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.
What if John Kerry and some visiting American generals step in to resolve this impasse, as they reportedly have, and say, “Hey, we have a great idea. How about we put NATO troops on the Jordan River, and promise that we will maintain the security of the border with Jordan for as long as we judge that our presence is needed.”
One of the principles that Israel has been very clear about since the founding of the state is that we are not outsourcing our security to anyone. We don’t expect, and we don’t want, others to do the job for us.
By the way, I would also like to say a few words about my own personal experience with international forces, beginning in 1967, in the Six Day War. When I was a paratrooper, we entered Gaza; after some hours of fighting, the United Nations forces were marching out of Gaza. So I learned the principle of international guarantees then, and even more so when I became the intelligence officer for the Northern command, and I saw how UNIFIL was a problem for us, and provides good cover for Hezbollah. And that’s still true today. After the 2006 operation in Lebanon, when the new UNIFIL force was set up, they didn’t provide even one report about one case of Hezbollah bringing munitions, shells and rockets into the South.
So with all due respect to all those who promise us that international forces will do the job for us, there is absolutely no basis to make those promises, based on our experience in the past.
Many people have criticisms of U.N. forces in many parts of the world. But here, we’re not talking about the U.N. We’re talking about the United States of America. Don’t you feel that U.S. security guarantees for Israel would feel much more secure and reliable?
The answer is no.
First of all, we don’t want American soldiers to sacrifice their lives for the security of Israel. I think it’s bad for America, it’s bad for Israel, and it’s very, very bad for relations between Israel and America.
Second, we have learned from our experience, without mentioning events in the past, that when something happened, and circumstances became complicated, and it does not fit the interests of those who are giving the orders to the soldiers, they find many reasons and excuses to evacuate the forces. We don’t want to be in this position in the future. And that is why we are very, very determined on this point: Only Israeli forces can make us sure that we will not find ourselves living with another Gaza Strip in Ramallah, which is five miles from the Israeli parliament in the city of Jerusalem. This is so important for us that we are not going to give it away.
Watching the American secretary of state working hard to make peace between Israelis and Palestinians feels like a last, nostalgic reminder of the bygone Middle East of the 1990s, where America seemed to be all-powerful, and Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin finally shook hands on the White House lawn. What are some of the bigger differences that you see between the American role in the 1990s, and these current negotiations?
I think the big difference is not in Washington. The big difference is in Jerusalem. There is a prime minister who is coming from the right-wing element in Israeli society, who has said clearly, against all odds, and over the strong objections of parts of his own constituency, that he is going for a two-state solution.
Rabin didn’t say it. On the contrary, in 1995, a month before he was assassinated, he said clearly that he did not think that the future should include an independent Palestinian state. Now, you have a prime minister who has said publicly, and formally, in English and in Hebrew, “I am going for a two-state solution.” I think this is the most important difference between now and the past, provided that the Palestinians will be open to the offer, and will be courageous enough to understand that they also have to pay something.
Does America have the same power to influence events in the Middle East that it did 20 years ago, in the so-called heyday of the peace process, or 10 years ago, or even five years ago?
At least from the Israeli point of view, the answer is yes. I don’t think this administration has less influence in Israel than previous administrations. At the end of the day, I don’t think the main change is in Washington. The main change is in Jerusalem, where the prime minister made a historic decision to go for a two-state solution. American influence in Israel didn’t diminish because of all the changes that have been happening in the Middle East.
Israel may be the only country in the Middle East where that statement is true. It certainly isn’t true in Egypt. It isn’t true in Saudi Arabia.
Maybe there are other consequences to the changes you have described. It is not connected to the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Every few months I read in the newspapers that a delegation of high-ranking officers from the People’s Liberation Army of China has come to visit Israel, sometimes staying for as long as a week. I imagine that they hold extensive meetings with their counterparts in the Israel Defense Forces; trade wisdom and knowledge, compare techniques, eat, and place orders for different kinds of materials. How important to Israel is the bilateral relationship with China these days?
If you look at the value of the trade between Israel and China, you will see that it is very low—mainly chemicals from the Dead Sea, and chips from Intel. There is no question that for the Israeli economy, China is a very important target, and we have to find ways to sell more, just as the Americans do, to the Chinese market. According to an agreement we have with the United States of America, Israel does not sell anything related to military to the Chinese—and we do not do it, and will not do it.
With all due respect to our relationship with China, it is not a substitute for our relations with the United States of America. The Chinese know it. The prime minister was very clear about it. Every Israeli official who meets with the Chinese is very clear about it. Israel is eager to sell more, and to have better relations, and to cooperate with China, which is a huge market, and a very big and important state. But if it is related to military matters, we are not in the picture.
Let me bring up another country that also seems to be in the mix in the Middle East lately. Being of Russian descent, it is hard not to feel a touch of improper pride at how Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has brought Russian military power back to the Middle East in a very short period of time—not only by solving the Syrian chemical weapons crisis through his masterful diplomacy, or whatever you might call it, but also by selling billions of dollars worth of Russian weapons to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. As national security advisor, did you see Russian power as a lasting phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean, and did you feel a need to keep the Russians informed about Israeli thinking, especially when it comes to Syria? Judging by the frequency of Bibi’s trips to Moscow, I’d say the answer is yes.
I think that it would be a huge mistake to ignore the Russians. Israel is a little country in the region, and should have a dialogue with any state that is willing to speak with us, and is not acting directly against our interests. We have a very good dialogue with the Russians. In many cases, we don’t agree, but it is very important that we understand their point of view, and they understand our point of view. And we are very careful to tell them in advance that if they provide the Syrians with weapons systems that will go from Syria into the hands of Hezbollah, then we will do whatever is needed to stop it. We never wanted to surprise the Russians. It was very important that they understand our point of view.
It’s my understanding that despite these interdiction efforts, a significant quantity of more advanced Russian missile systems have made their way into Lebanon.
Some of these systems did make their way into Lebanon, but most of them did not reach Lebanon. And that wasn’t an accident. This is our policy. And the Russians don’t agree with us, but at least they know all the details of our policy.
I think it’s important that in this dialogue with the Russians, we are telling them the truth: They are providing one of the most dangerous enemies of the State of Israel, namely Hezbollah, with capabilities that might endanger Israel’s ability to defend itself, and we will not let it happen. We will not. And we keep our promises, and the Russians know it. At the end of the day, Russia is a sovereign state, and they are making their own decisions. But at the same time, Israel is also a sovereign state, and we are making our own decisions.
Among the groups that the Russian-backed government in Syria is fighting are ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, which proclaim their allegiance to al-Qaida. Have you found areas of cooperation with the Russians and the Assad government when it comes to keeping tabs on jihadist organizations that are getting closer every month to the Israeli border in the Golan?
No. We don’t cooperate with the Assad regime. At the end of the day, on one side you have the combination of Iran, Hezbollah and Assad. And on the other side you have al-Qaida-like organizations. I think that from the Israeli point of view, both sides are bad—very bad. So then you ask yourself a very interesting question: If you have to make a decision between the two, which one is worse? It’s a very, very interesting question, and you can hear many voices in Israel offering opinions.
My personal view, and it’s entirely personal, is that, at the end of the day, Hezbollah, with the backing of Iran, which is a huge and very strong state, is more dangerous than al-Qaida, which, as extremist as they are, lacks the backing of any state. But both are very, very bad.
Do you think it’s likely that we will see Israeli missile strikes on al-Qaida-like concentrations that get too close to Israel’s borders?
I don’t know. But we have a very clear policy: We are not taking part in this war between the four or five sides inside Syria. We defend ourselves. Whenever there is an attack from the Syrian side, we have immediately reacted. And we keep the freedom to deny the ability of Hezbollah to acquire new capabilities from the Syrians which might hurt our ability to defend ourselves. These are the only areas in which we are active relating to Syria.
One of the defining U.S. policy initiatives of the past few years in the Middle East was withdrawing support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then throwing that support behind the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammed Morsi. However, it appears that Morsi chose his defense minister unwisely, and as a result he is now confined in a sound-proof cage inside a courtroom in Cairo. How would you characterize Israel’s relations with the current leader of Egypt, Gen. al-Sisi, who, according to various U.S. government statements, is viewed by America as illegitimate?
First, from our point of view, it is very important that in Egypt there will be a situation of stability, rather than turmoil. It is very important for us that in Cairo there will be someone who understands that the control over Sinai is as important to Egypt as it is to Israel. That all those al-Qaida-like organizations that are now in the Sinai will hurt the ability of the Egyptians to defend themselves in Cairo. They need to understand the dangers for them if Hamas is flourishing and getting stronger in Gaza, because this is the paradise of the extremists, who in the next stage will target the Egyptians themselves.
From all those points of view, we prefer to deal with the generals, although relations did continue with the Muslim Brotherhood as well. But we prefer the generals as partners in dialogue. We have some ideas about how the Egyptians can do better in Sinai, and we have a dialogue with them about it. But at the end of the day we understand that the main issue for the generals is not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood—and we understand why.
In the last conversation I had with an informed Egyptian source about these issues, that person told me that the generals see the Hamas state in Gaza as a direct threat to the stability of the Egyptian state, because of its working relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood apparatus in Egypt, and with terrorist organizations in Sinai.
He is right.
In the last six months or so, Israel has been very quiet about Turkey. The prime minister of Turkey, meanwhile, seems to be facing an open split in his own party and in the state apparatus between his followers and the Gulenists, the followers of Fethullah Gülen.
Not because of Israel.
Do you see Gülen and the Gulenists as a force that, within an AKP-type democratic Islamic-oriented context, is likely to be less confrontational and more cooperative with Israel than the Erdogan government?
I don’t know—and I don’t want to say anything about domestic issues in Turkey. I do want to say that it is in the interests of both Turkey and Israel to have better relations. And the way that will happen from Turkey’s side is their issue, and not ours.
Finally, the U.S. and Iran have been negotiating a deal that supposedly will not eliminate, but will at least halt, Iran’s progress towards physical possession of even a single nuclear device. Do you see these negotiations as contributing to the security of the State of Israel, and of the region as a whole?
I would cite Secretary Kerry’s own words, “A bad agreement is worse than not having an agreement.” So, if it will be a good agreement, meaning that the Iranians will not have the ability to achieve military capability, then it will be a good thing for Israel and for the region. If it will be an agreement under which the Iranians can continue to enhance their capabilities, as is true of the current interim agreement, it will be a bad agreement.
Israel will judge the situation not on nice words, and pleasant faces, but on what happens on the ground. Up until now, the Iranians have not stopped their advance towards a bomb. If that will continue be the situation after the next agreement, then that will be a bad agreement.
As the interim agreement negotiations have continued, there has been more and more visible evidence of U.S.-Iranian security cooperation in other spheres, including most recently and visibly in Iraq, where you have the use of Iranian advisors on the ground combined with airlifts of American military equipment to try and beat back the Sunni jihadist groups that re-took control of Fallujah and Ramadi. Do you see evidence of U.S.-Iranian security cooperation, whether formal or informal, in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, as worrisome—or is that just a coincidence?
I don’t know. What I know for sure is that the Iranians didn’t change their policy in the Middle East. This current Iranian regime is still deeply involved in the killing in Syria. This current regime is encouraging Hezbollah to send their people to fight against civilians in Syria. The current regime is very much involved in giving the jihadists in the Gaza Strip more capabilities.
I don’t know what will emerge at the end of the process. Up until now, we have not seen a fundamental change in the attitude of this new regime in Iran towards the main issues in the Middle East—namely helping Hezbollah, helping the Assad regime kill civilians, and building the capabilities of terrorists in Gaza. So from our point of view, it’s the same regime, with nicer words.
What do you make of the fact that none of what you point out seems to be inhibiting America from seeing Iran as a security partner in the region?
I don’t believe that in the future there is any common ground between the interests of a great democracy like the United States of America, and the clerics and their messengers in Iran.
But as I told you in the beginning, the United States of America is a sovereign state. And we will make our own decisions about what we see as the interests of the State of Israel, and the threats to our security, and I’m sure that America will make its own decisions, based on their own view of the same issues.
One final question, given the advanced state of U.S. negotiations with Iran, and the open American and European intention to sign some kind of document that will not do many of the things you would want it to do. Is it your opinion that Israel made a mistake by not attacking Iranian nuclear sites when the window was open?
Israel, and the decision-makers in Israel, are not running towards another war. Those who have lived through wars know how dangerous war might be, and that it is wise to take steps to prevent wars, to whatever extent is possible.
At the same time, it is also very clear to me, that if Israeli decision-makers will come to the conclusion that tomorrow will be too late, they will consider whatever means are necessary to stop the Iranians. The window is not closed. And if there will be a need to make that decision, Israel has many capabilities – and it is not a secret that we have continually sharpened our capabilities, until today. The Air Force is exercising constantly. And if there will be a need to make that decision in the future, then we will have the capabilities to carry out our intentions.
You think that having a clear flight path over Saudi Arabia compensates for the hardening and dispersal of Iranian nuclear sites that has taken place over the past year?
We will fly wherever is needed, and we have the capacities that are necessary to succeed in our mission.
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David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, to be published in September by Seuil.
David Samuels is most recently the author of Seul l’Amour Peut Te Briser le Coeur, a collection of his writing about America, published by Seuil.