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John Kerry and Israel’s Security Priorities

In recent days a series of disturbing reports have emerged regarding the acquisition by Hezbollah of powerful long-range and radar-guided missiles via Syria. Given that the source of these reports, first revealed by the Wall Street Journal January 2, come from U.S. military intelligence officials it would seem prudent to take them seriously. If accurate, this brings Hezbollah’s military capabilities into a new league with the potential to significantly shift the calculus of risk for Israel and its population. That these events come amidst a delay in the deployment of Iron Dome air defense systems along Israel’s northern border, on account of budgetary difficulties, only adds to any assessment of just how troubling Israel’s security situation is regarding the Iranian proxies in Lebanon.

Yet, with Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians now in full swing, it seems that many of Israel’s far more critical security concerns risk being crowded out. The great irony here being that Kerry is expending huge amounts of energy, and indeed Israel’s time, on a peace process that cannot possibly hope to bring Israel peace or security in the places where it arguably needs them most.

Speaking from Jerusalem about the progress of negotiations last week, Kerry told reporters: “These are complicated issues that involve the survival and the future of peoples. And this is a conflict that has gone on for too long.” Few could disagree with that, least of all Israelis, who have long lived with the disorienting awareness of just how precarious the survival of their nation really is. Yet Kerry went on to say more. Of the focus of the negotiations he added, “Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges … We don’t have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from our goal. What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead and keep in mind the vision of what can come, and if we can move forward.”

Touching as visions of the future may well be and true as it is that both sides should seek to avoid becoming bogged down in a petty exchange of accusations, we must also wonder about precisely what it is that Israel should and shouldn’t allow itself to be “distracted” by right now. For if Kerry is as committed to the survival of peoples and the ending of conflicts as his above statements would suggest, then there are serious questions that Israelis need to be asking about where the Obama administration has been trying to direct their attention in recent years. What really counts as a luxury and a distraction?

Given that Kerry has undertaken no less than ten visits to Israel since assuming his office less than a year ago, it can hardly be in doubt just how much of a priority overseeing a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is for him. The only trouble is that getting an agreement signed between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas and bringing about peace almost certainly isn’t the same thing. Israel cannot truly make a deal based on land for peace with Abbas, because even if Abbas genuinely wished to do so, neither peace nor security are things that he is able to give Israelis. This is not simply the case because Mahmoud Abbas is almost nine years into his four-year-long presidential term and represents few of the people he claims to speak for or have authority over. Rather, negotiations with Abbas can’t possibly hope to bring Israel peace and security because the Palestinians in the West Bank are not remotely close to being Israel’s primary security concern.

The greatest threat to Israel’s security and continued survival is not even the other group of Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, who almost certainly would not hold by any agreement Kerry might be able to somehow conjure up. The single greatest threat to Israel comes from the Islamic regime in Iran and its proxies. Most ominously of all it comes from the Iranian nuclear program. Something which the Obama administration has so far completely failed to bring under control, perhaps unsurprising given how preoccupied Secretary Kerry has been with the matter of trying to get Mahmoud Abbas to agree to accept a state from Israel in exchange for little more than his simple recognition of the Jewish state in return.  

From what has been leaked from the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority so far, it would seem that there has been a great deal of focus on whether or not Israel would maintain a security force in the Jordan Valley. This security matter is clearly of great importance, but right now it pales in comparison to the mounting threat from Iran’s primary proxy Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. And if Abbas can do next to nothing to assure Israel’s security from Hamas rockets in Gaza, how much less can he do about the critical danger to Israel coming from north of its border?

In addition to having stockpiles of an estimated 100,000 rockets and a growing ground force of Iranian-trained troops, it now appears that Hezbollah is acquiring new devastating weaponry via Syria. In recent days there have been statements from U.S. intelligence officials expressing their belief that Russian-made Yakhon anti-ship cruise missiles are now being brought into Lebanon. Despite attempts by the Israeli Air Force to strike weapons stores in Syria in an effort to prevent their transfer to Hezbollah, U.S. officials believe components of advanced radar-guided missiles have already entered southern Lebanon. Although primarily designed for use against ships, these missiles have a range that reach almost the full length of Israel’s territory and are equipped with armor-piecing highly explosive warheads. Additionally, some of the weaponry Hezbollah has been acquiring from Syria would give it the capabilities to attack Israeli planes and stave off the kind of air strikes used to stop the stream of rockets fired into Israeli civilian areas during Hezbollah’s 2006 war against Israel. 

Concurrent with this has come news that Israel’s military will have to delay the deployment of its defensive Iron Dome batteries in the north of the country due to budget cuts. The air defense batteries which were supposed to be positioned to protect Israel’s north reportedly cannot be placed for the moment due to a shortage of manpower related to recent budgetary cuts from Israel’s Ministry of Defense, something which representatives of the military have warned will have serious consequences. As it is, these air defense systems place a huge financial strain on Israel’s ability to defend itself, with each Tamir interception rocket fired costing Israel $50,000. In a war of attrition by Iranian proxies this means of defense could quickly become unsustainable. As one senior military representative stated, “In recent years the enemy has understood that the cheapest and most effective way to harm Israel is by missiles, and therefore the defense establishment is forced to equip itself with the appropriate defense systems, which have a monumental cost.”

These matters are then Israel’s real and primary concern, or at least they should be. Yet, at the moment Israel risks being distracted by the relentless circus of Kerry’s sideshow diplomacy. When it comes to ending conflicts, securing peace and securing the survival of peoples, the most pressing matters do not center on the Palestinians but Iran and its proxy armies. Yet, the Obama administration’s softly-softly approach on Iran, currently materializing in the form of its efforts to ease sanctions on the mullahs, mean that the really serious threats to Israel are now becoming critical. Kerry is quite right when he counsels from Jerusalem on Israel not being able to afford the luxury of dwelling on distractions. Right now, however, Kerry’s shoot-for-the-stars negotiations with Abbas are serving as the most dangerous distraction of all. 



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