Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin addresses BICOM on Israel’s strategic challenges

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, Director of the Institute for National Security Studies and former head of IDF Military Intelligence, addressed BICOM’s annual dinner on Thursday 31 October, speaking on Israel’s situation in the region.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Yadlin gave an optimistic assessment of the regional picture despite the challenges Israel faces. He described Iran as the only existential threat facing Israel and laid out the terms under which Israel should accept a diplomatic solution. With regard to the Palestinian issue, he argued that Israel should have a ‘plan B’ of fixing its borders with a Palestinian state in co-operation with the international community, if the Palestinian reject a reasonable agreement.

The following is an extended summary of his remarks.

Optimistic regional picture

Israel is an island of stability in an unstable Middle East, the fighting between various forces does not include Israel. Forty years on from the Yom Kippur War, Israel has not faced a major war.

The Arab Spring is another reason for optimism, despite the many threats it brings. The liberal rights Israel believes in are the same as those demanded by the Arab publics, even if they have not been achieved yet. If those values prevail it will be good for Israel, since democracies do not go to war with one another.

A further opportunity is the weakening of the radical axis which runs from Tehran to Damascus, to Hezbollah in Beirut, and Hamas in Gaza. This axis is broken, with Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, now considered an enemy by millions of Arabs for his support of Assad.

Syria’s formidable army is now diminished with its arms turned inward against Syrian rebels. As long as Assad’s army remains loyal, and Russia continues to support from the outside, Assad may survive much longer than many expected. But even if he survives, his army will not be the same threat to Israel, and the northern threat against Israel is weakened.

The revolution in Egypt, which was hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, is now back on track, with a much better combination from Israel’s point of view, of a military which is fighting terror in the Sinai and a public which refused to follow the path of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is a problem that Israel must solve for the sake of its children, but this is not the core problem of the region. Even if Israeli and Palestinian leaders reach an agreement, this will not improve the situation in many other areas.

Sanctions against Iran are finally biting sufficiently to change Iranian behaviour. The tough sanctions regime led by the Europeans and the US Congress have hit the energy and financial sectors. For the first time the Iranians are coming to negotiations not to buy time but to move quickly to lift the sanctions.

Israel cannot achieve complete victory against all its enemies. Its defence doctrine is based on having very strong deterrence, which may not defer war forever, but will at least postpose it sufficiently for Israel to build its society until the next round. Against received wisdom, Israel succeeded in establishing deterrence even against non-state terrorist actors.

Israel succeeded in defeating Palestinian terrorism in the West Bank. With regard to Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel has not destroyed their capabilities but has managed to deter them, by hitting them hard, and as a result of those actors becoming responsible for governing in their respective territories.

Iran’s nuclear programme

Iran poses the only existential threat to Israel, through the marriage of a very radical regime with a very radical weapon. There are two misunderstandings about the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran has decided to get nuclear weapons, but their strategy is not to go as fast as possible but as safely as possible. They are developing their programme at a pace slow enough that no one will have enough provocation to act against it. They act as much as possible under the umbrella of legitimacy, as signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). They have built a very robust programme, with increasing centrifuges, nuclear sites, and numerous routes to a bomb – including both uranium and plutonium options. They act under the cover of a civilian programme but also have covert military programme.

Their aim is to be on the threshold of getting the bomb. In the last three years they have reduced the breakout time from two years to three months. However, they want to be able to do it in two weeks; in a time shorter than the international community can find out and decide to act. The Iranians feel they are not there yet, which is why they are not going for the bomb now.

The Iranian economy is in bad shape. Seventy per cent of Iranians were born after the Shah was expelled, and they do not blame foreign imperialists for the condition of the country, but the Islamic revolution. They want change, and for this reason chose Rouhani. He is not a reformist – the reformists are in jail or under house arrest – but the Iranian public decided that he was the one who could fix the economy. This is why he came with his charm offensive and is ready to do business. As a negotiator he will try to lift the sanctions with the minimum price.

Israel should not oppose an agreement or negotiations, which are fruit of the sanctions Israel pushed for, but also we should not have any illusions. It is important to be precise about the parameters of the agreement and process for negotiations. It cannot be open ended and allow Iran more time to build centrifuges. The sanctions should not be lifted until the Iranians give something of substance and an acceptable deal is reached.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s demand that Iran give up all enrichment is in line with the UN Security Council resolution, but we have to be realistic. The Iranians will not accept that. A deal that Israel can live with will be one that takes Iran back to being two or three years from a bomb. The Iranians must be willing to close the Fordow enrichment plant; not complete the Arak facility (which could produce weapons grade plutonium); limit the number of centrifuges; ship out stockpiles of enriched uranium; sign the additional protocol allowing much better inspections; and close the files on its military nuclear research.

An acceptable deal is one which is better than two other options we may face next year – either Iran with a bomb, or bombing Iran – neither of which are recommended. But though we want a deal, but it cannot be a deal that will allow Iran a bomb the minute it breaks the deal.

Israeli-Palestinian peace process

The basic parameters of a deal are known. Each side has to do three things. Israel needs to recognise the two-state solution; accept that the solution will be around 1967 borders plus swaps to incorporate major settlement blocks; and accept some Palestinian presence in Jerusalem. The Palestinians have to recognise Israel as homeland of Jewish people and that the agreement will end any further claims; meet Israel’s justified security concerns; and accept the right of return will be only to the Palestinian state.

It is not clear that the leaders can convince their publics to accept this deal, but there are reasons why there is a chance for success. The US wants an agreement very much, with the Secretary of State pushing very hard. Furthermore, the US are less dependent on Arab states for oil than before, and can therefore put more pressure on them, as well as Israel.

Hamas is weaker than before because of the loss of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the weakening of its alliance with Iran due to Hamas’s failure to support Assad in Syria.

There is a lot of overlapping interest between Israel and the Sunni Arab world, in particular shared concerns between Israel, and the Gulf states over Iran, creating an incentive for the Arab states to support the process.

In Israel the last election showed the public going to the centre, rather than to the right. There is a majority in the Knesset for an agreement if the Prime Minister decides he wants peace. Some members of the coalition will leave but there are others waiting in the centre to support an agreement.

Whilst the parties have agreed to nine months of talks, the most important are the last three months. The Palestinians may accept an interim agreement – which they are currently rejecting – if the principle of the final agreement will be guaranteed for them in the long run or if the Americans will make a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition.

Israel needs a plan B in case there is no agreement. The Palestinians have alternative plans, firstly to sue Israel in every possible diplomatic forum, and secondly to go for a one-state solution. Israel’s plan B must be to shape its borders by itself, in cooperation with the international community. This can be done only after Israel makes an honest and fair proposal, which is rejected by the Palestinians.

The goal is an Israeli state which is Jewish, democratic, secure and based on justice, and this is achievable.

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