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Q&A With Yaakov Amidror, Former Head of the Israeli National Security Council

Netanyahu’s ex-national security adviser says Abbas has a choice between Israeli troops on the Jordan River—or no state at all

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Yaakov Amidror, then national security adviser to the prime minister, center, with, left to right, Tzipi Livni, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Military Secretary Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir, as Netanyahu meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (unseen) in Jerusalem on June 29, 2013. (Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)
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My first glimpse of Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror came at the Herzliya Conference in December 2004, where a parade of notables took turns praising Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement plan as brave, far-sighted, and wise. Amidror, a bearded former senior military intelligence officer, was the skunk at the Israeli security establishment’s annual garden party. Holding a black military beret on his lap, he mocked promises of a peace dividend, and of the moderating influence that an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza would have on Palestinian behavior.

“There won’t be peace,” Amidror predicted, raising his voice to be heard from the back of the crowded room. “The first thing they will do is tear down all the greenhouses that we built there. Then, Hamas will take over in Gaza, and then they will start to fire missiles at us. They will increase the quality and range of their missiles, until they can hit our major cities, just as has happened in Lebanon. When the missiles become unbearable for us, we will be forced to go back into Gaza, except they will be in control of it, not us.” The panelists shook their heads, the way polite and reasonable people do in the presence of a potentially dangerous fanatic. After the panel was over, no one came over to speak to Amidror, preferring the more soothing and cultivated company of Sharon’s lawyer, Dubi Weisglass.

The fact that Amidror’s predictions all came true may not have earned him much credit in polite circles. Then again, when it comes to security questions, politeness may not be much of a virtue. In May 2011, Amidror was chosen by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lead Israel’s National Security Council, a job in which he helped oversee efforts to keep Hezbollah from obtaining advanced Russian missile systems, and discussed the progress of the Iranian nuclear program with his American counterpart, Tom Donilon. Amidror’s recent departure from the government, in November 2013, means that his assessments of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and of U.S. negotiations with Iran, as well as of Israel’s relations with China, Russia and Turkey, are worth listening to.

I met Amidror at the Second Avenue Deli in Manhattan, where he ate a bowl of chicken soup and a sandwich; he ordered hard salami on one half of his sandwich, and soft salami on the other half. After he was done eating, we spoke on the record for about 35 minutes.

Do you believe that the current American-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians led by Secretary of State John Kerry are serving Israel’s national interest, or not?

That depends on the details of the final proposal. If the Americans succeed in bringing to the agreement all of the elements that are needed—namely, to make sure that there is a secure buffer between the Palestinian state and the Arab world, that there is not going to be a new Gaza in Ramallah, and that Israel will have satisfactory arrangements to deal with emerging terrorist capabilities within the West Bank—if all of these elements will be in the agreement, and will be part of a clear understanding between us and the Palestinians, and are guaranteed by America, and if we will have the opportunity to keep those security arrangements until it will be understood by us, not by anyone else, when it is time to change them, then I think the agreement will be something that Israel can live with. Nothing can be sure, but there would be enough elements that will allow us to deal with problems if they arise in the future.

Can guarantees of the kind you are talking about be made in the absence of Israeli troops in the areas where you believe that Israeli security interests need to be assured?

There is no way to get there without Israeli forces along the Jordan River. There is no question about that. This is the minimum, without which there is no way to have the necessary capabilities in our hands.

I want to be clear that this is also something totally different than what the late Yitzhak Rabin spoke about in 1995, when he spoke about Israeli control of the Jordan Valley, in its broader definition. Here, we are speaking about something much narrower. I am not speaking about the details, but for sure it is something that is much narrower than what was described by Mr. Rabin. We are speaking about Israeli forces along the Jordan River.

So in a broad sense, that means agricultural settlements in the Jordan Valley would no longer have Israeli citizens living in them, as long as there is a ribbon of Israeli troops on the Jordan River, guarding a security envelope that would protect both Israel and a Palestinian state.

What is important for security are the soldiers. The whole issue of settlements is another area in which we have to agree with the Palestinians, with a lot of help from the Americans. But about security, it’s very clear to every professional that without having Israeli troops along the Jordan River, there is no way to defend the State of Israel, and to have the arrangements which are needed in the future, when Israel might face problems from the east, or from within the Palestinian areas.

President Mahmoud Abbas recently said he could imagine arrangements involving Israeli troops on the border lasting for three years. What span of time do you think is reasonable?

I don’t think we should speak about timetables, because we don’t know when the situation will change in a way that will allow us to take the soldiers out. This is something that for sure will take more than three years. But I think it would be wiser, instead of putting a limitation in advance, to have a mechanism that would allow us to test the situation on the ground. And when the time will come that we can say to ourselves, it’s not needed anymore, that relations between the Palestinians and Israel are like relations between France and Germany, we can leave. So time is needed here.

Did you understand President Abbas’ statement about a three-year time-limit as a signal of his willingness to accept the kinds of security arrangements you are talking about?

It means that he does not understand the professional needs in this area of security. And I’m sure that if he will take advice from any outside professional, he will get the same answer.

It’s not a question of time. It’s a question of capabilities, and the determination to use the capabilities. And when the Palestinians will have the capabilities, which they don’t have today, and the determination to use those capabilities, which they also don’t have today, and when both those criteria are met, then, in the future, we might come to a situation in which Israeli troops will not be needed.

What I hear you saying is that these negotiations are not moving anyone closer to an actual agreement. Because there is no way that any version of the current Palestinian leadership is going to agree to allow Israeli troops to remain inside the territory of their state for an open-ended period of time.

Well, I think that would be a huge mistake. Because they will be losing their chance to have a sovereign Palestinian state—with some restrictions, but still, a sovereign Palestinian state. If the fact that Israeli forces stay along the Jordan River is more important to them than their independence, and their ability to control their own lives in a sovereign state, then they are making a huge mistake.

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Q&A With Yaakov Amidror, Former Head of the Israeli National Security Council

Netanyahu’s ex-national security adviser says Abbas has a choice between Israeli troops on the Jordan River—or no state at all