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Why Israel Worries

May 6, 2014 Topic: Security Region: Israel

Why Israel Worries

Jerusalem views America as quixotic at best, absent at worst as the foundations of its security erode.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is momentarily breathing a sigh of relief now that he can blame Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas for scuttling the latest round of peace negotiations. Abbas’ reconciliation pact with Hamas in Gaza allows Netanyahu to wash his hands of the peace process—because militant Hamas will not even acknowledge Israel’s right to exist—to focus on more acute Israeli security worries.

 

The Israelis have been exasperated that the United States has wasted time, attention and diplomatic capital on this failed round of negotiations with the Palestinians. The Israelis see the Palestinian issue akin to a house in the neighborhood with electrical wiring that is not up to code. It needs to be fixed, least it risk causing a fire in the future. The Israelis, however, see other neighborhood houses ablaze in Syria and Iran. The Israelis want the United States to come running with a water hose, but, instead, they see the Obama administration coming with an electrician’s toolbox. That exasperation was publicly revealed when Israeli defense minister Moshe Ya’alon undiplomatically called Secretary of State John Kerry “obsessive and messianic” about the peace process and hoped that he “gets a Nobel Prize and leaves us alone.”[1]

 

The Israelis think that the Americans too willingly accepts the Arab narrative that the “root cause” of all the problems in the Middle East lie in the failure of the Palestinians to have their own nation-state. The Israelis of all political stripes know all too well that even if they and the Palestinians were to some day live in separate nation-states enjoying neighborly bliss, most of the region’s troubles would remain. From the Israeli security standpoint, the conflict with the Palestinians is manageable, its costs tolerable, and its dangers longer term; the fallout violence from the Arab Spring and Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions are here and now and should be high on the American security agenda.

 

American national-security officials and military commanders have their hands full these days, but few would want to trade places with their Israeli counterparts. Israel has impressively defended itself in numerous wars for several decades against unfavorable odds. Despite those military feats, the foundations of Israeli security have cracked and crumbled rapidly since 2011 and the onslaught of the so-called Arab Spring. Notwithstanding Israel’s military prowess, the country’s security is growing more precarious on a numerous fronts, and the Israelis are gravely concerned that the United States might prove to be a fair-weather friend in future contingencies.

 

A cornerstone of Israel’s security foundation has been the “cold peace” with Egypt since the 1979 peace treaty. Israel and Egypt, bolstered by American economic and security assistance, have mutually enjoyed a secure border along the Sinai Peninsula for more than thirty years. The Arab spring, however, has jeopardized that security stability. The future course of the regime in Cairo is uncertain. The military regime for now seems content maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. But Jerusalem wonders how long the military regime will last and whether or not its redoubled political repression will eventually backfire to bring the Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood back into the streets en masse, and from there back into the halls of political power. Even if the Egyptian military regime hangs on, the situation along Egypt’s border with Israel continues to deteriorate. Tribes and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists are growing in influence and operations in the Sinai and mixing with human trafficking from Africa into Israel.

 

The upshot is that Israeli security planners no longer have the luxury of assuming the border with Egypt is secure. They will have to devote more resources to maintaining security there than they had in the past even while Israel’s security along the borders with Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan are growing more precarious.

 

The Israelis had secured their border with Syria during the 1967 war by capturing the Golan Heights. With that high ground the Israelis could comfortably gaze into Syria, and on a clear day they could even see Damascus. The Israelis were confident of their air superiority over the Syrian air force given the results of their air battles in 1982, in which Israel downed about eighty Syrian combat aircraft without losing even one of their own. Having bested Syrian ground forces in the 1967 and 1973 wars, they were also confident of their ground forces’ superiority over Syrian forces. And having watched, listened to, and studied the Syrian forces arrayed across the border for decades, the Israelis were confident that in the event of another war, they could yet again humble Syria’s military.

 

Times have changed and now the Israelis peering from the Golan Heights into Syria see a land burning and in chaos. The Israelis worry that the collapse of Syrian forces from border areas is opening up power vacuums that will be increasingly filled by militant jihadists coming from around the world to oust the Syrian regime. The Israelis have to worry that should they accomplish this task, Islamic jihadists will use their Syrian foothold to mount cross-border operations against Israel, much as Hezbollah and its Iranian benefactors have done from Lebanon since the 1980s.

 

The Israelis are frustrated that their military withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 did not earn them a peace on that border. The Israelis punished Lebanon in the 2006 war after Hezbollah crossed a red line by kidnapping Israeli soldiers patrolling the border. Unlike the Obama administration, when the Israelis establish a red line, they actually make good on threats to use force least adversaries come to the conclusion that they are bluffing to erode overall deterrence. Hezbollah, however, has restored and improved its missile and rocket forces with greater inventories than it had during the 2006 war. Defense Minister Ya’alon says that Hezbollah now has around 100,000 missiles and rockets.[2]

 

In the event of future Hezbollah cross border attacks, the Israelis will have to again militarily go back into Lebanon to “mow the grass,” as they like to call military operations to temporarily cut down Hezbollah military capabilities, leadership, and organization. The Israelis see “mowing the grass” as the price to be paid for a time of quiet until the next round of conflict. The Iranians, meanwhile, have been keen to work with Syria to build-up Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. The Iranians see Hezbollah as their “ace in the hole” to deter Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranians could complement Hezbollah missiles and rockets from Lebanon with their own growing inventory of long-range Shahab-3 missiles.[3] Both Hezbollah and Iran probably calculate that they could fire massive barrages of missiles and rockets to attrite and overwhelm Israel’s ballistic missile and rocket defenses.

 

The Israelis are aghast that the United States has for all intents and purposes abandoned the credible threat of military force against Iran’s nuclear program and is now exclusively devoting itself to a “diplomatic” solution to the issue. The Israelis think the Americans naïve to believe that the Iranians are genuinely negotiating. The Israelis bet that the Iranians are only using international negotiations as a means to slip out from under crushing international economic sanctions while preserving Iran’s now extensive, sophisticated and diversified nuclear program, one with the infrastructure needed to eventually give Tehran a robust arsenal of nuclear weapons.

 

The Israelis respect Iran’s diplomatic prowess that skillfully plays on the desperate desires on the Americans and Europeans to avoid military force. The Iranians aim to string the West along with a series of extensions of the so-called “six-month interim agreement” to buy months, if not years, for international economic sanctions to collapse while preserving their prized nuclear program. If the Israelis take matters into their own hands—as they are apt to do when their vital security interests are at stake—and strike Iranian’s nuclear facilities, Tehran will use its own and Hezbollah’s missiles and unconventional-warfare methods to mount retaliatory attacks against Israel’s cities, interests and security partners.

 

With the loss of secure borders with Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, the Israelis fret that they could lose their last remaining secure border with Jordan. The Israelis have not had any better a constructive and pragmatic partner than the Jordanian monarchy stretching back decades from the time of quiet “under the table” cooperation to the 1994 signing of a peace treaty. The Jordanian monarchy so far has escaped the scope and depth of violence that erupted elsewhere in the Arab spring, but the political, economic, and societal pressures in Jordan are growing.

 

The Jordanians have long hosted Palestinian refugees, and more recently Iraqi refuges who fled Iraq’s post-2003 war violence, but they now have the added burden of the hosting of Syria refugees who have fled civil war. Jordon now hosts some 600,000 Syrians, which is about ten percent of Jordan’s population.[4] The Israelis wonder how much more of these huge pressures the Jordanian monarchy can withstand before they collectively boil over into massive unrest and gravely threaten the stability of the monarchy. If the moderate, pragmatic, and skillful government in Amman were to fall, the successor regime could be composed of the Muslim Brotherhood. Worse, it could open up yet another state for Salafists to move in and take root. Both scenarios would give Israel another hostile neighbor.

 

The geopolitical environment in which Israel is fated to live is a cauldron of boiling chaos, but Israeli officials are not reassured that the United States will have their backs covered in coming regional crises. The Israelis see the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” as a mere cover story for abandoning them to the Middle East’s tough security environment. Defense Minister Ya’alon even went as far as to publicly assess that President Obama’s “image in the world is feebleness.”[5] The Israelis see the United States creating political-military security vacuums in the region that are beginning to be filled by major outside powers. Russia is doing this by doggedly defending the Syrian regime with adroit diplomacy and by forging new security ties with Egypt; China is doing so by upping its military cooperation with Saudi Arabia.[6] In short, as the Israelis see regional tensions and violence multiplying and intensifying all around them, they see their American counterparts running for the door.

 

Richard L. Russell is the author of Sharpening Strategic Intelligence: Why the CIA Gets It Wrong and What Needs to Be Done to Get It Right (Cambridge University Press).

 

 

 

 


[1] Barak Ravid, “Ya’alon Raises U.S. Ire Calling Kerry ‘Obsessive and Messianic,” Haaretz, 14 January 2014. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/print/138107

[2] “IAF Chief: Israel Will Destroy Hezbollah Bases in Lebanon, Even Ones in Residential Areas,” Reuters, 29 January 2014. http://www.jpost.com/LandedPages/PrintArticle.aspx?id=339773

[3] See Greg Bruno, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program,” Council on Foreign Relations, 23 July 2012. http://www.cfr.org/iran/irans-ballistic-missile-program/p20425

[4] Marisa L. Porges, “Fragile Sanctuary: Jordan Buckles Under the Stress of Hosting Syrian Refugees,” Foreign Affairs, 12 March 2014. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/print/138107

[5] “US Still Waiting for Apology from Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon for Obama Remarks,” Jerusalem Post, 21 March 2014. http://www.jpost.com/Diplomacy-and-Politics/US-still-waiting-for-apology-from-Israeli-Defense-Minister-Yaalon-for-Obama-remarks-346139

[6] Jeffrey Lewis, “Why Did Saudi Arabia Buy Chinese Missiles?” Foreign Policy, 30 January 2014. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/01/30/why_did_saudi_arabia_buy_chinese_missiles