I did a nasty thing and spent some time reading the concluding chapter of the Strategic Survey for Israel 2012-2013 – that is, the concluding chapter of a strategic assessment from last year. I did it as the INSS, the Institute for National Security Studies, the distinguished institution that publishes this annual Survey (and many other worthy papers), just published its new2013-2014 Survey. The INSS is also holding its annual conference today and tomorrow, a conference in which many important dignitaries will speak. Among them: President Peres, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and ministers Yaalon, Livni. The American representation will include: Generals Petraeus and Cartwright, diplomats Ross, Hadley, Abrams, Shapiro and Indyk, and many others.
This year’s Survey is a stack of analysis and policy papers that accompany the conference. Last year’s survey is the stack of outdated material that there is no longer reason to read. Except, of course, for curiosity and the nasty habit of searching for trouble. So here are some nuggets from last year’s survey. To make it less nasty, I should confess that my own articles from a year ago probably suffer from flaws similar to the ones you can easily find in last year's Survey.
Looking at a report from a year ago can be of some value as it gives us perspective on the year that has ended, as well as perspective on the right way to read annual strategic reports. In last year's concluding chapter (written by the head of INSS, General Amos Yadlin) the main “threats” on Israel and “opportunities” for Israel were highlighted. Reading the long list of these threats and opportunities a year later makes one wonder-
If barely one “threat” out of nine listed materialized into reality, what does that mean?
Were these not the real threats?
Was Israel smart enough to thwart these threats?
Was there a problem with the report?
Here is the list of threats, and the extent to which they materialized:
- "An Iranian nuclear breakout or an Israeli/American decision to attack Iran"– didn’t happen. Not even close. In fact, something closer to the opposite of this happened (a US-Iran agreement).
- "A military conflict with Iran and its proxies Hizbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and less likely with Hamas, as a result of an attack against Iran" – didn’t happen. Not even close.
- "Erosion of the peace treaties [with Egypt and Jordan]" – didn’t happen. In fact, something closer to the opposite of this happened.
- "Israel’s diplomatic isolation" – yes, Israel is still isolated, and arguably became even more isolated in the year that has passed. We will get to that later.
- "Expansion of uncontrolled regions on Israel’s borders" – the explanatory paragraph refers to the possibility of a destabilized Jordan, and that didn’t happen.
- "The collapse of the PA and the rise of Hamas"–maybe next year. Didn’t happen.
- "Restrictions on Israel’s freedom of action due to the power of the Arab street" – nothing new last year on this front.
- "Restrictions on Israel’s freedom of action due to concern about further delegitimazation of Israel" – nothing new last year.
- "Heightened security problems" – not that I know of.
And what about the “opportunities”?
- "A possible change of regime in Syria" – didn’t happen.
- "Aggravation of the conflict between Iran and the Sunni Arab countries" – possibly, but the positive outcome of this aggravation is still elusive.
- "Common interests with Turkey" – not enough to put the relations back on track.
- "Common interests with Egypt" – yes, but ironically, not with the Egypt we were talking about last year.
- "International recognition and understanding for Israel’s security problems" – that was a joke, right?
- "Potential for renewing the political process with the Palestinians" – yes, this happened. Thank you, John Kerry.
- "Energy independence" – This was true last year as it is today and will be next year. In other words: this isn’t an “opportunity” but rather a reality.
So what am I saying - that the INSS was being alarmist for no reason, that someone else was doing a better job? Of course not. It is a great institution with many people much smarter than most of the rest of us. Reading their papers will educate you and will give you a lot to think about.
Still, I'd make the four following points:
- Predicting next year’s Middle East is impossible. So we better not try. The last three-four years in this region were anything but predictable, and the coming years might be just as temperamental (or maybe not – but this would also qualify as a major unpredictable surprise). Using the word “unstable” is a safe bet for all writers of predictions, but it doesn’t really say much, does it? Unstable means that we only know that we don’t know what's coming. The "threat" and the "opportunity" are the unknowns, and the trick for Israel is to be alert and flexible as the region changes (and, yes, to be "proactive", as the INSS advocates this year, and to make peace with its neighbors if possible or do something else if it isn't possible, and so on and so forth).
- Of the long list of threats and opportunities, the only two points that we counted as a definite “yes, this happened” were the two about talks with Palestinians and about the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel. These two, of course, are the two sides of the same coin. The threat prompts Israel to search for an opportunity. This to say that threats aren't always bad – a country needs to see threats to remain active and vigilant.
- Looking at the concluding chapter of this year’s INSS Survey, the list of threats looks pretty familiar: the danger of collapse of the talks with the Palestinians and the consequent growing isolation of Israel (the coin from point B), and the danger of Iran advancing its nuclear program. That is to say: very little changes within a year – unless something big happens. The “big” is usually also the unpredictable. So the trends that we can see in advance are usually very small and almost trivial.
- Both last year and this year, the INSS went out of its way to advocate for the closet possible coordination and cooperation with the US on all matters. Yet it doesn’t list a lack of interest in such coordination on the US’ part as a major threat on Israel. Considering the US interim agreement with Iran and the pressure from Secretary Kerry, I find that somewhat odd.