Never in its history has Israel been more secure or more diplomatically connected. But that situation is not liable to last long, unless the country’s leaders start charting Israel’s national course.
That, at least, is the view of Chuck Freilich, 62, a former deputy national security adviser of Israel and current senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center, in his new book, “Israeli National Security,” published last week by Oxford University Press.
In it, the New York-born longtime veteran of Israel’s defense services sets out to offer his recommendations for Israel’s defense and diplomatic future, one that will steer the country away from disaster.
The book is the product of six years of research, writing, editing, rewriting, approvals and rewriting. It draws on his decades of civil service experience, including his time in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Ministry and his stretch as deputy national security adviser under prime minister Ariel Sharon, whom Freilich still refers to as “Arik.”
Ahead of his new book’s publication, Freilich spoke to The Times of Israel about his support for and problems with the Iran nuclear deal; the statistics on Americans’ views of Israel that should have officials worries; why Israeli leaders opt to roll with the geopolitical punches instead of setting out on national plans; and more.
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
So tell me a little about your new book.
One of my main recommendations in the book is that Israel should take a deep breath and chill. Our existence is no longer in doubt. Israel is today a stable, prosperous and fundamentally secure country.
There are no more existential threats. There are serious threats; for instance, Hezbollah is a serious threat, but Hamas is not.
I think one of the problems is that today we have a national leadership that plays on the people’s fears, which accentuates the threats and the dangers rather than trying to strengthen the public confidence, which is what [Israel’s first prime minister David] Ben-Gurion did.
The situation in the early decades was infinitely worse, but we had a leadership that told us, ‘Yes, we can do it. We’re going to succeed.’ Now we have a leadership which is telling us it’s 1938 again.
The situation in the early decades was infinitely worse, but we had a leadership that told us, “Yes, we can do it. We’re going to succeed.”
Now we have a leadership which is telling us it’s 1938 again.
If a rocket were to fall and kill two people, this would be a tragedy for those people, and my heart would go out to them. The prime minister might go visit the families, but we don’t have to respond [militarily] every time. This isn’t a tragedy for the State of Israel. It’s a tragedy for individuals.
The costs associated with trying to address the issue are greater than the threat itself. Look what happened in the 2014 Gaza war, Operation Protective Edge: We lost 70-something people. How many people did we lose in rocket attacks before the operation? I don’t think anyone.
Of course it’s easy to say when you’re sitting in a nice quiet room and you’re not the leader, with people screaming and shouting. But that’s part of leadership — talking to the public in one way and making different kinds of comments in closed forums.
Jewish history makes us oversensitive to threats. And it leads to a tendency to try to achieve over-security. The problem is when you try to achieve complete security, you ensure complete insecurity for the other side. And there is no such thing as perfect security.
We don’t have a military solution to any of the major problems we face today.
We can’t solve the Palestinian problem militarily. We’ve been trying for the past 120 years, and it hasn’t worked and it’s not going to work now.
And the Iranian nuclear issue, if we bombed them, we’d get what? Two or three years from that?
But one of my sub-recommendations is put more money into defense. We have to have overwhelmingly effective capabilities.
We need a national rocket shield. I don’t mean something hermetic where not a single rocket is going to fall in Israel. I mean we achieve vis-a-vis Hezbollah what we achieved vis-a-vis Hamas in Protective Edge, where the home front can continue to function, pretty much.
We’ve got about 10 batteries today. According to the experts, if you want the kind of national shield that I’m talking about, you need between 13 and 20 Iron Dome batteries.
An battery today costs about 60-80 million bucks. An interceptor is $30,000-$50,000. If we want 20, and we want, let’s say, 100,000 interceptors, this comes out to be about $5-7 billion.
We can try to find a way to get the US to help cover the cost so that this can be purchased in two to three years.
And if the US won’t do it, we can employ a new “Iron Dome tax.” I think it would be the first tax in Israel that the public would pay happily if you explain, “We’re now going to neutralize the Hezbollah rocket threat.”
Going back to the nuclear Iran issue, you were one of the first Israeli defense officials to come out in favor of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, whose future is now unclear, as US President Donald Trump decides whether or not to leave it and impose fresh sanctions on Tehran.
I think I was the second former official to come out in support.
I have problems with it, with the sunset clause (which allows Iran, among other things, to begin enriching uranium after about 10 years). But I figured the deal would get us about 10 years, where a military attack would get two to three — some said less — so I figured it was a pretty good deal — or at least the best of the bad options.
I thought we were going to have eight years of Hillary Clinton as US president, and she would be a hard-line negotiator with the Iranians and she would take care of some of the issues. Now we’ve got Trump, the great disruptor, and we’ve got Netanyahu. And the two of them are dreaming about… actually, I think at this point at least Netanyahu understands that the deal is the better of the options and he may be the one who’s trying to calm Trump down a bit.
But maybe together they’re planning how to get rid of this agreement. Now they have to start getting together an international coalition saying that there should be a follow-on agreement. And the Iranians can either agree to this follow-on agreement or there will be repercussions.
French President Emmanuel Macron came out a few months ago saying that he’s in favor of a follow-on agreement. I think that if the US came to British Prime Minister Theresa May and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, they would be for it too, if they thought it was part of a bona fide attempt to improve the agreement and perpetuate it, and not just tear it up.
But at the end of the day, a nuclear weapon seems to be a means to an end for Iran. The regime wants to stay in power, and a nuclear weapon is a way to do that. How does Israel or the West address that fundamental issue?
So the Iranian regime’s number one goal in life is regime preservation. I’d give them a regime guarantee. The United States should come out and say, “As long as you guys change your behavior, you can stay in office for as long as you or the Iranian people want.”
The United States should come out and say, ‘As long as you guys change your behavior, you can stay in office for as long as you or the Iranian people want’
There’s still legislation that says the policy of the United States is to overthrow the regime in Iran. And the Iranians look at what happened in 2001 and 2003. In the span of two years, the US overthrew two neighboring regimes (Afghanistan and Iraq), and the Bush administration said, “You guys are next.” And if the war in Iraq had gone well, they would have been.
It can also see what happened in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi agreed to nuclear disarmament and a few years later he was deposed and killed.
Yeah, the Iranians think, that schmuck gave up his nukes and look what happened. And look at North Korea on the other side, staying in power because it has nuclear weapons.
Speaking of nukes, you include a chapter about Israel’s policies regarding its own alleged, reported, purported nuclear capabilities, according to foreign media. Isn’t this getting a bit silly?
It’s not a joke at all. It’s the best foreign policy decision Israel has ever developed.
We enjoy all the benefits of having a declared nuclear capability, without having done so.
Everyone in the world is convinced that Israel isn’t only a nuclear power, but has a fairly large arsenal. Everyone’s convinced we’ve got a triad (the ability to launch nuclear weapons from the air, sea and land).
So is there any benefit to declaring? I say that if there are, they’re so marginal that it’s negligible.
And what are the costs? The costs are severe.
According to US law, the United States must impose a complete end to relations with nuclear proliferators. The only thing that the US is allowed to continue with is keeping an ambassador and only to convey its fury.
It means a complete end to all arms sales, no economic aid — not that we get it anymore — no military aid and no diplomatic support.
I don’t think Israel can afford that.
Let me shift topics a bit to Syria. Do you think Israel misjudged how the civil war would pan out?
This was a hard one to call. From day one, who thought the Assad regime could be in trouble? Who thought it would be on the verge of being toppled in 2015, despite large-scale Iranian and Hezbollah intervention? And who thought the Russians would end up saving the regime by sending in 50-60 aircraft?
There have been lots of surprises.
But it’s been clear for the last two years that the end result was going to be a Russian- and Iranian-dominated Syria.
Most people said that was the worst possible outcome for Israel, even worse than an Islamic State-dominated Syria, which was the other alternative two years ago.
Our mistake was not having a goal and working to achieve it. And now we’re screwed.
So is there anything that Israel can do to prevent it? I think the answer is, not a great deal.
But I recently asked a senior official, “What is the outcome that you’d like to see?”
He said, “Well, we can’t affect it anyway.”
I said, “OK, but if you had your druthers, what would it be?”
He said, “I don’t know.”
I didn’t like that answer.
That’s what the National Security Council’s role is: to think about what the objectives are. We live in a really tough part of the world, where even superpowers have limited abilities to bring about the things they want. But the whole point of having an NSC and doing strategic planning is to identify what you want and [asking], can you do anything to achieve it?
Our mistake was not having a goal and working to achieve it. And now we’re screwed. A senior IDF general said at a meeting I was at recently, “We had 40 good years. There were no real existential threats for 40 years. I think that’s changing now. I think we’re heading toward a bad period.”
Do you agree?
I’m not convinced.
So why is Israel so averse to laying out a national strategy?
The last thing the prime minister wants to do is to come and talk to the cabinet about his objectives because the cabinet in Israel is a political cabinet.
Since it’s a political cabinet, you can’t really hold substantive policy debate because the positions that the ministers are going to express are determined by which party they are, not by what they think is the right thing to do at that moment. And it’s going to get out immediately.
So the cabinet is a dysfunctional forum where you can’t hold a serious policy discussion. So then you have the security cabinet, but the law says it can be half the size of the cabinet plenum. When you have a cabinet that’s 20-something, half of that — 10, 11, 12 — is still too big for real, discreet decision-making. And everything leaks from there also.
So where are the decisions really getting made in the State of Israel? Maybe there’s a “kitchen cabinet.” The other place is totally informal meetings between the prime minister, defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and maybe the head of the Mossad and one or two others. Three to four people, usually.
But even there, the prime minister’s not going to really reveal anything. If there’s just two or three people and he really trusts them, then maybe. But even with that, Yitzhak Rabin, for instance, didn’t tell the chief of staff about the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. Ariel Sharon didn’t tell the chief of staff about the disengagement from Gaza.
It’s not that they think the chief of staff is going to leak it. They know they can rely on the chief of staff. But the minute the chief of staff knows it, the deputy chief of staff knows it. The minute the deputy chief of staff knows it, the head of the Planning Directorate knows it. When the head of the Planning Directorate knows it, the head of Military Intelligence knows it.
You tell two or three people, and within a few hours, dozens of people know it and within a day or two hundreds of people know about it to some extent. And the prime ministers are petrified because if it gets out, it means they can’t do it.
So the prime ministers prefer not to do strategic planning.
And a written document — that’s the worst because then it’s right there in black and white. You’ve got to state your objectives, your priorities.
But what’s so bad about not having a written plan? Mike Tyson, the boxer, has a quote that I actually heard 92-year-old former defense minister Moshe Arens reference a few months ago, “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
I think some people have a misunderstanding about what strategic planning is. In their minds, they imagine an architectural blueprint or an engineering plan. I’m going to do this and then I’m going to do that, and then that, and then that. And you’ve got every step of it planned out. That’s not strategic planning.
Strategic planning is three things: setting your objectives, setting your priorities and then thinking about the best ways of getting them.
If you don’t know where you want to go, then all roads are equally good… and equally bad
You know where you want to be. The question is how you get there, especially in a crazy place like the Mideast. You’re going to have change course all the time and sometimes you have to change your objectives because you just can’t do it because the situation changed so much. But at least you know where you want to go. And if you don’t know where you want to go, then the situation is total chaos.
There’s a great Chinese quote, or at least it’s attributed to them: If you don’t know where you want to go, then all roads are equally good… and equally bad.
The argument that I make is that especially in a crazy place like the Mideast, where the rate of change is as extraordinary as it is, strategic planning is even more important. You’re going to have to sit back every couple of years and rethink.
The approach I took here in my book is basically a 10-year strategy, sometimes more, like in the nuclear area where it is a 20-year strategy.
Every couple of years there should be interim reviews, and at year five there needs to be a major review.
In the year and a half since I finished writing this thing, the situation in the northern front has changed considerably. Does it require a fundamental change? No. Does it require some changes in emphasis? Yes.
The Russians are a huge player today. Iran is much stronger on our border than it used to be. OK, but at least you have an idea of where you want to go.
Even though I’m biased, I know it to be true that this is the most comprehensive book that’s been written on Israeli national security to date.
Not everyone is going to agree with my recommendations. But this is the first time in history where someone inside the government or outside the government has written a proposal for a comprehensive national security strategy. Every proposal is explained and justified. Now anyone who wants to hold a fact-based discussion has the basis for doing so, even if you disagree.
One of the significant recommendations in your book is for Israel to continue trying to make peace with the Palestinians. But is that feasible? Is there someone on the other side for Israel to make peace with? Should it be building up such a Palestinian leader? Is that even Israel’s responsibility?
My personal opinion is that today there isn’t a Palestinian partner, there isn’t an Israeli partner and there isn’t an American partner. At the moment.
But I don’t think that was always the case. In the past, we had the Rabin-Peres government, then we had Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. I don’t know if Sharon wanted to negotiate a deal, but he wanted to solve the issue.
Israel put absolutely dramatic proposals on the table. Everyone in the world has forgotten about it. But we were talking about an equivalent of almost a 100% withdrawal from the West Bank and division of Jerusalem and division of the holy sites.
Barak agreed to then-US president Bill Clinton’s proposal that the Palestinians would have sovereignty over what’s above the Temple Mount and we would have sovereignty over what’s below (the Western Wall). And Olmert had an idea for a five-sided governing council where no one has sovereignty.
Yasser Arafat said no. And Mahmoud Abbas walked away. Barak was even willing to give up the Golan, and Assad turned down the deal because he wasn’t getting the last 200 meters.
We need our own leadership. And then we also need Palestinian leadership.
Why didn’t we build up Abbas as a partner? You can say he’s not a courageous leader. But is he a moderate person who you can reason with? Olmert said that if he had another few months, he could have worked out a deal. Does he sound like he wants a deal? I think the answer is yes.
Why didn’t we help strengthen him and put him to the test? Why did Arik decide on a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza? Everyone said to him, this is a huge move — why are you doing it unilaterally?
We in the National Security Council said to him, you don’t have to negotiate the disengagement with Abbas, just make it an agreed move. Then you get the whole world to see Israel removing the occupation from Gaza.
He said no. He said he’d get bogged down in negotiations. Maybe he was right. But I think he could have tried. He didn’t even try.
We’re always doing things where we’re undermining Abbas, and we’re often just strengthening Hamas, unintentionally. Maybe we can put the man to the test, and it’ll turn out we do have a Palestinian partner. You make peace with enemies, not with friends.
I don’t think there’s any chance that something good is going to happen in the foreseeable future, but I hope and believe that we’ll have a different Israeli leadership eventually, who will be willing to put Abbas to the test, and the question is what will be on the Palestinian side.
But there’s also a third part to this triangle, and today we have a US president who’s managing policy by disruption. And I don’t think that’s the way you get things done in the world. There’s something to be said for shaking things up, but only when the shakeup is part of a broader strategic plan, not when it’s shakeup for shakeup’s sake.
So Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Who could be against that? But now you’ve done something that Israel is thrilled about.
Maybe you want to do something for the Palestinians to show that you, the United States, are some kind of neutral party — not that anyone believes it anyway. But now they know for sure that it’s totally one-sided.
Or make it a huge carrot for Israel, as I think it should have been, in the context of a negotiation.
At the end of the day, the only way I think we’re going to reach a peace agreement — besides one of the two sides suddenly changing their position — is if there’s an American president willing to crack heads on both sides.
If Trump had come out and said, you guys can scream and shout, do whatever you want, but you Palestinians you are giving up the right of return and recognizing Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. And you Israel, you’re dividing Jerusalem and you’re withdrawing from the West Bank. This is the plan. Scream and shout as much as you want, but this is it and we, the United States, and the international community is going to put serious pressure on both sides to do it.
I’m not talking about an imposed settlement. I’m talking about a lot of pressure on both sides.
But what’s the risk to Israel from not reaching a settlement with the Palestinians? It seems like Netanyahu’s strategy is just to maintain the status quo and keep Israel connected internationally by developing good technology and sharing counter-terrorism intelligence. And eventually the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will just become one more thing that people know they’re supposed to care about, but they just don’t, like Tibet and China.
There are long-term processes of delegitimization that the Israeli right-wing refuses to acknowledge. I’m leaving for my annual semester in the States. I teach not only at Harvard, but also at Columbia and New York University and Stern College. I see these young people, I see how they think. They’re very careful with me because of who I am, but you see in surveys that young people in the United States do not support Israel anymore.
Even young Jewish people do not support Israel as much anymore.
OK, but they don’t necessarily support China either, but they tolerate it.
Yeah, but China is just a trade partner. China’s not Israel. China doesn’t get almost $4 billion in American aid every year. China doesn’t depend on an American veto in the UN Security Council.
Without American aid and American arms, the IDF doesn’t exist.
Without American aid and American arms, the IDF doesn’t exist
Without the US in the United Nations Security Council, there’d have been international sanctions on Israel years ago. Without the US in the UN Security Council, there’d have been a resolution decades ago calling on Israel to dismantle its purported nuclear capabilities, with international sanctions if we don’t.
People are cavalier about this.
OK, but it’s not like support would be completely gone. Evangelical Christians are pro-Israel.
Yeah, they like us a lot, but there aren’t enough of them.
Where are the growing populations? Hispanics and those with no religious affiliation.
Those are also the two groups that are the least affiliated with Israel. You’ve got a few generations already not connected to the ethos of Israel’s early years and not to the Holocaust.
These are people who only know Israel from the occupation.
There was a 2011 survey by The Israel Project — not an anti-Israel organization — that found that 25 percent of university students said that Israel was an apartheid state. Fifty percent weren’t sure. Only 25 percent think we’re not.
We’re going to lose much of the United States over the course of the next few years. Even a modulation in support by America is critical for Israel.
I think that’s a potentially existential threat, if we don’t do something about it.
One of the questions I raise in the book is if Israel can even survive without the United States. I don’t know.
In extreme circumstances, we could maybe find extreme solutions, but what is absolutely clear is that it is a much poorer existence and a much weaker, much less secure existence. It’s a kind of existence that nobody — not even the far-right — wants to go back to.
Even with the massive American diplomatic campaign, what was the UN vote negating Trump’s Jerusalem declaration? Did we get eight votes against it, including such “superpowers” as Micronesia and Nauru.
One of the things that you mention only briefly in the book is Israel’s domestic politics. Is Israel going to tear itself apart internally?
There’s complete agreement on most aspects of Israeli society.
The Palestinian issue is an area of huge disagreement. But even there, when you break it down, it’s not nearly as big as people think.
There’s a 60 to 66 percent majority in Israel, for decades, that’s in favor of a two-state solution, including major territorial compromise.
Yeah, there are a few mishegoyim (crazy people) who want a one-state solution. The percentage of people who say no territorial compromise is about a third. That’s it. That’s a lot — but it is only a third. And it’s the same third that’s been there for about 20 or 30 years. It’s not growing, it’s not decreasing. It’s the hardcore of the right.
And that’s the only place in Israeli society where there’s a fundamental cleavage when it comes to foreign policy.
When it comes to domestic policy, there we have some real differences.
Do we really want, as a society, to continue funding this explosion of the ultra-Orthodox population? The secular and the national religious majority says no.
We’re rapidly reaching a crisis situation. The economy can’t continue supporting this huge percentage of the population, plus the Arab population — which for a whole other reason is not as productive as it should be by its numbers.
I don’t know if it’s another two years or five years or ten years, but we’re going to reach an economic crisis point and we’re going to reach a demographic crisis point.
In 2050, a third of the Jewish Israeli public is ultra-Orthodox. Is that the kind of country that we want? If not, well maybe we should be changing some policies.
There’s a secular and national religious majority in Israel. Today, it’s still something like 80% of the population. If we could get over the political divisions, the semi-phony political divisions over the West Bank, why shouldn’t left and right get together? On all the other socioeconomic issues there are no major divides.
In 2050, a third of the Jewish Israeli public is ultra-Orthodox. Is that the kind of country that we want? If not, well maybe we should be changing some policies
We’ve got cultural wars over nothing. Do most people want mini-marts do be closed on Shabbat? The answer is no.
We’re going to address some of them of our own volition, and some of them are going to reach a crisis point in the coming years.
And what do we do about Jewwish-Arab relations? There are two contrary trends in the Arab Israeli population. One is radicalization. The other is integration.
All the polls show that the overwhelming majority of the Arab population wants to be integrated into Israeli society. They feel discriminated against, they feel prejudice wherever they go — they’re absolutely right.
So now we, as the majority, have one of two choices: Either we integrate them and maybe prevent this socioeconomic problem from becoming a nationalist and security problem, or we don’t. And we have Arab Israeli violence and terrorism. And we have separatist trends.
They’ll demand their own country. I don’t remember the exact figures by heart, but in 2050, there will be 3-4 million Arab Israelis. There are countries of 3-4 million people. Israel was once 3-4 million people. Why shouldn’t they get cultural autonomy? Some of them are calling for it today. Soon they’ll have the numbers to justify it.
So you’re painting a bit of bleak picture for Israel’s future. What’s your prognosis? How long do you give Israel?
It depends on how we handle things. I think a very long time. I think we could have a great future.
And if Israel handles things as it’s been handling them? If Netanyahu stays in power and maintains the status quo?
Netanyahu is what? Close to 70? (He’s 68 — JAG). He should live to be 120, so that means he’s got another 50 years. Eventually someone will succeed him. And it’s possible it will be less than 50 years. Hey, at this point, it could be less than 50 weeks — we’ll see what happens with the investigations.
But one of my conclusions in the book is that Israel has never been more militarily secure and never been in a better position to chart its national course for the future. Now we still live in a really difficult part of the world, and I’m not sure that even if we had a far-left government that we could reach an agreement with the Palestinians.
We could dramatically change our international position if we change the perception — which is an incorrect perception — that the primary obstacle is Israel.
Change that, and you’ve changed your ability to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah because then the world is more open to you. It makes it easier to deal with Iran. It ensures the long-term relationship with the United States. It’s not that people there are anti-Israel, it’s that they don’t like the Israel that they see today.
We could dramatically change our international position if we change the perception — which is an incorrect perception — that the primary obstacle is Israel.
We can change things in Europe. We have more in common with Europe than with the United States. It’s next door.
We could probably be a member of the European Union, if we wanted to.
Half of the Muslim world is dying to establish ties with Israel. Pakistan would establish relations with Israel if it could. Indonesia too.
The standard of living in Israel could skyrocket.
When did you move here?
So you might not remember, but I vividly remember what happened in the couple of years after the Oslo Accords in the 1990s. Every international company appeared here after Oslo because suddenly Israel became interesting. And the economy boomed.
Even if we don’t reach a peace deal, but just change the international perception that we’re the obstacle, this place becomes not the incredible place that it already is today, but an absolute gold mine.
Is there a chance in all of this, of actually reaching good relations with Arab countries in the region? The civilian populations of Egypt and Jordan, our supposed peace partners, have overwhelmingly negative views of Israel.
Short of the messiah coming, I don’t think so. But there’s a difference between being hated completely and people being willing to reluctantly cooperate with you.
But Arab countries see this incredible economic and technological powerhouse, and they would like to cooperate with it.
We’re the only part of the Middle East where some good things are happening.
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