The immediate security threats Israel faces are from terrorist organizations with military capabilities, and from Iran, which aspires to build an effective military front against Israel in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and to exact vengeance for ongoing Israeli operations aimed at destroying its military infrastructure built beyond its borders.
Although the Syrian army is exhausted from years of civil war, and although Hezbollah has suffered heavy losses and Hamas is isolated and weakened, outbreaks of violence with these adversaries are still possible.
Israel has to manage in a violent and turbulent region marked by war, mass migration, humanitarian crises, stagnating economies, unemployment, and failed autocratic regimes. Terrorist organizations and radical Islamic movements flourish in the Middle East.
The defeat of the Islamic State’s does not ensure eradication of the social and religious matrix from which it emerged, or its ability to carry out major terrorist attacks like the one that took place in Sri Lanka on April 21, 2019, in which over 250 people were killed. Two-thirds of the Middle East’s inhabitants are aged 29 or younger; 30 percent of those of working age are unemployed (double the global average). These young people are also unable to participate in any real political process. Tribal and clan ties trump civil commitment to the state, central governments are floundering and state frameworks are weakening, and at times collapsing – adding to the region’s roster of “failed states” with only partial control over their legal territories (Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and Iraq).
The vacuum created by declining US involvement in the region has allowed Russia to become a dominant player with a military presence in Syria, Israel’s neighbor. Despite Jerusalem’s good working relationship with Moscow, the convergence of Russian interests with those of Israel’s sworn enemies is troubling.
The threats posed by Iran and Islamic terrorism are aligning Israel’s interests with those of Sunni Arab nations, resulting in unprecedented cooperation in the security sphere. The frozen diplomatic process vis-à-vis the Palestinians is not currently blocking the development of these relations, though it does hamper public normalization. Mossad head Yossi Cohen has stated that his organization “has identified at this time a rare opportunity – perhaps the first in the history of the Middle East – to reach a regional understanding that would lead to an inclusive regional peace agreement.”5 The challenge of utilizing the natural gas reserves discovered in the Mediterranean Sea will contribute to the envisioned understanding, as evidenced by the recent meeting of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (January 14 and July 25, 2019), which was attended by representatives of Egypt, Greece, Cypress, Italy, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. The gas challenge is also driving Lebanon to consider agreements with Israel on a maritime border, so that the gas deposits within its territory can be utilized.
Iran: heightened confrontation
The US withdrawal from the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran (May 2018), and the shift to direct military confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria, are major escalations of the threat that Iran poses to Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned that Israel will not countenance a nuclear Iran or reconcile itself to an Iran deploying its forces in countries that border Israel. Outgoing IDF Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot has indicated that Israel has struck “thousands of Iranian targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,”6 and stated that Israel has prevented Iran from implementing its “grandiose vision” (constructing a military infrastructure) in Syria. (The international media has lately been reporting that Israel has attacked Iranian targets in Iraq.)
However, Iran has not abandoned its aspirations in Syria and is still busy recruiting local allies and establishing militias that follow its orders. As far as the Iranians are concerned, accounts have yet to be settled with Israel, raising the possibility of vengeance being exacted against Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. The Iranian attempted launch of suicide drones against northern Israeli targets (thwarted by a preemptive Israeli air force strike on August 24, 2019) is a case in point.
Tehran’s regional subversion continues. After withdrawing from the JCPOA, the US drafted a set of 12 demands, the most notable of which are that it cease uranium enrichment, allow IAEA inspectors unqualified access, halt the development of nuclear capable missiles, withdraw support for militant organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, remove Iranian forces from Syria, and stop threatening to annihilate Israel. To spur Tehran to accept these terms, the US has adopted a “maximum pressure” policy, stiffening economic sanctions on Iran and declaring the Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in cooperation with the American effort, have promised to keep an oil shortage from developing. The US has repeatedly called upon Iran to participate in talks regarding a revised nuclear deal, but Tehran’s has responded that it will not negotiate as long as sanctions remain in place. Trump’s optimistic statement following the G-7 on the possibility of reaching a revised agreement with Iran (and the appearance of the Iranian Foreign minister, Mohammad Zarif, on the sidelines of the meetings) has generated concern in Israel regarding the level of Trump’s adherence to his own 12 demands.
The sanctions have exacerbated Iran’s economic crisis significantly, and escalated tensions in the region. The US has deployed additional forces to the Persian Gulf, but Iran remains undeterred and has made good on its threat to exceed enrichment limits specified in JCPOA should sanctions continue. In early July 2019, the Iranians passed the enriched uranium production threshold, both in quantity (which had been limited to 300 kg) and in enrichment level (which had been restricted to 3.67 percent). Tehran has promised to continue exceeding the specified limits and to gradually depart from the agreement; at the same time, it is taking violent action in the Gulf. Iranian forces have struck oil tankers, signaling their ability to block the Strait of Hormuz and thereby harm the global economy (over 20 percent of the world energy supply travels through this channel). The Iranians downed an unmanned US surveillance drone it claimed had violated their airspace, an act to which the US has not yet responded. Iran then proceeded to capture a British flag oil tanker in retaliation for the British seizure of an Iranian tanker in the Straits of Gibraltar two weeks earlier (the tanker, which was on its way to Syria, violated European Union sanctions against Damascus). The US is not exercising, at this stage, its formidable military resources deployed in the region, and President Trump has reiterated that there is no justification for the US shouldering security responsibility for the oil shipping lanes that serve other countries.
These developments indicate that Israel must be prepared for all scenarios: negotiations restarting between the US and Iran; escalation of Tehran’s military moves, which could result in a full-blown confrontation with America; the total collapse of the JCPOA, and a renewed Iranian nuclear threat.
Hezbollah: a strengthening adversary
Over the past year, Hezbollah has reinforced its hold over Lebanon. The organization and its political partners currently hold over half of the Lebanese parliament, as well as government ministries that give them access to state budgets. For more than a decade, Hezbollah has refrained from open combat with Israel, and has not responded to Israeli air strikes on strategic arms convoys from Iran and Syria. This picture could change following the Israeli drone attack in the area of the Beirut headquarters of Hezbollah. Its secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, reacted (August 25, 2019) that Israel had violated the rules of the game that had prevailed since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and that the conflict with Israel is entering a new phase, and Israel should, therefore, expect harsh retribution.
The organization suffered bloody losses in Syria but gained complex military campaign experience; in Hezbollah the IDF faces an adversary with the capabilities similar to an ordinary army. Hezbollah has over 120 thousand rockets at its disposal, some of which are highly accurate and capable of reaching deep into Israeli territory. Israel is preparing for the possibility that, in the next round of fighting, Hezbollah will try to strike its offshore gas facilities and vital infrastructure, or send forces into Israel to capture territories near the northern border. Accordingly, in December 2018 the IDF launched Operation Northern Shield aimed at neutralizing six attack tunnels that Hezbollah had dug into Israeli territory.
Despite the commonly-held view that Hezbollah has no present interest in risking another war with Israel, the possibility of an unforeseen outbreak of violence on the northern front cannot be disregarded. The deepening nuclear crisis with Iran could potentially spur Tehran to push Hezbollah into confrontation with Israel.
Syria: regime stabilization
Eight years of fighting have resulted in half a million casualties, five million Syrian refugees, and six million displaced persons who have lost their homes but remain in Syria. With the active support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Bashar al-Assad has remained in power, and is growing stronger. Moscow has proven that it is a loyal ally, and unlike the US, is prepared to use force. Assad’s forces are increasing military pressure against the rebels, who remain concentrated in the northwestern city of Idlib; an all-out offensive against them could result in a humanitarian disaster and cause a mass influx of refugees into Turkey, which wants to avoid such a scenario.
Ankara is also worried about the possibility of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria and is threatening to take military action against what it regards as a terrorist menace. To Turkey’s dismay, Trump has rethought his decision to withdraw US forces from Syria, largely due to concerns about the fate of its Kurdish allies. He tweeted (January 13, 2019) that the US would “devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”7
Iran’s plan to build a military infrastructure in Syria for use against Israel has been met by ongoing Israeli counter measures aimed at: keeping Iran and its proxies from establishing a stronghold in southern Syria; preventing the deployment of an elaborate precision-guided missile launch system across Syria; and blocking the transfer of strategic arms to Hezbollah.
Clearly, Israel has persuaded Moscow to honor its “red lines.” According to IDF Chief of General Staff Eisenkot (May 15, 2019), “the Russians understand that if Israel learns of Iranian deployments within 100 kilometers of its border, it will have complete freedom of action.”8 Evidence of Israel’s good working relationship with Russia can be seen in the many coordination meetings Netanyahu has had with Putin, and in Moscow’s assistance in bringing the remains of IDF MIA Zachary Baumel back to Israel for burial. The superpowers’ recognition of Israel’s strategic weight and the legitimacy of its interests in the Syrian arena were further acknowledged in the June 2019 trilateral summit held in Jerusalem with the participation of the US, Russian, and Israeli national security advisors. (Netanyahu stated that “at the three-way meeting with the US and Russia that was held here, we reached a consensus about the objective of removing Iran from Syria.”9)
Despite the foregoing, we cannot ignore the fact that there is a Moscow-supported axis in Syria that is hostile to Israel (Assad, Iran, Hezbollah), or that Russia is engaged in superpower competition with Israel’s single most important ally – the United States. The deployment of Russian-made S-300 and S-400 missiles in Syria indicates that Israel must continue to tread carefully if it is to protect its interests without creating friction with Russia.
Saudi Arabia: murder and policy
The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, 34-year-old Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), is the chief suspect in the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. The murder has raised questions about bin Salman’s status and about the Saudi modernization program, and has led to pressure by American lawmakers to restrict US relations with Riyadh. President Trump has attempted to curb this pressure by noting Saudi Arabia’s importance to the US arms industry and to the continued struggle against Iran, as well as the fact that it “aids Israel.”
Congressional efforts have also called attention to Saudi Arabia’s plan to build nuclear power plants. It has been disclosed that, due to concerns about losing the plant construction deal (80 billion dollars) to Russian or Chinese competitors, Trump secretly authorized the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to the Saudis, which could potentially use it to develop their own military nuclear program. Such an outcome seems all the more likely given the crown prince’s recent comment (March 15, 2018) that his country may need such weapons to counter the Iranian threat: “Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we would follow suit as soon as possible.”10
Israel has refrained from addressing the Khashoggi murder in any detail. According to Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, it would be wrong to “throw out the prince with the bathwater.”11 Israel finds MBS’s aggressive line against Iran and its allies, and his willingness to deepen secret cooperation with Israel, advantageous. Beyond the shocking Khashoggi murder, other failures overshadow bin-Salman’s leadership: the ongoing, outcome-less war in Yemen; the ineffectual embargo of Qatar; the failure to weaken Hezbollah by forcibly detaining the Lebanese prime minister; and more. However, as part of an effort to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s status and salvage bin Salman’s image, three concurrent events were recently hosted in Mecca (May 2019): an emergency Arab League summit; an emergency meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council; and a regular summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Egypt: President Sisi consolidates his power
Egypt continues to face major security and economic problems. President Sisi is consolidating his power; this year he enacted changes to the Egyptian constitution (April 2019) that would allow him to remain in office until 2034. He has also strengthened the military, which constitutes his support base (the army is now also charged with “protecting the constitution and democracy”). Concerns about a potential Egyptian economic collapse (and consequent large-scale humanitarian crisis, mass migration, and a radical Islamic takeover) help restrain Western criticism of Sisi’s dictatorial behavior and motivate the Gulf nations to continue bolstering Egypt’s flailing economy.
This year Sisi continued pushing implementation of an economic reform plan, which has boosted the Egyptian economy (whose current annual growth rate is 5 percent). The IMF has even praised the improvement of the country’s macroeconomic indicators (July 29, 2019), yet half of Egypt’s population subsists on less than two dollars a day. The youth unemployment rate is particularly high, and each year two million newborns join the Egyptian populace, which currently numbers 100 million. Feeding all of these people is not a simple matter, given that Egypt produces only 50 percent of its own food needs. The approaching completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam poses a threat to Egypt’s water supply, 90 percent of which comes from the Nile, and may impede much of its agricultural activity. Terrorism, political Islam, the deadlocked war on the Islamic State in Sinai (which, to date, has cost the lives of hundreds of Egyptian troops), and the danger posed by Iranian subversion, all provide a groundwork for Egypt’s current “wide range of coordination with the Israelis” (although the peace remains a cold one and anti-Israel incitement abounds).12
Jordan: continued fragility
This year, the King of Jordan has again removed key officials from their posts. In late April 2019, Jordan’s head of intelligence, along with seven ministers, were dismissed following reported efforts to foment unrest and destabilize the Kingdom. The dismissal of the prime minister last year, intended to quell public protests generated by the country’s ongoing economic crisis, did not solve Jordan’s problems: high government debt levels: unemployment (40 percent among young people); an oversized public sector; corruption; low employment rate of women; decreased financial support from the Gulf states, and the presence of a million and a half Syrian refuges (13 percent of the Kingdom’s population).
Not only does Jordan have to cope with vexing economic problems and the resulting social unrest; the country also faces security challenges posed by radical Islam, in a situation where its Palestinian residents – half the population – are influenced by the ups and downs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Jordan fears that a US peace plan would leave it burdened with responsibility for the two million Palestinians within its borders with refugee status. Jordanian tribe-affiliated citizens who see themselves as the Kingdom’s indigenous population fear that the “Jordan is Palestine” formulation will be implemented, thereby changing the country’s identity and depriving them of the preferred status they have enjoyed in exchange for their support of the royal family.
Jordan’s fragility, its dependence on American aid (1.5 billion dollars this year) and the security threats it faces, are driving it to cooperate with Israel, especially in the security and intelligence spheres. However, the Jordanian public adamantly objects to normalization with Israel. King Abdullah was responding to this opposition when he announced, on October 21, 2018, that he would not be renewing the two sections annexed to the peace treaty with Israel that allow Israel to lease the Jordan Valley enclaves of Tzofar and Naharayim.
Turkey: between East and West
To an ever-greater degree, Turkey is shedding the liberal-democratic characteristics that once distinguished it within the Muslim world. Under President Erdoğan, nationalist and Islamic sentiment have both been on the rise, and the country is becoming an autocracy. Erdoğan’s crackdown on perceived enemies in the media, academia, the military, the government, and the judicial system continues. According to Human Rights Watch (January 2019), nearly 50,000 Turkish citizens are currently jailed on charges of political subversion. Consequently, Europe has made it clear that Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU are fading. Ankara’s insistence on drilling for oil off Northern Cyprus (which, according to international law, is occupied territory) is also heightening tensions with the EU, which has imposed sanctions in response.
The crushing defeat of Erdoğan’s favored candidate in the rerun of Istanbul’s mayoral election (June 23, 2019) is perceived as a possible harbinger of the Turkish president’s political demise. Erdoğan-backed candidates have lost elections in other large Turkish cities, and support for him within his own party has wavered (there have been threats of resignation from top party figures and the creation of an opposition party). The Turkish economy, whose former achievements were a badge of honor for Erdoğan, is now in crisis, with currency devaluation, a large budget deficit, high external debt, inflation, and surging unemployment. Turkey’s “Zero-Problems” foreign policy has been replaced by an abundance of confrontations and crises fueled by Erdoğan’s pretension to “lead the Muslim world.”13 The hope of seeing Assad removed from power has not materialized, and Turkey is now jockeying to protect its interests in northern Syria vis-à-vis the US and Russia: both in order to thwart the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state, and to prevent the violent collapse of Idlib, which would flood Turkey with migrants (there are already 3.5 million refugees within Turkish borders).
Turkish-American relations are rife with problems. The purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, whose delivery is now underway, is inconsistent with Turkey’s NATO membership, but provides an advantage should it become involved in confrontations over gas reserves. The deal torpedoed the purchase of 100 American stealth aircraft, caused Turkey’s removal from the aircraft parts manufacturing project (a billion-dollar loss to its economy), and made Turkey the target of sanctions mandated by US law. Ankara thus finds itself between a rock and a hard place: had it buckled to American pressure it would have been punished by Moscow (whose assistance is vital to Turkey in the Syrian arena). Erdoğan seems to be choosing to strengthen his ties with adversaries of the US. Accordingly (as evidenced by statements during a July 2019 visit to China), he has reconciled himself to China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority (treatment that Erdoğan once referred to as “genocide”). The decision has also led Erdoğan to call for a new, multipolar world order, noting that “Turkey and China, the world’s most ancient civilizations, have a responsibility to contribute to building this new system.”14
Abhorrence of Erdoğan does not negate Turkey’s importance to the West. Turkey is strategically located, belongs to NATO, is significantly involved in the Syrian crisis, and holds the key to blocking or allowing mass migration into Europe. Nor can Israel afford to disregard Turkey. Notwithstanding the agreement to normalize ties with Ankara in 2016, Israel has no illusions regarding a return to past levels of security and intelligence coordination. Accordingly, Israel has made an effort in recent years to strengthen its ties with Greece and Cyprus in the security and energy spheres.
The Palestinian arena: a change of leadership in the offing
The past year was rife with developments testifying to the Palestinian Authority’s instability: deteriorating relations with the US; economic distress; rising unemployment (31 percent in the West Bank and over 50 percent in Gaza); an erosion of aid from longtime donor countries; less funding available to agencies that assist the PA (especially UNRWA, which the US has cut off entirely). To all of these one may add Israel’s withholding of tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in accordance with a Knesset-passed law that mandates deducting funds the PA pays to the families of killed terrorists or those serving prison sentences in Israel – 7 percent of the PA budget. In response, the PA refused all of the tax revenues, which account for 65 percent of its budget, and government services have been reduced, and the salaries of 160,000 civil service workers has been slashed by half. However, the PA’s grave economic situation softened its resolve, and led to an agreement with Israel to receive two billion shekels (August 22, 2019). In parallel, the leadership of the ailing, 84-year-old Abu Mazen is losing public legitimacy, and the sense that his time in office is nearing its end has caused rumblings within the PA.
The Palestinian leadership suffered humiliating foreign-relations setbacks this year: the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there; Washington ceased referring to the West Bank as “occupied territories,” and the American peace plan, though not yet made public, is considered by the Palestinians to be a one-sided, pro-Israel initiative. The Palestinians are having trouble accepting a “world order” in which they no longer play a starring role. In spite of Abu Mazen’s threats to cut off relations with Israel, (the most recent of which was on July 25, 2019 following the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem), for all the years he has been in power, Abu Mazen has maintained security coordination with Israel and helped ensure relative quiet in Judea and Samaria. His departure may spark succession conflicts and could potentially impair the coordination with Israel. West Bank Palestinians are disappointed by the PA and skeptical about the leadership’s ability to bring change and end the Israeli occupation. This atmosphere of frustration occasionally triggers violence. A poll released in early July 2019 indicated that 47 percent of Palestinians favor a return to violent intifada.15
Publication of the peace plan announced by President Trump shortly after he took office has been delayed, however, the plan’s economic provisions were revealed at an economic workshop convened by the US in Bahrain (June 25, 2019). The Palestinians boycotted the gathering, which also had no official Israeli representation. The plan presented offers a 50-billion-dollar investment in the Palestinian economy and in the economies of neighboring countries (28 billion in the West Bank and Gaza, the rest in Egypt and Jordan), without specifying the entities that would be making the investment. In light of rumors that the American peace plan ignores the two-state formula, President Sisi and King Abdullah published a joint statement following a meeting in Cairo (July 29 , 2019) declaring that the basis of renewed negotiations must be the two-state paradigm: “The Palestinian state will be based on the June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.”16
Since Operation Protective Edge concluded (August 2014), Hamas has been trying to reestablish its military capabilities in Gaza, including restoration of its attack tunnels, which the IDF has been working to locate and destroy. The organization, which operates under external pressure (from Israel and Egypt), also faces domestic unrest and public criticism due to the tremendous damage wrought in the Gaza Strip by war, rampant poverty, the ongoing blockade, and high unemployment (of Gaza’s 2.1 million residents, 1.3 million receive food packages from aid agencies). According to UN reports, Gaza’s poverty rate is 38 percent. For those under the age of 30, unemployment stands at 60 percent (42 percent of Gazans are under the age of 15). Electricity is available to Gazans for only a few hours a day, water quality is deteriorating, and there is a threat of epidemic disease outbreaks (over 100,000 cubic meters of sewage flow into the Mediterranean daily). There is growing awareness in Israel of the dangers posed by the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza; yet despite this awareness, and despite international and regional acknowledgement of the situation’s gravity and explosive potential, external aid remains limited. There is reluctance to invest in a “war zone” and aversion to the idea of bolstering Hamas through financial donations. Abu Mazen himself is exerting economic pressure on Gaza, as part of his anti-Hamas effort.
Although Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar has said that “with war you achieve nothing,”17 the organization initiated several rounds of violent confrontation with Israel over the past year: rockets (including on Gush Dan), incendiary balloons, and violent demonstrations along the border fence. Hamas, according to Sinwar, is trying to get Israel to meet its ceasefire conditions, so that the Gaza Strip can be rehabilitated. The humanitarian crisis increases the danger that rounds of violence will escalate into all-out military conflict. Nevertheless, we should not discount the possibility that the situation in Gaza will push the Hamas leadership to prioritize a long-term ceasefire with Israel.