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2010 Annual Assessment

Direct Security Threats

These days, in which the present review is being concluded, provide two sharp reminders – in Jerusalem and in Chicago – regarding the direct security threats which stem from the Middle East and which Israel and the Jewish people continue to face. In Jerusalem, Major-General Amos Yadlin, head of the IDF’s Intelligence Branch, upon his retirement, in his final briefing to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee (November 2, 2010), presented an extremely distressing picture of the threats faced by Israel, only a few days after the report that Jewish institutions in Chicago were the destination of intercepted explosive packages which were sent from Yemen by al-Qaeda activists. Major-General Yadlin said that “the recent calm is unprecedented, but it must not mislead us, because the processes of re-armament in the region continue, and in the next confrontation we will be facing more than one front. That confrontation will be much harder with lots of casualties.” The bleak picture described by Yadlin seems to be inconsistent with an atmosphere of relative calm in terms of security and the economic prosperity characterizing Israel in recent times. In the passing year there have been relatively few security events. Israel’s deterrent power seemed effective, vis-ā-vis Hezbollah and Hamas’ hostile activity, and the Palestinian security forces in the PA proved their competence in maintaining security and curbing terrorist activities. The heads of the Israeli security system describe the level of cooperation with Palestinian security apparatus as unprecedented and praise their performance. This achievement is largely attributed to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who is devoted to building the infrastructure of the ‘future state’ and boasts impressive accomplishments in the Palestinian economy (an IMF periodic report indicates high growth rates in the first half of 2010: 9% in the West Bank, 6% in Gaza). Israel is praised for its handling of the economic crisis and Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, was crowned by the financial magazine Euromoney as Governor of the Year (October 2010). On the UN Human Development Index, published in November 2010, Israel went up to the 15th place (from the 27th in 2009). In a recent visit to Israel (December 2010), Vikram Pandit, CEO of Citigroup, summed up his impression of Israeli economy: “When you look at Israel’s 4% growth, 4% deficit, and 6% unemployment, there are few such economies in the world today, and it is truly thanks not only to crisis management, but also to the relationship between the parties. Above all, it is something that touches on the clean way in which everyone works together to create a global competitive advantage and create an economy that is productive, original, and entrepreneurial. It is pleasant to be in such a place in the world where there is such a feeling, a feeling that is not common in the contemporary economic world.” Such positive figures create a background that seems to be diametrically opposed to Yadlin’s warnings about the developments going on underneath the surface, which could soon confront Israel with a dramatically different reality. Tel-Aviv, rated third by the Lonely Planet guidebook’s list of the top ten cities to visit in 2011, could, according to Yadlin’s warning, be the target of a missile attack launched by both Hezbollah and Hamas (not to mention Syria and Iran). In his briefing, Yadlin referred to the entire range of threats: a massive procurement by Hezbollah, Hamas and Syria (who is shopping intensively for advanced weapons from Russia, mainly anti-aircraft systems which would hamper Israel air force’s maneuverability, and lethal ground/sea missiles); and, of course, Iran, which is currently forced to cope with technical faults that hinder the progress of its nuclear program. In this context, world media carried reports about sabotage acts attributed to Israel: a computer worm nicknamed Stuxnet, which wreaked havoc on management and control systems in Iranian plants connected with its nuclear program, along with the asttacks on two senior nuclear scientists in Tehran (November 29, 2010). Despite these delays, according to Yadlin, Iranians have enough enriched uranium stockpiled to build one bomb, and soon they will be able to manufacture two.

Former chief of Israel’s military intelligence: “The processes of re-armament in the region continue, and in the next confrontation we will be facing more than one front”

Indeed, the passing year has continued to exacerbate the threat posed by Tehran. On September 25, 2009, it was revealed that Iran has erected another enrichment facility near the city of Qom and concealed its existence. There are no longer any questions marks surrounding Iran’s intention to obtain nuclear arms or the capability to build them quickly. (Bear in mind that in 2007 the US Intelligence Community report asserted that Iran had discontinued its military nuclear program in 2003.) Thus, already in its first report under its new Japanese Director General, Yukiya Amano, in a sharp departure from the ambiguous language that characterized its predecessor, Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) expressed its explicit fear about the possibility that Iran is carrying out clandestine operations to manufacture nuclear arms (February 19, 2010). The American effort to mount an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran was relatively successful. Washington convinced Russia and China to impose another sanction package (the fourth in a row) on Iran in order to persuade it to stop uranium enrichment and allow effective supervision of its nuclear program (June 9, 2010). These sanctions are designed to prevent Iran from acquiring heavy weapon systems (and indeed Russia announced that it will not supply Iran with the S-300 ground/air missile systems), as well as curtail the activity of financial institutions and specific persons involved in the nuclear program. Washington was even successful in convincing a number of countries (Europe, Australia, Canada, Japan) to impose additional sanctions on Iran.

The American effort to mount an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran was relatively successful

The US thus seems to have gained some ground in applying its declared strategy vis-à-vis Iran: both in terms of consolidating the international coalition to impose sanctions and the impression that these measures are causing real damage to Iranian economy. The Iranians, however, do not seem to have succumbed to the pressure and refuse to take Obama’s extended hand offering dialog. They continue to pursue their nuclear program, preventing effective supervision and increasing subversion in the Middle East. Paradoxically, the exhaustion of the American strategy (concurrently with Iran’s progress towards
obtaining nuclear arms) is bringing closer the moment of decision, should this non-violent strategy come to no avail. Only then would the meaning behind Obama’s repeated commitment, i.e. “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons”, become clear.

In the period ahead Israel will keep facing the dilemma, whether to act militarily and independently against Iran, or to wait for the international effort led by the US to bear fruit. From Israel’s point of view, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons changes entirely the regional strategic picture, because it would create a nuclear threat to Israel, increase Iran’s subversion in the region and drive other countries in the Middle East (headed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey) to acquire nuclear capability. Even assuming that Israel has the capability of significantly hindering the Iranian nuclear project and cause its completion to be delayed, Israel must calculate carefully the possible costs of such an offensive, which include the increased incentive of Iranian leaders to obtain a nuclear bomb at all costs; positioning Israel as a more concrete target for an Iranian nuclear revenge; the reinforcement of the Ayatollahs’ regime, and increased public support of the regime against an attack by an external force; a possible crisis in the relationship with the US should the Israeli move be taken against the US position, thereby putting US soldiers, citizens and interests at risk; an Iranian military reaction against Israel; a terrorist attack against Israeli and Jewish targets; igniting the northern front (marked by calm in the passing year) using Hezbollah, and pushing Hamas to attack southern settlements up to Tel-Aviv with missiles and mortar fire.

An Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear project taken against US position could cause a crisis in the US-Israel relationship

Regional Processes of Change and Realignment that Threaten to Damage Israel’s Strategic Power

The threat posed by Iran and Iran’s striving for regional hegemony have a significant impact on the geopolitical picture of the Middle East. Upon this background the unprecedented weapons deal – worth $60 billion – signed between the US and Saudi Arabia is salient (October 2010). Israel is faced with a complex reality: On the one hand, Saudi Arabia’s armament is designed to curb Iran’s ambitions; on the other, is it safe to rule out the possibility that these weapons may one day be turned against Israel? Along with the potential nuclear threat, the Iranian component has implications for almost any issue relevant to Israel’s strategic environment. Iran supports the Hezbollah and Hamas both militarily and financially. Iran has a strategic alliance with Syria. It seeks to fill the vacuum created by the US imminent withdrawal from Iraq, and threatens the stability of the regimes of moderate Arab countries. The “Israeli Card” serves Tehran’s subversion very effectively (Tehran is vehemently opposed to the Arab peace initiative), and its speakers’ belligerent and anti-Israeli rhetoric is well-received by the Arab street. The abundance of confidential cables exposed by Wikileaks reveals, among other things, how the ‘Arab Street’ works to deter Arab rulers from saying in public what they believe should be done against Tehran (the Saudi king is quoted in leaked reports as urging the US to “cut off the snake’s head” …).

The passing year has accelerated the regional dynamics which is unfavorable to Israel. Although referring to Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and al-Qaeda as a consolidated and coordinated axis may be an exaggeration, one should not ignore the common denominator: severe hostility towards Israel. The radical camp is highly energized and keeps accumulating achievements. The sophisticated terrorist attempt using explosive packages sent from Yemen in cargo airplanes, as well as the series of suicide bombings in Baghdad on the eve of US mid-term elections suggest that global Jihad is far from vanquished, and that when displaced from one base it is quite capable of finding alternative bases. Despite the economic sanctions, Iran has not given any ground yet, and continues to get closer to a situation in which it possesses nuclear weapons and the capability to launch them (alternatively, Iran could stop on the brink, a ‘turn of the screw’ away from this capability, so that it is still able to claim that it does not have a nuclear bomb). Concurrently, Iran is branching out to the entire region, building outposts and alliances from Baghdad to Gaza. Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Lebanon (mid-October 2010) and his declaration there, that “the Zionist entity will disappear”, have demonstrated Tehran’s scope of influence. The power of Iran and Syria weighs against the moderate and pro-Western forces in Lebanon. The ‘pilgrimage’ of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to Damascus (December 19, 2010) and his embrace of the Syrian President, whom he regarded until very recently as responsible for his father’s murder, reflect the victory of anti-Western forces in the Lebanese arena. Lebanon’s fragile stability is expected to face a significant test soon, when the International Court of Justice will point at several Hezbollah operatives as responsible for Hariri’s assassination. Backed by Tehran, Hezbollah leader Nassrallah has declared that he did not recognize the authority of the International Court, would not allow his people to be extradited, and would not have his organization disarmed. Iran’s meddling in various locations in the Middle East, including its efforts to influence the composition of the government in Baghdad, give rise to great concern in Arab capitals as well as in Jerusalem. The stability of the Arab countries may be affected by the leadership changes expected in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whereas the chance of mounting a regional alignment which would include Israel against Iran and the extremist forces, is conditioned, according to observers in the Arab world, on substantial progress in the Israeli-Palestinian process.

Iran is branching out to the entire region, building outposts and alliances from Baghdad to Gaza

The negative regional trends have been augmented last year by the sharp deterioration in the Israel-Turkey relationship. This relationship, which had been jeopardized by Operation Cast Lead (December 27, 2008 – January 18, 2009), took a turn for the worse following the Gaza Flotilla incident (May 31, 2010), in which nine Turkish citizens were killed after the Israeli soldiers who raided the ship encountered extremely violent resistance which endangered their lives and forced them to use live fire. Along with the obvious hostility towards Israel and the revocation of most of the special security accords between the two countries, the Ankara government, led by the Islamic Justice and Development party, is tightening its relationship with Syria and Iran. The new orientation of Turkey’s foreign policy, shaped by Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, is causing alarm in the West as well. Ankara’s attempt, in collaboration with Brazil, to reach a compromise with Tehran regarding the nuclear issue (May 2010), their objection to the sanction in the UN Security Council (June 9, 2010), the reservations raised by Ankara regarding NATO’s decision to deploy an anti-missile system against the Iranian threat (November 2010), and of course its blatant policy towards Israel, are only some of the manifestations that intensify the question marks in the West surrounding Turkey’s long-term intentions.

The negative regional trends have been augmented last year by the sharp deterioration in the Israel-Turkey relationship

One should not be carried away and lump Turkey together with Iran, although it is difficult to assess where Ankara’s voyage back into Islam is going to stop. While Turkey demands an apology and compensation for the Flotilla incident, it does not call for the eradication of Israel (and was also quick to help put out the huge fire in the Carmel forests in early December 2010). Turkey’s President stated in the last UN Assembly (September 2010) that “Turkey has always supported every effort to achieve peace in the Middle East, and Turkey welcomes the talks between Israel and the Palestinians and hopes they will produce an agreement.” Following Israel’s consent, the UN set up (August 2, 2010) an international inquiry team to investigate the Gaza Flotilla events; the resulting conclusions may serve as a basis for stopping the erosion in the relationship. Signs of a potential erosion may be found in leaks from a paper written by the Turkish National Security Council, in which Israel’s policy is defined as conducive to instability in the region and an arms race, thereby creating a strategic threat to Turkish interests (October 31, 2010), as well as in Erdogan’s statement during his Lebanon visit, that “Turkey will not be silent and will stand by Lebanon” in case the latter is attacked by Israel (November 25, 2010).