August 01, 2011
The 2011 JINSA Flag and General Officers Program to Israel and Jordan took place against vast waves of upheaval in the region. The immediate activity included:
- The “Arab Spring”
- The announcement of a Hamas-Fatah Unity Government
- The “naqba day” demonstrations that brought Palestinian demonstrators to Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon and plans for future demonstrations
- President Obama’s major address on the Middle East, including the formulation of “The 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon land swaps” as a starting point for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The President’s second address, to AIPAC, took place while JINSA was still in the region, but PM Netanyahu’s speech to Congress took place after our return to the U.S.
As has been the case for many years, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear capabilities and its support for terrorist, irredentist and radical Islamist organizations in the region was the backdrop against which the other activities were taking place.
The group was comprised of ten recently retired Flag & General Officers, six spouses – who traveled largely separately with an itinerary focused on social, historical and religious interests – a professional JINSA staff member and members of the JINSA Board of Directors and Advisory Board.
The JINSA delegation was honored to meet with Defense Minister Ehud Barak; Lieut. Gen. Benny Ganz, IDF Chief of Staff; Chief of the Mossad Tamir Pardo; MG Aviv Kochavi, Chief of IDF Intelligence; BG Nitzan Nuriel, Chief of Counter-terrorism for the NSC; Minister for Strategic Security and former Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon; Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, head of J-5; officers at Hatzor Air Base; and Dr. Uzi Rubin, father of Israel’s missile defense program.
The group watched the IDF training to absorb the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War and be better prepared for future hostilities, after which they met with two UNIFIL Representatives who assured them that the biggest problem between Israel and Lebanon is the Druze village of Ghajar, which the UN insisted be split in half like Solomon’s baby. Hezbollah, said the UNIFIL officers, is not part of UNIFIL’s mandate and is not violating UN Resolution 1701 because it isn’t a party to it. The group traveled from the 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 and overland to Amman
In Jordan, the group had the honor of meeting with King Abdullah II. Other meetings were the Head of the Jordanian Intelligence Department (JID); and a combined meeting with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chief of Strategic Planning, the Director of Military Intelligence, the Chief of Personnel and the Director of Strategic Plans. They paid respects to the late King Hussein as well.
JINSA’s Israeli and Jordanian interlocutors were largely “on message,” although the Jordanian message appears to have changed considerably since the group returned to the U.S. The Israeli message broadly was that Israel had always faced periods of regional turmoil and while this one might turn out to be of historic proportions – for better or for worse – Lieut. Gen. Ganz and Minister for Strategic Security (and former IDF Chief of Staff) Moshe Ya’alon, among others, were confident that Israel would weather the political storms.
They were less sanguine about the threats posed by Iran.
About the United States, the view was mixed. At the security level, the military-to-military cooperation level, Israelis could not stress enough how close the relationship has become. There is open and frequent conversation and association between the U.S. military and the IDF. Even the installation of the U.S.-manned X-Band Radar at the end of 2008, about which the Israelis had initial concerns, has turned out to be another useful mechanism for cooperation. 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.
At the political level, the view was decidedly mixed and reaction to the President’s speech elicited two Israeli bottom lines, present across almost all speakers military and political:
- Defensible Borders: Because any peace treaty can be altered or abrogated, long-term security for Israel will come from borders that the IDF can defend. That was the promise of UN Resolution 242 (“secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”). The President’s decision not to mention the concept was unsettling. The President did mention the 1967 lines – the 1949 Armistice Lines that were famously called “Auschwitz Borders” – as a starting point, which was equally worrisome. Mention was made several times in Israel that the “contiguous border” the President envisions between a future Palestinian State and Jordan would not only compromise Israel’s security, but that of King Abdullah II – an American ally in the region.
- Palestinian Interlocutors: The weakness of Mahmoud Abbas and the role of Hamas in a Palestinian “unity government” was not mentioned by the President but the Israelis expressed the concern that the United States saw Israel (the stronger party) able to make concessions to the Palestinians (the weaker party) without understanding the role played by the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran in Palestinian politics, or the role played by Iran with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Israelis, agreeing that they are the stronger party vis-a-vis any of their adversaries, were uncomfortable with the idea that the U.S. believes they are so strong that they can handle the ramifications of regional changes – including potential problems with their peace partners Egypt and Jordan – while simultaneously ceding defensible borders to Palestinian groups intertwined with regional enemies.
By the time of the trip (15-23 May), the governments of Tunisia and Egypt had changed; the U.S. and NATO were involved in bombing Libya; Saudi Arabian troops had entered Bahrain, the home of the U.S. Sixth Fleet, to prevent Iranian forces from entering the Kingdom; Syria and Jordan had both experienced disturbances although those in Jordan were contained by comparison and there were no deaths. Lieut. Gen. Ganz told the JINSA group, “We are taking part in history. We have to be ready for what happens ‘after the mosque.’ Countries don’t know what they will look like from Friday to Friday. We don’t know what they will do or become but I know we will be here and we will be a democratic country.”
The primary concern about the immediate region expressed by Israelis – from the Minister of Defense to commanders on the ground – was the potential for the reorientation of Egypt and the possibility that the 32-year-old peace treaty could be abrogated or altered. Secondarily, was the concern for long-term stability in Jordan, with which Israel shares its longest border and with which security and intelligence cooperation have been excellent because it serves the interest of both countries.
The situation in Jordan did not prevent the JINSA group from traveling to Amman. We visited in a window – after President Obama’s speech, before he recanted some of it at AIPAC and before PM Netanyahu spoke before Congress. His Majesty was off-the-record, but it can safely be said that there was heavy emphasis on the need for economic growth and political development in Jordan, concern for how the “Arab Spring” would play out, and appreciation for American aid. Our other Jordanian interlocutors implored us to consider Jordan an ally and use what influence we have to strengthen U.S.-Jordanian relations – one suggested we change JINSA’s tagline from “Securing America, Strengthening Israel” to “Securing America, Strengthening Israel and Jordan.”
We left Jordan inclined to do so, but the picture has changed in the intervening period.
Regarding the Palestinians, the announcement of a Hamas-Fatah Unity Government was apparently of less concern, with the expressed belief that it would collapse – as in fact it has done. The “naqba day” demonstrations – which happened the day the group arrived – were problematic, particularly on the Syrian border. The situation in Lebanon was a positive surprise for Israel – the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), having been told by Israel to expect Palestinians to breech the “Technical Fence” that is north of the Israeli border, presented itself on the Lebanese side and did not permit demonstrators to pass. There were a number of casualties inside Lebanon. Because, perhaps, the IDF had more concern about Lebanon than Syria, the Golan Heights were only lightly defended and demonstrators passed through the fence and the border, entering the Druze village of Majdal Shams on the Golan. The IDF did not use lethal force there at any time.
A later meeting with the Central Command’s Jenin area commander was enlightening. He explained how he had worked with the Palestinian Security Forces to ensure that while demonstrations were permitted, riots would be counterproductive. At the same time, for the first time, JINSA heard from commanders on the ground that the IDF would be prepared if the U.S.-trained and equipped Palestinian Security Forces turned on Israel under the terms of a Hamas-Fatah Unity Government, as rogue agents or as Fatah-controlled forces.
Iran, far from being the elephant in the corner, was the focus of conversation in almost every context. The Stuxnet virus that attacked Iranian computers appears to have been largely contained. The Israeli government is firmly in the “sanctions” camp, but believes sanctions have not yet been attached to the most important Iranian assets and have not yet effectively cut trade between Tehran and certain European interlocutors and the UAE. Unless sanctions are applied to oil exports from Iran, refined petroleum products to Iran and certain essential technologies, the Israelis are convinced the world will see a nuclear Iran in a few years. That would lead to a nuclear arms race in the region and Iranian hegemony.
By Shoshana Bryen, Senior Director for Security Policy