A wary security chief

Ex-deputy NSC head Chuck Freilich warns that ‘Trump could turn on us.’

OPPONENTS OF Israel’s disengagement plan from Gaza scream as they speak with a policeman in the settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip in 2005 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
OPPONENTS OF Israel’s disengagement plan from Gaza scream as they speak with a policeman in the settlement of Kfar Darom in the Gaza Strip in 2005
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Former deputy chief of the national security council Chuck Freilich is worried.
Back when he was still working for the NSC and meeting with Dov Weissglas, then a top aide to prime minister Ariel Sharon, he was worried about Weissglas’s haphazard process of integrating the policy suggestions from various state agencies into something Sharon could absorb.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, he says, “This was exactly the integrative function that we, as the NSC, were supposed to fulfill and were more equipped to do so.”
Now he is worried about Israel having insufficient big-picture thinking on national security issues and insufficient connections between that plane and the diplomatic one.
Maybe that is why the former New Yorker, who made aliya in 1969 at the age of 13 and worked in the Defense Ministry and the NSC from 1993 to 2005, has written what may be the most comprehensive book on Israeli national security ever.
The book, Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, does not mince words, and neither does Freilich.
Whereas Israeli politicians have been falling over themselves to praise US President Donald Trump, even naming a planned train station after him, Freilich warns, “I don’t think that Trump cares about anything other than his own self-interest. He could turn on us.”
“At the moment, everything is very convenient, and it may remain so. But if at some point Trump thinks Israel is an obstacle, and if he puts a peace plan forward, the man... has no sentiment,” he says with some exasperation.
“His only loyalty is to himself. This was not true about Obama, Bush and Clinton. These were people who were genuinely committed to Israel, even if they were critical,” he argues.
He adds that Trump exudes a “warm atmosphere,” but when it comes to substance, there are problems. Freilich contends that Trump has abandoned Israeli interests in Syria to Russia and Iran, and that his undiplomatic style has undermined the attempt to iron out thorny issues in Iran’s nuclear accord with the West.
WHAT ARE some of the strategies that Freilich recommends when it comes to Israel’s long-term security interests?
He says that there is no alternative to the two-state solution, a deal that would inevitably split the land with the Palestinians.
Why do negotiations always unravel? Why can’t negotiators bridge gaps on the sovereignty of the Temple Mount, the Palestinian refugee issue and what kind of land swaps would accompany an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank?
Sitting in a café in Tel Aviv, the semi-casually dressed Freilich says he understands that even with the most flexible negotiating positions, differences may be unbridgeable. “I am not convinced there is a deal. But let the Israeli government put forth some dramatic proposals, and let the Palestinians reject them.
“Then the world will need to ask: Are we talking about the ’67 borders or Israel’s existence? I would like to put them [the Palestinians] to the test again.”
But, it was pointed out to Freilich, not only is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not signaling a readiness to make far-ranging concessions on settlements and Jerusalem, neither are his two primary rivals for political power. Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and the Zionist Union’s Avi Gabbay have also indicated opposition to far-reaching concessions.
Freilich nods, as if anticipating the question, and responds, “No one thinks this is easy. The very future of the Zionist enterprise and of a Jewish and democratic state is at stake. In times of crisis, difficult decisions are made. No one says it today. Maybe because they are all pandering to the moderate-right constituency.
“They think the only way potential alternatives [to Netanyahu] can get elected is by fudging on the West Bank issue. So they don’t say it. But I think they know as well as anyone else that there is no deal without withdrawing from everything besides the blocs,” he says.
A growing number of centrist politicians and commentators, however, are saying that the Jewish settlements outside the blocs are now too large and complicated to remove, as the Gaza withdrawal has shown, an episode many have called a “national trauma.”
Freilich says that the Gaza withdrawal was “greatly overblown by the Right.” It was not a national trauma, he explains, but rather a nonevent for most Israelis. On the issue of settlement numbers, and their being too large for a withdrawal, he suggests thinking back to the mass aliya from the former Soviet Union in November 1991.
“We were getting 30,000 people per month from the Soviet Union. They knew no Hebrew and had a different culture. In a relatively short period, we succeeded in doing it. It was a national effort. A West Bank withdrawal will be easier,” he asserts.
“Most people will retain their job and only move a few kilometers. Many can remain in the same school program for their kids. It is only a trauma if you make it a trauma.”
Freilich admits that some of his ideas “may not be for this or even the next prime minister,” noting that “the strategy is hopefully good for 10 years, with a significant review every two to five years for a midcourse correction.”
But a more serious problem is a dearth of leaders willing to sit down at the negotiating table. “I don’t think today there is a partner for peace in Jerusalem, Ramallah or Washington... We need changes in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and maybe in Washington, before we can get an agreement,” he says.
In Freilich’s eyes, what would such an agreement look like? He argues that the two-state solution is the only escape from the one-state solution. “The one-state solution is a total absurdity.... Israel becomes Palestine, and we are one big happy democratic family – which is nonsense. That looks like Syria, Iraq, Libya – that isn’t what we want.”
But another one-state solution, he adds, has already been put forward by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The Palestinians, he explains, would never agree to Bennett’s overall aim of instituting Jewish supremacy. “Through violent means or otherwise, they won’t accept being second-class citizens.”
Freilich is also open to a unilateral withdrawal as a way of building momentum, if a negotiated settlement is beyond reach in the near term. In this case, he says, Israel could make significant gains in terms of international recognition. It could withdraw to the West Bank security barrier line, while maintaining full IDF deployments in the territories wherever necessary.
Overall, Freilich describes himself as an optimist, noting Israel’s successful peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
Regarding peace with Egypt, he shares an anecdote from Anwar Sadat’s 1977 visit to Israel which got the ball rolling. The story also reveals aspects of Freilich’s own mischievous character and some of his early experiences with Israeli officials who confused short- and long-term planning.
“I was the junior officer in the Planning Branch of the IDF General Staff and was told that I had to stay to ‘man the fort,’ while everyone else went home to see Sadat’s dramatic arrival on TV,” he recounts.
“In terms of military logic, we were a long-term planning unit. It made no sense whatsoever to stay! In truth, if the Arabs had ever wanted to surprise us, it wasn’t Yom Kippur in 1973, but would have been on that night. The IDF General Staff didn’t really exist – everyone was home.”
“I said ‘nuts to this. I am not missing the historic moment.’ I waited for everyone to leave, and in effect went AWOL – the only time I ever disobeyed an order. Of course, no one knew when I arrived the next morning,” he adds.
Missile defense
Freilich believes that Israeli confusion over long-term national security strategy has carried over to an insufficient commitment to missile defense.
While he compliments Iron Dome’s success with shooting down Hamas’s simpler short-range rockets, he says that Israel’s failure to expand from around 10 to around 20 Iron Dome antimissile batteries has left the home front vulnerable.
“It has also forced Israel to make decisions about whether to prioritize military installations at the expense of population centers. All of Israel’s major population centers should be protected. We should not need to prioritize at that level,” he says.
He says that more Iron Dome batteries are needed so that, in any next round of conflict, a larger portion of the country can “go about their lives with less disruptions.”
Positing a theoretical $7 billion price tag for the added Iron Domes and around 100,000 iron dome interceptors to shoot down enemy rockets, Freilich admits this amounts to a great deal of money for Israel. But then he refers to the $38b. 10-year package that the US has committed to in supporting Israel’s defense needs.
He says that Israel could take $5b. from those funds and invest it in the remainder of its missile defense needs. “Israel cannot wait 10 years and should ask the US to front-load the missile defense funds.
“Maybe the Trump administration, our great friend, will do more,” he says, with a hint of sarcasm. Even as Trump has supported Israel on a range of issues, he is known for wanting to cut, not expand, foreign aid.
Even if the US increases its aid package, is it likely that Freilich’s priorities will be met? “We need to change some of our own priorities,” he responds. “We need to put off some offensive programs – buying more F-35s than we already have.”
Also, he advocates “an Iron Dome tax,” which he says Israelis would understand and be willing to pay without heavy objection.
Regarding missile defense generally, he says, “There is a race here. At some point, what has been uneconomical at the start is and will become more economical.” The key with such issues, he explains, is to aggressively pour funds into technological solutions until they work and become more economical.
A greater commitment to diplomacy
While Freilich is not afraid to use military force by any means, another broad theme that he emphasizes is shifting to diplomatic leverage instead of military force.
He explains there are several grounds for such an opinion. First, “Israel appears to be reaching the limits to the efficacy of military force, as manifested by the never-ending strife with the Palestinians, repeated and inconclusive rounds of conflict with Hezbollah and Hamas, the magnitude of the Iranian threat and growing international opprobrium.”
A worrisome trend, however, is waning US support for Israel in the long term. Freilich explains that current American adolescents and the next generation have “a totally different view of Israel. These are not like the post-Holocaust years, with the guilt, nor like Israel’s early years,” when Israel was viewed as small, weak and vulnerable.
Now, more and more Americans, he warns, “view Israel as a brutal occupying power.... There was recently an absolutely devastating poll of American college students, with 25% viewing Israel as an apartheid state, 50% didn’t know, and only 25% thought otherwise.... These are people who vote today.”
Freilich worries about negative views of Israel in Europe, and that views in the US are increasingly moving from the fringe to the mainstream, including within the Democratic Party. “We’ve lost Europe, but we can’t allow ourselves to be isolated from Europe. We are in the process of losing liberal America.
“On the Right, Israel’s position has strengthened, but we don’t want to lose the Left, considering that 80% of the Jewish population is on the liberal Left. Jewish reliance on the Orthodox Right is not a viable long-term strategy when it comes to American support of Israel.”
Questioned about Netanyahu’s diplomatic success and progress in Africa and with moderate Sunni Middle Eastern states, he says Netanyahu should receive credit for significant improvements in Israel’s diplomatic standing.
“But part of it is luck, considering the circumstances and the shared common threat that Sunnis face from Iran, even though they do not like Netanyahu. Improving relations with all of these countries would have been immensely greater if Israel took different positions on the Palestinian issue.
“We could do a quid pro quo deal with the Saudis, bringing relations with us out into the open, with us putting forward proposals on the Palestinian issue, including certain withdrawals and other partial steps to sweeten the pot. This could lead to broader economic and military relations, not just diplomatic.”
He also believes that resolving the numerous Iranian challenges to Israeli security, both nuclear and from Syria, would be much easier with a greater commitment to diplomacy.
He explains that through diplomacy, Israel can work with the US, Europe and other allies to address Iran’s regional role and above all the nuclear issue, including agreed definitions of what constitute violations of the 2015 agreement, as well as measures to bring Iran back into compliance, should it fail to comply with the agreement.
Furthermore, diplomacy, he adds, could better ensure that Iran never crosses the nuclear threshold following the agreement’s expiration. This could include an international agreement after the current one expires which sets the conditions for military action, and the means of deterring Iran.
In tones of rising frustration, he criticizes the approach of Netanyahu and Trump, who are pressing the sunset clause issue now, even though the Iran nuclear deal is set to continue for many years, arguing they should have waited to raise the issue in the deal’s seventh or eighth year.
“Trump could get Europe to sign on for extending the nuclear restrictions and for ballistic missile test restrictions, if the US president took a different approach. You can’t confront the whole world. You can’t fight all of the time. You need to quietly work with your allies. Once the allies are onboard, then you present it as a fait accompli to Russia and China.”
Turning to the Syrian crisis, he says: “American influence must be brought to bear with Russia, the true power broker today in Syria, to reduce the Iranian role there.”
He explains that Israel would be in a stronger position to contain Hamas and Hezbollah, given progress on the Palestinian issue and better diplomatic standing.
“Israel faces two main threats. Hamas, which has been contained, is not the major one. The major threat is the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis, especially if Iran goes nuclear.” But at least for the moment, such ambitions have been thwarted.
Freilich is also concerned that Netanyahu, who runs the Foreign Ministry in only a part-time role among his other duties, has not and does not take diplomacy seriously.
To substantiate the point, he tells a story of an official interagency visit to New Delhi.
“Late at night, we wanted to go up to the top floor of the 10-story hotel for a panoramic view of the city. It turned out to be a totally unfinished roof, with protruding steam pipes, boiling water, air-conditioning units, power generators – an absolute hell.
“We all wanted to go back downstairs, except for the national security adviser at the time (a former IDF general), who was leaping over the different obstacles, weaving in and out, coming to the very edge of the roof where there was no barrier to keep us from falling 10 floors down.
“I stood there with a sense of the surreal. Here we are, a senior delegation, meeting the next day with the prime minister of India, compelled by the forces of hierarchy to follow him around this crazy place. If the Indians only knew....”
While the story is comical and could just reflect the character of that specific delegation, for Freilich, it also stands as a metaphor of an Israel that does not take diplomacy and national security seriously. This form of diplomacy tries to use spontaneity and creativity.
This brings us back to why Freilich wrote Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change.
Whether it comes to the Palestinian issue, missile defense, the balance of using diplomacy or military force, Iran, or a range of other issues, he hopes the book will get leaders thinking and planning in a more serious and systematic way to ensure an optimal future for Israel.