Home Interview “Our Grand Strategy is to Survive”

“Our Grand Strategy is to Survive”

Amos Yadlin Spring 2022
Amos Yadlin at the World Economic Forum. (Photo: Christian Clavadetscher)

Major General (ret.) Amos Yadlin is a senior fellow in the Middle East Initiative at Harvard’s Belfer Center of Science and International Affairs. With 40 years of service in the IDF, he was a fighter pilot for 33 years, ultimately becoming Deputy Commander of the Israeli Air Force. As Major General, he served as a commander of the IDF Military Colleges and the National Defense College, Defense Attaché to the United States, and Chief of the Military Intelligence Directorate. He was executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) from 2011 to 2021. inFOCUS Quarterly Editor Shoshana Bryen caught up with him in March.

inFOCUS: Can you talk about Russia’s relationship to Israel in terms of longer-term goals? Military deconfliction between Israel and Russia over Syria, has been generally successful. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, how do you see Russia and Israel cooperating in the future?

Amos Yadlin: When I was young pilot, Russia was the enemy, and we fought over the Suez Canal. We fired at them, they fired at us. Russia was an ally of our enemies. This is not the case today. Today they have an embassy in Tel Aviv, we in Moscow; there are very good relations between the prime minister and the president, the former prime minister and the present one. This prime minister spends a lot of time with Putin. We are not enemies anymore. However, we are not allies. Some of our interests conflict, some are the same – so we are managing, and deconfliction is one of the mechanisms to manage this relationship. 

When Russia came to Syria in 2015, they had several goals: To show the world that, unlike America, they are loyal to their allies; to obtain bases and a port for their navy; to remove America from Syria; to save Bashar al-Assad; and to fight ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria].  Not all of these interests run counter to ours. Our main interest is to have freedom of action in Syria against Iran. And on this, we came to agreement with the Russians. It wasn’t easy, but the fact that we have a deconfliction mechanism is a proof that they let Israel have freedom of action against Iran.

I’m not sure they want the Iranians to move out of Syria; they are allies there, sharing two strategic issues – saving Assad and removing the Americans. So, what is the conflict of interest between Russia and Iran? People say that they are competing for the “peace dividend” in Syria that will come from reconstruction money. I’m not buying it. The peace dividend in Syria is about $500 billion and who will rebuild Syria after the decades of destruction? So, there is some competition about who gets the cellular company, or some other natural resources in Syria. But this doesn’t come close to the strategic objectives they share. If somebody is betting that the Russians will remove the Iranians from Syria, it’s an illusion. The ouster of Iran from Syria can only be done by Israel.

iF: There are people who say that the Sunni states would be willing to have Assad return to, let’s say, civilized life, but not if Iran is pulling the strings. Does that weigh at all with the Russians?

Yadlin: The Sunni states, unfortunately were unable to support a moderate opposition in Syria, and they have come now to a position that Assad is better the devil they know, than the devil they don’t know, so they have started to renew relations and open embassies. But they will not do the reconstruction if they know the Iranians are still there. So, they will wait to see whether Assad removes the Iranians, and once again, my assessment is that Assad cannot remove the Iranians. They saved him, they gave him a lot of money, otherwise Syria would have collapsed. And with all due respect to the Sunni Arabs, I don’t see Assad replacing Iranians with them.


iF: Israel, Russia, and Ukraine: it’s a new situation. The U.S., Israel’s best friend, is on one side and Russia, with whom Israel has very important security interests, is on the other side. How do you think Israel’s going to play the Ukraine question?

Yadlin: Israel tries to keep good relations with both sides. On one hand, as you said, America is our biggest ally, it’s sometimes our only help, so it’s important, very important, for Israel to keep the best relationship with the United States. Russia is enabling Israel to operate in Syria; this is important. In addition, there are Jewish communities in both Russia and in Ukraine. Israel is trying to offer its good relations with the sides to help them reach some kind of agreement. But stronger countries than Israel have also tried and failed. In the war, Israel will be on the side of the U.S. and NATO and the Europeans. This is the right thing to do. 


iF: Israel has entered CENTCOM and has done a military exercise in the Red Sea. How comfortable is Israel in CENTCOM, given that some of the countries we work with in the United States have very hostile relations with Israel. Israel still has military relations, security relations with the EUCOM countries and NATO since the switch, right?

Yadlin: Moving to CENTCOM is a very positive move. We asked it for years, but the Americans were reluctant because most of the CENTCOM countries were very hostile to Israel. Now the Middle East has changed. We have peace with Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, and very good relations with other countries in the region. We are very welcome in CENTCOM, even though some countries are still hostile. But it is natural to be in your own geographic area. 

We haven’t cut our relations with EUCOM. It is still very positive and welcoming for us. But the CENTCOM move is important, especially for the future. If as a last resort, there will be some action in Iran, all sides, the Americans, the Sunni Arabs, and Israel will have to cooperate. I strongly advocate a Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEADA), focused on threats from Iran, including ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and UAVs, which are attacking all of us in the region. Iran and Iranian proxies are all over the place. And it’s in the interest of all of us to share intelligence, early warning and interception capabilities. This is legitimate and defensive, it’s not offensive, but rather defends the citizens of the Arab countries and Israel and American forces based in the region. 


iF: Israel has also said that it would consider attacking if Iran reaches a point where it is an existential threat to Israel and Israel felt it had no other choice. Under that circumstance, would you expect a three front war? Iran, plus Hamas and Hezbollah?

Yadlin: Israel can deal with three fronts. Israel was attacked on four fronts when it was founded in 1948, and the IDF is built for that. We have been spoiled, by the way. Since the Yom Kippur War [1973], we have had wars only on one front at a time. Believe me, as somebody who participated in Yom Kippur War, what comes at us from Lebanon and Gaza are operations, not wars. Israel can deal with three fronts, but with different rules of engagement, because these are terror organizations that shield behind civilians in Lebanon or in Gaza. If there was a real war, then we might behave as CENTCOM behaved in the war against ISIS. Look what happened to Mosul. There will be different rules of engagement. 

But I’m not sure the Iranians will go to war at all, although I’m sure they will react.

Unlike Saddam Hussein, they will not be surprised if they are attacked, and they will react, but I think the retaliation will be limited and very calculated. After losing the nuclear program, they will still have infrastructure, the oil and energy industry, the military and government headquarters. I’m not sure that they will run immediately, automatically to a full-scale war. In the case of [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah, remember for the last 15 years he’s been down in a bunker, not starting wars with Israel. Qassem Soleimani pushed him to retaliate after Israel attacked Iranian assets in Syria, but he didn’t. And Hamas, after the rocket war last year, is not looking for another round.

The possibility of three fronts exists, yes, and we have to be ready. Is it a hundred percent going to happen? I’m not sure.

The Retaliatory War

iF: How do you feel about the home front response?

Yadlin: We are ready. The strategy against missiles from Lebanon is based on five layers. First, early warning plus a very good shelter system, so most people will be protected. Second, preemption We are not going to sit and absorb an attack. The good news is that they have a limited number of missiles with a higher intelligence as well as an operational signature that can reach everywhere in Israel – there are not ten thousand of them and we will destroy many of them. Then, we have the best air defense in the world – Iron Dome, Arrow, and David’s Sling. True, they have more missiles than we have interceptors, but as I say, we will destroy some of them on the ground before they launch. Then we have tanks. If they attack us, if Tel Aviv is under fire, believe me, Lebanon will go back to the Stone Age. 

So, will it be different from previous wars? Yes. The resilience of the Israeli population will be tested, but don’t underestimate the fact that if Israel is attacked the Israeli spirit will remain strong. 

iF: I never underestimate the Israeli public. Is there any possibility of Hezbollah being removed from Lebanon?

Yadlin: I don’t think that anybody can remove Hezbollah from Lebanon because Hezbollah is Lebanon. Hezbollah controls the government, the politics of Lebanon. You cannot have a prime minister in Lebanon if Hezbollah doesn’t approve him. Hezbollah is the most formidable military power. Basically, much of the elite has already emigrated. One reason that Nasrallah is not interested in another war with Israel is that the state of Lebanon is miserable. 

The only way to remove Hezbollah is when the Lebanese people decide that enough is enough. They’re not there yet, and Hezbollah will not let them do it because it’s the strongest power in Lebanon. My approach to Hezbollah and Lebanon is to say, “Hezbollah is Lebanon. We are not going to look for you within the Lebanese state. YOU are the Lebanese state, and the infrastructure, and the power stations, and everything in Lebanon according to international law. If you fight against Israel again the country will be destroyed.”

iF: That’s a much different position for Israel in 2006.

Yadlin: That’s my lesson from 2006. Unfortunately, our ally the United States, asked us then to target only Hezbollah and not Lebanon, and we listened. The war took too long and Nasrallah, in the end, declared divine victory and went to his bunker. I think we could have had a much, much shorter war if we had attacked the elements of the Lebanese state. 

iF: Is it possible that the United States would try to stop you again?

Yadlin: It is. But in a way it might have been better if they had stopped us in 2006. In the first days of any war, Israel has to have achievements based on good intelligence and our excellent Air Force, such that everybody would remember it is not a good idea to go to war with Israel. A long war is not our interest. 

iF: Were you pleased with the Biden Administration last May, when it basically allowed Israel to do what it needed to do in Gaza?

Yadlin: They basically gave us a week then asked us to stop. Actually, two days before Biden asked us to stop, I recommended on Israeli TV that we stop. We had achieved a lot. 

Deterrence was reestablished, but even if it was not, we got the lucrative targets in the first couple of days. Continuing this war, if you didn’t intend to go inside with boots on the ground, would not have been a good idea. This is my lessons from 2006, “Don’t get into a long bombing period, it doesn’t pay for us.”

The Two-State Solution

iF: The Biden Administration has gone back to the “two-state solution” concept. They’ve made it very clear that they want a Palestinian state.

Yadlin: A “two-state solution” is not something that Israel sees as a disaster. Many Israelis see it as a way to ensure that Israel will stay Jewish and democratic. However, the parameters are not the same for Israeli and for Palestinians – and sometimes for Americans. That’s why we are unable to get there. 

At the same time, there are 10 files on the president’s desk that are more important and more immediate than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They are smart enough to understand that they’re not “Secretary [John] Kerry-types,” thinking that if we solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the rest of the problems will go away. I know the policy makers in the White House, in the National Security Council, in the State Department – they are not enamored of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and they understand that at that moment, it cannot move forward. I’m not too worried. 

When the Palestinians have different leadership, one willing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, that will stop providing financial support to terrorists after they commit their crimes, at that time advancing two-state solution will not be a disaster for Israel.

iF: There are three governing powers – Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and the state of Israel. To get to a true two-state solution, one of those has to go away.

Yadlin:  You are absolutely right. One reason we cannot reach an agreement with the Palestinians is that they are divided. In Gaza, there isn’t one Israeli settlement and they have their own army, and their own everything, so there is a Palestinian state. There is the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And if an agreement can be reached, it will be reached with the leadership in Ramallah. To bring Gaza on board, Israel requires a demilitarized Palestine state, so Hamas has to be demilitarized. I have no idea who can do it other than Israel. Not the Palestinian Authority, not Egyptians, not NATO, not America. That is why I’m not optimistic even though, as I told you, in the long run I want to see this structure with different leadership.

Future Warfare

iF: Going back to larger scale warfare, you have changes in cyber warfare, drone technology, the collection of intelligence. Can you talk about cyber war? Who are the biggest cyber enemies? And how does Israel feel about its ability to counteract cyber warfare?

Yadlin:  There are five cyber superpowers today.

iF: I hope you’re one of them.

Yadlin: Yes – the U.S., Russia, China, the UK, and Israel. Our enemies, Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah, are not in this league and their capabilities are not a threat. You may think that China and Russia are interested in Israel and cyber-attacks, but they don’t attack us. And of course, the U.S. and the UK are allies, and we work together in the cyber realm. Cyber deserves more than three minutes here. It’s a whole semester course to understand cyber power, what it can achieve, the limits of its power, and what it can add to other military powers like the navy and the army. If anyone thinks cyber is all there is, they’re wrong. 

Cyber is another dimension of war, very much like the airpower in the 20th century. It is more like being in 1920 or 1930 with airpower than having airpower of the 1980s or 1990s. We have a lot more development to do in the cyber realm. It is not tangible, and you can’t see it the way you see an aircraft carrier or a submarine or a tank. You don’t see it, you don’t exercise it, and usually, it has no borders, and the rules of engagement are not agreed. It’s very difficult to understand what cyber can do and cannot do.

iF: Is that true also of artificial intelligence? We’ve been reading that the Chinese are making enormous investments in AI – thinking strategically that AI will be the way to fight wars in the future. Are they in the same position with AI that we are with cyber, just trying to figure out what to do with it now?

Yadlin: Nobody wants to drive a car using artificial intelligence.

iF: I don’t.

Yadlin: And driving that car will be easier than going into the battlefield. The enemy of an AI car is basically an old women crossing the road, or weather that blocks some of the sensors. On the battlefield, you also have people who want to kill you, and you go in the mud, and you have to cross rivers. It is not here today, and it won’t be in 2025 as some people predicted 10 years ago. But imagination and innovation may bring artificial intelligence to the battlefield in 2045 or 2050. Even then, I don’t believe it will be another dimension, it won’t be an “ace” that kills everything else. It will more likely be within aircraft, or in the navy or in the army – not a separate service that decides war.

iF: Final question: Israel has a coalition government now that some people think is weird. Disparate people, disparate opinions. Are you comfortable with decisions that need to be made for the IDF and for Israel’s strategic posture?

Yadlin:  First, the fact that we have a government is proof that miracles continue to happen in land of Israel. This government is a miracle. No political analyst could have predicted this government, or that it would last. On strategic planning, I have to remind you that we didn’t have a budget for the past three years, so there was no planning because there was no budget to support the planning. Israel is not good at strategic planning. The last prime minister I remember doing it was named David Ben Gurion. Our grand strategy is to survive. And we used to have a defense doctrine.

This is what I’m teaching now at Harvard, Israel’s defense doctrine. Basically, we build it bottom up, identifying problems, solving them in the IDF, taking it up for approval in the political echelon. 

The fact that we have right wing and left wing parties, extreme left, and extreme right, and then other parties, is not so important on issues of national security. There is no left and right on the Iran nuclear issue, nobody wants Iran to be nuclear. There is no left and right on Iran’s entrenchment in Syria. Nobody wants to see the Iranians in Syria. There is no left and right on Hezbollah, no left and right on Hamas, no left and right what will happen if the Saudis decide to join the Abraham Accords. The Saudis would be blessed from the left and from the right.

Only on the Palestinian issue is there a left and a right. But the government has decided not to move forward or backward, not to remove settlements or build new settlements, and both sides agree that there is no partner. On Israel’s national security, they agree almost on most issues – and actually, for the first time in a long time there is a real discussion in the government about Iran. It was “outsourced,” so to speak to the previous prime minister and it wasn’t discussed for the past five years or more. I am happy that they are discussing it again. It’s a very tough issue and it should be discussed in the government with participation from many angles. On a nuclear Iran, there is no margin for error.

iF: Amos Yadlin, on behalf of the readers of inFOCUS and the members of the Jewish Policy Center, thank you for a most enlightening conversation.