The Israeli anti-missile system “David’s Sling.”
A recent New York Times article detailing Israeli actions to the changing political landscape of the Middle East is one of many. Still not at peace with two neighbors and with no true regional allies, how the geographically isolated but powerful country deals with democratic revolutions, reactions, and civil war has been an obvious discussion point since the Arab Spring began in earnest in 2011. According to the piece, Israeli leaders are embracing a “castle mentality” in which they wait out the turmoil in a defensive posture. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bluster on Iran aside, the Jewish state does not want to intervene in sustained ways in the region. The government’s line on Iran is a major exception, but that country is not in the midst of a (real) revolution.
A fortress posture should serve Israel well, given that it possesses ever more sophisticated anti-missile systems and has seemingly no way of knowing which revolutionaries want to change the status quo should they gain power. They could try to befriend the non-jihadist sorts fighting in Syria somehow, but such involvement might turn others against Israel-supported rebels and any military aid risks being turned over to terrorists. In this sense, the “arm the rebels” debate is quite different compared to that in the U.S. Though probably not well liked by Syrians, it’s safe to say America is more highly regarded than Israel, and U.S.-supplied weapons couldn’t really be turned directly against Americans. Not so for Israel. With the stunning rise of extremist groups in the Syrian morass, Netanyahu and the IDF must deal with a problem, as Israeli academic Jonathan Spyer put it, “without an address.”
Thus, the article posits that Israel’s strategic situation appears quite dire: major civil war on one border, instability after an anti-Islamist coup on another, heavily armed terrorists to the north, and Hamas still in tact. In Syria, the ascendant rebels do not seem like the bargaining type, reinforcing this blog’s long-held claim that from beyond Syria’s borders, the Assad era was relatively pacific and at least simpler. Following this point, the NYT reporter Jodi Rudoren wrote that many Israelis are convinced “that the region will be unstable or even anarchic for some time, upending decades of strategic positioning and military planning.” (Italics added)
To say that decades of planning suddenly capsized because of uncertainty is a nice narrative, but the IDF’s arsenal is far too diverse to succumb to such a claim. The Israeli military is still the most powerful regional force by a wide margin, and the country’s generals have the dual advantage of an increasingly sophisticated defense system (David’s Sling, Iron Dome) as well as the benchmark Israeli capability of massive, quick offensive strikes. Even in a larger campaign against Hezbollah and whatever Syrian elements might join in, the IDF should not need its reserve component for an indefinite period of time. Such a campaign would tax the country—maybe even more so than the 2006 stalemate—but one should assume that the Israelis would win out, though maybe not completely. If anarchy in Syria has undone Israel’s plans so dramatically, how have they repeatedly and successfully interdicted advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah? The Times quotes an active duty general who admits that though he does not “have a contingency plan to destroy global jihad,” which comes off as either a bad translation or weird hubris, his intelligence capabilities are increasingly robust.
What might Israel’s enemies offer to tilt the balance? As mentioned above, the Syrian military might transfer chemical weapons or better rockets to Hezbollah—or the homemade jihadists might lob them over the Golan—but we still wonder how this “upends” previous policies. To the contrary, at least regarding Syria and Lebanon, Israel long ago went after the ability to become a “fortress,” whether it knew so or not, while maintaining its offensive superiority; as a result of this foresight, strategies demand tweaks, not wholesale change.
As far as we can tell, the somewhat opaque concern rests with the perception that a radical government bent on destroying Israel might take hold in Syria and that a sort of perpetual war would result. Jihadists are hardliners, to be sure, so one cannot debunk this worst case scenario, though we would stress that Hezbollah managed to negotiate a ceasefire, as has Hamas occasionally. A radical Syrian government would be worse, but very weak.
The Times article builds towards the issue clouding most Israeli political discussions: how the indefinite regional uncertainty affects negotiations on the Palestinian Territories. The piece quotes right-wing politician Naftali Bennett listing violence from Afghanistan to Lebanon and then sarcastically saying, “A really excellent time to divest ourselves of security assets.” The eastern flank, Mr. Bennett and the prime minister agree, is vulnerable. A former general and peace negotiator adds that the chaos “highlights the need for solid security arrangements.” (emphasis added)
What security assets are so critical in the West Bank that the regional uncertainty requires a delay in the admittedly moribund peace process? For obvious reasons, this is not easy to figure out, but most major IDF bases are in Israel proper. (Nor would the Golan Heights’ status be negotiated with the Palestinians.) The borders of a new Palestinian state would be closely monitored by Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, three states highly sensitive to Islamism as well as strongly supported by Washington. Almost all “serious” peace proposals have required a demilitarized Palestinian state, further increasing the IDF’s ability to hunt terrorists extraterritorially. At the moment, the notion of connecting regional instability to the Palestinian issue seems little more than a rhetorical tool to reinforce previously held positions.
Despite the gloomy tones of many assessments of the “new” Middle East, the basic structure of Israel’s defense policy is proving rather resilient: robust offensive capability combined with a budding anti-missile net along with preemption and just enough unpredictability to dissuade regional opponents from aggressive actions. While the turmoil around the country may be nerve racking, multiple generations of Israelis have lived through actual war, death, and destruction. Their country is not under immediate or catastrophic threat, and, therefore, letting the mavens of worst case scenario drive the discussion on Palestine unnecessarily adds another obstacle to an important process that already lacks vitality.
 Given how Byzantine the intrigue became in Lebanon and the brutality within the country, this statement is meant to show how ridiculously complicated the Syrian Civil War is, not to imply that pre-war Syria was a beacon of transparency and peace.