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Herzliya 2015: A map of opportunities and threats

June 16, 2015 at 8:52 am

The 15th Israeli National Security conference, organised by the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre, ended a few days ago. The conference addressed, as it has done previously, the map of strategic opportunities and dangers facing Israel.

Herzliya concluded with a list of recommendations that aim to improve Israel’s ability to face the threats arising from regional developments. These also aim to enable Israel to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these developments.

The discussions and research papers submitted at the conference focused particularly on monitoring events in the Arab world and predicting their effects on Israel, especially developments in Iraq and Syria and the increased influence of Jihadist movements across the region. The conference also looked at the counter-revolutions, the Iranian nuclear programme and the consequences of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

I must point out that in the past two years the position of Herzliya as a platform for the trends in Israel’s strategic thinking has declined. It has been superseded by the conferences organised by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

Nevertheless, from a methodological point of view, and contrary to the impressions given by the Arab media’s coverage of the Herzliya conference discussions, the political and propaganda considerations still play an important role in dictating the positions expressed by the ruling political elite. This drives the latter either to exaggerate or belittle some dangers based on their ideological positions. At the same time, some of the visions presented in the papers presented at the conference contradict with those of other important researchers.

Neutralising the eastern front

Throughout the discussions in which senior Israeli officials participated, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers, army officials and prominent strategic affairs researchers, we can pinpoint a number of regional developments that were addressed as “opportunities” to be taken advantage of.

The speakers at the conference agreed that 2015 has witnessed an ongoing transformation which began with the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions. This is represented in the decline of each Arab state and the disintegration of the traditional armies. It has resulted in improving Israel’s place radically in the strategic balance of power scenarios. The traditional Arab military threat has fallen by the wayside due to the disbanding of the Syrian and Iraqi armies, while the Egyptian army has been distracted by domestic affairs.

The speakers concluded that there is no longer any threat on the eastern front, which has posed the main threat to Israel since the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979. They stressed that this has enabled Israel to rebuild its armed forces in a way that reduces the financial investment needed to develop the capabilities needed to face traditional armies.

They were also keen to point out that the collapse of the individual Arab states has resulted in the birth of entities that suit Israel. An example of this is the enhancement of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq and its nearness to declaring independence, as it has close ties with Israel.

Improving the strategic environment

Three developments were pinpointed as having guaranteed the regional environment and Israel’s strategic position: the coup led by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi; the convergence of interests between Tel Aviv and a number of Arab countries over the possibility of the West reaching a settlement with Iran regarding its nuclear programme that does not consider Israel and the interests of the Arab world; and the lack of interest within Hezbollah and Hamas to ignite the northern and southern fronts respectively.

Amos Gilad, Director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at Israel’s Ministry of Defence, shed light on the strategic benefits granted to Israel after the coup. He referred to it as a “miracle for Israel” and believes that the partnership between Egypt and Israel in the war against the Palestinian resistance is the most important development occurring this year. He noted that Al-Sisi’s government played a major role by closing the tunnels and ending the flow of weapons into Gaza. There was no disagreement at Herzliya regarding Israel’s great benefit from the war waged by Al-Sisi on the Muslim Brotherhood and the jihadists in Sinai.

Some of the speakers stressed the need to take advantage of the joint interests of Israel and the Arab countries in order to build regional alliances that enable Tel Aviv to achieve its aims at as low a cost as possible. They also insisted that Hezbollah does not have an interest in igniting Israel’s northern front because it is involved in Syria and the 2006 war still acts as a deterrent. The discussions at Herzliya concluded that reconstructing the Gaza Strip is the top priority of Hamas at the moment, which reduces the movement’s desire to ignite Israel’s southern front.

The results of the Turkish elections were announced during the conference. Speakers like ex-president Shimon Peres suggested that the results have the potential to improve the regional environment for Israel.

Nuclear Iran

Despite the fact that the Iranian nuclear portfolio has maintained its spot at the top of the strategic threats list made by the Israeli officials and researchers at the conference, we must be cautious due to Israel’s keenness on shedding light on this issue. It is true that the current Israeli leadership considers nuclear Iran a top existential threat, but we must also not overlook the propaganda goals behind Netanyahu’s eagerness to highlight the dangers of this issue in his speech at Herzliya.

The Israeli prime minister utilised the conference as a platform to pressure the US administration and Western leaders to take Israel’s positions into consideration before reaching a final agreement with Tehran on the nuclear issue. His explicit position on Iran’s nuclear programme contradicts that of the current Director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, its former director Meir Dagan and Director of the Israeli Internal Security Service, the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, who have stressed, on more than one occasion, that the conflict with the Palestinians is the top existential threat to Israel, not Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Despite the fact that speakers at Herzliya all agreed that the jihadist groups in Syria, Iraq and Sinai are not currently concerned with targeting Israel, they predict that they will become a strategic threat in the future. According to the scenarios presented at the conference, some of those operating in Syria will turn on Israel after the fall of the Assad regime.

We can conclude from the discussions that the threat posed by the jihadist groups is escalated by the fact that they are capable of exhausting Israel due to their sheer number and variety of leaders and schools of thought. Some are also based near sensitive and critical locations for Israel, including the Golan Heights and southern Syria. Speakers also agreed that it would be very difficult to deter the Jihadist groups because they lack the capabilities and features of a state that can be hit to reinforce the deterrence.

According to Israel’s strategic estimations, facing the Jihadist groups requires the re-formulation of its security theory and the Israeli army’s combat doctrine, as it will be required to make war on multiple fronts all at once. The security elites with an intelligence background who spoke at the conference stressed that facing the Jihadists will require a great investment in terms of intelligence in order to establish a bank of strategic targets that can be hit when necessary. They did not rule out the possibility of the Jihadist groups posing a threat to regimes whose existence is considered a strategic Israeli interest, such as Jordan’s. General Gilad warned about the threat created by the expansion of ISIS and its threat to Jordan, which he described as “a strategic depth for Israel.”

The threat of BDS

The Herzliya conference this year was held at the height of the campaign launched by Israel and US Jewish organisations against the BDS movement. This affected the discussions, as all of the speakers agreed that BDS could transform from a strategic to an existential threat if the movement grows. Its danger stems from the fact that it aims to damage Israel’s international legitimacy and its position worldwide, especially in the West.

Many of the conference speakers warned that the BDS movement can result in reducing Israel’s room for manoeuvre when facing the Palestinian resistance. They believe that the decision-makers in Tel Aviv will take into consideration the potential effects on Israel’s international position before launching military operations which could kill or wound Palestinian civilians. Despite the fact that the economic consequences of the BDS movement are limited for the time being, the speakers predicted that the Israeli economy will sustain great losses from boycotts if it is not contained.

The failure to be concerned with the consequences of the conflict with the Palestinians remaining open-ended is the greatest proof of the impact of the ideological considerations on the discussions at Herzliya 2015. This goes hand-in-hand with the trends of the radical right-wing government. It is worth noting that this conflict impacts on all of the potential threats identified at the conference.

Conference recommendations

Based on the discussions and papers presented at Herzliya, the conference committee made a number of recommendations to face the threats resulting from the developments in the Arab world, including the adoption of a comprehensive security strategy to thwart such threats. It also urged the amendment of the Israeli security theory adopted during the time of the first Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, in order to allow Israel to address the consequences of the regional events, stressing that Israel must invest great efforts in deterring its enemies in light of the difficulties involved in resolving any confrontations.

Another recommendation was to enhance the alliance with the US, as America plays a major role in helping Israel to face strategic threats. The conference described this alliance as “the most important treasure possessed by Israel on an international level.” It urged Israel to reinforce its alliances with its regional partners and to make more of them.

In short, despite the impact of the ideological and political considerations on the discussions, the 2015 Herzliya Conference has indicated clearly that Israel is facing a state of uncertainty regarding its continued existence in the region.

Translated from Al Jazeera net , 13 June, 2015.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.