In the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, Israel Radio was previewing an end-of-Jewish-year round-up program by broadcasting various news clips from the past 12 months. One of them features President Barack Obama, during his visit here in March, breaking out of English and essaying the Hebrew phrase, “Atem Lo Levad” — you are not alone.
Israelis, facing external threats from every point of the compass, would like to believe that Obama is correct, notwithstanding his last-minute decision Saturday to delay a strike on neighboring Syria’s WMD-using President Bashar Assad.
But the IDF, however closely it coordinates with its American colleagues, functions on the assumption that its task is to protect Israel without outside assistance.
The IDF has never been stronger, its commanders say. But as they take stock this Rosh Hashanah, the challenges have rarely been as acute and varied, in a region that has seldom been so unstable. These are nine of the more immediate areas of concern.
1. El-Sissi the Nasserist?
All over Cairo in recent weeks, posters have sprung up showing Egypt’s military strongman, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, photoshopped alongside the late nationalist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, a reflection of el-Sissi’s evident Nasser-style focus on building a strong, proud Egypt, reviving Arab dignity, keeping the West at arm’s length.
After the spectacularly improbable sequence of rapid-fire events that saw the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the election of Mohammed Morsi, the ouster of Morsi, and the rise of el-Sissi, Israel’s intelligence hierarchies have given up trying to make predictions about the twists and turns ahead for Egypt — and for much of the rest of our radically unstable region, for that matter. Instead, they map out scenarios for the security and political echelons to grapple with. One of the many Egypt scenarios has el-Sissi maintaining his military’s quiet coordination with Israel as he closes down most of Hamas’s weapons smuggling tunnels into Gaza, tackles terrorism in the Sinai, marginalizes the Muslim Brotherhood, and restores calm to Egypt’s cities. In this scenario, el-Sissi maintains a stable relationship with the United States, and maintains the peace treaty too. But another scenario has el-Sissi, indomitable at Egypt’s helm, leading a shift toward Nasserist nationalism, amid deepening hostility to the US, the West, and to Israel. If the latter proves true, then the Egyptian army’s growing battlefield experience, and growing confidence in its capabilities, starts to become a serious cause for alarm.
2. Hamas builds its own missiles
In Gaza, Hamas is preoccupied with survival, deeply discomfited by Morsi’s demise in Egypt, and deterred by the ferocity of Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense last November. As Avi Issacharoff reported in these pages in June, Hamas — which has given a generation of southern Israelis nightmares with years of rocket attacks — now employs hundreds of personnel to prevent rogue cells firing rockets into Israel, for fear of the IDF response. But its hostility has not dulled. Rather, Hamas is holding its fire while it builds strength for the battles ahead. No longer easily able to smuggle rockets through the tunnels into the Strip, it is becoming increasingly adept at producing its own. Dismayed by the success of Iron Dome in intercepting so many of its projectiles in November, it is also relentlessly seeking ways to outwit Israel’s rocket and missile defense systems. For now, it is internally preoccupied. The day will come when it looks outward, and it has every intention of being able to harm Israel when it does so.
3. The rise of ‘Global Jihad’
Israeli military types often speak of an organization called “Global Jihad,” which ostensibly unifies all violent Islamic extremists under its aegis. Pushed a little, they’ll acknowledge that no such umbrella group actually exists. But global interaction between similarly minded Islamic extremist organizations is growing. Not only are there shared doctrines, but there are also shared financial trails. And shared operational methods. In one form or another, jihadist groups are active in the Sinai, in Gaza, in Lebanon, and across the Golan Heights border in Syria — firing rockets, planting bombs, attempting cross-border attacks. For now, they are regarded as a tactical problem for the IDF. But if, for instance, jihadists in Syria were to get their hands on some of Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons, they would become an Israeli strategic problem.
4. A calm-ish West Bank, so long as prisoners keep emerging
Several times in recent weeks, IDF arrest operations have led to outbursts of violence in the West Bank — notably when three Palestinians were killed in Qalandiya last week by troops, facing a mob, who believed their lives were in danger. The Israeli military argues that these incursions are vital, to thwart specific terror plans, and prevent the revival of a terrorist infrastructure. The IDF also deems it vital to demonstrate that it maintains freedom of operation everywhere in the West Bank. For now, Israel does not detect the stirrings of a wider upsurge in violence. Indeed, the demonstrations and clashes that followed Pillar of Defense have largely died down. But the mood in the West Bank is closely tied to the resumed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. So long as those talks go on, and veteran Palestinian terrorists are released from jail in agreed phases, the relative calm may prevail. Should those talks collapse, all bets are off.
5. A wary eye on Hezbollah
For all the focus on the Syrian civil war, and the possibility of Israel being drawn into Assad’s no-holds-barred battle for survival, the greater capacity to harm Israel — at least with conventional weapons — lies in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets that can reach anywhere in the country. The Syrian Army is exhausted, and much of its military capacity depleted, by more than two years of war. It certainly still constitutes a threat. It has an air force, tanks, and, as the whole world has now internalized, chemical weapons. But today’s Lebanon is tense and unstable, with car bombings in Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s Beirut stronghold underlining that its fragile society is riven by Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting alongside Assad. The IDF is perpetually active all along the Lebanon border, and always conscious of Hezbollah’s capacity to seek to do harm, come the day when conflict with Israel is deemed to serve its own interests and those of Assad and the Iranians. The security establishment does not believe Hezbollah would overtly tangle with Israel in response to any US-led attack on Assad. But the IDF is preparing for that possibility, nonetheless. The Second Lebanon War in 2006 — 34 days of battle, with no definitive conclusion — was a taste of what could come.
6. Assad is not suicidal, but…
Similarly, for all the threats from Syria and Iran that Israel will burn if Assad is attacked, the consensus in the Israeli security establishment is that the Syrian president would be most unlikely to risk his prospects of survival by striking at Israel, and triggering what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly promised would be an extremely forceful response. Everything about Assad’s despicable behavior underlines his determination to retain power. Why subvert that murderously pursued goal by hitting Israel? Again, though, the IDF is bracing for that small possibility, and even for the prospect of an all-out war. Assad most certainly retains the capacity to load Israel-bound rockets with nerve gas too. The Israeli assessment: he won’t.
7. A missile shield, not a panacea
Israel’s range of missile defense systems is arguably the most advanced in the world. But it does not add up to a hermetic shield. If Israel again finds itself in a missile war — whether with Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or all three — a proportion of the missiles fired this way will get though, and will cause heavy destruction. Iron Dome took out hundreds of rockets from Gaza in November. But dozens still evaded the defense systems to hit residential areas. Still, the only areas in which a rocket fall led directly to loss of life were those where citizens ignored civil defense procedures.
8. Not enough money
The Israeli army believes itself to be in good shape. Netanyahu and chief of the General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz have repeatedly assured Israelis in the recent threat-filled weeks that they can rely on their armed forces to defend and protect them. Go “enjoy the holidays,” the prime minister told Israelis on Tuesday. And woe betide anyone who thinks he can “shatter the tranquility.” But the challenges the IDF faces are diverse and numerous, requiring a capacity to prevail in confrontations at borders, when striking deep into enemy territory, protecting the home front, and maintaining the upper hand over air, land, sea and cyberspace. All this at a time of relentless budget-cutting. IDF chiefs will always say their budgets are too small, but the current complaints sound particularly heartfelt.
The failure to ensure that gas masks were available for all of Israel’s residents (rather than 60%) had nothing to do with the IDF. But the financial pruning that caused that minor crisis — a modicum of panic among usually resilient Israelis — is cited in the IDF as reflecting a financial climate where even essentials are sometimes being cut away. The IDF worries that it is taking risks in imposing enforced cutbacks — on units, manpower, equipment — in areas where it, and the Israelis it protects, could feel the bitter consequences some day soon.
9. Obama’s change of heart, and a confident Iran
Obama’s last-minute decision to seek Congress’s approval for a strike at Syria was not well-received by the Israeli security establishment, to put it mildly. Not because there is no Israeli respect for the American democratic process, but because Obama broadcast hesitation and, by extension, weakness, in the face of a challenge — protecting the people of Syria from a dictator’s use of weapons of mass destruction — that his own secretary of state, 24 hours earlier, had passionately contended required an urgent, deterring response. Seeking Congressional approval is one thing; letting legislators take their time, enjoying the leisurely Labor Day long weekend before tackling the issue, is something else — betraying the White House uncertainty that allowed the despicable killings in Syria to reach this scale in the first place.
The damage can yet be ameliorated if there is a forceful US-led response. If not, Israel is frankly shuddering at the lessons that Assad, and more worryingly the Iranians, will think they can learn from American paralysis. Iran — with the noxious Mahmoud Ahmadinejad succeeded by the far more sophisticated Hasan Rouhani — would like to believe that its threats and warnings helped face down the US. It would also like to conclude that if Obama hesitated over taking on war-weakened Syria, he may shudder to a halt when confronting mighty Iran. My actions on Syria have no negative implications for my determination to stop Iran, the president reportedly assured Netanyahu in a phone call Saturday. Tell that to the Iranians.