Strategizing for Israel

Former deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich presents a compelling proposal for a comprehensive Israeli defense strategy

Chuck Freilich at the Dan Boutique Hotel on December 5 (photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
Chuck Freilich at the Dan Boutique Hotel on December 5
(photo credit: STEVE LINDE)
When Israel announced on December 4 that it had launched Operation Northern Shield to destroy Hezbollah terror tunnels from Lebanon, Charles D. (Chuck) Freilich, immediately posted on Facebook, “Whatever the reason for the specific timing of today’s IDF operation against Hezbollah tunnels, whether related to Bibi’s [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s] legal/electoral problems or not, the tunnels present an unacceptable threat, had to be dealt with and Israel has an absolute right of self-defense. The truly big challenge is Hezbollah’s rocket capability, especially the precise ones. One step at a time. They and Iran must be stopped. IDF to be congratulated for a job well done!”
It was classic Chuck, who not only has his finger on the pulse when it comes to Israel’s security situation, but also happens to be a real expert, eloquent speaker and gifted writer. The New York-born Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser who is currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School, has served as a senior analyst at the Defense Ministry and a delegate at the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. After making Aliyah as a youth, he served in the IDF for five years but returned to the US to earn his doctorate at Columbia University.
In the Preface to his new book, “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change,” Freilich writes, “Israel’s national security has always been a personal and professional passion, starting with my childhood in New York, when I observed the Six Day War from afar, and ever since moving to Israel in my teens, as a soldier, defense official and now scholar.”
While acknowledging that “a lifelong commitment to Zionism and a love of Israel, with a deep concern for its future, animate this book,” he makes clear that only a truly dispassionate analysis, as this work purports to be, “best serves Israel’s national security.” He argues that Israel has come a long way from the embattled state of its early decades, but still faces daunting and potentially existential threats. “Nevertheless,” Freilich says, “Israel has never been more secure, its existence is no longer truly in doubt, and it has a window of opportunity both to prevent the ominous scenarios from emerging and, no less importantly, to make fundamental choices about its future course as a state.”
Israel, Freilich believes, does not have a formal national strategy, and this book is an attempt to outline one. It is, the blurb claims, “the most comprehensive study of Israel’s national security to date,” prescribing “an actionable course for moving forward.”
ON DECEMBER 5, Freilich spoke about his book in a lecture sponsored by the Israel Council on Foreign Relations and the World Jewish Congress at Jerusalem’s Dan Boutique Hotel, with former cabinet minister and deputy prime minister Dan Meridor – the ICFR’s president – acting as moderator.
“I believe that Israel has never been strong, never been more secure and never been more capable of charting her national course, making some of the really difficult decisions we have to make in the coming years and doing so from a position of strength,” he told a packed crowd that included diplomats and academics.
On the negative side, he said the Middle East was “turning in negative ways” after “an interregnum where things were relatively good from our point of view for a few years” – and there are, what he called, “some serious clouds out there at the moment, primarily because of Iran.”
Without giving away the sharp analysis and dramatic conclusions in his book, Freilich then outlined a few of his key recommendations covered by some 50 pages in the book.
“I think that either a two-state solution, or if that isn’t possible, unilateral measures to separate from the Palestinians are Israel’s number one strategic objective,” he said. “To be realistic, I don’t think there’s any chance of achieving a two-state solution for the foreseeable future. I don’t think the leadership is there in Jerusalem, in Ramallah or in Washington. Those are the three primary players.”
Freilich stressed that he was neither politically biased nor naïve.
“I am not starry eyed about what a Palestinian state is going to look like. As a matter of fact, I think a Palestinian state will be another failed, corrupt Arab dictatorship. It will be irredentist, it will be unstable, and tensions with Israel will continue even after peace is ostensibly signed,” he said. “Peace with the Palestinians or PA will not change Hamas or Hezbollah or Iran’s enmity towards Israel. It will ease it a bit, but it won’t change things. The reason that we need a two-state solution or to separate from the Palestinians is to maintain our national character as a Jewish and democratic state. I don’t care about left or right. All I know is for 50 years in this situation, and I think I’ve read every proposal for a resolution, and I have yet to find a better alternative than a two-state solution, as miserable as it might be. It’s a good idea in principle; in practice, it’s not going to look so great. But there’s nothing better.”
In the interim, Freilich recommended that Israel keep the conditions alive for a two-state solution, “so that if and when we do have the national leaderships required in the three capitals, we can achieve peace.”
“That means first of all not taking measures of our own which make it that much harder to achieve a two-state solution, and of course I’m alluding to the settlements,” he said. “I think what we should be doing is stopping all settlements beyond the settlement blocs, or if you want to take a more expansive approach, at least beyond the fence line. We should be taking measures to voluntarily encourage settlers beyond that line to come home, and the IDF remains deployed militarily for defensive purposes for as long as is absolutely necessary. But we begin creating the reality of a two-state solution and make it abundantly clear to everyone that that’s our endgame.”
Responding to critics who say Israel has already crossed the point of no-return for a two-state solution, Freilich said, “Maybe because I’m an optimist and refuse to accept reality, but I hope not, I hope because I’m a realist that is not yet the case. But we’re certainly approaching it. I don’t know where the tipping point is, but we may not be very far away.”
By presenting Israel’s most critical debates about the Palestinians, Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, US relations and nuclear strategy, the strategy Freilich proposes in his book addresses the primary challenges the Jewish state must address to chart its future course – restraint, defense and diplomacy along with the military capacity to deter and, if necessary, defeat Israel’s adversaries.
“I’m happy to say, and this has nothing to do with the fact that I recommended it beforehand, in the last few weeks the prime minister has begun speaking about a program for 30 billion shekels for defense, so I think we’re heading in that direction,” he said in his speech.
He argued that Israel needs to expend more energy in the field of diplomacy, focusing on Washington. “The center of Israeli foreign policy is the United States,” he said. “It has been for decades. It will be, I think, for a long time to come. We also need a dynamic peace policy. Israel should be positioning itself so that it is always perceived by the international community to be the side that is working for peace. That’s not the international perception today.”
Additionally, he said, Israel should be doing all it can to maintain its very good relationship with a series of countries from Russia to Canada, and expand relations with other states around the world to avoid another conflagration in the region.
“We live in a tough neighborhood and we’re going to have to continue relying on our military capabilities for a long time to come,” he said. “I’m all for going on the offense when we can achieve our objective at a price that we think is appropriate to pay. [But] I think the emphasis should be on defense and diplomacy. The special relationship with the United States should be defined as a fundamental pillar of Israel’s national security strategy. Just about nothing should be allowed to get in the way of that relationship.”
Still, Freilich argues controversially – echoing his argument in the book, “I think the price of the remarkable relationship with the United States is that Israel has lost a significant part of its national independence, its freedom of maneuver. Not completely, but significantly. We have become so dependent to the United States that I can ask a question, and wait for people to fall out of their chairs, ‘Can we even survive today without the United States?’”
The book presents recommendations to counter this phenomenon, as well as several other interesting and pertinent ones. “I think we have to maintain the capability to strike the Iranian nuclear program at any time, if and when the diplomatic options have been exhausted, and we’re not there yet,” Freilich stated in his lecture. “I don’t think we can achieve more than a postponement. If Iran wants to renew the program, they will. I do not think that the State of Israel can allow Iran to go nuclear.”
His other recommendations including amending the electoral system to enable the cabinet to serve for a full four years and govern more effectively as well as “a whole variety of measures to enable the resilience of Israeli society, because this conflict has been going on for 70 years, and it will unfortunately going to continue doing so for some time as well.”
Concluding his talk, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles by Meridor, Frelich said, “Bottom line, I think at 70, we have a great deal to be proud of, to rejoice over. Israel has been a resounding success. We’re doing pretty well. We’re celebrating Hanukkah, and there is what to celebrate!”
In the conclusion to the book, Freilich echoes this optimistic note. “A hopeful and positive vision, in which peace is ultimately possible, even if still not for the foreseeable future, must replace the apocalyptical visions of continual conflict and even a renewed Holocaust that some Israeli leaders have espoused in recent years,” he writes. “At 70, Israel can be proud of its achievements, take a deep breath, and adapt itself to the reality of what will unfortunately remain a long-term conflict, but one in which its existence is no longer in doubt and its ability to shape its future is greater than ever before.”
Former US Mideast peace envoy Dennis Ross says the book offers “a coherent and compelling set of policy recommendations.” He adds that “Freilich’s analysis, recommendations and broad conclusions should be read by anyone interested in Israel’s future and heeded by Israel’s leaders.”
For his part, Meridor calls it “a must-read, exhaustive and groundbreaking study of Israel’s national security,” and predicts that “it will inform public and expert debate for years to come.”
I can only echo their sentiments. You may not agree with all of Freilich’s arguments or conclusions, but they are well-informed and compelling – and his book is highly recommended to anyone who cares about Israel.