Tal Kalman, chief of the Israeli Air Force Staff, during the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies annual conference declared that in the Middle East the flow of weapons is continuous and that Israel could lose its superiority. “Advanced Western and Eastern weapons have entered the equation and have been received by the countries surrounding us,” he stated, referring to the Russian military and logistical support to Iran. “There is the potential for the erosion of the IDF and IAF’s qualitative edge.”

The qualitative military edge is a deterrence tool that consists in the quantitative and qualitative superiority of Israeli weaponry compared to the ones of its main rivals and neighbors. This tactical and technological advantage is vital for Israel’s security and it is guaranteed by a series of United States’ policies. The first enemy Israel should deal with is Tehran, according to Kalman, chief of staff of the Israeli air force, who said the Iran nuclear deal did serve to delay the threat of nuclear annihilation from Tehran.[1]

The Iran-Russia-Hezbollah triangle and the Golan Issue

Since Russia has intervened in the Syrian conflict, it has greatly strengthened its presence in the Middle East with a large number of troops and advanced systems such as S-400. Russian aircrafts breached twice Israeli airspace (they quickly reverted to Syrian skies), and the presence of the Russian fighters is strongly perceived by Israeli troops. Russia is also giving military support to Hezbollah,[2] sending laser-guided rockets, antitank missiles and other kinds of weaponry[3] that Israel is secretly trying to destroy with a series of attacks against their military outposts. But what is the role of Hezbollah? The Lebanese paramilitary organization operates with guerrilla tactics and terrorist attacks against Israel, but at the same time it serves Iranian interests by keeping Lebanon from drifting too close to the Western or Sunni Arab bloc, intervening on Tehran’s behalf in Syria, and serving both as military deterrent and expeditionary force against Israel.[4] It is a group that fights Daesh alongside conventional armies, but in the meantime operates as a simple terrorist organization against Israel, this makes it difficult to define its role and objectives, but it especially confuses the other international players involved in the region. In March, Putin declared the accomplishment of the mission in Syria and began a slow withdrawal of his troops, while keeping firmly its feet on the bases of Kmeimin and Tartus. In the view of accelerating the peace process in Syria, Putin has opened the doors to a new the displacement of Syrian troops, who are starting to claim the Golan, and to a continuous and dangerous weapons smuggling to Hezbollah. Netanyahu is not willing to allow a greater deployment of Hezbollah guerrilla troops along the Golan, as it would be too close to Israeli borders and would increase the risk of instability in a densely populated area.  To strengthen security coordination between Russia and Israel, the Israeli Prime Minister has visited Putin on April 21, 2016, stating the desire to maintain balanced relations between Tel Aviv and Moscow without leaning on the Golan issue. “Israel has clear red lines for purposes of self-defense. First, we are working to the best of our ability to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Second, we are working to prevent the establishment of an additional terror front against us on the Golan Heights. These are red lines and we will continue to maintain them. Regarding the Golan Heights, we will not go back to the days when they fired at our communities and at our children from atop the Heights. Therefore, with or without an agreement, the Golan Heights will remain under Israeli sovereignty” he declared. Hezbollah is growing both in numbers and quality, continues to make profits through drug trafficking, is earning greater consensus by fighting Daesh at the forefront, and it is growing considerably fast due to hundreds of million of dollars coming from Iran. Russian weapons and at least 100.000 long range missiles seem to be a real threat to Israel stability.

Speaking about Iran, the issue is more complex. Iran now has the doors open to arms trade, and without the sanctions it is building technologically advanced weaponry and strengthening relations with the Mediterranean countries (Itinera, a famous Italian company which operates in the rail transport sector, is going to invest about €4 billion in Iran), with the United States, and of course with Russia. Russia has just sent to the Theocratic Republic a group of S-300, long-range surface-to-air missile systems, realized for the first time in the Soviet Union. The supply of these missiles had been planned since 2007 but had been blocked by the sanctions. Now the $900 million agreement is active and the first unit of missiles has already arrived in Rouhani’s hands. This agreement, of course, is just the beginning: analysts have estimated that the trade of weapons and vehicles, such as airplanes, helicopters, tanks, submarines, frigates and all the most advanced logistics are estimated to have a value of $8 billion. The Security Council may have something to say on the matter.

How to preserve Israeli qualitative military edge

There are only three ways the Israeli Defense can consider in order to protect the strategic gap with its neighbors: ask for an increase of US subsidies, widen the network of alliances and increase military industries investments. According to the latest index,[5] Israel is no longer the nation with the most powerful military force in the Middle East, as it was found to be in 2014. It is followed by Iran, which is positive for Tel Aviv, but is preceded by Turkey and Egypt. In recent months, probably concerned by the rising number of high-tech weapons in the Middle East, Israel increased its investment in the sector. For example, by the end of 2016 the number of Heron TP UAV will be doubled, as well as the personnel and its inventory. In the first week of April the first Israelis F-35 squadrons have also been tested, a force that would allow to preserve the nation’s qualitative military edge against regional adversaries. In ten years Israel expects the transfer of 50 F-35, some of which should start to operate as early as next year. The relationship between the United States and Israel on this matter is crucial, because maintaining the qualitative military edge is an American affair since Johnson’s administration. Part of Israel’s concerns stems from the fact that Egypt and the Gulf countries are getting numerous weapons from the United States. Although they are not rivals (indeed, at this time it seems that Israel is approaching both Egypt and Saudi Arabia), the arms flow is continuous and does not benefit the Israelis. The 10-year US military aid package amounted to $3 billion per year and will be renewed in 2018. Therefore, Israel has asked the United States to reach $4.5 billion to ensure this military superiority, but the Congress is still very doubtful on the approval of that increase.

Israel is expanding further its strategic partnership with its Egyptian and Jordanian neighbors. Since January 2015, when a Jordanian pilot, Moaz Al-Kasasbeh, was brutally murdered by Daesh, the relations between Israel and Jordan have strengthened so much that Israel gifted Jordan 16 U.S.-supplied Cobra Combat Helicopters as to help provide enhanced border security. Although they are very delicate, even the relations with Egypt are growing stronger. The Israeli Major General Yair Golan recently declared that “there is a strong feeling in the region… that we have to put aside past animosities and concentrate on mutual interests and working together,”[6] speaking about the Israel-Jordan-Egypt triangle. The latest news about an unprecedented level of cooperation at the intelligence level represent a central issue because the Sinai is hosting some Daesh cells, and despite this year Egypt seems to have surpassed Israel in terms of number of units of the armed forces, the superiority of Israel in the intelligence field is recognized by all Arab countries.

Last but not least, the question of Saudi Arabia. As it was expected, Israel and Saudi Arabia are getting closer to fight against the rise of Iranian power. Reports emerged stating that this year Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir made a secret visit to Israel[7] to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and according to Bloomberg[8] there have been numerous meetings with the Crown Prince and other Saudi military officials. There are no official statements obviously, but the proximity between the two countries emerges from certain attitudes. For example, recently Egypt has returned to Saudi Arabia two islands of the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, and the Israeli statements were all very positive. There were no frictions between the two countries because the status of the Gulf of Aqaba, which provides for the free movement of Israeli ships since the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, remains the same and the freedom of passage is clearly stated in the new treaty. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon declared, referring to the Multinational Force and Observers peacekeeping forces at the border: “We reached an agreement between the four parties – the Saudis, the Egyptians, Israel and the United States – to transfer the responsibility for the islands, on condition that the Saudis fill in the Egyptians’ shoes in the military appendix of the peace agreement.”[9]

The concern about the flow of arms in the region and the improvement of the technical capabilities of the Iranian armed forces also appears to belong to Saudi Arabia, even though relations with Israel seem to be covered by a continuous secret (too much information could excessively destabilize the region). Recently, according to the press, some secret documents revealed the names of the Saudi official who participated in the joint training sessions with the Israeli army[10] but there are no sources, at least so far, detecting a direct exchange of weapons between the two countries – only a set of joint military exercises conducted in the Red Sea.

Regarding some operations in other areas of the globe, Israel has just concluded an agreement with India, which provides for the exchange of unmanned air vehicles, air defense systems, radar, and naval systems. Israel sold 10 Heron TP drones to New Delhi in a deal valued $400 million. The Indo-Pakistani issue is not underestimated by Israel, because in the last decade the United States has carried out hundreds of drone strikes inside Pakistan in order to fight Al-Qaeda. Thus, for all this time India tried to find a strategic partner that possessed that same type of weapon.

To keep an eye towards the Iranian threat, Israel continues to maintain a partnership with Azerbaijan. Its latest agreement involves providing the Azerbaijani army with a number of drones, without however the possibility to use them in the war over Nagorno Karabakh. For several years the relations between Israel and Azerbaijan in anti-Iranian key have been strengthened: Israel has access to old Soviet bases, has the possibility to send drones on the border between Azerbaijan and Iran, and not infrequently the Rouhani government has complained about the infiltration of Israeli spies from their outposts Azerbaijanis.

Summarizing, it seems that the Israeli neighbors are improving the quality of their weapons, due to the intervention and the interest of the most powerful nations of the world. The charts speak clearly: Israel’s neighbors are equipping with arms more and more, and their strength is increasing so much that in two years Israel has gone from being the first power in the Middle East to the third. Israel, however, is cleverly offsetting this risk with an increase in military investments, strengthening alliances, yet remained at the margins of the conflict with Daesh. According to the latest statements of the Prime Minister, the nation’s main goal these months will be to sustain the military supremacy on the Golan Heights. If this will be carried out through an armed confrontation or diplomatic means is not easy to predict, but it is certain that the danger comes from Syria and that Tel Aviv would not hesitate to deploy the Air Force if the Syrian army or Hezbollah fighters tried to take control over the Golan Heights.

Rebecca Mieli

Master’s degree in International Relations (Roma Tre University)


References

[1] Gross, Judah A. “Military edge in peril as weapons flood region, general warns,” The Time of Israel, 3 April 2016. www.timesofisrael.com/military-edge-in-peril-as-weapons-flood-region-general-warns/

[2] Rizk, Ali. “The Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah military triangle,” Al Monitor, 2 November 2015. www.al-monitor.com/pulse/ru/contents/articles/originals/2015/11/hezbollah-syria-russia-iran-coordination.html

[3] Rosenfeld, Jesse. “Russia Is Arming Hezbollah, Say Two of the Group’s Field Commanders,The Daily Beast, 11 January 2016. www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/01/11/russia-is-arming-hezbollah-say-two-of-the-group-s-field-commanders.html

[4] Rosen, Armin, Bender, Jeremy, & Macias, Amanda. “The most powerful militaries in the Middle East,” Missile Threat, 27 October 2014. missilethreat.com/powerful-militaries-middle-east-ranked/

[5] Global Firepower (GFP). “Israel Military Strength.” See: www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.asp?country_id=israel

[6] “‘Unprecedented’ intel cooperation between Israel, Jordan, Egypt,” Arutz Sheva, 20 April 2016. www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/211196#.VydLzXGLTIX

[7] “Saudi King Salman’s Son Met Netanyahu in Jordan,” ABNA24, 22 April 2016. en.abna24.com/service/middle-east-west-asia/archive/2016/04/22/749115/story.html

[8] “In very rare public meet, Israeli, Saudi officials name Iran as common foe,” The Time of Israel, 5 June 2015. www.timesofisrael.com/in-rare-meet-israeli-saudi-officials-name-iran-as-common-foe/

[9] Cohen, Gili. “Israel: Saudi Arabia Gave Written Assurances Over Freedom of Passage in Tiran Straits,” Haaretz, 12 April  2016. www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.714038?v=35AD20AA26E4A503BE64B7E2ADA27DB9

[10] “Formation of joint militia between Saudi Arabia and Israel in Red sea,” Muslim Press, 13 April 2016. muslimpress.com/48491/formation-of-joint-militia-between-saudi-arabia-and-israel-in-red-sea/