BY EHUD EILAM
SENIOR FELLOW AT THE LONDON CENTER FOR POLICY RESEARCH
This week Israel celebrates 70 years of independence. Since 1948 Israel had managed to survive several wars and thousands of skirmishes and incidents, following the Arab – Israeli conflict. In 1948 there were only 600,000 Jews in Israel. Now there are more than six million Jews in Israel. They have all kinds of problems but they have also achieved much. Their economy is doing pretty well and they possess a powerful military, thanks also to their tight ties with their American patron.
Israel had a series of high intensity wars (1948-1949, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982). Since the 1990s there has been a decline in the probability of a high intensity war between Israel and an Arab state let alone a war against a coalition of Arab states. Israel has peace with two of its previous foes, Egypt (since 1979) and Jordan (since 1994). The peace with both those states is quite cold but they still work together with Israel on security issues such as the Israeli assistance to Egypt in fighting ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula.
Israel’s main enemy is a non Arab state, Iran. There is a cold war between the two states. There was never an actual war between them but it might happen. Israel’s biggest concern in regard to Iran is the latter’s nuclear program. Israel is watching to see if Iran tries to produce a nuclear weapon. Most of Israel’s fronts have been in countries and territories around Israel while Iran is more than a thousand kilometers away, if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites and Iran retaliates. In case of such a fight Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, would probably join it.
Israel’s wars since 2006 have been with non state organizations i.e. Hamas and Hezbollah that developed hybrid capability such as an arsenal of rockets. Hezbollah has Syria and Iran as allies while in recent years there has been a tension and sometimes even a rift between Hamas and both Assad and Iran, following the civil war in Syria. Furthermore Hamas has been isolated in the Gaza Strip because of the Israeli and the Egyptian policies. Both those states consider Hamas to be their enemy. In spite of Hamas’s weakness Israel wishes to avoid an escalation that might bring another war. (The last one was in 2014).
In the West Bank, Israel tries to prevent a third intifada. There were clashes and waves of violence in the West Bank. Furthermore there are no talks between Israel and the Palestinian authority, on reaching an agreement to end the conflict. At least there is an ongoing and productive cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces against their common foe in the West Bank i.e. Hamas.
Israel strongly opposes that Iran will have a military presence in Syria, one that could serve as a fire base against Israel. This situation already exits since 2000, in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has up to 150,000 rockets and missiles that cover all of Israel. One major risk is that Israeli actions inside Syria, against the Iranian involvement there, might ignite a war in Lebanon as well. Israel’s last war in Lebanon was in 2006 and since then the IDF has been preparing for another round. Yet Israel has been striving to avoid such a war, which might cost it dearly, even if Hezbollah suffers much more.
Israel kept staying out of the Syrian civil war, except for extending some humanitarian aid for more than 3,000 Syrians. Israel, since 2012, also launched more than a hundred air strikes, aiming to stop the delivery of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. It is an Israeli “red line”. Other “red lines” are stopping chemical agents or weapons from reaching a terror group and not allowing a violation of Israel’s sovereignty, especially in the Golan Heights. Israel declared that it is willing to use force, and indeed it did.
Israel’s air strikes inside Syria did not bother Iran and even Assad that much since Israel’s pointed assaults did not threaten the Assad regime, certainly not as his domestic enemies did. Furthermore Iran and Assad have been well aware that a war between Israel and Assad might topple the latter since Israel could quickly destroy Assad’s air force and his elite units. In spite of that recently Iran and Assad became more aggressive toward Israel.
Russia, which has been officially involved in the Syrian civil war since late 2015, supports Assad. Russia has relations with Israel and the two states have an understanding about Syria. Yet there is a growing tension between Israel and Russia, because of Syria. Israel should be careful not to get entangled in a war in Syria, unless there is no other choice. Israel certainly has to avoid a military friction with Russia let alone one that might drag the United States into it.