INSS 15th Annual International Conference: a time for critical decisions

In early February, the traditional Annual International Conference was held at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Israel. This event is of great interest to researchers of the Middle East, primarily due to the fact that many of the ideas voiced at the Conference venues are subsequently reflected in Israeli foreign and domestic policy. It must be assumed that this case will not be an exception.

Let us briefly analyze the positions presented during the event, and also compare their general message with the materials of the Conference held a year ago.

  1. Participants

The first thing that catches your eye is the changed geography of participants. So, if representatives of most regions where Israel has long-term political interests (EU countries, countries of Southeast Asia, Russia, the USA, the Persian Gulf) were, in fact, involved in the events of the XIV Conference, then the composition of participants in 2022 turned out to be much narrower: The 15th meeting was attended mainly by American and Israeli experts.

Moreover, there was a serious narrowing of specializations. Thus, the “backbone” of speakers in 2022 consisted of high military ranks (both retired and current), diplomats and employees of government think tanks (the latter, however, were represented mainly by INSS employees). This change is also quite noticeable – especially against the background of the fact that at the last meeting there were quite a lot of Knesset deputies, foreign journalists, independent political scientists, business representatives, etc.

Of course, there was a place at the Conference for participants not from the Israeli–American tandem. For example, as in the past year, the meeting was attended by the President of the Emirates Policy Center (EPC), Dr. Ebtesam Al Ketbi, who presented the GCC collective position on the future of the Nuclear Deal within the framework of the thematic workshop (more on this will be discussed later). If we take into account that the EPC, although it positions itself as an independent think tank, actually conducts research in the interests of the UAE government (and also provides advice to top officials), it becomes clear which of the participants in the Abraham Accords Israel plans to rely on in growing divisions within the GCC.

It is also necessary to note the participation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain for political affairs, Abdullah bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa, but his invitation should be regarded rather as a symbolic gesture on the part of Tel Aviv: Dr. Al-Khalifa limited himself to a welcoming speech, within which he tried to broadcast the most neutral vision of the regional situation.

Of course, such an imbalance among the speakers can be attributed to the unfavorable epidemiological situation. However, given that the event was held entirely in a virtual format (while in 2021 a combined format was used), the version of the impossibility of ensuring attendance does not hold water.

  1. Bennett, Lapid, Gantz: three speeches, one message

An important distinguishing feature of the XV INSS Conference can be considered the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (in fact, all the key figures of the new Israeli government) took part in its workshops.

Of course, Bennett and Lapid presented their positions a year ago, within the framework of the XIV Conference, but they spoke as representatives of their parties (Yamina and Yesh Atid, respectively) and did not stand out so much from other Israeli political figures.

The 2022 conference has become a kind of “public platform” for the three high-ranking politicians, and the dialogue with leading experts has become an opportunity to demonstrate that the current leaders of the country are much more concerned about national security issues than their predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu.

All three government speeches can be reduced to one key message: Israel is ready to defend its interests tough. And to do this both using diplomatic means (for example, by expanding the Abraham Accords or seeking a compromise with the Palestinian forces), and more radical ways (most likely, pre-emptive strikes and special operations on the territory of neighboring countries were implied). It can be assumed that in the current conditions, Israel is likely to rely on non-diplomatic tools – mainly because the support for the Abraham Accords from external players (first of all, the United States) has significantly decreased after D. Trump left the presidency.

Such a position, by the way, is very much at odds with the vision of Washington, which expects Tel Aviv to take a more balanced approach to resolving regional crises (this, in particular, was pointed out by the current US Ambassador to Israel, Thomas R. Neides).

  1. Key topics of the meeting: from issues of the world order to our own problems

If we talk about the program of events, it has also undergone some changes in comparison with 2021. In particular, much less attention has been paid to global security issues – for example, issues related to the Syrian crisis (primarily its migration aspect) have practically disappeared from the agenda, as well as the terrorist threat and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Less attention was also paid to the United States in 2022. During the entire period of the Conference, the White House appeared on the agenda only twice (within the topics of “US-China rivalry” and “withdrawal from the Middle East”), while Washington’s domestic policy was not paid attention at all.

If we talk about the problems of the region, the topics of the workshops in 2022 fully reflected the key “pain points” of the country: the Lebanese crisis, the prospects for the Iranian-Israeli conflict, the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli confrontation (the last two can be classified as “eternal for Israel”), etc. In addition, the threats associated with climate change have become very relevant for Israel – however, the position of the experts in this workshop completely repeated the theses that were presented by the country at the Glasgow summit in 2021.

However, on the agenda of the Conference, one can also meet atypical, at first glance, questions. So, in 2022, within the framework of the Conference, a separate workshop was allocated to discuss the current situation around Ukraine. It is noteworthy that only Israeli speakers were invited to participate in it (while the other thematic panels, where the interests of Tel Aviv and Washington intersected, featured experts from both countries). In this case, it should be noted that Israel presented a rather comprehensive and balanced position, not limited to the issue of freezing arms supplies to Ukraine.

  1. Israel: three key threats

During the Conference, a fairly comprehensive vision of the regional situation was presented with naming of a significant number of threats. However, most often the speakers focused on three problems – the protracted conflict with Iran, the aggravation of Palestinian-Israeli relations and threats to internal security (the conflict over the formation of the government, the surge of anti-Semitism, the growth of social tension, etc.).

Can the Iranian threat be considered a key one for Israel, from the point of view of the Israelis themselves? In general, yes. In 2022, this topic, in fact, sounded within the framework of every workshop (and each time received a fairly unambiguous assessment). The Iranian theme was able to push even the theme of the May “missile war” into the background and, on the whole, make the “Palestinian case” less public. However, taking into account the fact that the topic of Palestine quite often sounded allegorical (or between the lines), the final mention gap will be somewhat reduced.

In general, as many Israeli experts noted, Israel views the three key issues as a kind of “set of challenges” on the basis of which the State’s security policy will be built in 2022.

  1. Israel-Iran: the conflict escalates

Let us dwell on the most publicized “danger” for Israel. Thus, Israeli experts characterize the level of threat from Tehran as “traditionally high” and point to a trend towards a gradual transition to a phase of open confrontation between the two powers. The most likely “battlefield” is cyberspace, where Tehran has significantly increased its presence in recent years. Military officials do not exclude that 2022 will be the beginning of a new stage in the cyber arms race in the Middle East, where Iran and Israel will play a key role.

However, within the framework of the review of the Iranian-Israeli confrontation, there was a place for more traditional topics. In particular, the Israeli side expressed hope for the failure of the project to revive the “Nuclear Deal” with Iran (emphasizing that Tehran’s access to nuclear technology would launch a new chain of liquidations of participants in the Iranian “nuclear project”), and also criticized the project of the WMD-free Zone in the Middle East.

It is noteworthy that the public criticism of the WMD-free Zone project was also broadcast by Prime Minister N. Bennett, which already casts doubt on the possibility of Israel’s participation in the NPT Review Conferences.

  1. Interior setting: Netanyahu taboo and source of all problems

As noted above, considerable attention was paid to the problems of internal security. In the context of this bloc, the use of the term “domestic terrorism” by Israeli experts in relation to opponents of the current government (in fact, to the most ardent supporters of B. Netanyahu) became quite remarkable – before that, more streamlined concepts were used in the media and public speeches. In addition, during the two days of the conference, the name of the former Prime Minister of Israel was practically not mentioned (and in the speeches of the members of the government did not sound at all) – instead, neutral and generalized terms were used (“predecessor”, “former leader”, etc.).

The change in rhetoric in itself, coupled with the low mention of the “omnipotent Bibi” in vain, may indirectly indicate that Netanyahu was defeated in the media struggle – although, to be honest, he managed to play on disagreements between members of the coalition government and promote the concept of “Before It was better”.

  1. Israel and the Persian Gulf: points of contact and problems

In the context of Washington’s gradual distancing from the Middle East problems, Israel openly expresses its readiness to assume the role of the guarantor of the security system in the Middle East – and this alignment suits the United States quite well (especially considering that the “GCC + Israel” format will most likely become the basis of the new security system in the region). Support for the shift of the center of the system towards the Arabian Peninsula is also expressed in Abu Dhabi.

However, this transition risks exposing previously hidden problems in relations between the GCC and Israel. Of course, Israel’s rhetoric towards the GCC has become warmer than in 2021, but there is also some disappointment. The “Abraham Accords” were signed about 1.5 years ago, and the Gulf states (with the exception of the UAE and Bahrain) have not expressed their readiness to normalize relations with Israel yet. Moreover, there are states in GCC criticizing the rapprochement (for example, Kuwait).

Tel Aviv is not very happy with this alignment (as well as the consultations launched by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to reduce confrontation with Iran) and, most likely, the country will soon switch to targeted cooperation with the participants of the Abraham Accords, while other members of the Council will be in the background. In the context of the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, such a shift in the balance of power will inevitably have a negative impact on cooperation within the GCC and complicate the building of a new security system.

Summary

There is no doubt that the new Israeli government is determined. Even the slogan of the XV conference (“Time for critical decisions”) transparently hints that it is not worth expecting concessions from the Israeli “hawks” in the current conditions. Moreover, key figures in Israeli politics either do not accept the concept of “red lines” or consider them to have been crossed long ago.

However, it is also not necessary to exaggerate unnecessarily and perceive what is happening as a public “saber-rattling”. The postulates voiced at the Conference are most likely to be seriously weighed and adjusted as part of the preparation of the annual INSS analytical report “Strategic Survay for Israel” – and already in an adjusted form integrated into the national political strategy. However, even in this case, it is highly doubtful that the “Iranian threat” factor will receive less coverage.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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