How Israel’s Conflict With Iran Will Be Different in 2020

The rumors about the death of “the war between the wars” were greatly exaggerated. It didn’t die, it just changed form.

Iran’s attempts to respond on the northern front to Israeli attacks and the massive fire by Syria’s air defense systems with every bombing have apparently spurred the Israel Defense Forces to alter its mode of operation. Accordingly, the frequency of attacks seems to have declined. But the basic reasons for the friction between the two sides – Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily in Syria, its arms smuggling into Lebanon and Israel’s attempts to halt both these things – haven’t changed. The friction can be expected to continue.

At the start of this week’s cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned once again that Israel will respond to any aggression by Iran and Hezbollah. Netanyahu quoted a senior general in the Revolutionary Guards who threatened that Iran would destroy Tel Aviv with rocket fire from Lebanon. “If Hezbollah dares to attack Israel, it and Lebanon, which allows attacks from its territory against us, will pay a very heavy price,” the prime minister said. A few days earlier, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett threatened to turn Syria into “Iran’s Vietnam.”

Top politicians and their advisers have been speaking even more bluntly – surprisingly, also in meetings with colleagues from abroad; sometimes it's enough to make their interlocutor flinch. In recent months, cabinet members have gotten used to hearing Netanyahu speak in apocalyptic terms whenever he talks about his favorite strategic issue, Iran. His associates are talking about an Iranian effort to deploy a ring of fire around Israel – to deploy missiles and rockets that would threaten all of Israel on several fronts: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Gaza. They add that a resumption of the attempt to build production lines for precision weapons in Lebanon would be sufficient reason to go to war.

Bennett, who has eased the pace of his pronouncements after receiving pushback from the IDF, still believes in an aggressive stance and in taking the initiative in the north. For him, waiting and containment aren’t an option. Iran is sensitive to losses of its men. The defense minister believes that the foreign military forces and militias can be kept out of Syria via a well-managed move.

This week the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security published a forecast for the coming year. The institute, where Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, is a top member, predicts that “Iran will continue to strip the JCPOA [the nuclear agreement] of any content, and will escalate its enrichment of uranium, perhaps even dramatically so. Washington’s campaign of ‘maximum pressure’ (economic sanctions) will continue to drain Iran’s economy, posing significant challenges to the ayatollahs.”

What are the implications for Israel? “High probability of more Iranian aggression, and even broader conflict with Israel if, in the latter half of 2020, Iran ramps up uranium enrichment. Israel must be ready to tackle Iran on its own.” The forecast for northern Israel is no rosier: “Israel must be ready for escalation, including preemptive warfare" with Hezbollah.