Maj. General (res.) Amos Gilad is Israel's Director, Policy and Political-Military Affairs and Chair, Security Relations with Regional and Strategic Partners of the Ministry of Defense. During his illustrious career he has served as Coordinator of Government Operations in the Territories; Head, Military Intelligence Research Division; Spokesperson, Israeli Defense Forces; and Acting Military Secretary of the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. inFOCUS Editor Shoshana Bryen caught up with him in Washington recently, and he offered a wide-ranging picture of Israel and its neighborhood.
inFOCUS: This issue of inFOCUS Magazine is called “Nations, Borders and Conflict,” and generally looks at Israel’s neighbors. As you do the 10,000-foot view of the region, with the exception of Tunisia, the whole thing looks quite bleak. Are there places about which you feel optimistic?
Amos Gilad: I don’t like optimism or pessimism. In reality, Israel is in a difficult area and there are both advantages and disadvantages in our position. The main issue for our security is to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons; they don’t have them yet, but they are getting closer. This is a threat to the entire international community and the whole world needs to prevent a nuclear Iran, but only for Israel is it an existential threat.
At the conventional level, Israel has created impressive deterrence. Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets in Lebanon, but they won’t attack us because they know what will happen. We defeated the terror that emerged in the West Bank in 2000 (what is sometimes called the “second intifada”). We do not have complete deterrence in Gaza, but it is almost complete. Our relations with Jordan and Egypt—with whom we have peace treaties—are stable. And the good news is that we have the best relations with the Arab world in terms of security that we have ever had.
But, you know, when you forecast the future, every forecast is “subject to change.”
Iran means every word of its threat to exterminate Israel. They might not launch an immediate attack against Israel but Iran poses all kinds of concerns. It supports Hezbollah, which is an entity within a state in Lebanon. They do have 100,000 rockets aimed at all parts of Israel. Al-Qaeda is growing in Syria, organizing itself using its own forces and foreign volunteers. There are fighters from other countries in Syria. They could leave and carry terrorism to their own countries and places beyond.
To sum up, this is a period of both Israel’s best security and unprecedented challenges.
The main threats are to the population, not to the army, which creates different requirements for defense, but we can do it.
iF: How helpful is the United States in your security planning?
AG: Security cooperation with the United States is a major pillar in our national security. It is hard to imagine what Israel would do without American support, and we must continue our unique relations with the US.
iF: Would you talk about Israeli-Egyptian relations? You said recently that Egypt would end up stable, but not a democracy, and that from Israel’s standpoint, stability is crucial—and Egypt is crucial. How can the U.S. best aid Egypt in a transition to a stable, economically viable country?
AG: Egypt is the most important country in the Arab world, even with its economic troubles—you have to put it in context. The Muslim Brotherhood had taken hold of government in Egypt. It was the first time in its history, beginning in 1928, that the Muslim Brotherhood had a state structure, but its ideology sought to create Sunni Empire, which is a religious empire without states. They used Egypt to have the benefits of a state and threatened Jordan. Their aim beyond that was to get rid of Israel. They had an alliance with Turkey and with Hamas and they were about to become very powerful.
The al-Sissi government has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and it is weaker in Jordan now as well. Hamas is feeling the pressure in Gaza. Saudi Arabia has supported Egypt because it eliminated the Brotherhood.
Israel’s security relationship with Egypt is stable—it is not Canada and the United States—but the peace holds.
Egypt is a proud country that seeks respect, so they should be engaged with respect. Other countries should consider the advantages of Egypt under this government. Under extremist rule, Egypt can be dangerous. Egypt produced Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda. It is always better to have balanced and moderate leadership.
iF: The U.S. appears to have embarked on a plan to “win” the Iranians back into a responsible place in the region by lifting sanctions and hoping the public will demand a continually improving economy. This relies on the idea that President Rouhani is, in fact, a “moderate” and that he can sell a mandate for an improved economy to the Ayatollah Khamenei—whether or not Iran maintains its nuclear arsenal at the end.
AG: President Obama’s leadership on sanctions was important; without him there would be no sanctions—and sanctions are the reason Iran has decided to talk to the “Great Satan.” The sanctions posed an existential threat to regime control, which is the Iranians’ priority. The present alleged moderation is meant for consumption by the West and Rouhani is the best marketing agent I’ve seen—he repeats the same lies in a more moderate tone. Israel’s concern is that an interim agreement may make it impossible to reach a final agreement that will keep Iran from having nuclear weapons.
The nuclear issue is the main issue, but I would say too that Iran supports terror and engages in terror all over the world. Mainly, it fails. But there have been many attempts to murder and assassinate Israelis—diplomatic personnel or the spouses of Embassy personnel. We are dealing with a vicious regime that poses also a military threat through Syria and Hezbollah.
iF: The Syrian war seems to have sunk into a place from which Asad can’t exactly win, but from which he will not be ousted. Is it possible that Syria will be carved into autonomous zones? Would the Sunni zones be likely to be governed by jihadists or less extreme Sunnis? How does Israel find a reasonably secure place for itself under that circumstance?
AG: The Syrian military has the full support of Hezbollah and Iran. Beyond that, Syria doesn’t exist as a country. One-third of its population is refugees and there have been atrocities beyond imagination. But it is unlikely to split into neat areas. The country is simply coming apart and there is no winner, just chaos.
The larger concern is that from the weak body of Syria, al-Qaeda will threaten Israel, Jordan, Europe and even the United States. Al-Qaeda grows and becomes more capable in a vacuum—and Syria right now is a vacuum. The state is being dismantled. It is segmenting, but not splitting apart—it is like volcanic lava.
What we have in the region is a “new map of chaos.” With the exception of kingdoms and natural countries like Egypt, the map in the atlas doesn’t exist on the ground.
iF: Does that open the possibility of Kurdish autonomous areas, or even an independent Kurdish State? Is that something Israel would welcome? How might it interfere with Israel’s relations with Turkey, which still appear to be mired in political quicksand?
AG: The Kurds are smart—they haven’t asked for an independent country, which would have to be agreed to. But they have established a state. They have a military, an independent economy, and they govern themselves where they are. They believe that a strong economic and military allow them to live in an independent way. From their point of view, this is better.
Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey faces challenging elections this spring, local, municipal, as well as at the state level. He has many challenges. Economic relations between Israel and Turkey are flourishing, but there is nothing military, and normal diplomatic relations haven’t been resumed yet.
iF: One thing that has become clear from the Syrian war is that it is unlikely to be contained to just the territory of Syria. There are foreign fighters on both sides and presumably some of them will go back to where they came from – with additional weapons, training and friends. One of the possibilities is increased influence for Salafi radicalism in the West Bank. Have you seen it emerge? How can the Government of Israel cope with it?
AG: Peace with the Palestinians is a strategic choice for Israel, we believe in peace with the Palestinians. But you have a division even among Palestinian factions—Hamas wants to get rid of anyone who disagrees with it. There are Fatah officials from Gaza who were murdered by Hamas. And Hamas is trying to export its capabilities to the West Bank.
Salafists are also trying to expand in the West Bank—why wouldn’t they? This is an ideology that does not have boundaries like a country. It spreads where it can and it is in the West Bank as well. But we are not alone in thinking about how to deal with it. Fatah recognizes that this is as much a threat to them as it is to Israel.
So, even if we believe in peace with our neighbors, we understand that without Israeli security measures in the West Bank terror can arise from there again and attack both Israelis and Palestinians.