July 29, 2011
The 28th JINSA Flag & General Officers Program took place in May 2010 during a period of political frustration between the United States and Israel. Our group was comprised of six officers, two wives (who traveled largely separate from the main group), two JINSA officers and one staff professional. What appeared to be the administration “charm offensive” had only barely begun – we were in Israel when Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with Secretary Gates and Hillary Clinton in Washington, and then the group met with Minister Barak on his return.
It is hard to underestimate the importance Israelis attach to the security relationship with the United States – particularly perhaps when there are political differences – and the how grateful they are to those who come to listen and learn.
With various IDF and Ministry of Defense interlocutors, the group discussed Iran, hybrid war, Hezbollah, Hamas, the "two state solution," Lebanon, Syria, missiles, defensible borders and the Goldstone Report, for starters. But underlying all of the specifics, there were recurring themes that resonated with our military guests. The very resonance of the themes and the differences in detail may account for some of the frustration between the two countries.
Close as the United States and Israel are, there are differences that cannot be ignored.
The United States is a very large, rich country with an almost boundless capacity to absorb and correct for mistakes. Americans think in grand sweeps and, if they fail, we go on to the next sweep. Whether the issue is TARP, health care, nuclear disarmament, or the move from diplomacy to the threat of sanctions with Iran, the United States has an enormous margin for error in which we can, and often do, change course.
Israel has almost no capacity to absorb and correct for big mistakes. That has been one of the recurring themes in the 28 JINSA Flag & General Officers Trips since 1982: until they stand on the ground, it is hard for our guests to understand just how small Israel is, just how close its enemies are and just how little margin for error there is.
Asked to address the biggest misconception they took with them to Israel that was corrected on the trip, one participant wrote, “The tyranny of time and distance. Normally in the Middle East, we grossly underestimate the vast differences. In this case, it is the other extreme – just how close frontiers really are to any other point in the country.”
One consequence is that Israel needs to feel very confident when it takes a risk – as in the United States asking Israel to take “risks for peace” – and wants to have security backup systems for every concession they are asked to make or choose to make. It leads Israel to want things worked out in advance. The result can be impatience on the part of even Israel's best friends, not to mention on the part of those who don't generally have Israel's interests at heart. Impatience breeds frustration, frustration breeds irritation and irritation breeds a desire just to get the deal done and move on.
Precisely the opposite of what it takes to actually get the deal done.
The US – not the just current administration, but others as well – tend to think of Israel as big and the Palestinians as small. It is one of the great media relations tricks of all time – changing the problem from the Arab-Israel conflict, in which Israel is clearly at risk, to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where people want concessions from the "stronger" – Israel – to the "weaker" Palestinians. Only when Israel is placed in regional context-considering Syria and its connections to North Korea, Lebanon, Iran, etc.-can the size of Israel and the need for defensible borders be properly appreciated.
Israelis with whom we met took great pains to be clear about:
- the risks Israel is already taking;
- the potential for disaster in larger future risks; and
- the nature of the present and future conflict
As one example, there will be no battlefield or even a traditional "front" in the next war because the Arab states, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah are targeting missiles right over the "front" (the borders) and straight at the cities and civilians of Israel. Meetings with Mayor David Bouskila of Sderot and Brig. Gen. Yair Golan of the Homefront Command were eye-opening.
The long term effects of the Hamas shelling of Sderot on the children of the town will require long-term intervention by counselors and others, even though Sderot is now quiet. Gen. Golan is already thinking about the next attack – whether from the north or the south – and described a whole-country civil defense exercise that took place in May.
How many Americans outside of Times Square even think of themselves as a "front"?
The JINSA delegation was honored to meet with LT Gaby Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff; MG Benny Ganz, Deputy Chief of Staff; Chief of the Mossad Meir Dagan; MG Amos Yadlin, Chief of IDF Intelligence; BG Nitzan Nuriel, Chief of Counter-terrorism for the NSC; MG Eitan Dangot, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories – the man responsible for Israeli humanitarian operations in Gaza; Col. Axel Egnell, UNIFIL Liaison Officer to the IDF; as well as representatives of the Shin Bet, officers at Palmachim Air Base and Adam Counter-terrorism Base and others. The group traveled from the Golan Heights and Lebanon border in the north to the edge of Gaza in the south, and from the Mediterranean to Jerusalem to the edges of the West Bank.