Coronavirus won’t turn the Middle East all warm and fuzzy – analysis

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Coronavirus or not, lock-down or not, social distancing or not, the IDF on Sunday “welcomed” hundreds of new Golani and Givati recruits at the Army Induction Base at Tel Hashomer as the army’s large March induction hit full-speed. The routine might have been different this time – less friends and family members on hand for the emotional send-off, more distance between the inductees, four different centers set up to spread out the process, doctors on hand to screen for those showing signs of the infection – but the process went on. The induction, unlike school, work, theater and synagogue, was not cancelled or postponed because of the plague. This is one thing the country cannot postpone – it doesn’t have that luxury. Regardless of whether or not there is a pandemic, Israel still has extremely significant defense and strategic challenges, and that the March induction is going on as planned is a signal that it realizes that coronavirus has not made Israel’s neighborhood any safer. At least not yet. “The coronavirus is not necessarily moderating the behavior of the various actors in the Middle East,” said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS), warning that the country should not fall into complacency. “We shouldn’t think that the people on the other side of our borders will act nicely now because of the virus,” he said. “We should not think that because they too have corona, their hatred toward us has diminished.” Speaking specifically about Iran, the Mideast country hardest hit by the virus where nearly 1,600 people – including some senior officials – have died, Inbar asked, “Do you think think the people in the al-Quds force are dealing with corona, or how to increase Iran’s influence in the region?” In a position paper last week for his think tank, Inbar wrote: “The coronavirus that hit our region has not lessened the motivation of our enemies to harm the Jewish state. The anti-Jewish fanaticism only increased with the spreading of conspiracy theories that the Jews are responsible for the virus.’ And in his view, this is not limited to the Iranians. In a particular stark scenario, Inbar said that Israel is “liable to see attacks by suicide bombers who themselves are sick with corona.” In the past, he said, Palestinian terrorist organizations have used people to attack Israel who are in distress, be it physical or financial distress. The virus will now enlarge that pool. And the pool is being made larger at a time when Israel is now requiring Palestinian laborers in Israel to sleep in the country to limit their exposure to the virus in the West bank, and at a time when the Shin Ben (Israel Security Agency) – responsible for tracking potential security risks – is also now busy as well keeping tabs on Israelis infected by the disease, to make sure they don’t infect others. “Israel security has certainly been hurt by the plague,” he wrote, adding that the IDF faces a chronic manpower shortage that is being made worse now because of the number of soldiers either sick with the virus or in isolation because of it. “Granted, the virus hits the elderly harder, but it is not clear how much it will harm the IDF’s ability to act quickly now and for an extended period. There are examples in history where armies disintegrated following plagues.” Inbar’s colleague at JISS, Eran Lerman, a former deputy head of the National Security Council, also cautioned against thinking that Israel can take its eye off the Iranian ball because of the extent of the virus there. “The region remains quite volatile, specifically the Iranian conduct, and the depth of the coronavirus crisis in Iran does not necessarily lend itself to optimistic assumptions about a solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis.” And while it is probably true that just as the virus is sucking much of Israel’s energy and attention, it is probably doing the same in Iran as well, Lerman said he has not heard a “word about any willingness on the part of the Iranians to relent” regarding their nuclear program. Even as Israel battles COVID-19, he said, “we need to take into account that the Iranian nuclear issue remains a live wire,” and that it is an issue that “needs to be the top focus of our attention.” While some assume that the extent of the crisis in Iran may prod the Iranians into moderating their behavior as a way of getting international help to deal with the crisis, Lerman said that “it may go the other way around, and they may take provocative acts in an attempt to force the international community to pay attention to their misery. That is the way they know how to gain attention. They might say, ‘We are dying, you will also die unless you give us the money to buy whatever we need to deal with the pandemic’.” Lerman said that Israel must also now prepare for a worst-case scenario in America, whereby the crisis will be prolonged and hurtle the US into a “profound crisis.” Israel, which annually receives $3.8 billion in military aid with the US as part of a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding signed with the Obama Administration, must prepare for a situation where the US – as a result of what is likely to be the tremendous cost of the crisis – might adjust priorities. “The implication for Israel may be budgetary,” he said. “We have to prepare, meaning that we have to keep an iron ration, money in the safe, to provide a significant capacity to take care of ourselves if necessary.” In other words, Lerman said Israel must be prepared – in order to cope with the coronavirus and retain its defensive capabilities at the level needed – to tap into the massive foreign reserves that it has built up over the years, and which at the end of December stood at a record $126 billion dollars. “In the face of a high level of political and economic uncertainty about the future of the United States,” he wrote in a JISS position paper that came out Friday, “it is necessary to preserve and conserve resources (dollars) to fund the IDF’s necessary equipment acquisitions for a period of years, even under the circumstance (unlikely, though today not completely impossible) of  a change in the current congressional support.”

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