Home inFocus Israel’s Strategic Challenges: The Next Five Years

Israel’s Strategic Challenges: The Next Five Years

Yossi Kuperwasser Spring 2013

An Israeli air force jet fighter plane takes off from Tel Nof air force base for a mission over the Gaza Strip on November 19, 2012.

Israel will face a complicated and challenging strategic landscape in the years to come. This, of course, could have been said at any point since 1948. Ever since the Zionist idea took the shape of a political movement, there have been several times at which the situation was even more dire than it is today. Yet the combination of recent developments in the region, in the broader international arena, and within Israel and the Jewish people, suggests that another demanding period lies ahead. And these challenges will make it more difficult for Israel to secure the nation state of the Jewish people and build peaceful relations with its neighbors.

The Threat from Iran

The most demanding challenge is the progress of Iran’s military nuclear project, aimed at equipping the fanatical messianic regime in Tehran with an arsenal of atomic bombs that is intended to enable it to be a regional hegemon and a world power, and to threaten Israel’s security attempting, ultimately, to wipe it off the map. At this stage, the Iranians have accumulated uranium enriched at a level that is 40-50 percent of the full enrichment process needed for military grade uranium, enough for the production of at least six bombs. It should be noted that most experts, including the IAEA, refer to this level as 3.5-5 percent enrichment. They refer to the amount of the enriched component in the material produced instead of emphasizing the degree of progress toward military grade enriched uranium that it represents. The Iranians are also carefully and consistently enriching uranium to the point that is 70-75 percent of the work needed to enrich uranium to military grade, commonly referred to as 20 percent enriched uranium and they have accumulated about two-thirds of the amount needed for the first bomb after further enrichment.

They have installed thousands of centrifuges in well-protected facilities, declaring and following through on their intention to install more efficient ones. Once they start operating them, the time they will have to spend closing the enrichment gap to military grade will be much shorter than it is today. It is not totally clear to the international community how much progress they have made on preparation for turning the enriched uranium into a weapon, but their insistence on denying IAEA access to the facility at Parchin is one of many indicators that makes everyone suspect they have a lot to hide.

Economic sanctions are finally increasing the pain and difficulty of Iran’s progress toward an atomic arsenal, but Ayatollah Khamenei is determined to continue the march. From his perspective, giving up at this late stage of the project wouldn’t make sense. He believes the regime’s stability has been ensured by the ruthless and effective suppression of the Iranian population by his security forces. He is following the international community, and in his view, it will not have the guts and will definitely not have a consensus to take the necessary steps to stop Iran. Based on the timid approach of the West and its regional allies thus far, he believes Western society is weak and hollow. If the Ayatollahs manage to buy more time and establish Iran as a military nuclear arsenal threshold state, Iran may start to change the regional order in the Persian Gulf area. It is already working intensively to embarrass the U.S. in the region and the global arena, and then may swiftly move toward producing the weapons, thus promoting its goals and at the same time starting a regional arms race.

The Rise of Non-State Actors

Regional upheaval and instability, the rising influence of radical groups, and the development of “less than governed” areas along Israel’s borders and elsewhere in the region all mean that the coming years will be characterized by more uncertainty, and more animosity and hostility toward Israel. A more complicated capability will be required to deter some of the hostile elements as the nation state system established after World War II becomes less relevant, and effective accountable addresses become harder to find. The rise to power of Islamic parties seems to be a lasting phenomenon that will make the chance of promoting new peace agreements between Israel and its neighbors minimal at best.

The fact that Islamic parties may become well-entrenched does not mean they will be entirely popular at home. There will be resentment by considerable components of the population who do not want a religious lifestyle and who fear that the democratic moment that finally emerged is being crushed. Economic and demographic challenges may be exacerbated, contributing to increased instability, and leading to greater difficulties for relatively weak central regimes in governing their own peripheries. Non-Arab regional powers—including Iran and Turkey—may try to exploit those weaknesses, as will global jihad organizations.

The rise of non-state actors and the fluidity of borders has increased the terror threat to Israel’s civilian population—today there are tens of thousands of rockets and missiles pointed at Israel’s rear, eliminating the distinction between the “front” and the “home front.” Iran’s efforts, Russia’s irresponsible policies, and the abundance of uncontrolled state-of-the-art weaponry following the fall of Gadhafi’s regime in Libya (and the possible fall of the Assad regime in Syria) may lead to advanced weapons in the hands of radical terror groups including Hezbollah, Global Jihad, and Palestinian terror organizations. A major concern is the possibility of chemical weapons ending up in the hands of Hezbollah or Global Jihad organizations in Syria.

The complexity of these challenges will be enhanced by other changes in the nature of the battlefield as cyber warfare becomes more developed.

Israel’s relations with the Palestinians will continue to be complicated because of Palestinian insistence on operating unilaterally, and their ongoing incitement to hatred and violence. Chief among the difficulties is the Palestinian organizations’ denial of the legitimacy of Israel’s existence in any form, and specifically existence as the nation state of the Jewish people. There are also the problems of the aging of the current leadership and radicalization of political discourse in the region as well as inside the Palestinian community. The current misperceptions of many European governments about the conflict offer no incentive for the Palestinians to drop their intransigence toward real, positive peace based on accepting Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Palestinian policies bolstered by Western governments may well lead to increased violence and terror, though the Palestinians are reluctant to experience another “intifada”

The International Arena

The international arena presents broader developments and concerns for Israel. Most worrisome is the regional perception that the United States—Israel’s main ally, whose support is a cornerstone of Israeli national security—is a weakening superpower. People in the region believe the U.S. is hesitant about its mission and vision, unwilling and to some extent unable to make the necessary psychological, political, military, and financial investments to maintain the role it has managed for decades. On many regional issues, Europe seems more determined to act even though the economic crisis and demographic changes in Europe have made the “Old World” less capable of contending with the radicalization of the Arab world, and more likely to witness growing anti-Israel, and sometimes anti-Semitic, feelings.

This goes hand-in-hand with Palestinian-led efforts to deny the legitimacy of the existence of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, its right to defend itself, and its right to have its opinion heard. These efforts receive active support from academics, journalists, and NGOs pretending to care about human rights and peace, while actually using their epistemological authority to bash Israel and erode it’s legitimacy. It frames the discourse in a misleading way, portraying Israel as the problem and the victimizer in its conflict with the Palestinians. These individuals and groups work to isolate and limit Israel’s ability to defend itself properly in the military and diplomatic arenas. They hope to enable Palestinians to achieve their goals without having to accept the legitimacy and permanence of Israel in the region as the nation state of the Jewish people and without addressing Israel’s legitimate security concerns.

The Internal Dimension

Not all of Israel’s challenges live in the non-Jewish world or outside its borders. Internally there are the tensions among factions of Israeli society. There is also a growing need to address what seems to be erosion in the way Jews outside of Israel relate to the Jewish state and to the importance many Israelis attribute to security concerns.

Israelis, like other people, can be misled by misconceptions about the conflict with the Palestinians and by the promotion of imaginary threats that play on peoples’ sense of morality and/or insecurity. For example, it is often said that if Israel does not succumb to Palestinian demands, Israel will become “one state for two peoples” (instead of the presumed “two states” Israel and Palestine, for “two peoples”). The threat that Israel will cease to be a Jewish state, or become an “apartheid state,” is often accompanied by a call on the West to pressure Israel; to “rescue” it from its own “destructive policies and leadership.” All of these baseless presumptions delegitimize the Israeli democratic system—the only truly democratic system in the region.

It cannot be denied, however, that these misconceptions have become unquestioned truths in many political and social circles, despite the fact that their purpose is to single out Israel as the only “obstacle to peace” and distract from the real stumbling block that prevents progress on the issue—the Palestinian refusal to accept Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and thus as a legitimate and permanent state in the area.

Relying on Israel’s Strengths

Experience tells us that Israel can contend successfully with great dangers and threats. It managed to overcome much bigger armies and convince its neighbors to give up the conventional military option. Israel succeeded against all odds to win several wars against terror, the most demanding of which was the terror war of 2000-2006, and it has developed capabilities to provide its citizens with protection against incoming rockets. Israel has also managed to prevent its rivals from producing nuclear weapons.

In coping with the challenges ahead, Israel will rely first and foremost on itself and its people. Israel has a unique and diverse social fabric, but the people share broad common social and political denominators. The vast majority of the population is committed to doing what is necessary to defend the State. The resilience of the home front is strong, as evidenced by its response to the 2006 Lebanon War in the north and the rocket barrages by Hamas in the south. The Israeli public relies on its high moral standards; outstanding military and intelligence services; sound economic policies; scientific and technological capabilities; creative and innovative nature; and ability to learn rapidly and well, making the required adjustments to new threats and challenges. It has also been able to rely on Jewish communities outside of Israel—particularly in the United States—but the future will require the development of a better infrastructure for dialogue and joint action plans.

Israel can also rely on its special relations with other liberal democracies, especially the United States, which not only identify with Israel and are committed to its security, but which understand Israel’s strategic value and see it standing on the front line in confronting threats to their own security, values, and interests. In light of regional and international developments, Israel continually seeks to strengthen its cooperation with the U.S. and other friends, including NATO, and look for new friends as in fact it has common interests with many of the regional players despite their formal negative approach toward the Jewish State.

Building on fundamentally sound positions, Israel has to strengthen its capacity to prevent emerging threats from fully materializing. First and foremost is to help form an effective coalition of liberal democracies determined to stop the Iranian military nuclear project, and develop the ability to carry out a preventive mission, if necessary. Israel is convinced that sanctions backed by a credible military threat will convince the Iranian regime to give up what it sees as a strategically important and politically prestigious project.

Israel will also continue to develop its military and intelligence capabilities, and the internal and international consensus regarding the conditions under which it can be used. This enhances Israel’s deterrent capability by affecting its adversaries’ perception that Israel can and will cause damage they would prefer to avoid.

And finally, parallel to securing the existing peace agreements and arrangements with its neibours, Israel will continue its efforts to change the framework by which its conflict with the Palestinians is understood. The road to real peace lies in convincing the Palestinian leadership that Israel, the nation state of the Jewish people, is a legitimate and permanent part of the region.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director General of Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs. He was formerly head of the Research and Analysis and Production Division of the IDF Directorate of Israeli Military Intelligence.