Herzliya Conference, Day One: A comfortable Israel, surrounded by threats

Former prime minister and soon to be former Defense Minister Ehud Barak once controversially called Israel a “villa in the jungle.” This week, as Barak leaves the helm of the Defense Ministry after six years, some security experts suggested that those words are ringing true.

At least that’s what some of the analysts at this year’s Herzliya Conference would have you believe. On Monday, the first day of Israel’s premiere security policy conference, experts described Israel as a country flourishing within – albeit with caveats – but beset with threats on all sides.

The day’s first seven hours were dedicated to gaming out what Syria would look like in September, and how its makeup would affect the rest of the Middle East. The short story: Iran and Israel draw ever closer to conflict as Syria splits into three cantons. One of them – maybe satirically – is called Jihadistan.

The rest of the day’s sessions, though, made clear that today’s threats deserve no less attention. Monday’s keynote speaker, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, took a figurative trip around Israel’s borders, explaining how each one may be on the brink of conflict.

With Egypt and Lebanon both unstable, and Syria in chaos, the chances of conventional war are very low, he said. But chances of a terror attack could shoot up.

“Not a week goes by, not to say hardly a day, when I don’t have to deal with an issue that you didn’t even hear about, that could have resulted in a strategic threat,” he told the conference.

According to Gantz, Israel is “liable to be the next challenge” of Syrian Islamist groups now fighting Assad.

Lebanon has “the same instability that was there all along,” and Hezbollah has been stockpiling weapons that can reach Israel’s population centers.

In Egypt, the Sinai “is fertile ground for activities against us,” while Gaza “has always been there and always will” – though Gantz praised the IDF’s achievements in November’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. And Jordan is quiet – for now.

Coupled with those threats, warned Maj. Gen. (res.) Danny Rothschild, is a shrinking U.S. presence in the Middle East, which he said would hurt Israel’s interests. As the U.S., Israel’s strongest ally, pivots its foreign policy toward Asia and grows increasingly reluctant to intervene in regional conflicts here, Rothschild said, “Israel needs to emphasize its value to the U.S., especially as voices are rising in the U.S. questioning Israel’s value as a strategic ally.”

Israel needs to be more proactive in the region, “even in a quiet way,” said Rothschild, who directs the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center, which put on the conference.

The good news for Israel, it seems, is that most of its citizens don’t seem too worried about the threats that may be encroaching on them. Israeli Jews place a relatively high level of trust in the military, said University of Haifa political science professor Gabriel Ben-Dor. They’re not worried about conventional war, and there’s been a huge drop recently in fears of a terror attack.

Meanwhile, said IDC Provost Rafi Melnick, the country’s economy is booming.

What could damage the villa from within? If coalition negotiations, wrapping up this week, don’t produce a stable government that deals with these threats.

“There needs to be a government that can work together,” said IDC President Uriel Reichman, “and is not just made up of political rivals who don’t cooperate.”

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