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The shifting nature of threats to Israel in its neighborhood

How has Israel’s security environment evolved in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal? Tamara Cofman Wittes recently addressed this important question in a testimony before a joint session of two subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She described the shifting nature of threats to Israel from states and non-state actors within its neighborhood, as well as opportunities for Israeli security planning that emerge from these changing regional dynamics.

Iran’s impact

Wittes began by addressing Iran’s strategy in the Middle East since the July 2015 Iran nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). She reminded the panel of her 2015 testimony last year, when she predicted Iran would take a more aggressive approach regardless of a deal was reached.

The main driver of instability and threats in the Middle East today is the civil violence in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and increasingly in Iraq… Ending those civil wars should be a top priority for the United States and others concerned with regional stability.

Wittes argued that Iran’s regional assertiveness is driven by vulnerabilities created by regional upheaval and sectarianism, more than by than the nuclear agreement itself. “The main driver of instability and threats in the Middle East today is the civil violence in Syria, Yemen, Libya, and increasingly in Iraq,” Wittes stated. “Ending those civil wars should be a top priority for the United States and others concerned with regional stability.” She also underlined the assessment of Israel’s military chief, Gadi Eizenkot, that the Iran deal presented an opportunity to refocus the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on more urgent threats. 

Changing calculus on Syria

Wittes observed that Israel has shifted away from ambivalence about the Syrian conflict to profound concern about the prospect of sustained Iranian dominance over Syria. As Israel observes current diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution to the civil war, and contends with spillover from prolonged fighting near the Golan Heights, it will rely on Washington (and tacitly, Iran’s Sunni Arab rivals) to protect its interests and prevent Iran from solidifying its influence in Syria.

Wittes also pointed out that Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian conflict has boosted its combat experience, while a stronger Iranian role in Syria could expand its weapons transfers to Hezbollah in the future. As a result, Israel will face a “more entrenched, more experienced enemy,” Wittes concluded, in in any future direct clash with Hezbollah.

Beyond the deal: The “Knife Intifada” and Sinai

Wittes shared several insights gleaned from Israeli interlocutors on the wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis that began last October. Wittes reported that official Palestinian incitement seemed to be declining, and that the number of attacks had fallen sharply in recent weeks. Wittes also emphasized the vulnerabilities posed by weak governance and growing political gaps within Palestinian society, both of which could undermine security coordination with Israel. She underscored that “a negotiated resolution of the conflict remains Israel’s best option for long-term security.”

Wittes argued that, since the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Hamas has been preoccupied with rebuilding its military capabilities and maintaining its monopoly on power in Gaza. These priorities, she said, have pushed the group to concentrate on its own survival rather than gear up for a future confrontation with Israel in the near term.

Wittes also touched upon the threat of terrorism emanating from the ISIS affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula. Fortunately for Israel, the Egyptian government has exerted enormous pressure on Hamas to sever ties to militants in Sinai. However, Wittes raised doubts about the effectiveness of Egypt’s scorched-earth tactics in rooting out ISIS’ Sinai affiliate. She argued that members of Congress should back the Obama administration’s plans to redirect U.S. military assistance to Egypt toward “effective counterterror and border security capabilities.”  

Addressing new challenges

Between failed governments, Iranian ambitions, and the growth in transnational jihadi networks, Wittes noted, Israel must today contend with an array of changing threats confronting it on all sides. And yet, she asserted, new opportunities for Israel have also emerged from the regional turmoil, in light of Hamas’ preoccupation with internal matters, Hezbollah’s commitment in Syria, and Iran’s stunted nuclear plans as a result of the JCPOA.

Israel now has time, she suggested, to construct its long-term defense strategy and to redirect attention toward reviving the two-state solution with the Palestinians. U.S. support, Wittes argued, can help ensure that Israel is empowered to confront new challenges, and even to improve its strategic position.

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