On 20 March 2017 BICOM hosted a briefing with Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon is a former IDF Chief of Staff, and served as Israel’s Defence Minister from 2013 to 2016 until disagreements with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led to his resignation. Ya’alon has announced the formation of a new political party and his intention to run for Prime Minister. He is likely to have a major role in determining the composition of the next government in Israel. In this briefing he discusses the security challenges facing Israel and the wider region and the prospects for resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below is an edited transcript.
The Middle East is going through the greatest crisis since the days of Muhammad. We’ve seen the Arab Spring become the Islamic Winter. We have witnessed ongoing internal conflicts, including the Syrian civil war, which has produced more than half a million casualties and has resulted in the majority of the Syrian population becoming refugees, some within the country, others in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Europe.
I don’t see an end to this crisis. There will be chronic instability for a long period of time. I don’t see stable transition from the tyrannical regimes which have been removed. I don’t see a return of the old ideologies of Nasserism and Pan-Arabism. And those who believe that ‘Islam is the solution’ are frustrated.
Three radical Islamist movements
What we see today is a conflict between three different radical Islamist movements each seeking hegemony in the Middle East and beyond.
First, there is the Iranian ideology that seeks to export the “Islamic revolution”. They have reason to feel they have been successful so far. As well as Tehran, the Iranian regime is dominant in Baghdad through the Shi’a government, in Damascus by supporting President Bashar al-Assad, in Beirut through Hezbollah, and in Sana’a [in Yemen] through the Houthis. Iran is challenging the US in the region; we see them firing at American vessels. A grave concern for the region is Iran’s aspiration to develop a military nuclear capability. There will be a delay for about a decade as a result of the 2015 nuclear deal, but Iran will remain a serious challenge for Israel, for the Sunni Arab regimes and for the Western world. Iran’s belligerency is the result of the vacuum created by the former US administration. At present we have little idea of the current US administration’s policy, so Iran will see what it can get away with in the meantime.
The second radical Islamic movement seeking hegemony in the region is the Sunni jihadists; whether it is ISIS or Al-Qaeda, their aim is to impose an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and beyond. ISIS succeeded in establishing Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, Syria, Sinai and Libya. The Sunni jihadists – especially ISIS – have too many enemies in the region. However, the fight against ISIS continues.
The third element is Turkey. President Recep Erdoğan is the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the region, and seeks to create a neo-Ottoman empire based on the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has acted with this goal in mind for a long time. He supported ISIS economically by buying oil because they were willing to kill the Kurds. He allowed trained and experienced jihadists to come from all over the world to join ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq, and to go back to their own countries, especially to Europe, and we have witnessed the consequences of this.
For a very long time, Erdoğan didn’t just allow illegal immigration, he facilitated it. We are not only talking about refugees. I went to Greece in February 2016 and was briefed on illegal immigration from Turkey to the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. There were more than 800,000 illegal immigrants coming from Turkey to the Greek islands. Most were illegal immigrants from Morocco and Pakistan. There was no war in those places. The Greeks also claimed that Turkey subsidised flights from Marrakech to Istanbul for US$50. My conclusion is that Erdoğan aims to Islamise Europe.
These developments are consequences of the vacuum created by the US. I’m not sure what will come now with the current administration. We must wait and see.
Israeli policy on Syria, the future of the Syrian state
In the current chaotic situation, Israeli policy is very clear.
First, we have made explicit our policy of non-intervention. This is clear in the case of Syria. Across Israel’s border in the Golan Heights, there are areas controlled by the Syrian armed forces, Sunni militias (non-jihadist) and ISIS in the south. We decided not to intervene. We don’t claim publically if we’re for or against President al-Assad. On the other hand, we immediately illustrated our red lines and made clear what our interests were.
Our first red line is not to tolerate any violation of our sovereignty, and to respond swiftly when it happens. If there is fire between Syrian forces and rebels close to the border and artillery guns target our territory, in a couple of minutes this artillery will be destroyed. In this regard, the Iranians tried to open a terrorist front against us using proxies to launch rockets into our side and plant explosives along the border. In one case four soldiers were injured. The last time the Iranians tried to challenge us was in August 2015 when Palestinian-Islamic Jihad terrorists launched rockets towards our side. This was the last incident in which we absorbed terror attacks coordinated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and perpetrated by its proxies. Since then, it’s been quiet regarding Iranian-led terror.
Our second red line is not to tolerate any delivery of advanced weapons to our enemies in the region, primarily Hezbollah. Whether they are Iranian-made and going via Damascus to Lebanon, or Russian-made and going via the Tartus Port to Lebanon, we will not tolerate it. I believe last Friday there was a delivery, and not for the first time the Syrian air defence system tried to intercept our aircraft. They missed our aircraft, but one of their air defence missiles was going to land in our territory. Our Arrow 2 defence system was launched to intercept it, which it did over Jordanian airspace.
Our third red line is not to tolerate any delivery of chemical weapons to our enemies in the region. It hasn’t happened yet.
At the same time that we take measures to ensure our security, we also provide the Syrian villages across the border with humanitarian aid. As Jews and as Israelis we can’t ignore this kind of tragedy. We were approached by Sunni villagers asking for help. We provided for all their needs – foods, blankets, fuel, and medical treatment – to keep them in their homes. Israeli military doctors are deployed on a daily basis along the border to allow Syrians to get medical treatment, and if there is the need we bring them to our hospitals. More than 3000 Syrians have been treated so far in our hospitals, and after recovery they returned home.
I don’t see the end of the Syrian conflict. When I hear US officials claiming that the goal of the former administration was the reunification of Syria, my response was: I know how to make an omelette from an egg, I don’t know how to make an egg from an omelette. There is no way to reunify Syria. It might be that we can reach a kind of equilibrium in the future by allowing Syrian “Alawistan” to stay dominated by Russia. This is because Russian interests in Syria are mainly in “Alawistan” – in the Tartus Port, the airfield, intelligence facilities, and the need Russia has to demonstrate its loyalty to its ally. However, the Russians couldn’t care less about the Kurds, or ISIS. I don’t see them rushing to Raqqa. So a kind of equilibrium might be reached between the US and Russia. Nevertheless, Syria will remain divided, with a Syrian “Alawistan,” a Syrian Kurdistan in the north and two Kurdish enclaves with contradictory interests to Turkey. The vast majority of the Syrians are Sunnis – 74 per cent. Given this demographic context, the only way to achieve stability is if we agree to relatively homogenous demographic enclaves. Perhaps confederation is a possibility, but this is a far away option. The different groups are not going to give up to each other. Most of all, we have to realise there is no way to reunify Syria.
Having said this, it might be that with a new US policy, we will find a way to reach an understanding with the Russians, and then to concentrate on fighting Iran, not just ISIS, by denying Iran the space to manoeuvre and to gain influence. A new US policy would be refreshing for the Sunni Arab regimes in the region.
On the alignment of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab States
What we have found is that, as a result of this chaotic situation, Israel and the Sunni Arab regimes share common interests and common enemies. For Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, and even some of the North African countries, Iran is the first priority. It must be seen within the context of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, or the Persian-Arab conflict. The Sunni states do not want to see Iranian hegemony in the region, and are actively engaged in fighting to curb Iranian influence. For the first time in years the Saudis have succeeded in mobilising a Sunni Arab coalition to fight the Houthis in Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s troops are even deployed in Bahrain in order to defend the Sunni regime in the face of Shi’a elements. The Sunni Arab regimes are ready to fight, not just to pay proxies to fight. Even certain Sunni Jihadists were used as proxies by the Sunni Arab states to fight Shi’a elements in Iraq and Syria.
The Sunni Arab states also perceive the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish neo-Ottoman aspirations as a serious threat. For President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi the Muslim Brotherhood is a domestic threat, as well as a threat for the stability in Gaza. But today, ISIS is the enemy as well; Egypt is fighting ISIS elements in the Sinai. So we share common interests as well as common enemies.
The main question is what will be the US administration’s new policy in the region. It’s still not clear. In a couple of steps, the whole situation might be changed, even regarding the Sunni Arab regimes’ perception of the superpower. Most Sunni leaders now travel to Moscow rather than to Washington. They are frustrated from what they believed to be the former administration’s policy – to abandon them and to associate with Iran. That was their perception.
Israel’s security situation
Today, Israel enjoys a relatively calm security situation. This is a result of a rational, responsible defence policy.
Since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, we have enjoyed an unprecedented level of calm from the Gaza Strip; Hamas hasn’t launched a single rocket towards us. We do see a growing number of proxies in the Gaza Strip – factions affiliated to ISIS – who provoke and challenge Hamas’s authority with rocket attacks. Currently we believe the Hamas leadership does not want to escalate the situation, but then they allow ISIS-affiliated groups, and recently even rogue Fatah elements in the Gaza Strip, to launch rockets at our side. We hold the Hamas leadership accountable for the Strip, and return fire on Hamas positions if we are provoked by a rocket attack.
There are many economic and humanitarian challenges in the Gaza Strip, but as of yet it is not a crisis. We still use carrots as well as sticks. We still provide Gazans with water and electricity. There are those in Israel that criticise this on the grounds that they use the electricity to manufacture rockets, and in times of hostilities they launch rockets at us and even target the power stations that provide their electricity. It is a complicated situation, but that’s the way it is in the Middle East.
My philosophy for managing the security situation in Israel is to utilise sticks and carrots in a balanced way. That is what has happened in the last year or so. Regarding the attacks carried out by individuals from Judea and Samaria, our response has been to use the big stick surgically against individuals, but to allow the entire Palestinian population to live in dignity and to be employed in Israel in growing numbers. In the last year, the number of Palestinians employed legally in Israel grew from 60,000 to 100,000. Only one who had a permit attacked an Israeli.
There is not really a viable Palestinian economy – 100,000 Palestinians employed in Israel is the real economy. Tens of thousands are employed by Israelis in the settlements and many are sub-contractors employed by Israeli enterprises. The best example is the textile industry, in which most of the labour is carried out in Nablus and Hebron. They benefit, we benefit. Most of the Palestinian exports (80 per cent) are exported to the Israeli market.
They are dependent on our infrastructure for water and electricity. Even if they decide to build a power station in the northern part of the West Bank, which we supported, they will be dependent on our gas, just as Jordan is dependent on it. So there are certain considerations which complicate the situation for those who call for full separation.
Since Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 we moved from defence to offence. We went to Area A, to Nablus, to Ramallah, in order to eliminate the terrorists. Since then we have enjoyed a relatively calm security situation. We have freedom of operation. If we have any early information about terrorists activities, whether it be in the centre of the Kasbah in Nablus on in the refugee camps, within a couple of hours Israeli troops will be there to arrest them. They are not deployed permanently in the Palestinian territories. Otherwise, the Palestinian security forces will arrest them. Today, we do more than 70 per cent of the job of foiling terror in the West Bank. Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) is dependent on our security capability. Without it, he would have been defeated by Hamas, as happened in the Gaza Strip. So I query what people think is possible when they call for full separation.
On the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
I would like to elaborate my proposal regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I supported the Oslo process at the beginning; I value human life more than land, and I’m not messianic. I believe that on the one hand there is no chance on the horizon of reaching a final settlement. Arafat was not ready to accept such an arrangement when negotiations were based on the 1967 lines and the dividing of Jerusalem. He was not ready then, and Abu Mazen is not ready today to state that this will be considered by him as a viable end to the conflict. In other words, he is not ready to recognise Israel’s right to exist as the nation state of the Jewish people in any boundaries.
On the other hand, I do not want to rule the Palestinians or annex them. This means we have to make our own decisions about annexations, which is today enunciated by the hard-right in Israel, and on where to settle. If we wish the Palestinians to be a political entity we cannot settle everywhere. We must make progress on the economy, infrastructure and security. That is my understanding for the time being, as there is no chance to resolve the conflict in the immediate future.
There is a fundamental problem regarding the dream of Oslo, and that is the promotion of terror still exists in Palestinian refugee camps. If you educate the young generation that Palestine exists from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and there is no room for concessions, and that “Tel Aviv is the biggest settlement,” then you are not preparing your people for co-existence and reconciliation. The people of Tel Aviv don’t understand that these Palestinians see them as settlers. Young kids are educated to hate us – as Israelis, as Jews, as Zionists. You can see it by watching Palestinian television programmes for children, or reading their textbooks. It is shocking. This was my personal awakening in 1995 while serving as head of the intelligence under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
What should be done regarding this core element of the conflict? We are not going to reach a final settlement in the near future, but we can make progress. Firstly, the donors – the US, UK, EU, Norway – should condition any money that is given to the Palestinians on certain reforms being enacted, and on an end to the financing of terrorists. The prisoners in Israeli jails are getting money from the PA, and of course they must not allow such money to be delivered to the families of the terrorists. Right now, if there is a martyr in your family, you get a pension for the entirety of your life. By ignoring the issues of hate education, the financing of prisoners and martyrs, and the promotion of terror, it will take more time.
On Russian-Israeli coordination on Syrian border
When we realised in September 2015 that the Russians had decided to deploy their air force in Syria with the aim of keeping President al-Assad in power, we made contact with the Russian defence establishment and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to President Vladimir Putin. We reached an understanding that we were not going to support the Russians and they were not going to support us, and neither of us would interrupt the other. In order to avoid accidents like the Turkish downing of a Russian plane, we set up a hotline between the Russian military headquarters in Syria and our headquarters in Tel Aviv. By having this, we reduce the likelihood of any incidents. We are not on the same page as Russia in the region, but it’s not the Cold War either. We have channels to discuss these issues, and to avoid disrupting each other’s interest in the region. So I do not believe that what the Syrian Ambassador to the UN said is based on facts. I don’t believe this is the case between us and Russia, even after last Friday.
Question: Can this understanding with Russia survive an intensified Israeli campaign against weapons transfers in Syria? The great concern is Iran and its proxies; Israel hit multiple targets the other day, and there must have been an element of warning in that. If Israel were forced to intensify these attacks, would the relationship change?
Moshe Ya’alon: I don’t believe so. What was unique in last Friday’s incident was that a missile was intercepted by the Arrow 2 system for the first time, and that’s why we had to deal with it publically. In most of the cases we don’t claim responsibility, and I haven’t heard any claims on behalf of Russia regarding these activities.
Question: Is your strategic aim is to separate Russia from Iran?
MY: Yes. When we’re talking about contradictory interests, for sure. And it was made public that Prime Minister Netanyahu discussed this issue with President Putin. We can’t tolerate Iranian dominance in Syria if the result is that Iran renews their terror activities against us. They tried, and were responsible for 12 terror attacks against us, perpetrated by IRGC proxies. We haven’t absorbed a single attack from the Sunnis. We had an incident with the ISIS element in the Golan Heights by mistake.
The Iranians intentionally tried to open a terror front against us from the Golan Heights. Of course, they don’t want to escalate the situation because of the heavy price that they know they would pay. They don’t want to see Lebanon in devastation, so they tried to push Palestinian proxies to challenge us, like Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, but they were deterred. They tried to operate using Palestinian cells from the West Bank, even using Israeli Arabs. They failed. That’s why they tried to open a terror front from the Golan Heights. Again, since August 2015 they have been deterred. But if they feel confident in Damascus or in the Golan Heights, they might try to renew their activities. That is why we say that in any understanding between Russia, US, Turkey and the Syrian regime, Iran should be put out of the game in Syria.
Question: You said the Sunni forces made a mistake – an accidental attack – who was this?
MY: It was an ISIS-affiliated element in the southern part of the Golan Heights. It was a local initiative to shoot toward our soldiers. They believed our soldiers were on their side of the border, we responded with our big stick and we got an apology. About a year ago, a German correspondent interviewed the commander of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. He asked: “You’re on the border with Israel, why don’t you launch rockets?” They said they didn’t want to engage the Israel Defence Forces. That is the meaning of deterrence.
Question: You said that you think Erdoğan has a strategy of Islamising Europe, in deliberately allowing migrants through. Can you expand?
MY: In order to understand the Middle East, you have to live there. If you listen, read, you come to understand that there are many contradictory interests in the region. As I said at the beginning, we have three radical Islamic movements seeking hegemony. One is Turkey, namely Erdoğan. He has neo-Ottoman aspirations to be a Sultan, based on Muslim Brotherhood ideology. With this in mind, Europe is part of the empire. Whether it is building Mosques and cultural centres in the Balkans, or what he is doing politically in the Netherlands and Germany, this is his aspiration. He uses all these means to elaborate his idea of a neo-Ottoman empire in which he is the Sultan. The Muslim Brotherhood way is not to expose real intentions, but for me it’s very clear. To subsidise flights from Marrakech to Istanbul for US$50, to have a smuggling system of more than 12,000 Turkish smugglers… I saw the list of their names in Greece. The Greeks claim they delivered this list to the Turkish intelligence. You have to have the system to get those illegal workers in Istanbul airport, and to bring them to the boats and bring them to the Greek islands. It’s a system. What was the response of the Turkish to the list the Greeks sent? To deny it. I said “welcome to the club!” We told Turkey that the terrorists of Hamas had moved from Damascus to Istanbul; we gave the Turks a list of their names and they denied it. Why does he support Hamas and other Muslim Brotherhood organisations in the region?
Question: Yet you still restored relations with Turkey.
MY: It’s a matter of interests. We are better off having channels and contacts to discuss matters. Erdoğan has his own economic interests regarding Israel, and because of the security situation in Syria, the Turkish transport to the Gulf is no longer via Syria. Today, they bring the trucks to Haifa seaport, go over the King Hussein Bridge into Jordan and then to the Gulf. I am a great believer in interests, not illusions or dreams. That’s why I claim that the terror in the Arab-Israeli conflict is irrelevant for the time being. This is why we enjoy a relatively calm security situation even vis-a-vis the Palestinians.
Question: How do you square giving humanitarian aid to Syrians with co-ordinating with the Russians who are bombing Syrian civilians?
MY: We don’t share intelligence, we don’t share targets. We have contradictory interests, but we manage.
Question: You talk about your vision for how Israel should co-exist with the West Bank in particular, and it sounds very similar to what the Prime Minister would describe. Do you have any points of difference with him specifically on West Bank policy?
MY: I’m happy that he adopted my way. I don’t like talking about my reservations about the Israeli government, but you can read it in the Israeli papers. My main disputes with the Prime Minister were not on foreign affairs issues but internal issues: on corruption, on moral issues, the way that I see checks and balances in democracy, the media (which should be more pluralistic and not controlled by the government), and the rule of the Supreme Court. In these areas, we were in dispute. This is my perspective on the big internal issues in Israel today. I plan to run for the national leadership on these values.
I created my own NGO, the Association for Alternative Leadership, which is going to be my political platform. It allows me to engage with as many Israelis as I can. I don’t have a newspaper. I don’t have my own TV station, so I have to do seven to 10 speaking engagements every week in settlements and kibbutzim, with youngsters, adults andcentrists, with whomever in order to get my message to the Israeli people.
Question: How many Likud members support you in this?
MY: I joined the Likud in 2009, and my friend was Benny Begin. In the current situation in the Likud, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin would not be in this Likud. This is because of a lack of leadership, political manoeuvres and prioritising political survival. In the end you push all parties to the extreme, generating hatred against the Arabs, against the Left, against the Supreme Court. It is not the Likud way. I believe those who voted for the Likud before will be willing to go my way in the future. I believe the vast majority of Israelis are rational. They’re not extremists. They moved to the Right on security issues because of the frustration due to the outcome of the Oslo process, but they’re not extremists.
Question: Given the importance of these issues, wouldn’t it be better for you throw your lot in with one of the existing formations?
MY: I’m open, but first I’d like to build my own political power. And then, I will seek publicly to cooperate with other parties to meet the internal challenges.
Question: Would you team up with [Ehud] Barak? Do you talk?
I talk with everybody, I don’t believe he will enter politics.
Question: The only way you would be able to govern is surely by tying up with the Zionist Union. You’re never going to get to 60 [seats] without…
MY: I’m not sure. If the election focuses on internal issues, I’m not so sure. Regarding security issues, I am a hawk.