Home inFocus A Palestinian State? (Fall 2011) Palestinian Statehood and Middle East Unrest

Palestinian Statehood and Middle East Unrest

An Interview with Amos Yadlin

Amos Yadlin Fall 2011

On September 15, inFOCUS editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Amos Yadlin, the former chief of defense intelligence for the Israel Defense Forces and for the Israeli government. A much-decorated fighter pilot, Gen. Yadlin previously served as defense attaché in Washington, commandant of the IDF National Defense College, and deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force. Gen. Yadlin also was head of the IDF team that outlined the ethical principles of the war against terror. He is currently serving as the Kay Fellow on National Security at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

iF: The Middle East is a changing landscape. How do you prioritize the threats facing the Jewish state?

Head of Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlini at a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in the Israeli Parliament on January 19, 2010. (Photo Miriam Alste)
Head of Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate Amos Yadlini at a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting in the Israeli Parliament on January 19, 2010. (Photo Miriam Alste)

AY: Speaking in terms of countries, there’s no doubt that Iran is on the top of the list. It is a very radical country with a very radical ideology and very radical intentions to develop a very radical weapon. The hatred from Iran is a real threat. The regime not only incites hatred with words, but with weapons, training, and money that it supplies to support very extreme groups against Israel. And the prospect for a nuclear weapon in the hands of this extremist is, to me, the only existential threat facing Israel now.

Syria and Hezbollah are on the second-tier of the threat. It is not that they represent an existential threat, but they have developed capabilities that Israel needs to spend tremendous efforts coping with, especially when it comes to long-range missiles and rockets, which today threatens not only the Galilee, Kiryat Shmona, and Sderot, but also the heart of Israel. Many of the rockets are aimed at the Tel Aviv area and airport bases. So it’s a real threat.

Then there is the threat that is the Palestinian terrorist, although this does not compare to the threat coming from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. However, there is a real terrorist threat from the militants in Gaza, as well as from the West Bank, al-Qaeda elements, and jihadists from the Sinai. Each area around us holds terrorist elements.

iF: Is a Palestinian-Israeli peace possible while Israel’s neighbors are in the midst of such dramatic and uncertain change?

AY: The issue of the Palestinian-Israeli peace was problematic even before the so-called Arab Spring—what we call the Arab uprising, because spring is over and this is going to stay with us for many seasons. It will likely take many years to fully grasp its implications.

To have peace between Israel and the Palestinians, we basically need four elements to come together: First we need very strong Israeli leadership that can make the concessions asked of Israel for peace. Second is very strong Palestinian leadership that can agree to the concessions asked of them. Third, we need Arab support for peace, such as from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians cannot go at it alone when they have to make historical concessions. And last, the Israelis and Palestinians need European and American support to put value on the table when it comes to the refugee issue, for making the peace more attractive for both sides, to transform negotiations from a zero-sum game. We also need the spoilers—the ones who want to destroy peace—to be removed or at least weakened. This is the Syrians, the Iranians—all the region’s extremists.

If you look at the Arab uprising, it has basically made all four of these elements needed for peace more difficult. The Israelis are less willing to take risks when they see that peace can disappear in a moment after giving back land, as was the case with the Gaza Strip and now maybe even the Sinai. Also, the Palestinians think that the Arab Spring gives them leverage when dealing with Israel, so they will be less willing to compromise now. Third, the moderate or pragmatic Arabs are busy with their own internal problems and are not supportive of the Palestinians at this moment. And last, the United States and Europe have a financial crisis and a lot of internal issues to deal with; they don’t have funds to invest in the peace process. So while peace was difficult before, it is even more difficult today.

iF: Are the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestinian people ready for statehood?

AY: The answer to this question is both yes and no. If you look at what has happened in the West Bank in the last three or four years under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and under Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Authority has taken substantial steps forward when it comes to creating law and order, controlling terror, and building institutions that will enable the Palestinians to create a state.

And then, unfortunately, there’s the no: The state-building efforts accomplished in the West Bank have not occurred in Gaza. Gaza is still a terror land, which is not controlled by Abu Mazen and is not ready for statehood. The two parts of the Palestinian territories are totally separated, and they are politically working in two different directions. If you want to see a Palestinian state, we at least need to see what happened in the West Bank happen in Gaza. But this is not the case, which is why the answer is both yes and no.

iF: Some analysts argue that Hamas has moderated its stance over the years. Is this true?

AY: We have to distinguish between Hamas being pragmatic on some practical issues—everyday life issues—and its ideological approach in the long run. There is no moderation in Hamas when it comes to their long-term objectives, which is why they still refuse to recognize a state of Israel or accept the Quartet’s three requirements to speak with them, namely denouncing terror, accepting previous PLO-Israeli agreements, and recognizing the right of Israel to exist. They pay a high price for rejecting this, but it’s their ideology and it has not become more moderate. Hamas, however, is ready to call for a cease-fire when the cost of continuing to fire rockets at Israel is increased. So in the short run, they can seem as though they are behaving moderately or pragmatically, but their ideology hasn’t compromised with their vision of the future.

iF: If Israel is prepared to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, what explains the PA’s push for a unilateral declaration of independence at the UN?

AY: We must look at the Palestinian strategy over the last two years. The Palestinians have decided that it would be better for them to ignore and bypass Israel, and go to the international community to get what in the past they hoped to get from Israel: 1967 borders, Jerusalem, and the Palestinian state. And if they get it from the international community, they don’t have to negotiate with Israel or concede to what Israel asks of the Palestinians, which is an end of the conflict agreement, security arrangements, and the return of refugees only to the Palestinian state. So one pillar of their strategy is to ignore Israel.

The second pillar, which we already spoke about, is to create the state from the bottom-up by building institutions, etc. And that is what Salam Fayyad is doing. The third pillar is to de-legitimize Israel. Over the last two years, the Palestinians have moved forward with all three pillars of their strategy. They claim that they want to go to the UN because they don’t trust the current Israeli government. But I would ask people to look at how the Palestinians dealt with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s historical concessions given to the Palestinians in 2007 and 2008 in the name of peace.

By the way, the Palestinians claim that it is not a unilateral declaration of independence that they are seeking because they are going to the UN to let the international community decide that Palestine is a state.

iF: What scenarios can Israel envision in the wake of the UN vote?

AY: It depends very much on the language of the UN resolution and it depends on whether there will be a veto in the Security Council, or if the Palestinians go directly to the UN General Assembly. And it will depend on how the two sides react. The Israelis as well as the Palestinians can retaliate and take extreme measures, turning this scenario into a very dangerous one. Or, they can behave responsibly and try to cool down the situation. Let me provide six potential scenarios.

The first one is that nothing would happen. There will be a declaration and some celebrations by the Palestinians in the territories, but nothing will change on the ground. Second, a diplomatic war of attrition can be triggered. Happy with the resolution, the Palestinians might continue on to the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice where they will try to build upon this resolution and diplomatically attack Israel in every international institution and international court. And they will continue with declarations and resolutions at the UN. Third, they can return to negotiations. Armed with this resolution saying they have a state on the 1967 border, the Palestinians can return to negotiations in a much more powerful position than ever before. Fourth, they can start demonstrations on the ground such as marches towards Jerusalem, settlements, and the security fence, etc. These demonstrations could get out of control. And here is the dangerous scenario: Fifth, they can lose control of a frustrated street, the people in the street will basically destroy the law and order that was achieved in the West Bank under Fayyad, the PA may collapse, especially if the U.S. Congress and Israel cut funds to the Palestinians. And sixth, if this violence is not checked and a new armed, violent conflict starts, this issue will go beyond just Israel and the Palestinians. There are many other players that may think this is a good time to come and use this opportunity against Israel. The last is a very extreme scenario, but it cannot be ignored.

iF: Is there a silver lining from Israel’s perspective to the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak? How secure is the peace between Israel and Egypt?

AY: The peace with Egypt is very important not only to Israel, but also to Egypt. Both countries enjoy the fact that there is no prospect of war anymore and both have used the peace to build their economy. The peace with Egypt is not in danger if we speak about the opposite—going to war. It is in Egypt’s interest not to go to war; they have paid a lot of blood and the essence of the country to three wars that drained their energy, money, and blood, and they don’t want that to happen again. But between full peace and war, there are many gray areas. Even the peace with the Mubarak regime was not the warm peace like what exists between Canada and the United States. Mubarak removed his ambassador from Israel in 1982 and again in 2001 after Israel attacked Gaza with helicopters for the first time. So the peace can remain a peace, but it can be made colder. It can be frozen—they may move it from the refrigerator to the freezer—and they can be very hostile, but I don’t think that we are going to war. It’s against Egypt’s interests. It is important to note that the leaders of Egypt are not speaking about war; they are speaking about re-evaluating the peace, which is not the same as going to war.

iF: If the Asad regime in Syria falls, what would take its place and how would this affect Israel?

AY: There are three scenarios that can play out when it comes to the Asad regime’s situation. First, a very similar regime emerges—another Alawite from the army or security apparatus that understands that Asad is not an asset anymore but a liability. That person or persons will replace him and reach some agreement with the Sunnis on what a different Syria would look like. Second, the Sunnis can take over the country, whether in a democratic election or by being able to forcefully take power. And in the third scenario, a solution to the crisis is not found quickly and a civil war erupts.

I think in each scenario, in the short-run the Syrians will be very busy with internal matters—creating the new regime, the new order, and their new institutions. And in the long run, I don’t see a regime that is much more problematic than the Asad regime, which is basically a very bad regime for Syria and for Israel, with its weapons of mass destruction and support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Of course, there are risks with a new regime. The Golan Heights was basically kept quiet in the last 37 years and a new regime may be less experienced and try to challenge Israel in the Golan. But I think if you look at most of the risks and the opportunities, the devil we know is in many cases more problematic than the devil we don’t know.

iF: Thank you very much.