Is­rael has breath­ing room–for now

Business Mirror - - OPINION - By Frida Ghitis Mi­ami Her­ald / TNS Fo­rum

AMID the tur­moil rag­ing in the Middle East—mul­ti­ple wars, com­pet­ing ter­ror­ist groups and a grow­ing num­ber of gov­ern­ments in­volved in the fight­ing—there is no ques­tion that the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion for Is­rael has changed. What is less clear is whether Is­rael has be­come more or less se­cure as the re­sult of the un­rest.

At the mo­ment, Is­raelis are ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a wave of at­tacks against civil­ians, per­pe­trated mostly by young Pales­tini­ans. The con­se­quences are tragic for the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies and highly stress­ful for mil­lions of Is­raelis. But as a largely lead­er­less and dis­or­ga­nized move­ment, the low­grade up­ris­ing does not pose an ex­is­ten­tial threat to the coun­try.

More trou­bling is the con­tin­u­ing con­struc­tion of tun­nels by Ha­mas, which has shown it can use them to kid­nap Is­raelis and in­fil­trate the coun­try.

Be­yond that, the pic­ture is a mixed one.

Syria and its war lie close to the heart of Is­rael. Is­rael’s third­largest city, Haifa, is less than 90 miles away from the Syr­ian cap­i­tal, Da­m­as­cus. Thou­sands of Is­raelis can hear the Syr­ian shelling from their homes.

The fight­ing in Syria en­cap­su­lates just how com­pli­cated it is to as­sess the im­pact of Arab tur­moil on Is­raeli se­cu­rity. That war has brought forces from Iran, Is­rael’s most dan­ger­ous and de­ter­mined en­emy, to the Syr­ian-Is­raeli bor­der. In ad­di­tion, it has spawned the Is­lamic State, or ISIS, a vi­cious ter­ror­ist group that has made it clear it in­tends to bring its ji­had to Is­rael and, in fact, has al­ready made in­roads in Gaza.

At the same time, the Syr­ian war has em­broiled sev­eral of Is­rael’s en­e­mies, not only dis­tract­ing them from their goal of de­stroy­ing the Jewish state, but in­flict­ing heavy losses on their forces.

Hezbol­lah, the Iran-linked Le­banese mili­tia, is fight­ing in Syria on the side of the govern­ment of Bashar al- As­sad. Both Iran and Hezbol­lah are fo­cused on sav­ing As­sad. Hezbol­lah, in par­tic­u­lar, at Iran’s in­sis­tence, is pay­ing a high price to de­fend the Syr­ian regime. By some es­ti­mates, thou­sands of Hezbol­lah fight­ers have been killed in Syria. And Syria, still of­fi­cially at war with Is­rael, is be­ing dev­as­tated.

In ad­di­tion, the rise of Iran is mak­ing Sunni regimes—who view Iran as the great­est threat to their se­cu­rity— re­con­sider their stance to­ward Is­rael. Quiet and not- so­quiet ties be­tween Is­rael and Arab states are emerg­ing out of shared con­cerns about Iran.

In the short term, the sit­u­a­tion has made Is­rael more se­cure, mostly be­cause some of Is­rael’s en­e­mies are oc­cu­pied in Syria and are us­ing their ar­se­nals there, and be­cause the new re­gional cal­cu­lus makes an­tipa­thy to­ward Is­rael a lower pri­or­ity. I have per­son­ally spo­ken with many (non- Pales­tinian) Arabs in the past cou­ple of years who have told me Is­rael is a prob­lem for Pales­tini­ans, not for them. That is an im­por­tant pos­i­tive change from Is­rael’s per­spec­tive.

The se­cu­rity gains, how­ever, quickly fade if one looks at a longer hori­zon.

Hezbol­lah, for ex­am­ple, is clearly in no po­si­tion to at­tack Is­rael right now. But Is­raeli of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that the group al­ready has more than 100,000 rock­ets aimed at Is­rael. When the war in Syria ends, Iran and Hezbol­lah will re­di­rect their gaze to­ward Is­rael. By then, Iran will have col­lected tens of bil­lions of dol­lars from the end of sanc­tions against its nu­clear pro­gram. Some of that money will go to re­build­ing Hezbol­lah af­ter its Syria losses, and to strength­en­ing Iran’s Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, also in­volved in Syria to­day.

De­pend­ing on ex­actly how the war ends, Is­rael could find a whole new se­ries of chal­lenges. If As­sad sur­vives, he will be even more be­holden to Iran than be­fore. And Iran will be stronger.

In ad­di­tion to how As­sad fares, the con­di­tion of ISIS when the war ends could have reper­cus­sions in Is­rael.

The col­lapse of the peace process with Pales­tini­ans com­bined with the lack of sup­port by Pales­tini­ans for their lead­ers could make the Pales­tinian ar­eas fer­tile re­cruit­ing ground for ISIS and make the chances for an Is­raeliPales­tinian deal even more re­mote, pre­sag­ing even more un­rest.

And then there is the Iran nu­clear deal, parts of which ex­pire in 10 years, oth­ers in 15 years. De­pend­ing on what hap­pens in and with the Is­lamic Re­pub­lic by then, a nu­clear Iran, vis­cer­ally anti- Is­rael, could be­come a re­al­ity.

The tur­moil in the Arab Middle East gives Is­rael some se­cu­rity breath­ing space. Let’s hope Is­raeli lead­ers use it wisely, be­cause it is only short term.

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