This Coming Summer
I’ll start from the conclusion – 2014 will be no less challenging to Israeli decision makers than 2013 was, and will necessitate decisions which could have a major impact on Israel and the region as a whole. Since we have heard the same words at the beginning of each year since Israel’s establishment, I’m sure this general prediction doesn’t come as too much of a shock. Still, drilling down into specifics, rest assured that this coming year promises us some new causes for worry. Shall we begin?
At the top of Israel’s critical decisions list is the Palestinian issue. The current renewed effort to reach an agreement is quickly heading to a point where a strategic decision with wide implications will be necessary. As things stand now, Israel is about to face three options:
- “All in” – Signing a final-status agreement that resolves the conflict. The outline of this agreement has been known for years, and by all sides involved, so no surprises here: The 1967 borders, with minor adjustments compensated by land swaps, as the basis of the agreement; long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley; resettlement of refugees in the Palestinian state and compensation funded by the international community and Israel; and Jerusalem as the joint capital of Israel and Palestine. This agreement will not only necessitate painful concessions from Prime Minister Netanyahu, but most probably also the dismantlement and re-construction of the ruling coalition.
- “Half way” – Signing the framework agreement that is currently being prepared by U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s diligent and over-worked team, and that is supposed to be presented to both sides by the end of the month. If approved by Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, the talks are almost guaranteed to continue beyond March.
- “The hell with it” – Rebutting the framework agreement and blowing up the talks. This outcome will most likely politically isolate Israel in the world, renew and accelerate the Palestinian effort to receive diplomatic recognition, intensify the wave of economic and cultural boycotts against Israel, and cause a violent conflagration in the West Bank.
I think it’s reasonable to predict that Netanyahu will choose the second option. While still highly doubtful of Palestinian intentions and actions, yet not wanting to appear exactly as the world depicts him, Netanyahu will prefer to take the middle path.
It is becoming more and more apparent that despite the smiles and hugs, Iran has not given up on its plans for becoming a country with nuclear threshold capabilities – meaning it could, should the decision be made, produce a nuclear device in a short period of time. President Rouhani is encountering fierce opposition from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and conservative ayatollahs, as reflected by delaying and stalling tactics in the implementation of the interim Geneva deal signed in November between the P5+1 powers and Iran. But the real test will be in June – will Iran sign a final agreement with the powers, and what will it include?
If signed at all, Israel will most likely not be satisfied, since it will fall far from its minimum requirements – taking back Iran’s military nuclear program by at least two years. In which case, Netanyahu will face a tough dilemma. Either accept the agreement or begin a full-blown and public political conflict with the world and President Obama’s administration which will necessitate using Israel’s friends in the U.S. Congress and perhaps a renewal of the “hold me” tactic – threatening a military strike against Iran to pressure the Americans and the Europeans into toughening their demands from the Iranians.
This latter option does not benefit anyone, and runs the risk of Israel losing some of the military and political support it so needs. Yet I fear that this is the more probable outcome due to his Iranian obsession – the wish to be remembered in the annals of history as Israel’s savior, and his self-portrayal as an expert in American affairs and politics.
Israel is now facing a new threat in the form of Salafist Sunni fighters associated with Al Qaeda or acting as independent operatives. Armed with large quantities of weapons made available by unsupervised military stockpiles in Libya and Syria, these fighters have already begun isolated attacks on Israel – from Syria, Sinai, and Gaza. A secret Palestinian security report made public last week, asserts that Salafist elements are operating in the West Bank as well.
Probably posing the largest threat, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria numbers over 10,000 fighters from all over the world – including Europe and Asia. Ferociously fighting Assad’s forces, the question of where they will direct their fanatical inclinations is still unclear. The string of isolated events over the past few months on the Israel – Syria border and in Gaza make it entirely probable that Israel will increasingly attract attention from these fundamentalists.
Since these organizations are operating on the territory of sovereign states, Israel’s only choice is to work hard on intelligence and bolster border defenses. With the exception of Gaza, commando attacks in Sinai, Syria and Lebanon are certainly an option, but are also very risky. Israel will continue to gather every bit of information on these organizations while vigilantly protecting its borders.
As we have witnessed over the past few weeks, Israel is now facing a growing trend of individuals executing isolated attacks: stabbings, sniper fire, and even missile launches. Unaffiliated with any terrorist organization, and without any support infrastructure, these individuals pose a new kind of threat mainly because it is extremely hard to gather intelligence on their activities, and therefore provide enough warning in advance. Additionally, Israel is not sure how to respond, and is currently responding as it always has – with aerial or artillery strikes. Mainly symbolic in nature and largely ineffective, these responses are more likely to trigger counter-responses.
Israel will attempt to figure out a creative way to retaliate – one that successfully deters these soloists and also does not trigger a general conflagration in the region.
To sum up – it looks like the coming months will be mainly about diplomatic efforts, with isolated incidents instigated by Salafist elements and Palestinian individuals providing the background noise. These dual diplomatic thrusts will climax towards the summer, when tough decisions will be called for. We could be in for a very warm Middle Eastern summer indeed!