Strategic Threats to Israel and Mideast Stability

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Over the past year, events in the Middle East, including most notably the Arab Spring, have dramatically altered the security landscape facing the nation of Israel, as well as the national security interests of the United States in the region.  While each of these events have been well cataloged separately and in greater detail elsewhere, it is useful to consider all of these disparate threats together, when thinking about the security and stability of the Middle East. The five categories we have highlighted in this document, “Strategic Threats to Israel and Mideast Stability” represent both relatively new threats such as those posed by Turkey’s Islamization and increasing anti-Israel stance, as well as traditional opposition which is evolving and enhancing its capability including Hezbollah’s successful dominance of the Lebanese government. As we continue to examine the strategic threats to Israel and the greater stability of the Middle East, as EMET does weekly with its articles and analysis, we must also keep in mind that no strategic threat exists in isolation, but instead each acts to multiply the others, leading to an increasingly degenerating security situation for the Jewish state, as well as its ally the United States, and weakening of the overall stability of the region.

Iran – Iran remains the most dangerous actor in the Middle East, more dangerous than Al Qaeda, according to a U.S. official.

Support for Terror- Iran continues to be recognized as the foremost state sponsor of international terrorism in the world, supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Additionally Iran’s elite terrorist unit the Al-Quds force has expanded its capabilities and become increasingly aggressive, including plans to target the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C, and the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in addition to Saudi targets.

Arming Terrorists- Iran continues to use air, land, and sea transport in an effort to arm Palestinian terrorists for attacks against Israel. Israel has repeatedly interdicted arms shipments from Iran including the MV Francop, and Victoria. Additionally Iran continues to smuggle arms overland via the Sudan. Since 2008, Iran has successfully upgraded the Palestinian’s missile capability from homemade Qassem to 122mm Iranian and Chinese manufactured Grad Rockets with a 40km range.

Nuclear Weapons- Iran has continued to make progress with its nuclear weapons program, according to most western intelligence agencies as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which has issued a new report on the Iranian advancements which claims Iran is “on the threshold” of nuclear capability. The IAEA report also claims that Iran has tested all the component parts for a nuclear warhead, and an analysis of the Iranian warhead device in six different categories suggests it is unlikely or impossible for it to be designed for anything but a nuclear weapon.  Former CIA Spy Reza Kahili, who was a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, claims that Iran already possess a small number of nuclear weapons acquired on the black market.  Iran has threatened to invade Israel and “battle Zionists in the streets of Tel Aviv” if its nuclear program is attacked.

Syrian Crackdown- Iran is said to be deeply involved with assisting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s crackdown of his people, according to European , American, and Israeli sources. Iran has publicly remained supportive of their Syrian ally, despite earlier criticism. Iran has issued threats against Western intervention in Syria.

Hezbollah- Hezbollah continues to represent a substantial strategic threat to Israel’s national security both along Israel’s northern border, and world-wide:

Missile threat- According to Hezbollah’s internal discussions and public threats, they are prepared to launch as many as ten thousand missiles into Israel against military and strategic targets such as airfields, as well as against civilian targets, including major population centers such as Tel Aviv.

The Northern Border- Hezbollah has, according to Brig. Gen (ret.) Shimon Shapira, developed with Iranian assistance, an operational plan for the invasion of the Galilee, to commence following its planned missile barrage at the outset of conflict. The plan involves a joint invasion by five Hezbollah brigades, targeting Nahariya, Shlomi, and Carmiel. While Hezbollah’s ability to actually carry out such an operation may be questionable, it represents a very aggressive posture and the increasing confidence of the terror group.

Dominance of Lebanon- Through a series of political, and military crises engineered by Hezbollah, the terror group and its allies now heavily dominate the Lebanese government, including the position of Prime Minister. With the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) sniper attack against Israeli troops which occurred in August of last year, and considering bellicose statements made by Lebanese officials there is every reason to suspect that if Israel were required to take military action against Hezbollah, they could expect the LAF to side with Hezbollah against Israel. This reality seems to have been recognized by the Obama Administration which, while it had been reluctant to do so, has quietly ended aid to Lebanon because of the ascension of a Hezbollah-controlled Cabinet.

World-wide terrorism- Hezbollah remains a major international terrorist organization with operations that stretch far beyond Lebanon, to West Africa, South America, and even Mexico. Hezbollah’s expansion is piggybacked on Iran’s expanded alliances in the Western hemisphere. Hezbollah continues to seek to conduct major terror attacks against Israeli interests with a stated desire to retaliate for the assassination of Hezbollah archterrorist Imad Mughniyeh, which the organization blames on Israel, although it is unclear who actually conducted the operation.

Syria- Syria is facing grave protests from a wide-spread domestic opposition, which may make Assad feel cornered and even more dangerous.

Assad’s Instability- The Assad regime in Syria has been wracked by several domestic protests which began during the so-called “Arab Spring.” Assad has utilized a mixture of promises of reform along with ruthless security crackdowns to try and maintain control, but protests have now gone on since mid-March, despite the more than three-thousand who have been killed by Syrian security forces.  This instability has resulted in Assad seeking to divert attention towards Israel. This was most notable during the June, 2011 attempt by Palestinians, sponsored by Syria, to violently storm the Israeli border, which resulted in 23 protestors killed. If Western pressure on Syria continues, Assad may again seek to use similar attacks on Israel as a lever to release tension and to attempt to distract from Syria’s brutal crackdown and abuses.

Retaliation against Israel- Deeply concerned about the possibility of NATO intervention in Syria comparable to its intervention in Libya, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has threatened to bombard Israel with its strategic rocket forces, among the largest in the Middle East, if NATO should attack Syria.

Support for Hamas and Hezbollah- Syria remains a major supporter of Hezbollah, as well as all major Palestinian terrorist groups, including especially Hamas. This has continued despite strain between Hamas and Syria over Syria’s crackdown on the opposition, which includes the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is Hamas’ parent organization.

WMD program- Syria is known to have been pursuing nuclear weapons at two sites, one the Al-Kibar Reactor, was targeted by Israeli in an airstrike in September of 2007. The Al-Kibar reactor is reported to have been a direct copy of a North Korean design.  The second site, which now appears inactive, is believed to have been based on a Pakistani design from nuclear proliferator A.Q Khan.  Additionally Syria is believed by some to have the most advanced chemical and biological weapons program in the Arab world.

Gaza- Palestinian terrorists in Gaza continue to represent a threat to Israel, particularly through their ability to launch missiles and other artillery weapons into the Israeli heartland.

Hamas and the Missile Threat- According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hamas has doubled its rocket arsenal, and expanded its anti-tank capability. Hamas now possess thousands of rockets, including Iranian-made Fajr-5 rockets with a 75km range which could strike Tel Aviv. Additionally, Hamas’ weapons manufacturing and weapon smuggling capabilities are believed to be much improved compared to their abilities prior to Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Politically vis-à-vis other Palestinian factions, the release of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has strengthened Hamas, according to both Hamas, and some Israeli assessments.

Salafist/Al Qaeda Activity- Salafist-Jihadist groups, some with links to Al Qaeda have continued to expand in Gaza. These groups have an occasionally cooperative and occasionally competitive relationship with the ruling Hamas. Attacks have included the terrorist raid near Eilat which killed eight in August of this year, as well as rocket attacks.

Blockade-Running- The Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip is a necessary and legal tactic in its conflict with Hamas, but has been repeatedly challenged by a variety of radical-left and Islamist organizations, most notably the Turkish IHH, an organization with ties to terrorism, and which initiated violence against IDF commandos during the Mavi Marmara incident. Efforts to breach the land crossing at Rafah, are also common occurrences, orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Another organization prominent in efforts to break the blockade via land is Viva Palestinia, headed by British Politician George Galloway, who has appeared on video providing money and vehicles to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and which represents well the alliance of Islamist and radical leftist organizations aligned to undermine the legal blockade.

Egypt and North Africa- Following the so-called Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups are on the rise throughout the region.

Terrorism in the Sinai- Following the collapse of the Mubarak government, reports surfaced of increased terrorist activity in the Sinai Penisula, including up to 400 Al Qaeda-linked terrorists. Terrorists have repeatedly targeted the Egypt-Israeli gas line, and the threat from terrorist incursion has forced the IDF to reinforce the southern border, following the attack by Al Qaeda-linked militants from Gaza who infiltrated into Israel via the Sinai border.

Opening of border with Gaza- The interim Egyptian government agreed in April of this year to open the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, despite this some pro-Palestinian organizations continue to express discontent with the limited border crossing restrictions which Egypt has maintained.

Weapons Smuggling- Following the fall of the Egyptian and Libyan governments, there has been a substantial increase in the flow of arms through Egypt. Many of those weapons are headed to Gaza, including Grad Rockets, advanced anti-tank weapons, and Russian SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles.

Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood- The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is widely believed to be the greatest beneficiary of the fall of Egyptian President Mubarak, as upcoming Parliamentary elections loom. Despite having attempted to reassure Egyptian liberals and the West with claims that it would not run for a majority of the seats, nor run a presidential candidate, the MB has broken both promises. They are expected to win at least a plurality of seats and therefore dominate the government, as well as to control the drawing up of the new constitution. The MB has made an electoral alliance with other Egyptian Islamist groups, including the State-department-listed Foreign Terrorist Organization Gamaa Al-Islamiya. Despite this the MB continues to receive State Department funded election training, and a U.S. official responsible for “Middle East Transitions” has said the U.S. would be “satisfied” with a Muslim Brotherhood election win. Muslim Brotherhood leaders have expressed thanks to Iran’s Supreme Leader, demanded the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, stated a desire for preparations for war against Israel, and said they intend to impose Islamic law on Egypt in the event of electoral victory.

Annulment of Peace with Israel- In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for war preparations against Israel, other Egyptian politicians have competed to appear the most anti-Israeli. Egyptian Presidential candidate Amr Moussa, Liberal opposition figure Ayman Nour, and Foreign Minister Nabil Al-Arabi have all spoken out against the Camp David Peace Accord. Long-time Western favorite and former IAEA chief Mohammad ElBaradei declared that Egypt should go to war against Israel if Gaza were attacked. More than 50% of the Egyptian public said they want an end to the peace treaty in an poll taken in April of this year.

Changes to Turkey- Once a close ally of Israel in the region, the formerly secular state is increasingly competing for leadership of the Muslim world by showing its anti-Israel credentials.

Islamization of Turkey- The Islamist Turkish AKP party has established control of the Turkish Intelligence agency (MIT), appointing a close friend of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to the position of intelligence chief. The AKP has also successfully orchestrated what some have called a frame up against secular members of the military. The entire Turkish military brass has since resigned in protest. There are allegations that Turkey may have taken part in arming Hezbollah. According to State department documents released by Wikileaks, the Islamist Gulen movement is close to the ruling AKP and may dominate the Turkish police force.

Conflict for Islamic supremacy in Middle East- Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has made no secret of his conflict with Israel. The IHH, the Islamist group which initiated the violent confrontation on the Mavi Marmara, has close ties to Erdogan’s ruling AKP.  Turkey has also taken a very visible role in promoting the Arab Spring. Turkey’s support for Syrian protestors has brought the two countries closer to military conflict.

Challenging Israel- As Turkey competes with Iran (the other non-Arab Muslim country in the region) for dominance, one of the fields of competition is in anti-Israel activity. Turkey has turned to the Israel-Arab conflict as a means to boost its credibility among its Arab neighbors. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has used the Flotilla incident to boost Turkey’s status in the Muslim world by showing a willingness to confront Israel, by demanding U.N Action, and Israeli apologies. Israel’s refusal to apologize provided an excuse for Turkey to cut military ties with Israel. Additionally, renewed Israeli ties with Greece, and Cyprus, two nations with their own strategic concerns about Turkey, and the discovery of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean have increased the possibility of Turkish-Israeli conflict.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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