Top Israeli think tank warns: Potential for war with Iran is growing

In annual threat assessment, Institute for National Security Studies sees high risks of large-scale war in the north and in Gaza in 2020

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The head of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies think tank Amos Yadlin, left, presents President Reuven Rivlin with the organization's strategic assessment for 2020 at the President's Residence on January 6, 2020. (Chen Galili/INSS)
The head of Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies think tank Amos Yadlin, left, presents President Reuven Rivlin with the organization's strategic assessment for 2020 at the President's Residence on January 6, 2020. (Chen Galili/INSS)

There is a growing risk of large-scale war along Israel’s northern borders in the coming year, in large part due to Iran’s increasing “determination and daring,” one of Israel’s leading national security think tanks warned Monday.

Each year, the Tel Aviv University-affiliated Institute for National Security Studies prepares a “strategic assessment” of the threats facing the State of Israel and the steps it believes the country should take to protect against them. The think tank, which is largely made up of former senior defense and diplomatic officials, presents those findings to the president.

On Monday, INSS director Amos Yadlin, a former head of Military Intelligence, provided President Reuven Rivlin with the institute’s assessments for 2020, including a warning that there is a “rise in the likelihood of war” in light of a variety of security, political and diplomatic factors.

In his speech after receiving the assessment, Rivlin lamented that Israel was facing this threat at a time of “political paralysis,” in which the country has not had a functioning government in over a year.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at the Calcalist conference in Tel Aviv on December 31, 2019. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“The political paralysis in Israel is coming at an especially terrible point in time,” he said. “Instead of shaking hands and coming together to meet the Iranian threat, we have entered into a very problematic internal tailspin.”

INSS researchers determined that while Israel’s assorted enemies do not appear to be interested in a large-scale conflict at this time, there area “factors that could lead to the possibility that a conflict could anyway take place in 2020.”

“At the heart of the 2020 strategic assessment is the tension between the clear strength of Israel and its impressive successes in various areas and the possibility that this positive situation will be found to have been temporary and precarious,” the think tank said.

The 56-page document, which was largely written before the United States killed influential Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad late Thursday night, was updated prior to publication in order to include the dramatic event. According to INSS, though the full ramifications of this move cannot yet be known, it does appear to raise the potential for conflict in the region.

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, in which Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

“This event, in our view, gives greater weight to the possibility of aggravation and the need to compose a new Israeli strategy. Killing Soleimani will create a new context and necessarily holds the potential for a strategic shift, whose scope and dimensions it is too early to predict,” the think tank said.

“The killing of Soleimani could lead to a scenario that demands Israeli consideration and coordination with the United States: a large-scale war between Iran and the United States,” it said.

Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani (Screenshot)

The think tank pointed to Iran and its proxies as the major threat facing Israel, both in the form of some type of direct clash with Israel and — though less likely for 2020 — the potential development of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The third main threat facing the Jewish state in the coming year, according to the think tank, is that of a full-scale war with terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

First ‘northern war,’ another Gaza war

In the strategic assessment, INSS warned that Iran is growing increasingly bold and aggressive with its actions in the region; Tehran’s main ally and proxy Hezbollah is working tirelessly to acquire significant quantities of precision-guided missile, which Israel sees as a major threat; and Hamas is using the threat of conflict in Gaza in order to improve its position, which could lead to a miscalculation and war.

Meanwhile, Israel’s most important ally, the United States, is described as behaving erratically: working to remove itself from the region prior to the airstrike on Soleimani, which has the potential to pull it deeper into the Middle East, and imposing a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions on Iran with “no long-term strategy besides the sanctions and a desire to reach an agreement whose specifications have not been defined.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a meeting with members of the Revolutionary Guard’s all-volunteer Basij force in Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2019 (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“Iran and the United States are considering their next steps and this situation raises the level of uncertainty, instability and volatility, which have already defined the Middle East in the past decade,” according to INSS.

The report warned that a large-scale war on Israel’s northern borders is the greatest threat facing the country in the coming year.

Unlike in the Second Lebanon War in 2006, should fighting break out with Hezbollah now, it would not be confined to one country and one front; it would not be a third Lebanon war, but the “first northern war — against all forces in the north: Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Syrian regime, pro-Iranian militias,” the think tank warned.

According to INSS, such a war would be far deadlier and disastrous than the 2006 conflict, as other senior Israeli officials have warned, including IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi last month.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi at a conference in memory of former IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on December 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

The report called on Israel’s leaders to prepare for the possibility of such a conflict, which would likely include far larger attacks on the Israeli home front than the country has seen in decades, if ever.

Such preparations might have to include strikes on Hezbollah in order to prevent it from obtaining large quantities of precision-guided missiles, which could turn the tide in a future conflict, as these projectiles are far more advanced than the simple rockets currently in the terror group’s possession and could easily overwhelm Israel’s air defense systems.

Israeli officials have indicated that Hezbollah’s so-called “precision project” is considered the second greatest threat facing the Jewish state — lesser only than Iran’s nuclear program.

On the atomic front, INSS saw the most serious threat to the State of Israel, but not the most immediate.

For now, Iran appears to be using its nuclear program for the purposes of brinkmanship with the United States, after US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 agreement with Tehran, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB)

“Israel must prepare for the extreme scenario, even if the chances of this happening in 2020 are low, that Iran will decide to break out toward a bomb,” the report said.

The assessment did not include a reference to Iran’s announcement on Sunday night that it would no longer abide by the restrictions on the level and quantity of enriched uranium it is permitted to produce under the JCPOA in response to the US killing of Soleimani.

On the Gazan front, INSS acknowledged that there is a significant possibility that war will break out, but assessed that as a far smaller threat to Israel than the one posed by Iran and its proxies.

In recent months, Israel and Hamas have been negotiating a ceasefire agreement, one neither side discusses significantly in public.

The think tank warned that if such an armistice is not reached, the potential for war in Gaza will grow considerably.

INSS recommended that if Israel enter into some kind of large-scale conflict in Gaza, it end it in such a way that it is able to negotiate a ceasefire agreement “from a position of strength.”

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