A retired general and former national security adviser in nearly every Middle Eastern state would live in paranoia and luxury, with servants, bodyguards, hangers-on, and a few odd state or army-owned business interests to keep them busy behind the high walls of their compound. In contrast to his Egyptian or Jordanian equivalents, 70-year-old Yaakov Amidror, perhaps Israel’s most canny and influential security strategist, lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv, on an easily public-transit-accessible street of closely built houses that are spacious by Israeli standards without being notably opulent. On a Thursday in late July, toys were scattered around the entrance—one of Amidror’s young grandkids is a frequent visitor.
Amidror officially left public service in 2014 but was at the center of many of the most important decisions Israel has made over the past decade. During his time in government, Israel reduced a number of once-pressing dangers to mere annoyances. Now that he’s in the think-tank world, Amidror is one of the few people close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who can talk semiopenly about the most recent era of Israeli security policy, in which Israel has emerged stable, prosperous, and powerful without having to make significant concessions to the Palestinians, or to anyone else.
“It is not strategic—it’s a tactical issue,” Amidror said of the threats that Hamas now poses to the country. “We need an address in Gaza and not a chaotic situation in which ISIS will win.” The West Bank is barely even a hotspot anymore. “Ironically, under occupation, meaning we have control on the ground, the Palestinians are suffering less than in areas in which there is no occupation,” Amidror claimed, contrasting the territory to Gaza.
Amidror reckons that in a chaotic Middle East, Palestinians no longer have much reason to risk an ongoing lull in tensions in the name of destroying Israel. “An average Palestinian in Nablus or in Hebron is getting up in the morning asking himself a question: I’m under occupation. It’s bad to be under occupation. Is my situation better than in Amman, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad? And the answer, if he is an honest guy, is to say my situation is much better—not better, much better. I don’t fear going in the street, my economic situation is better, my freedom is greater than in all these Arab countries. So why should I sacrifice my life for something that in the end might be worse than my situation today?”
For Israel’s entire existence, would-be peacemakers have argued that the key to regional harmony is the reduction of the Jewish state’s hard power through territorial withdrawals or the legitimization of the country’s nonstate enemies. In Amidror’s view, reality has thoroughly debunked this line of reasoning.
Amidror believes peace—or calm, at least—came as a result of Israeli muscle. Israel proved to its former enemies in the Sunni Arab world that it’s powerful enough to fill the vacuum left by America’s exit from the region and to stand up to Iran on the rest of the Middle East’s behalf. “The stronger Israel will be, the more the ability of Arab countries to cooperate [with us] will grow,” Amidror explained. On the whole, Amidror said he’s “very optimistic. I remember the threat that we faced when we were young. We fought the Six-Day War and I remember the Yom Kippur War, and I see what we are facing today. We have only 1 1/2 problems. One problem is Iran, and the half-problem is Hezbollah.”
Amidror was national security adviser from 2011 until 2013, a time when an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a very real possibility. Thanks to turnover in the security cabinet, Netanyahu could have easily ordered an attack on Iran during much of 2011 and 2012, a window that ended as soon as Israel learned about the United States’ secret Oman-based backchannel with the Islamic Republic that eventually culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Amidror supported attacking Iran’s nuclear sites at that time but says that “no one has the answer” as to whether Netanyahu was correct to hold off. “I was for it but I cannot say that I know what would have happened,” he said. Amidror thinks that the window for a successful attack hasn’t totally closed yet: “We have the military capability.”
Does that mean Israel has a way of overcoming the Russian-made S-300 anti-aircraft system that Iran has deployed around key locations in the country? “Overcoming is a strong word,” Amidror deflected. “I’m not speaking about details. We know how to do the job in spite of the positions of the S-300. … We said all the time, we attack when we understand that it is the last minute to do it. We ask ourselves every morning: Is it the last day? If tomorrow will be too late, then we have to act.” Amidror added that the “last day” hasn’t arrived yet.
In all likelihood the next Israeli-Iranian confrontation will be a clash with Amidror’s half-threat: the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, Iran’s most effective proxy in the Middle East and perhaps the best armed nonstate military force on earth. Amidror says another round of Israel-Hezbollah fighting is a “very-high-probability” event even if he doesn’t believe it’s inevitable. Israel’s war aims will be narrow. “We should neutralize the military capability of Hezbollah,” he said. “We should not destroy the organization as a political tool. If the Shiites want these people to represent them, it’s their problem.” He anticipates that because of Arab and Western antipathy toward Iran, Israel will have a relatively free hand to prosecute such a war and won’t become an international pariah as a result of the conflict. That’s pretty much where the good news ends.
“It will be a very nasty war,” Amidror said. “A very, very nasty war.” Hezbollah will fire “thousands and thousands” of long-range missiles of improved precision, speed, and range at Israeli population centers, a bombardment larger than Israel’s various layers of missile defense will be able to neutralize in full. “It will be very problematic for us. We don’t have tomorrow morning enough interceptors and they are enhancing their capabilities.”
This will be a blow Israel can withstand. “Israelis will be killed, no question,” Amidror said. “But it’s not going to be catastrophic.” He recalled that during the 2014 war in Gaza, the families of wounded soldiers called on the prime minister to continue the operation from beside their relatives’ hospital beds. “The cabinet didn’t know how to stop the IDF and tell them to retreat back after they destroyed the [Hamas] tunnels because the atmosphere was: Don’t stop, continue.” Amidror’s point was that the Israeli public is willing to withstand even heavy casualties during war if it’s clear the country’s battlefield aims are being achieved.
In Lebanon, the war will inflict unspeakable suffering. Because the interceptors won’t be able to stop the entirety of Hezbollah’s missile barrages, Israel will have to target rockets on the ground before they can be launched—Amidror pointed out that Israel destroyed many of Hezbollah’s Zelzal missiles during the 2006 conflict with the militant group; as a result, none of the rockets was fired at Israel during the war. “Think of about 120,000 rockets and missiles, 50 percent or 80 percent of them stored by the Iranians within populated areas in private houses. Areas will be evaporated. Think about a missile of half a ton, with all the fuel in it, and Israel hits it with only 100 grams of TNT. … Think about what will be damaged just by the stored missiles. Thousands and thousands of Lebanese will be killed and part of Lebanon will be destroyed.” That’s on top of whatever destruction Israel causes when targeting other Hezbollah bases and infrastructure.
Amidror recalled a meeting with Ban Ki-moon during one of the former U.N. secretary-general’s visits to Israel. He showed Ban photos of Hezbollah rockets stored in civilian areas. “Secretary, what should Israel do?” Amidror remembered asking. “These missiles will be launched into Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Afula, everywhere. What is your advice to Israel? And I’m telling you if we will hit these missiles, many Lebanese will be killed. Many of them even don’t know that they are neighboring a missile and are totally innocent. You are the secretary-general of the United Nations. What is your advice? He didn’t know what to say, and he said nothing.”
Amidror has always viewed the Syrian civil war with an icy pragmatism. He claims that in 2011, the National Security Council understood that the conflict would be a protracted sectarian bloodletting, pitting Sunnis, who represent some 80 or 75 percent of the population, against Assad’s Alawite sect, Shiites, and other regime supporters. Even in 2012, when Syria’s defense minister was killed in a suicide bombing on the regime’s national security headquarters, Amidror and his colleagues didn’t think Assad would be toppled. “There was part of the intelligence and I think that Ehud Barak said it loudly that he’s doomed,” Amidror said. “In the National Security Council our conclusion was different. We told the prime minister that we don’t think that he’s going to lose. We don’t know if he will win. But all these very pessimistic approaches to his ability to survive—we didn’t find any basis for it.”
Israel navigated the Syrian morass by keeping its objectives modest. In the early years of the war, Israel refrained from building proxy forces or trying to affect the overthrow of the regime: “When we looked at the map we didn’t see someone where we could say, OK, we will back him and that will be good for Israel.” The Sunni states failed to organize a credible or unified opposition to Assad. When the Russian military deployed to the country in 2015, Israel’s goal was to maintain its “freedom of action” over Syria and to keep its ability to strike at Hezbollah or Iranian targets inside the country.
Amidror and his colleagues didn’t see much of a moral distinction between Assad and his opponents. “We understood that there is no right and wrong,” he said. “Both sides are very cruel and if the Sunnis would have won the war, they would probably have eliminated the Alawites from the earth.”
In reality, Assad and his allies are responsible for the majority of the conflict’s human-rights abuses, but as Amidror hints, the Israel’s national security leadership didn’t believe it had the luxury of passing judgement on the war’s participants. This mindset has resulted in a string of ironies: An Iranian-sustained despot acts as a bulwark against further chaos in a neighboring state, while Russia, which is fighting on the same side of the war as Iran, has entered into a deconfliction agreement that maintains Israel’s ability to strike at its Iranian-supported enemies in the country.
With Iran entrenched in Syria and Iranian proxies in control of much of the border area with Israel, it’s unclear whether Israel’s seemingly careful approach to the war will amount to a strategic victory—just as it’s unclear whether the cold-blooded view of Hamas and the Palestinians will leave Israel safer or stronger in the long run. But the short run has a way of turning into the long run in the Middle East. “What is clear for us is we should be very strong, so that whatever the challenges will be in the future we will have enough capabilities to deal with them,” Amidror said, when asked if the current calm is sustainable. “But we cannot make the decisions for el-Sisi and for Mohammed bin Salman or for King Abdullah or Erdogan or whoever.”
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