Examining Israel’s Security Challenges with Blue and White’s Ya’alon

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

How will Israel know when Iran will cross the threshold for nuclear weapons, and will it act?

One casualty of Israel’s electoral deadlock is the absence of a budget for the Israeli military. The current five-year plan, Gideon, negotiated by former defense minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon almost five years ago is ending without a new military plan to replace it. Although the IDF can continue to act against imminent threats, it is dangerous to hamper long-range planning.

So I decided to speak with Israel’s former defense minister, who presided over the last five-year plan when things in the government were more normal, to see how he analyzes Israel’s current security challenges. His perspective should be seen not only through his years of military service culminating as the IDF chief of staff, but as a leader of Israel’s Blue and White Party that may lead the next coalition government. I thought it would be instructive to ask Ya’alon to comment on some of the topics I discuss in Washington with foreign policy experts and members of Congress.

First, I wanted to know how Israel will fight a multi-front war with thousands of missiles aimed at Israeli communities and strategic locations, some with precision guidance that could overwhelm its current missile defenses.

Ya’alon said that it must be remembered that the strategy of Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah and Hamas is to use missile attacks to target and terrorize Israeli civilians. They know Israel is militarily superior and cannot be defeated conventionally, so their strategy is to break the will of the Israeli people. He said Israelis have repeatedly stood the test of time under threat, revealing Israel’s true strength, combining the Jewish heart with Jewish values, intelligence and the spirit of Zionism.

However, the best defense is still a good offense provided by Israel’s superior intelligence gathering, which is also an indispensable American security asset. For Israel, this allows missiles, as well as precision-guided missile factories to be precisely targeted.

I asked whether Israel needs more anti-missile systems like Iron Dome. He said Israel could certainly use more anti-missile systems, but without an approved military plan and budget, it cannot happen.

I moved onto Israel’s northern Iranian border with Syria and Lebanon, and wanted to know if it is possible, short of a massive ground invasion, to diminish the Iranian presence.

Ya’alon said you need to begin by thinking of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iranian controlled Shi’ite militias in Syria not as independent entities, but as parts of a whole entity, with its brain center for all of its nefarious activities located in Tehran. The supreme leader has not changed his spots, and when the West claims Iran has become more moderate under its current President Rouhani compared to his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, it’s like thinking Jack the Ripper is more moderate than the Boston Strangler.

I told him that there is a debate in the US whether it is wise to publicly support the protesters in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, as some say overt US support would allow the Iranian regime to claim this is all an American plot to overthrow the regime, which would resonate with the Iranian people. He answered that supporting the protesters is the right thing to do for both of our countries’ interests, and America shouldn’t fail the Iranian people again as they did 10 years ago during the Green Revolution.

Ya’alon added that regime change by the people of Iran would create more stability in the region. However, economic pressure via sanctions is not enough to stop Iran; they need to be politically isolated. Unfortunately, Europe is reluctant, but must be convinced that this is in their interest, as they did before agreeing to the flawed Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), to reinstate political isolation.

It should be noted that no one I spoke to throughout the Israeli security or political establishment ever even hinted that America should consider boots on the ground to cause regime change, something that is disingenuously alleged by many of the supporters of the JCPOA.

Ya’alon said Iran’s leaders ultimately want to survive, and even if there is not a popularly inspired regime change, the regime can feel enough economic and political pressure to halt some of their expansionist activities, but only if both political isolation and hard-hitting sanctions are combined.

I ASKED if Israel is forced into a large-scale war with Iran from Syria and Lebanon, would Israel consider attacking Iran proper. Ya’alon didn’t answer directly but said it is counterproductive to speak openly about Israeli strikes against Iranian interests, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does now, finding it counterproductive, as ambiguity about military options better serves Israeli interests.

So how will Israel know when Iran will cross the threshold for nuclear weapons, and will it act?

Israel leaves all options on the table, and only a credible military threat will dissuade Iran. America, by not responding to the Iranian downing of its $100-million drone, or the unreciprocated attacks by Iran on international shipping in international waterways, or the lack of response to the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil facilities, has invited further Iranian aggression and increased instability in the region, undermining both American and Israeli interests.

The best way to decrease Iran’s threats is to respond with consequences when Iran acts. He wants America not to forget that it still has interests in the Middle East and that if it creates vacuums, it will eventually endanger America itself. America must remember that 9/11 came from the Middle East and that many attacks against American interests have come from the region.

Taking a step back to view the situation on a macro level, Ya’alon said there are three great threats in the Middle East: Iran; the Muslim Brotherhood, best exemplified by Turkish President Recep Erdogan; and Sunni Wahhabi radicalism in the form of al-Qaeda or Daesh (ISIS) that are both now somewhat in retreat. The only way America can counter these threats without sending in troops is to be supportive of Israel, which holds the front line against all the forms of radical Islam, from Shi’ite to Sunni jihadism.

Ya’alon is the number three in the Blue and White Party and is reportedly its choice for education minister. After his time as defense minister, he emphasized Israel’s internal challenges, so I asked him, if he became education minister, how he would approach the subject of Zionism in the secular Jewish school system.

As chief of staff of the IDF, Ya’alon made it a priority to teach young soldiers about the foundational core values of Zionism, defining Judaism as a religion, a national aspiration, a civilization and a people. He said these core values must be part of the educational system, as the nation must be rooted in a solid foundation to withstand its challenges. Israel’s four school systems: secular Jewish, religious Zionist, Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox), also need to be more integrated for both their benefit as well as the country’s. He emphasized the importance of avoiding confrontational coercion of the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, but his party is in favor of some form of mandatory civil service.

Let’s hope Israel’s politicians will put the people’s interest ahead of their own and finally form a government after this unprecedented third election. Everyone I spoke to, Right and Left, agreed that having to endure a third election is unfortunate, and Israelis need to agree to disagree where necessary, maintain their sense of unity and move forward, as a genuine, vibrant democracy requires. 

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers, as well as White House advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to The Hill, i24TV, JTA, TheDefensePost.com, JNS, The Forward and has appeared on RealClearWorld.com.

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