An Interview with Ron Ben Yishai
By Bren Carlill
There are few journalists specialising in strategic and security affairs more experienced than Ron Ben Yishai. After fighting as a paratrooper in the Six Day War, Ben Yishai turned to journalism full time. Since then he has covered, from the battlefield, the Yom Kippur War, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, the first and second Lebanon wars, the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the NATO operation in Kosovo, the Russian-Chechen violence in 2000 and more. He has been wounded three times while covering various battlefields from the front line.
Coupled with the multiple awards he has received for his individual reports, documentaries and “lifetime achievements,” Ben Yishai is someone worth listening to. He spoke to the Australia/Israel Review about Israel’s strategic outlook on his recent Australian visit.
Ben Yishai begins on a positive note, but quickly descends into a gloomy analysis. “Israel’s national security situation,” he says, “is these days as good as it ever was.”
He’s talking about Israel’s military deterrence, which was a prime subject of our discussion.
While Ben Yishai is critical – like most Israelis – of the way Israeli military planners handled the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, he is emphatic about the results. “The end result of the Second Lebanon War is that Israel enjoys deterrence,” Ben Yishai reports. At no other time since its founding in 1982, he says, have “we had such four quiet years with Hezbollah. Hezbollah doesn’t dare shoot one rocket or even one bullet in anger.”
While Hezbollah fired some 4,000 rockets into Israel during the 2006 four-week war, only a handful have been fired since, and all of these by organisations affiliated with the global jihad, not Hezbollah.
This is due to Israel’s deterrent value, according to Ben Yishai. “The deterrence of Lebanon stems also from the fact that Israel managed to inflict damage, and to hit, accurately, Hezbollah targets.” As such, “Hezbollah is adamant and strict in preventing any kind of hostility between it and the IDF.”
He points to the exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops on Aug. 3, which left one Israeli and two Lebanese soldiers dead, as evidence of Israel’s deterrent effect. “This kind of event could have easily developed into a large scale clash. [But] it was limited. Hezbollah made the proper lip service. Hezbollah tried to get the best out of it. But Hezbollah didn’t shoot one bullet in this case and was very meticulous in preventing” any fire.
The same is true of Hamas. “Exactly like Hezbollah,” he says, “the same effect.” There have been almost 150 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead in Jan. 2009, but all except a few of these by organisations other than Hamas, and most associated with the “global jihad”.
However, deterrence fades over time, he says. Thus, for Israel to maintain an effective deterrence, it must respond aggressively to any challenge.
He again points to the Aug. 3 incident. “Although Israel didn’t know the [Lebanese] were going to do it, the [IDF] reaction means the [necessary forces] were already there; in order to make sure that the Lebanese would not get the wrong message.” It’s not a matter of an eye for an eye, he pointed out. Rather, in response to a Lebanese sniper shooting an Israeli soldier, Israel used artillery, tank fire and helicopters in response.
It’s from here that Ben Yishai’s analysis becomes gloomy. The growing political isolation Israel is facing in the international community “has serious implications on Israel’s ability to maintain deterrence.” The isolation “de-legitimises Israeli capability to use its military force… to exercise its right and obligation to defend its citizens.”
Ben Yishai described the Goldstone Report, commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council after Operation Cast Lead, as a “milestone in this regard.” The intense NGO and Western media outrage over enemy civilian deaths – due entirely to the perfidious nature of Israel’s enemies – limits Israel not just strategically, but also on the tactical level.
He rhetorically questions the impact the Goldstone Report will have on the morale of Israel’s soldiers, given the danger of international court action. “Because of the Goldstone Report, 550 officers and soldiers of the IDF were brought in for questioning… Why? Because in the Goldstone Report, there were stories invented by the Palestinians, but Israel in order to thwart UN sanctions… had to make an investigation of its own. What type of impact does this have on battalion commanders that may have to go into Cast Lead number two?”
The attempts to de-legitimise Israel go beyond frustrating its ability to defend itself on the battlefield, into questioning Israel’s right to exist. “They are sophisticated,” Ben Yishai tells me. “They don’t talk about destroying Israel, or throwing the Jews into the sea as they used to. Today they talk about what happened in South Africa – which means turning Israel into something other than it is… And that is why [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu insists that the Palestinians will recognise Israel as a Jewish state. Because this is important to control all these de-legitimisation processes, which are threatening Israel as much as rockets.”
The problem is, “religious movements have their decree from God, and it’s unchangeable because it is a divine decree. Who am I to change it? I can make tactical changes – I can offer Israel a hudna [ceasefire] for a certain time, I can refrain from doing anything at this time because it doesn’t suit me, but the end goal” is not open for discussion.
But if Israeli deterrence is based on a massive response to enemy attacks, and these responses lead Israel into international isolation, given the hostile UN, NGO community and international media, what is Israel to do?
Israel, Ben Yishai says, has already been adapting. It attempts to make sure that all friendly countries know the situation. He points to the fact the West backed Israel’s decision to enter into war in both 2006 and 2008. “Every time there is an incident on the Lebanese border, Israel submits a complaint to the Security Council, so it will be on the table. Israel is preparing the ground. In the past, Israel didn’t even bother to ring the UN to inform it. Today, Israel is very keen to work together with UNIFIL [the UN peacekeeping operation in Lebanon], for instance, because UNIFIL can be very useful in determining who opened fired. [Thus, on Aug. 3], UNIFIL was clearly on Israel’s side.
Ben Yishai adds that this problem is further complicated by the fact that other, less deterrable forces are involved. Almost all the violence perpetrated against Israel from either Lebanon or Gaza since the end of the wars on those respective fronts has come from groups associated with the global jihad. They do not agree with the restraint displayed by Hamas and Hezbollah, and so fire on Israel hoping to provoke a war. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are attempting to prevent these groups from firing (or gaining a presence on their respective turfs) but it’s difficult for them.
Our conversation turned to a more postive situation – the renewed Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on the West Bank. Here, he’s very hopeful, but adds a caveat. “The security forces are quite effective, but they are not Zionists… As long as the Palestinians feel they have something to gain from talking to the Israelis and not shooting them, they will talk.” He describes positively the increasing areas Israel is ceding to Palestinian security forces, the lifting of roadblocks and the improved economic conditions, but says only realistic hope for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement will keep Palestinians from returning to violence in the long run.
I ask if Fatah has increased its popularity. For instance, if there were an election in the West Bank today, who would win? “I have no doubt that Fatah will win,” he says, “because of one reason. They eliminated, in many cases physically, Hamas.” And Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s party? “Fayyad’s party doesn’t have much chance. They are too intellectual; it is the party of the elite.”
Finally, we discuss the May 31 Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla. While Ben Yishai didn’t offer much that hasn’t already been discussed in the months since, his comments are of interest because he was embedded with the Israeli navy on its interception.
He knows where to place the blame for the violence. “I can tell you with no hesitation, the Turkish Government was behind it… The Turkish Government didn’t initiate it, but it was very quick to recognise the potential and to make sure it happened the way it happened.”
He described the shooting of the second Israeli soldier to land on the ship, who was severely wounded. “He was five seconds behind the first soldier,” but was already shot, “so they did not have time to snatch the gun off the first soldier and use it against him. Which means he was shot by someone who had a weapon and was ready for him.”
Despite the potentially precedent-setting nature of the flotilla, Ben Yishai isn’t too alarmed. The raid only reached the headlines because 45 protesters acted violently – the hundreds of others on board the six ships were peaceful. And since that time, three other flotillas from Muslim countries have been cancelled or diverted to Egypt.
Not everyone wants to be a martyr, it seems.
Ron Ben Yishai is the Security Correspondent for the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot. He visited Australia as a guest of Shalom College.