Iran nuclear program
Iran nuclear programiStock

A delegation of researchers at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), led by the Chairman of the INSS Board of Directors Sir Frank Lowy, and including INSS Executive Director Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, INSS Managing Director Brig. Gen. (res.) Udi Dekel, and INSS senior researchers former head of the National Security Council Mr. Meir Ben Shabbat, former head of the IDF Intelligence Research Division Brig. Gen. (res.) Dror Shalom, Ms. Sima Shine, Dr. Anat Kurz, Dr. Shira Efron, Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion, and Dr. Meir Elran, presented to H.E. Mr. Isaac Herzog, President of the State of Israel, the annual Strategic Survey for Israel at his office.

The INSS annual assessment summarizes the main points of an analysis of Israel’s strategic environment in terms of national security, with its potential threats and opportunities, and specifies a range of policy recommendations for decision makers. The Institute’s researchers presented to the President the political-security issues in Israel’s regional and domestic environments, and the challenges to its national security at the outset of 2022. Based on its analyses, the Institute stressed the need for an integrated strategic approach that will help Israel deal with the challenges before it.

An in-depth and detailed discussion of Israel’s leading national security challenges will take place as part of the INSS Annual International Conference, on February 1-2, 2022, in Tel Aviv.

What follows are the highlights of the document

At the outset of 2022, the State of Israel lacks an integrated, consistent, and long-term strategic approach with respect to the challenges it faces.

At the outset of 2022, Israel’s strategic situation is marked by Israel’s failure to maximize its security, economic, and technological potential in its response to the political, security, and internal challenges it faces. This is due to the lack of an integrated, consistent, and long-term strategic approach.

At the center of the challenges is Iran, which continues to strive for a nuclear threshold, and already has the capabilities required for a breakout to a nuclear weapon within a space of weeks. At the same time, it remains determined to build up its military options to threaten Israel in several areas along its borders, including through the use of proxies in a counterattack and with missiles, rockets, unmanned aerial attack vehicles, and precision fire.

The Palestinian arena is a very serious challenge to the vision of Israel as a Jewish, democratic, secure, and moral state – particularly due to the drift toward a one-state reality. This poses concrete risks to Israel in the form of security escalation, in part because of the increasing weakness of the Palestinian Authority, to the point of a near inability to function and a lack of governance. In tandem, the situation in this arena challenges Israel’s international political and legal standing.

Within Israel there is an intensification of trends of polarization between different groups, incitement, and weak governance, particularly in uncontrolled enclaves, which compound the erosion of trust in state institutions. All these constitute a substantive threat to social resilience and national security.

At the global level, Israel must navigate the growing power struggle between the United States and China, and prepare for a range of extreme events due to climate change, frequent economic crises, changes in norms in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing concerns over the resilience of liberal democracies. Israel’s dependence on United States support continues, but the aid that Washington can give Israel is challenged by internal US polarization, even as America’s focus of attention is directed at its internal problems and the struggle with China, at the expense of its engagement with the Middle East. Against this background, the US administration is less prepared to pay attention to the interests and concerns of Israel, whether regarding Iran or in the Palestinian context. In addition, the United States is less willing to invest in extending and intensifying the normalization agreements between Israel and the pragmatic Arab countries.

Strategic Survey for Israel 2022, which discusses these topics at length, aims to contribute to the public debate of these challenges and their potential resolutions, while helping decision makers formulate a sound and informed strategic approach.

President Isaac Herzog, referring to the Strategic Survey, said:

“Today there is an emerging regional understanding that the future of the Middle East is a future of cooperation. In the face of the Iranian threat and its dangerous proxies in the region, we must cooperate with our friends. Not just for the sake of Israel’s citizens, but for all the inhabitants of the Middle East. This is a regional interest of the highest order. Israel’s security is tightly bound up with its national resilience, in our ability to deal with the most profound disagreements, without giving up on our faith in ourselves. We have the power to live together and act as one people. Bridging divides, including political ones, is perhaps the most important step for maintaining Israel’s security, stability, and prosperity. Thank you for your professional work in the preparation of this report, which is the product of genuine concern for the people and the state.”

The Three Main Threats Facing Israel in 2022

Departing from previous years, the Institute’s researchers identified a difference in the scale of the main threats to Israel in 2022. They contend that the following three threats are equal in their severity, and that the main challenge is to define an integrated way of dealing with all three.

  • Iranian nuclear activity: Tehran represents the most serious external threat to Israel, first and foremost due to Iran’s quest to achieve military nuclear capability. In the background is Israel’s structural inability to handle on its own all the challenges posed by Iran’s conduct, as well as the growing need to increase coordination with the United States and tighten the special relationship with it – whether or not an agreement is reached between Iran and the great powers on its nuclear program. Moreover, Iran continues with its program of regional subversion, including its efforts to surround Israel with the threat of attack, especially through its precision missile project for Hezbollah in Lebanon and its proxies in Syria. Apart from thousands of missiles and rockets, Iran is equipping its proxies with thousands of unmanned aerial attack vehicles (UAVs), with a range that enables them to penetrate deep into Israel’s skies from all fronts.

The progress of its nuclear program has given Iran the shortest time ever to break out to nuclear weapons – if the regime in Tehran decides to do so. For Iran, this progress reinforces the temptation not to return to the nuclear agreement without considerable rewards, and the US administration might have neither the ability nor the desire to grant them. Also, Iran’s confidence and readiness to attack its enemies through its proxies has increased.

Israel for its part is at a strategic impasse regarding the Iranian nuclear issue. The various possible scenarios for the dialogue between Iran and the great powers, whether resulting in a partial agreement or lengthy foot-dragging, or even breakdown of talks, are all negative for Israel. However, the opposition to an arrangement between the powers and Iran, focused on a freeze of the nuclear program, will leave Israel isolated with only the military option for preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

  • The Palestinian arena is not a secondary arena that can be contained by empty delusions about “limiting the conflict.” This fact became clear last year during Operation Guardian of the Walls, the round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. The absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict poses a serious threat to Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, and to its status on the international stage. The security situation in the West Bank is nearing a boiling point due to the weakness of the Palestinian Authority in the face of united opposition from various factions and street gangs. True, the situation is still under control, thanks to determined activity by the IDF and the Israel Security Agency, and through security cooperation with the mechanisms of the PA. However, the PA has been weakened and could cease to function, while the growing frustration of the younger generation of Palestinians drives them to think in terms of a one-state reality. Internationally, there is growing criticism of Israel, which in fact works to thwart the chances of implementing the “two states for two peoples” solution, and intensifies the danger of legal moves against Israel and its definition as an apartheid state. Regarding the Gaza Strip, Israel currently faces the same complex and long-lasting dilemma: the need for an urgent response to the humanitarian situation, while avoiding security escalation; pressing for the return of prisoners and missing persons held by Hamas; and preventing Hamas from achieving further military and political control.
  • Israel’s domestic arena: There are signs of a serious social problem emerging due to polarization, rifts, tensions, and extremism (whether ideological, verbal, or physical), in addition to the erosion of trust in government institutions. Meanwhile, there are gaps in readiness for multi-front and high casualty war scenarios, or for violent incidents involving Jews and Arabs. This arena is particularly challenging because of the weakness of the police and the development of uncontrolled enclaves, and above all the absence of national mechanisms for integrated handling of all the issues involved. The consequences of these weaknesses are affecting the responses to other national security challenges.

This convergence of challenges demands a change in the national order of priorities, focusing on restoring government control within the country and healing the rifts between different groups in society. In view of the external threats, Israel must improve the readiness of its military strength, while also cultivating and exploiting soft power assets – its achievements in the fields of technology, science, sea water desalination, and energy, particularly in view of the changes in the global agenda, with the increased emphasis on the need to combat climate change, and the health, social, and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel’s relative advantages and its value to regional and international systems is particularly evident in contrast to the weaker countries of the Middle East.

Against the background of these challenges, the INSS researchers presented ten policy recommendations, as follows:

1. Prepare an up-to-date, innovative, and comprehensive strategy, suitable for a changing strategic and operational environment, based on preparing simultaneously for the challenges arising in Iran, the Palestinian arena, and the domestic front.

2. Set up mechanisms for integrated government planning and action to restore law and order and governance in Israel’s uncontrolled enclaves; tackle crime in Arab society; reduce tension, hostility, and inequality between communities in Israel.

3. The Iranian challenge: prepare for a nuclear agreement between Iran and the powers, as well as for the absence of any agreement. There is a need to build a credible military option to stop Iran from achieving a nuclear weapon, preferably in coordination with the United States.

4. Continue and update the campaign between wars in the face of Iranian entrenchment and the establishment of its proxy militias along Israel’s borders. At the same time, tackle all the elements of the regional Iranian challenge, with the emphasis on stopping the precision missile project in Lebanon and thwarting Iran’s efforts to exert influence.

5. The Palestinian arena: promote political and economic-infrastructure moves to strengthen the Palestinian Authority and improve the fabric of civilian life; avoid steps that could hasten the slide into a one-state situation, and create the conditions for separation and future promotion of other options.

6. The Gaza Strip: continue the efforts to formulate moves in the spirit of “economy in exchange for security,” involving Egypt, international and regional elements, and the Palestinian Authority. Calm depends on a resolution of the prisoners and missing soldiers issue, and some relief of the restrictions on the Strip.

7. Heighten coordination with the United States, along with the special relationship and establishment of trust at the bipartisan level, stressing Israel’s value to the United States as a responsible actor, and as an asset in the fields of technology, science, enterprise, and culture.

8. Extend the Abraham Accords as well as ties with Jordan and Egypt – aiming for regional collaborations in a range of fields, including intelligence, air defenses, energy, agriculture, water, and healthcare. In addition, Israel must extend its economic contacts with countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, and ease tensions with Turkey.

9. The technological revolution and cyberspace accelerate the “learning competition,” which means that Israel must invest in developing science, technology, and technological studies in order to maintain and expand its relative advantage, which is an asset to its national security and global status.

10. Continue military buildup along the lines of the IDF multi-year “Tnufa” (Momentum) program to maintain Israel’s operational and technological superiority in the age of information, autonomous systems, and cyber; adapting operational plans and improving civil readiness for limited conflicts as well as a multi-front war.