In a departure from the gloom-and-doom predictions common among military analysts, the former head of military intelligence said that 2013 was “a very good year for the national security of the State of Israel.”
Nonetheless, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin said Monday, Israel faces four central challenges – Iran’s nuclear program, the grim state of the negotiations with the Palestinians, the spreading regional instability and the declining American role in the region. All, he predicted, will “converge in the late spring-early summer of 2014.”
Yadlin, the head of the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, said that all four threats were linked, and that if Israel “figures out how to be more flexible with the Palestinians,” it will be able to be more “firm with the Iranians.” He made the comments at a briefing a day before the start of his group’s annual international conference.
In lieu of an agreement with the Palestinians, he said, an internationally accepted unilateral withdrawal to the West Bank security barrier would help spur the US and the Sunni Arab states into action against Iran. “I am the last person who accepts the argument that if we only settled the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all the rest of the world’s problems would be solved,” he said. “But progress on that front will help advance our own interests with the Arab world and on the Iranian issue.”
But before delving into the looming challenges, Yadlin spent several long minutes on the good news, listing a dozen reasons why Israel’s security situation had improved over the past year. The highlights included quiet along the borders, despite the presence of jihad elements on three fronts; the enduring and indeed fastidiously kept peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which he termed “a most important pillar of Israeli security;” and a strategic relationship with the US that has weathered recent disagreements.
Additionally, he noted that Syria has been “drastically weakened” and largely stripped of its chemical weapons, the most “significant, operational, unconventional threat Israel has faced.”
Hezbollah’s popularity and legitimacy in Lebanon and across the Sunni Arab world has been badly bruised, he said. Hamas’s standing has undergone a “pronounceable weakening,” which, in turn, strengthened PA head Mahmoud Abbas and enabled negotiations with Israel.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was defeated by the people. The Sunni Arab states, especially those in the Gulf, see the situation in Iran, Syria and Egypt “eye to eye with Israel.” And the animosity from Turkey, “personally led by [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan,” has waned as his popularity has plummeted.
Iran, though, perched three to nine months from a nuclear bomb, he said, represents “an existential threat,” should it attain a nuclear weapon.
Yadlin sketched three possible tracks in the coming six to 12 months: the attainment of an agreement that sets Iran years away from a bomb and is backed up, most importantly, by a UN Security Council resolution. The continual extension of the interim agreement until it takes on a permanence of its own. And a recognized failure to reach a resolution. The last two options, he said, require that Israel and the United States have a Plan B.
Yadlin said that there were several options short of a military strike against Iran, including, for example, a naval siege. He also said that “when necessary, President Obama knows how to take action,” but that the messages coming from Washington in the lead-up to the Geneva agreements “are very problematic and show that you are weak at the negotiating table.”
Come what may, he said, official Israel should stay off CNN and reach agreements with Washington behind closed doors.
On the Palestinian issue, he advocated for a “charging of the battery of Israel’s legitimacy.” Israel, he said, should honestly strive toward an agreement with the Palestinian Authority. However, since there is “a low chance of success” in bridging the gap between the minimal Israeli and Palestinian demands at the heart of the conflict, he suggested a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
“Unilateralism has a bad reputation among the Israeli public,” he said, but if done properly it is the best course of action. The keys to success in a unilateral withdrawal to the security barrier, he said, were international support, a continued army and civilian presence in the Jordan Valley so as not to open the West Bank to widespread arms smuggling, and an incentive that would induce the other side to continue to seek a negotiated settlement — in this case a less than full withdrawal from the West Bank.
Finally, Yadlin said that in 2014, avoiding decisions would be more costly than making them. “The art of leadership is to know when to decide and when not to,” he said. The positive strategic developments of 2013, coupled with the challenges of 2014, he argued, enable and necessitate bold departures from the status quo.