Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- The most important and most dangerous challenge for Israel is the progress in the Iranian nuclear military program. There has been a sharp increase in the pace in which the Iranians are developing their program and the pace in which they are enriching uranium.
- The Iranians are moving very fast towards having the capability to have enough fissile material for several bombs within a very short period of time. This means Iran is deep into the area where it can be called a threshold nuclear country.
- There is a big debate among the experts about how much time it is going to take before the Iranians have the weapon itself. Some think it’s going to take two years. I’m much more pessimistic because I think that the Iranians don’t work in a linear way to first produce the enriched uranium and then start worrying about how to turn it into a bomb.
- While Israel doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the Americans on returning to the Iran nuclear deal, it does cooperate with the Americans on trying to convince the Iranians that moving forward is going to be dangerous. We are in the midst of a big military exercise in which Israel is cooperating with the Americans in the modeling of an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities.
- Israel has been facing an increase in the number of Palestinian terror attacks in the last couple of months, which have gone beyond the usual level of terrorism. This has forced Israel to launch Operation “Break the Wave” and act in ways beyond what it was doing before, mainly in the Jenin area and the northern part of Judea and Samaria.
- Perhaps the most disturbing issue that’s happening in Israel is the rise of Palestinian nationalistic feelings and religious Islamic feelings among Israeli Arabs. The Arabs living in Israel don’t go into the streets because they have some economic difficulties. This is a very minor element in the equation.
Israel is a very strong country militarily. It knows how to defend itself and has the capabilities to do so. Nevertheless, Israel faces a number of very serious challenges.
Iran Approaches the Nuclear Threshold
The most important and most dangerous challenge for Israel is the progress in the Iranian nuclear military program. There has been a sharp increase in the pace in which the Iranians are developing their program and the pace in which they are enriching uranium. If the information provided by Minister of Defense Gantz is correct, then in the last three months they produced twice as much uranium enriched to 60% as they did in the previous three months. That means the Iranians are moving very fast towards having the capability to have enough fissile material for several bombs within a very short period of time. This means Iran is deep into the area where it can be called a threshold nuclear country.
This is a red line from an Israeli point of view. When former Prime Minister Netanyahu presented his famous drawing in the UN General Assembly in 2012, he spoke about 250 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium in the hands of the Iranians as a red line. We are far beyond that red line. Moreover, the Iranians used the time of the negotiations in Vienna in order to accumulate more and more uranium enriched to high levels.
There is a big debate among the experts about how much time it is going to take before the Iranians have the weapon itself. Some think it’s going to take them two years. I’m much more pessimistic about it and much more skeptical because I think that the Iranians don’t work in a linear way to first produce the enriched uranium and then start worrying about how to make it into a bomb.
We know they are making progress in the technological sphere.
Remember, we don’t have any answers from the Iranians about all the open questions regarding the potential military dimensions of their program before they entered the JCPOA.
And we definitely don’t have any answers about the new revelations that Israel brought to the table once it took the information from the nuclear archives in Tehran in 2018, in spite of the efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency to convince the Iranians to cooperate. But there are four sites that were exposed just because Israel brought in this archive. At a couple of them, anthropogenic traces of uranium were found and the Iranians haven’t explained the source of this uranium or provided information about where this uranium is now and how much there is.
We have to assume that the Iranians have done all kinds of experiments with this uranium in order to shorten the time necessary for them to move from having 90%-enriched uranium at a military grade to having the capability to produce a bomb.
Moreover, they have recently produced uranium metal and they possess a lot of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. So we should be very worried about the nuclear program.
Unfortunately, although Israel and the United States share a commitment not to allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, they still do not agree about the way to move in that direction.
The Americans are still interested in bringing Iran back to the JCPOA, which will only gain something like two years, but will allow the Iranians to make legitimate progress towards having any number of nuclear weapons they choose to have within less than nine years. To our mind here in Israel, this is ridiculous and extremely dangerous, and we don’t see eye-to-eye with the Americans on this matter.
At the same time, Israel does cooperate with the Americans on trying to convince the Iranians that moving forward is going to be dangerous. Both are in the midst of a big military exercise in which they cooperate in the modeling of an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, which is a message to Iran: “Be careful. Don’t move from where you are toward having fissile material and producing 90%-enriched uranium,” which is something Israel and the Americans both don’t want to see happen.
Although the Iranians could have had a nuclear weapon long ago, Israel and the U.S. managed to postpone that by more than 15 years. But this is not good enough. We haven’t managed to stop it altogether. This is something that at a certain point we might have to do, and this time is becoming closer and closer. We don’t have all the time in the world before we will have to take steps that are decisive in this context. The pace with which the Iranians are now moving towards having the capability to produce nuclear weapons is much faster than it used to be in the past.
What we would like to see now is more pressure on Iran that would stop it from moving forward and clarifying to Iran that if they do, there is a plan B that would make the price of moving forward too high for the regime. That’s what needs to be done, not going back to the JCPOA way, which guarantees them everything they want in a few years. That’s not kicking the can down the road. With every kick that you give to the can, it becomes bigger and more explosive. That’s why Israel keeps saying we are not going to be a part of the JCPOA. We will take the necessary steps to protect ourselves and to prevent Iran from having the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
Countering Iran on Israel’s Northern Border
The other element that we have to worry about when we talk about Iran is the ongoing effort of the Iranians to entrench their forces in Syria and turn Syria into a base from which they can operate against Israel, and at the same time deliver advanced weaponry to Hizbullah in Lebanon. This would allow them to have precision-guided munitions. That is something that Israel has been working every day to prevent with our efforts to hit Iranian targets and Iranian shipments of arms to Hizbullah. Fortunately, in Syria we have developed rules of engagement that allow us to operate there with only limited repercussions.
Meanwhile, the Iranians have managed to make progress in strengthening their allies, but they have done it much slower than they wished because of our activities. We have to worry about escalation with Hizbullah, which has up to 150,000 rockets and operates advanced UAVs. And it’s not only Hizbullah. Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad are also receiving Iranian support to improve their military capabilities. They are boasting about it all the time.
Just imagine what’s going to happen if the Iranians reenter the JCPOA and get all the money that awaits them – tens of billions of dollars if they rejoin the nuclear deal. We are very concerned about that. We realize that everything we do in this “campaign between wars” is important in slowing down the Iranians’ progress, but will not succeed in blocking and stopping it altogether.
The Palestinian Conflict
The Palestinians understand that Israel is not willing to use force in order to rearrange the situation, especially not to use it against Gaza. We saw this in Operation “Guardian of the Walls” in May 2021, where the option of taking really severe measures against Hamas was not on the agenda for Israel.
At the same time, Israel is committed to strengthening the Palestinian Authority, while the Palestinian Authority operates against Israel in many fields: paying salaries to terrorists for carrying out attacks against Israelis, inciting against Israel, and operating against Israel in international fora, the International Criminal Court and elsewhere.
Israel has been facing an increase in the number of Palestinian terror attacks in the last couple of months, which have gone beyond the usual level of terrorism that nobody counts, which includes stone-throwing and firebombing. These have taken place in areas inside the Green Line, and this has had a very important impact on the sense of security of Israelis. It forced Israel to act in ways beyond what it was doing before.
Israel embarked on Operation “Break the Wave,” which is being carried out mainly in the Jenin area and the northern part of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank). It is in this context that the reporter from Al-Jazeera lost her life. The Palestinians take advantage of this death in order to wage a campaign of delegitimization against Israel in the international arena.
In Gaza, the Hamas leadership is heating up the situation by making all kinds of threats. My reading is that they do not mean to put Gaza in harm’s way. The situation there is still very problematic from their point of view.
They haven’t reconstructed the damage done in the war last year. Israel is giving Gazans more permits than ever to work in Israel. So there is resentment within these Gaza citizens to see another war emerging. Hamas would prefer to see the situation somehow kept within the confines of Jerusalem and the Israeli Arabs and Judea and Samaria, where they would like to see more terrorists coming from there and not involving them directly.
Yes, they have the capability. They have the option if they wish to. And they are working very hard to gain greater capabilities. But I don’t think they are very eager to resume the war in Gaza. That said, an escalation can happen.
We have to be prepared for doing that. Because this feeling of Hamas that Israel is not going to really take measures against it makes Hamas much more self-confident and allows it to come up with more extreme threats against Israel.
By allowing more than 10,000 people to work in Israel, we ease the pressures in Gaza considerably. We also allow more than 100,000 Palestinians from Judea and Samaria to work in Israel.
Perhaps the most disturbing issue that’s happening in Israel is the rise of Palestinian nationalistic feelings and religious Islamic feelings among the Israeli Arabs. The Arabs living in Israel don’t go into the streets because they have some economic difficulties. This is a very minor element in the equation. We are now thinking about establishing a National Guard in Israel that would be more capable to deal with this matter.
The International Effort to Demonize Israel
The campaign being waged in the wake of the death of the Al-Jazeera reporter highlights an additional area in which we are challenged, the international effort to demonize and to delegitimize Israel. We see that not only by the activities of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and its allies, but also in the activities of many radical left-wing groups around the world that try to demonize Israel.
We are most concerned in this respect with what’s going on in the United States, because voices coming from the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party are trying to question the special relationship between Israel and the United States, which is a very important element in our national security. So we have to make sure that this relationship is maintained and we have to take steps to assure this right now.
So altogether, all of these elements form a very challenging environment for Israel.
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This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his live on-line briefing to the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) on May 24, 2022.