Israel cannot expect near-term change in its violent and unstable neighborhood. Sixty percent of the region’s residents are 25 or younger, among them 30 percent are unemployed. Regional economies are dithering, central rule is failing, and the state system is weakening, at times collapsing. Tribal and kinship ties are proving stronger than civic loyalty to the state. The initial hope the Arab Spring inspired has given way to bitter disappointment. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is the only one of these countries that has managed to remain democratic.
The Middle East turmoil spins a vacuum that allows non-state actors or radical sub state actors, armed and violent – local militias, terror organizations and radical Islamist ideologues to flourish. They, who at times ally with one another, erode the power of the central state. They destroy economies and infrastructure and attempt to render certain international borders irrelevant. Civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and the deadly terror from ISIS, have uprooted millions. Three million have found shelter in Turkey, 1.2 million in Jordan, and a million in Lebanon (a quarter of its population). Despite setbacks in recent months, ISIS remains in control of considerable territories in Iraq and Syria. This adds to the collapse of the nation-state system in the region and deepens the trend of “failed states,” whose control over their own sovereign territory is nominal at best (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen).
However, although the Middle East is turbulent and violent, Israel does not face any conventional military threat, as it has in the past. At the same time, Arab states are investing massive sums in advanced weapons platforms, and in a way that could potentially threaten Israel’s QME one day. Weaponry acquired by Arab states to offset the threat of Iran could be used against Israel in the future, given a change in regime or policy. The threat to Israel’s security today stems primarily from terror organizations working out of unclearly defined territories (Hamas) or from failed states (Lebanon, Syria). These groups largely employ an asymmetric combat strategy and operate out of densely populated areas. The IDF is thus forced to contend with a reality in which building deterrence over time is more difficult than when the foe is a conventional and functioning nationstate. Therefore, Israel must prepare for threats stemming from the 1400-year-old Sunni-Shia conflict, as well as those from cyber warfare and future technologies.
The nuclear agreement (July 14, 2015) pushed back the point at which Iran becomes a nuclear power. However, at the same time, it granted legitimacy to Iran as a threshold power and allowed it to keep its nuclear enrichment capacity and infrastructure. And, after 15 years, Iran will be allowed to reduce its military nuclear “breakout time” to a period of weeks or even days. The agreement went into effect after the IAEA6 confirmed that Iran had fulfilled its commitments according to the agreement (January 16, 2016). Following this, UN sanctions were lifted and roughly 100 billion dollars of frozen funds became available, and Iran was once again allowed to sell crude oil on the international market.
Iran continues to strive for greater regional influence. It supports Assad directly with its combat forces fighting in Syria and through its support of Hezbollah and Shia militias from around the region. Iran assists the Houthi rebels in Yemen. It continues to develop an array of ballistic missiles and conducts missile tests, in defiance, or at least against the spirit, of resolution UNSC 2231. at least the spirit of the resolution. The nuclear agreement allows Iran to stream greater amounts of cash to its military. It signed a giant arms deal worth 8 billion dollars with Russia, and is starting to deploy the new S-300 Surface to Air Missile system. Tehran is even in the closing stages of a deal with Boeing to acquire 80 passenger planes worth 17.6 billion dollars. Congressional opponents of this deal argue that these planes can be transformed or used as is for military purposes, and that in light of Iran’s hostile behavior, there should be no aiding Iran beyond the narrow terms of the nuclear agreement.
Iran’s leaders boast of their dominance in four Arab capitals: Beirut; Sanaa; Damascus; and Baghdad. It seems that Iran assumes the United States is not interested in risking the nuclear agreement over unrelated issues. In various segments within the American administration, a worldview exists that seeks to deepen the relationship with Iran and not impede its reintegration in the international system. This approach assumes that moderate elements in Iran will be reinforced over time. To this end, the U.S. tends to lower the barriers preventing Iran’s banking system from reentering the international financial system, despite that in reality Iranian banks are used for money laundering, act as a funnel for terror financing, and do not measure up to international transparency standards and regulations. Obama’s criticism of Saudi Arabia and its traditional Arab Gulf allies, hints at an approach that seeks a new regional balance of power that grants greater legitimacy to Iran’s aspirations. Iran insists that it has the right to conduct missile testing as it pleases; one of these missiles was festooned with a banner that read: “Israel must be wiped off the Earth.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu described the nuclear agreement as a “mistake of historic proportions,” and the Defense Ministry under Avigdor Lieberman compared the agreement to the “Munich Accords… which did not prevent World War II and the Holocaust.” 7 In diametrical opposition to those characterizations, IDF Chief of Staff Eizenkot said the agreement signaled a strategic shift in what had been the main threat to the IDF over the past decade. According to Eizenkot, this was a “significant shift to the vector on which Iran was travelling – it has many risks but also opportunities.”8
Backers of the agreement in the United States claim that it prevented a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, as Iran’s regional enemies have concluded that it pushes back the danger of Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.9 Will the time-out the deal creates, 10-15 years, be enough to alter the Iranian regime? What will the future of the conflict between radicals and moderates in Iran be? Over 60 percent of Iran’s population is 30 or younger. The revolutionary ideology is not as attractive to many of them. The results of the recent parliamentary elections indicated the weight and possible influence of less radical elements in Iran.
The nuclear agreement did not, however, bring a halt to Iran’s regional subversion. It may have even boosted Iran’s self-confidence. Iran can check off a list of victories in this regard: its Syrian ally Assad manages to maintain his position; its influence in Iraq has grown; and Saudi Arabia cannot achieve a decisive victory against Iranian backed Shia Houthi Militias in Yemen.
The IDF assesses that Iran will not decrease its efforts to deepen its influence in the region. Rather, it will continue to operate through proxy terror groups and militias. In this vein, Iran has its officers in Syria commanding battles, and it continues to fund terror groups, transfer advanced arms to Hezbollah, and attempts to smuggle arms into Gaza.
The IDF assesses that while Iran will not abandon its strategic goal of achieving a nuclear weapon in the future, for the next five years it will fulfill the terms of the agreement in order to reap its benefits. Alongside easing the threat from a nuclear Iran, the deal between Russia and the United States on dismantling Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal (2013) pushed another serious threat away from Israel. (However, it is becoming clear that Assad has retained part of the arsenal he committed to dismantle and hand over. He has been attacking civilian targets with chlorine gas. In addition, there are reports that chemical weapons have made it into the hands of terror elements, and of the methodical attempts by ISIS to obtain such weapons.)
The war in Syria rages on and the number of casualties nears half a million. Four million have fled the country while another 7 million are internally displaced. Life expectancy in Syria plummeted from an average of 70 to 56 years. With the help of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Assad’s standing has been restored, and the United States and the West seem to have shifted their tone toward him. Given the anarchy expected in his absence, Assad is now being described more and more as a part of the solution – the least bad option available. The Geneva talks led to a partial cease fire (February 12, 2016), which excluded those militias defined as terror groups – ISIS and Jabhat al Nusra (which has since disassociated from Al-Qaeda and changed its name). The cease-fire was to precede UN-led negotiations on Syria’s future. However, the number of parties involved in Syria and the conflicts of interest between them make achieving a stable solution quite difficult. This reality threatens to cut short the ceasefire agreement announced recently (September 9, 2016) by Secretary of State Kerry following a series of discussions with his Russian counterpart.
There are hundreds of factions fighting in Syria, divided by area, tribe, ethnicity, ideology, and religion. Additionally, regional forces (Saudi, Turkish, Iranian, and Hezbollah) and foreign powers (Russia, the U.S.) are enmeshed in the combat.
Following the downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai Desert (October 31, 2015), Putin announced (November 17, 2015) that he was joining the fight against ISIS, and dispatched a warship off the Syrian coast. Russia’s involvement did much to tip the scales of war against the rebels, who became a favorite target of Russian bombers. President Putin, however, surprised everyone when he announced (March 14, 2016) that his military forces had completed their mission and were returning home. In reality, however, Russian planes continue bombing rebel forces, and Russia continues to maintain a naval base in Tartus and an air base in Latakia. Despite warnings that Putin would “sink in the Syrian mud,” the Russian president has succeeded in achieving his main goal of restoring Assad’s power and positioning Russia as a force that cannot be ignored in the Middle East – at least for now. Engineered as a deliberate countering of the image of the U.S. in the region, Russia has presented itself as not shying away from the use of force and as an unwaveringly loyal ally. A bold expression of Moscow’s involvement in the region can be seen in Tehran’s granting permission to Russian planes to take off from Iranian air bases (August 16, 2016) to strike targets in Syria.
Given Russia’s aerial activity in Syria, Jerusalem carefully maintains close coordination and communication with Moscow. Following his visit to Moscow (September 21, 2015), Netanyahu disclosed that he and President Putin had agreed on a coordination mechanism to prevent confrontations between the IDF and Russian forces in Syria. Following an additional meeting with Putin in Moscow (April 21, 2016), Netanyahu explained: “First, we are working to the best of our ability to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Second, we are working to prevent the establishment of an additional terror front against us in the Golan Heights. These are red lines and we will continue to maintain them … I came here with one main goal – to strengthen the security coordination between us so as to avoid mishaps, misunderstandings, and unnecessary confrontations.”10 And so, Israel is interested in Russian assistance to prevent Iranian and Hezbollah operatives from approaching its border.
Israel does not hide the fact that it conducts military strikes in Syria. According to Netanyahu, Israel is “acting in Syria from time to time, we are working to prevent the transformation of Syria into another front against us.”11 Israel is not interested in a strategic outcome that strengthens the Iranian coalition in Syria. But aside from the red lines outlined by Netanyahu, Israel is unable to impact the outcome. The working assumption in Israel is that instability in Syria will continue for years to come, and it needs to prepare for situations in which one of the militias in Syria develops a taste for firing on Israel – either the Sunni jihadist groups (situated in the Syrian Golan heights but who for the time being hold their fire against Israel), or Shia groups working in Iran’s employ, and are trying to develop a front in Southern Syria that could one day be used against Israel.
In recent months, ISIS’ momentum has been stalled. The organization has lost a quarter of the vast territory it captured in Iraq and Syria, especially key cities like Ramadi, Tikrit, Palmyra (Tadmor) and Faluja. These defeats could undermine its aura of invincibility and the allure that attracts young Muslims from around the world. The expected fall of Mosul and Raqqa would reinforce this trend. Perhaps the terror attacks outside of the Middle East are intended to compensate for these failures, and testify to the growing threat of the organization’s activities around the world.
ISIS spokesmen have even started threatening Israel. A first Hebrew-language video was released on October 25, 2015, and promised that: “Soon there will not remain even a single Jew in Jerusalem or in any part of the country, and we will continue until we eradicate this disease worldwide.” 12 The jihadist threat to Israel could develop on a number of fronts. For example, Liwa Shuhada al Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) with 600-1000 fighters, which declared allegiance to ISIS, is mainly situated on the border between Israel, Syria, and Jordan, but has branches in Sinai and even in Gaza. Terror groups in Sinai primarily target the Egyptian military, but attacks on Israel have also been made and more may be carried out in the future.
Washington defines ISIS as a central threat, and has even considered possible worst case scenarios in which it might deploy a dirty bomb that combines radioactive material with conventional explosives. American bombers are attacking from the air while providing intelligence to a coalition of ground forces (which creates a reality of indirect cooperation between the U.S. and Iran, who views the murderous Sunni group as a mortal enemy and is thus assisting the Iraqi regime in its fight against it).
Advances in the fight against ISIS do not ensure its quick demise, and have certainly not chipped away the social and ideological foundation from which it sprang. As long as Iraq and Syria lack effective central governments, ISIS will survive. And even if it loses its territorial base of operations in Syria and Iraq, it will continue to pose a significant practical and ideological threat.
The IDF considers Hezbollah the most serious military threat Israel faces. Hezbollah is controlled by Iran, which grants it a yearly budget of one billion dollars. The lifting of sanctions earlier this year may allow Iran to increase this amount. But Hezbollah’s support for Assad undermines its standing in the Arab world, and specifically in Lebanon. The GCC has declared Hezbollah a terror organization (March 2, 2016). At least 5000 Hezbollah troops are fighting alongside Assad’s forces in Syria, and it is assessed to have suffered at least 1500 killed in action losses with another 5000 injured, significant numbers considering the entire organization has about 30,000 active combat troops (and another 25,000 reservists).
The Sunni Arab world views Hezbollah’s standing behind the despised Assad as a betrayal. This has damaged the image Hezbollah has tried to cultivate over the years – that it safeguards the interests of all Lebanon’s citizens against Israel. Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria has turned Lebanon into a theater of the Syrian Civil War, and has undermined domestic stability there.
Although Hezbollah is suffering significant losses in Syria, it is gaining considerable combat experience in a complex war. In Israel’s next conflict with Hezbollah, the IDF will face a foe whose conduct and capabilities increasingly resemble that of a conventional military. Hezbollah, however, has been deterred from opening a front against Israel since the Second Lebanon War. The organization avoids responding to attacks attributed to Israel against strategic arms transfers from Syria, and on advanced Iranian missile arsenals stored in Damascus. However, Hezbollah’s continued attempts to arm itself with advanced weapons from Iran and Syria, and Israel’s insistent interception of them, could lead to an escalation – revenge attacks against Israeli or Jewish targets abroad or full out war. Moreover, Hezbollah could, under certain circumstances, conclude that only a violent conflict with Israel can help it regain the support it lost in Lebanon and in the Arab world.
Hezbollah is positioned in 240 Shia villages in Lebanon. It has an arsenal of over 100,000 rockets, some capable of reaching deep into Israel with greater accuracy than those used by Hamas in Operation Protective Edge. Nasrallah even threatened (February 16, 2016) that in the next conflict, his forces will cause damage to Israel on the level of a nuclear strike by launching missiles at the chemical production facilities in Haifa Bay. Israel is also preparing for the possibility that Hezbollah may try to infiltrate into Israeli territory, attempt to capture territory close to the border, and target critical infrastructure or the maritime gas installations. However, most intelligence assessments believe Hezbollah will not be interested in opening another front against Israel in the near future. Still, one cannot ignore the possibility of an unintended escalation or a deterioration that could lead to a war that would be more difficult for the Israeli home front than previous wars.
Since the end of Operation Protective Edge (August 26, 2014), Hamas has worked to rebuild its capabilities, especially its rockets, re-dig attack tunnels into Israeli territory, train special forces to infiltrate Israel. It is manufacturing arms locally: rockets, mortars, and drones. Hamas is generally working to maintain quiet along the border between Israel and Gaza, but at the same time is encouraging West Bank terror. Occasional rockets fired from Gaza since Protective Edge have come mainly from rogue jihadist groups, not Hamas. While 2015 saw quiet with no Israelis injured, the danger of escalation hovers constantly in the air. Some believe that new technology developed by the IDF to uncover and destroy attack tunnels prompted Hamas to fire mortars into Israel in early May 2016. The IDF returned fire and Prime Minster Netanyahu confirmed the technological breakthrough: “We are creating a form of defense and a capability to neutralize tunnels that does not exist anywhere in the world.” 13
Egypt is hostile to Hamas, and considers it a branch of the detested Muslim Brotherhood. Cairo blames Hamas for cooperating with Sinai terror groups responsible for the assassinations of Egyptian officials, such as its attorney general in June 2015. The Egyptians have created a buffer zone on the Egyptian side of its border with Gaza, and have flooded the Hamas smuggling tunnels with sea water. Talks with a Hamas delegation in Cairo (mid-March 2016) led to an attempt to reset Egypt-Hamas relations, without much success. The Egyptians are treating Hamas harshly, taking advantage of its weakness – demanding it sever ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and turn over the terror elements in Sinai it is suspected of aiding.
Hamas is operating under external pressures (Israel and Egypt) and is generating domestic unrest and public criticism due to continued poverty and high unemployment (43 percent), and the widespread destruction left from Protective Edge in 2014. Gazans have electricity only a few hours a day and the quality of their water is worsening, while Hamas hands out jobs and housing to cronies and relatives, and siphons off some of the international humanitarian aid for its own purposes – providing fertile ground for more extreme jihadi groups to rise. Hamas is interested in lifting the siege. It was disappointed that that the agreement between Jerusalem and Ankara to renew relations did not stipulate the provision of a new Gaza port and the lifting of the siege. The Gazan “pressure cooker” could explode into another conflict in the future if a reconstruction effort there is viewed as plodding and ineffectual.
Given the real disappointment with U.S conduct in the region, significant changes in Saudi Arabia’s behavior have been detectable since the crowning of King Salman (January 23, 2015). The man behind these changes is Muhammad bin Salman, the 30-year-old prince, who is simultaneously acting as defense minister and chairman of the Council for Economic Development, and is second in line to the throne. Saudi Arabia is becoming more assertive in its foreign policy and even launched (April 25, 2016) a long term plan, “Saudi Vision 2030,” meant to diversify the economy and diminish its dependence on oil revenues.
Saudi Arabia is determined to block Iran’s path to regional hegemony. Its lesson from the nuclear agreement with Iran is that it cannot count on the U.S. to block Iran’s expansionism. President Obama seems to question the U.S. friendship with the kingdom, calling it “complicated”14 and expressing concern over the regime’s character and its dependence on the U.S. military. Riyadh, in turn, is wary of Obama and his advice to get used to a reality in which Iran has a legitimate sphere of influence in the region. Iranian maneuvering to deepen its regional influence – with militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon – is seen by Riyadh as an existential threat it is determined to confront. The Saudi air force is conducting strikes in Yemen, and Saudi funding is backing fighters taking on Iran’s allies in Syria. Inspired by Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is averse to taking resolute action, for example, it cancelled the promised 3-billion-dollar aid package to Lebanon’s security forces citing the connection between the Lebanese army and Iranian backed Hezbollah.
In parallel, Saudi Arabia is assisting its ally Egypt with its economic challenges, granting it 22 billion dollars in aid money. In return, Egypt ceded sovereignty over the Red Sea islands Sanafir and Tiran to the Saudis (April 2016). Tellingly, this deal was conducted without Israeli opposition; Saudi Arabia supposedly accepted the military annex to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty as it relates to these two islands. This expresses the depth of relations and close security cooperation between Egypt and Israel, but also indicates a convergence of interests between Jerusalem and Riyadh, and the potential for a deepening relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This potential deepening was also evident in the unusual visit to Israel by Anwar Ashki, a former general in the Saudi military. He headed a delegation of academics and businessmen (July 2016) and did not hesitate to meet with senior Israeli officials and Knesset members as an advocate of the Arab Peace Initiative.15 The joint appearances of Prince Turki al Faisal (former head of Saudi intelligence) with retired senior Israeli officials was yet another indication of warming Israel-Saudi relations.
Egypt continues to face difficult security and economic challenges. The threat from terror and from an emboldened Iran create a foundation for greater cooperation with Israel. The Sinai branch of ISIS, with its 600 to 1000 fighters, has yet to be defeated by the Egyptian military. Egypt’s hostility toward Hamas continues, and President al-Sisi does not hesitate to level built-up areas in order to create and maintain a security buffer zone on the Gaza-Egypt border, while also conducting a determined campaign to wipe out smuggling tunnels. The United States cancelled its freeze on arms sales to Egypt (April 2015), superseding democracy and human rights concerns with greater strategic considerations to help Egypt maintain stability, prevent alternative deals with Moscow, secure free passage through the Suez Canal, and preserve the peace treaty with Israel. However, U.S. voices calling for a chill in relations with Cairo are growing in response to increased domestic human rights violations.
President al-Sisi was resigned to passively watch the protests and domestic criticism over ceding Egyptian sovereignty over Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia, (April 2016). This move, seen by many Egyptians as humiliating, was made to shore up the faltering Egyptian economy, which is not showing real signs of improvement. Given the current birth rate, Egypt’s population is expected to double by 2050 and will stand at around 180 million people. Half of Egypt’s population lives on less than 2 dollars per day.
The security cooperation between Egypt and Israel is broad and expresses shared interests and a similar reading of the region. The two countries similarly view terror and extremist jihadi groups as a threat, and see the need to unequivocally halt Iran’s subversive behavior and its attempts to gain regional hegemony. The two are also concerned by the weakness the United States is projecting in the region. The international press has reported on Israel’s intelligence assistance to Egypt as well as its toleration of peace treaty violations, so Egypt can deploy more effective weapons platforms in the fight against terror elements in Sinai.
President al-Sisi’s speech (May 17, 2016), although it was fused into Israeli coalition-building politics, showed the solidity of Israel-Egypt relationship and the potential for its deepening, including in the realm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The improved relationship was also highlighted when Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Jerusalem (July 10, 2016) – the first such visit in more than nine years. Responding to claims that the Egyptian-Israeli peace is a “cold peace,” the Egyptian president promised that the peace would warm up if the Palestinian problem is solved, and expressed Egypt’s willingness to contribute to the security arrangements stipulated in an agreement. According to al-Sisi, “If we can all join forces in order to solve the Palestinian issue by creating hope for the Palestinians and assuring security for the Israelis, we will be able to write a new chapter that may prove to be more important than the peace accords between Israel and Egypt.”16 As a caveat to its willingness to be of assistance, Egypt has made it clear that no one should expect it to enter “blindly” into a political process where a positive outcome is doubtful.
Jordan was forced to absorb 1.2 million Syrian refugees, 13 percent of its population. This situation is draining Jordan’s already fragile economy and adding a source of instability. The Syrian refugees are in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees already in Jordan, costing the kingdom 20 percent of its budget. The regime must prepare for the possibility of an ISIS attack and spill overs of the fighting in Syria into its territory.
The foreign press has reported on the strong security cooperation between Israel and Jordan. Israel is helping Jordan deal with its severe lack of water resources. In addition to the 50 million cubic meters Israel transfers to Jordan each year as part of the peace agreement, Israel allocated another 50 million cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee. In return, Jordan will transfer to Israel an equivalent amount of water from the desalination plant under construction north of Aqaba. The two countries are also cooperating in planning a pipeline project to transfer water from the Gulf of Aqaba to the rapidly depleting Dead Sea. An agreement was recently signed to provide Jordan with $10 billion of Israeli natural gas over 15 years.
The failed coup attempt (July 16, 2016) allowed President Erdogan to consolidate his control over the regime and oust political opponents. It is not yet clear if the shock Turkey underwent and the way in which Erdogan responded will seriously influence Ankara’s foreign policy. Turkey’s foreign relations are replete with conflicts and challenges: the aspiration to see Assad disappear; relations with Russia that were seriously strained after the downing of a Russian fighter jet (November 24, 2015), for which Erdogan apologized and offered financial compensation; and Egypt, which harbors hostility toward Ankara as a result of its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Turkey’s fear that a Kurdish polity is forming in northern Syria is leading Turkey to invade Syrian territory (August 24, 2016).
Turkey is discovering that improving relations with Israel has strategic benefits – from cooperating against terror to being included in Israel’s gas fields projects (it would reduce its reliance on Russian energy). President Erdogan even explained to journalists why it’s useful to normalize relations with Israel: “This normalization process has a lot to offer to us, to Israel, to Palestine, and also to the region. The region needs this.” (December 14, 2015).17 The reconciliation agreement between Ankara and Jerusalem (signed on June 28, 2016) is supposed to put an end to the crisis, and allow Israel to export gas to Turkey and through its territory to Europe. The deal with Turkey also lifts the Turkish veto of Israeli participation in NATO exercises.
However, on the Israeli side, there are no illusions that previous, pre-crisis levels of security and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Turkey will return quickly, if ever. Based on the loss of this cooperation with Ankara, and the need to secure the maritime gas fields and prepare to export the gas, Israel has in recent years worked to strengthen its ties with Greece and Cyprus, and rushed to assure their leaders that the agreement with Ankara would not affect their relations with Jerusalem.
The Palestinian “Lone Wolf” Intifada
The violent events that erupted in Jerusalem in October 2015 and quickly spread to Judea and Samaria and across Israel, have yet to fully subside. Israel is forced to face a relatively new phenomenon in which spontaneous acts of violence occur with no prior warning. The attackers do not identify or belong to organized terror groups, which makes the intelligence challenge to prevent these attacks especially difficult.
The frozen diplomatic process is not the sole culprit behind this wave of violence. Among Palestinian youth, there is a deep frustration with the emerging social reality, the corruption, and the barely functioning Palestinian leadership. As of September 2016, these attacks have taken 40 Israeli lives. According to the IDF chief of staff (January 18, 2016), of the roughly 200 terrorist attacks, 100 had no prior intelligence or warning.18 The military chiefs are urging Israelis that terrorists be differentiated from the rest of the Palestinian population, which should be allowed a normal life routine, including the continued employment of about 120,000 Palestinians in Israel and Israeli industrial parks in the West Bank. The military is opposed to collective punishment and is interested in maintaining security cooperation and coordination with the Palestinian Security Forces.
The incident in Hebron in which an Israeli soldier shot and killed a wounded terrorist who was on the ground (after he had attacked another soldier) sparked a serious debate and exposed deep cracks in the Israeli consensus, which widely supports the military, on the use of force. The appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister was met with high tensions among IDF heads given his past militant comments, especially his characterization of the way the IDF handles the war on terror as “failed manner,” and his protest appearance alongside the accused soldier in military court.
The Palestinian Arena
The Palestinian public in the West Bank is disappointed by the conduct of the Palestinian Authority and is doubtful as to its ability to bring about significant change and end the Israeli occupation. This atmosphere of frustration – especially among young Palestinians – helped prompt the outbreak of the “Lone Wolf” Intifada.
Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Maj. General Herzi Halevi, briefing a cabinet meeting,19 explained that the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is having difficulty influencing these young Palestinians “as they feel deeply alienated from them.” The functioning of the Palestinian system is affected by the expected change of leadership, given Abu Mazen’s advanced age (81). If the next president is not chosen through general elections, his leadership could be seen as lacking public legitimacy, his authority hobbled from the start. The consensus scenario points to a decision making process conducted in the senior institutions of the Fatah party with the expected involvement of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It is not yet clear if Mohammad Dahlan, currently exiled by Fatah, will move to capture the leadership seat. It may be that his path to future Palestinian leadership could be paved under pressure from Cairo. Israel must prepare for the possibility of a chaotic period that could negatively affect the day-to-day functioning of the Palestinian Authority, the effectiveness of the Palestinian Security Forces and the quality of cooperation with Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel is not interested in the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, but it needs to prepare for such a possibility. 20
The frozen diplomatic process and lack of American leadership have left the Israeli-Palestinian conflict open to international initiatives. France continues to advance its plan for an international conference in Paris meant to revive the peace process. As a first step, France convened a meeting of foreign ministers from interested countries without Israeli or Palestinian participation. Despite misgivings, U.S. secretary of State Kerry partook in the meeting (June 3, 2016). The French initiative won the support of the Palestinians, who acquiesced to the French request that it suspended a planned move in the UN Security Council, which sought to denounce continued settlement building and demand its cessation.21 Israel expressed opposition to the French effort. The Prime Minister’s Office explained (April 28, 2016) that “Israel is committed to its position that the best way to solve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is direct bi-lateral negotiations… Israel is prepared to start direct negotiations with the Palestinians immediately and with no preconditions. Any other diplomatic initiative pushes the Palestinians away from the table and from direct negotiations.” To Israel’s displeasure, the foreign ministers announced their intent to organize an international peace conference by the end of 2016.
The international impatience with the frozen peace process was expressed in the latest report of the Quartet (July 1, 2016), which warns of losing the chance to achieve a two-state solution as a result of the frozen peace process, continued settlement construction, and Israel’s annexation of Area C. The Quartet members (the United States, Russia, the EU, and the UN) demanded, in parallel, an end to Palestinian incitement.
Israel is cautious that the French move could pave the wave for a UNSC resolution that would determine the principles of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Many commentators have suggested that President Obama may refrain from invoking the U.S. veto of such a Security Council move, and might even support it, if it is raised after the upcoming presidential elections. At this time, President Obama is cautious of harming Clinton’s chances of election. “The window of opportunity,” according to this logic, will open up for Obama between the elections (November 8, 2016) and the swearing in of his successor (January 20, 2017). The president’s advisors are divided between those pushing for a UNSC move, and those recommending instead a speech that would spell out the president’s positions with respect to the principles of a permanent agreement.
The final decision will be left, of course, to President Obama, but may be influenced by the diplomatic freeze between Israel and the Palestinians. A significant diplomatic process would, however, decrease the likelihood of UN action. And so, the lack of a diplomatic process and direct negotiations between the sides motivates the international community to take steps and make comments uncomfortable for Israel. Thus, the EU adopted guidelines to label products from the settlements in EU based retail stores (November 11, 2015). This is happening despite growing doubts around the world about the willingness and credibility of the Palestinian Authority, and despite that the Palestinian issue has been pushed off the agenda of many relevant parties in the region and around the world.
The issue that draws the greatest level of criticism toward Israel is settlement construction. Secretary Kerry claims that “continuing settlement growth raises honest questions about Israel’s long-term intentions.”22 UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called on Israel to refrain from settlement construction and added that “human nature” will resist occupation, and that continued construction in settlements is “offensive to the Palestinian people and international community,” and raises questions about the “Israeli commitment to a two-state solution.”23 Then British Prime Minister David Cameron said that “settlement construction in East Jerusalem is appalling,” (February 24, 2016). The German weekly “Der Spiegel,” in an article entitled “Skepticism of German-Israeli Friendship Growing in Berlin,” wrote that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seriously concerned by Israel’s settlement policy, which is making a two-state solution impossible, and that Merkel and her foreign minister are certain that any solution other than a two-state solution will turn Israel into an “apartheid state.”
Even U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro didn’t mince words when raising the issue: “We are concerned and perplexed by Israel’s strategy on settlements. This government and previous Israeli governments have repeatedly expressed their support for a negotiated two-state solution — a solution that would involve both mutual recognition and separation. Yet separation will become more and more difficult if Israel plans to continue to expand the footprint of settlements… the question we ask is a simple one: what is Israel’s strategy?” Israel is aware that there is an international atmosphere of frustration regarding the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process. There is worry about an escalation, and a desire to set a political horizon in the form of parameters to a peace agreement. In opposition to this, Israel is placing its hope in a “regional initiative” to be led by Egypt. The convergence of interests between Israel and the Arab world has never been higher, which may open a diplomatic space for finding a solution to the Palestinian issue. The chances of such an initiative are dependent upon, of course, Israel’s willingness to make significant political compromises (freezing settlement construction outside the blocs, etc.).