The Axis of Resistance Threat to Israel

The Axis of Resistance Threat to Israel

Despite Israel’s immense military supremacy, the conventional capabilities Iran and the “axis of resistance” have amassed constitute an existential threat to its security.


Hamas’s October 7 cross-border raid landed Israel in its worst strategic surprise in half a century and ignited a crisis with the makings of a regional war. Already now, Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah are engaged in the most serious escalation since the 2006 Lebanon War. And while both are carefully trying to keep the fighting below a certain threshold, the conflict will inevitably escalate further as Israel’s operation in Gaza proceeds. Both Israel and Hezbollah are already mobilized for war. Israel has evacuated dozens of border communities, including the city of Kiryat Shmona. Tension and uncertainty are high, as is the risk of miscalculation. 

Whether or not these developments ignite an all-out conflagration between Israel, Hezbollah, and the entire Iranian-led “axis of resistance,” or remain relatively limited, the gravity of the situation is clear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that in the immediate wake of Hamas’s raid, the United States deployed the USS Gerald R. Ford and Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier strike groups to the region, as well as troops and other major assets, in an active attempt to deter Iran and Hezbollah. Nowhere is the severity of the current crisis more evident than in the unprecedented military and diplomatic mobilization of the United States.  


What is also abundantly evident is that while international attention has traditionally focused on its nuclear program, in recent years, Iran and its allies have developed conventional capabilities and a coherent strategy that now poses a vast military threat and a conceptual-strategic challenge to Israel. What some Israeli leaders had hesitantly suggested in recent years must now be bluntly acknowledged. Despite the Jewish State’s immense military supremacy, the conventional capabilities Iran and the “axis of resistance” have amassed near Israel’s borders and in the wider region essentially constitute an existential threat. 

In addition to its status as a nuclear power, Israel boasts the most advanced conventional military in the region. It has not faced a traditional military threat or the prospect of an Arab coalition in decades. Moreover, its enemies in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen have themselves been dealing with enormous domestic challenges. But Israel’s military superiority does not preclude the possibility that a multi-front war could subject Israel to what nuclear deterrence strategists call “unacceptable costs.” Having surrounded Israel with vast and survivable firepower—including precision-guided munitions—the “axis of resistance” could theoretically inundate Israel’s defense systems and hit vital strategic assets. Israel’s airports, military bases, seaports, power plants, and water desalination facilities could be targeted with pinpoint precision. That its weaker enemies would, too, suffer unacceptable costs is a moot point. 

The Prospect of a Multi-Front War 

If all this is a rude awakening to many Israelis, it shouldn’t be. Israel’s enemies in the region, from Hezbollah to Hamas to Iran, have adopted a deliberate asymmetric “resistance” strategy that seeks to offset Israel’s aerial superiority and alter the balance of vulnerability. This would expose Israel’s home front to immense costs, ultimately leaving it with no other option but a military invasion—something that would supposedly play into the hands of the weaker side. Time and time again, “resistance” leaders have contrasted “resistance” strategy with that of “classic” armies, explaining that Israel would be unable to subject Hamas or Hezbollah to a decisive blow such as that delivered to the Egyptian and Syrian troops in the opening hours of the 1967 War. 

What Israeli leaders had described—but perhaps failed to realize fully—was that the combined threat posed by Hamas, Iran, Hezbollah, and the various “resistance” forces had risen to the level of the threat posed by the vast Arab armies of the past.  

In recent years, Israeli military officials have used startling terminology in describing the shifting balance of power in the region and the growing symmetry between Israel and its enemies. In November 2018, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told me that war with Hezbollah would be analogous to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which Israel lost about 2,600 troops. He stressed that Israel must not limit itself in its acquisition of Iron Dome interceptors. In May 2020, former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told me: “Hezbollah is not just Hezbollah. Hezbollah is Iran. This is represented in its capabilities—in terms of its computer systems, encryption, military manufacture, cyber, doctrine.” A senior IDF General stated in September 2021, “Iran is not just Iran, but also Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon, as well as Gaza. One must look at the broader picture.” Two months later, Israel’s top missile defense expert, Uzi Rubin, went further, telling me that in the next war, Israel, like in the first days of the Yom Kippur War, could be the one seeking an immediate cease-fire. 

For more than three years now, Israel’s defense establishment has increasingly warned against the scenario of a multi-front war. The 2018 IDF Strategy described, for the first time, Iran’s “Shiite axis” as a regional camp posing “the primary military threat to the state of Israel” and creating a “balance of deterrence” against it. The document also included, for the first time, Yemen and Iraq as countries from which Israel faced a military threat. In 2020, the evolution of the “resistance” challenge was outlined and explained by then-IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. Israel’s enemies had become “dispersed terrorist armies who rely on high-trajectory weapons.” These actors sought to “offset the basic military superiority which the IDF had enjoyed for many years” and “to gradually impose a new reality” whereby “Israel would be unable to reach a decisive victory in war, and whereby it would be too costly and painful for it to attack its enemies and deter them from provocations and from continuing to build the threat on our borders.” 

Israel’s “new generation of enemies,” specifically Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, Kochavi added, adopted a new strategic concept relying on two primary elements: “the component of assimilation and disappearance...the purpose of which is to offset the IDF’s advantages in intelligence and precision-strike capabilities,” and “the component of fire, which relies on missiles and is designed to exact a heavy cost from Israel....and erode the IDF freedom of action in the land, air and sea.” As Gen. Eran Ortal, commander of the IDF’s think tank, explained, Israel’s enemies were now an “advanced threat system” that had “successfully decoded Israel’s military strength” and now posed “an essential threat” to Israel. 

A Supra-Conventional, Sub-Nuclear Threat 

Given the emergence of this “threat system,” in June 2020, the IDF established the Strategy and Third-Circle Directorate, tasked with confronting the “axis of resistance.” Its commander, Gen. Tal Kelman, stated in 2021: “The ability to hit a country like Israel, which is not a large country, massively and accurately, could have severe strategic consequences.” Even more tellingly, Kelman stated that “the threat of precision-guided missiles is not at the level of the existential nuclear threat, but it is not far below it.” In a similar vein, then-IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir warned in 2022 that Iran’s regional deployment of “massed precision fires” and its ability to “launch coordinated strikes from several geographical locations” in the Middle East “reaches the level of supra-conventional or sub-nuclear threat.” This posed an “unprecedented” threat “to the functioning of the region’s nations and their population centers and critical infrastructure.” Two weeks before Hamas’s offensive, Kelman warned publicly that for the first time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel now faced the threat of a multi-front war. Hamas’s attack came almost 50 years to the day after that war. 

Whether Israel had internalized the profound implications of this reality—that in the moment of truth, there would be a need for the deployment of U.S. strategic assets to deter Iran and Hezbollah—is questionable. Even now, it is unclear to what extent Iran, Hezbollah, and their allies are impressed by such deterrent signals. In fact, in recent days, Iran and its allies privately and publicly communicated their own stern deterrent threats to Israel and the United States. Just three days into the war, the editor-in-chief of Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily, a mouthpiece of Hezbollah and Iran, cited exclusive sources warning the United States lest it actively join the fighting. Not only the aircraft carriers but America’s “interests and official civilian and military infrastructure in the region will be directly targeted” if Washington joined the war. It then published a map detailing the locations and coordinates of fourteen U.S. military bases in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan. Indeed, in recent days, several U.S. bases in Syria and Iraq have come under rocket and drone attacks. A U.S. Navy destroyer in the northern Red Sea has already intercepted ballistic missiles and drones launched from Yemen, possibly toward Israel. On October 31, the Houthis claimed responsibility for launching drones and cruise and ballistic missiles at Israel.  

This, too, is not surprising. As the United States rightly turned its attention to the increasing global competition with China and then to Russia’s war in Ukraine, it was viewed and presented by the “axis of resistance” as risk-averse and deterred. Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah, whose role in the “axis of resistance” and Iran’s own decision-making is pivotal, claimed that the “resistance” forces had even subjected the United States to “rules of engagement.” Unlike their Israeli counterparts, U.S. military leaders seemed profoundly impressed with Iran’s retaliation for the aerial assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) senior commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020. That year, then-U.S. Central Command Chief Frank McKenzie admitted that “it is possible that Iran can control the early steps of escalation in the theater.” In 2021, he warned: “Iran’s strategic capacity is now enormous. They’ve got overmatch in the theatre—the ability to overwhelm.” In the same vein, his successor, General Michael Kurilla, said in March that the IRGC “of today is unrecognizable from just five years ago.” Currently, in Israel, Kurilla is now “particularly focused on avoiding other parties expanding the conflict.”