Despite being surrounded by sworn enemies, not all is bleak for the Jewish state
Today, as throughout its existence, Israel faces many strategic threats—from Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization to the ongoing war in Syria; from Hizbullah’s dominance in Lebanon to the volatility associated with the ongoing stalemate with the Palestinians.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Media Line, Maj. Gen. (res.) Uzi Dayan discussed the many challenges the Jewish state faces.
Born four months before Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, Dayan has witnessed, if not played an integral role in, nearly every major security development in the country’s history. The nephew of famed Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, he spent fifteen years in the IDF’s elite Sayaret Matkal unit, eventually serving as its commander, then head of the IDF’s Central Command, as deputy chief of staff and subsequently led Israel’s National Security Council from 2003-2005.
According to Dayan, Iran poses the greatest threat to Israel, “because it is a country that employs terrorism and exports a revolutionary ideology, while striving to build a nuclear umbrella. Nor is Iran’s war against Israel direct,” he continued, “but rather conducted through proxies, whether in Lebanon, Syria or Gaza.
“If Iran goes nuclear, all of the conflicts it is currently involved in will intensify.”
Regarding the atomic agreement, specifically, a deadline for the U.S. Congress to re-impose sanctions on Tehran came and went last week; this, after President Donald Trump’s decision in October not to recertify Iranian compliance with the deal signed with world powers in 2015. The administration had asked legislators to propose ways to modify what the American leader called the accord’s “serious flaws,” foremost the so-called “sunset clauses” that fully expire after fifteen years, as well as its failure to hold Iran accountable for its ballistic missile tests, which contravene existing UN Security Council resolutions.
The other signatories to the deal—France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China—have all urged the White House to uphold the pact, which they, in addition to United Nations atomic inspectors, claim the Islamic Republic is abiding by. They have likewise shown little appetite for renegotiating aspects of the agreement amid fears that doing so could cause Tehran to push towards nuclear breakout.
Nevertheless, President Trump reportedly was upset by the lack of progress on Capitol Hill and could potentially pull the U.S. out of the deal entirely when it next comes up for review on January 13. As such, much remains uncertain, with Dayan believing that Washington has not as of yet developed a coherent strategy for preventing Iran from going nuclear.
While stressing the importance of curbing Iran’s atomic activities, he contended to The Media Line that the Islamic Republic poses more immediate dangers to the Jewish state; namely, through its Lebanese underling Hizbullah, the construction of permanent military infrastructure in Syria—coupled with the thousands of Shiite mercenaries Tehran wants to deploy to the Golan heights—as well as the financing of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad Palestinian terrorist groups.
The carnage and instability in Syria, in particular, risks spiraling out of control, with Arab media reports claiming this week that Israel has increased the frequency of its military activity in the country in order to uphold its so-called “red lines.” The Israel Air Force allegedly recently struck four Iranian facilities, including a well-publicized attack last month on an installation located in Al-Kiswah, just south of the Syrian capital where Tehran is believed to have been building a weapons depot. Additionally, Israeli jets purportedly targeted sites in Hisya, near Homs, Jamariya, west of Damascus, and Masyaf. The facilities are apparently involved in military research, the production of surface-to-air missiles—which could threaten Israel’s air superiority—and function as personnel bases.
Notably, the reports suggest that the Islamic Republic has started placing installations within civilian industrial areas, leading analysts to postulate that Tehran is attempting to hide the existence of such centers in order to shelter them from attack. The development is drawing parallels to Iran’s strategy in Lebanon, where its Hizbullah proxy has built offensive capabilities within towns and villages in proximity to the border with Israel.
“Israel does not want Iran to be in Syria at all,” Dayan explained, “but this is likely not achievable. If the Iranians do remain, no agreement to end the war can last so there will remain the possibility for incidents to occur. Tehran is not there to help [President Bashar al-Assad], but rather so that it can create a ground bridge into Lebanon and gain further influence in the Middle East.”
Because of this a new “dividing line” is emerging in the region. “It used to be Arabs against Jews, however, now it is those that say no to terror and no to a nuclear Iran and others that can tolerate both,” Dayan elucidated. “Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other Sunni Gulf states find themselves on the same side, which creates a new dynamic.”
In fact, this rapprochement presents new opportunities for the Jewish state that were previously unimaginable. Just last week, for example, Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, a close confidante of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a member of his security cabinet, gave a wide-ranging interview to Elaph, a London-based Arabic news website owned by a Saudi businessman; this, just weeks after IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot made rare statements to the same outlet.
Katz stressed that Jerusalem and the House of Saud see eye-to-eye “on everything” regarding Iran, complimented heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman for his efforts to modernize the kingdom and called on Riyadh to support the White House’s prospective peace initiative. Indeed, the Saudis may well be positioned to play a more influential role in jump-starting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, although the matter has been complicated by President Trump’s decision on December 6 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The Palestinian Authority, along with Hamas—whose leader called for a third Intifada (popular uprising) in response—vehemently objected to the declaration and has encouraged widespread protests that have erupted into violence throughout the West Bank. At an Islamic summit in Istanbul last Wednesday, PA leader Mahmoud Abbas described the American policy shift as a “crime” and a gift to the “Zionist movement.” He stressed that Washington had effectively relinquished its role as mediator of the peace process, despite the ongoing formulation by President Trump’s Middle East envoys of the parameters of a comprehensive deal that is to be rolled out in early 2018.
Dayan, who previously headed the security file during negotiations with the Palestinians, does not believe that the Jerusalem declaration should effect the peace process, as “it should anyways uniquely be a bilateral issue. Every time the Americans enter the room, both sides start negotiating with them instead of with each other.” Irrespective, he does not envision an end to the conflict any time soon. “I do not see any agreement with the Palestinians, as I know Abu Mazen [Abbas] very well and he could never sign an end-of-claims deal with Israel. If he were to do so he would not survive. And if there were elections, Hamas would likely win upwards of eighty percent of the vote.”
As regards Hamas-ruled Gaza, this too poses a huge obstacle to peace in Dayan’s estimation. “Is it a part of a potential agreement or not? If not, then we are talking about three states for two peoples. Right now,” he expounded, “Israel wants to deter Hamas as much as possible. But there is a problem because the only way to subdue a terrorist organization is to threaten its existence. Israel will only go back to war against Gaza if there is no other choice. If so, the military must get the job totally done. Hamas must cease to exist as a territorial entity with a functional leadership. The regime must fall.”
The Israeli assessment is that Hamas does not currently want a war, “but this is not enough because the previous rounds started with everyone saying the same thing,” Dayan noted. The same goes for Hizbullah, which is currently entangled in the Syrian theater. “The army evacuated every inch of Lebanon but this did not stop Hizbullah from wanting to chase the Jews to Jerusalem. It is stretching itself due to the fighting in Syria [and across the region, including in Iraq and Yemen, where its forces are also stationed]. On the flip side, the group is getting more and more support from Iran so anything is possible.”
Overall, then, Israel is essentially an oasis in an otherwise turbulent region engulfed in chaos. Within this context, Dayan highlights the success of the Jewish national project and asserts that Arab countries have come around to recognizing and appreciating Israel’s accomplishments. “In the Arab world, people used to say, ‘we hate you,’ but now they say, ‘we don’t love you.’ This is a significant change,” he stressed.
“The Arab nations view Israel as stable, with a powerful economy, and having solved some of the region’s serious problems relating to water scarcity, energy shortages and exploding populations. By the end of this ‘Arab Winter,’ I see Israel becoming a role model on how to build a successful society.”
As to how this might translate into regional peace, Dayan believes that this prospect is still at least a generation away. Until then, “we can continue to build a vibrant Jewish and democratic state while offering our expertise to those around us. If we do this, many of our former enemies will eventually say, ‘we want to do for our people what you do for yours.’
“Accordingly, I am optimistic.”