Israel weighs strategic implications of coronavirus crisis

Israeli intelligence is unsure whether the pandemic will ease tensions with neighboring countries or do just the opposite.

al-monitor A man wearing a protective face mask holds an Israeli flag during a demonstration in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, Israel, April 19, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Corinna Kern.
Ben Caspit

Ben Caspit


Topics covered

palestinian-israeli conflict, israeli intelligence, israeli security, pandemic, covid-19, coronavirus

Apr 24, 2020

The Military Intelligence Directorate of the Israel Defense Forces has tasked a special team with updating the national intelligence assessment presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other decision-makers in mid-January. The decision was prompted by the novel coronavirus crisis that has sent shockwaves across the Middle East. The annual intelligence assessment attempts to analyze and forecast the strategic threats facing the country on all fronts. With the COVID-19 epidemic having spread throughout the region (barring a few relatively unaffected pockets such as Yemen), the crisis is clearly no longer only health and socioeconomic in nature. It has spilled over into the military-defense arena.

Israel is evidently the only state in the world whose security and intelligence services are playing a significant role in the effort to eradicate the virus. Mossad chief Yossi Cohen heads a multi-agency team coordinating emergency acquisition efforts for respirators, swabs, protective equipment and more around the world.

At the Sheba Medical Center, the largest such facility in the Middle East, a specially created nerve center amasses, reviews and analyzes all the information about the virus published around the world. It is staffed by some 400 IDF intelligence experts and analysts working around the clock under the command of the Intelligence Directorate’s technological branch. They study the information pouring in and the cumulative expertise compiled around the globe, analyze and integrate it and translate it into strategy papers that serve the decision-makers.

The directorate’s most prestigious units have also been mobilized at their highest capacity to carry out additional missions. The elite Sayeret Matkal commando force has been mobilized for the nationwide coronavirus testing effort, taking advantage of its skills and flexibility for the unusual mission. The legendary signal intelligence Unit 8200 has been roped in to help monitor and control the tens of thousands of tests conducted each week. The Military Intelligence Directorate's technological units have developed a ventilator in compliance with medical parameters and requirements. It has already manufactured 200 units and an additional 1,000 are on the way. The military tech department has also come up with numerous gadgets, such as monitors for remote control operations of COVID-19 wards including ventilators, sophisticated personal protection equipment and designated ambulances.

At the same time, the directorate continues its routine tasks of intelligence collection, guided by the assumption that the coronavirus crisis will last through 2021. The short and mid-term effects of the crisis on Israel’s strategic profile, on the threats it faces and on the determination of its enemies are all unknown, and the military intelligence team is working to determine these factors.

On April 23, Channel 13 News correspondent Barak Ravid reported that the Mossad director put the number of those infected in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Iran at far higher counts than previously reported. According to Cohen, the official reports are fraudulent and the real damage is far greater than the numbers published. Military intelligence analysts are trying to understand how all this could affect Israel’s strategic profile.

The intelligence directorate is considering the likelihood of three scenarios. The first, dubbed the “inertia option,” predicts that the epidemic will not affect the forces arrayed against Israel. The second scenario foresees the disease having a chilling effect, lowering the threat level and reducing investment in fighting Israel for a period. The third scenario foresees the opposite — that rather than a calming effect on Israel’s enemies, the epidemic will egg them on. This possibility was supported by an unusually daring April 17 operation by a Hezbollah team that cut through the Lebanon border fence with Israel at three different places under the nose of the IDF forces stationed there. The operation was a rare risk by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah that could have easily set off a military confrontation with Israel and military intelligence analysts believe it was made possible by the confusion of the coronavirus crisis.

Still, at this stage, according to numerous intelligence officials, the disease seems to be having a calming effect on the Israeli-Palestinian arena. The Islamic Jihad organization is the exception to the rule, carrying on with its rogue activity designed to destabilize the arena. Hamas and Israel are holding contacts on a prisoner-exchange deal, which could not have occurred absent the sense of urgency created by the epidemic. As part of this deal, Hamas is demanding 100 respirators from Israel for COVID-19 patients. Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been cooperating at the highest levels in the fight against the virus and its spread. As strange as it sounds, the cooperation is drawing the sides closer to a certain extent. The understanding that the virus does not recognize borders, nationalities or religions has lowered the flames of the conflict and led to a surprising degree of cooperation.

As for other threats, especially from Hezbollah and Iran, the novel coronavirus epidemic plays a less significant role. Military intelligence has not identified any reason to think the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Nasrallah see the struggle against Israel as any less than a strategic keystone. The intelligence indicates a decline in the scope of Iran’s budgetary allocations for the fight against Israel and for the exportation of the Islamic revolution, but no corresponding decline has been detected in focus, and the budgetary shortfall is perceived as reversible.

The global oil price crash and ongoing international sanctions present Iran with a cruel economic dilemma and dwindling coffers, which affect resource allocations but for now, at least, does not halt the effort itself.

Iran is currently using some of its $35 billion monetary reserves. Israeli intelligence believes the Iranians will be unable to hit their annual economic targets in terms of oil revenues ($60 billion), pointing out that Iran’s annual budget is the lowest it has been in the past decade. Iran, according to the assessment, is trying to struggle through until the end of the year, placing hopes on the US presidential elections in November. The ayatollahs are praying for President Donald Trump’s downfall in the hopes that his successor will be more amenable to lifting some of the economic sanctions stifling their country.

Israel is concerned about the empathy that Western European countries may feel toward Iran, with the rapid spread of the disease there, that might lead them to ease sanctions. Senior intelligence officials are in close touch with the White House and key European capitals on this issue. Meanwhile, Israel has identified signs that Iran is emerging from the crippling shock of the US killing of Gen. Qasem Soleimani on Jan. 3. Tehran has divided his tasks and authority among various officials, including Nasrallah himself, who has stepped forward to fill the vacuum.

The IDF’s intelligence branches are under no illusion: The pandemic will not end the conflict in the Middle East, but it may affect the pace of its escalation and the level of the flames. To what extent is what Israel is now trying to gauge.

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