Home inFocus A Year of Arab Upheaval (Winter 2011) The View from Israel

The View from Israel

Interview with Yoram Hessel

Yoram Hessel Winter 2011

On February 15, inFOCUS editor Matthew RJ Brodsky interviewed Yoram Hessel, former Chief of Global Operations, Intelligence and Foreign Relations Division of the Mossad, Israel's Secret Intelligence Service. In that capacity, Hessel was responsible for all Joint Intelligence Operations, inter alia, Strategic Intelligence Collection, Counter-Terrorism, and Clandestine International Relations conducted by the Mossad. Prior to this, Hessel served in various other capacities for the agency, including Chief of the Mossad Station in Washington DC. Before joining the Mossad, Hessel served in the IDF as an officer in a paratroops battalion and was also a lecturer in International Law and International Institutions at Tel Aviv University.

iF: Many names have been imposed on the events currently taking place in the Middle East: “Arab Spring,” “Arab Awakening,” “Arab Uprisings,” to name a few. What phrase best captures what is happening around the region?

YH: “Arab Turmoil” or “Arab Upheavals” are more appropriate and certainly more accurate descriptions of the factual events that are unfolding in these countries. When it comes to determining a name for the current regional developments, the critical aspect is not the causal issue—on which most observers agree—but their anticipated outcome. Here, especially in the short run, unfulfilled expectations will reinforce exasperation, discontent, and disillusionment. Ultimately, violence may ensue along with likely governmental dysfunction and partial systemic breakdown. In addition, given the socio-political dynamics involved, with time, the tidal waves that have affected Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria will ultimately affect Jordan and some of the Gulf States, in particular Saudi Arabia.

iF: How confident is Israel that Egypt under its new government will maintain the peace treaty and, if so, what kind of peace will it be?

YH: Following independence, Israel encountered decades of Egyptian adversity that culminated in a series of armed conflicts. The 1973 Yom Kippur War ended in the hope of an emerging “New Middle East,” and the subsequent U.S. sponsored Camp David Accords was immersed in widespread public euphoria. In reality, a “cold peace” prevailed between Egypt and Israel throughout the nearly four decades since that war ended.

Unlike previous Egyptian governments and unlike under President Mubarak, the current government is a legitimate cause for national security concern in Israel—dominated as it is by the Muslim Brothers and fundamentalist Islamic activists deeply affected by economic, social, and political forces of instability and uncertainty. While recent pronouncements indicate that Egyptian leaders are not oblivious to the internecine nature of a renewed Egyptian-Israeli conflict, conspicuous and increasingly worrisome downgrading of effective Egyptian military control over the Sinai Peninsula has caused repetitive interruptions to the supply of Egyptian gas to Israel. Similarly, cross border attacks and terrorist infiltration from Sinai into Israel can conceivably trigger retaliation followed by violent confrontation. Nevertheless, an uneasy peace, essentially characterized by the absence of war, is more likely to reflect the prospects of relations between the two countries in the foreseeable future.

iF: Does Israel look at Bashar al-Asad and the ongoing uprising in Syria and believe that the devil it knows may be better than the devil it doesn’t know?

YH: There is little of substance that Israel can, or is apparently willing to, do in order to meaningfully affect the events currently unfolding in Syria. From this perspective, Israel is a mute observing bystander of a truculent civil conflict the outcome of which is, paradoxically, likely to heavily influence its own strategic concerns. The House of Asad has already crossed the point of redemption. Looking at the months ahead, increasing numbers of Syrian Army defectors, extended foreign military assistance to the rebels, and augmented international political support for Syrian opposition will reinforce determination on both sides and intensify internal violence. Ultimately, regional instability and anticipated breakdown of the Asad regime may usher in, perhaps preemptively, an internationally sponsored peace keeping intervention. Viewed from Israel’s perspective, whichever shape the final post-Asad Syria will take, prescient developments are bound to turn decades of certainty and comfortable strategic predictability along the Israeli–Syrian border into an era of vigilance and heightened concern with Syria’s military intentions.

iF: How significant would it be to Iran if Syria was no longer its ally, and what impact would that have on Israel and Lebanon?

YH: In recent years, Syria has been a pillar of Iran’s pugnacious Near East policy. It forms part of Iran’s crescent of critical interests and influence that impacts Israel and Lebanon through Hamas and Syria’s proximity to Hezbollah. In essence, Iran’s entrenchment in Damascus makes Syria a forward logistics arsenal, effectively threatening much of Israel’s territory and centers of population. A regime change in Syria, one that will pursue an alternative policy orientation undermining the Iranian footprint in Damascus, will fundamentally change Tehran’s relative strength and, consequently, its destructive role in the region.

iF: With the Russia and China Security Council veto at the UN, it would appear a negotiated settlement to the Syrian crisis is not in the offing. What are the chances that Turkey and Saudi Arabia would intervene and what impact would that have on Israel?

YH: As the Syrian opposition remains steadfast and violence spreads throughout the country, as the number of casualties rises and the extent of the regime’s brutality is driven further home especially in the Arab World, renewed calls for the cessation of hostilities in Syria are likely to grow louder. With vociferous support and a growing widespread consensus, Russia may join some form of an agreed settlement to resolve the Syrian crisis. In that scenario, Beijing would likely follow suit.

Turkey and Saudi Arabia are already actively involved in the Syrian uprising, each in a manner and form habitually associated with its current or traditional foreign policy interests and conduct. Notwithstanding its unequivocal condemnation, unilateral Saudi military intervention in favor of the opposition in Syria is unlikely, given Saudi Arabia’s basic introversion and assorted internal constraints; inter alia, justified apprehension of exposing its domestic flanks to Iranian abated local Shia opposition and sponsored terrorism, as well as longstanding Saudi hole-marked preference for behind-the-scenes financial, political, and logistical support. Turkey, on the other hand, has in the past been more prone to engage in military operations when national self-interest dictated, but it, too, is unlikely to unilaterally intervene militarily in Syria given current circumstances.

iF: Turkey’s role in the Middle East has been changing in recent years. Is it a stabilizing or destabilizing force?

YH: Facing ‘shuttered gates’ in Western Europe, Turkey has turned South and Eastwards in pursuit of its national goals and aspirations. Reinvigorated by a sense of pride in its relative economic accomplishments and in-house perception of regional omnipotence and rising stature in the Muslim World, Turkey’s leaders—particularly its ideologue, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu—have labored to project Turkey as a Euro-Asian power through what is commonly referred to as Turkey’s policy of “Neo-Ottomanism.” By and large, Turkey’s current Mid-East policy has primarily been designed to secure alternative opportunities to those perceived lost in Western Europe. In essence, therefore, Israel’s Turkish interests were at least partially sacrificed for a felt need by Ankara to ingratiate with the Arab World in the hopes of advancing its key policy goals. Meanwhile, Turkey’s regional ambitions and Iran’s active meddling in the evolving Syrian crisis have escalated relations between the two, placing them at diametrically opposed positions where Turkey strives to hold Iran at bay and cause a shift in the regional balance of power against it. Iran’s renewed support for the PKK and increased bilateral diplomatic tension will likely inject an additional potent element of instability into an otherwise volatile situation.

iF: Overall, how does Israel see the effects of the Arab uprisings? Is it negative? hopeful in the future?

YH: Thus far, the process of a “democratic awakening” in the Arab World is far from complete—if such an awakening were to even happen. To the contrary, conspicuously ominous indicators in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, to say nothing of Syria, point to an extended period of instability, civil disorder, sectarian violence, extremism, and government malfunction. All of which are sources of concern to Israel, bordering as it does on the most affected Arab states in the region. Until finally settled, developments in these tumultuous Arab countries will be closely and apprehensively monitored by Israel’s apparently recently extended intelligence capabilities in order to fend off surprises.

iF: Some have posited that now is the time for Israel to make bold initiatives for the sake of peace with the Palestinians. Is this the right time to pick up the peace process?

YH: As we speak, a renewed effort to keep the stalled momentum of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is underway. To make it successful, first and foremost, a substantive change in the negotiating position is required by either or both parties. The Arab turmoil thus far has had no tangible effect on the parties’ posture. Realistically, therefore, the prospect of a meaningful progress in this dialogue at this juncture looks pretty slim.

iF: Most of the Sunni Arab states do not want to see Iran possess nuclear weapons. Is there a behind-the-scenes cooperation on this goal between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states?

YH: One should certainly expect that when nations’ critical strategic interests significantly coincide, a venue is often found to enable a degree of cooperation between them. Depending on the level of perceived threat and the estimated likelihood of it actually materializing, cooperation may cover a wide spectrum ranging from focused intelligence exchanges, joint clandestine operations, and military planning culminating in unwritten understandings and formal sub-rosa agreements. An important aspect, however, will likely remain debatable should push come to shove—namely, how reliable and tangible will this covertly agreed upon cooperation actually turn out to be in practice, and what of the day after?

iF: The question on everyone’s mind: will Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities? What constitutes a red line for nuclear progress—a point where Israel must act—and is that point different for the United States?

YH: Iran’s ambitious intent to produce and possess nuclear weapons is longstanding and irrefutably substantiated, despite vehement Iranian denials. Given the immediate global strategic implications of a nuclear Iran, the issue is far from an exclusively Israeli problem, although Israel is clearly much more vulnerable as a subject of direct Iranian threats.

It is the United States who should provide the necessary leadership to effectively circumvent Iran’s nuclear design relying, as it does, on an escalating array of punishing moves with all options remaining on the table. Simultaneously, Israel is certainly obligated, at least to its own citizens, to create the optional military wherewithal required to independently address the Iranian nuclear threat should all else fail. Since time is of the essence and Israel can hardly foresake a one-time military window of opportunity, the United States and Europe should increase the pace and severity of sanctions on Iran, so that their impact has a debilitating effect on Iran prior to reaching nuclear capability. Hopefully then, the need to employ military force will finally be averted.

iF: Thank you.