Have the fundamentals of Israel's strategic environment inextricably changed?
By Dore Gold
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 Israel'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 quantitative 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.
The Rising Profile of the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood and its Allies
What makes this concern with the rise of terrorism in the Middle East even more compelling is the fact that the strongest political forces vying for power in the Arab world today, seeking to replace the current regimes there, are tied to the Muslim Brotherhood network. In the 1960s, Arab nationalism provided the glue for military coalitions against Israel. In today's Middle East, Islamism could also provide the basis for hostile coalitions that first will threaten moderate Western allies, and later pose a new challenge to Israel itself. As in the era of Nasserism, Islamism is a hegemonial force that does not accept national boundaries.
This is already evident in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood had an extremely low profile when President Mubarak was toppled, but since that time its role in Egyptian politics has grown substantially,1 leading to the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president. While the movement suffered a serious setback in July 2013 with the fall of Mohamed Morsi, the situation remains fluid and it is difficult to predict whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to make a comeback in Egypt. Even before the current wave of uprisings, after 2006, Turkey became a new center of Muslim Brotherhood activity, hosting its global network in high-profile conferences in Istanbul.2
The Muslim Brotherhood stands out as one of the main political forces behind the wave of protests that took place in Jordan, as well.3 Indeed, Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit charged that the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood was taking orders from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria.4 Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood has provided the ideological underpinnings for the leading figures in global terrorism, from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to Osama bin Laden.
In the last few years, with the rise of leaders like Muhammad Badie in Egypt and Hammam Sayid in Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood has come under a more extremist leadership, which still embraces hardline doctrines against the West and a commitment to jihadism.5 Both the Egyptian and Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood branches, as well as Hamas, attacked the U.S. for eliminating Bin Laden.6 6
Even if the Muslim Brotherhood does not return to power in Egypt at this point, it will undoubtedly become part of future political coalitions that will move many neighboring countries into a much more hostile stance against Israel and even one supportive of militant action against the Jewish state. The hostility of the Muslim Brotherhood to Israel should not be underestimated. It is frequently forgotten that Hamas, which regularly launches rocket attacks deliberately aimed at Israeli population centers, is, according to its own charter, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Muhammad Badie in late 2010 issued a weekly message in which he plainly stated that the way forward on the Palestinian issue is not through negotiations, but rather by returning to jihad and martyrdom (istishhad).7 Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood’s second-in-command announced in February 2011 that the movement will seek to cancel the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.
It should always be remembered that the struggle with Israel is only a small portion of the Muslim Brotherhood's overall strategy that makes it a hostile movement, for its ultimate goal is to create a new caliphate which will become the basis of a global Islamic state.
Muslim Brotherhood Regimes Providing Support to Jihadists
At a minimum, Muslim Brotherhood regimes can be expected to provide support and even sanctuary to terrorist groups engaging in active conflict with Israel. The first Muslim Brotherhood regime, under Sudanese leader Hassan Turabi, hosted both Hamas and al-Qaeda in the early 1990s, and allowed them to set up training bases.
In January 2011, Mohamed Morsi escaped an Egyptian prison with a number of leading jihadists, like Ramzi Mahoud al-Mowafi, who served under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan and later became a senior commander for the jihadist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula after his prison escape.10
Under the Morsi regime, the Muslim Brotherhood pardoned jihadists and let them out of prison, like the leader of Gama’a Islamiyya, who was behind the 1997 Luxor massacre. Also released was Muhammad al-Zawahiri, a Salafi jihadist who was the younger brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Morsi also sought the release of the blind cleric, Sheikh Omar Abderrahman, who planned the first World Trade Center attack in 1993. He also pressed the Egyptian military to accept jihadists into Egyptian military academies. In short, when in power, the Muslim Brotherhood proved itself to be a key ally of the jihadist organizations.
Second, the present wave of anti-regime rebellions is loosening central government control over large parts of several Arab states. This has created a vacuum in many areas, which is being filled by regional terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and its affiliates that seek to establish new sanctuaries beyond the reach of pro-Western Arab military establishments. This process in which Middle Eastern states are showing signs of fragmentation is already evident in Yemen, Libya, and Syria. It has become accentuated in Egypt, especially in the Sinai Peninsula, where the Bedouin have drawn closer to Hamas in a number of acts of sabotage against the Egyptian gas pipeline, which supplied both Israel and Jordan.
During the Iraq War, al-Qaeda in Iraq sought to set up a forward position in the Jordanian city of Irbid. Al-Qaeda in Iraq also set up a Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, which has sought to infiltrate Jordan. Jordanian security forces have overcome these challenges, but Israel has to recognize that in the Middle East today the proliferation of such groups is on the rise and the ability of states, whether friendly or adversarial, to control the spread of terrorist groups is declining. Countering terrorist organizations by simply deterring the governments of the countries in which they are situated is likely to prove an inadequate strategy.
Third, the undermining of the internal stability of Sunni Arab states is occurring as Iran seeks to consolidate its regional hegemony in the entire Middle East. While Iranian interests may be affected by the continuing rebellions in the Arab world, especially in Syria and Hizbullah- controlled Lebanon, Tehran stands to be a major beneficiary of the current instability in critical countries like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
For Israel, the biggest question is the future orientation of Iraq, where the Iranians have been supporting a number of key Shiite parties. Those Iraqi politicians who are prepared to oppose Iranian encroachments have only done so with strong U.S. backing. But after the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, what is to prevent Iraq from falling into Iranian hands? For the last number of years, Lebanese Hizbullah has also been active in Iraq, training Shiite militias, along with Iranian Revolutionary Guards. As Iran’s regional power grows, Iraq is likely to evolve into an Iranian satellite state and re-engage, in some form, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Iraq is not far away from Israel; it is roughly 210 miles from the Iraqi border to the Jordan River.
It has not gone without notice that Saudi Arabia has reinforced its northern border with Iraq, considering that it too cannot be certain what Baghdad’s future orientation will be. Israel, as well, cannot rule out Iraq, under Iranian influence, re-engaging in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1948, 1967, and 1973, Iraq took part in the war effort along Israel’s eastern front by consistently dispatching one-third of its ground forces. In 1991 Baghdad launched missiles against Israeli cities. Regardless of the form it takes, if the rejuvenation of Israel’s eastern front is even a remote possibility, how can Israel be expected to fully withdraw to the 1967 lines and abandon its right to defensible borders?
Undermining a Negotiated Peace
To conclude, 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. These recognized that Israel did not have to agree to a full withdrawal from this territory.
Additionally, the 1993 Oslo Agreements envisioned a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Borders were to be decided upon by the parties themselves and not be imposed by international coalitions or by unilateral acts. In fact, those commitments to a negotiated solution of the conflict appeared explicitly in the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement. Notably, that agreement bears the signatures of President Bill Clinton and officials from the European Union and Russia, who acted as formal witnesses.
What is clear today is that the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas has had a questionable interest in a negotiated solution to its conflict with Israel. Until the intervention of Secretary of State John Kerry, Abbas piled up preconditions for any negotiation with Israel. He preferred to see the international community impose territorial terms that are to its advantage without having to formally declare an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and without having to recognize the rights of the Jewish people to a nation-state of their own.
The idea that the EU or other international actors would dictate to Israel recognition of the pre-1967 lines and set the stage for an imposed solution may serve the Palestinian interest, but not the interest of achieving real peace. European support for such initiatives would contravene the very peace agreements they signed in the past as witnesses. It would set the stage for further Palestinian unilateralist initiatives at the UN and deal a virtually fatal blow to any negotiations.
Finally, it must be added that the people of Israel have undergone a traumatic decade and a half. For the most part, they passionately embraced the promise of the 1993 Oslo Agreements and yet, instead of peace, they saw their cities attacked repeatedly by waves of suicide bombers that left over 1,000 Israelis dead.
Israelis took further risks and supported a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, only to find that there was a five-fold increase in rocket fire against Israeli population centers in the year that followed. Longer-range rockets poured into Hamas-controlled Gaza, as Iran exploited the vacuum created by Israel’s withdrawal.
The people of Israel have an inalienable right to security and to certainty that the mistakes of recent years will not be repeated. The full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip must not be attempted again in the West Bank, especially given what is happening today across the Middle East region. For those reasons, Israel must not be asked to concede its right to defensible borders.
Former Israeli UN Ambassador Dore Gold is the President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.