Israel’s regional policies: looking at both Washington and Moscow
US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the revival of the two-state solution during the middle of Israel’s quiet and joyful celebration of its longest religious holiday Sukkoon – even if abruptly recanted – hit Israel’s leadership like a thunderbolt. Several key figures, including Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (the Jewish Home) and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Likud), immediately stated that the two-state solution was not an option and not on the table, reiterating that as long as the current coalition government is in power “there will be no Palestinian state” (Arutz Sheva, September 27, 2018).
After many pro-Israel goodwill gestures from the US administration, this small opening towards the international community by the Trump administration could point to a minor discontinuity in Washington’s staunch pro-Israel stance, buttressed by the US embassy transfer from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the recognition of the latter as the capital of Israel, and the most recent funding cuts to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Brought forward as a possibility and not as a priority of the US administration, it does not change the facts on the ground, but nonetheless alarmed Israeli officials that Jerusalem might not always have the wind at its back.
Another warning sign came from Moscow after the September 17th military accident that downed a Russian IL-20 plane killing 15 people: An attack mistakenly carried out by the Syrian aircraft battery in reaction to an Israeli Air Force military overflight in the Western Syrian region of Latakia. After official Russian complaints were aired and retaliation measures announced against the Israeli action (which was branded as a provocation), Jerusalem took the Russian response seriously, immediately dispatching its Air Force Head General, Amikam Norkin, to Moscow with a 30-page detailed report on the accident. Apparently, the diplomatic move was not enough to settle the dispute. Moscow did receive an official apology from the Netanyahu government, but rather than accept it, the Russian army was willing to seize on the occasion as a pretext to renegotiate the tacit Israeli-Russian agreement on Syria.
On September 23rd, Russian General Igor Konashenkov declared that Israel had trespassed a red line after the Russian army responded with many conciliatory gestures to accommodate Israeli security requests. For example, the Russian General quoted the demand for Russian authorities to supervise and eventually block the transfer of sensitive military equipment to Hezbollah, hinting that Russia will no longer ensure containment of weapon transfers near the Syrian-Israeli border. Russia has also put forth three major countermoves: The provision of S-300 missiles to the Syrian Armed Republic forces (SAR), automatic control systems and cutting-edge aircraft satellite radars. Those provisions do not constitute a significant threat in and of themselves as they cannot offset or dramatically challenge the Syrian-Israeli military power balance, but they could signal Moscow’s increasing interest in containing Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, which has so far translated into some 200 aerial attacks on the country in the last 18 months (al-Monitor, September 28, 2018).
Israel must move quickly to mend its relations with Russia given Moscow’s role on the Syrian front. It becomes clearer each day that Russia is becoming the real kingpin in the Levant and (at least theoretically) the only possible broker among the region’s main players (Turkey, Iran and Israel). Until the recent crisis, relations between Putin and Netanyahu were judged as “very good” by Russian analysts as Moscow considers itself the only acceptable broker in the Israel-Iran dispute. This is especially true since the US administration will not send more troops to a region it openly considers a “waste of money” – regardless of the conditions on the ground in Syria and the human rights violations. So far, Moscow has obtained Iranian restraint on the Golan Heights’ border and accommodation of Israel’s request for keeping Iranian bases more than 140 kilometers away from the Israeli border. Moreover, the Israeli leadership and intelligence community clearly acknowledge that the Russians will be present for years in the region, even after the Syrian war eventually comes to an end. In addition, Israel and Moscow have a tacit understanding on the unofficial containment of Iran’s and Assad’s Shia militias in Syria, which comprises 50,000 fighters, including 8,000 Hezbollah militants, plus 7,000 Iranian counsellors, of which only a small number has been so far recalled. In fact, what Jerusalem sees as the worse threat on the Syrian side is a centralized military effort by the regime to retake its Southern region bordering the Golan Heights. Thus far, the fluid presence of rebel forces fighting the Assad regime has greatly benefitted Israel by halting Iranian proxies and avoiding the silent ethnic takeover of Shia communities in traditionally-Sunni areas cautiously operated by the regime in the central regions of the country.
Israel should not push its luck too far with Russia when other strategic and more fundamental threats are looming on the horizon and the possibility of a confrontation with Iran through Hezbollah on its own border is always possible. Most security advisors and analysts consider Iran the greatest threat to Israel, not only because of its nuclear aspiration, but also its geographical proximity on the Israeli border through its Lebanese Shia proxy (Hezbollah). The Institute for National Security Studies’ (INSS) intelligence experts in Tel Aviv all acknowledge that in the short run, Hezbollah is well placed to inflict major casualties and disrupt facilities over half of Israel’s territory. However, Hezbollah is only a second and minor abettor in comparison to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Thus, the fact that Iran could soon command a major missile attack on Israel, while Israel’s missile counterattack could not directly threaten Iran, places Israel in an uncomfortable situation. Moreover, according to a recent INSS survey, Israeli public opinion agrees with pundits that Hezbollah and Iran represent by far the largest security threats to their country, overtaking the likelihood of domestic terrorism and a further Palestinian uprising (INSS survey 2017-2018).
The intelligence community holds that Israel should not bomb Iran now, despite preserving the option in the case of Tehran bridging the nuclear agreement and the constant reminder of the military ability to do so at any time. Israel warmly welcomed the re-imposition of large scale US sanctions on Iran and praised their efficiency in delivering practical results in only 45 days: a dramatic decrease in bank transfers to Iran, the retreat of the major European, Chinese and Indian companies from the Iranian market, the country’s incessant currency devaluation. However, unexpectedly most analysts agree with the European Union remaining in the 2015 JCPOA nuclear agreement. This conclusion is clear from the statement of General Eli Ben Meir, former Israeli Chief-of-Staff of the Israeli intelligence corps and currently vice-President of the Sdema group, a private cyber and intelligence company, at the recent INSS conference on Israeli-Iranian relations: “Iran has no interest in bridging the agreement right now (before the US midterm elections in November and a longer monitoring of the US advancement on the North Korea nuclear dossier), but it won’t renounce on getting nuclear in the long run. Therefore, it is in our best interest that the EU won’t pull out of the agreement.”
At the same conference, Moshe Ya’alon, former Defence Minister and current INSS Senior Research Fellow, claimed that the 2015 nuclear deal had succeeded in postponing Iranian nuclear enrichment capabilities, despite leaving the country with the ability to renew its nuclear program at any time. Moreover, Daniel Shapiro, former US Ambassador to Israel, confirmed that even in the case of JCPOA’s collapse, it is highly unlikely that the United States would bomb Iran; rather the United States would prefer to give an informal green light for Israel to do so. Jerusalem is therefore preparing for any military scenario on the Iranian front claiming to have the military ability to cope with any direct threat. But in order for Israel to focus its military capabilities on Iran, it needs US approval, Russian neutrality and self-restraint in opening too many other fronts.
This could be possible if Jerusalem effectively mends fences with Moscow, but also if Palestinian leader Abu Mazen were to continue to stay in power, ensuring the enforcement of security coordination in the West Bank and the parallel isolation of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. However, the 83-year-old Palestinian President for life has, for the first time, warned that his political experience is running out of time and recently has given in to pressure to appoint Mahmoud al-Aloul to become Deputy President. This is not great news for Palestinian youth protesting the lack of turnover in Palestinian politics and the absence of any strategic rethinking of Palestinian resistance since the failure of the Oslo process. Al-Aloul is not a fresh face in Palestinian politics: he is a member of the old guard and of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and has already held many government positions in the Palestinian Authority, such as the governor of Nablus. However, his nomination could point to the current leadership’s belated acknowledgement of a passing of the torch in favor of cautious support of popular and grassroots resistance, , which Al-Aloul has openly supported in the recent past. It could also signal the Palestinian leadership’s alarm about a possible intra-Palestinian bloodbath in the case of the sudden death of Abu Mazen, who has so far avoided the emergence of major rifts among the PLO factions, but is also increasingly blamed by his own people for diplomatic and political inaction (62% of the public want President Abbas to resign according to a Policy and Survey Research (PSR) Institute Poll).
It is not surprising, then, that Hamas has accused Abu Mazen of carrying out dozens of arrests in the West Bank on the eve of his departure to the UN General Assembly. Or that the Islamic Resistance Movement is now actively supporting a campaign of distrust among a generation of young Palestinians bitterly deceived by the current Fatah leadership. In the absence of an agreement with Abu Mazen, which the current Israeli government obliviously rules out, Jerusalem does not understand that in the unfortunate event of a power handover in the West Bank, the whole Palestine issue will again be inflamed, which will distract its military forces from what public opinion, security analysts and secret services professionals rank as the country’s main security threat: Iran.
In conclusion, Israel has long had the wind at its back on the Palestinian, Syrian and even Lebanese fronts. But it cannot rule out the possibility that, despite strong US backing, it could soon face the re-emergence of simultaneous and multiple traditional risks. An increase in conventional threats on the Palestinian front, which is very likely to occur following the progressive dismantling of the UNRWA agency after the mass layoffs announced earlier this week in the Gaza Strip, may not be capable of jeopardizing Israel’s security, but they will surely deplete once again its economic resources and affect economic growth, which since the end of the Second Intifada in 2005 has sustained the country and contributed to its internal stability.