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Supplying Ukraine With Weapons Stored in Israel Underscores Washington’s Priorities

U.S. decision may signal to Israel that the administration has put Iran on the backburner

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Patriot missile systems deployed in Haifa during the Second Lebanon War.
Patriot missile systems deployed in Haifa during the Second Lebanon War.Credit: Ancho Gosh
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The emergency stockpiles the U.S military keeps in Israel since the 1990s provide an important foundation, both symbolically and practically, to the bilateral relations between the countries. Keeping military equipment and munitions here is meant to serve the Americans should the day come, but it also carries a message to Israel, which the Bush and Obama administrations chose to emphasize following the Second Lebanon War.

On the one hand, the U.S. is making sure that Israel won’t be left without ammunition and vital replacement parts in case of an intensive war (a concern that arose late in the 2006 war and at the end of the 2014 operation in the Gaza Strip.) On the other hand, it’s a way to tighten military coordination between the countries. Israel could hardly expect such American aid if it decides, for instance, to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities without clearing it first with Washington.

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It is against this backdrop that the unusual step reported on Wednesday by the New York Times stands out. According to the newspaper, the U.S. opened its emergency stores a few months ago, with the agreement of the previous government, to ship hundreds of thousands of artillery shells to Ukraine, for its defense against the Russian invasion. Israel’s security establishment confirms the report, but claims that the American decision reflects one central issue: Ukraine’s urgent need of massive supplies of weapons and ammunition, in light of the ongoing war. This need comes into sharper relief due to Israel’s refusal to provide Ukraine with offensive weaponry, despite Kyiv’s pleas and Washington’s expectations. The current government, like its predecessor, is reluctant to do so for fear of incurring Moscow’s ire.

And yet, the overall context must be considered. Israel has begun once again to speak of the possibility of unilaterally attacking Iranian nuclear sites. Former PM Naftali Bennett boasted that he placed the IDF back on an attack preparation track. Outgoing Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi detailed Israel's improved capabilities in his retirement interviews, and incoming PM Benjamin Netanyahu has spent much time speaking about the nuclear threat (and threatening Tehran) in his recent speeches. The American decision to open the stockpiles indicates the administration’s priorities: Ukraine first, and other fronts later. And at least indirectly, it also signals that the U.S. sees no urgent need to arm Israel for immediate war, which could break out along the Syrian and Lebanese borders if Israel were to bomb Iran.

Israel's incoming military chief Herzi Halevi (L) and his outgoing counterpart Aviv Kochavi (R), pose for a picture as the latter leaves following an honour guard ceremony in Tel Aviv, on January 16, 2023. - Halevi was appointed Israel's new military chief of staff in a ceremony hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN - AFP

Israel has no carte blanche from Washington to attack Iran. On top of that, the Americans and Europeans don’t really see the urgency in the matter. Even Israel’s friends in the West admit that Iran has made significant advancement recently toward production capacities of a nuclear bomb (it currently has enough uranium to manufacture four bombs, albeit at lower enrichment levels, of 20 and 60 percent, rather than the 90 percent enrichment required for weaponry purposes.) However, they point out that there is currently no real danger of signing a new nuclear deal, which Israeli governments have warned against, for two reasons: The brutal and murderous suppression of the hijab protests in Iran, and Tehran supplying Russia with hundreds of drones. Under these circumstances, neither the Biden administration nor the Europeans have much interest in returning to the deal.

Flashpoint: Ramadan on Temple Mount

In the 18 days of the new year, 17 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank. This casualty rate is more than double that of last year. New Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy, who chose the West Bank as the site of his first tour in his new role, did not hear very optimistic forecasts from Central Command, the IDF’s Intelligence Branch, and the Shin Bet.

Last March a terror wave broke out in the West Bank and within the Green Line, and as it has not subsided it has come to be treated as a chronic phenomenon, which will be hard to overcome. The number of terror attack warnings remains quite high. Intelligence personnel note that the long series of attacks reflects mostly ‘lone wolf’ actions, alongside a small number of hierarchical terrorist enterprises. On the other hand, the Palestinian public at large hardly takes part in the violence, and large-scale demonstrations are a rare sight these days.

The performance of the Palestinian Authority security organizations in the areas south of Nablus is considered absolutely reasonable. The problem remains Nablus, and more so Jenin, two cities which the PA fears to even send forces, let alone directly clash with the local organizations. A small but significant number of those carrying out attacks come from the PA security forces. A terrorist who fired twice at an IDF force and an Israeli bus north of Hebron and was killed on Tuesday, was a security forces member.

Tensions at the Temple Mount is at the top of the agenda for the new Israeli governmentCredit: Photo: Ohad Zwigenberg / Artwork: Anastasia Shub

The security establishment marked the Temple Mount, and mostly the start of Ramadan in late March, as the time and place where the next outburst in the Palestinian arena might occur. Tuesday saw an irregular incident on the Mount, when an Israeli policeman forcefully blocked the entourage of the Jordanian ambassador, as the latter was attempting to go up to al-Aqsa. The Police claimed that the visit was uncoordinated and suspected it of being an intentional Jordanian provocation. Under Netanyahu, relations between the countries are shaky and particularly sensitive to any escalation, due to the Prime Minister’s murky history with King Abdallah.

Other than that, professional security figures in Israel are also troubled by disputes between outposts and Palestinian villages, attacks on mosques or Palestinian residents by extremist settlers, and also by the possible impact of steps the new government may take, such as the legalizing of illegal outposts or the destruction of Palestinian construction in area C, which is under complete Israeli control.

Sharon Halevi, right, watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, second right, promote her husband, the new Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi to the rank of Lieutenant-General in Jerusalem, January 16, 2023Credit: POOL/ REUTERS

The Defense Ministry has yet to agree on the full division of powers between Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and the new minister in his ministry, Bezalel Smotrich. The impression in the IDF is that Smotrich is here to work – and to rapidly advance his combative agenda for the territories, once he’s done staffing the dozens of positions he received under the coalition agreement.

The Movement for Ethics and the “Commanders for Israel’s Security” forum wrote in this regard to the Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara. The two movements claim that articles in the coalition agreement between Likud and the Reigious Zionism list are illegal. They say that the transfer of responsibility on the appointment of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, and of the head of the Civil Administration in the West Bank to Smotrich, is contrary to the Basic Law on the Government, which states that any additional minister appointed in the Defense Ministry is to be subject to the Defense Minister. The agreement, they say, in effect removes the overall authority and responsibility of the Defense Minister over what happens in the territories.

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