Jacob Nagel served as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s acting national security advisor from 2015 to 2017. He is currently a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a visiting professor at the Technion.
The State of Israel is not required by law to adopt a national security strategy. But the need for such a document has been often raised, and several efforts have been made to write one. In October 1953, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion presented a long disquisition on Israel’s security needs to the Cabinet, which he wrote alone, as it was not coordinated with the security agencies nor adopted by the security cabinet. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote a draft of a national security strategy, with the help of a small circle from the National Security Staff, his military attaché, and personal assistant. Although parts of this document are classified, declassified elements have been approved for publication. Netanyahu started to implement some of his strategy before leaving office in June 2021; now he will be fully empowered to implement this vision, or at least parts of it, bearing in mind the important changes introduced since it was first written.
With Netanyahu’s return to office, he faces challenges with which he is intimately familiar, although some have taken new forms during his 18-month absence from the role of prime minister.
Israel’s Main Challenges
The three main issues on the prime minister’s agenda will be Iran (mainly the nuclear project but also its development of precision-guided weapons and its support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad); broadening the scope of the Abraham Accords and adding Saudi Arabia; and dealing with several internal social problems and economic challenges.
On the external security front, second only to Iran’s nuclear program, is this threat of precision-guided weapons primarily from Hezbollah in the north. Third in the hierarchy of threats is the possible of trouble in the south and east, due to the potential deterioration of security in the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and by Hamas in Gaza.
Israel would be happy to see a comprehensive agreement that would fully halt Iran’s ability to ever get the bomb, but this is unlikely to happen. Israel sees the American approach, joined by most European states, as surrendering to Iranian demands rather than penalizing them for the ongoing breaches they have committed, and for their aggressive role in supporting terrorists worldwide. The lifting of the sanctions, envisioned as part of the return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, would have seen billions of dollars going to Iran, reviving its economy, and sustaining its support for terror. It would send a message to the markets that business with this regime is acceptable and profitable.
The planned Iranian concession would have verged on the absurd and the ridiculous; with all past transgressions whitewashed, Iran was supposed to put on hold the last stage of its march toward becoming a threshold military nuclear power—with the option, left open under the terms of the proposed deal, to complete it at any point in the future. The Iranian approach was based on four assumptions, some of which may turn out to have been misguided:
- The US has no intention of acting kinetically against the nuclear project, whatever happens.
- Israel does perceive the American lack of resolve but is unable to attack the Iranian project’s infrastructure on its own. This misunderstanding by Iran may have been fueled by statements by Israeli scholars (some of them former high officials).
- The Iranian economy will withstand all pressures applied against it, over time.
- There is no real credible threat, American or Israeli, to the regime and to its leaders.
Luckily for Israel and for the entire world, the conclusion of a renewed JCPOA, which was extremely close, did not happen, mainly because of Iranian decisions. Since then, two new developments have made the prospects for a new agreement even more remote: the Russian–Iranian alignment, with Iranian support for Russia’s attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine; and the continued protests and unrest in Iran.
The disturbances in Iran seem to be a war of the granddaughters against their grandfathers. The world, and specifically the US, may have become indifferent to further proof of Iran’s blatant nuclear transgressions, but they are not indifferent to the killing of girls and women. When the impact of these images is combined with Iran’s support for Russia’s killing of women and children in Ukraine (through the supply of attack drones and likely also missiles to Russia), the hypocrisy of the world, above all that of the US, toward the Iranians and their nuclear program may finally come to an end.
Nevertheless, Israel must prepare for a broad and comprehensive campaign against Iran in the next few years. This is what the research and development programs and acquisition efforts of the Israel Defense Forces and the Mossad are most likely being directed to achieve. The new government must do all it can to ensure that Israel will not stand alone in such a confrontation, but it must also prepare for this eventuality.
In parallel, Israel can and should persist with the effort to weaken the Iranian regime. This should include active support for the protests, which may be the first serious opportunity, since the fall of the Shah, to bring down the regime. Such activities must include all forms of support for the struggle. Economically, Israel can fan the distrust of citizens in the economic and banking system, by pointing to official corruption, encouraging withdrawals from the banks, and hastening the ongoing collapse of the rate of the Iranian Rial. In intelligence terms, Israel can release personal information about the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders and the Basij (IRGC’s militia) operatives who are fighting and killing the protesters, and about anticipated movements of regime forces. Operationally, Israel can disrupt some of the state-sponsored capacities of key Iranian industries, encouraging walkouts, as well as cyberattacks affecting daily activities. Practically, Israel could even supply basic weapons such as rifles and handguns to the insurgents to defend themselves against their oppressors.
Even President Biden has been overheard recently saying bluntly that Iran should be “liberated” and that the JCPOA is “dead.” Still, Robert Malley, his envoy to the nuclear negotiations—apparently oblivious to the president’s guidance—continues with his European colleagues to look for ways to revive the agreement.
Syria and Lebanon
Israel has historically defined three red lines to which it would respond if breached: the transfer of “tie-breaking” weaponry from Iran to Hezbollah via Syria (particularly precision-guided weapons, or the technologies to produce them), the establishment of Iranian permanent bases (including Iranian-backed militias) in Syria, and preparations for the creation of a terror infrastructure on the country’s northern border. Despite the intense Israeli activity, which, according to foreign sources (Israel provides no details), has picked up recently, the threat remains real and serious.
Hassan Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) will ultimately have to acknowledge that his “precision project” is also a huge threat to the collapsing state of Lebanon. If the production of precision missiles and the conversion of non-precision ones continues on Lebanese soil—including the expected use of civilian aircraft and of Beirut’s international airport to transport the necessary parts from Iran to sustain this industry—Israel will have no choice but to strike and destroy the relevant infrastructure. This scenario could well deteriorate into war and lead to Lebanon’s collapse.
Lebanon’s condition could also cause Nasrallah to pause before he joins the fray in an Israeli–Iranian confrontation—even though this is the sole purpose for Iran’s investment in Hezbollah over the years. But Israel cannot count on that and must prepare for the worst.
Gaza and the West Bank
In Gaza, the question is not whether, but when the next major clash will occur. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, largely funded and controlled by Iran, continue their extensive buildup and the construction of underground infrastructure for attack and defense in the future. They have no interest in bringing quiet to the area, which is bound to undermine their rule in Gaza. The main goal of both the government and the military is to do all that is possible to preserve the peace and quiet for the communities living next to the Gaza Strip and to prepare for the next round of battle. This will require tools to deliver a heavy blow to Hamas, its leaders, and its infrastructure, which would reduce Hamas’s appetite for the (inevitable) next round of battle for a long period of time.
Israel must also exhaust all possible means (and apparently not everything has been done so far) to bring an end to the sad story of both the two bodies of IDF soldiers and the two live civilians being held by Hamas for years—without surrendering to the terrorists’ demands. By doing so, Israel will make a clear message of its moral duty toward all IDF soldiers that their country will never abandon them.
Vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Israel must prepare for the day after Mahmoud Abbas. Who will replace him is far from certain. Abbas himself, who rarely “missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” neither is likely to generate any change nor lead any new initiatives. Moreover, it is questionable if he will be replaced by a leader who can bring about the necessary change. The PA chose to confront Israel by internationalizing the conflict and transforming it into international legal procedures in institutions that in practice are dedicated to neither peace nor justice. Israel must exact a price from the PA leadership for choosing this false course of action, while, at the same time, security cooperation must continue as it is beneficial for both sides.
The warnings about a “third intifada” are premature, although the danger is still acute and could materialize. Despite the existence of the PA and the difficulties in the field, Israel enjoys broad freedom of action for enforcing security and neutralizing terror. Despite the recent rise in the number of terror attacks and the broadening of its infrastructure, economic interests could prevail, and intelligent conflict management could lead to a “controlled calm.” Mistakes in managing the situation, however, could lead to a deterioration that neither side wants.