Home inFocus COVID-19: The More Things Change... “A Partnership to Nurture”

“A Partnership to Nurture”

An interview with Brigadier General Assaf Orion, IDF (Res.)

Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion Summer 2020

Brigadier General Assaf Orion, IDF (Res.) is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv, serving as director of the Israel-China program. He is also an International Fellow at The Washington Institute. Previously, BG Orion served as head of the Strategic Division in the Planning Directorate of the IDF General Staff, where he was in charge of policy, strategy, international cooperation and liaison with neighboring militaries and peacekeeping forces. He led the IDF team to the tripartite meetings with UNIFIL and the Lebanese army, took part in the U.S.-Israel security dialogue, and represented the IDF in talks with the Palestinian Authority. inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen spoke with him in late May.

Brigadier General Assaf Orion, IDF (Res.)

inFOCUS: To jump right in, how much influence does the United States have over Israel’s decisions on security trade with any other country, not just China, but any other country?

BG Orion: The U.S. is our closest strategic and defense partner, just about an ally except without the treaty. American opinions, positions, concerns are well heard in Israel. I think the issue here is, when do you get to an exclusive either/or situation? And the answer is, not yet, and not on everything. The U.S. has influence on Israel, but how to adapt to fast moving, dramatically moving, environment and landscape is still open, both here and in America.

inFOCUS: Do you think it would be a good idea for the United States and Israel to sign a formal defense pact?

BG Orion: Most senior defense officials and others in Israel generally stop short of that because, on the one hand, our main ethos is protecting and defending ourselves, by ourselves. We spill our own blood in our own wars, and we don’t expect the U.S. to fight for us under any circumstance, while we very much appreciate America’s material support enabling us to do so. And, on the other hand, we don’t do expeditionary wars. All of our fighting is around our homes – we are only about two hours’ drive between anywhere in Israel and the frontiers where we are fighting. 

What we should consider is something in keeping with today’s challenges, which is a strategic innovation and technology alliance. And that means putting together our forte – innovation, startup industry – the inventive part of our two nations, so to speak.

inFOCUS: In that regard, Israel has opened a committee to consider strategic trade with other countries and to see what might have national security implications. Can you talk to us about what it is supposed to do, and whether you actually see it doing that?

BG Orion: It is an advisory committee on national security issues in foreign investment. In Israel there are professional regulators in many parts of the government, including infrastructure, finance, insurance, communication, etc. And these regulators did, and still do, have the authority to decide on the eligibility of an investment. But now they have an advisory committee in the Treasury Ministry, with the participation of our security agencies to consider the national security aspects of such investments.

But the committee’s ruling is not binding. On top of that, technology in Israel is generally unregulated except when it is defense related. So, the chief concern on the U.S. side, which is non-directly defense related technology, is not addressed by the mechanism. The U.S. definition of national security related matters has widely expanded, while Israel’s remained rather narrow.

The last point is that the American intelligence community’s priority for many years has been China, which was never a top priority target for Israel; it’s not an enemy, it’s not on our top list. We do Iran, we do regional Middle Eastern trouble, military issues, proliferation. China as China is, perhaps, a concern, but is not seen as a severe and direct national security threat. The intelligence picture in Israel on China is far behind what we have on our top priority targets, and miles away from what the U.S. has. So, in order to professionally address American concerns, Israel will need better intelligence, perhaps with American support.

inFOCUS: How broadly does Israel define national security? Does it include things like food supply, water supply, medical systems? Is that changing? 

BG Orion: We have quite a wide national security definition, but it is more of a moving target. In the good – or bad – old days, Israel and the U.S. reached an understanding about defense and military and dual use exports to China, and none of those have been happening since at least 2005. 

So, it is clear cut where the traffic light is red. 

But what used to be either red or green in each nation is now divided into three colors. The American red is much wider than it used to be. On communications, Israel was clear very early on: we don’t have serious foreign influence or access to our communications in third and fourth generation technology, let alone 5G. So actually, Israel is an outlier here and I think we’re well-known for being rather strict on traditional security.

The tricky part is that what used to constitute military, defense, and dual use items was quite limited in scope. Now everything is dual use. From the American perspective, almost everything can be used for military purposes. Our data is definitely security connected. Medical issues now are perceived as security, finance is perceived as security. Everything is perceived as security. 

Each nation needs to strike the right balance between economic benefits and security. In Germany, we saw the government step in and move against sales of a robotics factory, KUKA, to China because it didn’t want to lose the technological edge and economic future. It is a very wide discussion that cannot be ruled technically, it needs a fine delineation of the red, or the “absolutely not,” of the green, the “absolutely yes,” and all the yellow that “we still need to think about.” 

We need to understand that the lines are moving in the U.S. and it needs synchronization and coordination with its partners.

inFOCUS: Senators Tom Cotton and Gary Peters, a Republican and a Democrat, proposed the establishment of a U.S.-Israel operations technology working group precisely to talk about where the lines are and how they go. Not a treaty, but rather a way Israel and the United States could open that door and widen the road for conversation.

BG Orion: It’s beyond conversation. It is actually reframing our relationship according to what is now at the top of the American list and the main issues shaping the global order. 

During the Cold War, we knew our definitions and we fought over here, and it well served the U.S. grand strategy against the Soviets. During the Global War on Terrorism, Israel was a willing partner in many things; we saved a lot of lives together. In the current context, which is the Great Power Competition, the U.S. put a target on China. We need to move from the point where most of the dialogue between Israel and the U.S. is centered on prohibitions: “We expect Israel not to do this, not to do that,” and into an alliance mode, which means: “How can we work together and synergize?” 

We can actually do quite a lot of things together. Most of our high-tech industry is Westward looking. There’s a lot of cooperation going on, a lot of Hebrew on the West Coast, in Silicon Valley. It’s already quite robust, but we can and we must take it to the next level. At some point, it will become a more crystallized coalition policy. I expect Israel, together with other advanced technology nations, to camp out with the U.S. and widen the Western wagon circle.

It doesn’t mean that Israel will see China as an enemy or a rival, turning against it, but it means that our relations with the U.S. will focus on what we do best, and that’s advanced technologies.

inFOCUS: I’m going to change geographical positions. There was a suggestion in the Pentagon that the United States might remove the American contingent from the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Sinai. Given the state of relations with Egypt, perhaps that force isn’t necessary anymore.

BG Orion: I’ve just coauthored a paper on the MFO for the Washington Institute called Avoiding an Epic Mistake. 

This has been a disproportionately beneficial mission at relatively low risk and low cost. Most of the MFO budget is divided between Egypt, the U.S., and Israel in more or less equal shares. There is partner participation by other nations, so the 450 American troops are the backbone of a force of more than 1,100. The strategic benefits are outstanding. Rather than being superfluous now that relations between Israel and Egypt are great, it actually explains how the relations got here despite the crises and tremors of the last decade.

It started with the poetically named “Arab Spring,” with the fall of the Mubarak regime, with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, with the return of the al-Sisi government, which is actually the Egyptian establishment returning. During that period, security in Sinai was, and still is, quite badly affected. The rise of terror organizations, insurgency in the peninsula, and the rise of ISIS Sinai Province all produced a rough ride for both Israel and Egypt. We had several attacks on our borders, we had casualties on both sides, we needed to tamp things down and liaise.

We saw the Egyptian armed forces needing a stronger military response in Sinai and needing to exceed the treaty limitations between us [Ed. established as part of the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty]. And the MFO, as an international umbrella with an American core was an asset for diplomacy, verification, military presence, and so on, helped us to navigate through that choppy water.

Saying, okay, we don’t need it now because Israel and Egypt are grownups, is the wrong conclusion. We need it. Without the U.S. it will collapse. Without the MFO, relations between Israel and Egypt will be tougher to maintain. And bottom line, the main idea behind the withdrawal of American assets from the MFO is its relevance to the American National Defense Strategy, which is focused on Great Power Competition. 

China is economically active in Egypt. It’s growing its maritime presence in Djibouti in the Bab el Mandeb Straits at the southern part of the Red Sea. In Egypt itself there are all sorts of projects. In May, we heard that Russia would provide Egypt with Sukhoi-35 jets [modern multi-role fighters], and it is building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant. 

The U.S. is sitting with a force on a strategic waterway. Pulling up anchor and ceding ground to Russia and China seems like the wrong thing to do and the wrong time to do it. 

So, you have an Israeli reason to keep that going. You have an Israel-Egyptian regional stability reason. And the Israel-Egyptian treaty is probably ihe crown jewel of American diplomacy in the Middle East. For America’s own interest, both in Middle Eastern terms and in Great Power Competition and Indo-Pacific terms, you risk a disastrous loss for a very small saving.

inFOCUS: Can you talk about Iran and Syria, and Russia and Syria? Given Iran’s economic and coronavirus problems, can Iran continue to maintain its presence in Syria? 

BG Orion: Iran has a commitment to Syria going back to at least 1979, when Hafez al-Assad sided with Iran against Iraq in their decade-long war. Going farther back, as an ancient empire the Persians always wanted access to the Mediterranean Sea. Iran’s commitment to the Levant is deep-rooted and it’s not expected to wither anytime soon.

How they do it is developing over time. It used to be mostly through supplies, logistics, financial support to the Assad regime, and to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the flagship of their proxy [terrorism] industry. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, they have ratcheted up their involvement. And in 2017, Iran decided to try to establish a military base for itself in Syria and thus have a frontier with Israel.

Israel has been running against them for years, developing the concept of “the campaign between the wars,” or actually a long campaign to counter Iran’s long campaign. There was a gradual buildup and growth in the Iranian presence in Syria, but then came an airstrike campaign and an erosion of their capabilities, troops, units, factories, arms transports, caches, and so on. This is an ongoing contest, with fewer resources available to Iran now because of the sanctions regime. Starved of oil revenues and finding it very difficult on the coronavirus front, Iran has problems. But Iran also knows how to bleed thousands of people without being staggered and it is a ruthless regime. It maintains itself, adjusts the pace and means, and remains focused.

So they reorganized and tried to deploy more proxies and fewer Iranians. They redeployed from west to east, they changed their ways and their logistic lines, and so on. They suffered a huge setback losing Soleimani – America did a great service to all the peace-loving people in the Middle East. But this is a marathon. I don’t expect Iran to stop anytime soon. It will tune down and up, adjust and adapt, and continue. So will Israel.

Russia is also a long story, beginning during the Cold War, if not back in Czarist times. Syria was a protégé of the Soviet Union. Since the early 1970s, Russia has felt pushed out of the Middle East, but in 2015, President Vladimir Putin identified a great opportunity for a comeback. With a small force but without any scruples, he used it ruthlessly, relentlessly. Together with Iran, the [Bashar al-]Assad regime and Hezbollah, which provided the foot soldiers, the Russian air force and special forces actually turned the tide. Syria under Assad was saved, and Russia gained a port on the Mediterranean, several air bases, some economic prospects, and an opportunity to tackle Turkey from the south, actually pull it away from NATO a bit, and shake it. He tried to make Syria a great diversion from the war in Ukraine and leverage for Russian influence in the Middle East to promote Russian arms sales.

So, Israel woke up one day with a new military neighbor on our northern border. We wisely created deconfliction channels and wisely managed a useful strategic dialogue. We have our differences; I don’t think we have illusions that Russia will do Israel’s work there. But unlike Turkey, even when a Russian plane was in our airspace, we were wise enough not to shoot it down, but to escort it out, professionally, and preserve our relations.

There’s no question on which side of the Great Power Competition Israel stands, but not every issue has to be decided exclusively. So, we can have a great alliance with the U.S., we can have good understandings with Russia and military deconfliction in Syria, and we can have reasonable and seemingly friendly trade relations with China, without any illusion that China will ever support us in the United Nations, or that it will prefer us over the great majority of Arab and Muslim states and populations. China knows its math.

We’re muddling through this, but there’s no question who our strategic ally is in this equation.

inFOCUS: Turkey?

BG Orion: We should do our best to avoid open hostilities; we should do our best to tamp down the tensions. But we cannot overlook the fact that [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has quite a clear ideological view: he backs Hamas, he backs the Muslim Brotherhood, he supports a lot of bad things happening in Gaza. Things have come to a very low point, but we still have reasonable trade exchange and we’re trying not to get onto a collision course. 

We find ourselves in the Eastern Mediterranean, aligned with actors that Turkey sees as its competitors, if not rivals, with Greece, with Cyprus, with Egypt in some manner on the gas project. And Turkey seems to be quite aggressive in its approach, alienating many, many others. You can now see it playing out in Libya and how it plays the refugee card against Europe. Turkey and Russia sometimes hit it off together, but most of the time they tread carefully. They move between crises, understandings, coercion, and the next crisis. There is no love, but there are some interests that they can pursue together.

inFOCUS: How does Israel look at the threat Hezbollah poses in Lebanon and is there anything you can it do about it? 

BG Orion: I wouldn’t say that we’re not doing anything about it. But we certainly don’t go to war because as [Defense Minister and former Chief of the IDF Staff] Benny Gantz used to say, “Operations we do when we can; wars we do when we must.” War is not the first choice of our policy options. It is our boys and our families in the line of fire.

The number one conventional threat to Israel is Hezbollah. But Hezbollah is an operational part of a strategic system whose great potential comes from Iran: the industry, the science, the finance, the arms, the technology, the logistics – all of it comes from Iran. You need to understand the full picture.

Second, Hezbollah has grown something like tenfold since 2006. However, since the Second Lebanon War in that year, both sides have enjoyed the longest calm period along the Blue Line, the border between us. They are deterred and we have no business going to war by choice. Actually, both sides would rather not go to war, because they also understand there will be an unprecedented level of destruction. An article I coauthored about that in the Atlantic Council was entitled “Counting the Cost.” 

So, what does Israel do? 

First, it’s a spatial problem, spread from Tehran and its industries all the way to Beirut, not just Southern Lebanon, but all of Lebanon. Since their rockets and missiles include heavy missiles with a range of hundreds of kilometers, and they can also launch from Syria and Iraq, we can’t do a Southern Lebanon-focused operation and get rid of it for good. Like in your garden, if you cut a weed without uprooting it, it will grow again, unless you take care of the logistics, the roots, the veins. Hezbollah is a regenerating hydra; it grows heads as soon as you chop other heads off. This is why Israel is trying to work within “the campaign between wars,” to apply or encourage financial pressure, sanctions, and to disrupt logistical efforts. We go after the weapon transports, factories, warehouses, in all the supply lines.

Syria has seen hundreds of strikes during those years. [Hezbollah Secretary General] Hassan Nasrallah, said in a recent speech, “Israel’s focus in Syria is going after the missile factories, and the missile assets.” Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, went to the UN General Assembly and showed the production sites of the precision missiles and said, “You need to move it, otherwise we’ll take care of it.” They apparently moved it while denying it existed. 

If you compare what Hezbollah and Iran planned to have ready by now with what they actually have, they have probably been set back several years. Israel’s strategy is not going to war needlessly or too early, at the same time not sitting idly and watching the enemy build up, and trying to disrupt it all the time while remaining under the threshold of war. That’s a fine balancing act. If you go too hard and too fast, you’ll find yourself in a war that you’d like to avoid.

Israel, from birth, has had many threats around it. The most direct-action cases were when we saw nuclear capabilities budding or coming to fruition in enemy countries. Iraq in 1981, Syria in 2007. And Israel’s position on Iran’s nuclear program is well-known, and thankfully shared by the U.S., that it will not be permitted to get there.

Hezbollah is a piece of that machine and we’re dealing with it separately, while seeing the system as a whole. We deter it, so it is restrained, we find ways to expose it, although it tries to stay concealed. Our intelligence collection there is relentless, and we know much more about the Hezbollah than they’d like us to know. And should the war start, the massive precision strike that Israel will launch against Hezbollah will be staggering. It doesn’t mean that we won’t get a bloody nose, but the damage to Hezbollah, to Lebanon, to Southern Lebanon, to the Shiite areas where it chose to embed its military assets, and Beirut, will be unprecedented. It’s something best to avoid.

Troops stationed with the UNIFIL mission during a training. (Photo: Italy Defense Ministry)

inFOCUS: Does the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) help or does it hurt? 

BG Orion: Both. It helps in diffusing tensions through liaison, avoiding tactical incidents flaring up to full scale escalation. On the other hand, UNIFIL’s work has been impeded wherever it is really important. Hezbollah harasses the UN patrols, impeding their movement and access, deterring them from documentation, from exposing its illicit military assets and operations, and so on. And the Lebanese government and its army are playing a very convoluted game there.

We have some idea of what UN can and can’t do. It’s been improving in that it’s been telling the truth more since [former U.S. Ambassador to the UN] Nikki Haley successfully carried through UN Security Council Resolution 2373 in 2017. Since then, UN[IFIL] reports have greatly improved, providing a good factual base from which to discuss policy issues, policy differences, things that should be done, things that can be done. We should be thinking about how to apply more pressure on Hezbollah, and at the same time to stabilize.

UNIFIL today suffers serious gaps between its size and its authority and its local permissions. My own suggestion is to either expand its authority to fit the mandate and its spirit or downsize its force and its budget, according to what it is permitted by Lebanon to do. The Lebanese government has to understand that it can’t go on like this, impeding UNIFIL’s mission and failing to protect it, while enjoying the cloak of legitimacy and material benefits of an oversized UN mission. 

inFOCUS: The last area is the Gulf States and what appears to be an opening to Israel. Not friendship, but an opening that suggests one of two things: either that they’re interested in Israel as an ally against Iran; or they have finally decided they’re not going to get rid of Israel so they might as well learn to live with it. 

BG Orion: Every nation has its own priorities. All Middle Eastern rulers are trying to navigate between their people and their reading of their national interest. After the last decade of upheaval, most of the Middle East looked around and said, “First we worry about our public and how we stay alive as regimes.” Look at Cairo, Damascus, Yemen, Libya – these ended badly for the rulers, their people, or both.

Second, around us are two loci of radicalism. One is Shiite radicalism, led by Iran, a systemically destabilizing actor, trying to subvert and undermine all the Gulf regimes, to terrorize them and coerce them, and finally to topple them. The other is Sunni radicalism, let’s code name it ISIS, but it is everything from Al-Qaeda and branching northward.

Realistically, Arab leaders came to understand, and sometimes even to admit, that the Palestinian cause doesn’t play a real role in their interests except in the public domain, public sensitivity, public emotion. Palestine does resonate in Arab politics and narratives as a case of injustice, of Muslim and Arab humiliation to a Western entity, to something that they perceive as being external or foreign to the area. Leaders themselves, around the Gulf, and each is a bit different, say the following, “When we look at the real life around us, Israel is not our problem, it’s not attacking us, it’s a good resource, it’s a good security partner, it helps against Iran, it helps against radicalism.”

I read media reports that terror elements in the Sinai are complaining that they are struck from above, perhaps by Israel. I guess that if it’s true, Egypt both sanctions it and enjoys it, and at the same time probably denies it. That’s fine. Everybody is treading a fine line between their actual reading and what the public would like to know. Middle Eastern politics are like a double decker bus: what people do quietly in the lower deck is seldom expressed explicitly in the upper deck.

inFOCUS: As a closing remark, what would you like to say to our readers? What should they know about Israel that perhaps they don’t know? 

BG Orion: It is a fascinating young state of an ancient people. It is pioneering in unbelievable ways. It has quite a few challenges within and without. After its fantastic human capital, what it really needs are like-minded allies and partners with similar values – meaning the U.S. 

Going back to the beginning of this conversation, to China and the framing of, “Israel needs to choose.” People do not choose between their family and their friendly grocer. They stick with their family and buy at their grocer. I think the U.S. and Israel enjoy the status of family. And that’s a partnership to nurture into the future.

inFOCUS: On behalf of the Jewish Policy Center and the readers of inFOCUS Quarterly, I want to thank you for an outstanding contribution to our understanding of Israel and the Middle East. 

BG Orion: You are very welcome.