Israel is a very strong country militarily. It knows how to defend itself and has the capabilities to do so. Nevertheless, Israel faces a number of very serious challenges.
Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold
The most important and most dangerous challenge for Israel is the progress in the Iranian nuclear program. There has been a sharp increase in the speed with which the Iranians develop their program and enrich uranium. If the information provided by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz is correct, then in the last three months the Iranians produced twice as much uranium enriched to 60% as they did in the previous three months. That means the Iranians are moving very fast towards the capability to acquire fissile material for several bombs within a very short period of time. It is clear that Iran can now be called a threshold nuclear country.
This is a red line from an Israeli point of view. When former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented his famous drawing at the UN General Assembly in 2012, he spoke about 250 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium in the hands of the Iranians as a red line. We are far beyond that red line. Moreover, the Iranians used the time of the Vienna negotiations in order to accumulate more and more uranium enriched to high levels.
There is a big debate among the experts about how much time it will take before the Iranians have a weapon. Some think it will take them two years. I’m much more pessimistic and skeptical, because I think that the Iranians don’t work in a linear way to first produce the enriched uranium and then start to worry about how to create a bomb.
We know they have made progress in the technological sphere.
Remember, we don’t have any answers from the Iranians about all the open questions in regard to the potential military dimensions of their program before they entered the 2015 Iran deal—the JCPOA.
And we definitely don’t have any answers about the new revelations that Israel brought to the table once it took the information from the nuclear archives in Tehran in 2018, in spite of the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to convince the Iranians to cooperate. But there are four sites that were exposed when Israel acquired the archive. At a couple of them, anthropogenic traces of uranium were found and the Iranians haven’t explained the source of this uranium or provided information about where this uranium is now and how much there is.
We have to assume that the Iranians have done all kinds of experiments with this uranium in order to shorten the time necessary for them to move from the possession of 90%-enriched uranium at military grade to the capability to produce a bomb.
Moreover, they have recently produced uranium metal and they possess a lot of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. So we should be very worried about the nuclear program.
Unfortunately, although Israel and the United States share a commitment not to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, they still do not agree about the way to ensure this outcome.
The Americans are still interested in an Iranian return to the JCPOA, which will only gain something like two years, but will allow the Iranians to make legitimate progress towards any number of nuclear weapons within less than nine years. To our mind here in Israel, this is ridiculous and extremely dangerous, and we don’t see eye-to-eye with the Americans on this matter.
At the same time, Israel cooperates with the Americans in the attempt to convince the Iranians that further nuclear progress will be dangerous. Both are in the midst of a major military exercise in which they cooperate in the simulation of an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, which is a message to Iran: “Be careful. Don’t move forward on the acquisition of more fissile material and the production of 90%-enriched uranium,” which is something both Israel and the Americans do not want.
Although the Iranians could have had a nuclear weapon long ago, Israel and the U.S. managed to postpone that by more than 15 years. But this is not good enough. We haven’t managed to stop it altogether. This is something that at a certain point we might have to do, and this time is coming closer and closer. We don’t have all the time in the world before we will have to take steps that are decisive in this context. The pace with which the Iranians have moved towards the capability to produce nuclear weapons is much faster than it was in the past.
What we would like to see now is more pressure on Iran that would stop further progress and clarify to Iran that if they do move forward, there is a plan B that would make the price too high for the regime. That’s what needs to be done, not a return to the JCPOA, which guarantees the Iranians everything they want in a few years. That’s not kicking the can down the road. With every kick that you give to the can, it becomes bigger and more explosive. That’s why Israel continues to say we will not be part of the JCPOA. We will take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and prevent Iran from the acquisition of nuclear weapons.
Countering Iran on Israel’s Northern Border
The other element that we have to worry about in regard to the Iranians is their continued efforts to entrench their forces in Syria and turn Syria into a base from which they can operate against Israel, while at the same time deliver advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would allow them to have precision-guided munitions. That is something that Israel has worked every day to prevent with our efforts to hit Iranian targets and Iranian shipments of arms to Hezbollah. Fortunately, in Syria we have developed rules of engagement that allow us to operate there with only limited repercussions.
Meanwhile, the Iranians have managed to strengthen their allies, but they have done it much slower than they wished because of our activities. We have to worry about escalation with Hezbollah, which has up to 150,000 rockets and operates advanced UAVs. And it’s not only Hezbollah. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have also received Iranian support to improve their military capabilities. They boast about it all the time.
Just imagine what will happen if the Iranians reenter the JCPOA and get all the money that awaits them—tens of billions of dollars—if they rejoin. We are very concerned about that. We realize that everything we do in this “campaign between the wars” slows the Iranians’ progress, but will not block and stop it altogether.
The Palestinian Conflict
The Palestinians understand that Israel is not willing to use force in order to rearrange the situation, especially not against Gaza. We saw this in “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, in which severe measures against Hamas were not on the agenda for Israel.
At the same time, Israel is committed to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, while the P.A. operates against Israel in many fields. They pay salaries to terrorists for attacks against Israelis, incite against Israel and operate against Israel in international fora, the International Criminal Court and elsewhere.
Israel has faced an increase in the number of Palestinian terror attacks in the last few months, which have gone beyond the usual level of terrorism that nobody counts, such as stone-throwing and firebombs. These have taken place in areas inside the Green Line, and this has had a very important impact on Israelis’ sense of security. It forced Israel to act in ways beyond what it had done in the past.
Israel embarked on the ongoing “Operation Break the Wave,” carried out mainly in the Jenin area and the northern part of Judea and Samaria. It is in this context that Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh lost her life. The Palestinians took advantage of this death in order to wage a campaign of delegitimization against Israel in the international arena.
In Gaza, the Hamas leadership heats up the situation through all manner of threats. I think they do not mean to put Gaza in harm’s way. The situation there is still very problematic from their point of view.
They haven’t reconstructed the damage done in the war last year. Israel has given Gazans more permits than ever to work in Israel. So, there is resentment among Gaza citizens at the prospect of another war. Hamas would prefer to see the situation somehow kept within the confines of Jerusalem, the Israeli Arabs and Judea and Samaria, where they would like to foment terrorism without direct involvement.
Yes, they have the capability to attack Israel. They have the option if they wish to. And they work very hard to gain greater capabilities. But I don’t think they are eager to resume the war in Gaza. That said, an escalation can happen.
We have to be prepared for that, because Hamas’ sense that Israel will not take serious measures against it makes Hamas much more self-confident and allows it to prepare more extreme threats against the Jewish state.
To allow more than 10,000 people to work in Israel eases the pressures in Gaza considerably. We also allow more than 100,000 Palestinians from Judea and Samaria to work in Israel.
Perhaps the most disturbing issue is the rise of Palestinian nationalism and Islamic extremism among Israeli Arabs. They don’t go into the streets because they have economic difficulties. This is a very minor element in the equation. We are now considering the establishment of a National Guard in Israel that would be more capable of dealing with the matter.
The International Effort to Demonize Israel
The campaign waged in the wake of the death of Abu Akleh highlights an additional area in which we are challenged—the international effort to demonize and delegitimize Israel. We see this not only in the activities of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and its allies, but also in the activities of many radical left-wing groups around the world.
We are most concerned in this respect with the political situation in the United States, because voices on the extreme left-wing of the Democratic Party now question the special relationship between Israel and the United States, which is a very important element in our national security. So, we have to make sure that this relationship is maintained and take steps to assure this right now.
Altogether, these elements create a very challenging environment for Israel.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser is Director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center. He was formerly Director General of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.