Editor's Notes: When the next war comes

There's no Arab interest in another round of conflict, says Vilna’i. But the deputy defense minister is still preparing for the worst.

Vilnai 311 (photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
Vilnai 311
(photo credit: (Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post))
‘No, no, no, no, no,” said Matan Vilna’i – to make sure I’d got the point. Then he added, “Absolutely not,” in case I was still missing it.
I’d asked him whether Israel was on the brink of another war – what with the renewed Kassam fire from Gaza, a spate of briefings at which senior officers have warned of the expanded Hizbullah and Syrian missile capacity, and the recent highly unusual IDF decision to reveal the specifics of Hizbullah’s military deployment in the “human shield” villages of southern Lebanon.
“Go back over the years,” urged the deputy defense minister.“Every spring for generations, there are war threats.They’re meaningless. They’re right about once every few decades.”
The fact is, he continued, “There is no Arab interest in a war. No Israel interest. After a war, we’d all be back exactly where we were before.”
We were speaking on Sunday, a day before the missile barrage at Eilat and Aqaba, and two days before battalion commander Dov Harari was killed and company commander Ezra Lakia badly injured in the worst incident at the northern border since the Second Lebanon War four years ago.
Those flare-ups underlined the perpetually incendiary tensions on Israel’s frontiers. They also underlined the imperative – despite Vilna’i’s “no, no, no, no, no” assurances – to constantly prepare for the worst.
And that is precisely what the former deputy chief of the General Staff is currently doing: assiduously preparing this country for war – just in case.
Preparing Israel for the new kind of war we get dragged into these days. Wars where the home front is the front line, where civilians are prime targets, and where, Vilna’i added in our interview, we can currently expect precious little international sympathy.
From his office high in the Kirya military complex overlooking the jam-packed streets and homes of Tel Aviv, Vilna’i is overseeing the protection of that vulnerable home front – the construction of a “support network” that is supposed to spring into action if sovereign enemies like Syria and Iran, or their Hizbullah and Hamas proxies, start emptying their immensely expanded missile arsenals into civilian Israel.
To some extent, according to Vilna’i, we are all already at war, and by “we” he means the free world, and by “war” he means the battles against terrorist aggressors fighting from within civilian areas.
The practical aspects of Israel’s capabilities and challenges in this new war environment dominated our lengthy interview, but the conversation also, inevitably, ranged across diplomatic and domestic political issues.
Vilna’i, the bullet-headed ex-military man with the subterranean baritone, is a Labor hawk, an ex-general who came within a whisker of making chief-of-staff and who names Yitzhak Rabin as his mentor.
He’s the kind of Labor pol whom Likud doves cite as being closer to their line of thinking than the strongly pro-settlement- growth likes of Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely. And he, in turn – to what would be the dismay of the traditional Likud Right – cites Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu as being likely to make “the right decision” on terms for peacemaking with the Palestinians.
“There's been a drastic change in the nature of war worldwide, and we’re at the focus,” said Vilna’i, as he elaborated on the new environment in which military conflicts now play out.
“We’re currently in World War III. It broke out on 9/11.It’s a war without conventional fronts; a war without armies facing off against each other. And the focus of this war is the civilian population. When we are acting in Gaza, for instance, we are responsible for the Israeli population, keeping it safe, obviously. We’re also responsible for the Palestinian population, because they are being used as human shields. The enemy fires from within them. We respond with maximal caution and get hit with the Goldstone Report.”
He neither sighed nor even paused at the injustice of it all.“That’s the new nature of war.”
In Israel’s particular context, he said, one critical strategic component that hasn’t changed is the centrality of Israeli deterrence. This is a theme that many of Israel’s defense chiefs reiterate in such conversations – the conviction that, even though Israel did not achieve a decisive victory against Hizbullah in 2006, and chose not to try to achieve one against Hamas in 2008/9, both those conflicts bolstered Israel’s capacity to scare the enemy into holding its fire.
As Vilna’i put it, they emphasized to those Iranian-backed proxies to our north and south that it would be wise for them to think twice before engaging Israel again: “In simple language, we’re the neighborhood bully,” said Vilna’i. “So you don’t want to start with us.Start with us, and you get whacked.”
Again, in common with many Israeli military chiefs, he recalled Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah’s ostensibly rueful public reflection that, as paraphrased by Vilna’i, “If I’d have known what I was going to get [in the Second Lebanon War], I wouldn’t have started.”
In Vilna’i’s assessment, Nasrallah, and by extension Iran, were still licking their wounds at the time of Operation Cast Lead, which is why they chose to keep Hizbullah out of that conflict.
“In 2008, in Gaza, [Hamas’s Ismail] Haniyeh had anticipated that Israeli Arabs would start disturbances, and that Hizbullah would fire rockets at Haifa,” he said. “It didn’t happen. Israel’s [Arab] citizens understand the rules. And Hizbullah, I imagine, said to itself, ‘We don’t want to get whacked again. Let Haniyeh do this on his own.’”
Which begs the question, amidst the latest spate of attacks across our borders, and especially the confrontation near Misgav Am in the North, of whether that deterrent capacity has now dangerously eroded.
Our military correspondent Yaakov Katz noted in Wednesday’s paper that the latest fatal flare-up didn’t come out of the blue. Soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces – most of whom are Shi’ite, and many of whom openly cooperate with Hizbullah – have repeatedly trained their weapons on IDF troops at the border in the past year or so.
“The IDF has also noticed a radical shift within the LAF top command, which has increased its anti- Israel rhetoric,” Katz added.
“When this is the spirit of the top command, it is not surprising that... the company commander who is positioned opposite Misgav Am ordered his troops to open fire at the IDF on Tuesday.”
Since 2006, Hizbullah has massively strengthened its missile capacity, freely importing weaponry from Syria, and deploying in the heart of the 160 Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon. In a radical departure from security norms, the IDF last month released precise details of Hizbullah’s deployment in one typical village, Khiam – specifying the locations of command structures, weapons caches, missile launchers and even the improvised explosive devices intended to thwart any IDF ground attack.
The goal was plainly both to prepare the international community, so that the world would better understand how Hizbullah’s ruthless and cynical use of the villagers as human shields would determine the nature of future rounds of conflict, and to make plain to Hizbullah that Israel knew exactly what it was up to – that the intelligence flaws that undermined the 2006 war effort had been corrected. Israeli military sources, indeed, are adamant that while Hizbullah likes to claim that it knows far more about how the IDF functions than the IDF knows about its operations, the reverse is true. The publication of the Khiam specifics proved the point, they say.
For his part, Vilna’i made no grandiose boasts, but he did point to boosted Israeli capabilities in what he said were four crucial components in the new war era, as they apply in the case of Hizbullah.
“First, they know we can hit their missile launch points. In the Second Lebanon War, within minutes, the IAF, with excellent intelligence, neutralized Hizbullah’s longrange capability.”
If Hizbullah has markedly expanded its arsenal since then, Vilna’i indicated, Israel has markedly expanded its capacity to confront it. “We have wonderful people,” he said. “Working day and night.”
Second, he went on, “we have the capacity to work inside enemy territory, to prevent them firing. Capturing territory. That’s the component that most resembles previous conventional war.”
That’s the component, it might be added, that did not function effectively four years ago, when the political stewards – of a conflict they preferred not even to acknowledge was a “war” – hesitated and changed their minds repeatedly about the deployment of ground forces, and when flaws were exposed in the IDF’s preparation, training, logistics, equipment and more.
The conviction in the defense establishment today is that such failures have been rigorously examined and rectified. Security chiefs also now routinely stress that Israel has made plain it will hold the sovereign state of Lebanon responsible for any cross-border violence and strike back, at Lebanese sovereign targets, accordingly – as even Tuesday’s confrontation indicated.
“We won’t go in that deeply, pursuing each missile,” is how Vilna’i put it. “We’ll strike hard so they’ll realize it’s not worth it.”
Third, said Vilna’i, is that Israel has made major strides in missile interception in recent years. “It’s not a 100 percent capability,” he cautioned, “but it’s important, especially for long-range missiles. We’re the only state that can do this. The Arrow is deployed.”
And finally, he came to the issue of civil defense, his particular focus as deputy minister.
“For a long time, we neglected this because it wasn’t so important. With Lebanon, with missiles hitting even deeper than Haifa, we recognized the new importance.
We needed to find an answer. Ehud Olmert, to his credit, gave responsibility for this to the Defense Ministry rather than the Ministry of Public Security. That was the right decision. From a military point of view, the whole country is the front.”
He waved toward the window and the bustling city.
“Tel Aviv is the home front.”
SinceDecember 2007, said Vilna’i, the ministry has been legislating, implementing and practicing to protect the citizenry.
“Yesterday I was in Beersheba for a drill: a chemical missile landing in the center of town. I was the general in charge of the Southern Command for five years,” he recalled. “I was in Beersheba during the first Gulf War. We had nothing at the time. We had good people and good will but that was all. Now, there’s an organized command structure. The mayor [Ruvik Danilovich] has answers to all the emergency needs. He has an IDF team supporting him, a police team, a municipal team.”
If war broke out, while the IDF would be doing its utmost to swiftly counter Hizbullah’s goal of firing hundreds upon hundreds of missiles into Israeli residential areas, the home front would be equipped “to ensure routine within the emergency situation.”
“We’re going city by city,” Vilna’i said of the preparatory work. “When a missile hits, we’ll have a network to deal with the damage – to cope with the injured, to make sure there’s water and food.”
He stressed that there was precious little of Israel that would be off-limits to enemy missiles – including Jerusalem. Military sources have indicated recently that Hizbullah has plenty of missiles sufficiently accurate to distinguish between east Jerusalem and the west. Vilna’i was more circumspect, but chilling.
“In a matter of time,” he said carefully, “they’ll be able to distinguish between west and east [of the capital]; next, they’ll be able to identify specific targets [around the country]. They’ll be able to hit strategic targets.They’ll throw 500 missiles at us – most will hit open areas; others will cause damage. And the impact of a missile,” he said, in his no-nonsense, unemotional tones, “is akin to a bus blowing up, plus the surrounding damage.”
World War II-style bomb shelters were a thing of the past, he noted. The need now was for protected rooms and protected public areas in which people might have to spend a fair amount of time.
“Bomb shelters? That’s a concept from London 70 years ago. Stay down there for a while. That’s the way it was for me in Jerusalem in the War of Independence. In a bomb shelter, there was room to stand for maybe half an hour until the danger had passed. Nowadays, as the Second Lebanon War showed, people may have to spend a month in these rooms.”
About a third of Israeli residents have a protected room, he said, and legislation was in the works to ensure protection for all, “without spending billions and turning the whole country into a construction site.”
As an example, he noted that “there are lots of underground areas in this country. Vast. Here, next to the Habima theater, they’ve just built a five-floor underground parking garage. Well, every floor has an adjacent shelter that can hold 1,000 people. Each city is checking what it needs and the government will work with them.”
From the practicalities of Vilna’i’s job, our conversation turned to the wider context – the diminishing international empathy for Israel in its relentless battle for survival, the superficial misperception of Israel as a Middle East Goliath, and the ostensible international conviction that Israel could do much more to ease its plight by showing greater determination to partner the Palestinians toward statehood.
“So long as we are seen as an ‘occupying people,’ we’re in trouble,” said Vilna’i, who took pains to define Labor as “not a left-wing party,” but rather as “a centrist, Zionist party.
“The world is cynical and not balanced. The UN Human Rights Council has never dealt with Darfur, where there are massacres. It only targets Israel,” he said.
Was he suggesting that if Israel was not present in the West Bank, it wouldn’t have been hit with Goldstone’s critique of Cast Lead? “No, we would have got it anyway,” Vilna’i said. “But the fact that we are seen as an occupying power works against us. Goldstone would have been seen differently.”
So what does he suggest? “I’m not prepared to compromise in any way on Israel’s security needs. We have to take care of ourselves. No one else can,” he began. “The terror threat has also changed.
It used to be cross-border and more recently the whole country is vulnerable to terror too. So terror has become a strategic weapon. And its perpetrators don’t want a peace deal. And we have to face up to it.
“But we also have to look to our place in the free world, alongside Europe, North America, Australia... The occupation plays against us in this. That doesn’t mean we should flee and run. It does mean we have to find the right balances – which is what we’re trying to do with the Palestinians.”
Vilna’i, who is 66, was drafted into the IDF a year before the Six Day War – rising to deputy chief of the General Staff via the paratroopers and the Sayeret Matkal commandoes.
With the passion of one who fought in them, he recalls that after the 1967 and 1973 wars, “the world was amazed by us. We were the extraordinary David.”
He could also have mentioned the 1976 Entebbe rescue, in which he participated, and which underlined Israel’s gutsy, innovative, daring underdog credentials.
“Now we are seen as a Goliath,” he added bitterly. “They forget that we’re still little David – demographically, territorially.”
He said he always reminds visiting politicians from abroad that “you’re sitting somewhere that has thousands of missiles aimed at it, aimed at civilians. There’s nowhere else like this on the planet. Not in Washington, Paris, London or Berlin. In Jerusalem, yes. In Tel Aviv, yes.
People ignore this. They say they’re sick of it [the conflict].We used to be the heroes of the world. Not any more.”
In this respect, “Tom Phillips is right,” said Vilna’i, referring to the interview I published in this space last week with the departing British ambassador, whose content I had discussed with Vilna’i before we began our conversation.
Except, I noted, Tom Phillips seems to believe that Israel can do a whole lot more to fix things on its own.
Vilna’i appeared to take the point, responding: “Every decision-maker in this country is conscious of his responsibility for the fate of this country. We pulled out of Gaza. We said we’d be done with it. What developed? The No.1 terror state in the world. Less than an hour from here. It doesn’t all depend on us.”
In fact, Vilna’i went on, “every area we’ve left so far, we’ve been hit with missiles from there. And if we relinquish Kalkilya, there’ll be rockets at Tel Aviv. If we relinquish Tulkarm, there’ll be rockets on Netanya. Actually,” he added on reflection, “we have relinquished Tulkarm [to the day-to-day running of the Palestinian Authority], but we’re still militarily overseeing things there.”
His voice, usually so low as to set my tape recorder vibrating, now rose a couple of tones in frustration.
“There are two sides to this game,” he said. “And to my disappointment, the Palestinian side has not handled things right. In Gaza they could have shown the world – to change Gaza into the Hong Kong of the Middle East.
Why didn’t they? Is that my fault?” Still, Vilna’i is forgiving. “Salam Fayyad understands all this,” he said of the PA prime minister. “He’s trying to do [things right] in the West Bank. But the fear is that some extremist terrorist group will take control, as happened in Gaza.”
Were Israel prepared to pull back further in the West Bank, would the PA prove more effective in maintaining control than it did in Gaza? “If this is done in a measured way,” he said carefully, “the answer can be yes, with the stress on the measured process. In the West Bank, they are fighting for their lives [against the Islamists], not ours,” he said.
The PA forces, he elaborated, were “doing well,” by which he meant firmly enforcing law and order. Invoking his mentor, he indicated that PA troops were curbing extremism without exaggerated concern for legal and human rights niceties: “As Rabin said at Oslo: ‘Not Bagatz [the High Court of Justice] and not B’Tselem,’ 17 years late.”
In Gaza, he noted, Hamas didn’t conquer the entire Strip when grabbing power in 2007. “It took over a few key power centers. It literally slaughtered – slit the throats of – the Fatah leaders. It threw some of them off the roofs of eight-story buildings and took over Gaza. The world doesn’t want to remember that. But that’s the fact. So I’m very pessimistic about Gaza. It’ll be a long process.
“The Gaza population already realizes that terrorist control is no good for them,” he asserted. “Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] sees himself as part of the solution.
The way back is via an agreement of one kind or another.But it’s complicated. Really complicated. Any agreement [with the Palestinians] needs components relating to Jordan on one side and Egypt on the other. In Gaza there’s a limit to how many people can live there. There’ll be a population explosion in the end. The only solution is via the Egyptian border. Territorial swaps are part of it. The first brick, which we are now trying to build, is a Palestinian state.”
On the vexed issue of peacemaking, Vilna’i is evidently somewhat, but not entirely, persuaded of Abbas’s and Fayyad’s intentions and capabilities. He’s also somewhat, but not entirely, persuaded of our prime minister’s readiness to go halfway to meet any genuine willingness for progress.
“With the Palestinian leadership now, there has been a change,” he said firmly. “It’s not [Yasser] Arafat – who’d say one thing in Tel Aviv and something else in Ramallah. Ultimately, he was a terrorist in his essence. These are different people.”
Vilna’i goes so far as to assert that “Abu Mazen always spoke about peace. He opposed Arafat on this and that wasn’t easy. With all the difficulties, there is an opportunity here. Tom Phillips is right about that.”
Vilna’i recognizes that Abbas and Fayyad have yet to show a strategic willingness to persuade their own people of the need for compromise. But he also asserts that not all of Israel’s leaders are blameless in this regard. Abbas and Fayyad “understand the need” to tell their people it’s time for peace, he said. “But the question – and the very same question applies to our leaders – is what they’re prepared to tell their people.”
Switching quickly to the Israeli side of the equation, he added: “Rabin, for instance, dared to spell out [the imperative for a two-state solution]. In private conversations, all the leaders of the right understand it. All of them have done, for generations. It began with Menachem Begin.
“But there’s a constant problem on the right,” he elaborated, the Labor politician in him fully surfacing now.
“At big public rallies, they say one thing, and in power, they say something else. That cliché about ‘What you see from there, you don’t see from here,’ and so on. Menachem Begin, as prime minister of Israel, in his greatness, decided to leave Sinai. He had Labor as his security net.Menachem Begin took a decision as prime minister, not as head of the Likud. [Binyamin] Netanyahu is standing in Begin’s shoes.”
And how does Vilna’i anticipate Netanyahu filling those shoes, come the moment of truth? “Everyone except for a tiny minority on the far right recognizes that the only solution is two states for two people,” he reiterated. “All the discussion today is about the complexities of getting to the two-state solution. Netanyahu will have to make a decision in the next few months. He’s vacillating and I understand that. He’ll have to decide on whether to extend the building freeze. He’ll have to decide if he’s Menachem Begin or not.”
Again, which will it be? “If you’re asking me, he doesn’t know himself. He’s smart and he understands what’s at stake, believe me.”
In terms of territorial compromise, Israel wanted to believe, 20 years ago, that it could reach an accord while relinquishing less than 90% of the territory in the West Bank. As the years passed, the assessment became progressively bleaker. What does Vilna’i envisage as the final price? “We’ll have to relinquish a great deal more than people think,” he said. “But that was always the case. There was never an American decision to recognize the settlements.There were intermittent understandings, but never clear recognition, and the Americans are our best ally.”
Returning to his earlier theme, Vilna’i repeated: “The extended occupation is beginning to work against us, and this international delegitimization can only be offset by a peace agreement. I don’t want to be, as
Tom Phillips put it to you, ‘Fortress Israel.’ I want to be integrated with the rest of the world.”
And he signed off with an assessment that, if accurate, will dismay plenty of Israelis and please many others: “The prime minister will have to make a decision and in my opinion, he’ll make the right decision. I say that on the basis of my knowledge of him and of the discussions that are being held. The grand strategy is clear. The question will be how it is achieved in terms of internal politics.
And, by the way, I personally don’t think anybody will be in a hurry to leave this coalition – not Shas and not Israel Beiteinu.”