The year 5781 ended with a warning. The escape of prisoners from Gilboa prison in northern Israel is much more than an isolated failure in terms of intelligence or security. It indicates that fatigue, preconceived thought, and professional mediocrity (in the best case) are spreading in the defense establishment (yes, including in the IDF, and I say that with a heavy heart on the basis of years of perspective).
Even though the stunning failure was only a few days ago, there have already been many articles written about it, and more will be written. With the beginning of the new year, I prefer to focus on several paradigms that need, in my opinion, to be broken, or at least reconsidered, as soon as possible. This is being written from New York, which has yet to recover from the mother of all failures, which was expressed by the September 11 terrorist attacks that occurred exactly 20 years ago this week.
1. "We won't let Iran go nuclear under any circumstances"
I'll start with the biggest paradigm of them all, which has been the basis of Israel's policy toward Iran for more than 20 years. This policy has indeed delayed the Iranian nuclear program for many years, but we must admit that the policy has not stopped it. Apparently, the policy has lost its effectiveness.
Regardless of the nuclear agreement with the powers during the term of Barack Obama, the sanctions during the term of Donald Trump, and even cyberattacks and other disruptions, the Iranians are continuing their project, with increased intensity during the last year, as the U.S. displayed weakness and withdrew from Afghanistan with its tail between its legs.
In terms of public statements, it is logical for Israel to continue to say "we won't Iran go nuclear". Actually, the time has come to invest massive sums in the Mossad and in the IDF (much more than is currently being invested) to neutralize the bomb or provide a different solution, while assuming that the bomb already exists. After all, it is mainly the will of the regime of the Ayatollahs that separates "the continuation of the nuclear project" from an Iranian bomb. At this moment in time, it is preferable for the Iranians to remain "on the verge" of obtaining a bomb. In that way, they hold the power of a nuclear state without paying a significant diplomatic price. The time has come to prepare properly for the day when Iran suddenly announces "we have a nuclear bomb". It could happen sooner or later. We should be prepared for it as much as possible.
2. "Management of the war between wars"
The second paradigm that should be reconsidered is the Israeli policy of managing the "war between wars", mainly to prevent Iran's entrenchment in Syria, and to thwart the nuclear program (as in the case of the assassination of the head of the Iranian nuclear program, which was attributed to Israel). This Israeli policy has had enormous achievements, but the world is dynamic, and not only because Russia is playing a double game, with the Syrians and us. We need to consider our position all the time, and especially as far as the incidents in the maritime domain are concerned. Overall, 5781 was a year in which the maritime domain made headlines.
One night in February, at around midnight, near the coast of Oman in the Persian Gulf, two explosions struck the cargo ship Helios Ray, identified with Israeli businessman Rami Unger, but the vessel did not sink. About a month ago, the tanker Mercer Street, owned by Israeli businessman Eyal Ofer, was attacked by suicide drones.
Between those two events there were countless maritime incidents, with varying levels of mysteriousness, and Israel did not fail to respond. According to reports in the international media, Israel attacked Iranian ships that smuggled arms and fuel to Lebanon and Syria. Israel also used drones against ships. Its attacks started about two years ago but only came to light this year.
One way or another, the maritime tension is part of the (relatively) wider Israeli-Iranian war that includes unrelenting cyberattacks and bombing in Syria, and that is also part of a global trend. The situation is tense in almost all the seas and oceans, to the extent that the maritime domain has become a major domain of security. It is so heated that there is a huge growth in sales of submarines, naval ships, and offensive and defensive weaponry. It is possible that this is connected to the high tension in Asia over the disputes in the South China Sea, or the statistics indicating significant growth in the number of submarines deployed worldwide (four countries – China, Russia, North Korea and Iran – account for 47 percent of all of the submarine fleets in the world).
Is the climax of the warfare at sea behind us? Not at all. We have just gotten a taste of things to come, and the situation at sea will continue to be intense during the next year. The perception of "war between wars" may lead to a regional war that no side is interested in, and thus it is important to take that into consideration at all times.
3. "Management of the conflict with the Palestinians"
Actually, Israel has been trying to manage, rather than resolve, the conflict with the Palestinians for the last decade. The recent meetings between Israel's defense minister and the chairman of the Palestinian Authority were the first in many years. Is the new Israeli government reconsidering its policy towards the Palestinian Authority, and no less importantly, towards Jordan? Is it too late? When the Palestinian domain is relatively quiet, we tend to forget the previous waves of violence, and how Fatah was in Gaza when we went to sleep, but Hamas was there when we woke up at dawn. Currently the Palestinian domain is neither quiet nor boiling but it is heating up. And there is no need to mention here the warning that we received in the recent operation "Guardian of the Walls", which we did not win.
The launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza this week. Photo: Ahmed Zakot/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via REUTERS
4. "The IDF is the people's army, and it is above all politics"
This sentence is far from being true, not only because of the declining percentages of enlistment in the IDF, but mainly because the military has become a political punching bag. One example is the witch hunt that occurred following the recent death of an Israeli border policeman after he was shot on the Gaza border. It is more destructive than countless rockets of Hamas because it pulls apart the delicate fabric of our society, which is a component of our national resilience, more than the most advanced weaponry in the IDF's storehouses.
5. "Israel's defense companies bring great income and the best technology to the country"
It's true, but because of a deep structural flaw, they can't hold on forever. The privatization of Israel Military Industries and its transfer to Elbit Systems led to the current situation in which the market is led by two state-owned companies – Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael – and Elbit itself.
Elbit is in the midst of a record-breaking year, with a phenomenal amount of orders. Rafael is a healthy company after it was reborn without debt and with a good and efficient workforce. But the biggest employer, IAI, is at a dangerous crossroads. The company has a variety of technologies at the highest level in the world, but it also has money-losing units that may sink the magnificent ship. Elbit is snapping at the heels of IAI overseas, while the other state-owned company, Rafael, is doing so at home. For example, Rafael decided to enter the drone market by acquiring Israeli company Aeronautics for a huge sum, and won an IDF tender for the supply of drones.
On a smaller scale, Rafael also "stole" a project in the space field from IAI, thanks to a pretty surprising offer of $30 million on a topic that in the past was considered a core technology of IAI. Does Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel mention the unstable situation in his discussions with CEOs Bezhalel (Butzi) Machlis of Elbit, Yoav Har-Even of Rafael, and Boaz Levy of IAI? It's possible. In any case, it's not too late to resolve the situation. IAI has an excellent global reputation and many sales. But now is certainly the time to consider the structure of the defense companies in Israel. It is very possible that without privatization (which right now is off the agenda) or a merger with Rafael, IAI will be transformed from an asset to a burden within a few years, as what happened with Israel Military Industries.