Israel could face military conflicts on three different fronts—Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip—at the same time in 2019, according to an annual assessment of security challenges done by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), a national security think-tank.
"The main three fronts are: Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and they are very volatile. Despite the continued mutual deterrence between the sides, there is a potential for a military escalation, which could eventually lead to an all-out three-front war … Israel is ought to be prepared for this scenario,” said the assessment, which was submitted to President Reuven Rivlin last week.
The First Northern War
One scenario for a three-front war involves the IDF facing all military forces along Israel’s northern border: Iran, Hezbollah, and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The possible “northern border war” is the gravest threat Israel faces in the coming year, according to the INSS.
Israel has repeatedly taken vigorous military action against the Iranian arms depots in Syria. The Islamic Republic, however, has declared it doesn’t intend to leave the war-battered country in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, Israel’s freedom of operations in Syria has diminished since Russia began to arm the Syrian regime after Assad’s forces all but reclaimed all the territory occupied by the Islamic State and various rebel groups.
Due to Assad's successes in Syria, Iran has decided to divert its attention to Iraq and Lebanon. Although Iranian support for its proxy Hezbollah has never ceased, recently more effort has been directed into assisting the terror group in converting its arsenal of unguided projectiles into precision-guided missiles, improving Hezbollah's air defense capability and supplying the Shi’ite organization with long-range anti-ship missiles. Israel's ability to thwart Iranian military projects in Lebanon is much more limited than in Syria, where a volatile political and security situation allowed the Israeli military to operate in a consequence-free environment.
The INSS researchers believe that to continue foiling Iran's efforts to establish long-term military presence in Syria, as well as the Islamic Republic's attempts to further enrich Hezbollah’s weapons arsenal, Israel would have to formulate a new course of action. The methods used by the IDF until now, which involve mostly aerial attacks on arms depots, no longer justify the risk of a possible military flare-up.
"Iran's military projects in Lebanon and Iraq, as well as Russia's restrictions on Israeli activity in Syria, will necessitate either an update to Israel's modus operandi or formulating a new approach that would allow to Israel to eliminate the threat effectively while avoiding an all-out military confrontation," said the assessment.
Conflict in the south
The potential for yet another Israel-Hamas flare-up is also extremely high in 2019. Although there are many factors that contribute to this assumption, the three main reasons are: the deteriorating socio-economic situation in the Strip; sanctions imposed on Hamas in Gaza by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; and the erosion of Israel's deterrence, which was achieved in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge.
Unless Israel is planning a preemptive strike on Hezbollah’s factories to produce precision-guided missiles, which would ensure a military confrontation, the IDF should divert all its efforts to rebuilding the deterrence against Hamas by inflicting significant blows on the terror group’s military wing. Although Gaza poses an immediate threat, it is less grave in scale than the northern front.
Deteriorating situation in the West Bank
The Trump administration is due to release its "deal of the century" peace plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The chances of the plan’s success, however, are slim. The Palestinian Authority has already rejected the proposal, and the best case scenario is that Israel would win the "blame game," putting the onus of the failure of the latest American peace effort on the Palestinians.
But Israel would still have to bear the consequences of such a failure, which would undoubtedly lead to further instability and unrest in the West Bank. In the long term, there is the danger of a binational state forming in the absence of a two-state solution, which would threaten Israel’s identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The Iran nuclear program
There are two low-probability extreme scenarios concerning the Iranian nuclear program that could come to pass in the coming year. The first is Iran acquiring an atomic bomb in the North Korean model in an effort to negotiate from a position of power. The second scenario is the toppling of the ayatollahs regime, which by all indications is stable and capable of suppressing any public unrest.
US support for Israel is stable, but Israel must prepare itself for unexpected decisions President Donald Trump might make. For instance, his announcement to withdraw the American forces from Syria does not significantly harm Israel's security in the short term, but it strengthens its enemies and makes it easier for them to establish their long-term military presence in Syria.
According to the INSS, Israel should reach clear understandings with the United States regarding the Iranian nuclear program, which will include intelligence cooperation, defining a clear red line in case Iran violates the nuclear agreement and certainly in case Tehran tries to acquire a nuclear bomb, and preparing a joint political and military plan to stop Iran in case that red line is crossed.
In light of Trump's withdrawal from the nuclear deal signed between the Islamic Republic and world powers, and the possibility Iran might resume its nuclear activities, Israel should make the necessary preparations for a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Israel should also make it clear to the Trump administration that if the nuclear deal is ever renegotiated, the US must ensure the compromises it would entail will not hurt Israel’s interests.
In the meantime, Israel can continue basing its campaign to prevent Iran from establishing military presence in Syria on intelligence superiority and varied and precise strike capabilities. While it’s preferable the campaign against Iran's military entrenchment remains confined to Syrian territory, Israel must be prepared for the possibility it could expand to Lebanon or even directly to Iran.
The rehabilitation of the Syrian army has already begun, which might lead the Assad regime to becoming more assertive against IAF activity in the area. The IDF must make every effort to avoid a clash with the Russian forces stationed in Syria to prevent another international crisis, similar to the one that occurred following the downing of a Russian intelligence plane by Syrian aerial defense forces who were trying to stop an IAF attack.
Israel must continue systematically preventing the transfer of quality weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as long as the strategic conditions allow it. In addition, Israel must prepare to take action against Hezbollah’s accurate weapons facilities in Lebanon. Since such an attack would most certainly lead to a prolonged military confrontation with the Shiite terror group, Israel must also prepare the home front for a large-scale war in the north.
No political arrangement with Hamas
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been and continues to be a fundamental obstacle to Israel normalizing ties with its neighbors in the region. The Trump administration's problematic relations with the Palestinians will make it difficult for any peace initiative to succeed. Nevertheless, the US and the pragmatic Sunni Arab world expect Israel to make the first move to convey its good intentions.
The Hamas government in Gaza is not a suitable partner for a diplomatic move, and so Israel must prepare for another war in the Strip. Any political arrangement with Hamas—a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize Israel's right to exist—weakens the moderate Palestinian camp and bolsters those who claim that Israel only understands force. However, it appears Hamas’s military options are limited, seeing as Israel has developed capabilities against its rockets arsenal and its border-crossing terror tunnels.
Relations with China and Russia
It’s important to maintain close ties, especially mutually beneficial economic ties, with Beijing and Moscow, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of Israel's only truly reliable ally: the United States. It is particularly important to strengthen risk management with regards to Chinese investment in essential infrastructures in Israel, while having open dialogue with the US, which is very sensitive to China acquiring the latest technology.
With Russia, Israel must reestablish the incident-prevention and coordination mechanisms in Syria, and urge the Russians to reduce their support for Iran.
Relationship with American Jewry
American Jewry is a key component when it comes to US contribution to Israel's security. Israel needs to take proactive action to strengthen ties with various Jewish communities in the US, especially young Reform and Conservative Jews. There is also need for active dialogue with various sectors of American society who strongly oppose the Trump administration, but don’t hold anti-Israeli views, alongside renewed cooperation and dialogue with the Democratic Party. This can be done without compromising relations with the Trump administration and with the broad constituency of Republicans and Evangelical Christians who support Israel.