Could the conflict between Iran and Israel deteriorate to a direct, all-out war? That scenario is by no means absurd. To illustrate just how close we were to such a war, we should go back a little, to the recent incident in June when Iran had shot down a state-of-the-art US drone. According to reports, US President Donald Trump was about to order an extensive retaliatory attack against targets in Iran, but eventually "settled" for a cyberattack.
What would have happened if the US had launched missiles or scrambled aircraft loaded with munitions? Dr. Eitan Azani, a senior IDC Hertzliya researcher specializing in Lebanese affairs, says that in such a situation, Hezbollah would have been highly likely to stage an extensive attack against strategic targets in Israel, which would have opened a comprehensive front between the two countries. The reason is simple: Iran invested billions of dollars in Hezbollah's force design and build-up, precisely in order to use the missiles deployed in Lebanon as a response to an attack against its territory. As far as Iran is concerned, the provocations of Hassan Nasrallah which led to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and consequently to the destruction of a substantial part of Hezbollah's missile setup by Israel, were a serious misfortune.
Since that war, and more acutely since the targeted killing of Hezbollah's military commander, Imad Mughniyah, in 2008, Iran has controlled the forces of Hezbollah directly and strictly. Consequently, the missiles deployed in Lebanon may be regarded as an Iranian arsenal to all intents and purposes. Incidentally, it is very likely that in the event of a US attack in Iranian territory, Iran would have also ordered its other sponsored organization, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, to launch missiles at Israel, in that case – from the Gaza Strip.
Back to the north: it is important to remember that the frequent airstrikes attributed to Israel, staged against Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese targets in an attempt to stop Hezbollah from arming itself with missiles possessing strategic capabilities, could deteriorate into heavy exchanges of fire between Iran and Israel – far beyond anything we have seen thus far. Accordingly, not just the US-Iran tension could lead to a war between Iran and Israel. The more Iran suffers from the sanctions imposed on it, the higher the chance of it breaking the rules and issuing an extensive order to fire – in the Persian Gulf and along the borders of Israel.
Dr. Azani spoke last Friday during a panel discussion on Hezbollah initiated and produced by the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC) and IsraelDefense.
During the same panel discussion, Brig. Gen. (res.) Amnon Sofrin, formerly the Head of the Mossad's Intelligence Division, reviewed the current state of Hezbollah. According to Sofrin, during the long years of fighting in Syria, the organization lost 2,500 warfighters but gained extensive combat experience. The most serious threat, as far as Israel is concerned, still consists of the 100,000-150,000 missiles and rockets in Hezbollah's hands, of which only a few thousand have ranges of hundreds of kilometers, covering the entire territory of Israel (including Scud missiles transferred from Syria to Lebanon). The attempt to manufacture long-range missiles with pinpoint precision guidance has, indeed, encountered countless air strikes, but Iran and Hezbollah developed a way to manufacture precision guidance kits fitted to rockets, thereby providing them with GPS guidance. Apparently, they currently have about 200 high-precision missiles of this type. The development and acquisition process is slow and time-consuming, but the effort continues.
Sofrin also noted that the destruction of six border-crossing tunnels by the IDF was a serious operational blow to Hezbollah, which also led the organization to develop serious concerns regarding the extent of Israel's intelligence penetration into the organization. Hezbollah's most serious concern at the moment is the difficult economic situation as a result of the sanction crisis in Iran, which has already led to cuts of 30% to 40% in the organization's annual budget (out of $1 billion). Consequently, despite severe cuts in wages and in their support for welfare institutions, along with a major public fund-raising drive, Nasrallah's purse is still empty.
Pursuant to Amnon Sofrin's presentation, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Commander of the IDF Northern Command (and aspiring politician) Maj. Gen. (res.) Yair Golan said that the long-range, high-precision missiles are, indeed, the most serious threat from Lebanon, mainly because each one of those missiles carries a warhead of hundreds of kilograms of explosives. At the same time, Golan assured the audience that the longer the range of the missile, the higher the chance for a successful interception by the Israeli missile defense systems – Arrow, David's Sling, and Iron Dome.
Regarding the chances that Iran might not restrain itself in response to a physical attack in its territory, strategic expert and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Eran Etzion suggested that we should all regard very seriously the message Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, posted on Twitter last Friday. According to that Tweet, Iran would not be the first to start a war, but any war imposed on it would not be short. "Zarif had carefully considered every word, so we should take his statement literally," said Etzion. If Iran is forced into a war, Israel will be a part of it, in the context of almost any scenario.
From Russia with Love
Are the mysterious disruptions, which interfere with the landing and take-off of aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport, also associated with the tension vis-à-vis Iran? Probably not. Those disruptions led the Israeli authorities to convene several meetings this week with participants from the IAF, the ISA, the Mossad, the Cyber Directorate, and the aviation authorities – which revealed the extent of the embarrassment: no unequivocal explanation could be provided to the question of why aircraft are receiving disrupted signals on their satellite navigation systems.
However, as time goes by, the estimates according to which the sources of those disruptions are high-power electronic signals transmitted from Russian vessels operating in the Mediterranean are growing more certain. The signals in question cause disruptions over expansive areas, all the way to Iran, and also interfere with the navigation of ships on the high seas, but the danger is extremely serious only with regard to aircraft. Why are the Russians causing these serious disruptions? Are they trying to send a secret message in response to cyberattacks by the US? Did they attempt to prevent the radar systems from picking up tracks of Russian aircraft on secret missions? Are they conducting "live" experiments in electronic and cyber warfare? The answers to these questions are still unclear.
Incidentally, aircraft that do not have backup for their GPS navigation systems face the most severe risk as a result of satellite jamming. This was substantiated by an incident that occurred last March, which we report here for the very first time: at that time, similar disruptions were being encountered, but they only lasted for a short period of time. Following those disruptions, an aircraft was preparing to land at Ben-Gurion Airport when the pilots realized, to their amazement, that they were over the city of Nablus (in Samaria) rather than over Ben-Gurion Airport, as the navigation instruments in the cockpit indicated. The pilots recovered quickly, pulled the nose up and landed visually, without instruments, at Ben-Gurion International Airport – just like in the old days.
C4I is Relocating, Intelligence still Stalling
The evacuation of Sde-Dov Airport in Tel-Aviv last week drew a lot of public and media attention, but despite its far-reaching consequences, another evacuation is much more significant economically: the relocation of the IDF bases from the lucrative areas of the central region. This involves the base of the IDF Personnel Directorate in Ramat-Gan and substantial parts of the IDF base in Tel-HaShomer, the evacuation of the Ground Arm Command Center from the base in Qastina and the evacuation of other bases, followed by the relocation of all of those units to a huge base being erected near Ramla. The codename of this project is "Ofek Rahav" (= Broad Horizon), but even this move, which is being managed by a dedicated administration within the Israel Ministry of Defense (IMOD), is negligible compared to the relocation of the massive technological units of the C4I and Intelligence Directorates to the Negev.
In this context, a clear distinction is called for: the establishment of the new C4I campus in Be’er-Sheva is already underway, and IMOD has issued gigantic tenders to advance this project. One primary building of the new C4I campus is already standing, and future construction operations will be directed and controlled from it. On the other hand, the relocation of the intelligence units from Gelilot to the Negev is still not going ahead. As the Head of the Intelligence Directorate and Deputy Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi had objected to the relocation, mainly owing to the absence of public transport services to the area allocated for the Intelligence Campus – near Shoket Junction, about 14 kilometers to the east of Be’er-Sheva. The primary concern is that highly trained and qualified individuals will not be interested in serving at a location which is both remote and detached and would, instead, seek employment in the civilian world.
Nevertheless, and contrary to Kochavi's position, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in favor of Shoket Junction as the location for the new Intelligence Campus. Netanyahu regards the relocation of the Intelligence Directorate as a cornerstone of his vision to position the Negev as a global cyber center. However, in line with Kochavi's spirit and view, the Intelligence Directorate has been stalling for years, and the actual relocation is being postponed from one year to the next (by now, it is clear that the transfer will not take place before 2024 at the earliest).
And now for the good news: today, Benjamin Netanyahu is also the Minister of Defense, and Kochavi has become IDF Chief of Staff. The distance between their offices has shrunk to the length of one small bridge on the 14th floor of the main building of the defense establishment at the Quirya in Tel-Aviv (at least on Thursdays, when Netanyahu is there). That small bridge brings closer a solution: three new alternative locations for the new Intelligence Campus are currently being reviewed instead of Shoket Junction. The prerequisite for all alternatives is a high degree of accessibility by public transport. When a final decision has been made regarding the new location, the preparations for the evacuation of the intelligence bases from the central region will be renewed. Maybe.