Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Middle East Continues to Change

Amir Rapaport in a column on the ever-changing Middle East and the challenges facing the Israeli defense establishment
Reconnaissance Battalion Exercise in the Galilee (Photo: IDF) Reconnaissance Battalion Exercise in the Galilee (Photo: IDF)
Regional Status Picture: A regional status picture derived from the situation appraisal of the Israeli defense community for early 2014: Syria is still disintegrating, Lebanon is on the way to a civil war and disintegration and Iraq is already disintegrated. On the more optimistic side – Egypt is coming to its senses and the Egyptian Army consolidates its hold vis-à-vis the World Jihad elements in the Sinai and presses on with its struggle against Hamas in Gaza. Jordan is very stable. Hamas rules the Gaza Strip (almost) unchecked. What about the Palestinian Authority in the Judea and Samaria region? The level of violence there depends on the progress of the political negotiations (also).

Let’s begin with Syria: the first ships carrying Syrian chemical weapons have sailed recently, but it is still uncertain whether Assad will try to conceal some of the inventories he possesses. The agreement with the USA regarding the disarmament of chemical weapons has provided the Assad regime with an insurance policy of sorts, but contrary to the impression one may get from the world press, Assad is still far from deciding the outcome of the civil war in Syria. On the contrary, Assad continues to lose ground and call in Hezbollah reinforcements from Lebanon to assist him in the primary battles. The battles in Syria currently concentrate on the attempt by Assad’s military to establish territorial continuity between Damascus (parts of which have been captured by rebel forces) and the Alawi-dominated areas in north-eastern Syria. The areas bordering with Israel, on the Golan Heights, are mostly dominated by rebels of various factions, including World Jihad men who dominate the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Syrian civil war is rapidly drifting into Lebanon. Car bombs and even rocket attacks against the Dahiya quarter, the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut, are directly associated with Hassan Nasrallah’s support of Bashar Al-Assad. As far as Israel is concerned, these are not foreign news: the war in Lebanon is drifting into Israeli territory, too. For example, the rocket attack from Lebanon into Israel in December 2013 was carried out by a Jihad organization that attempted to provoke Israel into a confrontation with Hezbollah – a case of upside-down thinking. What about the Judea and Samaria region? The average level of violent activities is crawling upward, but the real test will take place in the spring, when the nine months allotted to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians come to an end. Will the negotiations be extended or will they be interrupted?
In Israel and in the Palestinian Authority they have been busy recently consolidating their respective responses to the suggestions made by US Secretary of State John Kerry during his recent visits to the region. The Israeli defense community has already rejected the American suggestion to settle for Israeli presence at the border crossings in the Jordan Valley and rely on satellite and ground surveillance technology that would replace the physical presence on the ground. Israel’s previous defense minister, Ehud Barak, was willing to “consider” such ideas. The present Minister, Moshe (“Bogie”) Yaalon, has bluntly declined.
The Jihad Era: The elements responsible for most of the fire incidents in late 2013 and early 2014 (rockets attacks from the Sinai and the Gaza Strip against Israel, as well as the attacks along the borders with Syria and Lebanon) were organizations calling themselves ‘Salafist’ organizations. The Salafists are the most extreme of extremist Muslims. They totally reject progress and aspire to return to the days of the great Islamic Caliphate that existed after the age of Muhammad the Prophet. They advocate Jihad war against all infidels – Jews, Christians and even Muslims who do not follow the teachings of their sect.
In the age of new terrorism and Jihad, orders and instructions are not issued by speech but through the Internet. There is no structured chain of command, the very last activist can establish direct contact with the senior leaders of Al-Qaeda (all under assumed names, naturally), on Facebook or through WhatsApp. The social networks convey millions of messages every day, and finding the ones that can alert of possible terrorist preparations is a highly complex undertaking. Nevertheless, the intelligence agencies and systems manage to obtain high-quality information even from those networks.
According to Israeli estimates, in early 2014 the military regime in Egypt is gaining momentum in its war against the Jihad organizations. The Jihadists in the Sinai Peninsula still impose a major threat as far as Israel is concerned, especially on air traffic in and out of the town of Eilat. This is the reason why the Israel Security Agency (Shabak) ordered, a few months ago, that the flight corridors leading to the town be changed so as to reposition them as far away as possible from the unruly territory of the Sinai. However, the big picture shows that the Jihadists are being pushed out of the Sinai and that they are shedding blood in their confrontations with the Egyptian Army. Occasionally, they succeed in releasing pressure or sending some sort of “signal” in the form of rockets fired at Eilat. These attacks are, in fact, intended to undermine the relations between Israel and Egypt.
The most severe blow, as far as Hamas in Gaza is concerned, has been the fact that in the context of their confrontation with the Salafists, the Egyptian forces had almost completely “dried out” the underground tunnels that enabled free movement of terrorists as well as the smuggling of arms and goods to and from the Sinai – to and from the Gaza Strip. This blow has had both economic and operational implications: since Operation Pillar of Defense (November 2012), Hamas has not been able to renew the smuggling of missiles from Libya or Iran through the Sinai, and is now dependent entirely on its own manufacturing potential (they are already capable of manufacturing missiles with a range that extends to Tel-Aviv, and unmanned airborne vehicles).
Nevertheless, Hamas continues to prepare for the next significant round of hostilities against Israel, and those preparations include the subterranean medium – the tunnels Hamas excavates under the fence separating between the Strip and Israel could provide the infrastructure for the next kidnapping attack, which would ignite the next confrontation.
Iran: Despite the warming relations between Iran and the West, as reflected at the Davos conference in early 2014, Israel still regards Iran as the No.1 danger in the coming year as well.
According to the Israeli perception, Iran is fooling the entire world and will continue to strive for the Bomb clandestinely after the sanctions that had been imposed on it have been dramatically reduced.
But has the option of an Israeli attack against Iran been taken off the table? Absolutely not! It may not be relevant only during the first few months of the implementation of the interim agreement with Iran, which came into effect on January 20, 2014. Israel will attempt to collect intelligence that would prove that Iran continues to strive for the Bomb, the agreement with the West notwithstanding, and if evidence to that effect is obtained – Israel may surprise the world by staging an offensive strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, some time during the later half of this year.
Of all things, it is prevailing sense in Jerusalem that the USA is willing to reach an agreement with the Iranians at almost any price which could push Israel to stage the attack on its own.
Meanwhile, Back at the Mossad: The fact that as far as Israel is concerned Iran continues to fool the entire world and that it is getting closer to the first bomb could also be regarded as a failure of sorts of the Israeli Mossad, whose highest priority mission of the last decade was to delay the Iranian nuclear project (a mission which has thus far been executed with a fair degree of success, through an extensive range of forestallment operations, as reported by foreign sources around the globe).
The atmosphere around this agency is not a comfortable one these days. The Mossad has undergone an organizational upheaval in recent years. Pursuant to the retirement of former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, not less than three division heads left the organization as well, including the heads of two of the primary divisions, Tevel and Caesarea. The transition of Yossi Cohen, formerly the deputy chief of Mossad, to the position of Chairman of the National Security Council two months ago has also generated some shockwaves in the agency. Above all, the agency is currently undergoing yet another structural change, led by Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. In the context of this change, the agency’s staff is being reinforced and responsibilities that were once the exclusive domain of the operational divisions are being assigned to it. This change, too, is not going down without internal opposition – and that’s putting it mildly.
”Te’uzah”: The IDF was unable to begin the year 2014 with a multi-year plan approved by the political echelon.
The original plan, Te’uzah (“valor”) had to undergo revisions pursuant to the allegedly final government decision regarding the final defense budget for 2014.
IDF may submit the Te’uzah plan to the government for final approval in the coming weeks, where its implications would be explained. Concerns in the IDF do not run very high – it is fairly clear that after all of the presentations and graph and figure-laden transparencies have been presented (the number of tanks, for example, is currently being reduced to the number the IDF had on the eve of the Yom-Kippur War, owing to the budget cuts and also because of the changing priorities of the IDF), the defense budget will be increased further, post factum, even if it remains curtailed when compared to the budgets of previous years.
Defense Industries: The cuts in the defense budgets, in Israel and in the West, present a major challenge to the Israeli defense industries. In addition to the cuts, the fact that the largest market of the Israeli defense industries – India – is in a state of near-standstill owing to the elections being held in the subcontinent, is very problematic indeed. If you add to it the lenient export permit policy recently applied in the USA and Europe (including Germany, which is becoming a world leader in defense exports) and the “hunger” of western industries for clients in the markets where the Israeli industry is regarded as firmly established – then the challenge will become even more acute.
At the bottom line, the Israeli defense industries are preparing for a certain decrease in new orders over the course of 2014, compared to previous years that were peak years for Israeli defense exports. Nevertheless, the Israeli defense industries start off the new year by massively participating in the giant exhibitions to be held in New-Delhi and in Singapore during the first and second weeks of February.
The excellent reputation of the Israeli defense industries may enable them to successfully negotiate the year 2014, which is going to be a tough year for everyone.

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