War is coming; will Israel prevent it?
Israelis woke up with a jolt on Saturday to discover that the threat on their northern front was more imminent and more confusing than they imagined. All eyes are currently focused on keeping the lid on what has become a situation so explosive that it could easily ignite into a multi-party conflagration which nobody wants but everyone now fears. The present crisis, however, should not divert attention from equally volatile circumstances along the border with Gaza and a rising wave of overt despair on the West Bank following the American recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These events are closely interconnected; it does no good to concentrate only on the most immediate at the expense of creatively contending with the entirety of the shifting geostrategic landscape.
Israel has been tardy in adjusting to the emerging reality in the region since the territorial defeat of ISIS several months ago. The government — unlike the IDF and major think tanks such as INSS — has done little to reassess its analysis and update its strategy in light of what is developing into nothing short of a rearrangement of the regional order. It has left itself with few alternatives other than reliance on its military might. The intrusion of the Iranian drone on Saturday, the downing of an Israeli F-16 and the bombing of sophisticated installations in Syria should serve as a clarion call for a broader, more balanced, strategic reexamination.
Until last year, Israel was content to observe the Syrian civil war, which commenced in March, 2011, from the sidelines, benefiting from the relative quiet it offered during this period of massive destabilization. Only when it became clear that the war was winding down did it begin to stake out its position — concentrating primarily on the demand to constrain the Iranian presence and influence both in Syria and Lebanon and making it abundantly clear that it would actively defend its interests down the road. It could not but note the emergence of Russia as the key power in the area (Netanyahu opened a direct and frequently utilized line of communication with Putin almost immediately), but it has yet to come to terms with the significantly reduced influence of (its now almost sole strategic ally) the United States in the region or, for that matter, with the ascendance of Turkey and Iran as key regional powers at the expense of a Sunni southern belt extending from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to the Persian Gulf.
The assumptions that served Israel well during the upheavals associated with the “Arab Spring” have been reopened, following the ceasefire agreement reached between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump scarcely seven months ago. The main strategic challenges facing Israel today are far closer to home. The time span involved has been severely condensed. The precise admixture of conventional and non-conventional threats is changing visibly — with weight now reverting once again to the former. Nevertheless, a new security vision has yet to be formulated, one which would ensure not only Israel’s security but also its long-term place as an integral part of the Middle East. The contours of an updated, complex, strategy are still glaringly absent.
Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that the Netanyahu government has fallen back on piecemeal, mostly military, solutions to complicated problems. It has stepped up the number of aerial forays into Lebanon and Syria (reaching hundreds in the last several months). It has lobbied widely to reopen the Iran nuclear agreement (to no avail to date). It has cautioned against the dispersal of more sophisticated weaponry into the hands of Hezbollah and Hamas. It has redirected funds to enlarge defense acquisitions. The prime minister is constantly engaged in efforts to woo potential global supporters, with few tangible results except on the bilateral level.
On the Gaza front, the present government has bolstered fortifications against incursions both above and below ground. It has introduced sophisticated defensive technologies. It has begun to caution against the implications of the growing humanitarian catastrophe in the Strip (although it has yet to heed the warnings of the chief of staff, General Gadi Eizenkot, that two million residents of Gaza are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis). It knows full well that even the slightest misstep can fuel another round of confrontation on this highly sensitive frontier, but has not taken steps to proactively ameliorate the human distress that nurtures widespread violence.
The picture in the West Bank is not dissimilar. As pressure to annex segments (if not all) of the territory across the Green Line emanating from the core of the government’s support base increases, Palestinian unrest has grown — and with it the use of repressive measures. Attempts to deal with a new rash of lone terrorists have resulted in further escalation. There remain serious differences between the government and the IDF on the priority to be given to Palestinian matters — further exacerbating the veritable standstill in negotiations.
No real attempt is being made to put the various pieces of the puzzle together in a coherent manner. The dangers in not doing so are enormous. Israel’s actions tend to be reactive and — in the absence of a full-fledged strategy — themselves bear strategic weight. The danger of military escalation on several fronts simultaneously increases exponentially. The absence of external restraints exacerbates this situation, especially given Russia’s propensity to safeguard its new-found status even at Israel’s expense. And, inevitably — given the fragility of the domestic political picture in general and of the position of the prime minister in particular — the incentive to add other, more nuanced, strategic tools beyond military action has faded.
Unfortunately, the events of the last few days were totally predictable — an International Crisis Group analysis published a few days before accurately predicted Saturday’s events. Unless a thorough strategic reconsolidation takes place soon, they may well prove to be a prelude for much more serious confrontations down the line. Israel must decide now whether it wants to integrate fully into the region or to remain an unwanted entity on its margins.
If it is to be a major player — and not just a spoiler — it has to consider striking diplomatic, economic and political alliances throughout the region (and not just on its southern outskirts). This involves actively contributing as much as possible to defusing tensions with Lebanon and Syria, nurturing ties with Jordan and Egypt in different ways and engaging directly in easing the resurrection of a degree of normality in the crumbling Gaza Strip (leaving aside the ongoing argument over who is to blame for the current morass). It also implies reexamining its almost Pavlovian resistance to anything Iranian that has created a zero-sum calculus between Israel and Iran, which hardly serves anyone’s interests. Above all, Israel can no longer avoid dealing with its relations with the Palestinians: whether one likes it or not this conflict is at the epicenter of Israel’s longevity in the region (a plea made increasingly by the IDF and the defense establishment).
Only these and similar moves leading to a cohesive, multi-pronged strategy predicated on a careful analysis of the complexities ingrained in the new balance of power in the region will effectively halt the deleterious cycle of repeated military skirmishes with no end in sight. A broad military confrontation is preventable, but this depends heavily (albeit hardly exclusively) on Israel’s capacity to adjust to its changing geopolitical topography and to contribute to its stability.