Ashkenazi: Soldiers, not equipment, make the IDF

Former IDF chief of staff tells the 'Post' the the security situation in Israel is "more positive today than it was in the past."

Ashkenazi looking to the sky 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ashkenazi looking to the sky 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Former IDF chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi believes it is the people who make up the IDF that are its most important component. The soldiers, rather than vehicles, aircraft, weapons and technologies, define the military the most, Ashkenazi said in his Tel Aviv office in March as he looked back at the 40 years he spent defending the State of Israel.
"The white hairs on my head came from worrying about people I sent out on missions and waiting for their return," Ashkenazi said.
Born in 1954 to a mother who was smuggled out of Syria by the Palmah, and a father who came to Israel from Bulgaria after surviving the Holocaust, Ashkenazi grew up in Moshav Hagor in the Sharon district of central Israel.
In 1972, he joined the Golani infantry brigade as a draftee, beginning a military career that would see him involved in every one of Israel's wars since the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict.
Ashkenazi would go on to participate in and lead daring counter-terrorism raids, including the Entebbe hostage rescue operation, as well as operations against Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups in southern Lebanon.
In 1978, as a deputy battalion commander, he was wounded in Operation Litani of 1978, which was launched to strike at Palestinian terrorists in southern Lebanon. He returned to the IDF in 1980 despite his injury, becoming head of Golani's Battalion 51. In 1987, Ashkenazi became commander of the Golani Brigade.
He continued to rise through the ranks, holding posts such as head of the Armored 366th Division, situated on the northern border, and head of operations at General Staff Headquarters.
In 1998, he was appointed commander of the IDF Northern Command. In 2002, he became deputy IDF chief of staff.
After taking time off to pursue academic studies, he served as director-general of the Defense Ministry. He was appointed IDF chief of staff in 2007, completing his term in 2011.
In his office, turning his attention to the changes sweeping the Middle East, Ashkenazi shared his evaluations of the new Middle East taking shape, which he said can bring mixed fortunes for Israel.
"Israel's security situation is, in a certain sense, more positive today than it was in the past. At the same time, there are new potential threats on the horizon," he said.
The conventional, traditional threat of organized Arab militaries threatening Israeli sovereignty has declined, Ashkenazi pointed out. Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war that is fully engaging its military, and Egypt is busy with its own internal instability, he said.
"And Iraq has vanished as a military threat," he added.
But while old threats are disappearing, new ones ¬ consisting of missiles, rockets and terrorism ¬ are taking their place.
"I don't discount Hamas or Hezbollah, but neither of them can conquer the Negev or the Galilee. When I was young, there was a Syrian threat to conquer Israeli territory," Ashkenazi recalled.
On the other hand, the collapse of regimes ¬ even hostile ones like Syria ¬ means that there is no longer a clear, sovereign address from which a price can be extracted for transgressions against Israel, the former chief of staff warned.
"When we chased the Fedayoun [terrorists who launched raids into Israel from Jordan], we didn¹t just chase the terrorists. We made the Jordanians pay a price, too. This can only be done when there is a sovereign state next to you," he said.
Beyond Israel's immediate neighborhood lies the largest threat to Israeli security ¬ Iran and its nuclear program.
"There is no doubt that Iran is striving to obtain nuclear weapons. A decade ago, the world did not think this. Today, the whole of the West understands this. That is an Israeli achievement," the former chief of staff stressed.
"A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat not only to Israel but also to most other Middle East states, from Turkey in the north to the Gulf Arab countries in the south," he continued. "Every effort must be made to prevent the Iranians from going nuclear. This is being led by the West. At least at the moment, it seems that the effort is international." The critical question is whether a policy of diplomacy and sanctions will bring about the desired result, he noted. The jury is still out on that question.
"It's important that the threat of a military option is credible ¬ and it is a credible threat, I believe. It's definitely from Israel¹s direction, and also from that of the US. It will be hard for a US president who said such clear things about the need for prevention, not containment, of Iran to go back on that," said Ashkenazi.
Although it is reasonable to believe that Washington is not bluffing about its aim to do what is necessary to prevent Tehran from acquiring atomic bombs, Ashkenazi maintained that Israel cannot simply rely on its superpower ally when dealing with the Iranian threat.
"One of the lessons of the not too distant past is that Israel cannot be dependent on the decision of another state ¬ even a big ally ¬ when it comes to existential matters," he said. "Israel is doing the right thing in safeguarding its ability. Every prime minister and government must have this ability. Is it preferable that the US leads on Iran? Absolutely. Is it certain that this will happen? Absolutely not," he said.
Meanwhile, as Jerusalem waits to see how the international community deals with Iran, the Middle East will continue to face instability as Arab societies overthrow the old order and struggle to find new leaderships.
"Today, we see that many in Egypt are rejecting [President Mohamed] Morsi.
This lack of certainty will continue, as will the extreme rhetoric," Ashkenazi said. Ultimately, Israel¹s neighbors will be too preoccupied with domestic troubles to pose a concrete military threat to Israel in the near future, he predicted.
There is a real chance that Syria will turn into a Somalia-type failed state. This has serious implications for regional security, due to the Assad regime's massive arsenal of chemical arms.
"There is no practical way to prevent all of Syria's chemical weapons from falling into the wrong hands. If, for example, a Syrian army general seeks to buy his freedom from the rebels, he could transfer a suitcase with chemical weapons or Scuds. We have to prepare for these scenarios. It¹s not realistic to assume that one can control every container of chemical weapons. This doesn¹t mean the weapons will be used," said Ashkenazi.
Regional cooperation, involving Israel and other states threatened by Syrian chemical weapons and instability ¬ Jordan, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, together with the US ¬ is the best solution to the threat.
"This is what should be done. Is it being done? I don¹t know," said Ashkenazi.
New threats also include emerging dangers in the cyber world.
"This is a very exciting field. The IDF is developing techniques in this area and will continue to do so," he said.
Ultimately, in order to face the new, uncertain future, the IDF will have to invest in its personnel, Ashkenazi asserted. This will ensure that Israel continues to develop its capabilities "from the tactical to the strategic in a way that does not exist anywhere else."