Israel’s 2015: Egypt, Iran, and the Unresolved Palestinian Issue

[This is the continuation of an analysis of Israel’s strategic position at the start of 2015 — by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books.  This is adapted from his recent article for The Jerusalem Post.]

< Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before.>

In the South has occurred perhaps the most interesting and important development of 2014. Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before, not even at the height of secret contacts between the two countries when Hosni Mubarak was president — and when intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman felt very at home at the Mossad’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv.

Israel and Egypt, now under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, see eye-to-eye on everything related to Gaza, Hamas, and terrorism in Sinai.

The regime in Cairo sees Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Gen. Sisi despises.  Egypt treats Hamas as an enemy that it must humiliate, subjugate, and isolate.

Egypt accuses Hamas of increasing terrorism in Sinai by helping Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, al-Qaida’s local branch, which has recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS).

Egypt’s army and security forces, with strong backing from Israel — only a little of which is made public — are waging an uncompromising war of destruction on the terrorist organization in Sinai.

In the past year they have had important achievements, but Egypt has also suffered heavy losses. The war on terrorism in Sinai will continue in 2015.

Israel, of course, found itself at war with Hamas for over 7 weeks last summer. Because Hamas’s military strength was severely injured, that represents a gain for Israel.

Yet the Hamas of 2015 is not just another terrorist organization — as the Israeli government and the IDF (the Israeli military) call it.

It is a regime that controls a territory and organizes its forces as a semi-regular army. It is a mix between a guerrilla organization and an actual army. But it is a weakened army, that lost 2/3 of its rocket capabilities (some 6,000 rockets were destroyed or launched), and saw almost all of its attack tunnels into Israel destroyed.

Hamas is trying to rehabilitate its military power and to get out from under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, by swallowing its pride and crawling back into the arms of Iran.

Iran isn’t rushing to take Hamas back into the ayatollahs’ good graces.

Hamas is internationally isolated, and it is also gradually losing its main source of support, Qatar — because the Qataris recently are trying to make peace with the Egyptian regime.

Militarily, Israel is challenged, at least potentially, by three things: radical Islam, Hezbollah and Iran.

The extremist Islamist terrorist groups are near Israel’s borders. Jabat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) controls almost all of the border strip from Jordan to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is active in Sinai, not far from Israel’s border, and Islamic State is trying, unsuccessfully for now, to infiltrate Jordan.

All of these are potential threats, but at this time there are no signs that these terrorist groups are showing interest in Israel.  Their focus is on acting against the states they are currently in: Syria and Egypt.

Despite becoming weaker due to its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah is still considered a serious military power. The group has tens of thousands of missiles that cover almost every point in Israel, including airports, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, army bases, and power stations. Hezbollah fighters are also gaining experience on battlefields in Syria, which will give them improved military capability in the case of a conflict with Israel

Yet Israeli deterrence, which has existed since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, is still holding. Hezbollah does not want war with Israel.

The second threat to Israel comes from Iran. It has hundreds of Shihab-3 missiles, which can hit any target in Israel.

In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Iran is an existential threat to Israel — mainly because Iran seems intent on secretly developing nuclear weapons.

There are senior experts in the defense establishment who believe differently. They privately say that Israeli leaders — above all Netanyahu — make Iran into a life-or-death national threat for domestic political reasons.

Iran is already a nuclear threshold state, anywhere from a matter of months to a year away from having the ability to build its first bomb. If Iran wanted to, it could have already built a bomb.

However, as of now, Iran is not interested in building a nuclear bomb, mainly due to the economic crisis it is facing due to UN and Western sanctions, and also due to the falling price of oil, which is its main source of income.

<A nuclear deal with Iran would be the most

interesting development of 2015>

The first months of 2015 will be focused on the nuclear talks between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran to reach an agreement that will end the nuclear crisis, which has continued for the past nine years. If an agreement is reached and Iran allows tight inspections and limitations for a number of years on its ability to enrich uranium, it will probably be the most interesting development in the international arena in the coming year.

If Washington renews relations with Tehran, Netanyahu’s foreign relations and security policy — built on inflating the Iranian threat, frightening the Israeli public, and abusing the memory of the Holocaust — will be rendered useless.

But it is still far from certain that such an agreement will be reached. The ball is in the court of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to decide to compromise at the cost of national pride — and in doing so save his country from  economic crisis and isolation.

Israel’s unquestioned military superiority stems from the deterioration of states in the Arab world (Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq), from the radical Islamist threat on Arab regimes, and mainly from Israel’s constant efforts to preserve its technological and scientific advantage over regional opponents.

This qualitative edge was created with the help of the strategic alliance with the U.S., but in the past year there have been cracks in this alliance. True, relations and cooperation in the field of security and intelligence on the operative level of both states have been preserved and even improved. But Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to President Barack Obama and his government — as well as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s overheard insults (for which he half-heartedly apologizes), are damaging Israel’s most important asset: its intimate relations with the US.

As a result of the policies of Netanyahu-Ya’alon (while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has exhibited a serious and responsible approach on Iran-related matters and has looked like the gatekeeper), Israel is having difficulty leveraging its military advantage into strategic achievements.

The challenge is always how to combine military capabilities with foreign policy and international status.

Strategically, Israel has gotten weaker in 2014 because of the deterioration in relations with the US and — even to a greater degree — with European states.

This deterioration stems firstly from the government’s lack of desire to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Also, Netanyahu’s government stubbornly permits the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, to the point that, soon, any chance of an agreement that includes evacuating settlements and withdrawing from territories — in exchange for security arrangements and an end to the conflict — will be blocked.

On this matter, the end of 2014 saw the dam burst: European states, including traditional Israeli friends such as France, are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state and are not afraid of being blamed for having an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic approach.

The Palestinian issue remains Israel’s No. 1 problem and it will also be an important challenge, perhaps an existential one, in 2015.

Without the breakthrough of a diplomatic agreement, one of two scenarios is liable to occur — or perhaps both of them together: a popular Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the buds of which we already saw in 2014; or Israel falling into a situation that will resemble the former apartheid regime in South Africa.  The latter label will be branded on Israel if the Jews are perceived to be a minority ruling over an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.  That is not the situation now; not yet.

That kind of labeling — especially if accompanied by a Palestinian uprising that evokes global sympathy — would mean the deepening of Israel’s international isolation, possibly to the point of sanctions being levied against it. It is conceivable that Israel would not be rescued by a veto by the United States — especially if the U.S. starts to feel that the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace is mostly Israel’s fault.

January 2, 2015

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