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September 16th, Israel in a New Middle East

by Marc Schulman


This week residents of Israel woke up to reports that a leading army analyst warned that in the next war Hezbollah will successfully seize a few Israeli villages near the border – before being beaten back. To some this news was alarming. To others this revelation was clearly part of the ongoing battle over the next Defense Ministry budget.

It is three weeks after the end of the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Israel is now in the midst of a debate on the state of the Middle East, in general, and what Israel’s role should be, in specific. The Ministry of Defense is demanding an increase of 11 billion Shekel, or about 3 billion dollars, (out of an approximately $18 billion total budget). This new budget does not include the direct cost of the recent war, which is being reimbursed from this year's budget.

The defense establishment looks around the Middle East and see new threats. ISIS is practically on our Northern border. Hezbollah has gained strategic military experience, fighting on behalf of Assad in Syria. Islamic extremists are sitting in Sinai. Looking East at Jordan, one wonders what might happen if ISIS takes over the country.

To a defense hawk, Israel's situation has gotten all that more perilous in the past few years. Furthermore, after months of negotiations, it appears there have been no advances toward decreasing the potential nuclear threat Iran might present in another year or two. Add to all the challenges listed above, the real threat that an "ISIS-like" group could develop in the West Bank, and it's very clear to a defense hawk that Israel needs to drastically increase its already significant defense spending.

On the other side of the spectrum, some analysts look at the Middle East these days and see significantly decreased threats to Israel. In Egypt, any fears that developed with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood were allayed, when the Brotherhood was ousted and replaced with a government dominated by the military . Once considered Israel's biggest threat, Syria is no longer a nation state. Rather, today, Syria has become a number of separate cantons, with the area around Damascus still controlled by the central government. The Syrian Air Force is in shambles. The fate of Syria's rockets remains unknown, (other than the fact they have fired many rockets against the rebels.) Hezbollah is bogged down in Syria, and is even involved in a new civil war in Lebanon. As a result, they are hardly a threat at the moment. As to the threat of ISIS – what damage can a group whose weapons of choice are jeeps mounted with machine guns do to a country equipped with the most advanced tanks in the world? On top of which, now that there is a new “global” coalition that has formed to fight ISIS, they are not going to be Israel’s problem.

Who is right? Each group can present an impressive set of facts. The reality is that they are both right – to some degree. Of course, really nothing has changed since the recent war. None of the threats facing Israel have increased. In fact, all those people who point to the positive factors which translate into much fewer conventional threats against Israel are all correct. There are not going to be any masses of army of tanks trying to invade Israel any time in the near or medium term future. So clearly, on some level, the threats that Israel faces have decreased.

On the other hand, the rise of ISIS and its success, represents another type of threat. It is a continuation of the type of threat Israel has faced from Hamas over the last 20 years. From 1948 until 1973 Israel’s prime enemy were the Arab states. Who they were, and why they fought was rather easy to understand. In the case of Jordan and Egypt, with the right compromises it was possible to reach a peace agreement. After 1973, Israel’s prime adversary was the Palestinian Liberation Organization, with a number of splinter groups, (terrorist groups who were pursuing Palestinian nationalism.) As we have seen through the Oslo accords, it was possible to reach agreements with nationalistic groups – even if they had been terrorist groups. However, since then, Israel's prime adversary has been the Hamas (a religious-based organization) who has not it is harder to find common ground. Now, with the rise of the most radical elements of Islam (as represented by ISIS), Israel needs to take in accout the possibility of the most extreme opponents that Israel has ever seen might soon be on its borders. Defense planners have to envision and prepare for the worst contingencies. In our case, the worst contingency is ISIS taking over Syria and Jordan, forcing Israel to face them on both those borders. This is a plausible scenario. One that hopefully will not come to pass. On the other hand, looking at the rather confused policy that the e United States is currently pursuing in its fight with ISIS, it is hard for Israel to remain sanguine about the future of the Middle East.

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