Israel’s dangerous consensus
Recently I found myself in a chance conversation with a former head of the Mossad’s Directorate of Operations. The former master spy, whom I had never met before, knew that I am a journalist.
He was aware of my political views.
Directing his remarks at a friend of mine, he declared that 99 percent of Mossad and Shin Bet officers are leftists. He then added triumphantly that according to a former commander of the air force whose name he cited, 99% of the air force’s pilots are similarly leftists.
Initially, I dismissed his comments as obnoxious chest-beating by a man who felt like irritating a group of right-wingers.
But given the source, it is impossible to simply brush off what he said. And to be clear, far more troubling than the prospect that Israel’s security establishment is uniformly leftist is the notion that there is any intellectual or ideological uniformity of any kind in the ranks of our defense community.
But given our defense community’s record in recent years, there is ample reason to believe that there is more than a grain of salt in the spy chief’s boast.
Consider Israel’s handling of Gaza.
According to a number of senior officers, at the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the IDF’s senior commanders convened in Tel Aviv to determine how to handle the Hamas regime going forward.
During Protective Edge, Israel learned a few things about Hamas and about the strategic balance of power between Israel and Hamas in the region and the world.
On the ground Israel learned that Hamas bases its offensive capabilities on civilian infrastructure.
Hamas placed its missiles, its communications centers and its operational commands inside civilian buildings including private homes, hospitals, clinics, schools, mosques and UN offices.
As to the strategic balance and resources of both sides, during the war Hamas enjoyed the de facto backing of the Obama administration.
Throughout the war, the administration pressured Israel to accept Hamas’s cease-fire terms as dictated by its state sponsors Qatar and Turkey.
On the other hand, Israel was able to avoid bowing to the US’s pro-Hamas demands because throughout the conflict we enjoyed the open support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In other words, during the war, Israel discovered that Hamas’s military strategy was based entirely on an implicit alliance with the West, which attacked Israel for targeting Hamas’s military infrastructure, which, again, was all based in civilian structures.
It might have been assumed that the IDF senior commanders would have based their post-war deliberations on these lessons. But according to senior IDF sources, that didn’t happen.
At the outset of that postwar meeting, IDF commanders were told that Israel’s best option was to assist in the reconstruction of Gaza – that is, the reconstruction of Hamas’s civilian-based military machine.
The discussion then moved to the question of how best to achieve that goal.
The notion that Israel is best off when Gazans are not living in the streets is certainly a legitimate one.
Perhaps it would have withstood scrutiny if it had been subjected to scrutiny. But it wasn’t.
And in hindsight, it is obvious that it should have been.
In keeping with the decision to support the reconstruction of Gaza, according to the Foreign Ministry, over the past year and a half Israel has permitted 3.4 million tons of building materials to be imported into Gaza. And yet, according to a recent report by the UN, 74% of the civilian buildings that were destroyed in Protective Edge have yet to be rebuilt.
In the meantime, Hamas has replenished its missile stores and rebuilt its military infrastructure, including its subterranean attack tunnels that traverse the border into Israel.
Both the continued suffering of the Gazans, and the sounds of drilling under the homes of Israelis living along the border with Gaza, indicate that at a minimum, the security establishment’s immediate post-war determination that Israel must permit building materials to enter Gaza was a bit hasty.
Then there is Iran.
Iran’s illicit nuclear program was first exposed in 2003. At the time, it probably made sense for Israel to follow the US’s lead in blocking Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But then, the Americans’ continued stumbles in Iraq made clear from as early as 2004 that perhaps the Bush administration wouldn’t be up to the challenge of blocking Iran’s path to the bomb.
The early suspicions that then-president George W. Bush would not block Iran’s nuclear ambitions became an all-but certainty in the wake of the publication of the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate.
The NIE made the dubious claim that Iran had abandoned its military nuclear program in 2003.
Despite the fact that the claim was contradicted by the report itself, in light of Bush’s political weakness at the end of his second term, the NIE rendered it politically impossible for Bush to order a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations. It also made it politically possible for President Barack Obama to initiate his pro-Iranian Middle East policy a year later.
As for Obama, despite his oft-stated claim that “all option remain on the table” for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, any thought that he might be serious became patently absurd after he sided with the regime during the 2009 Green Revolution that followed its falsification of the results of the presidential elections.
None of this, however, made an impression on the security brass. Led by the Mossad, for more than a decade our senior commanders insisted that Israel could trust the US on Iran.
Last week Russia announced that it will sell Sukhoi Su-30 combat fighters to Iran. According to former senior Pentagon official Stephen Bryen, the sale will tip the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf in Iran’s favor and over time, give Iran “an answer to Israel’s air power.”
Iran’s acquisition of the Su-30s is but one of a panoply of weapons deals the regime has signed with suppliers since the sanctions regime was canceled last month. These sales, together with Iran’s clear path to nuclear capabilities mean that Iran’s rise to the position of regional hegemon is unimpeded.
This then brings us to Israel’s options, moving forward. Amazingly, it would seem that Israel continues to take its signals on Iran from the Americans.
After all, at least on the surface, Israel’s security establishment and our political leaders seem most concerned today with concluding a deal for supplemental US military assistance in the wake of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Perhaps a reassessment is overdue.
If Iran’s empowerment is now more or less a done deal, then the nature of the regime becomes the central variable that it may still be possible to change.
In the years that preceded the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, a small group of former Mossad officers joined forces with a small group of American Iran experts in beseeching the government – and first and foremost the Mossad – to support the Iranian opposition in its bid to overthrow the regime. These calls were ratcheted up throughout the months of the Green Revolution in 2009 and early 2010.
These Iran experts argued that all Israel needed to do was provide secure communications to the opposition to enable its members to organize effectively, and to broadcast their messages to the public in Iran through radio, television and Internet servers maintained abroad.
Arming Iran’s many disaffected groups, including the Azeris, Baluchis, Kurds, Ahwaz Arabs, unions and women, wouldn’t be necessary, they said, (although it certainly would be helpful). They argued further that from Israel’s perspective, helping the opposition made sense even if the opposition failed to overthrow the regime. After all, the more time the regime was forced to devote to fending off challenges from home, the less time it would have to wage its campaigns against Israel directly and through its terrorist proxies.
These calls were dismissed out of hand by the security establishment. Our intelligence services in particular insisted that Israel could trust Washington to deal with Iran. Moreover, they maintained, Israel didn’t have a real dog in the fight over who leads Iran. This despite the fact that Israel is surprisingly popular among Iran’s citizenry, over a million of whom regularly listened to Voice of Israel Farsi broadcasts.
Six years on, there is no doubt that regime opponents are weaker than they were on the eve of the Green Revolution. But even today in the wake of the nuclear deal, they are far from a spent force.
The regime continues to fear the Iranian people – which continues to hate it – more than it fears anything else. This is why the regime rejected some 90% of the candidates running in the national elections later this month. This is why the regime outlawed every direct and indirect reference to Valentine’s Day this week.
This is why politically driven arrests and executions have increased massively since the supposedly reformist president Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013.
THE NEED FOR the IDF to open itself up to unorthodox views manifested itself in a seemingly unrelated incident this week.
On Sunday Channel 2 broadcast footage of IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Rafi Peretz dancing at a wedding with a rabbi identified with the far Right.
Following the report, the IDF Spokesman’s Office announced that Rabbi Peretz had been summoned to the office of OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Hagai Topolanski for clarifications.
The IDF’s response is alarming for the message it sends the officer corps and through it, to the security community as a whole. That message is that it is unacceptable for officers to have any contacts – let alone intellectual exchanges – with people who stand beyond a narrow spectrum of views.
This is bad enough for the elitist social message it sends. But given the threat environment Israel faces, narrowly defining the boundaries of permitted social and intellectual contacts is dangerous.
Today Israel is facing complex, multifaceted security challenges that exist and grow in an equally complex, multifaceted diplomatic environment. To develop the means of dealing with the challenges, our security establishment needs to cultivate a permissive intellectual climate among our commanders that rewards free thinking and promotes free thinkers.
Perhaps that retired Mossad commander was just a blowhard. Perhaps he was giving an accurate accounting of the intellectual climate in the senior ranks of Israel’s national security establishment. In all likelihood, the truth lays somewhere in the middle.
But what is clear enough is that the time has come to air out the ranks of our national defense establishment.
Our senior commanders need to reassess their operational assumptions in order to develop plans going forward that are based on a broad spectrum of ideas.