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Letter from Israel - Regional Brinkmanship

Letter from Israel - Regional Brinkmanship
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

On 19 April, Tel Aviv celebrated amidst great jubilation the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Fireworks on the 18th and air force demonstrations on Independence day gathered seemingly carefree crowds. 

"It seems as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on top of most Israelis’ list of preoccupations."

The most striking element for the visitor, whether in Jerusalem, Haifa or Tel Aviv, is precisely the widespread and palpable feeling of safety and confidence in the future. The “Great March of Return” organized by the Hamas at the Gaza Strip’s border provoked, because of the Israeli army’s response, the death of several dozens of Palestinians. However, Tsahal’s rules of engagement do not seem to be causing much distress, outside circles of far-left groups. It seems as if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on top of most Israelis’ list of preoccupations. The expansion of settlements, fiercely backed by powerful minorities, is at least tolerated by the majority.

Where does the alienation of the Palestinian issue from collective awareness come from? Reasons are undoubtedly multiple. One of them lies in the sophistication of the means used - including cutting-edge technology - to control Palestinian territories. Another factor is Israel’s spectacular economic success, and more precisely the fact that it has become a “startup nation”: high tech (them again) provide 10% of the jobs in Israel. Moreover, these technologies have led the country towards globalization, which took as of yet unseen proportions; their development gave birth to a whole passionate circle - the Silicon Wadi - which lives in some kind of awaken dream. One of our interlocutors even told us: “Israel’s economy no longer needs peace”. This is a way of acknowledging that the country’s growth allows it to dedicate all the necessary resources to a purely securitarian management of the Palestinian issue. 

From a political standpoint, Mr Netanyahu is very weakened by procedures launched against him. Nevertheless, most of our contacts reckon he will soon organize anticipated elections and win. His interest in this maneuver is not to be granted with legal immunity - there is no such privilege for the executive branch in Israel - but to put a Likud successor in power when the time comes. 

"Where exactly does the threat to Israel’s security come from now? (...) The answer is unanimous: Iran."

Yet, we are in Israel. The days before the Independence festivities were dedicated to remembering victims of previous wars and of the attacks of the past decades. The whole country froze, at a regular pace, following the sound of sirens, in order to commemorate the thousands Israelis who have fallen, one way or another, in the face of the enemy. Preparing for the next war is evidently one of the authorities’ main priorities. This goes beyond the simple defence effort, which remains very important. For instance, one of Haifa’s main hospitals is deploying a whole disposal to be able to transfer to the basement all of its equipments in the event of a war. As a visitor, one cannot help but wonder: where exactly does the threat to Israel’s security come from now? 

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there are many advanced research centers, filled with experts among whom former Mossad and army officials, who are currently working on this issue. The answer is unanimous: the threat comes from Iran, first because of its nuclear aspirations, second because of its support to Shia militias in Iraq, Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Syria, and finally because of the constant strengthening of its presence, notably military, in Syria. This is one of the situation’s paradoxes: the Prime Minister, obsessed with the Iranian nuclear threat, pushes Mr Trump towards the withdrawal of the US from the JCPOA (Iran nuclear agreement), yet according to the majority of the Israeli security establishment, the immediate security of Israel is better ensured by the upholding of JCPOA. Moreover, according to them, the vacuum left by the Islamic State in Syria, along with the US’ regional disengagement in the background, is what really gives the Islamic Republic Guards a window of opportunity. 

"If Jerusalem wants Russia to acknowledge its “red lines”, Israel must also agree with Russia’s “red lines”. The latter notably concern Assad remaining in power and the necessity of a form of Iranian presence."

When responding to the Iranian challenge on its Northern border, Israel has deployed a policy of “red lines” in the past few years coupled with a close concertation with Russia. Tsahal regularly intervenes in Syria in retaliation for the smuggling of weapons over to Hezbollah, to prevent a direct threat near the Golan or to counter Iranian attempts to install permanent bases. These are the three current Israeli “red lines”. Israel’s military incursions into Syria are only possible, at least since 2015, because Russia allows it. Hence the paradox: Israel’s security needs the good will of a partner, Russia, which happens to be allied with Iran in Syria, and to reinforce as much as it can the anti-aircraft defences of Assad’s regime.

The sort of connivance with Vladimir Putin Mr Netanyahu brags about causes a mix of respect and scepticism amongst politico-military experts. Respect, because everyone admits that Israel has no choice under the present circumstances but to find a modus vivendi with the Russian power, which has become its neighbour. Also because the Israeli strategists are ready to draw the consequences of these new circumstances. If Jerusalem wants Russia to acknowledge its “red lines”, Israel must also agree with Russia’s “red lines”. The latter notably concern Assad remaining in power and the necessity of a form of Iranian presence. The whole Israeli policy can be interpreted as an engagement not to harm Assad and as a hope that Russia impose increasingly precise boundaries to Iran’s presence as Assad’s power is strengthened.

In this spirit, our interlocutors take the regime’s “victory” and the US’s withdrawal from North-East Syria for granted. Some of them understand the recent events occuring in Ghouta as a sign of the Russian willingness to restore the regular army over Shia militias. Many expect an offensive from the Syrian army and Russia towards the South - in the direction of the city of Deraa - and predict that the Israeli authorities will put up with it, given that it would be a new step forward for the regime, and not Iran.

"On 9 April, Tsahal hit the T4 facility (near Homs) again, without giving any prior notice to the Russian authorities, and for the first time directly targeting Iranian units."

If there is scepticism, it concerns concepts : red lines are, by definition, revealed, and the adversary can easily adapt to them and even avoid them. This scepticism also relies on an observation: despite Tshala’s repetitive actions, and all the guarantees offered (or not) by Mr Putin to the Israeli Prime Minister, the fact is that the Hezbollah now has a considerable missile arsenal at its disposal, estimated at 140 000. In the event of a conflict, it thus has the capacity to launch from 3 to 4 thousands missiles per day for weeks over Israeli towns. This is the scenario haunting Israeli officials: a third war against Hezbollah, which this time would involve Iran, and which Israel would probably end up winning but at the cost of destructions and casualties as of yet unprecedented in the country’s history. 

Besides, it is not impossible that a new turning point has occurred in the past days regarding Israel’s confrontation with Iran and Hezbollah. On 9 April, Tsahal hit the T4 facility (near Homs) again, without giving any prior notice to the Russian authorities, and for the first time directly targeting Iranian units. Not long before, photos and very precise indications had been given to the public by Israeli officials disclosing Iranian military installations in Syria, which seemed like a way to say: “we know exactly what you are doing”. However, yet again in an unusual way, Moscow condemned the Israeli action and Vladimir Putin called Bibi Netanyahu. As I write this letter, the Israeli military establishment is getting ready for a possible Iranian retaliation to the 9 April strike by a missile attack hitting the Israeli territory.

"Of course, one can only be struck by the importance given to Russia in Israeli plans."

Of course, this is where we should draw the link with the nuclear issue. On an immediate time scale, an Iranian strike against Israel would condemn Tehran to play the bad role in the battle with Washington and the Europeans regarding the future of the JCPOA. On the long term, Iran’s accession to the bomb would make Israel’s attempt to find a balance with Hezbollah and Iran on its doorstep even more dangerous. The threat coming from Arab countries has significantly reduced, except for the form of jihadism still present in Gaza, Sinaï and Syria. Israel is now engaged in another kind of brinkmanship policy, its main challenge being Iran and its proxies, and its main partner being Russia. The Hebrew State cannot rely on Turkey anymore and understands that America is progressively abandoning, President after President, its role of regional arbitrator.

Of course, one can only be struck by the importance given to Russia in Israeli plans, and beyond these calculations, by the sort of fascination Israeli elites have for Russia. I will not delve into the reasons for such fascination in this paper. Yet it is worth noting the gap between the Israeli perception of a Russia “with which we can get along” and the increasingly tough stance Western capitals are adopting against Moscow. It would be important to have an in-depth dialogue  with the Israelis on this very gap: are they not underestimating the aspiration to a global confrontation with the West now fueling Mr Putin’s policy? Are they not overestimating the likelihood that Russian and Iranian strategic interests be separated in Syria, as in the entire region? And to extend both these questions: supposing Assad eventually “wins”, won’t the Syria he will pretend to embody, given the transformation of its demography, it new internal balances, and Iran’s future influence, be irretrievably different from the Syria that used to protect peace with Israel so well?

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