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Interview

Zionist Union’s soft-spoken nuclear bombardier

Amos Yadlin, the center-left’s candidate for defense minister, played a key role in destroying two previous Middle Eastern nuclear programs — and insists Israel can destroy a third

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Amos Yadlin, right, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog at an election campaign media event, February 22, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Amos Yadlin, right, and Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog at an election campaign media event, February 22, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Amos Yadlin knows he’s not a good politician. He struggles to speak in the catchphrases of political discourse. Whether one asks him about Iran, the Palestinians, or even the Labor Party for whom he had stumped these past three months, his answers are systematic, considered, thoughtful to the point of boring.

His 33 years in the Israeli Air Force are nowhere more evident than in one particular habit: He seems to think in checklists.

In recent conversations with The Times of Israel on Iran, the US-Israel relationship and his sudden entry into the rough-and-tumble world of electioneering, the retired general answered most questions with lists, sometimes even counting them off on his fingers. There are five differences between the Israeli and American perceptions of the Iranian threat, five means to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon, four pillars of the US-Israel relationship that need repair, four elements to his party’s vision for the country, four parts to the Labor-led Zionist Union’s plan for governing the country.

His penchant for list-making is not accidental. Any profession that relies on human beings repeatedly performing extremely complex tasks — pilots, surgeons, architects — often comes to rely on lists to help avoid common but potentially disastrous mistakes. It is a simple but crucial technology that shapes what proper thinking looks like in these professions.

Amos Yadlin, former Director of Military Intelligence (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Amos Yadlin when he served as head of IDF intelligence (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

Yadlin knows he speaks in lists. “You’ll laugh at me, but here’s another one,” he says at one point. But he does it anyway, because in a career spent in environments where the costs of mistakes were excruciatingly high — a fighter jet’s cockpit, at the helm of the Israel Defense Forces’ intelligence directorate, and as Israel’s military attache in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of Washington — that’s how one learns to convey important information.

There is an unstated message, then, in Yadlin’s list-making. This is important, he is signaling. This deserves systematic thought. This is not an issue where rhetorical flourish or political pretense are appropriate.

The result: Interviewing Amos Yadlin feels like an operational briefing.

Politics

“Politics is not an obsession of mine. I’m not looking for a job,” he says bluntly — and repeatedly, as though slightly embarrassed by the whole thing.

He has served for the past three years as head of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies — “the leading institute in Israel and among the best in the world for strategy and policy,” he gushes — and describes his entry into politics as an extension of his think-tank work.

“When you’re the head of a research institute, your influence is significant, but limited. If you want to have a different level of influence, the way to do that is with deeds.”

He is in politics to do, and one can’t help but believe his insistence that it is doing, rather than politicking, that interests him. For one thing, there is Yadlin’s unusual arrangement with Zionist Union co-chairs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni. He is not a member of Zionist Union’s Knesset slate, but was introduced by Herzog at a January press conference as the list’s candidate for defense minister. In other words, if Herzog doesn’t win, or wins but is forced to hand the Defense Ministry to another coalition member, Yadlin will likely be left with no position at all.

Yadlin may be one of Israel’s most experienced military men, but he is a political neophyte. And by his own admission, and the evidence of his peculiar agreement with Zionist Union, he aims to stay that way.

But for all his inexperience, Yadlin was drafted into the game by two extremely experienced politicians. The first phone call from Herzog came shortly after the announcement of early elections in December, followed by conversations with Livni. It was followed by several meetings at Herzog’s home in which the three carefully discussed the views that the Zionist Union would espouse, and spoke frankly about Yadlin’s electoral value.

If his gamble succeeds, if Labor breaks its 14-year losing streak and defeats outright the favored incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu, Yadlin may get everything he wants. But it must be asked: What do Herzog and Livni gain from so prominently featuring a novice politician who seems viscerally averse to politics, a retired general too soft-spoken for electioneering?

In a word — Iran.

Strike three?

Israel does not lack for ex-generals with political opinions to spare. But Yadlin is one of the very few who played a central role in destroying two previous Middle Eastern nuclear programs. He was one of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and had risen to command the IDF’s vast intelligence branch when Israel (presumably Israel; it has never officially taken responsibility for the attack) destroyed the fledgling Syrian program in 2007.

The Osirak reactor prior to the 1981 Israeli bombing (photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Osirak reactor prior to the 1981 Israeli bombing (photo credit: Wikipedia)

In an election in which the incumbent Netanyahu has sought every opportunity to keep the race focused on security and Iran — any incumbent is almost by default weaker on the economy — Herzog often responded by trotting out the left’s own paragon of nuclear prevention.

Throughout the campaign, Yadlin has stuck to the script. His role was not to lash out, but to calmly delineate, as a uniformed strategic planner might, the Zionist Union’s response to the Iranian threat. Netanyahu’s campaign portrayed the premier’s rows with world leaders as proof of his firm resolve to defend Israel’s interests. Yadlin, in his very presence, was meant to give Herzog and Livni the ability to call Netanyahu’s confrontational style “reckless” and “self-defeating.”

Indeed, Yadlin’s role is in keeping with Herzog’s broader strategy for unseating Netanyahu.

“I grew up in a Zionist family, in a political family,” Yadlin says. His family, especially his father, the renowned former Labor education minister and Israel Prize laureate Aharon Yadlin, anchor him squarely in Israel’s left-wing elite. But when asked if he is left-wing, he recoils.

“I wish you wouldn’t say left. I’m center-left. I feel center.”

Herzog, too, recoils from identifying his slate to closely with the left. That was the essence of his alliance with Livni’s centrist Hatnua, and of his appointment of economist Manuel Trajtenberg, disliked by the socialist wing of his party, as his party’s candidate for finance minister. He won’t promise peace, the Labor leader explained in one campaign speech, because it would raise expectations that it might not be possible to meet.

It might be fair to say that Yadlin fits the Zionist Union slate better than he might the Labor Party that leads it — because that’s the rub: Yadlin largely agrees with Netanyahu when it comes to Iran.

“The prime minister and President [Barack] Obama have the same goal,” he says. “I, of course, am in the same place: that Iran must not have a nuclear bomb. On that, everyone agrees. Differences start to form on the question of how one might achieve that goal.

“To stop Iran, there are a number of strategies that are not mutually exclusive. They bolster each other. I’ll list them quickly [he counts off on his fingers]: engagement and agreement; exacting a steep diplomatic price, primarily through sanctions; a secret operation that no one takes responsibility for against the program; the fourth strategy is regime change; and the fifth, a kinetic attack. There is a profound connection between these options, and it’s not a coincidence that the kinetic attack is last, because it’s the last resort,” he says.

Is the “kinetic attack” still a viable option for Israel? Or, as some Obama administration officials have scoffed, has Iran entered what Ehud Barak once called the “zone of invincibility” from any Israeli attack?

“There’s no doubt there is an American option. And there is an Israeli option. I never get into details on this, but I’ll say three words: It is doable.”

The key question is not that of capability, but “the political question.

“Are we at the juncture where [all options have failed and] we have to choose between two very problematic alternatives: to accept an Iranian bomb, or to do what it takes so they don’t have a bomb? In English, ‘the bomb or the bombing?’ We have to ask ourselves constantly if we have reached this juncture? Have we exhausted all the other options to stop Iran?”

Many in Washington — “in the ‘belt,’” as Yadlin calls it from his days as military attache to the US — “are at this juncture and are willing to accept a nuclear Iran. They believe in containment and deterrence.”

Do “they” include President Obama or his cabinet?

Yadlin skirts the question. “You’ll find them among the strategists and among the government officials. I still belong to those who believe that President Obama won’t let Iran obtain a nuclear weapon.”

How then does he explain the apparently stark divide between Israeli leaders and American leaders on the question?

“Between the president and the prime minister there exist essential differences in five fields. It even sounds good in English, ‘five T’s.’ One is the different perception of threat. Israel sees in a nuclear Iran an existential threat in light of Iran’s declaration that it wants to destroy Israel. The United States sees in Iran a strategic threat. It lives with North Korea, Pakistan; it can maybe also live with a nuclear Iran,” he mimes an American shrugging.

“Second, they function in light of a different trauma. The American trauma is two wars in the last decade in the Middle East, and an overpowering desire not to enter into another confrontation in the Middle East. And Israel’s trauma is the Holocaust. There has already been a situation where someone threatens to annihilate the Jewish nation. He wasn’t taken seriously. They said it was just propaganda for internal needs. And it ended with six million [dead]. It’s a trauma on a different order of magnitude.

“The next ‘T’ is the threshold. The US can absorb an Iran on the threshold. Israel can’t, because we’re convinced that at some point Iran will burst ahead. And if it’s too close to the threshold, it won’t be possible to stop it.

“The next ‘T’ is the trigger. What’s the trigger that sets an attack in motion? For the Americans, it’s only when they see the Iranians break out to a bomb. For the Israelis, it’s connected to the threshold, if [Iran] is too close.

“The last ‘T’ is the timing. While the US can allow itself to wait more because its operational abilities are meaningfully greater than Israel’s.”

He thinks a moment and adds, “And if you want to add another ‘T,’ it’s the ‘T’ in trust. Israel must trust the United States that it will stand behind what it says, and that this won’t be another North Korean situation.”

Readers who discern distinctively Netanyahu-esque rhetoric in this list of US-Israeli differences on Iran are not mistaken. When it comes to the scale of the danger, the precariousness of trusting in American assurances, and the intentions of the ruling ayatollahs in Tehran, one might be forgiven for labeling Yadlin something slightly more hawkish than the catch-all “centrist.”

And that’s only natural, Yadlin explains.

“The goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and the desire to reach an agreement that will push Iran back as much as possible is not an issue of disagreement between Israel’s [political] parties.”

Doesn’t that suggest that a potential Prime Minister Herzog would soon find himself in the same sorts of fights with the White House as Prime Minister Netanyahu?

“The different perceptions [between Israel and the US] will be along those lines” under a Herzog government, he concedes. “With that, I think that much of the disagreement between the [Obama] administration and the prime minister is on the Palestinian issue. On the Iranian issue, it’s different perspectives toward the same goal.”

What, then, is Netanyahu doing wrong in his campaign against Iranian nuclear weaponization?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol March 3, 2015 in Washington, DC (photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a joint meeting of the United States Congress in the House chamber at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 3, 2015. (photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP)

 

“What happened with the behavior of the prime minister, by the fact that he didn’t speak enough with the administration, but went to the Congress directly against the administration, he achieved the opposite of what he wanted. Instead of getting support in Congress, and together with that from the administration for sanctions that — you remember the five strategies? — sanctions that will press Iran more if it doesn’t reach a reasonable agreement we can live with, he led to the breakup of that front even in Congress.”

A Herzog government, Yadlin assures, “will work in parallel in Congress and in the administration to influence them so that the line at which they will be willing to compromise [with the Iranians] will be different. We think that the prime minister, with his stances, has removed himself from the room.”

US-Israel relations are “not at a crisis,” he says. “I think that the state of relations is less good than what I wish it were, but it isn’t a crisis. The defense-strategic issue is one where the Obama administration took care to continue the cooperation with Israel, and even to increase it. We can’t ignore the $3 billion the IDF and the defense establishment receive. Add on to that the missile defense, Iron Dome, joint exercises, intelligence sharing.

“But when I look at the three pillars of cooperation between Israel and the United States, maybe four pillars, in every one there are cracks. And all can be fixed, and are not in a state of crisis that can’t be repaired. Relations between Israel and the US stand on four things, on shared values first; second, on shared interests; on relations of trust between people at all levels, all the way up to the heads of state; and on the fact that Israel was in the US a bipartisan issue, with the very strong support of both Democrats and Republicans.”

The accusation against Netanyahu is clear; Israel’s bipartisan status in the US is couched in the past tense in Yadlin’s telling. But even now, in the throes of an election, he retreats from language that begins to sound too shrill, politicized or careless. Yadlin is honest to a fault.

“There are cracks in all of these [pillars],” he concludes, but adds, “cracks that flow from mistakes made on both sides of the ocean.”

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