No Longer a Bystander to Revolution

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

by Gabriel Scheinmann
JINSA Visiting Fellow

Depending on what one believes, a week-and-a-half ago Israeli fighter jets struck either an arms convoy in Lebanon, the Assad regime’s nerve center for biological and chemical weapons research in Damascus, or an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) headquarters, in an attempt to contain the spillover from the Syrian civil war. Irrespective of the targets, the misnamed “Arab Spring” has finally ensnared Israel, which, under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has endeavored to avoid being dragged into the unraveling chaos of the Arab uprisings.

Careful to eschew a public role that could shine the spotlight on “Israel” and the accompanying anti-Semitic conspiracies, Jerusalem has said little, done less, and hoped that the revolutionary tidal wave would not sweep away too many of Israel’s regional security maxims. Fearful of both instability and Islamist ascendancy, Israel’s strategy has been defensive, clutching to the status quo as best it could.

Beginning last fall in Gaza and, as indicated by its most recent strike in Syria, Israeli strategy has moved into a second phase. Its deterrence eroded, Israel is now seeking to deny the introduction of elements that could alter a currently favorable military balance. With no end in sight to the changes in Egypt or Syria, this strike is neither the first, nor the last action Jerusalem will take to contain the ripples of the Arab revolts. Once a bystander to the changes engulfing its region, Israel has now begun to proactively shape the security environment more to its liking.

Over the last two years, the explosive cocktail of Islamist movements and breakdowns in state control has wreaked havoc on the Middle East. Low-level violence along Israel’s borders has surged following the collapse of the Mubarak regime as well as the Sunni uprising in Syria. The Sinai Peninsula has become a merge point for two, multi-lane arms-trafficking highways: the “Iranian Interstate” that comes westward by sea and then up through Sudan and Egypt and the “Benghazi Byway” which snakes eastward across the Libyan and Egyptian deserts.

Flush with arms and the Morsi government’s tacit political support, terrorist cells are using the lawless Sinai to launch missiles and attacks directly into Israel. Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the now ruling Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has also reaped the benefits. It now has two patrons, Iran and Egypt, and an increasingly large volume of more lethal arms that have been smuggled into Gaza. Moreover, IDF positions on the Golan Heights have been shelled, prompting the Israeli destruction of a Syrian mobile artillery unit, the first cross-border fire since the Yom Kippur War.

Until last November, the Israeli response had been largely defensive. First, it upgraded its passive defenses, hardening infrastructure along the Gaza border and constructing high-tech fences along its Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian borders to stem infiltration. Sinai terrorists had breached the Israeli border in deadly attacks in August 2011 and August 2012 and Assad had instigated a human wave of Palestinian refugees across the Israel-Syrian DMZ in May and June 2011. Second, it accelerated the deployment of Iron Dome, its short-range missile defense system, which has proved instrumental in protecting Israeli communities from lethal rocket fire. Third, Netanyahu, careful to avoid making “Israel” the story, acted with remarkable restraint to the increased rocket fire from Gaza, even as such fire doubled each year from the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

The Israeli governments did not want to embark on an operation that would allow either Assad or Islamist forces across the region to use “Israel’s actions” as a rallying cry. As a result, Israeli deterrence power slowly deteriorated. Lastly, Netanyahu’s government has been an ardent public supporter of the Obama administration’s approach to the Arab revolts, even if the reality behind closed is starkly different. It has remained, like the United States, publicly supportive of Egypt’s supposed “democratic” transition, downplaying the palpable anti-Semitism of the new Egyptian president’s Islamist movement, and has made sure to never be out ahead of President Obama on Syria.

Starting last fall, however, Israel’s strategy has shifted, moving from defense to denial, in an attempt to shape its future security environment. Knowing it could no longer count on Egypt to prevent weapons smuggling, Israel took matters into its own hands.

In late October, Israeli fighter jets reportedly destroyed an IRGC-linked weapons factory in Sudan, demonstrating simultaneously that Israel was capable of hitting targets far from home (paging Tehran) and deciding that it was politically easier to interdict arms shipments to Gaza at an earlier transit point.

A month later, sensing its deterrence decaying as a result of its failure to adequately respond to attacks from Gaza, the Sinai, and Syria – at one point in November, Israel received fire simultaneously across all three borders, a first in nearly 40 years – Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, eliminating a tranche of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leadership and scores of long-range missiles capable of reaching both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The increase in range and lethality of Hamas arms – the week before the war, Hamas had fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli jeep and had previously launched man-portable anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli helicopters – was quickly challenging Israeli operational freedom in the air and along the Gaza border.

The recent purported Israeli airstrikes in Syria do not mark a new turn in Israeli strategy, but instead are a continuation of a more proactive Israeli policy begun last fall. Concerned that “game-changing” Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles were being transferred to Hezbollah or smuggled by Sunni jihadist rebels, Israel took preemptive military action in order to maintain its current military superiority.

Thus far, the shift in strategy has reaped dividends. Israel has not faced any retaliation either for its recent strikes or the Sudan ones back in October and only a single projectile has been fired from Gaza in the two-and-a-half months since the end of the war, the longest period of quiet in over a decade. For the moment, Israeli deterrence power has been restored.

Israeli actions mark a new phase in how Israel will weather the changes in the region. A strategy of building physical walls and virtual domes in the sky, while vital to Israel’s defense, was at best, a delay mechanism. It postponed the day on which Israel would have to make decisions that involved direct military action rather than simple defense.

As the fallout from the Arab revolts continue to take their toll, Israel will likely directly act to maintain its complete air superiority and prevent the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to any enemy element in the region. Although Israeli military action in Egypt is not on the radar, future IDF arms denial operations either close to home in Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza or further afield in Libya, Sudan, and at sea (the “Iranian Interstate” originates as a maritime route) are not unexpected.

Israel’s shift in policy is the natural consequence of the Obama administration’s hands-off approach to the Arab revolts. Unable to control the arms flows from Libya and Iran and unwilling to intercede in Syria, the White House should not be surprised that its allies, which are on the frontlines of this instability, will act to prevent a further deterioration of the situation.

As Israel, and perhaps others, acts to proactively prevent challenges to its operational maneuverability and deterrent power, the Obama administration should unreservedly support Jerusalem’s actions. If “leading from behind” is truly the Administration’s doctrine, then it should indeed support its allies’ leadership.

Gabriel Scheinmann, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a Ph.D. candidate in Government at Georgetown University, focusing on international security, alliance architecture, and grand strategy. His publications have been featured in The National Interest, DefenseNews, The Daily Caller, and The Washington Quarterly.