The story of Dan Meridor is in many ways the story of Israeli intelligence and security for the last 35 years.
Meridor came into the limelight as a top aide to Menachem Begin, entering the Knesset not long after. He served on a long list of commissions and Knesset committees dealing with the trickiest security and intelligence issues.
More recently, he led the Defense Ministry’s 2004- 2006 work on Israel’s defense doctrine, served on the 2006 Winograd Commission probe of the Second Lebanon War and served as the country’s first intelligence minister from 2009 to 2013. Since 2014, he has served as President of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
Sharp, sophisticated, but also low-key, he has lived through many political twists and turns. He was in the Likud, the Center Party, back in the Likud, and now criticizes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the outside. But he has always returned to his family’s building on Ben-Maimon Street in Jerusalem, where he grew up and now resides.
While Meridor is a leading witness to Israel’s past, his message is razor-focused on the future.
In a recent wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, discussing the seemingly irresolvable puzzle of what Israel’s goals should be in the next expected wars with Hezbollah and Hamas, he said Israel is far too focused on fighting past wars and lacks readiness for future threats.
In a nutshell, his strategy would be to “analyze the logic of the enemy” and focus not on intelligence about Hezbollah’s over 100,000 rockets but on “what are the 200-500 targets that, if they are hit, will disturb and disrupt the other side?” In other words, deterrence. Dissect the other side in a way that exposes its true soft underbelly.
To do that, Israel will need to properly sort through the “millions of beeps coming in... every minute” from its various intelligence gathering apparatuses, he said.
“What do you do with that? How do you analyze it? This is the main issue. What do you want from the gathered intelligence?” Meridor asked rhetorically.
This strategy, he argued, would require a complete reorientation from Israel’s current incorrect focus on winning yesterday’s wars.
“We are living in an era of change. The paradigm has changed and is very quickly changing.... The most dangerous thing at a time of change is to have a lot of experience and to know how to fight the war that was. This is very different from the war that may face you in a short time,” he remarked.
He continued, “Usually, armies... are not always very quick to learn how to change and think of the changing environment and challenges.”
For decades, he said, Israel readied itself for the “nightmare scenario... where small Israel is attacked from the eastern front by masses of tanks roaming across the Jordan River into Ma’aleh Adumim and Tel Aviv.... This is how we built our army.... We won this war, and in the foreseeable future, this is not a threat.”
Meridor rattled off proofs of Israel’s successes and the end of conventional threats. They included: 40 years of peace with Egypt, despite four different leaders, including one from the Muslim Brotherhood; 20 years of peace with Jordan; Syria destroying its own army; and Lebanon never being a conventional threat to invade. They also included removing or delaying nuclear threats from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Iran.
He said the real threats now come from non-state terrorist actors.
“Our old enemies – if they had won, they would have destroyed us. Now, we have enemies that cannot destroy us, but we find it very difficult to destroy them or to get rid of all of their terrorist activities,” he asserted.
Besides the matter of confronting these new threats by formulating a stronger missile defense and homefront defense doctrine, which Meridor was heavily involved in, he spoke about the importance of “two main elements: intelligence and precision.”
Both are needed to achieve his goal of hurting Israel’s new non-state enemies fast and where it counts.
He said Israel’s intelligence services “need to identify those critical targets: communications centers, hiding places of rockets, key people, and we need real-time information on these targets, where the target is all of the time. We need to prepare an ability to hit them on very short warning in the first hours of a war.”
The former intelligence minister said there is a range of options for striking these targets, including “a direct hit by a missile, from a drone, from a ground commando unit, from pre-planted agents or using the cyber world.”
But haven’t Hezbollah and Hamas decentralized their decision-making and weapons storage so as to make it impossible to bring them down with a few specific shots to their command and weapons centers? he was asked.
“It’s true, it is not a chess game. The king has left many orders about what to do in his will. They have prepared redundancies. So we need the smartest people in the intelligence community” to dissect as many critical targets as possible affecting these groups’ operations, whose “disappearance will change the game,” even if the targets are nontraditional.
What is nontraditional? Meridor did not want to confirm specific examples, but the December 16 assassination of a Hamas technologist in Tunis – possibly by the Mossad, according to many analysts – who was not necessarily high-ranking but had unique knowledge for Hamas’s weapons development, would fit into Meridor’s paradigm of who should “disappear.”
All of this is also more critical in an age when Israelis are less willing to “spend so much money and blood.” Also, he said, from a “humanistic point of view,” focused and precise striking of specific targets can reduce the number of civilian casualties on the other side.
He made it clear that this complex goal of merely deterring the enemy, without having the ability to destroy them, is also critical to avoid a nonproductive blame game and to manage the public’s unrealistic expectations for a quick victory.
Those are Meridor’s suggestions for preparing for and winning the next war. But what about avoiding the next war using other approaches? On one hand, he said that the 2014 Gaza war was successful in that even if we did “not score a knockout victory, we did create deterrence” with Hamas from engaging in another war since then.
On the other hand, he said that “conditions in Gaza are bad now. There is deterioration there in terms of the economy and water. Also, we have no interest in there being suffering in Gaza, and we do have an interest in stabilizing” Gaza.
Arriving at his idea, he said, “Our real interest is quiet. He [Netanyahu] focused on deterrence.” But Meridor asked “if there is a way to come to a sort of fundamental written agreement with Hamas” for an indefinite cease-fire. He is concerned to avoid undercutting the West Bank Fatah leadership, and he admitted that any deal “would not be a peace treaty, because they don’t want that.”
Yet Meridor said that even if Hamas’s religious beliefs against having a non-Muslim state in the region prevent it from agreeing to peace with Israel, a range of “carrots and sticks – help economically, with warnings” – might be able to buy a long-term truce.
But in lieu of that rosier scenario, he said, Israel must learn from the 2014 Gaza war. He added that Netanyahu’s 50-day war “was much too long” and that future wars must be fought smarter and on a more expedited basis.
Furthermore, he said that Military Intelligence must be given clear lead responsibility over the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) for warning about possible war with Gaza. The lack of delineation of where the buck stopped on that issue was a major source of criticism by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira in his February report, in which he said the lack of clarity contributed to Israel being dragged into the 2014 Gaza war against its will.
The need to resolve the difficulty of division of responsibility between Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet and the Mossad is exactly why Meridor believes the Intelligence Ministry is important, even as some have said the National Security Council can do the same job and called the ministry redundant.
Opening with the idea that the job of the intelligence minister is to make sure the various agencies “really operate together, with no costly redundancy,” he said this was his “main mission.”
During the four years he was intelligence minister, “we did a lot to create this community in very clear terms. We made coordination obligatory. There were eight to 10 reports about how decisions were made when there were conflicts, how technology was insufficiently developed and how to avoid competition in recruitment.”
Meridor said, “We have improved a lot. Relations can be very tough between intelligence communities, and sometimes things get personal. But it is better now.”
When pressed that his ministry’s job could be done by the NSC, and that it was created as a consolation prize for missing out on a bigger ministry, he responded that both “the NSC and Intelligence Ministry serve very important functions.
I pushed to build it [the NSC]. But they need to prepare a lot of staff work,” implying that the NSC can sometimes be spread thin.
In contrast to the NSC which follows a wide range of national priorities, “the intelligence story is a unique story. If there is a joint project between the Mossad and Military Intelligence that needs to be budgeted, who sees the whole budget for the intelligence community? “It is laid out in different budget chapters, and somebody has to have oversight,” though he said whether that someone’s title is a professional “director of intelligence” or a political minister is less important.
Most importantly, he said that the oversight could not be by the prime minister, who “may not have the time to be minister of the Mossad and the Shin Bet” for all details, even though those agencies are part of the Prime Minister’s Office, legally and structurally. Oversight “cannot be done ‘by the way.’” Finally, Meridor thought it was crucial that any intelligence and security strategy take into account all eventualities regarding a nuclear Iran.
He praised global sanctions for getting Iran to push off its nuclear breakout date, but warned that “the current threat may be removed, but the threat is not gone. We need to be very vigilant looking into Iran overtly and covertly with the Americans and the IAEA.”
At the same time, he said “it is wrong to think to build only on one leg, the leg of prevention. You should not think that if, God forbid, prevention fails and one day we find out the enemy has a nuclear bomb, that if this happens we are lost, that we pack up our bags and leave.”
Rather, “there is another leg: defense.
Even if they get a nuclear weapon, they cannot reach us, because of the Arrow missile defense system” and would likely not use it, “because of [Israeli nuclear] deterrence.
I think we are okay in these areas.”
Meridor still gets called in for consultation with various agencies and is optimistic about Israeli intelligence and security.
That said, he also hopes for a national leader who would be bolder on the diplomatic plane, so that there would be fewer security challenges to deal with in the first place.