israel's Bar-Lev Line). The Israeli experience has not been particularly heart-warming with regard to declarative "Red Lines" either, as in the case of the War of Attrition.

In the years 1969-1970, Israel had declared that it would not allow Soviet surface-to-air missiles to be deployed near the Suez Canal, and went as far as engaging in air combat encounters with Soviet pilots to stand behind this threat. Eventually, Israel gave up that "Red Line", and during the Yom-Kippur War (1973), those missiles succeeded in "denting the tails" of the Israeli fighter aircraft.

2. A Favorable Theater for the Iranians. Another problem stems from the fact that the rules currently in effect are more convenient for the Iranian side. The Iranians are operating far away from their homeland, and can provoke Israel even within its own territory (as was the case with the Iranian drone shot down over Israel recently). Israel, on the other hand, is allegedly unable to operate on Iranian soil. It certainly cannot stage attacks there openly without risking a major confrontation.

3. Entanglement in the Syrian Civil War. Since 2011, Israel surprised the world by its ability to maintain a state of almost perfect tranquility in the north while strictly avoiding any involvement in the civil war that was raging only a few kilometers away. Today, the attacks acknowledged by Israel (as well as the ones not acknowledged) have actually involved Israel in the conflicts regarding the future of Syria. This week, Israel has also found itself at the very heart of the heightened tension between the USA and Russia, against the background of President Trump's accusations according to which Bashar al-Assad had once again employed chemical weapons against his enemies. The bottom line: Israel is currently one of the active players in the highly volatile Syrian arena.

4. The Russian Peril. One particularly severe aspect of the latest developments is the fact that Israel is being drawn more and more toward a confrontation with Russia. So far, Israel has made a tremendous effort to come to an understanding with the regime of Vladimir Putin, and that was the reason why the Israeli Prime Minister travelled to Moscow time and again in recent years, normally accompanied by high-ranking IDF officers. However, all of Putin's (substantial) affections and (less substantial) respect for Israel notwithstanding, his interests are currently more compatible with those of Iran and even those of Turkey. The more Israel attacks in Syria, the more the friction with Moscow will intensify, along with the risk of cutting-edge weapon systems being delivered by Russia to Syria, Iran and Hezbollah (after Russian surface-to-air missiles deployed in Syria have already eliminated the total freedom of the skies the IAF had enjoyed since the 1980s).

Is there Another Way?

Presumably, the Israeli cabinet, which convened on Wednesday (originally in order to discuss the situation opposite the Gaza Strip primarily) has devoted a substantial portion of its time to the tension in the north (which is also associated with the threat of the USA to attack in Syria). Naturally, the "Red Line" issue is only a part of Israel's overall policy for the northern theater (for example, the Israeli activity also includes an intensive exchange of messages through diplomatic channels and a threat of disproportional Israeli response in the event of escalation). Generally, it is very likely that the overall policy and its results were carefully considered by the security/diplomatic cabinet and the alternative decided upon was the lesser of two evils in view of the complex situation in Syria. Conversely, the present make-up of the cabinet might be overly militant and not sufficiently balanced.

The danger of rapid deterioration in the north is clear and present (alternately, the situation may gradually deteriorate into a modern version of a war of attrition). In the event of a total war, God forbid, the present policy will be reviewed in depth – in retrospect.

The Fight over IAI

Meanwhile, some of Israel's major defense industries are going through a fascinating period.

Elbit Systems is preparing to devour IMI Systems by including it in its Land Systems Division under Udi Vered, while establishing a new division (mainly for C4I and ISTAR systems) under Haim Delmar.

At IAI, the battle for the position of the next CEO, who is to replace Yossi Weiss, is warming up. The submission of candidates to the committee headed by Chairman of the Board of Directors Harel Locker is to be completed by Independence Day.

Among the "home" candidates, the favorites are division heads Boaz Levi and Shaul Shahar, but another surprise candidate is the former Head of the IDF Planning Directorate, Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer, who has served as the Head of the IDF Logistics Directorate for the past year – although Locker is interested in a CEO who possesses an extensive management background.

The fight could involve multiple candidates as some of the other names being mentioned are those of the Head of IAI's Space Unit, Opher Doron, IAI's VP Finance Eyal Yonian and even Nissim Hadas, who's about to conclude his tenure as CEO of IAI's subsidiary ELTA.

External candidates include former IAF Commandant Amir Eshel or some "star" executive from the business sector (which is yet to be named).

The primary candidate for the position to be vacated by Nissim Hadas (CEO of ELTA) is Yoav Turjeman, formerly the director of IAI MALAM, who competes against other candidates from within and outside IAI.