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Israel’s Strategic Reality

Written by Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel

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A nuclear Iran is going to create a dramatic change in the region. The first lesson certain leaders learned from the Arab Spring is to get nuclear capability and become immune to outside pressure. They consider Gaddafi to have made a big mistake when he gave up his nuclear program. No one would have dared to use force in dealing with him. No one would have dared to use force against Saddam Hussein in 1991 or 2003 if he would have had a nuclear capability.

Next, imagine the behavior of radical non-state actors under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. They will be more aggressive and will dare to do things that perhaps right now they are not willing to do. After the Mumbai terrorist attack, a senior Indian military officer replied to our question of why India did nothing, when everyone knew who was behind the attack. He said that when the other side has a nuclear capability and a will to use it, you think twice.

From Israel's perspective, the regional turmoil is not a "spring." A year ago our assessment was that these revolutions will be hijacked by others and this has come true. We think the risks for the mid-term and long-term are greater than the opportunities. These revolutions were hijacked by well-organized groups with a solid agenda and ideology, and the dominant tone is Islamist, colored by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Syria, the day after Assad's regime comes to an end there is a possibility that this major player will be removed from the radical axis. But we do not know who will be in control of Syria's huge stockpile of strategic chemical and biological weapons.

Israel's ability to achieve a decisive outcome from any conflict has also changed. We have the capability to hit any adversary very hard, but the last rocket may well be fired from the other side. There will be no more knockouts. In future conflicts, we may be exchanging fire until the last minute, and we will not see a white flag being waved.

From a planner's perspective, it is a nightmare to try to prepare for the unknown. The Planning Directorate of the IDF has three major tasks: the first is strategic planning. We have a lot of interaction with the government related to national security, policy, and strategy. The second task is to provide yearly and multi-year plans for the force structure of the IDF in terms of procurement, organization, and resource allocation. There is a clear relationship between strategy and force structure. The strategy should direct the force structure, but the force structure has an influence on strategy as well because not everything can be implemented, so they go together. The third task is responsibility for military cooperation with several militaries around the world. The Planning Directorate interacts with the defense attachés in Israel, and with IDF attachés around the world.

The Middle East is going through a time of dramatic change, a process that has not been experienced in centuries. Looking through the lens of national security, this creates many new challenges and unknowns that we have to take into consideration. We have two options: one is to sit on the fence and see what will happen and try to prepare ourselves in order to address these new challenges. On the other hand, we would like to be proactive in order to have some kind of influence, even though Israel's ability to address these changes in the Middle East is limited. Even superpowers have only limited ability to influence this arena. The toolbox is not empty, but the tools needed to address the emerging currents are limited.

Iran's Nuclear Aspirations250px-Arak_heavy_water_reactor2

Arak heavy water reactor

When we look to the future, the first factor that we have to take into consideration strategically is Iran. We have to look toward Iran's ambitions, aspirations, and its journey to nuclear capability, and the potential of this to create a dramatic change in the Middle East and beyond. Iran's nuclear aspirations are really the leading edge of the whole package. It is easy to understand that a nuclear Iran is going to create a dramatic change in the region – first, by having such a capability, and the outcome of having that capability. Secondly, this will create a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, because other countries will try to acquire such a capability. It can create a process that will lead to a global nuclear jungle, because if Iran dared to do it, others will also.

The first lesson certain leaders learned from the Arab Spring is to get nuclear capability and become immune to outside pressure. They consider Gaddafi to have made a big mistake when he gave up his nuclear program. No one would have dared to use force in dealing with him if he had nuclear capability. No one would have dared to use force against Saddam Hussein in 1991 or 2003 if he would have had a nuclear capability.

Next we have to imagine the behavior of radical non-state actors under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. They will be more aggressive and will dare to do things that perhaps right now they are not willing to do. After the Mumbai terrorist attack, a senior Indian military officer replied to our question of why India did nothing, when everyone knew who was behind the attack. He said that when the other side has a nuclear capability and a will to use it, you think twice. This means that strategically you are more limited and more restrained because you do not want to get into that game. Therefore, this will create a dramatic change in Israel's strategic posture, because if we are forced to take action in Gaza or Lebanon when they are under an Iranian nuclear umbrella, it might be different.

The Regional Turmoil

From Israel's perspective, the regional turmoil is not a "spring." A year ago our assessment was that these revolutions will be hijacked by others and this has come true. The picture is not monochromatic, meaning there are opportunities and there are risks, but when we assess all of those, we think the risks for the mid-term and long-term are greater than the opportunities. These revolutions were hijacked by well-organized groups with a solid agenda and ideology, and the dominant tone is Islamist, colored by the Muslim Brotherhood. This movement has been with us for many years, and some of their beliefs and values are not similar to those shared by other nations. They are pragmatic, and perhaps this creates opportunities, but we have to look at the core issues and, from our point of view, they are not positive, although also not completely negative. They have to deal with problems that are enormous and difficult issues that do not have solutions right now.

What is their ability to address the internal challenges? I am not optimistic. Who is going to solve the economic problems in Egypt? But if they are not solved, the situation there could get worse. The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood is reflected in the whole region. During the next decade, we are going to see a rise in Brotherhood movements throughout the area. Each country is a different case, but we will see their rise among the Palestinians, within Hamas, and in Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. I do not see them creating a new Sunni axis colored by the Brotherhood because they are focused on their internal issues right now. However, one country does affect the other. We do not consider Egypt as an enemy. There is cooperation between the IDF and the Egyptian military to face this new situation.

Syria After Assad

We do not know what will happen in Syria the day after Assad's regime comes to an end. One thing we do know is that it is not a question of if, but when. There is a possibility that this major player will be removed from the radical axis.

Syria is not coherent like other countries – the Sunnis in Damascus and the Sunnis in Aleppo are different, and then there are the Druze, the Kurds, and the Alawis.

One immediate cause for concern is the huge stockpile of strategic chemical and biological weapons capabilities inside Syria, coming mainly from Eastern Europe. We do not know who will be in control the day after. What has been and will be transferred to Hizbullah, what will be divided among the factions inside Syria, and what this is going to mean are all major concerns.

On the military level, every component of our national security strategy faces challenges. First, there is the need for deterrence, with countries in the Middle East working to acquire weapons of mass destruction (and some have already acquired them). The growing numbers of surface-to-surface missiles and rockets are another major challenge to our deterrence. Our early-warning capability in the past was meant for a large-scale war. Today one needs a warning for a single terrorist, and this presents a new strategic situation.

Another component being challenged is Israel's ability to achieve a decisive outcome from any conflict. We have the capability to hit any adversary very hard, but the last rocket may well be fired from the other side. There will be no more knockouts. In future conflicts, we may be exchanging fire until the last minute, and we will not see a white flag being waved. Today, achieving a decisive outcome is not like it used to be, not because it is not decisive, but because the image at the end will be different.

A Security Strategy

Israel is a small country, and our first prime minister's national security strategy was to strive to achieve a decisive outcome in a very short time and to transfer the war to the other side of the border. Now we are facing a campaign that is implemented between the big wars, and it is implemented on a daily basis by others.

Iran is not only fighting Israel, but also others on a daily basis in many dimensions – terror, political, economic. They have the long arm of the Quds forces. What are they doing in South America? What are they doing in Nigeria? Iran has aspirations for regional hegemony and they are working everywhere. There is an ongoing Iranian campaign using terror, as well as by using economic, legal and political issues.

The IDF was built to protect Israel's borders and we must address this campaign right now. This means being proactive in order to shape the situation and to decrease our enemies' capabilities. We have to deal with the smuggling of huge quantities of arms. It involves an ongoing campaign in which we have been required to change our organization. There are many fronts, not just military, but also political, legal, and economic.

Direct Threats

One of the challenges to Israel's national security strategy is to deal with direct threats. We have seen enormous efforts by our enemies to arm themselves with surface-to-surface missiles and rockets. We are talking about more than 100,000 missiles and rockets, which are now of longer-range and are more lethal and more accurate. There has also been a massive investment in air defenses. Even Syria has invested more than $2 billion in air defenses over the last few years because they understand they have a problem with the Israel Air Force. In addition, huge quantities of anti-tank missiles have gone to terrorist organizations, and these have been fired at yellow Israeli school buses near Gaza. We have to deal with all of this.

The region is unstable. Other countries that have state-of-the-art Western technology might change in the future and we have to take this into consideration as well.

The Palestinian Issue

Unless an agreement with the Palestinians is based on solid security arrangements, it will not last. People tend to think that peace provides security, and that is true, but here in the Middle East, security also provides peace. Any Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement must be protected by a solid security arrangement because of the proximity of the West Bank and Gaza to Israel's heartland, and the exposure of our population to potential threats. The IDF continues to support the PA under the directive of our political leadership. There are many areas of cooperation.

Preparing for the Unknown

In order to prepare for future unknowns, you enhance your core, robust, versatile, and flexible capabilities in order to address those challenges that you do not even know about today. More than that, it is crucial to have people who can adjust themselves to new situations. We need to be flexible to change things as we see them emerging.

Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel began his career as a fighter pilot in 1979. He went on to serve in a variety of staff and command positions, including Air Force Chief of Staff and Chief of Air Staff. Maj.-Gen. Eshel assumed his position as Head of the IDF Planning Directorate in 2008.

This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on the author’s presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on January 17, 2012.

Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs
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