As we enter the new year, Israel’s strategic position is sound, but fragile and facing many challenges. Sound, because despite the events of the past year, Israel ends 2021 with its diplomatic standing strong, its economy robust and its military power established beyond doubt. Israel continues to harvest the fruits of its diplomatic achievements, of the perception of its prowess and of being a nation of innovation and technology.
Fragile in view of the large number of volatile issues that it faces, the connections between them and the broad implications of each. Above all, of course, the Iranian nuclear issue on which we are approaching a decisive point, and where tensions are increasing in the diplomatic arena and on the security front.
That Israel faces many challenges seems to always be the case. But at this time, among those challenges is the need to tread lightly on every level, from the strategic to the operative planes. Some of the challenges the country currently faces involve decisions on issues within the Israeli sphere itself.
The unity of Israeli society is essential to our national resilience. This is true at any time, and all the more so because of the challenges that the political-security reality may spring upon us. The tensions between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities since “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May, the decline in the sense of personal safety, the apparent decline in governability and the increase in serious crime in the Arab sector have created new fissures and deepened existing ones. These are the results of internal polarization.
The situation assessment on this matter necessitates a change of approach, and addressing these issues must be among the government’s primary goals for the coming year.
An existential threat
What is the ultimate goal? Where should we be focusing our efforts?
First, bolstering Israel as a strong, safe and prosperous Jewish and democratic state. This ultimate goal should dictate where the state focuses its efforts, and should serve as the compass by which we set concrete goals in all fields for the planning and operational bodies. While this effort should reflect a desire to stay as close as possible to the practical plane, that does not render insignificant the important debate on the big questions of identity, destination and vision.
Second, preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state. In other words, Israel’s primary challenge in 2022 is the effort to prevent the Islamic Republic from becoming a nuclear state or a threshold state.
Simply put, a threshold state is one with the technology and capabilities to put together a nuclear weapon, but which has yet to do so.
Why does Iran view its nuclear program so highly that it is willing to risk paying unbearable costs because of it? One can sum up the answer in two words: survivability and vision.
Iran strives for nuclear weapons to ensure the survival of the ayatollahs’ regime in the event of external military intervention to topple it. The regime’s endurance is a guarantor that from a historical perspective, the Islamic Revolution will be more than just a passing episode. The regime’s survival is also the main tool to achieve its ambitious vision.
Nuclear weapons, or even the status of a threshold state, will enable Iran freedom of operation in its subversive maneuvers and its plans to establish Iranian hegemony in the region. It will be able to operate proxy forces under the deterrence that this status will add to its arsenal, and will enjoy improved global status and greater negotiating leeway on various issues.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran are an existential threat to Israel. One cannot assume that at any given time and in any scenario, Iran will act rationally, according to greater win/lose considerations that would dissuade it from directly striking Israel. Iran’s repeated comparing of Israel to cancerous growth and its consistent threats to destroy the Jewish state reflect Tehran’s deep animosity toward it.
One does not need a fervent imagination to come up with a scenario in which internal turmoil in Iran leads the regime to conclude that it is nearing its end, thus creating the temptation, a moment before the fall, to use the nuclear weapons in its hands—as if to say, “Let me die with the Little Satan.”
Even without the apocalyptic scenario of Iran dropping a bomb, the threat it poses to Israel is intolerable. Achieving the status of a nuclear state will enable Iran to send its proxy forces to carry out massive conventional attacks against its enemies without fear of military reprisal. Iran will be able to watch safely from the sidelines as its proxies pound its enemies with thousands of missiles. This could apply to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and the various other militias supported by Iran.
Moreover, if Iran becomes a nuclear state or a threshold state, this will lead to a nuclear arms race across the entire region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others will not stand aside and watch. The list of potential regional ramifications is too long to detail here, to fully describe the implications of such a process, but suffice it to say that peace and stability are not on the menu.
Thus, we should not agree to any approach that is willing to tolerate a nuclear Iran. Israel must stand firm in its demands for measures that will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear threshold state.
Pressure is still effective
An agreement is a means, not a goal in and of itself. An agreement is relevant only if it includes commitments, measures and mechanisms that ensure that the goal is achieved. Otherwise, it can be likened to a drug that is unsuitable for the disease. A price is paid; it plants a false seed of hope and gives the illusion that efforts to find an alternative are no longer necessary. However, at the end of the day, the suffering continues—both from the disease and the side effects of the medication.
Iran has no reason to rush to reach an agreement, and especially not to agree to the significant restrictions and measures that are required. A credible military option and heavy economic pressure, on the other hand, can be a persuasive argument. Indeed, it is hard to find an example of a state nuclear program that was dismantled without pressure or coercion.
True, as yet, pressure has not brought Iran to the breaking point, but that does not mean it is not effective. The means employed so far have not been exhausted, and the change of administration in the United States has given the Iranians a horizon, and hope. It is against this background that sanctions can perhaps provide stronger leverage for the Biden administration than for the previous administration, as new sanctions would encounter an already battered Iranian economy and deliver a blow to the regime’s morale by shutting down its hopes.
The dialogue between Israel and the United States must continue on all channels, with regard to all issues and scenarios, both for the short and the long terms. At the same time, Israel must maintain its freedom of action, and the freedom to express its opinion. The debate on operational issues must take place in the relevant internal forums, and not via the media. It is not prudent to volunteer information to our enemies.
Removing the axis of evil
Another challenge that awaits Israel in 2022 is pushing Iran out of Syria.
The diplomatic and military campaign to prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Syria has generated results. At the same time, and without halting that campaign, Israel should evaluate the chances of a diplomatic arrangement that would lead to the complete removal of the forces of the Shi’ite axis.
Such an arrangement would require agreement between the United States and Russia, and following that of the Sunni states and Turkey. In view of the current tensions between the United States and Russia, it would seem that Syria, of all places, can provide them both with an opportunity to present a joint achievement: A diplomatic solution to a complex and bloody conflict.
What should such an arrangement include?
Israel must be at the core, and there must be a commitment for the withdrawal of all foreign forces that entered Syria after 2011 (a definition that includes Iran and its proxies). There must be supervision and monitoring mechanisms for the borders and crossing points, prevention of entrenchment by Islamist terror factions, and the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement must be maintained.
Meir Ben Shabbat is head of the Misgav Institute for Zionist Strategy & National Security in Jerusalem. He served as Israel’s national security advisor and head of the National Security Council between 2017 and 2021. Prior to that, for 25 years he held senior positions in the Israel Security Agency (Shabak).
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.
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