Israel considers a Gaza Ceasefire
May 21, 2008 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
May 21, 2008
Number 05/08 #08
As this Update goes out, the Israeli government is reportedly waiting for the response from Hamas to the conditional acceptance Israel conveyed to Egypt of the ceasefire proposal Egypt has been brokering. As reports from the Israeli press make clear (see here and here), the Israeli government is sceptical it will succeed, and is prepared to accept only a gradual implementation of some of the ceasefire provisions, conditional on Hamas and Egyptian behaviour, but it has promised to stop all Gaza military action if the rockets cease.
Explaining the ceasefire proposal’s provisions and the demands of both sides is Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, formerly a senior IDF strategic planner and peace negotiator, but now an academic at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. Brom makes it clear that from the Israeli point of view, the key breakthrough that makes the ceasefire worth considering is the de-coupling of Gaza from the West Bank. He says, however, that the deal’s success will depend on progress vis-a-vis getting kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit released, Hamas’ ability to enforce the ceasefire on smaller groups, and Egypt’s efforts to halt arms smuggling. For Brom’s complete overview of the strategic calculus on both sides behind the ceasefire talks, CLICK HERE. More on Israel’s Gaza dilemmas, including the increasing inevitability of a major military incursion if the ceasefire does not succeed, from Haaretz‘s Amir Oren.
Next up, top Israeli security columnist Ron Ben Yishai explains in detail what Israel is proposing in its “gradualist” acceptance of the ceasefire provisions. He explains the key role is actually Egypt’s, and that Israel expects not simply that Egypt monitor the border area, but that it also establish an intelligence network throughout the Sinai that will stop most arms before they ever reach the border. He also says implementing an end to the closure of Gaza will also ultimately depend on the negotiations about Shalit. For this full explanation of Israel’s expectations with respect to the ceasefire agreement, CLICK HERE. Bin Yishai says Israel primarily wants Egypt to cut off Gaza from Iranian aid – also exploring the Iran shadow complicating the Gaza ceasefire proposal was Haaretz‘s Amos Harel.
Finally, this Update brings you a very important general exploration of Israel’s strategic situation and dilemmas according to Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s head of Military Intelligence, who, in an interview, sets out the main points of the annual intelligence assessment he gave to the Israeli government recently. He deals with Israel’s difficulties with Hamas, including the possibility of a truce, but also spends a great deal of time on the current crisis in Lebanon, the threat from Hezbollah, the strategic danger from Iran generally, especially in terms of nuclear weapons, Syrian peace prospects and other issues. For this rare glimpse inside the world as seen by the Israeli intelligence community, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Hamas says anti-Israel “resistance” will continue, ceasefire or no ceasefire.
- More on the campaign of bombings in Gaza directed at businesses claimed to be un-Islamic, as well as Christian schools and churches.
- Jew-eating Hamas kid’s television character Assud the rabbit teaches children that Tel Aviv used to be a Palestinian city called Tel al-Rabi (which it never was.)
- US President Bush gave two major speeches when he visited the Middle East over the weekend, one at the Knesset, and one to a World Economic Forum Summit of Arab leaders at Sharm el-Sheikh.
- Israeli correspondent Shmuel Rosner explored the controversy that erupted over claims by US presidential candidate Barack Obama that a paragraph in Bush’s Knesset speech about appeasing terrorists was directed at Obama, a claim the White House denied.
- Meanwhile, Senator Obama recently gave an interesting interview on Israel, Hamas and Zionism.
Ceasefire in Gaza
INSS Insight No. 55,
May 15, 2008
Negotiations toward a ceasefire in Gaza, mediated by Egypt and other channels, have been ongoing for some time. Now, however, Egypt’s efforts to convince Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza to agree to a ceasefire while relinquishing some of their demands have borne fruit. The Egyptian minister of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, came to Israel to urge the government to accept Egypt’s proposal for a six month ceasefire. Israel must decide whether such a ceasefire would harm Israel’s broader interests, and whether its conditions resolve Israel’s principal hesitations.
- The main terms of the ceasefire that must be agreed upon are:
- The territory to which it applies
- Who is governed by it
- Its linkage to the easing of pressure on Gaza
- Its linkage to the issue of arms smuggling into Gaza
Hamas is interested in a comprehensive ceasefire, binding on the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, because the organization wants to halt Israeli pressure on its West Bank units. Therefore, from its vantage, the ceasefire must include the cessation of arrests and other actions against Hamas operatives in the West Bank. For Israel this is a red line, because a cessation of Israel’s activity in the West Bank would allow the rebuilding of a terror infrastructure that could be directed at Israel at Hamas’ convenience. The proximity of the West Bank to key areas in Israel prohibits any Israeli flexibility in this regard. The building of a Hamas infrastructure for manufacturing rockets in the West Bank, for example, would create an intolerable reality for Israel. Cessation of Israeli activity would also allow Hamas to build an organizational and military infrastructure that could eventually overcome Abu Mazen’s forces and take control of the West Bank, as it did in the Gaza Strip.
Consequently, the Egyptians persuaded Hamas and the other organizations to accept a compromise whereby in the first stage the ceasefire would apply only to the Gaza Strip, along with an Egyptian commitment to try to convince Israel to expand the ceasefire to the West Bank in the next stage. This compromise is problematic because Israel opposes any hint that it might consider expanding the ceasefire to the West Bank. Also, from the statements by spokespersons of the smaller organizations, such as Islamic Jihad, one gleans that despite their seeming acceptance of the Egyptian proposal, they would be hard pressed to exercise restraint if their activists in the West Bank were targeted.
Since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and the Palestinian elections, Hamas has almost consistently expressed its willingness to maintain a mutual ceasefire with Israel; a ceasefire would help it reap the fruits of its success in the Palestinian political arena and consolidate its rule. However, Hamas has had less willingness to enter into a conflict with the other armed groups and impose a ceasefire upon them, including by force. On the other hand, Israel has no reason to agree to a ceasefire so long as Hamas ignores its responsibility as Gaza’s governing entity and other organizations continue to fire rockets at Israeli towns. Such a ceasefire would in any case quickly collapse in the wake of Israeli responses to the rocket fire.
Egypt therefore conducted negotiations with the smaller groups (12 organizations) as well and persuaded them to accept the proposal. Yet this solution too is somewhat problematic. First, it reflects Hamas’ continued unwillingness – notwithstanding its capacity as Gaza’s governing body – to enforce the understandings it commits to, leaving compliance up to the goodwill of the smaller groups and Egypt’s persuasive ability. Second, amid the Gaza reality in which even clans possess armed militias and any group carrying arms can organize under a particular banner, it is likely that additional groups, beyond the 12 organizations, will consider themselves unbound by the ceasefire.
Hamas’s interest in the ceasefire stems from its drive to strengthen its political power and military capabilities. As far as it is concerned, there is not much justification for a ceasefire if only the military pressure on Gaza is suspended. Therefore, for Hamas the ceasefire is conditional on the lifting of the siege of the Gaza Strip, i.e., opening the crossings to Egypt and Israel. Even if Israel accepts that the total closure of crossings to Gaza cannot continue over time and permits the transfer of basic goods into Gaza, Israel is not interested in a sweeping cancellation of anti-Hamas sanctions; this would strengthen Hamas and weaken Abu Mazen. Thus agreement on a ceasefire requires understandings as to how much the pressure on Gaza is relaxed. For example, would the Rafah border crossing be opened based on the agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, whereby the crossing is operated by the PA, i.e., Abu Mazen’s forces, under European supervision and with television surveillance by Israel? Or would its opening meet Hamas’ demands, whereby it would be jointly operated by Hamas and the PA, under European supervision and with no Israeli remote surveillance?
One of Israel’s main arguments is that a ceasefire would be exploited by Hamas for building up its military capability in Gaza, to be used against Israel whenever convenient for the organization. The key question here is the smuggling of arms into Gaza. It is difficult to imagine that Hamas would cease smuggling within the framework of a ceasefire so long as Israel is free to build up its military capabilities directed against the organization. Thus the ball is in Egypt’s court. Assuming that total prevention of smuggling is not possible, the question is to what extent is Egypt prepared to demonstrate to Israel that it is indeed working effectively to minimize smuggling into the Gaza Strip.
Many other open questions remain. If there is agreement over Israel’s principal demands, Israel would presumably give positive consideration to a ceasefire. Such a ceasefire would on the one hand respond to the essential need for enabling Israeli residents of the western Negev to conduct a normal lifestyle and avoid having Israel drawn once again into Gaza; on the other hand, it would have only a limited negative impact on Israel’s Palestinian partners in negotiations over a permanent accord or on Israel’s broader interests. But any such ceasefire is inherently short-lived and embodies the seeds of its own dissolution, even if the understandings are not time-limited (six months in the case of the Egyptian proposal); this is mainly due to the tension between a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip and the conflict in the West Bank Therefore a ceasefire’s benefit, like any inherent long term damage, is perforce limited. It could serve as leverage for encouraging stability and arrangements that are more long term, but only if the relative calm and indirect dialogue that has already begun is exploited for building more long term processes, both in the Palestinian arena – between Hamas and Fatah – and between Israel and Hamas.
There is also the question of linkage between understandings over a ceasefire and the release of Gilad Shalit. Negotiations over a ceasefire can be used to pressure Hamas into greater flexibility in its demands; however it cannot be assumed that due to Hamas’s strong interest in a ceasefire, it will yield to Israeli demands on this matter. It is quite possible that at the end of the day Israel will have to pay a high price for Shalit’s release, including the release of prisoners defined by Israel as having “blood on their hands.”
Cairo is the key
Israel needs Egypt to cut Hamas off from Iran; Mubarak to determine lull’s fate
Ron Ben Yishai
The rush of Israeli politicians to the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh was more than a ceremonial move. Barak and Livni, and to some extent Benjamin Netanyahu as well, are currently managing a crucial phase in lull negotiations. However, we are not talking about indirect negotiations with Hamas via Egypt; rather, those are direct talks with Egypt over Cairo’s role in such deal.
According to security assessments formulated in recent days, Israel’s most vital interest is to cut Hamas off from Iran. On this front, the actions to be undertaken by Egypt are vital. For Israel, it doesn’t matter much whether the Rafah Crossing will be opened in one way or another, should Egypt engage in security screening and intelligence activity deep in the Sinai and within Egyptian territory. Such activity would prevent not only large-scale arms smuggling from Iran and Sudan to Hamas – it would also prevent Hamas men from traveling to Iran for training and coming back.
By doing this, Israel is hoping to secure a long-term achievement that would avert the emergence of a full-blown Iranian outpost in Gaza, even if the lull is violated. Israel wouldn’t care, for example, that the Palestinians in Gaza shop in Egypt or go there to seek medical attention. On the contrary, this could alleviate the international pressure exerted on us.
However, Israel demands that Egypt engage in thorough screening efforts and stop all those who travel to Iran, and particularly those who return from it, as well as the rocket launchers, explosives, and anti-aircraft rockets sent to Hamas by Iran, just as it sends them to Hizbullah. If these weapons and people reach the Rafah Crossing or the tunnels, it will be too late, Defense Minister Barak likely told President Mubarak. The Egyptians must deploy an intelligence network in the Sinai and in Egypt as well to prevent these weapons and people from even reaching the Rafah area.
Recently, Egypt proved that it can do it. In the wake of the Philadelphi Route breach, Egypt managed to work effectively within the Sinai in order to prevent the infiltration of armed Hamas men planning to carry out attacks in the Sinai. Now, Israel is demanding that even when it comes to unarmed Hamas men who are traveling to Iran for training, Egypt would prevent them from passing through the Sinai or Egypt, including the airport in Pithat Rafiah.
Israeli officials estimate that Hamas, just like other groups, will not show flexibility on the terms it agreed to as condition to the lull. However, security officials say that what matters is not what Hamas does or demands, but rather, what Egypt does. At this time, the fate of the lull is completely in Egypt’s hands, and in fact, President Mubarak will be determining whether a lull will go into effect or not; he won’t do it through words, but rather, through the actions of his people on the ground.
The second Israeli demand has to do with Gilad Shalit. Defense Minister Barak was expected to demand that the Egyptian president renew mediation efforts on this front, including pressing Hamas to show flexibility on its demands. Cairo is capable of exerting such pressure. It has quite a few levers that can cause Hamas to change the list of prisoners it seeks to release.
What Barak offers is a phased deal. In the first phase, both sides will stop the fighting. Hamas will end its Qassam fire and won’t allow other groups to fire either. It will also refrain from carrying out attacks near or beyond the Gaza fence. In exchange, Israel will end its surgical strikes and ground incursions into the Strip. Once the lull goes into effect, Israel will start gradually easing the Gaza siege. The number of trucks carrying goods and food into the Strip, as well as the number of fuel barrels transferred by Israel to Gaza every day, will grow considerably and gradually should the lull be maintained.
Simultaneously, accelerated negotiations will get underway on a deal to free Gilad Shalit in exchange for Palestinian prisoners. This will not only be done with Egyptian mediation, but rather, with Cairo’s active involvement. Once the talks reach an advanced phase, Israel would agree to open the Rafah Crossing with security measures that both Mahmoud Abbas and Egypt would accept. In the third phase, the Gilad Shalit deal will be carried out, the crossings will be opened, and the Gaza siege will be lifted.
This is the Israeli proposal that has been formulated in recent days, but as noted, for Israel the key lies with vigorous Egyptian activity that would cut Gaza off from the “bosses” in Tehran.
By Ari Shavit
Haaretz, May 16
Since taking over as director of Military Intelligence (MI) in January 2006, Major General Amos Yadlin has not given an interview. His predecessors also gave few interviews, and his colleagues on the present General Staff are also stingy when it comes to talking to the media. So the decision to break his silence was a difficult one for the veteran pilot. He wrestled with the decision, agonized over it, even regretted it. His mistrust of the Israeli media is deeply rooted. The trauma of the Second Lebanon War and the trauma of the tsunami of criticism that followed it pushed the mistrust to new levels.
Nevertheless, after a lengthy courting period, Yadlin said yes. He reached the conclusion that it is right to apprise the Israeli public of the main points of the annual intelligence assessment that was presented to the government about two months ago. He decided that the country’s citizens must be partners to the difficult challenges Israel faces. They have to know, in broad contours, what the threats are, and also the prospects. They have to know what sort of world they are living in.
The DMI is a round-faced man who projects restraint and moderation. In his well-ironed light blue uniform and with his silver-gray hair and cautious smile, he looks thoughtful as well as calculating. His spacious office high in the IDF tower in the Kirya – the headquarters of the defense establishment in Tel Aviv – overlooks the Akirov Towers, the pride of Tel Aviv-as-Manhattan. But at the entrance to his office hangs a large map, in green, of a threatening Middle East. And on one of the walls, as though by chance, is a photograph of the F-16s that made that long flight to the reactor in Iraq, to Osirak.
He was born in 1951 in Kibbutz Hatzerim. His father, Aharon Yadlin, was secretary general of the Labor Party and education minister in the first government of Yitzhak Rabin. It was from him that he imbibed his values, the DMI says, from the modest Zionism of a cabinet minister who returns home to serve supper in the communal dining hall.
Yadlin flew Ouragan, Skyhawk, Mirage, Phantom, Kfir, F-15 and F-16 planes in the Air Force. He was the commander of two squadrons and two air bases. He fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War and took part in the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor eight years later. He was the chief of staff of the air force and commander of the IDF colleges and military attache in Washington.
However, his present post, he says, is the most complex and complicated he has ever faced.
Even before he is asked a question, Yadlin declares that he is not a prophet. He does not make accurate predictions about the future but describes possible futures. His truth is one of accumulated probabilities. According to Yadlin, Israel faces five threats: Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The intelligence picture that Israel has about these threats is not homogeneous, he says. On certain fronts the intelligence is good, on others it is very good. In any event, the intelligence picture is significantly better than it was two or three years ago. Yadlin maintains that the Israeli intelligence community is one of the best in the world; in certain spheres it has developed near-superpower capabilities.
And because the community usually comes into the public eye only when it fails, it is very important for the DMI to praise his personnel and his colleagues in the intelligence effort. If only the public knew, he sighs. If only people knew what they owe the soldiers and the officers who put together the intelligence puzzle every day anew.
Asked whether a war is likely in 2008, he replies, “The assessment of MI is that there is a low probability, even a very low probability, that the enemy will initiate a war against Israel in 2008.” However, he adds, “The MI assessment also states that even though the enemy will not initiate a war, it is preparing for war. It is preparing for war because it is afraid that Israel will attack it. Accordingly, a mistake in judgment is liable to lead to war. The situation is volatile because both sides are preparing for war and are ready for a war, even though they do not want it.”
Is Security Council Resolution 1701, which marked the end of the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, being implemented?
“It is not being implemented in full. What is being implemented is the presence of UNIFIL [the United Nations force] in southern Lebanon and the non-presence of uniformed Hezbollah fighters in established strongholds close to the border. What is not being implemented is the return of the abducted soldiers, the fact that Hezbollah is present south of the Litani River and the continuing transfer of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah.”
Is Hezbollah now deployed south of the Litani?
“There is a massive Hezbollah presence south of the Litani. The Hezbollah personnel do not move about in uniform during the day. They do not have border outposts as they did before the war. But they have a military presence. They have rockets south of the Litani. They have combat forces south of the Litani. They have observation points and intelligence in the villages along the border.”
If a war were to break out, will we face a stronger or less strong Hezbollah than we did in the summer of 2006?
“We will face a stronger Hezbollah. But Israel?s abilities to cope with Hezbollah will also be stronger.”
Is it true that Hezbollah has 40,000 rockets?
“The exact number is of no importance – whether it is 20,000 or 30,000 or 40,000 rockets. We must not put into the same basket the rockets we remember from the Lebanon War, which for the most part covered only the north of the country, and the steep-trajectory munitions, which can reach Gush Dan [Metropolitan Tel Aviv] and even farther south. The steep-trajectory munitions resemble surface-to-surface missiles more than they do rockets. Here the count is completely different. Hezbollah?s steep-trajectory munitions now cover large areas of Israel.
“The vulnerability of the Israeli home front is at the center of our intelligence assessment. Absolutely at the center. However, a very professional performance analysis is needed in order to arrive at an evaluation of the military impact of this fact on Israel.”
What do we know about Hezbollah’s new ground deployment?
“We know Hezbollah’s deployment pretty well. Hezbollah is currently deployed both south and north of the Litani. When I say north of the Litani I am referring to the entire length of Lebanon. If there is a future flare-up, Hezbollah will try to attack Israel not only from the area south of the Litani but from deep inside Lebanon as well. Hezbollah learned the lessons of the war. It learned the weak points in which it failed in the war. It is trying to improve them. Ahead of a possible future confrontation, Hezbollah is preparing a combined deployment of steep-trajectory weapons that will target the Israeli rear, and at the same time trying to create a ground force that will be able to cope successfully with a ground assault, which Hezbollah perceives as the IDF’s central lesson from the war of 2006.”
Will Hezbollah try to draw us deep into Lebanon in the next confrontation?
“I will not comment on that. I will say only that some of the changes Hezbollah is undergoing oblige it to move from the form of a terrorist army to the characteristics of a conventional army. This is the case in its deployment, its weaponry and also in terms of command and control. This transition is not entirely advantageous for Hezbollah. It deprives it of some of the advantages it had as an elusive body that strikes at the civilian population and hides behind the back of the civilian population.”
In the meantime, the impression is that Hezbollah is taking control of Lebanon.
“The events of the past week offer an interesting actualization of MI’s annual situation assessment. MI predicted the weakening of the coalition of the moderates in Lebanon and the strengthening of the opposition centered around Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah did not intend to take over Lebanon this week. If it wanted to do that, it could. It has the capability to conquer the whole of Beirut within days. But Hezbollah does not want to be Hamas. It understands that if it seizes full control of the government it will bear responsibility, and many of its weak points will be exposed. So a situation in which it possesses the power but not the authority is convenient for it. By means of its move this week, Hezbollah proved to everyone that it is the dominant force in Lebanon.
“We have to remember: Hezbollah is stronger than the Lebanese army. On top of which, the army of Lebanon consists of brigades with a Shiite majority, which in a confrontation will side with Hezbollah. What became clear in the past few days is that already now the Lebanese army is not ready to serve the interests of the Lebanese government. The result is that [Prime Minister] Siniora is left without a military force. The only force behind him is political, moral and international. In an armed confrontation, it is clear what the balance of forces is between the government and the moderates it represents, and the opposition headed by Hezbollah. The drift is perfectly clear.”
What you are saying, then, is that the Siniora government has a short lifespan. The historical dynamic is the rise of Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has been on the rise since 1982. It grew especially strong after the unilateral withdrawal [by Israel] in 2000. Its goal now is to topple the Siniora government, choose a convenient president and bring about a constitutional change in the governmental alignment. As such, it will create a situation in which it will have veto power over any measure that could hurt it. Hezbollah has not yet achieved its goal, but the present forceful move is bringing it closer. What Hezbollah did not achieve in an orderly political fashion or by popular revolt it is now achieving by the use of its military might. For its own reasons, Hezbollah does not want a military coup in Lebanon at this time.”
Is the result from Israel’s point of view the presence of a quasi-Iranian state on our northern border?
“It would be wrong to say that Iran?s takeover of Lebanon took place this week. The Iranians and their Revolutionary Guard have been houseguests in Lebanon for years. The Iranian influence in Lebanon was greatly strengthened after the departure of the Syrians in 2005: the vacuum left by Syria was filled by Iranian ideology, financing, weapons and know-how. At the same time, Iran cannot dictate every move in a complicated and complex country like Lebanon. Israel has to keep an eye on the manner in which Hezbollah is growing stronger and intensifying its hold in Lebanon in the service of foreign interests – Iranian and others.”
From the MI viewpoint, what will the implications be for Israel and the region of a nuclear Iran?
“I suggest that we do not talk about a nuclear Iran, but about the ways to prevent Iran from nuclearizing. Iran is not only a threat to Israel; it is a threat to a large number of states in the Middle East. And above all, Iran is a global threat. The Iranians are developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Europe, and in the future of crossing the Atlantic. Thus Iran is a world problem. It is not right for Israel to station itself in the forward slope against it.”
So the Iranians’ goal is to reach nuclear weapons and missile capability that will threaten not only Israel but also Europe and the United States?
“That is the only conclusion I can arrive at from an examination of Iran?s missile program. The Iranians are not stopping at a range that covers Israel. The ballistic missiles they are developing have no military significance unless they carry nuclear weapons. Everyone who develops missiles can increase their range from a thousand kilometers to thousands of kilometers. At first they had the Shihab-3 missile, with a range of 1,300 kilometers. Now they are developing the Ashura missiles and assembling missile samples they received from North Korea with a range of 2,500 to 3,500 kilometers. Technologically, there is no great leap from this to missiles of intercontinental range. It is possible. We are seeing the Iranians engage in this. It is real.”
How many uranium enrichment centrifuges are now operating in Iran?
“Until a few months ago, they ran 3,000 centrifuges at the Natanz enrichment facility. Recently, [President] Ahmadinejad declared the existence of another 6,000. We do not think there are another 6,000. There are a few hundred more.”
How much fissionable material are these centrifuges capable of producing within one or two years?
“Theoretically, 3,000 centrifuges produce enough fissionable material for one nuclear bomb in a year. But the Iranians are not yet there. Their centrifuges are outmoded. Their output is not comparable to the output of a superpower?s centrifuges. Iran aspires to reach industrial production of fissionable material and to build a facility with tens of thousands of centrifuges. But at the moment it is facing technological problems that it has not yet overcome.”
If Iran is not interrupted, when is it liable to go nuclear?
“The Iranian nuclear issue is extremely complex. The schedule assessment is similarly complex. There are three very powerful factors at work here. One is the technological issue. The second is the question of international pressure. The third is Iran?s nuclear strategy. Does Iran want a nuclear bomb as quickly as possible, or does it want the status of a threshold state, like Japan and Germany? That is, a situation in which Iran has considerable capability, is within bowshot of a nuclear bomb, but does not assemble the bomb in practice. Subject to the question marks hanging over all these factors, the very harsh possibility is the beginning of the next decade, and the more realistic possibility is the middle of the next decade.”
In other words, it is MI’s assessment that Iran will be nuclear between 2010 and 2015?
“Nothing is unequivocal, but yes, that is the thrust.”
And what is the probability of Iran being curbed diplomatically, not by force?
“The prospect of diplomatic containment depends on someone being able to expose Iran. Iran is fooling the world, but so far it has not been exposed in a serious way. If Iran is exposed in the next year or two, and it is proved beyond a doubt that it deceived the world about its nuclear program, the diplomatic campaign against it might be revived.?
Do you think that an intelligence breakthrough of this kind regarding Iran might occur in the foreseeable future?
“That is our challenge.”
Do you feel that you are serving as DMI in a particularly fateful period?
“Absolutely. The period in which I am serving as DMI is a very special one. At the same time, if we are talking about the Iranian threat, I want to remind you that in 1981, we faced a country of similar size, at a similar distance and of similar hostility, which threatened to develop nuclear weapons.”
If Iranian nuclearization is not contained, and if the West does not take action, where will that leave Israel?
“We are a very strong country. We are a country that can cope with every threat in the Middle East, including the threat you are alluding to.”
Then maybe, based on that strength, we should simply accept Iran’s nuclearization, accept the fact that this is an unavoidable development.
“There are two levels of gravity regarding the possibility of a nuclear Iran. One level says that a radical regime in the possession of radical weapons is a very dangerous combination for Israel. We are the grandchildren of a generation that did not listen, a generation that shrugged off declarations that the Jews must be exterminated. We are wondering how rational the Iranian regime is. Neither the religious pronouncements nor the political pronouncements of the president of Iran are those of a rational leader. Therefore the combination of this approach and nuclear weapons is highly problematic. There is no guarantee that Iran will be a rational nuclear player. I am not saying that extreme scenarios are the probable ones, but they cannot be ruled out completely.
“Another level of gravity says that even if Iran will be a rational player, nuclear weapons will allow it to do things it is now avoiding. Iran has spread a net of terror across the entire Middle East. This deployment is unequivocal and deep, but its implementation is very cautious. Iran is at present actualizing a small part of its terrorist capability. It will behave differently when it knows it has nuclear weapons. In addition, it is clear that if Iran nuclearizes, other countries that see themselves as regional powers are also liable to go the nuclear route. I can think of at least three countries that will not accept a situation in which Iran is the only nuclear power in the region. The Middle East is liable to become a multipolar nuclear configuration in which conventional unquiet prevails. It will not be a pleasant place to live in, to put it mildly.
“At the same time, it is important for me to say the following: An extremist regime with extremist weapons is an existential threat to the State of Israel – at this stage, a potential threat. Still, we must not exaggerate. We must not treat this threat as one that is going to end thousands of years of existence of the Jewish people. Absolutely not. Israel is capable and will be capable of coping with that threat in all dimensions.”
What is the scale of Syria’s military buildup in recent years?
“The Syrians still perceive themselves as militarily inferior in the face of Israel?s air power, technological superiority and modern weapons systems. Accordingly, they are developing a capability for a different type of war. They are not strengthening themselves with planes and tanks, but with antiaircraft missiles, antitank missiles, long-range rockets and long-range missiles. This trend has been continuing for many years, but is also based on the lessons drawn from what Syria views as Hezbollah?s success in 2006. They are strengthening elements that characterize terrorist organizations or guerrilla organizations: camouflage, deception, antitank weapons and simple rockets. Armor is being converted into infantry and air forces are being converted into surface-to-surface rockets and surface-to-surface missiles. On the one hand, the Syrian army is very much beefing up its defensive capability, and on the other hand is strengthening its ability to strike at the Israeli home front.”
What danger does this capability pose to Tel Aviv? What danger does it pose to air force bases and to the emergency depots of the reserve forces?
“Syria has for many years possessed the ability to reach the targets you are asking about. However, it is correct to say that the Syrians are now investing not a little in increasing the mass and in improving the accuracy of the missiles capable of hitting the Israeli rear.
“At the same time, the Syrian army understands that it is not Hezbollah. It understands that if it attacks the Israeli rear, as Hezbollah did, it will lose strategic assets. Assets that differentiate a state like Syria from a sub-state organization like Hezbollah.”
Is Bashar Assad interested in making peace with Israel?
“The Assad regime?s order of priorities is clear: first of all, the regime?s stability, then Lebanon, and finally the return of the Golan Heights. If peace with Israel serves these goals, then Assad is interested. My assessment is that Bashar Assad will agree to acertain type of peace, on his terms.?
If Israel were to withdraw to the lines of June 4, 1967, and not demand a change of strategy from Damascus, would the result be a peace agreement?
“Those are Bashar Assad?s conditions. But they leave open the question of the security arrangements, the question of water and the question of the substance of the peace, which will be discussed only if negotiations are conducted. Eight years have passed since the failure of the previous negotiations, in Shepherdstown. Significant things happened in those eight years. The ties between Syria and Hezbollah on the one side, and between Syria and Iran on the other side are different from what they were in 2000. The Syrians lost much of their influence in Lebanon. Iran, which became Syria?s strategic prop, now has Damascus in a bear hug, in terms of weapons supplies, training and money. Thus Bashar Assad?s ability to sever himself from Iran and from Hezbollah is far more limited. The issue is more complicated.”
In other words, it is harder to reach a peace agreement in 2008 than it was in 2000?
“Definitely. That doesn?t mean we should not try. But it is harder.”
One difficulty is Assad?s problem of severing himself from Iran and Hezbollah. Are there other difficulties?
“The security arrangements discussed in 2000 referred to the threat of assault divisions. Today we also have to talk about the threat of surface-to-surface missiles. In 2000 the negotiations were held under American auspices, with American encouragement and with American readiness to compensate the sides for their concessions with alternative assets. Today the American approach is less enthusiastic.”
Ehud Barak told Bill Clinton that the president of Syria wants to make peace with the president of the United States, not with the prime minister of Israel. Is that remark still valid today?
“It is. Today it is perhaps even stronger than it was in 2000. From the Syrians? point of view, peace with Israel is some sort of necessary evil. It is a means to achieve other goals. The Syrians? deep desire is to emerge from the almost leper-like political isolation in which they find themselves. Israel alone cannot open the gates of the world to Syria. That asset has to be supplied by someone else. Therefore Assad is preparing for the moment when the U.S. administration will change, when, he believes, Israel will give him what he wants.”
Effectively, then, your assessment is that the peace process with Syria has a chance in 2009, not at this time.
Then what is the origin of the wave of peace reports in the past month?
“Assad authentically wants to reach a settlement with Israel on his terms. In contrast to other states on the axis of evil, which do not recognize Israel and do not want to enter into negotiations with Israel and recognize only the military option against Israel, Assad belongs to the camp that preserves both options. But Assad?s public statements about his readiness to enter into negotiations represent a short-term move that is related to other issues: an attempt to terminate the international tribunal that is investigating the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister] Hariri; an attempt to overshadow the impression created by the American report about what was developed at Deir al-Zur in eastern Syria; and an attempt to avert escalation.”
You are saying that Syria can be on the axis of evil, but also does not have to be there.
“I have been saying that for some time. Syria?s natural place is not in the radical Shiite axis of Tehran-Hezbollah-Hamas. The majority of the Syrians are Sunnis, not Shiites. Syria is a secular state. Therefore Syria is not a natural member of the axis of evil. The strategic circumstances brought it there. Syria has good reasons to make peace with Israel, and it can definitely move to the other camp if it gets the proper quid pro quo.
“Syria does not have the Sadat conception of ‘no more war,’ of an end to bloodshed, but if for Machiavellian strategic reasons, Syria’s vested interests should dictate that it move to the peace axis, it will do so.”
How strong, militarily, is Hamas in Gaza?
“Since the disengagement, and certainly since it seized power in Gaza, Hamas has been trying to consolidate an army. It is undergoing a process similar to the one being undergone by Hezbollah: a transition from a terrorist organization to a semi-military organization with companies, battalions and brigades. Hamas is now fusing terrorist capabilities with traits of an army that possesses point-specific offensive capabilities, artillery capability of a certain level, and above all the capability to cope with an Israeli offensive ground move. The rationale underlying Hamas? military buildup is to create a deterrent balance against Israel. That balance rests on Hamas? ability to fire at the civilian population in the Gaza envelope and afterward still deeper into Israel. It is the Hezbollah model, but Hamas is still far from being Hezbollah.”
How much rocket power does Hamas have today, and where will it be in two-three years’ time?
“Hamas’ steep-trajectory weapons developed from primitive rockets with a range of just a couple of kilometers to ranges of 9 and even 13 kilometers. Hamas is now preoccupied mainly with trying to smuggle standard-issue rockets into the Gaza Strip. The range of those rockets – 122 mm Katyushas – is generally about 20 kilometers. Already now Hamas has at least a few dozen and maybe a few hundred such rockets. It has significant capability at a range of about 20 kilometers. However, Hamas does not want to stop there. It wants to obtain rockets with a longer range. I remind you that Hezbollah was able to obtain rockets with a range of 40 kilometers. So I think the aim is clear. If this matter is not dealt with, Hamas will bring more cities within its range of fire.”
Will Ashdod be in their range by 2010?
“Given the present developments, every place that is within a range of up to 40 kilometers is liable to be targeted. Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, even Be’er Sheva.”
Is the situation that has evolved along the Gaza border in the past two years tolerable? Is it a situation that a sovereign state can put up with?
“Your question relates not to military intelligence but to state policy. From the intelligence viewpoint, it can be said that the present situation will not be able to continue indefinitely. It can be resolved by dealing with the shooter’s capabilities or by dealing with his intentions. It’s clear how capabilities are treated. Dealing with intentions can be done by means of arrangements or by means of deterrence, by getting Hamas to understand that the price it will pay for shooting is extremely high.”
If Israel has to go into Gaza, will there be a difference in the price it will pay this year, next year or in two years?
“Wherever there is a military buildup, force is created and experience acquired. The operational challenge becomes greater. The more time that passes, the more significant and the more difficult the situation we face becomes. But I do not suggest that we frighten ourselves. Our forces are also improving, training and finding operational solutions to challenges.”
The defensive configuration that Hamas is building in Gaza is also based on a Hezbollah model, is it not?
“Hamas’ ground deployment is based on subterranean fortifications, explosive devices and snipers. Hamas is organizing for the possibility that Israel will decide to deal with it on the ground, and is making every effort to hinder an Israeli attempt to execute an operation along the lines of Operation Defensive Shield [referring to the West Bank incursion of the IDF in the spring of 2002]. Hamas has established a number of brigades. In addition, it took over the police force and created security apparatuses that are able to support a war effort.”
Is it possible to arrive at peace with Hamas?
“It is important to differentiate among three concepts: peace, hudna and tahadiyeh. The concept of peace with Israel does not exist in Hamas terminology. Hamas could get the siege lifted if it were ready to talk about peace and about recognition of Israel. It is not doing that. When Hamas finds itself under military pressure, it agrees to what is known as a hudna. A hudna is a cease-fire, in return for which Hamas demands more than [Yasser] Arafat demanded in return for a peace agreement with Israel. Hamas gives far less than Arafat and demands far more: a return to the 1967 lines to the last centimeter, a return to Jerusalem and the return of the refugees.”
What you are saying is that a hudna with Hamas is impossible.
“As long as those are Hamas? conditions, a hudna appears to be
And a tahadiyeh?
“Tahadiyeh is a weaker concept, referring to a calming or a lull in the fighting. Hamas very much wants a tahadiyeh. It understands that its situation in Gaza is difficult politically, economically and publicly. So it is looking for a lull. The public in Gaza is also asking Hamas for calm. A tahadiyeh is meant to resolve the tension in which Hamas finds itself, between being a terrorist organization and being a government responsible for its citizens that wants its rule to continue.”
Will such a lull enable Hamas to continue its military buildup and thus endanger Israel in the future?
“If a cessation of the smuggling is not part of the lull, and if the production of weapons continues in Gaza, Hamas will grow stronger during the tahadiyeh. If cessation of the smuggling and the arms production is ensured, the answer is different.”
Does the tahadiyeh that is now being worked out solve a problem or create one?
“The tahadiyeh, as agreed between [Egyptian intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman and Hamas perhaps solves the problem of terror from Gaza for the short term. But in the long term, it does not provide an answer to the ongoing smuggling or to the Hamas buildup. Its divorce from the release of [the abducted soldier] Gilad Shalit is also very problematic.”
In the past few months, a lively discussion about Hamas has developed in Israel. As head of MI, can you state clearly what Hamas? goal is? What it?s after?
“Hamas’ long-term strategic goal is for the State of Israel to disappear and for the Palestinian state that will succeed it to be an Islamic theocracy. But Hamas has more immediate goals: to consolidate its rule in Gaza, to break the siege of Gaza, to seize control of Palestinian politics, to create deterrence against Israel and to continue the fighting against Israel. Take note of the order: it is very important when assessing the positions Hamas will take in the near future.”
The order suggests to me that there is a certain room for maneuver here.
“The fact that a terrorist organization is also a government makes the case of Gaza distinctive and also very interesting. The need for accountability and for bearing responsibility is in a state of tremendous tension with the jihadist approach. Gaza is the second place in history, after Sudan, where the Muslim Brothers movement has taken control of an Arab state. Proving that a state of this kind is feasible is a very important strategic goal for Hamas.”
The Palestinian Authority
Is the PA capable of reaching a binding two-state agreement this year?
“The degree of flexibility the Palestinians have shown so far is relatively narrow.”
Is Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] now capable of making the painful compromises that Arafat showed himself incapable of making at Camp David?
“There are three weighty core issues over which the agreement will come into being, or not: borders, refugees and Jerusalem. On the issue of borders I think progress has been made since 2000. There is readiness by the Palestinians for an exchange of territory. There is a question of the scale of the exchange, but there is recognition that certain settlement blocs will remain in return for alternative territories that will be received from Israel. I believe that on this issue the differences can be bridged. The Jerusalem question depends on creative arrangements that both sides will be able to live with. The refugee issue is much more difficult. There is both a Palestinian demand for Israel to acknowledge its responsibility and a desire to return a significant number of refugees to Israel in practice. The Palestinians have not yet forsaken this demand. So the issue of the refugees is the most difficult to bridge.”
What will be the implications on the ground of not reaching an agreement?
“The question is how the failure will be presented. If the word is that more time is needed, a different context and the formulation of new ideas, the situation will be more convenient. But if there is a sharp confrontation, with accusations hurled, I think the PA leadership will be very much weakened.