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Ron Ben-Yishai  

 

Fewer threats in 2014

Analysis: Largely optimistic intelligence evaluation includes quite a few causes for concern

Published: 11.28.13, 20:02 / Israel Opinion

The law does not allow us to report what the cabinet ministers heard from senior intelligence officials as part of the annual evaluation presented to them on Monday. But reliable sources say the ministers left the important meeting, held at the Mossad facility in central Israel, in quite a good mood.

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Before getting into details, it should be clarified that an "intelligence evaluation" only reviews developments in the region and in the world which might affect our national and personal security, as opposed to the annual "national evaluation of the situation" which takes other factors into account.

 

All signs point to a mostly optimistic intelligence evaluation for 2014. First of all, because the direct conventional threats on Israel (on the part of countries' armies) decreased dramatically in the past year – due to the internal conflicts which our neighbors' regular armies are busy dealing with and will likely be occupied with next year as well.

 

Secondly, because although terror groups have multiplied and opened new fronts, and are even growing stronger militarily, the danger they pose now and in the coming year has not increased significantly. And more importantly, they are more deterred than ever. Hezbollah, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and even the Salafis and global jihad groups in Sinai and Syria have at the moment – and will likely have next year too – good, existential reasons to try not to get entangled in a wide-scale conflict with Israel.

 

Terror is deterred not just because of the IDF's intelligence and operational abilities, but also – to the same extent – because of other factors (for example, the security policy of the new regime in Egypt).

 

Thirdly, because the region is experiencing political, diplomatic and military processes which have the potential, at least theoretically, to develop in a positive direction from a security-related Israeli point of view. From the agreement to disarm Syria from its chemical weapons, which is being implemented impeccably in the meantime; through the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and a possible achievement for the world powers in their negotiations with Iran, which will set the military nuclear program several years backwards; to the set of interests shared between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries and Egypt in light of the weakened US status in the region, the expected reinforcement in Iran's regional and global status, and the threat hanging over them and us from the radical political Islam.

 

Not all of these positive opportunities and others will be realized in the coming year, but even if some of them yield a positive result – it's good enough.

 

Iran: Khamenei's insistence

This is where the good news ends. The bad news is led by the estimate that Iran will likely not be willing, as part of the permanent agreement in six months, to completely abandon the abilities allowing the future production of a nuclear weapon. Simply put, Ali Khamenei's Iran aspires to remain a threshold country even if it pays a heavy price for it.

 

IDF Military Intelligence Director Aviv Major-General Kochavi estimated in the past, and even sent a special report to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the matter, that there is a political and social change taking place in Iran and greater willingness than before to draw closer to the West and accept its demands.

 

Nonetheless, experts estimate that one of the main reasons for Iran wanting a nuclear weapon is to guarantee the regime's survival, a sort of insurance policy. Khamenei saw what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, who disarmed of his nuclear and missile capabilities in Libya. Therefore, even further inconvenience to the population due to the sanctions will not stop an aspiration to at least maintain nuclear threshold abilities and the array of missiles.

 

However, it's unclear how much rope Khamenei will give Rohani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif as part of the negotiations for the permanent agreement. The internal power struggle in Iran is still open and a lot depends on the way things are conducted during the implementation of the interim agreement. So it's even possible that as part of the permanent agreement the Iranians will agree to a settlement pulling them several years away from the bomb.

 

By the way, it should be mentioned that in the uranium enrichment track Iran made a breakthrough last year when it installed thousands of centrifuges, and so today it is already in the position of a threshold country or almost threshold country. On the other hand, in the atomic weapon development and production program (prototype of a nuclear explosive device and warhead), the Iranians have not made much progress. That is also an issue which requires thorough treatment in the negotiations for the permanent agreement.

 

In any event, the regime in Iran is stable in the meantime and its status has even become stronger following the Geneva agreement.

 

Islam: Signs of jihad in West Bank

Almost all other security-related issues (apart from the Iranian nukes) are dictated and stem from what the Military Intelligence refers to as "the regional turmoil," which sent the region into a situation characterized by uncertainty and explosiveness.

 

The leaders of the State of Israel are not the only ones who should prepare for the unexpected and for a sudden, violent outbreak of masses. Arab leaders, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Khamenei in Tehran must also consider the rising power of the public seeking economic welfare, freedom and justice, and its ability to undermine the stability of the regimes – even those which rose to power after the first wave of uprisings in early 2011.

 

The coup in which Mohamed Morsi was deposed from Egyptian presidency is nicknamed by the Military Intelligence "Turmoil 2.0." In other words, we are already witnessing the second wave of upheavals the region is going through, in which there appears to be a disappointment with the political and radical Islam. Not just with the Muslim Brotherhood, which failed in Egypt and Tunisia, but also with the groups of jihadists and Salafis experiencing renewed prosperity.

 

The turmoil in the Arab world saved the global jihad from the school of al-Qaeda, which was in a state of decline, and gave it renewed momentum. The weapons plundered in Libya and the areas with no governance created in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sinai, Iraq, North Africa and Sahel allow al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to gain power and serve as the driving force of the fighting against the old regimes.

 

Recently, the Salafis and jihadists have been boosting their activity in Gaza and creating something we haven't seen so far: Cells in the West Bank too. Yet intelligence experts note that the immediate level of danger is not high, as they have set a list of priorities for themselves: First bringing down the regimes and taking over Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Sinai, establishing Sharia countries and social activity in the Da'wah Islam style, and only at the third stage an all-out war against Israel.

 

This agenda terrifies Arab rulers from Saudi Arabia to Egypt and traps them, especially in light of Washington's helplessness and unreliable policy. This is the reason why Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are giving Egypt $100 million a month to buy food and so that it will not have to depend on Washington.

 

Syria: Assad will avoid conflict with Israel

According to the estimates, the civil war in Syria is slightly diminishing and there are fewer casualties every day. But it will still go on for a relatively long time, and even if President Assad is overthrown for some reason or killed – the fire will continue there. Too many bloody scores have to be settled there.

 

In the meantime Assad's situation is improving, either because the divided rebels have lost momentum in the fighting after their hopes for an American operation as a punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons were dashed, or because the agreement between Russia and the United States for the disarmament of chemical weapons gave the regime renewed international legitimacy and immunity.

 

Iran supports Assad financially despite the sanctions, because it considers his regime to be the most important foreign post of the Shiite Islamic revolution. Russia provides Assad with a diplomatic umbrella and weapons in a bid to reclaim the outposts it lose when the USSR collapsed.

 

And so the civil war in Syria has turned into an entanglement of intersecting front lines in the battles between Sunnis and Shiites, between the radical axis led by Iran and the axis led by Saudi Arabia, and into a confrontation between Russia and the US over regional hegemony. Only massive external intervention has a chance of bringing the war in Syria to an end, experts say.

 

And what about us? Even with his improved situation, Assad is increasingly inclined not to get involved in a conflict with Israel.

 

Lebanon: Next conflict will be different

Hezbollah is in a similar situation and will also, experts estimate, think twice before entering a conflict with the IDF. Hassan Nasrallah is maintaining his powers so that he can attack Israel if Iran's nuclear facilities are attacked and in order to continue aiding the Assad regime in Syria. This aid – at Khamene's explicit order – put Nasrallah in a complicated situation against the other factions in Lebanon and weakened him.

 

Some will be surprised to hear that Hezbollah hardly strengthened its military capabilities in the past year, apart from the combat experience its members gained in Syria, at the cost of hundreds of casualties. Hezbollah has not received a lot of strategic weapons from Syria or Iran.

 

If a conflict does develop after all, estimates are that Hezbollah will deal a blow which will be more serious than anything we have experienced so far. However, the experts say, the organization does not have sufficient capabilities to significantly limit and sabotage the combined ability of the IDF's Air Force and intelligence unit to strongly damage the array and arsenal of missiles and rockets, thereby eroding the launching abilities at the very first hours of fighting, which will minimize the damage caused to the home front.

 

In addition, in the coming year Hezbollah will not have the ability to hit home front targets more accurately than before. It's safe to assume, therefore, that in the next war it will try to deal a concentrated blow of hundreds and perhaps thousands of missiles, rockets and UAVs in the first hours and days of the conflict – before the Air Force demonstrates its full force, in an attempt to neutralize the abilities of the Iron Dome and other active defense systems.

 

Nasrallah will do so at the advice of the Iranians, also in a bid to shorten the length of the fighting significantly and prevent Lebanon from suffering serious damage which will stir up the other factions and the Shiites against Hezbollah.

 

Tunnels from Sinai to Gaza, from Gaza to Israel

Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are planning to apply similar tactics in Gaza in case of a conflict with Israel. As the Egyptian army is making it difficult to smuggle weapons from Sinai and destroying smuggling tunnels, the organizations are engaging in a concentrated effort to produce their own relatively long-range rockets of the M-75 model, an imitation of the Iranian Fajr-5.

 

A corresponding effort is taking place in the digging of tunnels and hidden launching holes. The goal is to allow massive rocket fire at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and Jerusalem, which will overpower the Iron Dome system, thereby protecting the survival of the fighting force against the Air Force. The Gazans are particularly focusing on digging fighting tunnels through which they will be able to target the Negev communities.

 

But in general, Hamas is in a lousy situation and is trying to draw closer to Iran again in order to renew the financial aid. There is also an attempt to advance the reconciliation with Abbas, who is rejecting the courting for now.

 

Abbas' situation, on the other hand, has improved marvelously recently, whether because of Hamas' terrible state or because of the negotiations with Israel and the prisoner release. Nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority president is aware of the possibility that his political rivals will use every concession he makes to bring about a mass uprising on the Palestinian street.

 

Experts estimate that the threatening shadow of the "turmoil," which has skipped the Palestinian street in the meantime, will prevent Abbas from making big concessions, for example over the right of return, which are required for a permanent agreement.

 

But the Americans will likely try to raise their own bridging proposals, and that is why recently Abbas has been conveying faint signals that he is willing to reach an interim agreement in which he will receive territories in the West Bank over which he will be able to declare sovereignty, although he officially rules that out.

 

US not going anywhere

It’s reasonable to assume that the intelligence evaluation also dealt with the weakening status of the US in the region. The ministers were possibly surprised to hear that the experts believe that in spite of the rift in the relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia, despite the open dispute between the Obama administration and Egypt's new rulers, and notwithstanding Netanyahu's reprimanding approach towards the interim nuclear agreement with Iran – in the meantime there is no substitute for the US as the factor defending the important countries in the region and their interests, militarily and diplomatically.

 

More importantly, although America is tired of the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and although the public opinion in the US does not support an overly deep involvement in the Middle East, and although the US will be energetically independent in two or three years – Washington has no intention of abandoning the region and focusing exclusively on East Asia.

 

The US knows that the regional stability in the Middle East, where most of the global oil reserves are located, dictates ups and downs in energy prices in the global market. These prices affect the global economy, which also affects growth and employment in the US. Therefore, it's reasonable to assume that next year and in the years to come, America will remain the main influential factor in the region.

 

 

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