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Analysis

Israel and the Middle East today: geostrategic overview with Major General (Res.) Yaakov Amidror

Yaakov Amidror is a former major general who served as National Security Advisor between May 2011 and November 2013, and was formerly Head of the Research Department of the Israeli military intelligence. Amidror is the Anne and Greg Rosshandler Senior Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He spoke to journalists at the Jerusalem Press Club on 22 March. Below is an edited version of his remarks.

The Trump administration

Although it will take time to see the results, what we are facing today is a new administration which is shaping its policy, wants to understand both sides’ point of view, and has to make many decisions – not only on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also on Syria and other challenges in the region.

Some say that this is the president we prayed for eight years to appear and help us to solve our problems, while others say that he is already hesitating and failing to do what he promised and that ultimately Israel will be disappointed by his decisions. Yet no one knows what the President will do because the administration itself is yet to formulate a clear policy. They have their views, and on some issues those views are more open towards Israeli needs than the previous administration. But at the end of the day it will take time for them to design a plan and suggestions of a mechanism for resuming negotiations. I’m personally not sure it’s possible to resume negotiations, but if the new administration does come to that conclusion, it will take time and it is too early for anyone to judge or to build high expectations. Until then, Israel should not carry out any action that might lead to confrontation between us and them. We have our own interests and needs, and we have to find ways so these can go together with the process of learning by the new administration.

Syria

On Syria there are two areas in which Israel has clear red lines. The first is the transfer of “game-changing” weapon systems that we think should be prevented getting into the hands of Hezbollah. The second is building bases or military capabilities in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. It doesn’t matter to Israel whether this is planned by ISIS or Hezbollah – in both cases Israel will do whatever is needed to prevent this type of capability.

Israel is not getting permission from the Russians nor are we cooperating or coordinating actions with them. We have made our red lines very clear in principle – nothing is ever a surprise to them and we have a “de-confliction” hotline – nothing more, nothing less – which is manned by Russian speakers on both sides in order to prevent any conflict between us and them which is very important. I hope this line will continue to work as it has done in the past. I do not think the Russians will take any responsibility for Syrian mistakes and will not give an umbrella for the transfer of weapons systems in Syria to Hezbollah. With all the relations the Russians have with the different players in the Syrian arena, I do not see them taking responsibility for the transfer of weapon systems to Hezbollah. I don’t think the fact the Russians are a little more sensitive will necessarily stop us from continuing our red line policy, which is very clear to them.

Gaza

In Gaza, Hamas has changed its leadership and is in the process of building its capabilities. I’m very glad that the current IDF Chief of Staff was clear about the threat posed by tunnels: They constitute a tactical threat rather than a strategic or existential one. I don’t want to minimise the challenge, but the tunnels will be solved one way or the other and they represent less of a strategic threat than Hamas’ capability to launch rockets at Tel Aviv. We have to be more modest about defining strategic threats. Ultimately, the more time we have the better we will be prepared to face the tunnel challenge.

ISIS in retreat, Iran on the rise

The takeover of Mosul by a combination of Iranians, Americans, militias and the Iraqi Army, coupled with the preparation for the assault on Raqqa has put ISIS in Iraq in retreat. I do not know when the assault on Raqqa will begin, but I hope America will be more cautious in preventing the Shi’a militias becoming a force on the ground. It would be devastating for the future of the Middle East if Raqqa were to be controlled by the Shi’ites because they are focused on creating a land corridor from Mosul through Raqqa into Aleppo and then onwards – one path towards Beirut, the other towards Damascus. The Iranians’ plan to control four Arab capitals – Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut – and to establish direct access to the Mediterranean, which would change the Middle East.

The key question will be the reaction of the Turks, the closest Sunni power in the area. Turkey is unlikely to agree to the new situation in which Iran controls the area to their southern border, but because the country is currently focused on domestic issues in the form of the upcoming referendum, we won’t see a reaction yet. However, this situation will constitute a huge change from Turkey’s point of view.

The new American administration has greater readiness to be involved with low scale, Special Forces in Raqqa and Mosul. I think they now understand not being involved opens the door for the Russians, and once the Russians are in the room, it’s not so easy to take them out of it. Similar to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the US administration is in learning mode and they have to make decisions by on-the-job training.

Israel’s missile defence

Israel is in the process of enhancing our active defence systems by bringing in the David’s Sling system which, together with the Arrow 2 and Arrow 3 systems, will complete the different layers we have invested in.

Ultimately, the question will be how to coordinate all the systems together. In order to fully deal with the threats it faces, Israel will have to create a system of systems with a sufficient number of interceptors that take into account: the number of rockets possessed by Hezbollah (at least 100,000 rockets and missiles) and the number of rockets and missiles in Gaza. Now Israel has crossed the technological phase, the main question is how much money to invest in this particular capability. Over the years, Israel has already spent US$7-10bn on active defence, but it gives Israel the flexibility to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Question: Many experts say that from a military point of view Israel has never been in such a comfortable position due to the situation of the Arab world. Would you agree with this?

As our President used to say, yes and no. On the one hand, the changes of the Arab world – which include the disintegration of many countries and myriad of problems – mean that Israel is no longer the focus of many countries in the area. At the same time Iran after the nuclear deal is going to gain legitimacy within the next 10 years and Israel will be in a different situation because of the deal. Iran is building its capabilities regionally, buying weapon systems and investing in its military and missiles. So, on the one hand, looking at the region as a whole, there are fewer threats to Israel, but if you look at Iran this might change the day after the agreement period.

Militarily Israel is very strong. The fact it became the first state outside the US to acquire the first two F35 planes is not an accident. The previous administration was very good in building the capability of Israel to defend itself by itself.

But at the same time the Middle East is more volatile. And moving from the peaceful situation of today to a big military operation during which many missiles can be launched at Israel might be a question of days or even a couple of hours. Unlike states, the decision making of organisations such as Hamas or Hezbollah is much more volatile – although the most cautious guy in the Middle East right now is Nasrallah, because he understands the price he will pay and has said loudly and clearly that had he known the outcome of the 2006 war he would not have done it. But miscalculations or mistakes which lead to war can happen very quickly.

Question: How do you regard the relationship between Moscow and Tehran and do you think Russia may interfere in this Iranian attempt to get access to the Mediterranean?

In a way Russia and Iran share the same goals relating to Syria. They cooperate in fighting the opposition, with Russia providing air support and Iran/Hezbollah providing the ground forces. I’m not so sure they share the same expectations about the future. It is not in the interest of Russia that the Iranians control part of the heart of the Middle East. But how it will work in the future I don’t know. I’m very pessimistic about the ability and the willingness of the Russians to contain the Iranians. And this is why the Russians are unable to tell Israel “don’t do it” because Moscow cannot take the responsibility and is not ready to contain them.

Question: Given what you said about Israel’s policy in Syria and how it hasn’t changed, what is in Israel’s best interest – for Bashar al-Assad to stay or go?

At the end of the day, for Israel the combination of the Iranians and Hezbollah is more dangerous. Not because the other side is more moderate but because the capabilities that the Iranians and Hezbollah are receiving from Iran are much more challenging to Israel’s ability to defend itself. It will take another 50 years for Da’esh to possess the number of rockets and missiles, with the same accuracy that Hezbollah has today.

But it’s also a theoretical question because Israel decided not to interfere or take sides. There is a historic war going on between the Sunnis and Shias in which ultimately one side will be eliminated by the other. If the Sunni side wins the war, it will be the end of the Alawite sect in Syria. And if the other side wins… well look what happened in Aleppo or Mosul. Assad understands that it won’t just be the end of him personally but the end of the whole sect. And the people in Dera’a and Aleppo understand that if the Alawites win it’s the end of the Sunnis in these areas.

Israel does not intend to take part in this fight between these the two sects in Islam. It’s not our job and its not in our interests. At the same time, we are providing a lot of humanitarian help to people who are coming to the border of the Golan Heights. We don’t speak about it because we do not want the other side to stop it, but the pictures you see in the Israeli hospital show only part of our efforts.

Question: What should the West should do to contain Iran?

First of all the West should make it clear that nothing economically will be invested in Iran unless Iran changes policy. There is an opportunity for this today as the Iranians are in a weak position due to the sanctions regime of the past. Five years from now they’ll be too strong and it’ll be too late. The international community should give Iran a list of what the Iranians must not do – including supporting terrorism or carrying out missile testing and make clear that if they don’t comply the investments will be stopped.

The West should also encourage a firmer military response to the Iranians in the Gulf. Those who don’t have the capability should back the Americans when they decide to be tougher with the Iranians. At this time, while the American administration is shaping its policy, a very strong European statement would be helpful to those in America advocating for greater US containment of Iran. Both economically and militarily a strong European voice is very important while the combination between Europe and America is also essential. If it is only American again, it’ll be very hard to get to a solution.

Question: How do you see the collaboration between Iran and North Korea and what are its effects on Israel?        

We know that the basis for the Iranian missile capability was based in North Korea and that the North Koreans tried to build a nuclear reactor in Syria. We know that on a few occasions experts from Iran took part in some tests and launching shows in North Korea. There are many rumours within the security intelligence about cooperation relating to nuclear capability, but the extent is unclear. More important though is learning from the North Korean nuclear experience. The Americans signed an agreement with North Korea which led to several bombs. In the Iranian context, given their ideology and capabilities, think what the consequences might be of the same process happening with Iran. Based on the agreement with the P5+1 and Iran, no-one can guarantee that we will not see the same happening with Iran. The issue of a nuclear agreement which is violated by one side without any answers from the guarantors of the agreement makes the experience of North Korea a very important one.

Question: a former Mossad chief recently said that the only existential threat to Israel is internal and revolves around indecision regarding the two-state solution. What do you think about that?

I think professionally he is wrong, because the ability of the Iranians to acquire a nuclear capability is a threat to the existence of Israel. And they are very serious about it.

Regarding his statement about the Palestinian issue, I believe there are only two solutions: an independent Palestinian state and a bi-national state. On the ideological level there are tensions between the belief that this is our homeland – and people do not give up their homeland – and the reality that the occupation is corrupting us, even if we are, as declared by former Military Commander of Central Command, Gadi Shamni, the best occupiers in the world.

On the practical level, both solutions are bad. The right-wing does not have an answer to the demographic danger of absorbing over 2 million Palestinians. The left-wing does not have an answer to the security issue. Even the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which wrote the best security paper by those promoting the two-state solution, have no answer to two questions: What happens if Hamas wins the election in the West Bank, and what happens if the Jordanian regime changes? The whole notion of the paper is based on the understanding that Israel has a partner to cooperate with on the other side of the Jordan River, but this might change.

Ultimately it will be about choosing a bad solution, and it will become a question of preference – do you prefer to deal with a hostile country one mile from the Knesset [in the scenario of an independent Palestinian state] or with domestic problems coming from a minority which will not be loyal to the state [in the scenario of a binational state]? Because we don’t have a good solution, more important than the solution itself is the importance of creating a consensus around whatever choice is taken.

Not taking any decisions leads to a situation where there will either be a default one-state solution by blocking all other alternatives, or that reaching a two-state situation will become much more difficult. We have to make a decision now because whatever we do on the ground should be guided by whether these moves create more barriers to get us to our chosen destination.


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