In Israel, military leaders have been forced temporarily to shelve a multi-year plan to counter Iran, as the former country remains without a government for the longest stretch in its history.
Two elections have failed to yield a winner and the country is headed to its third cycle, scheduled for March 2020, in less than a year. The government in Jerusalem is an interim one, as it is both legally and politically unable to alter its policies dramatically.
The timing of this handicap on policy formulation has been highly unfortunate from the Israeli point of view. Iran has spent the last few years entrenching its position in Syria in preparation for a permanent and significant military presence in the country.
In recent months, Tehran has been successful in improving the military capabilities of its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah. The Shiite group now has the technology and training to utilize precision targeting with a significant percentage of its arsenal of roughly 130,000 rockets and missiles, according to Israeli intelligence.
This would allow Hezbollah to cause far greater damage to both civilian and military targets in a future conflict than it did in the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Considering the successful attack by Iran on Saudi Aramco oil facilities in September, the Israeli military has good reason to be concerned about the spread of these capabilities.
The head of Israel Defense Forces operations, Major-General Aharon Haliva, warned last month that the attack on Saudi Arabia “was a sophisticated attack that managed to evade both US and Saudi defenses.”
“Whoever says that it can’t happen to us isn’t a professional,” he added.
A source in the Israeli military told Asia Times the IDF is far more concerned about the threat of attacks from Lebanese and Syrian territory than it is regarding conflagrations in Gaza. The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “without a doubt, the northern front is where the true danger is. Iran can operate there far more freely and we face serious constraints. In Gaza we can control the situation.”
Despite more than a thousand sorties into Syria thus far, Israel has so far been unsuccessful in undermining the spread of Iranian influence on the northern frontier. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Major-General Hossein Salami, said in September that “this sinister regime must be wiped off the map and this is no longer … a dream [but] it is an achievable goal.”
Netanyahu under pressure
Tehran seems keenly aware of the sensitive situation Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself in and has escalated both direct attacks and operations involving proxies. Israeli forces in November assassinated the commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, a militant group that in essence takes its marching orders from the Iran.
On November 20, Israel said a unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired rockets at Israel via Syrian territory. The IDF spokesman said, “The Iranian attack towards Israel is further clear proof of the purpose of the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, which threatens Israeli security, regional stability and the Syrian regime.”
This led to an immediate response from the Israeli Air Force on the IRGC’s Quds Force, and also on Syrian air defense systems. The attacks were focused on Iranian headquarters, weapons warehouses, and military bases. The Israeli response was one of well over a thousand acknowledged and unacknowledged strikes in the war-torn country.
While the strikes may have slowed down efforts by Hezbollah to modernize in Lebanon and by Iran to increase its influence in Syria, they have not been able to turn the tide. Despite a Russian-American-Jordanian agreement that Iran and its satellites would not be allowed to draw closer than 70 kilometers to the Israeli border, Iranian positions, according to Israeli intelligence, are ubiquitous throughout this “forbidden zone.”
And evidence of Iranian influence continues to be discovered. Last week, an Israeli intelligence firm released photographs of an alleged Iranian tunnel along the Syria-Iraq border constructed to facilitate the smuggling of arms for IRGC and Hezbollah forces.
The Netanyahu government finds itself walking a tightrope in addressing security matters. On the one hand it must uphold its duty to protect the citizens both in order to fulfill its official duties and in order to avoid harming the electoral prospects of Likud and its allies. Yet escalation at this point will inevitably lead to charges that the troubled prime minister is attempting to distract the public from his corruption charges by launching military operations for political reasons.
In late November, the prime minister visited Israel’s northern frontier on the occupied Golan Heights with a coterie of military commanders, just days after Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced his decision to file charges, including one count of bribery, against the Likud leader.
The prime minister has spoken in tones of doom and gloom regarding developments in Syria.
“We’re faced with an evil empire, it’s called Iran. Iran seeks to destroy Israel. It says so openly. It works for this incessantly.”
Tenufa on hold
Earlier this year, Israel’s military high-command designed a multi-year plan called “Tenufa” (momentum) geared toward the specific threat posed by Iran.
It is meant to increase Israel’s precision-targeting through drones and missiles as well as the improvement of anti-air defense capabilities. It will also involve improving the military’s ability, which is already considerable, to locate targets in enemy territory and fight in urban theaters.
Tenufa is scheduled to come into effect on January 1 and to guide Israel’s policy through the year 2024. The plan is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars over five years.
Unfortunately, the interim government is not authorized to fund it. Sans a new budget, the previous iteration is renewed on a month-by-month basis.
Sources in the IDF have confirmed to Asia Times that they have not even commenced preliminary talks with the Ministry of Finance, since the identity of the next government and the contours of their budget are unknown.
Inter-ministerial talks are expected to be quite contentious, as the Ministry of Finance contends that increases in the defense budget will necessitate equivalent cuts in other budgets such as health and education. These are always thorny issues. However, this iteration will likely be worse than usual.
On Wednesday Amir Yaron, governor of the Bank of Israel, warned that if no budgetary adjustments are made “the deficit will stabilize at a dangerous level” of more than 4.5% of gross domestic product, and the debt-to-GDP ratio will reach 75% in 2025.
To make matters worse, adjustments cannot be made before May at the earliest, assuming that the third iteration of elections is the final one.
The budgetary constraints are already having an effect on Israeli military readiness and the safety of its soldiers. Three weeks ago, a Sikorsky transport helicopter carrying 14 soldiers caught fire and was eventually destroyed by the blaze. The passengers and crew were lucky to escape intact. The aircraft were scheduled to be replaced by newer models, but the money has not come through because of the political paralysis.