Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin served for more than 40 years in the Israel Defense Forces. As a fighter pilot, he was active in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and he was one of the eight pilots who bombed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981. Later serving as deputy commander of the air force and Israel’s military attaché in the US, he was appointed head of Military Intelligence in 2006, a post he held until his retirement at the end of 2010.
Today he is the executive director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, where this interview took place on Wednesday.
Yadlin is a careful but candid interviewee, taking time to choose the formulations he wants but not retreating into polite diplomatese. In this conversation, for instance, he takes issue with US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for undermining the US military option, makes plain his conviction that Israel’s military option does not expire in the fall, urges Israel to find a formula for apologizing to Turkey over the deaths on the Mavi Marmara, and manages not to sound alarmist while raising the possibility of Egypt canceling its peace treaty with Israel.
How do you see the Iranian crisis developing, amid all the headlines about a possible Israeli attack?
That depends on three people — two in Israel and one in the United States.
If we take at face value what the prime minister and the defense minister say publicly, we are reaching a very critical period. What they say, more or less, is that all the strategies being employed against Iran have either failed or are not working.
The diplomatic negotiations that took place in Istanbul, Baghdad and Moscow produced nothing. The sanctions may be painful for the Iranians, but not to the extent that they change their minds. The secretive operations for which no one takes responsibility have not stopped the Iranian nuclear program. The regime is relatively stable.
And therefore if you’re not prepared to live with an Iran with a nuclear bomb, you are left with only one option and that’s the option of military intervention.
Add to that the concept that the defense minister has coined, “the zone of immunity.” He said we were entering [this zone] three months ago, and at that time he could still hope that the negotiations would succeed or that the sanctions would work. Today, he sees that’s not the case. So, we’re in a very critical area.
According to the zone of immunity argument, next year, more or less, Israel already won’t be able to [set back the Iranian program through military intervention].
And this is where the Americans enter the picture. They’ve sent here almost every senior official, from Secretary of State Clinton to Defense Secretary Panetta to National Security Advisor Donilon. They are the only ones who can say to the Israelis, it may be that your zone of immunity will prevent you from taking action later on, but we, the Americans, we have exactly the same goal.
The president declared this at the AIPAC conference: We have the goal of stopping Iran. Not so much because of Israel, but rather because it’s an American national interest. And we have other allies in the Middle East who want us to stop Iran — the Saudis, the non-Shiite Arab world that is afraid of a Shiite bomb. So if the Americans are convinced…
The Israelis cannot ask the Americans to do the job for them. No American soldier has ever fought for Israel, never since the state was established. That’s a basic principle for us.
But the Americans can say, look, this isn’t something we’re doing for you. We’re doing it for ourselves. And we have more time. We have more time for two reasons.
1. Our air force has a great many capabilities that yours doesn’t. B-1 bombers, B-2 bombers, Bunker Busters that are much heavier than yours, Stealth bombers. Therefore, we can do it after you think that you can’t.
2. And they can also say that in their view, the red line or the trigger for action is later than the Israeli trigger. On this there’s a debate of sorts, but again, provided that trust is established and the Israeli leadership thinks that the American leadership really means what it says…
I think that’s the heart of the problem today. There is a certain feeling in Israel that perhaps the president’s declaration at AIPAC is not sufficient, and that maybe much more binding and stronger steps need to be taken.
Actual steps, not just statements?
Even statements, such as a declaration — not to AIPAC, a declaration to the Congress — that if the steps the administration is relying upon today, like negotiations and sanctions, do not achieve success by the summer of 2013, then the Americans will deal with the problem via military intervention.
You’re saying that if the president made such a declaration publicly, this would assuage Israel’s concerns?
I think it could. Now, in addition to declarations, actions should be taken to show that you’re serious. More intensive missile defense in the Middle East, exercises with your allies in the Middle East — in order to demonstrate to the world more clearly that you’re really training for this and preparing for this.
And this we don’t see?
We see less of this. We see less of this than we could see for it to enter the Iranian calculus as something they need to be afraid of. The Iranians have just said that they’re not afraid of the Israelis. They didn’t say they’re not afraid of the Americans. But you can see from their behavior that they’re not afraid.
Therefore the American threat has to be a great deal more credible. It cannot be that the secretary of defense will stand up publicly and say that an attack on Iran will plunge the world into World War III or the Middle East will go up in flames. [Yadlin may have been referring to comments made by Panetta, including in an address at the Brookings Institution in December, where he said that a military attack would trigger “an escalation that would… not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.”] That shows that you don’t really mean to do it.
America is the world’s biggest military power, the strongest in the world. And a country like Iran can be taken care of by the United States.
I want to stress that it would be a very big mistake by America to invade Iran. America paid a heavy price for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. But America has one of the best air forces in the world — and I’m something of an expert on air forces. It can do this — surgical, short, and the way it needs to be done — from the air. To take care of the nuclear program, not to assault Iran as a country.
The goal is not regime change or the conquest of Iran. The goal is [to stop] the Iranian nuclear program, which constitutes a threat because it is a program with a military goal. And that’s not an Israeli assessment, that’s the conclusion of the IAEA; that’s the conclusion which explains why Iran was referred to the Security Council. Therefore one can deal solely with the nuclear program.
And this can be taken care of in a single operation?
By the American air force? Absolutely. Absolutely. But again, it has to be done with the mindset, the paradigm, that you’re taking care surgically of a nuclear program. You’re not dealing with Iran.
And Iran, after a very surgical attack, would have a lot to lose. Therefore their response would be much more measured. Because if, from the first, you attack the whole state, then they have nothing to lose.
I assume that there are people like you who are saying to the Americans, you are not giving credibility to a military option because you are not active in the region, you are not showing the Iranians that you are serious.
I don’t know who’s saying what. It’s a year and a half since I was [in the loop as head of Military Intelligence]. I think the Americans are very wary for two reasons. First, the trauma of Afghanistan and Iraq is a deep trauma. The Americans are anxious to avoid the sense that they are about to attack another Muslim country. Secondly, there is a fear that if they take these steps, it’s a slippery slope that could take them somewhere they don’t want to go. Those are the two reasons that they’re cautious. And there are elections now. The subject of overseas military action is not popular today in the United States.
Does Israel still have the capability to cause serious damage to the Iranian nuclear program?
I think we do have that capacity, but I’m telling you that the American capacity is greater and can be utilized later. The State of Israel has the capacity to harm the Iranian nuclear program.
You’ve heard the reports of a planned Obama-Netanyahu meeting in the fall, in which the president will make some kind of commitment and say that if all else has failed the US will attack by next June?
I think this could be a very important meeting and I hope it will take place. I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times [at the end of February] that said we have to move from the “zone of immunity” to the “zone of trust.” But even if the batteries of trust are not full, a public commitment and a legal commitment, like a letter to the Congress, would help a great deal toward the correct decision being taken in Israel.
And in the absence of that, you really see Israel attacking?
It cannot be excluded from the range of possibilities. As I explained, more or less all of the pre-conditions set by the prime minister and the defense minister that would lead to an attack on Iran [have been fulfilled]. On the assumption that the cost of an Iranian nuclear bomb to Israel’s security, and the danger it poses, are greater than [the cost of] an attack on Iran, I think it can happen.
Let’s talk about Egypt. Are you worried about what President Morsi is doing — the latest changes in security personnel? Will he withdraw his forces from the Sinai in accordance with the peace treaty? How do you see Israeli-Egyptian ties advancing now?
Look, there’s a tendency in Israel to be either euphoric or panicked. I’m in neither place.
The new Egyptian regime has very serious domestic problems to tackle. Economic problems. Investments in Egypt have gone down in the wake of the crisis. Tourism has declined. Those Egyptians who went to Tahrir Square have not disappeared. They want jobs, they want justice, they want equality, they want democracy. Egypt has to feed 85 million people. There’s a million more since the revolution.
These are serious problems — economic, social, and those relating to law and order, which has crumbled because of the damage to the police and the security services, and the weaponry flowing from Libya, and the problem of Sinai.
There is no real conflict of interest between Israel and Egypt. Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, to the last inch. The canal was opened, the oil was returned to Egypt.
I don’t see the Egyptians going to war for the Palestinians a fifth time, spilling more blood, wasting the resources they need in order to build a new Egypt. And it doesn’t matter who’s running Egypt.
Therefore I’m not too worried if, for instance, there are a few more Egyptian soldiers or infantry pieces in the Sinai, on the assumption that they take care of the terrorists who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers [in an August 5 border attack]. No conflict of interest.
We’re going to hear from Egypt a lot of things that we’re not going to like to hear — in their rhetoric, in speeches, possibly in some kind of request to change the peace treaty. In the most extreme case, the cancellation of the peace treaty.
That’s still not war. The opposite of a peace treaty is not war. We have no peace treaty with Syria, and we have not had a war with Syria since 1974.
Egypt is entering a very challenging period of transformation, from a dictatorship, a state of one ruler, to a state that is attempting democracy. I don’t know if this experiment will succeed. The test will be after a constitution is written and there’ll be elections a second time. Free real elections as they were last time. I hope that’s what will happen.
I’m one of those who’s optimistic in the long run that the genie that came out of the bottle in Tahrir Square — of the young people, of the liberals, most of whom are secular; it’s not the Muslim Brotherhood that did the revolution — that this group, which is marginalized at present, will return as a major player. That’s not going to happen in the short-term, but in the medium and long-term, in my opinion, it has to happen.
And between two real democracies, historically there is no war. Listen, the values that we heard demanded in Tahrir Square — democracy, freedom, rule of law, women’s rights, the right to work, the right to a reasonable life — these are our values. So, in the long term, I’m optimistic. In the short-term, we’ll hear a lot of unpleasant things.
And as for Syria?
Unlike Mubarak, [President Bashar] Assad domestically has his army, which protects him and is prepared to kill for him. The Egyptian army is a national institution and therefore it was known that if Mubarak went, the army would remain something respected by the public — perhaps not the heads of the army, the generals, but the army. And the military wasn’t prepared to fire on civilians, and therefore Mubarak fell from within.
Unlike Gaddafi, Assad is protected from the outside — by Russia and China. Where Libya was concerned, they didn’t really notice that the no-fly zone essentially became [a means of] Western intervention. The Russians and the Chinese are protecting Assad from the outside. As long as those two stand firm, Assad can hold on.
There is one more factor that can bring him down, and that’s the economy. Investments in Syria have fallen even more than in Egypt. The prime investors were the Turks and the Sunni Gulf States, which are now against him. Tourism has halted altogether. The cost of the civil war is very high. He pays vast subsidies to keep people with him. The situation is economically unsustainable for him unless the Iranians write a big check — billions.
So I agree that he’s doomed, but he can hang on for longer than people think. I did a tweet recently with people asking questions from Syria and Lebanon. They asked me when Assad will go. I said, I don’t know, I’m not a prophet, but I can tell you what the signs are that will spell the end:
If there are defections, not only of captains and majors and sergeants, but the defection of a general with a division — if he’s an Alawite, that’s the end. If the Russians abandon him, if they decide that the Arab world is more important to them than Syria — because as things stand they are losing the Arab world. If he doesn’t get the checks from Iran. If the other minorities abandon him — the Druze and the Christians. They can’t leave him too early because Assad will kill them; they can’t leave him too late because the Sunnis will take revenge on them. Those are the indicators. And finally, he’ll lose control of the two big cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
At this stage, none of those five things has happened, but I can see that it’s getting close. The situation has moved from green to yellow, it’s not yet orange and certainly not red.
Should Israel apologize to Turkey [as demanded by Ankara for the deaths of nine Turkish citizens in the May 2012 Mavi Marmara incident]?
We need to find a proper way to put that unfortunate incident behind us. We apologized to the Egyptians for the fact that terrorists attacked from the Sinai and killed Israelis! Here, Turks were killed. Egyptians were hurt and we apologized. I think we can apologize.
Will that change the Turks’ attitudes to Israel? I think not. There’s a strategic decision by Turkey — they want to lead the Muslim world and whoever leads the Muslim world must be anti-Israeli. But it would nonetheless create a better atmosphere. The Turks have not burned all the bridges. It won’t return us to the glory days of the 1990s. But it will take us out of the very bad place we’re in now.
And the Turks of today are not the Turks of 2009. They had a policy of zero problems with the neighbors. Today you have to add a “1” before the “zero.” They have problems with the Greeks, with the Cypriots, with the Armenians, with the French, with the Israelis, the Syrians, the Iranians. Pretty much everybody.
So I think that with Turkey, after we put the Marmara behind us with some or other formulation, we can get back, not all the way, but part of the way. There are mutual interests for Israel and Turkey. We have to [fix the relationship] also because it would strengthen the Turkey-Israel-America triangle. It’s almost an American request that we resolve this. And when America makes a request, we need to listen — not always to act, but to listen very attentively.
Finally, coming back to where we started, do you see America attacking Iran? Do you see a supportive public context in America which would enable the president to do so?
I think so. I think so. But not before November. I certainly don’t see it before November.
The United States can do it when it finally understands that negotiations will get nothing from the Iranians and that the sanctions are not achieving what is necessary. I am one of those who believes that President Obama understands the American interests regarding Iran, regarding the proliferation that would follow if Iran goes nuclear. The next day the Saudis, the Turks and after that maybe Egypt and Iraq [would seek to go nuclear].
There is no American president who wants the NPT [the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty] to collapse on his watch and for Iran to be the Middle East hegemon because it is nuclear. There’s also the long-term impact on the price of oil. To sum up, my deep feeling is that America will act against Iran, not so much because of Israel, but because of real, genuine American national interests.
Look, President Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, but he’s not a “vegetarian.” Ask bin Laden. What has happened to various al-Qaeda leaders?
Therefore I believe — not 100 percent, but I think there’s a high likelihood — that if in 2013-2014 all the other options will be exhausted in the eyes of the Americans — not in the eyes of the Israeli prime minister — the chances that Obama will attack are not low.
Now, you’ve added in 2014. It won’t be too late for the Americans in 2014?
That greatly depends on what happens in 2013.
But you’re greatly reducing the urgency from Israel’s point of view.
On condition that they [the Americans] are really there. That’s what I’m saying. They need to convince not just the prime minister and the defense minister, but the Israeli public and the other arms of government.
You’re saying there’s very little time for Israel to act but quite a lot of time for the Americans.
The issue here is that they convince Israel that they really will act…
… when we’ve lost our capacity to intervene. It’s a very difficult decision for us.
And our capacity to intervene ends when?
I can’t tell you that. But it was presented by the defense minister as the two final quarters of 2012. There are people who think differently — who think that for us, too, it extends into 2013. I’m one of those people, by the way.