Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Will Iran pursue its goal to cross the nuclear threshold and master a nuclear device and long-range missiles capable of hitting Israel? Could this development trigger a nuclear arms race in the Arab Middle East, especially since we are witnessing the development of an Arab front in opposition to the Iranian hegemony?
- Israel is concerned over the future of the Palestinian Authority (PA), with one issue centering on what to expect after the demise of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the PA who will be 88 in 2023.
- Are Iranian drones the latest threat to international stability, and what is the significance of Iran emerging as an actor in the Russia-Ukraine war?
- What role will new technologies such as lasers and cyber warfare play in Middle East conflicts?
- Hizbullah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad – with the active assistance of Iran – have been concentrating on turning their arsenal of thousands of missiles into precision-guided munitions (PGM) with sophisticated electronic systems designed to overcome Israel’s formidable array of counter-missile systems.
- What is the likelihood of an outburst of Palestinian violence on the scale of the Second Intifada, with Hamas and the Islamic Jihad joining forces against Israel and possible intervention from Hizbullah in Israel’s northern border?
Many issues need to be considered when assessing the prospects of 2023 and their implications for Israel’s national security, as well as the threats it faces from neighboring and distant enemies.
Will the year 2023 be different from the previous one, or will it unfold according to the French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr’s famous adage, “The more it changes, the more it is the same”?
Among those fateful questions stands first and foremost the question relating to Iran’s nuclear program, and whether Iran will pursue its race to cross the nuclear threshold and master a nuclear device loaded into long-range missiles capable of hitting Israel. Could this development trigger a prelude to a nuclear arms race in the Arab Middle East, especially since we are witnessing of late an Arab awakening in opposition to Iranian hegemony? As a result of Iran’s stances towards Israel, what are the prospects of war between Israel and Iran via its proxies in the region? To what extent will the Arab states coalesce around Israel in order to contain Iran’s ambitions in the Middle East?
Israel is deeply concerned over the future of the Palestinian Authority (PA), with the issue centering on what to expect after the demise of Mahmoud Abbas, the chairman of the PA who will be 88 in 2023. Would Hamas replace the Fatah-led PA and, if so, what would its relations with Israel be?
On a regional level, Israel is concerned by the lack of stability around its borders. With the unfolding dramatic events, questions arise concerning the future of Lebanon, Libya, and Iraq as viable or failed states. On the other hand, is an armed conflict brewing between Algeria and the Kingdom of Morocco? Is the conflict over the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile in Ethiopia going to degenerate into an armed conflict between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia? Is there an end to the war between Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen?
What role will cyber warfare play between Middle East actors?
What can be expected from the radical ISIS-Daesh and Al Qaeda in the Middle East and Africa?
Will Turkey continue to expand its presence in the Middle East and Africa? What are the implications on Turkey’s foreign policy if Erdogan loses the presidential elections in June 2023? What if Turkey decides to revoke the Treaty of Lausanne signed 100 years ago, as some observers suggest – a treaty that governs, inter alia, Turkey’s problematic relations with Greece as well as with its Arab neighbors?
To what extent will the war between Russia and Ukraine have an impact on the Middle East?
Is American influence in the Middle East waning?
All these issues impact Israel, its security, and its foreign and defense policies.
The conventional arms balance assessment that used to show the Arab military threat as the existential threat to Israel is no longer valid. The last concerted Arab effort to defeat Israel took place in 1973 and ended with Israeli troops defeating both the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The peace accords with Egypt, Jordan, and the Abraham Accords added to the peace structure, and the Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco have further ruled out the specter of a united Arab effort that would storm Israel and put an end to its existence as a Jewish state.
The Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and the disintegration of the Syrian state that was the result, have also eliminated the possible threat of a surprise attack by the Syrian army that would cut Israel’s north in two. States, such as Libya, Sudan, Iraq, and Algeria that had in the past sent expeditionary forces to the front lines in Egypt and the Golan Heights facing Israel are today struggling with domestic unrest, political paralysis, and persistent instability. Mighty armies have been disbanded in Libya and Iraq, whereas others have turned their attention to their local conflicts, such as the case between Morocco and Algeria.
In the absence of such threats, the classic Israeli assessment of the Arab threat is no longer relevant. In the last 40 years, new enemies have emerged in the areas facing Israel, spearheaded by Iran, such as Hizbullah, the Palestinian terror organizations – Hamas and the Islamic Jihad – and the pro-Iranian proxies deployed east of the Israeli lines in the Golan Heights.
Israel faces deadly Iranian threats on two major fronts:
Unlike the conventional threats posed by the Arab armies, Iran’s new threats represent – if unchallenged – an existential threat to the State of Israel since they have the potential of hitting sensitive and strategic targets deep inside Israeli territory. The 39 surface-to-surface Scud missiles launched by Iraq against Israeli territory during the first Gulf War (1991) and Israel’s inability to intercept those missiles showed Israel’s enemies a potential weapon that could neutralize Israel’s air superiority and inflict heavy damage on Israel’s civilian and military infrastructures. Indeed, having analyzed Israel’s superiority in delivering weapon systems far beyond its borders, the new enemies have chosen to counter Israel with weapon systems designed to carry sizeable amounts of explosives on medium- and long-range missiles.
Accordingly, the military confrontations that took place since 1982 between Israel and its “new enemies” have witnessed a growing use of surface-to-surface, short- and medium-range rockets and long-range missiles against targets deep inside Israeli territory. However, unlike in the past, when those relatively inaccurate missiles were meant to spread terror among the population and hit-or-miss targets on the home front, Hizbullah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad – with the active assistance of Iran – have been concentrating on turning their arsenal of thousands of missiles into precision-guided munitions (PGM). These sophisticated electronic systems are designed to overcome the formidable barrier created by Israel with its various counter-missile systems, such as the “Arrow,” “David’s Sling,” “Iron Dome,” and the future “Laser Dome” systems.
As a result, a situation has arisen in which Israel’s enemies are convinced that they have created a “balance of fear” meant to deter Israel not only from initiating any armed conflict in Lebanon or Gaza but also prevent Israel from altering any “status quo” arrangements such as on the Temple Mount and in Judea and Samaria, because of the threat imposed on its home front by the surface-to-surface missile arsenal.
The nuclear front: Israel has always expressed its opposition to the introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East, be it by Arab neighbors or by Iran. Israel proved twice in the past its resolve not to allow nuclear weaponization in the Middle East. On June 7, 1981, in Operation Opera, Israeli planes destroyed the “Osirak” nuclear reactor in Iraq which was slated to use as fuel 90%-enriched uranium provided by France. On September 6, 2007, in Operation Outside the Box, Israel carried out an air strike on a suspected militarized nuclear facility built by North Korea at Al-Kibar in the Deir el Zor region in eastern Syria.
Israel has been pointing at Iran’s nuclear activity and missile development for the last three decades, announcing its firm opposition to the Iranian nuclear project to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold and acquiring nuclear devices it could install on its long-range, surface-to-surface missiles. Israel opposed the conclusion of the JCPOA agreement with Iran and acted to convince U.S. administrations to withdraw from the agreement (successfully during the Trump administration). Since then, Iran pursued its efforts in enriching uranium and, according to the IAEA, Iran had by the end of 2022 more than 40 kilograms of enriched uranium, enough for one nuclear weapon if Iran chooses to pursue it.
Having said that, Israel faces an enemy deployed on two fronts: one intended to surround Israel on its northern borders and in the south from Gaza. and the second, the nuclear threat from Iran pursuing its path to reach a nuclear device.
2023 Will Have Many of the Same Characteristics as Previous Years
Since Iran will pursue its efforts to encircle Israel in the north, it is fair to assess that Israel will continue to act to prevent the consolidation of the pro-Iranian proxies in Syria and attack all transfers of weapons and precision-guided munitions sent by Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Moreover, Iran will try to hit Israeli targets far from Israel such as merchant ships navigating in the Persian Gulf and its vicinity. Iran will try to retaliate for Iranian targets hit by attacks attributed to Israel by attacking targets inside Israel directly or through its proxies.
Hizbullah will continue to consolidate its positions in south Lebanon, move its positions closer to the Israeli border, and even renew its attack tunnel tactic in preparation for a possible confrontation. Israel, for its part, is not interested in a military confrontation with Hizbullah and will continue to fortify its positions facing Lebanon. Based on this assumption, Israel will refrain from actions that can be interpreted as provoking Hizbullah, since a military flare-up could escalate following a trivial incident, or from a political confrontation such as the negotiations on the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon. Hizbullah could also act against Israeli targets if high-ranking officers or operators are targeted in Israeli attacks in Syria (Israel rarely hits Hizbullah targets in Lebanon).
Iran will continue in its race to acquire a nuclear device. As a result, Israel may try to stop Iran from reaching its goal in tight coordination with the United States and other potential allies. Iran has accused Israel of targeting its nuclear scientists and, as a result, Iran has stepped up its efforts to hit Israeli and Jewish targets outside Israel in retaliation to what it believes to be an Israeli effort to deter Iranian scientists from participating in the Iranian nuclear program.
The Arab world is following Iran’s efforts closely. An Iranian breakthrough in the nuclear field could trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, first and foremost in Saudi Arabia, and contribute to the creation of a regional alliance with Israel under the umbrella of the United States.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA)
The future of the Palestinian Authority concerns Israel’s security planners. A breakup of the PA or its loss of control has a direct impact on Israel’s choices in the area. The PA chairman, Mahmoud Abbas, will be 88 this year and has filled the position of chairman for more than 18 years. Elections are not in sight either, due to a fear that domestic unrest will be fueled by the flurry of candidates seeking to replace him.
The PA could change significantly if Hamas succeeds in taking it over, either by elections or through popular protest. Israel will likely oppose both possibilities. Israel cannot accept Hamas rule in Judea and Samaria and will continue to act to maintain the distinction between Gaza and Judea and Samaria. A united Palestinian territorial concept is not an Israeli option.
Facing Israel on the Gaza front, 2023 will likely witness the same scenarios as in the past: possible flare-ups but no major Israeli incursion into Gaza.
In short, more of the same is expected in the Palestinian realm, with major changes possibly occurring with a power struggle over Abbas’ successor. This may also coincide with a dramatically altered policy by Israel’s new government with regard to holding the PA accountable for incitement to terror, salary payments to terrorists and their families, and the Authority’s petition against Israel at the International Court of Justice.
The Middle East’s Failed States
Four states belong in this grim category of “failed states”: Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. The common denominators among them are the paralysis of the body politic because of sectarian and confessional differences between different ethnicities that compose the sociological strata of the population and the hegemony imposed on these states from outside powers: Iran on Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, and Turkey and Egypt on Libya.
All four states suffer from severe ethnic dichotomies: Lebanon between Christians and Muslims, Syria between Alawites and the Sunni majority, Iraq between the pro- and anti-Iranian currents, and Libya irreparably divided between east and west along tribal lines.
As for Lebanon, chances are slim it will recover and reshape itself into a re-born republic. As long as the Lebanese system is governed by a fragile balance that assigns sectarian candidates to key posts, the Lebanese system will not be able to adopt any economic and political reforms, which are the pre-conditions imposed by donor countries to assist Lebanon in its recovery. Forty years after its inception, Hizbullah has managed to take control of Lebanon and direct its domestic and foreign policies. As of today, all political decisions must get Hizbullah’s approval beforehand. Hizbullah’s 100,000-strong militia is the force that stands behind this Iranian-created organization and has transformed Lebanon into a confrontation state facing Israel. However, Hizbullah will not hurry to formally take over the state. Such a move will encounter armed protest from its political and sectarian rivals and drag Lebanon into a renewed civil war, a situation Hizbullah will try to avoid at any cost.
Unlike Lebanon which is torn by a sectarian rift, Iraq is divided on the basic question of its identity. Iraq’s defeat in 2003, its subsequent occupation by U.S. troops, and the installation, in the name of democracy, of a regime based on Shiite supremacy (replacing the Sunni minority that ruled Iraq since its establishment as a state) created a situation that degenerated into an open war between Sunni rebels and U.S. troops. In the turmoil, the Islamic State (ISIS) was born. In its quest to quell ISIS, Iraq had to depend on the United States, but principally on ground troops dispatched by Iran, the natural Shiite ally. As a result, Iran began influencing Iraqi politics to such an extent that it became the sole decision-maker in filling Iraqi leadership positions and how the pro-Iranian militias, trained and financed by Iran, would be incorporated into the Iraqi national army. This situation could not last long. Most of the Shiite Iraqi community was not ready to accept Iranian hegemony and, as a result, opposed Iran’s policy in structuring the Iraqi state.
Led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric, Iraq showed Iran the limitations of its power at the heavy price of paralyzing the Iraqi political system, which remained without a prime minister for more than nine months because of the struggle between al-Sadr and Iran.
Almost two decades after the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the country has not recovered. Parts of its northern areas are still under Turkish military occupation, and the Kurdish areas continue to enjoy an autonomous government, far from Baghdad’s grip. Iraq is suffering a severe crisis in its water system and electricity generation because of a system of dams erected on its two main rivers by Turkey and Iran. It is ironic that such dams, which have severely decreased Iraq’s water supply, could never have been constructed under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Syria, which used to be at the vanguard in the front against Israel, has been reduced to a state whose survival depends on Iran’s readiness to assist the Assad regime, mainly through militias operating on the ground on Iran’s behalf. Were it not for Iranian intervention (and Russian air strikes), Assad’s regime would have fallen long ago. Twelve years after the beginning of the civil war, Syria finds itself isolated in the international community. Its population has been reduced by more than six million, as refugees fled to neighboring countries and Europe, its infrastructure is destroyed, there is rampant poverty and a shattered economy, and the country is still divided into areas of ethnic influence. These divided areas include the northeast under Kurdish rule assisted by the United States, the Idlib enclave which harbors most of the radical and extremist Muslim organizations under Turkish protection, and the Damascus perimeter protected by pro-Iranian proxies.
In the Israeli context, the Syrian army, decimated by the war, does not represent a viable threat. However, Syria’s willingness to allow pro-Iranian proxies to deploy in areas facing Israel on the Golan Heights has created a launching pad from which surface-to-surface missiles could be fired at Israel, a situation that Israel cannot accept. Nevertheless, knowing the price it will pay, Syria will not initiate hostile military activities against Israel. Damascus is less than 40 kilometers from the Israeli border.
Libya is the only Arab state whose regime was overthrown following the so-called “Arab Spring” and replaced by two governments, one in Benghazi in the east under Egyptian safeguards and influence and one in Tripoli (hailed by the international community as the legal government) under Turkish influence. Until now, Libya’s south is an unresolved enigma, ruled by cohorts of rebels and arms traffickers who have plundered Libya’s weapons depots and scattered them all over the Sahel Belt in Africa.
Libya has been the test site that has proven the efficacy of suicide and attack drones on the battlefield. Were it not for the drones supplied by Turkey, General Haftar Khalifa’s troops would have conquered Tripoli and succeeded in re-establishing Libya as a homogenous state.
Almost 13 years after Qaddafi’s assassination, the country has not been able to restructure itself into one territorial unit because of tribal differences. Qaddafi built his country as the home base for the rejectionist front against Israel and was to provide the armies fighting against Israel with weapons instead of being dependent on outside powers. With his demise, this strategy has lost its champion.
Inter-Arab and Arab-African Fighting
Inter-Arab struggles as well as potential regional conflicts continued to accompany developments in the Middle East and Africa in 2022.
One of the most media-hyped conflicts is the historic clash between the Cherifien Kingdom of Morocco and Algeria. The dormant conflict since the end of the military confrontation at the beginning of the 1960s surfaced over the years as Algeria sided with the Polisario Front, which claims sovereignty over Western Sahara when Morocco annexed it after Spain withdrew from the area in 1976. Since then, the Polisario, with the active assistance of Algeria, has conducted a guerilla war against Morocco in the Sahara without succeeding in dislodging Morocco from its positions. Over the years, the conflict simmered at low-intensity and did not provoke clashes between the Algerian and Moroccan armies.
Israel’s lobbying in Washington during the Trump administration in favor of American recognition of the annexation of Western Sahara to Morocco and the actual decision of President Trump to recognize the territory as Moroccan in return for Morocco adhering to the Abraham Accords, served as an excuse for Algiers to revive the threat of an armed conflict against Morocco. The growing collaboration and normalization between Morocco and Israel, especially the expanding cooperation in military fields, provoked Algeria’s wrath. Morocco accused Iran of providing attack drones to the Polisario and organizing meetings between the Polisario and Hizbullah through its embassy in Algeria. Accordingly, Morocco cut all ties with Iran while beefing up its positions facing the Algerian border.
The prospects of confrontation between the two North African states are not likely soon, as long as the conflict remains limited to the clash between Morocco and the Polisario.
Another conflict that has not erupted into a war is the conflict over the Renaissance Damin Ethiopia. The dam was built on the Blue Nile, which is the source of 80% of the water supply to the Nile that flows through Sudan to Egypt. Ethiopia claims that it has the right to build the facility, which is intended to provide electricity to the region as well as to Ethiopia’s neighbors, and significantly contribute to the development of its agriculture.
Egypt, on the other hand, claims that it has historic rights to the river since the end of the nineteenth century. Egypt claims that filling the mammoth reservoir of the dam will cause the level of water in the Egyptian Nile to drop by more than one and a half meters, causing irreparable damage to infrastructure and agriculture. Ethiopia claims that Egypt will actually benefit from the dam as the water flow will be moderated, preventing flood damage and harmful silt accumulation. Egypt has raised the possibility of moving militarily against the dam, and Egypt’s media has engaged in a campaign meant to signal to Ethiopia that Egypt “means business.”
The third stage of filling the reservoir is now underway, and it appears that the dire warnings are not as real as predicted. However, the possibility of Egypt moving militarily against the dam still exists. This tension between the two countries has led to international mediation to try to avoid any confrontation.
The conflict in Yemen came to a halt in April 2022 after the opposing sides signed an UN-brokered truce that limited the fighting without ending the war. The conflict that began in late 2014 was between the internationally recognized Yemeni government, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The eight-year conflict exposed Saudi Arabia’s inability to defeat a much smaller but bold and audacious enemy, while Iran used the Yemeni situation to experiment with its ballistic missiles and attack drones. Iran, in effect, used Yemeni soil as a launching pad not only against Saudi Arabia but against Israeli targets as well.
The conflict in Yemen has allowed the United Arab Emirates to maintain its presence in parts of Yemen as well as on the island of Socotra. The Emirates also took over Perim island off Yemen, close to the Bab el Mandab Straits, and set up an airbase allowing it to project its power in the region.
With no foreseeable end to the conflict, it seems that a status quo will be maintained in the area. However, the warm relations between Iran and the Houthis could generate a ballistic missile threat against Israeli targets from positions held by the Houthis.
Finally, one cannot cover the Middle East without a reference to Turkey. Under Erdogan, Turkey has widened the scope of its presence in the Middle East. Erdogan has positioned troops inside Iraq as well as along its borders with Iraq and Syria. Turkey is protecting the Syrian enclave of Idlib against radical Muslim organizations that have found refuge there, together with more than two million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria.
Turkey has signed separate military agreements with both Somalia and Qatar, according to which Turkey has constructed a training school in Somalia and dispatched a battalion of soldiers to the Qatari princedom. Turkey has been active in the Libyan quagmire, and through its supply of weapons – specifically in piloting attack drones in the battle of Tripoli – where it contributed to the defeat of General Khalifa Haftar’s troops from Benghazi who were about to overrun the defenses of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. Furthermore, Turkey signed a maritime agreement with Libya that poses a significant impediment to building plans for an underwater gas pipeline project from Egypt and Israel to Europe.
Of late, Erdogan has been considering mending fences with his arch-enemy, Bashar Assad. This development is most probably intended to reach an agreement allowing the return of the four million Syrian refugees who reside in Turkey to their home country and have become a burden on Turkey’s economy.
Turkey is slated to conduct presidential elections in June 2023. A victory for Erdogan would pave the way for radical changes in Turkey’s foreign policy, such as the revocation of the Lausanne Treaty signed 100 years ago, which delineated the actual borders of the Turkish state. Turkey has claimed territories that it claims were snatched from the nascent Turkish Republic, such as the oil-rich Kirkuk area in Iraq and the Idlib enclave in Syria.
The agreement between Erdogan and Omar Al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan, on leasing Suakin island in the Red Sea, along with Turkey’s commitment to renovate facilities on the island, are omens of long-term Turkish aims in the region, which will certainly play a role in the coming Turkish elections. Suakin, which hosted the headquarters of the Ottoman fleet in the area in the sixteenth century, has a strategic location.
The Resurgence of ISIS (Daesh)
ISIS/Daesh as a state was defeated in 2017 by a multinational coalition that included arch-enemies and sworn rivals such as Iran, the United States, and Turkey. Five years after the fall of Mosul, Iraq, the capital of the Islamic State, and after hesitant beginnings, ISIS has retaken the offensive, initiating sophisticated assaults against specific targets worldwide.
The Islamic State’s obituary, triumphantly declared after the blow it received in July 2017, was premature. Africa has become the focus of ISIS efforts and the Islamic State’s latest success story. Over the past two years, it has attacked civilian targets in 13 African states. These states have never had to confront radical Islam, and they find themselves wholly unprepared to deal with the phenomenon. The DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Togo, Ghana, and Benin have joined countries such as Mozambique, Uganda, Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Chad.
Faced with the hesitant responses from these governments and their inability to quell such insurgencies, the Islamic State and other radical Muslim organizations are pushing to expand southward and eastward from the “Sahel Belt” (which extends from Senegal to Sudan), where they are now conquering new swaths of land mainly populated by Muslims. It is evident from the maps of Africa that these groups are currently active in areas formerly believed to be unattainable to the insurgents (Mozambique, Togo, and the DRC are examples).
The Middle East is at a crossroads. The year 2023 will not be “more of the same.” The war in Ukraine, beyond creating a food crisis in some of the most sensitive countries in the Middle East such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, has already obliged Russia to withdraw some of its sophisticated air defense systems from Syria as well as part of its expeditionary forces. The implications of such a move for Syria are yet to be seen and fully appreciated.
The war in Ukraine has shown that there are many military lessons to be applied in any future conflicts concerning the use of attack drone swarms, cruise missiles, cyberattacks, and long-range, surface-to-surface missiles. Questions will also be asked about accountability for crimes against humanity and concerning the clash between a superpower and a smaller opponent determined to fight with inferior weaponry and without air support. How and when did Russia reach the diminished stage of transforming from weapon supplier to countries around the world to a client state compelled to buy drones and missiles from Iran?
That the Middle East is at a crossroads is not a cliche. The United States’ regional allies are following the Biden administration’s moves closely, especially vis-a-vis the Iranian threat. The Biden administration’s less than coherent policy towards Iran, and its stubborn pursuit to secure an agreement that would replace the nuclear agreement signed in 2015, have raised many eyebrows and induced fear in the region.
There is a strong impression that the United States has decided to minimize its presence and influence in the Middle East, leaving the area to Iran and its proxies. The ultimate judgment will be made in the context of the American involvement in the war in Ukraine. The U.S. commitment to assist a friend and ally will be scrutinized and compared to its position in the Middle East conflict that places the Sunni world opposite the Shiite one led by Iran.
The Arab world is not ready at all to hear lessons on democracy and the need for dramatic reforms concerning human rights. The U.S. insistence on these issues will distance its Arab allies from the U.S. orbit. Because it is an existential issue for them, they will seek other alliances upon whom they can depend to contain Iran.