October 02, 2008
The 26th JINSA Flag & General Officers Program took place in September during a period of political and military flux. The JINSA delegation, consisting of 10 retired American admirals and generals, one professional staff member and four members of JINSA's Board of Directors, traveled widely and met with Israeli civilian, military and intelligence professionals, as well as American Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, the U.S. Security Coordinator for the Israel-Palestinian Authority. The group contained a diversity of professional experience, bringing depth, pointed questions and excellent observations to the meetings.
Professional meetings included the Minister of Defense, IDF Chief of Staff, Director of Military Intelligence, Commander of the Navy, the Israel Security Agency, and base commanders at the Haifa Naval Base, Palmachim Air Base, the IDF’s ADAM Counter-terror Training Base and its Ze’elim Urban Warfare Center. The group spent a morning assimilating the lessons of the Lebanon War, and time in Jerusalem assimilating the historic and religious significance of the city.
Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi expressed confidence in the U.S.-Israel security relationship, concerns about the Hamas buildup in the Gaza Strip, and discussed changes in the Hezbollah position in Lebanon. Israel, he said, had responded to the 2006 Lebanon war with major changes in military management. “It was not a problem at the troop level,” he said. “It was at the higher levels.” The IDF had been doing a counter terrorism mission in the territories during the second Intifada, and had to reemphasize the skills needed to fight organized guerrilla forces.
Travel was extensive: from Tel Aviv to the southern command near Gaza, the Lebanon border, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Masada, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and along the "Seam Zone" to visit the Security Fence in the middle of the country.
The most important recurring themes during the 10 days of travel and discussion were:
- The tactical lessons of the 2006 Second Lebanon War are being assimilated into IDF training and doctrine. The priority of the IDF during the "second Intifada" had been counter-terrorism training, and the troops had spent long periods of time in the West Bank and Gaza (until the disengagement in 2005). Extraordinarily successful in securing the Israeli public from suicide bombers, the IDF leadership knew that the skills associated with counter-terrorism are not the same as those required for the larger scale war the IDF fought against Hezbollah in Lebanon. A decision taken late in 2006 to return the IDF to a more conventional capability has born fruit.
- The ceasefire (called the "lull") with Hamas reduced, but did not eliminate mortar strikes inside Israel. Iranian assistance to Hamas has increased and become more evident. Israeli military and intelligence professionals point to the rise of a Hamas army, rather than simply a terrorist organization and note with concern the preparations being made inside Gaza for eventual war with Israel.
- The Palestinian security forces on the West Bank are being trained under the eye of Lt. Gen. Dayton. Dayton has been with the Palestinian forces for nearly three years, trying to merge disparate security services into one national service as well as trying to inculcate skills and command capability into the force. The New York Times ran a story during the trip indicating that the Palestinians had taken over the police function in Jenin – the site of heavy IDF-Palestinian fighting at the peak of the "second Intifada." The police are, apparently, effective in controlling crime and protecting the population, but the IDF and security services made it clear that the Palestinians were not undertaking the counter terror mission that is part of the negotiated Road Map.
- Two other American military officers are also involved in Palestinian and Israeli security issues: Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, USAF, is monitoring compliance with the Road Map, and Gen. James Jones, USMC (ret.) was working to create a "security framework" for Israelis and Palestinians.
- The Israeli government traded Palestinian terrorists – including the infamous Samir Kuntar – for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, ending a nightmare of uncertainty for the families, but causing a political firestorm. Shortly thereafter, the Italian commander of the UNIFIL force in Lebanon publicly criticized Israeli overflights of Lebanon, while praising Hezbollah’s adherence to UNSCR 1701. The situation in Lebanon is deteriorating as Hezbollah restores its military capability and Syria has been fighting various elements in the north. Most Israeli experts agreed that it was better to have the expanded UNIFIL than not have it, and better to have the Lebanese Army in the South than not have it – despite the recognition that Israel remains under significant threat from the north and that the threat may erupt suddenly. This is a much different view than the JINSA group found in 2006, when visiting the Lebanese border three weeks before the outbreak of the war.
And, most important –
- The threat from Iran was ratcheted up another notch as the IAEA report noted that uranium was missing from known facilities – possibly moved to secret weapon assembly points – and that Iran had solved some of the problems it faced running cascaded centrifuges for uranium separation.
- Iranian arms and training for Hamas as well as Hezbollah were frequent topics of discussion, but the presumed "window" for Israeli-Syrian negotiations appeared to have closed as the Syrians were fighting in northern Lebanon and had reopened their eastern border to permit infiltration into Iraq.
Under those security circumstances, the upcoming changes in the administrations of the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority were a constant presence and possible source of additional regional instability. Although the possibilities for change in the Israeli and American government were well understood, the JINSA group was largely unaware of the fact that the Palestinian president – his constituency split between the West Bank and Gaza, and half under Hamas control – is also facing the end of his legal term.
And, just for good measure, the American financial system broke down during the trip, prompting some Israelis to express concerns about the impact of financial instability on the upcoming election and America’s attention to security matters in the waning months of the current administration.
JINSA's guests and our Israeli hosts worked long hours – an outstanding meeting with the Chief of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, took place late in the evening, while travel to the IDF's Southern Command and to the Golan Heights both required early bus trips. On Shabbat, the group traveled to Masada.
A report of the observations and assessments of the Israelis and the Americans is being prepared, and the findings will be shared with JINSA members through JINSA Reports and additional website articles.