Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Israel has gotten stronger, more stable and wealthier than its neighbors. But that’s not necessarily something to be proud of — it’s something that should be worrisome, according to Military Intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevy.
In a speech Wednesday at this year’s Herzliya Conference, Halevy introduced a portmanteau to describe a dynamic Middle East: mishtarkev, which he said was made up of the Hebrew words for improve, mishtaper, and complex, murkav.
His speech gave a general overview of the region, but did not reveal any information not previously released by the Israel Defense Forces. He touched on the Syrian civil war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, terror in the West Bank and the Islamic State group.
Each of these threats has existed for years, but one area of concern Halevy touched on was the growing disparity between Israel and its neighbors.
On the one hand, Israel’s status as a strong, stable democracy in the Middle East is something that should be treasured and not forgotten.
“Maybe because of the Holocaust we carry with us a feeling of persecution,” he said. “But around us, we’re seen as a very strong, aggressive, unexpected and capable figure. That’s something important for us to preserve.”
But on the other hand, though Israel may be stable, its neighbors are not. And that does not bode well for the Jewish state. Economic strife can give rise to religious extremism and terrorism, the Military Intelligence chief warned.
“There’s a gap between us and everyone around us, and that gap is growing,” Halevy said.
“If you look at per capita gross domestic product, in Israel we’re approaching $40,000 (NIS154,000). Around us there are countries, that [our GDP] is five times greater than theirs, seven times greater, 10 times and even 20 times greater,” Halevy said.
“This shouldn’t make us proud, it should make us worried,” he said. “When your neighborhood deteriorates, the value of your home does not go up.”
Regarding terror not only in Israel, but around the world, Halevy pointed to the internet and other technologies that make it easier for individuals to carry out attacks without having to join extremist organizations.
“You don’t have to own a big hotel chain to rent out a room on Airbnb,” Halevy said, referring to the popular home rental website. “You also don’t need to belong to a large terror organization to carry out a terror attack.”
As could be seen in the attack in Orlando, Tel Aviv, Paris, Turkey and elsewhere around the world, the Islamic State is rapidly becoming a dominant force in international terrorism, with each attack inspiring the next one, Halevy said.
The Islamic State is the “bad in the world, the Amalek of 2016,” he said, using the name of a biblical tribe that is seen as the epitome of evil.
The Third Lebanon War
On Israel’s borders, Halevy pointed to situations that are currently stable, but are liable to deteriorate quickly.
In the south, Hamas for now is not interested in another round of conflict with Israel after the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, he said, “but next month that could be different.”
Halevy put particular emphasis on the threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon, as Israel prepares to mark 10 years since the Second Lebanon War next month.
Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of more than 100,000 missiles and rockets, along with weapons systems “that they never had before,” Halevy said.
The intelligence chief wouldn’t say the next round of violence with the Iran-backed terror group would result in mass casualties among Israel’s civilian population, but came close.
“In the Yom Kippur War, we had one person killed on the home front from a Syrian missile. The situation in the next conflict will be completely different,” he said.
Halevy revealed how close Israel came to experiencing that conflict last year, when Hezbollah fired seven anti-tank missiles at IDF troops on the northern border, killing two.
“I don’t think Hezbollah realized the full potential for casualties there,” he said.
If Hezbollah had succeeded in killing the total possible number of soldiers, Halevy said, “our response would have been different. Then their response would have been different. And maybe today on the radio they would be talking about the Third Lebanon War with Hezbollah and not just the second.”
Though the IDF has no current plans to attack Hezbollah, the army has never been more prepared, he said.
“If our enemies knew our capabilities and our intelligence, they would spare themselves the next conflict,” Halevy said.
“I’m going to say this with all due caution, but there has never been an army that knows as much about its enemy as we know about Hezbollah,” the intelligence chief said.
“But still, the next war will not be simple, it will not be easy,” he said.
Iran vs. the ‘pragmatic Sunnis’
Halevy pointed to two competing groups in the Muslim world: the Shiite Iran, which despite its “legitimate” status in the wake of last year’s Iran nuclear deal continues to fund attacks on Israel, and the “pragmatic” Sunni nations led by Saudi Arabia, whose interests have increasingly begun to align with Israel.
Throughout the Middle East, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have lots of fingers in lots of pots. The two countries have direct involvement in the Yemenite and Syrian civil wars.
In Syria, Iran has already lost “250 people, and that’s just their fighters from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That’s not counting the Shiite militias that are managed by Iran,” he said.
Though the threat of a nuclear Iran has been put off for a few years in light of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed last year, the Islamic Republic continues to develop its nuclear program — albeit at a dramatically slower rate — only now it has “international legitimacy” to do so, Halevy said.
Now that Iran has been brought to the bargaining table, the country has also gained diplomatic legitimacy, he said.
All this, despite the fact that it continues to call for Israel’s destruction and gives the military wings of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad “60 percent of their budgets,” Halevy said.
Iran has also taken the lead on the cyber warfare front against Israel, he said, carrying out digital attacks themselves and also providing training to Hezbollah to do the same.
On the other side, he said, are the “pragmatic Sunnis” — mostly the Gulf states — who are leading the fight against Iran.
Saudi Arabia today is “not the same Saudi Arabia we saw a year and a half ago,” Halevy said.
“Saudi Arabia is more proactive, trying to lead the Sunni camp in the Middle East. It’s a country that has perhaps stabilized and gotten stronger in its fight against Iran,” he said.
“Some of the interests of the pragmatic Sunni countries are getting closer to our interests,” Halevy said. “This is an interesting development, and there is an opportunity in it.”