Along with government pressure to stifle criticism and intimidate civil servants, the dilemma facing the drafters of the National Intelligence Estimate intensifies.
Many of those entrusted with drafting Israel’s National Intelligence Estimate, essentially a periodic national security assessment, wear uniforms and are careful not to be perceived as politically biased. But even the most cautious among them will find it difficult to overlook the pattern that has emerged in the half-year that the current right-wing government has been in power. Its conduct, its ministerial composition, and especially its attempt to lead a constitutional coup have intensified threats across the entire range of strategic challenges facing Israel. The consequences flow from one issue into another and are exacerbating the negative trends chipping away at Israel’s national resilience.
The government has failed when it comes to the strategic issues in its hands, and it has also failed to address issues beyond its purview that it could, nevertheless, mitigate.
The government’s insistence on launching a constitutional revolution without broad national consensus has only deepened the rifts that already existed in Israeli society, and at a time when solidarity in the face of a growing danger of a multi-arena conflagration is urgently important. The reluctance of key reservists to continue to serve voluntarily weakens the IDF and undermines Israeli deterrence.
Israel’s economy is also taking a serious hit. International financial bodies and prominent experts have warned that uncertainty about how the judicial reform will play out puts Israel’s economy at risk. And indeed, investments in Israeli high-tech are on a downward trajectory.
In the United States, the Israeli government’s judicial revolution is seen as a betrayal of the shared values at the heart of the special relationship between the two countries. At the same time, Israel’s recent actions in the West Bank are also viewed as a disavowal of these values, of one cloth with the dangerous logic of the judicial revolution. President Biden and those in his orbit have sharply criticized the judicial reform and the worsening situation in the Palestinian territories. They have called out the expansion of settlements, the normalization of illegal outposts, and the inadequate response to settler violence.
The Biden administration’s diminishing empathy with Israel has led to strategic damage; for example, it is increasingly difficult to maintain American sympathy on the Iranian nuclear issue. Perhaps the most striking indication of strain in the relationship is the humiliating delay in inviting Netanyahu to the White House. No wonder Israel’s enemies interpret these developments as an indication of its weakness.
This current government rejects the two-state formula but does not offer any alternative solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The transfer of the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the West Bank, into the hands of Bezalel Smotrich and placing the Border Police under Itamar Ben-Gvir’s control signal a deepening of the annexation process. Israel risks sliding into a bi-national reality, which would undermine the state’s Jewish character, and the government has yet to address this danger. Terrorist attacks are on the rise, Hamas is growing stronger, and the likelihood of slipping into violent chaos is increasing. The Palestinian Authority is in perpetual internal crisis and the lack of any political horizon just makes the situation worse. Unsurprisingly, cooperation between the Palestinian security forces and Israel is diminishing.
Iran, which funnels considerable resources to Palestinian terrorist groups, is managing to maneuver its way into greater regional stature with deepening ties to Russia and China. The fact that it is now a nuclear threshold state reveals the failure of the strategies employed to date by Israel and the United States, not least among them President Trump’s withdrawal, with Netanyahu’s encouragement, from the JCPOA.
Contrary to Israel’s hopes, Washington prefers a policy of containment over a policy of military prevention. With no slowing of its build-up of its regional infrastructure against Israel, Tehran has managed to thaw its relations with Arab countries. They seem to have come to terms with Iran’s nuclearization and are careful not to expose themselves to the painful retribution that may come if they are perceived to be partners in any Israeli military move. This trend reveals the limitations of the regional axis against Iran the US has worked to establish.
The regional détente, which culminated in the China-mediated reconciliation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, reflects a deepening of China’s diplomatic involvement in the Middle East. Israel’s dependence on the United States is absolute, and therefore, unlike the Arab countries, it has no room for diplomatic maneuvering between the superpowers. Consequently, Netanyahu’s announced intention to visit China does not constitute a lever of influence in Israel’s relations with the US administration; it just adds fuel to the growing tensions.
Diminished US involvement in the Middle East hardly serves Israel’s security interests – rather, it weakens Israeli deterrence. In this context, the Syrian case can be added to the strategic misfires of Israel and the US. Bashar Assad’s readmittance into the Arab League was a victory for those helping his regime survive: Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah.
One strategic bright spot for Israel is a potential breakthrough in its relations with Saudi Arabia. Even assuming that the US will agree to the conditions set by Crown Prince Bin Salman, it remains an open question whether the intransigence of Israel’s right-wing government (even rhetorically) on the Palestinian issue may very well sabotage the achievement of a historic peace agreement with the Saudis.
Furthermore, Morocco canceled the second Negev Summit – a gathering of diplomats from Israel, the US, and several Arab states that had been scheduled to take place this month – in response to Israeli military operations in the West Bank. This shows that the claim that the fate of the Palestinians is no longer relevant to the decisions of Arab leaders is exaggerated. Just as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has caused relations with Arab countries to collapse in the past, this may also be the case in the future.
The first six months of this far-right government’s term was of no benefit to the strategic triangular relationship: Jerusalem – Washington – American Jewry. To keep this unique and valuable asset, the Israeli government must maintain bipartisan American support and American Jewry’s attachment to Israel. In recent months, significant disagreements have been revealed in the Jerusalem-Washington axis (judicial reform, the handling of the Iranian threat, the Palestinian complex, and Israel’s reluctance to step up military aid to Ukraine). The Israeli government’s policies on these issues, (and on questions concerning religion and state relations, the status of the non-Orthodox Jewish streams, individual rights, etc.) reinforce trends of alienation and distancing among American Jews and may make it difficult to enlist their help in trying times.
The last few months have shown that the right-wing government is leading Israel toward strategic decay. The damage is evident in all the elements of the foundation of Israel’s national strength. Along with government pressure to stifle criticism and intimidate civil servants, the dilemma facing the drafters of the National Intelligence Estimate intensifies. Will they fail to ring the alarm bells, or will they find the courage to assert in no uncertain terms that this right-wing government threatens Israel’s national security?
First published by ‘The Times of Israel’.