Israel’s traditional threat perception was created in response to strong states. In the 1950s, Israeli operational planning was directed against a potential invasion by all its neighbors. In 1956, Israel launched a pre-emptive war against a rising Egypt, armed with new Soviet weapons. In the 1970s, Israel advanced a massive build-up of its military in order to protect against Syria and Egypt. In the last decade or so Israeli concerns coalesced around Iran’s nuclear program.
However, the political instability in Israel’s immediate environment has created a new set of threats: not those that flow from the strength of its neighbors, but rather, those that result from its neighbors’ weaknesses. The combination of heavy internal pressure on the central authorities in countries like Egypt and Syria, and the practical difficulties of these regimes to enforce the authority in their territory, create new strategic, operational, and tactical threats to Israel.
Strategically, Israeli doctrine is based on its ability to deter its neighbors. However, with a possible collapse of central authority, for example during a civil war, it is unclear who is to be deterred.
Operationally, Middle East regimes under threat might initiate armed action against Israel in a desperate effort to retain public legitimacy. This is true both for current regimes that are fighting for their lives, as well as future emerging regimes that might face similar legitimacy problems. Finally, the difficulties our neighbors are facing in exerting effective control over their border areas with Israel have the potential of creating spheres of action against Israel as we saw in the case of the Sinai. Ineffective law enforcement in border regions may lead to further challenges such as easier transit of illegal labor immigrants, drugs, and criminal elements.
The Israel Defense Force is in early phases of adjusting to the new realities but we should be realistic: Israel’s ability to influence events in the region is limited. Still, there are a number of steps that we could take. First, we should develop a new frame of reference regarding the nature of the new threats. In particular, we should develop tools to deter the new actors that threaten us.
Mend Turkey relationship
Here, Israel could rely on its past experience with the string of unstable Syrian regimes in the 1950s or the way it dealt with the challenge of terrorism that evolved under the conditions of an unstable Lebanon since the late 1960s. Second, Israel should gain a better understanding of the new forces that came forward as result of the regional instability. In particular, we should move from our traditional focus on military and political elites to an effort to follow and study wider societal forces.
Third, we should realize that the weakness around us is not only a threat but also an opportunity. For example, the expected demise of the regime in Syria will most likely strike a blow to the Iran-Hezbollah anti-Israel axis.
Finally, we should expand the coordination and cooperation with international and regional actors that share similar strategic concerns. In this context, Israel should strive to mend its relationship with Turkey.
Ankara is already dealing with a wave of Syrian refugees and as IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz indicated recently, Israel is also preparing for such eventuality on the Golan front. The refugee issue alone creates a mutual interest in maintaining a stable regime in Damascus, or in advocating for international humanitarian intervention that would help keep the refugees in Syria.
Although Turkey has adopted a critical stance towards Israel for a while now, the negotiations in the fall between the two parties signal that both Israel and Turkey are close to resolving some of their differences. The situation in Syria should encourage Israel and Turkey to conclude these talks and act together to confront the new regional challenges.
Operating in an unfriendly region, and daunted by existential fears stemming from the Diaspora, Israel had traditionally feared the strength of its foes. Now, however, we should also be concerned about their weakness.
Dr. Ehud Eiran is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Department of International Relations, University of Haifa. His book “The Essence of Longing: Erez Gerstein and Israel’s War in Lebanon” was published in Israel by Yedioth Ahronoth in 2007
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