Israel has been presented with a historic window of opportunity. The question is what it will do with it.
That one line is the conclusion of a long interview with Amos Gilead, the veteran IDF general and defense official, who retired last month after 45 years of service. Gilead, 64, is the man who not only knows Israel’s deepest secrets but also where some of the skeletons are buried – both in Israel and throughout the Arab world.
Here is just a snippet of some of the jobs he has held: member of the IDF General Staff and coordinator of government activities in the territories (twice); IDF spokesperson; head of Military Intelligence’s Research Division; Israel’s official liaison to Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinians; and for the last 13 years, head of the Defense Ministry’s secretive Political-Military Bureau.
Many of my questions were answered by Gilead with a shrug or “I can’t talk about that.” When it came, for example, to the substance of his dozens of trips to Jordan and Egypt over the years, Gilead explained that his meetings there were built on trust. To reveal whom he met and what they spoke about, he said, would be a breach of that trust.
Nevertheless, what Gilead has to say is worth listening to, especially now as the Trump administration makes a push to renew peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, possibly under the umbrella of a regional framework led by Jordan and Egypt. That triangle – Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority – is where Gilead feels most at home.
At heart, Gilead remains an intelligence officer. He takes particular pride in two warnings he gave the cabinet in the late 1990s. The first was in 1996, when he appeared before the security cabinet and warned that Iran – due to its nuclear and ballistic missile programs – was turning into a “strategic threat with potential to be an existential threat.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then the prime minister, formally adopted Gilead’s warning, prompting a shift in the focus of Israel’s intelligence agencies as well as military budgets.
The second warning came a few years later, when Gilead cautioned the IDF General Staff and the cabinet that Yasser Arafat was plotting a terrorist onslaught against Israel. A few months later, in October 2000, the second intifada erupted.
Looking back, Gilead called Arafat a “mega terrorist” and said that it was a mistake to negotiate with “someone who surrounded himself with mass murderers.”
Gilead’s 1999 assessment was based on countless hours he had spent with Arafat. Ahead of the signing of the Oslo Accords, for example, he was sent to Tunis to negotiate some of the final details. He later met with Arafat in Romania, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank. The meetings took place at the strangest of hours, sometimes starting at midnight and ending at 5 a.m.
“I am sure that he wanted to destroy us,” Gilead said this week. “My assessment was based on the cooperation he had with Hamas as well as thousands of other details.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he said, is different. While Abbas “is on a diplomatic collision course with Israel,” his strong stance against terrorism and approval of security coordination with Israel contribute, Gilead said, to the relative sense of security in Israel.
“Keeping Israelis safe is really the most important detail,” he said.
But, I asked, do you think Abbas is really prepared to make a deal? Maybe he will balk at the last minute, as he reportedly did after receiving an offer from then-prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008.
“It will be hard to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians,” Gilead acknowledged. “But we have to try. We need to refrain from taking any unilateral steps that could lead to us becoming a binational state.”
The “unilateral steps” Gilead is concerned with include the annexation of Ma’aleh Adumim, which is supported by the Likud and Bayit Yehudi; construction in the E1 area – the undeveloped area in Ma’aleh Adumim located between its developed part and Jerusalem; and the establishment of settlements in Judea and Samaria.
“Unilateral steps will push them into a corner and will cause a confrontation,” he said, adding that the visit last week of Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s Mideast envoy, seems to indicate that the Americans, too, are against any unilateral Israeli steps.
But can Abbas execute a deal? I asked.
Is he not too weak? Gilead dismissed my question. Abbas, he said, is not a Zionist, but the fact that he allows security coordination, despite the political stalemate and the criticism he faces on the Palestinian street, is an indication that he is apparently not as weak as some on the Israeli Right make him out to be.
But, Gilead warned, if there is no peace process and Abbas steps down, Israel can be sure that his successor – whoever that might be – will be far more extreme.
“The successor or successors will be more radical than Abbas, and Hamas will take advantage of this,” he said.
While he pushes for peace talks, Gilead is a natural skeptic. Maybe that explains why, as a senior IDF intelligence officer, he was often on the opposite side of the optimists, issuing warnings against the 1982 war in Lebanon, Arafat and Iran.
What nevertheless provides him with confidence to engage in peace talks with the Palestinians is Israel’s current strategic standing in the Middle East and the lack of any conventional military threat today against the Jewish state.
“We live in an unprecedented era on two different levels,” he explained.
“First, Israel is extraordinarily powerful today and successfully deters its enemies, creating quiet along the northern border and particularly in Hezbollahstan,” Gilead’s name for Lebanon.
At the same time, he said, major threats loom on the horizon. Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of over 100,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon and Iran. Iran, emboldened by the nuclear deal and its success in Syria, continues to develop advanced ballistic missiles and spread its ideology throughout the region. Islamic State, which can be found along Israel’s northern and southern borders, is a “cruel enemy,” Gilead said, while predicting that the group will be defeated sometime this year.
Simply put, he said, “We are in a period of historic opportunity, with threats looming on the horizon.”
So, I asked, how can Israel take advantage of this unique situation? Gilead listed three steps Israel should take: Continue to covertly strengthen ties with the Sunni Arab world; renew peace talks with the Palestinians; and deepen the alliance and friendship with the United States.
Can Israel upgrade its relationship with Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggests? I ask.
Gilead said that there is a lot more that can be done, but it will largely depend on whether there is progress on the Palestinian track.
“The significance right now is that there is an opportunity to take advantage of,” he said. “The problem is that to expand those ties, Israel cannot take unilateral steps.”
As Israel’s point man on Egypt, I asked, how did you feel when president Barack Obama called Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and urged him to resign, a move that led to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Obama’s call on Mubarak to step down was a major mistake,” Gilead said. “You cannot force a culture in this region. You will not get democracy. You will get evil and dark forces like the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement established in 1928 which wants to create a Sunni empire in which Israel cannot exist.”
When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew then-president Mohamed Morsi, Gilead said, the Egyptian defense minister “saved Egypt, the Arab world and the wider region from a nightmare.”
Does the Israeli people fully appreciate the importance of Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt? I asked.
Gilead thought for a moment. It is true, he said, that there are not a lot of Egyptian tourists who come to Israel and that trade between the countries is low. In addition, he said, it is also true that warmth is lacking between the peoples.
But, he said, the peace treaty signed in 1979 “revolutionized our strategic standing and changed reality for us."
“The IDF is strong and the country is strong, but we need to maintain quality military diplomacy with Egypt,” he said. “I don’t think we completely understand just how important that is.”
Turning to Jordan, Gilead dismissed predictions that King Abdullah is weak and on the brink of being toppled. He reminded me that throughout almost all of his father King Hussein’s tenure, people also predicted that he would fall.
In the end, Hussein ruled from 1952 until 1999.
This doesn’t mean that Jordan doesn’t have challenges, Gilead said. It does. “It has 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country and another 500,000 Iraqis. It is easy in logical Western thinking to predict that the regime will fall.”
But, he said, what people fail to recognize is that the tribes in Jordan are united and the people respect and admire the king and his father, both believed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
Additionally, although Jordan has Islamic State along its borders, Amman – a major Arab metropolitan city – remains relatively safe and quiet. “A Syrian sees what is happening in Syria and says he is lucky to be in Jordan,” he said.
Turning to Russia, Gilead said that President Vladimir Putin decided to deploy his military in Syria to first and foremost combat terrorism.
“He wants to meet the horrible terrorists there and not in Moscow,” he said.
“They don’t have tolerance for terrorism and they want to defeat it.”
So once Islamic State is defeated, will Putin leave Syria? I asked.
Not exactly, Gilead said, explaining that Putin will scale back his troops in Syria but will hold on to the military bases Bashar Assad has given him along the Mediterranean coast.
“The bases were a dream of the czars and he will never leave there,” he said, adding that the downside – from Israel’s perspective – of Russia’s presence in Syria is that Putin is now working together with Iran, and while “he is not letting the Iranians stay in Syria, he is also not preventing them from staying.”
Throughout his career and particularly during the last 13 years as head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau, Gilead has traversed the globe, leading defense delegations on talks with officials from the US to Asia and from Azerbaijan to Russia.
The world, he said, is amazed by Israel and specifically by its innovative military technology. But, he said, Israelis need to remember that this qualitative edge would not have been possible without US support.
“There is no alternative to the US as a friend and ally of Israel,” he said. “Someone who knows the intimate details of this relationship has a real and deep appreciation for it.”
But even after all these years, what constantly surprises Gilead is the ease with which certain countries around the world, particularly in Europe, slam Israel on a political level but then work intimately and closely with the defense establishment on security issues.
“There is major appreciation for us around the world.... We can exchange intelligence and share information and technology and export defense technology around the world, and we are straight and identify the threats as we see them,” he said.
Shortly after leaving the Defense Ministry, Gilead was appointed head of the Institute for Policy and Strategy, and he will chair the prestigious Herzliya Conference at IDC in June.
Considering your past, I asked, will this year’s conference have more speakers from the Arab world? Gilead smiled. Some relationships, he said, will need to stay in the shadows for a bit longer. “Remember,” he said, “trust is the key.”