The enemy is getting stronger, but so are we

Top Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad talks candidly about the security challenges facing Israel.

amos gilad 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amos gilad 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a rare, detailed interview, Amos Gilad, head of the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau, talks candidly about the security challenges facing Israel, the lessons learned from past conflicts, and the importance of choosing "the right moment" to act. Stationed on the same floor of the Kirya military complex in Tel Aviv as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad seems to play a key role in most every aspect of Israeli security affairs. Formally, he heads the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau. He also, temporarily, serves as the government's coordinator of activities in the territories, because the defense minister and the chief of General Staff have been unable to agree on a permanent appointee to that post. Who played a central role in brokering the fraying "tahadiyeh" (calm) with Hamas in Gaza, via Egypt's good offices? Amos Gilad. Who has helped keep Gilad Schalit's family apprised of the status of efforts to release their kidnapped son? Amos Gilad. Representing the defense minister in contacts with the Palestinian Authority? Amos Gilad. Putting Israel's case to the US over arms sales? Gilad. Ties with NATO? Gilad. Highlighting the Iranian threat? Amos Gilad. Unsurprisingly, then, the silver-haired general, now nearing 60, is a busy man. But pinning him down for interview is worth the postponements and the wait. Delivered in clipped, no-nonsense staccato sentences, his assessments are strikingly clear: The Syrians do have an interest in making peace. Nobody's yet come up with an appropriate military solution for Gaza. Diplomacy won't stop Iran. For an insider's take on Israel's current defense thinking, this is about as candid as it gets: Are we witnessing the collapse of the tahadiyeh? No, what happened [at the start of the current deterioration two weeks ago] is that the IDF received credible information that Hamas intended to kidnap another soldier, and had dug a tunnel for the purpose. The details are known. We weighed [the decision to raid the tunnel on November 4] carefully. What prevailed in the end ... is that saving the life of a soldier or the lives of soldiers is a supreme value in and of itself... [Hamas's overall] interest, as far as can be judged, is to return to the "calm." But Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state. That is part of its ideology. It accepts none of the Quartet's conditions [for its own legitimization via recognition of Israel]. It wants to take over the PLO. At present, for tactical and strategic reasons, it is interested in the "calm." If they planned such a kidnapping, what does that say about Hamas's commitment to the tahadiyeh? Their intention was out of the blue one day to announce that they had captured another soldier. They would not have said how. They'd have said it's not a breach of the "calm." And they would have threatened us not to respond. They would have demanded that we free prisoners in exchange. Haven't we been buying relative calm at the price of greater violence later? Hamas belongs to a group of players inspired by Iran which are acting against Israel. There are threats from the north, from Syria, from Iran... Sderot and the areas adjacent to Gaza had been subjected to unceasing attacks. And the state came to the conclusion that the time had come to put an end to this. It found an opportunity to reach a calm which enables the IDF to prepare much more effectively. Decisions such as this have to take into account the whole range of problems. In Gaza, one can be confident that the army is capable of carrying out a successful military operation. But afterwards, holding a civilian population on this scale, dealing with hostile Arab propaganda, the implications for the Palestinian Authority - there are all kinds of factors... When the political echelon and the top military echelon take a decision [to operate forcefully in Gaza], they need to determine the appropriate time for Israel and minimize the damage and maximize the usefulness. Experience shows that military operations don't always solve problems in the Middle East. You have to find the optimal solution. To date, no appropriate military solution was found for the Strip. This is an opportunity to severely criticize those who are slating the Egyptians. It's absolutely wrong. It actually harms Israel. Israel's strategic peace with Egypt, its importance and value, outweigh any criticism we may have. Criticism is legitimate but there's a difference between criticism in the Middle East and insult. You have to weigh all the interests, all the priorities throughout the area, because Israel in the next year faces very many challenges. As for the argument that the enemy is getting stronger, yes, that's true, but remember, we are getting stronger, too. Israel has considerable capabilities and the question is your choice of timing. Is it inevitable that Israel will return to Gaza? Inevitable...? Well, how do you see things developing? First of all, Hamas is not doing that well. They've tried to take control of the West Bank. They're not succeeding. They tried to impose their will at the Cairo conference on Fatah and PLO. They're not succeeding. They're surviving in control of Gaza, but they're not offering any hope to the residents. The people there are suffering and living in poverty. They blame us for everything, always. But in truth, they understand. I don't like to generalize, but from my experience with the Palestinians, they're a smart people. They are capable of assessing and understanding. If there were elections today, they would vote differently? It's very problematic to have terrorist organizations participating in elections. I'm not sure they would win today. But I don't have any hard statistics. So it's all speculative, and who am I as an Israeli to speak for them? But I am sure that they're suffering. Their economy is pretty paralyzed. We are maintaining a correct humanitarian reality. Even when they fire at us and people say we're crazy, we supply solar for their power station so that their hospitals can work. We don't want to cause a humanitarian disaster. That's not right for Jews or for the government of Israel. If there was peace, if there was economic cooperation, they would benefit greatly. But you don't detect any cracks in Hamas's control, correct? They are surviving. Nothing threatens their rule. No, nothing threatens them. The Palestinian Authority was defeated. Israel [is no threat] so long as it does not carry out a military operation. Hamas's is a brutal regime, strongly repressive, terrible prisons, torture, very harsh actions. And they're smuggling in everything... The smuggling is problematic and we urge the Egyptians to act against it, but even with all the smuggling, the situation [for Gazans] is not soaring. Is Hamas replicating Hizbullah's strategy in southern Lebanon? Same models, same ideas. I'm talking about subterranean infrastructure. Hamas is influenced by Iran. It gets financial aid from Iran, smuggling. The model is Hizbullahstan, an entity stronger than the country, like a cancer - a Hamastan that is stronger than the Palestinian Authority. At present, it's not comparable to Hizbullah. They are trying to build a capability of long-range rockets to threaten Israel and a capacity to defend themselves if Israel goes back in. They're a long way away [from Hizbullah's status] because of the differences in their capabilities. But it's the same idea. And they'll get there unless we intervene militarily? Look, we're trying to prevent it and we have some successes, but from their point of view, they are continuing to get stronger and we're watching it and getting organized. But I say again, a military operation at any given moment is not always the right solution. You have to be very well organized, very well prepared and must take into account all the factors - public opinion, relations with Egypt, the PLO, the interests of the residents of the South. Why did we not take into account those kinds of considerations 2 1/2 years ago when we went to war against Hizbullah? In Lebanon, at least one thing was temporarily achieved: We've got deterrence that has held for a long time. The border is absolutely quiet. They've also massively strengthened, however. But you can't always act. That's the difference between policies and feelings. You have to choose the right moment. You need public legitimacy. Look at Operation Defensive Shield [in 2002, when the IDF operated against terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank]. There was a 100 percent-plus response to the call-up of reservists, because people recognized the urgent imperative for action... Hizbullah wants to increase its influence in Lebanon as part of the government. If they were to provoke us, say, in a couple of months, they'd need to take into account that our response will threaten their status. So you have a process where they are strengthening, but at the same time there are greater pressures on them not to act against us in order not to lose assets. And we're now saying that if there is another confrontation, we'd hold Lebanon to blame - because Hizbullah is now an integral part of Lebanon's government - and target Lebanese infrastructure? I'm not going to comment on what we might do. An army prepares infinite options for action. Overall, Hizbullah share's Iran's overview, which sets Israel as a target and a goal... But there's a paradox. The more they deepen their membership in and participation in the legitimate Lebanese government, the more they have to take into account the fate of the state, Lebanon. Do you feel we've learned the lessons of the Lebanon War? You are supposed to be the bridge, in a way, across that rift that was laid bare between the military and political echelons. The army is carrying out a whole range of activities - training and preparation - on the basis of the lessons and on the basis of the intelligence picture. The lessons for any government in the future are very clear: We need to be ready at all times. We need a strong army. And before you make a decision, you need to be sure that your levels of preparation are very high. Sometimes there are alternative courses that provide an answer or a partial answer. Explain to me the apparent contradiction between Israel hitting a Syrian nuclear site last year and Israel engaging in indirect peace negotiations with Syria. It's perfectly logical. First of all, Israel does not take formal responsibility for that incident. And for the Syrians, there is no contradiction between their efforts to come to constitute a regional super power via the pursuit of a nuclear capability and other strategic military capabilities, and having a close relationship with Iran, on the one hand, while, on the other hand, they want peace according to certain conditions. There are no negotiations at the moment. There are [indirect] diplomatic contacts. What the Syrians want is well-known. The question is what the Syrians are prepared to give. Israel has a range of interests related to the Syrian threats against Israel. That will be the heart of the dialogue if and when it opens. Are the Syrians seriously interested in making peace? They do have an interest. They have to consider the future of the Alawite regime, a minority regime. Will Iran swallow them ultimately? Will Hizbullah come to turn against them? In the past, Syria was perceived to be so powerful. I'm not sure Hizbullah thinks of them in that way today, or that Iran does. I'm sure [President Bashar] Assad is looking to the future and won't want the Syrian regime to end here. This partnership with Iran is not natural. It takes him out of his natural environment in the Arab world. It's a partnership with a non-Sunni entity, unlike most of the Arab world. And you believe he can be peeled away from Iran? A peace agreement would take Syria out of the circle of hostility to Israel, and it would restore Syria to the Sunni world where the primary concern is less now with Israel than it is with the Iranian threat. Before we get to Iran, let me ask you about the status of the Jordanian-trained Palestinian forces deploying now in Jenin. How capable are these forces? First of all, the army, the Shin Bet and Military Intelligence, after a long period in which we were not able to decisively prevail against terrorism, have now managed to counter terror to such an extent that Israel is quiet. Sometimes we don't give enough credit to these kinds of achievements. There was a death industry operated from Damascus and Iran. That has created a context in which if the Palestinian Authority wants to take control [of territory], it must have a credible security capability. [In the PA,] they understand Hamas is also a threat to them. They always knew this, but after what happened to the Fatah people in Gaza [last June, when Hamas violently took control], it was clearer still. So now, Palestinian forces who are trained overseas are operating alone - we don't tell them what to do - for patriotic Palestinian purposes. They're working more effectively than in the past, in Jenin. Lately they've started to operate in the Hebron area as well. There's certainly an improvement. It has positive economic repercussions too. Roadblocks have been taken down. And these will be crucial components if there is to be a viable accommodation. A question on Gilad Schalit: Why has Israel been prepared to agree to such disproportionate "exchanges" to secure the release of captured soldiers, when the consequences are clearly further kidnappings and killings. Let's be clear: The effort to kidnap and kill soldiers and civilians is an ongoing effort. Nothing is going to change that. I don't accept that this or that exchange caused such actions, or that had there been no such exchange it would not have happened. Our soldiers are conscripted. By law. When a soldier is kidnapped, as in the case of Gilad Schalit, the state has to do everything possible to bring him home. It's vital for the soldiers, for the state. It's a supreme value. Ask the defense minister, a former chief of staff. Ask the current chief of staff. There's also the family, which suffers until the soldier is brought home, even in tragic circumstances... We have an obligation. And I absolutely identify with that outlook. When you hear the prime minister talking of the imperative to separate from the Palestinians, do you consider that we are ripe for compromise and that the problem is on their side, or is it on ours? I don't want to assign blame and I won't get into the political side. From the security point of view, there's a reason we are living in quiet - that extraordinary success of the army and the intelligence community to destroy this suicide terrorism, these cheap, directable, human missiles, which always hurt civilian targets. We can't transfer the responsibility [for this] to another player [such as the PA] because it doesn't have the capabilities. For that reason alone, we have to be very cautious in any accord that we sign. That's only one factor, of course. I won't go into the question of where you can afford to compromise and where not. We may be ready for certain compromises, but the Palestinians don't accept those [terms]. The Palestinian are always holding to the same formula. I'm sticking with the security aspect in answering this... The Palestinians, I'm sorry to say, are a long way from being capable [of effective security control]. They have to learn those capabilities, as the Arab world has done. I'm not talking about Lebanon, but Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia - they've fought with a strong hand. There were predictions that the Saudi regime would be brought down. It didn't happen... Yet we see the opposite happening with the PA. We see Abbas was ready to meet with Hamas in Cairo for reconciliation talks. I'm not sure you're right. The fact is that no [Fatah-Hamas] agreement has been reached. Ultimately, Fatah and the PLO are not prepared for Hamas to take over, because there'll be nowhere safe for them on earth. There is no agreement because of Hamas's position... Hamas insists that Israel has no right to exist. It wants to take over the PLO, and that's it. That Abbas or other leaders go to Egypt is in deference to Egypt's status as the leader of the Arab world. The Egyptians tried to advance reconciliation and tranquility, but not by imposing their will on either side. Now to Iran. I had the impression until recently that the consensus here was that Israel cannot be reconciled to a nuclear Iran. Not only because they might press the button, but because the very fact of this regime having that weaponry is an existential threat. Do you share the assessment? Clearly. Yes. And by the way this is another achievement for intelligence. The strategic assessment [of Iran's nuclear intentions] was carried out in the mid-1990s. So what's the question? The question is whether this assessment still holds, or whether there is any kind of change, any start of a process of "Well, we have to begin to prepare for a reality with a nuclear Iran"? Let's begin with the intelligence picture: The Iranians are determined to obtain nuclear weaponry. Iran is controlled by an ideology and a regime that has set itself the goal to be rid of Israel. It will do everything it can to destabilize the Middle East via entities such as Hizbullahstan and Hamastan. They've got other plans that are even more grave. They are determined to attain nuclear weapons despite the international pressure and they will continue. The picture is clear. They are building more missiles. They're dealing with uranium enrichment. The assessment has not changed. Quite the reverse. Everybody is now united around it. Diplomatic pressure isn't working? Diplomatic pressure against a state this determined can slow processes, but cannot halt them. And economic pressure? That depends on what kind of economic pressure. Total isolation in which everything would collapse? But that's not happening. They have oil and so on. So if it's not working...? It's not that it's not working. It's much more impressive than is understood. But the fact is, it is not preventing the dangerous process of a nuclear Iran... This is indeed a situation that we can't tolerate. What can be done about it? First of all, we still stick with the diplomatic option, and all the options are on the table, as President Bush said. And that's it and I can't go into details. The details here are very problematic. And elaborating directly assists the enemy in its war against Israel. The test will be in the result - whether we are able or not to prevent this grave threat. The more we talk about it - however seductive that may be - the more we brag, the more we weaken our capacity to achieve. We cannot accept a nuclear Iran. We cannot be reconciled to it. I'm wrong to think that there's any tendency to be reconciled to it? Indeed. Reading up on [Israel's 1981 raid on Saddam's nuclear reactor at] Osirak, it's clear how complicated that was. And Iran is building its program with Osirak as a case study on how to protect itself from attack. It would seem to be very difficult to act against the Iranian facilities. With the air force attack against Osirak, there were many who said then what you are saying now - that it couldn't be done. And the fact is, it succeeded. Iran is a country with smart people who have capabilities. It really would be a considerable challenge. Come the day, if and when this or that option is adopted, what will matter is the outcome.