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Have the Fundamentals of Israel’s Strategic Environment Inextricably Changed

Have the Fundamentals of Israel’s Strategic Environment Inextricably Changed

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This article analyzes possible changes in Israel's security strategies in response to the changing Middle Eastern landscape caused by the Arab Spring.
This article analyzes possible changes in Israel's security strategies in response to the changing Middle Eastern landscape caused by the Arab Spring.

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Published by: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on Apr 03, 2014
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Have the Fundamentals of Israel‟s Strategic Environment Inextricably Changed?
 
Dore Gold, August 22, 2013
 No. 596 July-August 2013
 
 
There is a view that developments since the advent of the Arab Spring have completely altered the way Israel should look at its national security needs for many decades to come. The old strategic assumptions that guided Israeli thinking, according to this thesis, are not going to become relevant again. In order to evaluate this idea, it is necessary to keep in mind that there are certain constants in
Israel’s security predicament that are not going to be altered even with the developments the
Middle East is witnessing.
 
For Israel remains a small state surrounded by states that have a combined population of 300
million, in territories that are hundreds of times the size of Israel. As a result, Israel’s military
assets may be seen as geographically concentrated in a limited area, while neighboring Arab states have been able to disperse launch sites, weapons depots, and military bases across a vast expanse of territory.
 
While some neighboring armies have been badly degraded by internal conflicts, it would be a cardinal error to base national planning on a temporary snapshot of reality. For example, Iraq is  planning to modernize its ground forces and convert its army from a counterinsurgency force to a force with maneuver warfare capabilities based on new armored and mechanized formations. There are estimates that it will have over 2,000 main battle tanks by the middle of the next decade.
 
The Gaza Strip has been flooded with Iranian and Libyan weapons. In the West Bank, where Israel holds on to the outer perimeter of the territory in the Jordan Valley, the same weaponry has not reached terrorist organizations. Global
 jihadists
 have been unable to reach the West Bank in order to reinforce their Islamist compatriots, as they did in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Thus, territorial considerations remain applicable to the new threats.
 
The present wave of anti-regime rebellions is loosening central government control over large  parts of several Arab states. This has created a vacuum that is being filled by regional terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and its affiliates. This process has become accentuated in Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula. Countering terrorist organizations by simply deterring the governments of the countries in which they are situated is likely to prove an inadequate strategy.
 
The pressures Israel faces at this time to agree to a full withdrawal from the West Bank and to acquiesce to the loss of defensible borders pose unacceptable risks for the Jewish state. They also stand in contradiction to the international commitments given to Israel in the past.
Constants in Israeli Defense Policy Planning
There is a view that developments since the advent of the Arab Spring have completely altered the way Israel should look at its national security needs for many decades to come. The old strategic assumptions that guided Israeli thinking, according to this thesis, are not going to become relevant again. In order to
 
evaluate this idea, it is necessary to keep in mind that there are certain constants of Is
rael’s security
 predicament that do not change with the kinds of political shifts that the Middle East is witnessing. For decades Israeli defense policy planning has been predicated upon certain constants that have not changed. Israel is a small state with roughly 8 million citizens. It is surrounded by states that have a
combined population of 300 million, in territories hundreds of times the size of Israel. As a result, Israel’s
military assets may be seen as geographically concentrated in a limited area, while neighboring Arab states have been able to disperse launch sites, weapons depots, and military bases across a vast expanse of territory. In past Arab-Israeli wars, these asymmetries were exploited by Arab military forces, which enjoyed quantitati
ve superiority of active service military formations. Israel’s strategy was based on the need to
withstand an attack by numerically greater forces while its reserve formations were being mobilized in roughly 48 hours. At times of increased tensions, Israel
’s adversaries were always tempted to exploit these
asymmetries and launch a surprise attack. Terrain, topography, and strategic depth were essential
considerations influencing Israel’s ability to defend itself in these scenarios, and to stabilize the core
 of the Middle East.
Is the Era of Land Warfare Over?
There are new strategic uncertainties in the Middle East that make it difficult to know exactly what kinds of threats Israel will face in the future. There are voices now asserting that the era of classical threats to Israel  posed by land armies has completely ended. Some neighboring armies, they note, have been badly degraded by internal conflicts. With no superpower competition, there is no equivalent to the Soviet Union, which poured arms into the Middle East during the Cold War in order to buy influence.
That description of Israel’s strategic reality is only true for the short and medium term, however. It would
 be a cardinal error to base national planning on a temporary snapshot of reality, for Middle Eastern states can be expected to rearm and again build up their conventional forces, initially, in order to bolster their ability to protect their regimes internally and to suppress restive minorities. At a later stage, these armies could be used to threaten vulnerable neighbors, as in the past. For example, Iraq is planning to modernize its ground forces and convert its army from a counterinsurgency force to a force with maneuver warfare capabilities based on new armored and mechanized formations. There are estimates that it will have over 2,000 main battle tanks by the middle of the next decade. Thus, military asymmetries are likely to remain one cause of regional instability in the future. Anyone assuming that the era of land warfare is over would be making a cardinal mistake.
The Rise of the New Terrorist Threat
Before Middle Eastern states recover their full military potential, terrorist organizations are likely to pose the most immediate threat behind the outbreak of conflict in the Middle East. Yet it is important to note that terrorist organizations today can pose a serious threat to a conventional army. Using asymmetric tactics, they operate from populated areas, and are prepared to use civilians as human shields. This strategy limits the ability of conventional forces to use their full firepower without causing unacceptable civilian casualties. In its wars in territories from which the IDF withdrew, particularly in South Lebanon and Gaza, Israel found itself unfairly accused of using disproportional force, although its operations were not much different from those of Western forces in Iraq or Afghanistan. When the UN Human Rights Council appointed the Goldstone Commission, it accused Israel of deliberately targeting civilians, a charge Justice Richard
Goldstone subsequently rejected. While the commission’s initial findings were discredited, Israeli strategy
 
had to adapt to a new reality in which its military operations would be increasingly under an international magnifying glass, further challenging its freedom of action to deal with terrorist threats. What this meant in practical terms was that future Israeli governments could not simply withdraw from territories under the assumption that if terrorist organizations subsequently took control over them, the IDF could easily re-enter them and eliminate the threat they posed. In other words, it remains necessary to have a defensible border so that Israel can physically prevent an unacceptable threat against its interior from developing, rather than assume that the IDF can conduct raids into those territories in order to uproot any hostile forces there.
Political Constraints in Fighting Terrorism
Another factor that will influence Israel’s future strategy against terrorism is the political
-military impact of  peace agreements themselves, which Israel should continue to seek with its neighbors. In the 1950s when the Syrian Army attacked Israeli villages from the Golan Heights, the IDF often responded by using its forces to eliminate Syrian military positions from which Israel had come under fire. But more recently, when southern Israel was attacked by al-Qaeda affiliates from the Sinai Peninsula, the IDF did not want to take military action that violated Egyptian sovereignty and threatened the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace.
As long as the Arab states effectively controlled their territories along Israel’s borders, the IDF faced no
dilemmas of this sort, with the notable exception of Lebanon, where the authority of the central government collapsed decades ago, resulting in repeated conflicts over time. But with the advent of the Arab Spring, whatever limited stability the rest of the Middle East was able to gain has been badly undermined, posing new types of challenges for Israeli security. For example, Israel could find itself in a situation in which
 jihadist 
 organizations repeatedly attack Israel from territories belonging to states that have a formal peace treaty with Israel but are powerless to stop the attacks. What if a future Palestinian state was taken over by Hamas or quickly evolved into a failed state unable to maintain order and prevent attacks. Would Israel re-invade the territory of a state with which it had signed a peace agreement? Would the international community recognize its right of self-defense? If Israel was protected by a defensible border, it would be more difficult for such a threatening scenario to develop in the future in a critical area like the West Bank. Regardless of how future scenarios might develop, the failure to halt the infiltration of advanced weapons to terrorist groups could have devastating consequences for Israel. In the Gaza Strip, where Israel gave up the Philadelphi Corridor along the border with Egypt, the area has been flooded with Iranian and Libyan weapons. In the West Bank, where Israel holds on to the outer perimeter of the territory in the Jordan Valley, the same weaponry has not reached terrorist organizations like Hamas or Islamic Jihad. It must be remembered that many terrorist groups like Hizbullah, and to a lesser extent Hamas, have acquired many of the attributes of a conventional army, obtaining from their Iranian sponsors advanced weapons, the likes of which terrorist groups never had access before, including shore-to-ship missiles, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Hizbullah also has an arsenal of ballistic missiles and rockets larger than that of most states in the Middle East. Its acquisition of weapons of mass destruction in the future cannot be ruled out. Moreover, global
 jihadists
 have been unable to reach the West Bank in order to reinforce their Islamist compatriots, as they did in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. What a rejuvenated al-Qaeda needs to wage war against Israel is access to its interior, which it has been unable to obtain as long as the IDF controls the vital strategic buffers that surround it. In short, the territorial considerations that were relevant for defending Israel from a massive ground attack in the 1970s remain applicable to the new threats now becoming more  prominent.

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