The coming year is likely to be one of uncertainty as Israel tries to walk the extremely fine line between the highly volatile potential on all fronts and the Israel Defense Forces’ clear superiority and ability to generate deterrence.
Ostensibly, Israel has to strive to avoid a wide scale conflict in 2019. This should be doable as each foe, in every sector, currently has far more pressing issues to deal with: Syria is reeling from the bloody, seven-year civil war; Hezbollah is knee-deep in financial problems and the internal Lebanese political turmoil; Hamas is trying to improve the dire economic situation in the Gaza Strip; and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is focused on trying to make heads or tails of the impending post-Mahmoud Abbas era.
Add to that Israel’s military power, and one can understand why Israel’s enemies are wary of confrontation. Still, logic does not always prevail in the Middle East, and each sector harbors a significant chance of experiencing a rapid escalation, especially as all are under the menacing specter of Iran, which is trying to increase its regional influence.
This means that the Israeli challenge will be first, to avoid war; second, to win a war should one erupt; and third, and perhaps most important, to both prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and stop Hezbollah’s armament efforts in Lebanon, especially with respect to the Shi’ite terrorist group’s precision-missile program.
Israel will also have to carefully navigate its policy in Gaza to ensure the desperation there does not worsen, and equal prudence will be required in the West Bank, where fighting terrorism while minimizing the infringement on the civilian Palestinian population’s routine is crucial to preventing another intifada.
Israel will have to do all of this while contending with complex geostrategic conditions, especially given U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops from Syria and the subsequent increase in Russia’s regional power.
This would require not only diplomatically navigating the complex equation between Washington and Moscow, but also fostering closer ties with the moderate Sunni axis, which, in turn, is likely to increase friction with rogue states, including Turkey.
This fine line between opportunity and risk is one Israel will have to walk alone, and it will have only itself to count on, diplomatically and militarily.
All this will take place against the backdrop of what is expected to be a challenging year for Israel regardless. The election campaign is already proving to be a stormy one, and it is unlikely it would refrain from dragging the IDF into it. The new IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, slated to take office in mid-January, will have to maneuver between all the external and internal threats and challenges, including the questions raised about the army’s war readiness, the need to formulate a multiyear budget, to the personnel crisis brewing in the military’s regular and standing ranks.
Defense and security issues will continue to dominate the political and public agenda in 2019, on every level. The good news is that chances of war are slim. The bad news is that, given the regional upheaval, no security assessment can be taken for granted.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.