Flag & General Officers Program to Israel 2009

The 27th JINSA Flag & General Officers Program took place in May 2009, with two subjects clearly in the forefront of our discussions – one looking forward, one looking back:

The 27th JINSA Flag & General Officers Program took place in May 2009, with two subjects clearly in the forefront of our discussions – one looking forward, one looking back:

Iran: There has been no change in the formal position of the Israeli government regarding the unacceptability of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability. However, there has been an evolution in Israeli thinking about how to deal with it. For several years, particularly during the 1990s, JINSA trip participants were told it was a race between “the revolution and the bomb,” Israelis (and Americans) were hoping for the overthrow of the regime before the nuclear program could be completed. The high point for this position was the summer of 2003 – immediately after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

When it became clear that the Iranian “summer of discontent” was just that, there were several years of contemplation of a military option, either by the US or, if necessary, by Israel. In 2006, the group was told that Israel “knew what it knew, but didn’t know what it didn’t know.” In 2007 and 2008, high-ranking IDF officials told JINSA that, although there was still time for diplomacy, the military option was still valid for both countries and that Israeli intelligence had made advances in finding out what it didn’t know.

In 2008, the beginning of a separation in the US and Israeli positions opened. While maintaining that there was “no daylight” between the US and Israel on facts or on the end game, the definition of “red lines” was something else. President Bush appeared to take US participation in a military option off the table in 2008 and Israel was denied certain military equipment that was presumed to have applicability to the nuclear problem.

For the US, the red line is weaponization, according to Bush Administration Defense Secretary Gates (who reiterated that in the Obama administration in 2009).

The US defense establishment – specifically DNI Dennis Blair and DIA Director Michael Maples in Senate testimony in March 2009 – does not believe Iran has made the decision for weaponization yet. Maples, according to The Washington Post, told the Senate panel that “Iran is ‘keeping open that option’ and that Iran’s launch of a space vehicle ‘does advance their knowledge and their ability to develop an intercontinental ballistic missiles,’ but there may be no connection between the country’s development of missiles and any ambition to have nuclear weapons.” In the same article, Blair said, “I believe those are separate decisions. The same missiles can launch vehicles into space. They can launch warheads, either conventional or nuclear, onto … land targets, and Iran is pursuing those – for those multiple purposes. Whether they develop a nuclear weapon which could then be put in that … warhead, I believe, is a … separate decision which Iran has not made yet.”

For Israel, the red line is Iran’s mastery of the fuel cycle – perhaps reflecting closer proximity and a smaller margin of error.

Both the US and Israel agree that a military strike would only set back the program rather than terminate it. The Israeli position is that any military strike would have political repercussions as well, and that the political situation might make it impossible to restart the program. Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor was predicted to have a one-year delay. The program never restarted.

In 2009, the JINSA trip participants met with MG Amos Yadlin, Chief of IDF Intelligence, LT Gabi Ashkenazi, IDF Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. All three expressed confidence in Israel’s ability to strike crucial parts of the Iranian nuclear program and set back Iran’s capability by some years and to accept the inevitable retaliation. When asked, “What keeps you awake at night?” one Israeli replied, “I sleep very well. This is a strong country.” Another, asked what message the group should take away, replied, “We are here. We have to fight and that’s it.”

All professed to be in accord with President Obama’s decision to engage the government of Iran diplomatically. They expressed the desire that any diplomatic overture should be time-bound and include benchmarks for progress.

Hezbollah: One reason for increased Israeli confidence appears to be increased intelligence about what is happening in Iran and where it is happening, but another is the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon War. The war was initially considered a victory for Hezbollah (simply because it remained standing after it was over) and a failure for Israel (because it didn’t succeed in stopping short range rocket fire). However, with hindsight, it is possible to see some benefits to Israel at the expense of Hezbollah and Iran:

  • Hezbollah was distinctly hurt by the war – Hassan Nasrallah himself said that if he’d known the extent of the damage Israel would inflict on his forces and on Lebanon, he would not have started it.

  • Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, was unhappy because the rockets of all ranges were placed in Lebanon to deter Israel from striking Iran, not for Hezbollah’s private use. Iran believed that if Israel always had to look over its shoulder for the retaliation that might come from Lebanon, it would be deterred.

  • What Israel discovered was that despite the rockets, Israel continued to function in almost normal ways – Israel’s GDP actually increased in the 3rd Quarter of 2006, the quarter of the war – and it was possible to take out the medium and long range rockets from the air.

  • Israel also acquired “lessons learned” about Hezbollah and short range rockets, and implemented them in a way that should ensure better results if it is required to re-enter Lebanon in the future.

  • Israel considers Hezbollah to be deterred both by the introduction of the expanded UNIFIL force in the south and by the possibility of increased losses if Israel responds to rocket fire. Hamas pleaded with Hezbollah to open a second front and enter the fray when Israel began Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. Hezbollah declined.

Two conclusions stand out, the first by a trip participant

  • “There were many positive trends evident in our travel around the state: construction illustrating a booming economy, tourists underscoring a sense of security in major cities, and good morale among the military we met. But, the perception among the Israelis that the 2006 Lebanese war had been a failure, seemed to carry an expectation of a next war to fix the problems of the last. There was a common theme in each of our separate meetings with senior uniformed military officers, combat leaders, intelligence officials, and the King of Jordan. Another war is coming between Israel and the Arabs – this time most likely between Israel and Syria.”

  • Israel has spent considerable time and effort acquiring expertise in counterterrorism – much of which it is sharing with US forces. Significant analysis has been given to the political philosophy of the war violent Islamic fundamentalists have declared against the West and western values. However, Israel (and the US) appears focused on tactical and technological responses to what is, at its core, a mental/emotional issue. Where Palestinians or Islamist radicals have as their goal the reversal of history (“unestablishing” the State of Israel or “reestablishing” Islamic hegemony in Europe or elsewhere) it is their teachings that need to be addressed or the West will always be behind – trying to create defenses against new offensive tactics.