Gabi Ashkenazi
Gabi Ashkenazi. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
Text size

WASHINGTON - Former Israel Defense Forces head Gabi Ashkenazi has been out of work for a month, but he's still cheerleading for the Israeli military, as he proved in a speech on Sunday at the Israeli Leadership Council Gala in Beverly Hills.

The appearance was one of his first since stepping down and Ashkenazi stuck to the IDF's talking points. The IDF is one of the most efficient and strong armies in the world, Ashkenazi said. Israel should be proud of its army and its soldiers, that do not hide behind civilians, as the terrorist organizations do.

We have nothing to apologize for, he said. No nation would let terror rule its cities and define its children's futures.

Remarking on the Gaza flotilla incident, he said he was proud of the soldiers, who "didn't shoot one bullet that wasn't necessary."

And how can the community of the former Israelis living in California help? They can send their kids to serve in the IDF.

Twenty years ago, this scene would be unimaginable - a freshly retired army head making his first major appearance at the forum of what was called once "yordim" - a derogatory term for Israeli ex-pats.

But times have changed, and among the distinguished guests were Jewish lawmakers, TV mogul Haim Saban, Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad and others.

At the end of his short remarks, Ashkenazi mentioned the two biggest challenges Israel faces. The first is a nuclear Iran. "The world has to threaten less and do more," he said. "And it's no secret that Israel leaves all the options on the table."

The Obama administration has not forgotten about Iran, but what's clear at this stage is that there will not be a joint Israeli-U.S. operation. It will be either the U.S., which may yet be stymied by the outcome of its Libyan adventure, or Israel alone.

The precedent was set during the Persian Gulf War, when Israel was asked to quietly suffer the Iraqi attack, lest the Arab states leave the coalition. One might have expected that Wikileaks' exposure of the real Arab worries changed the game and made the Arabs less reluctant to accept Israeli participation - but diplomatic sources in Washington say it's far from being the case.

The second challenge, for the U.S. and Israel, is post-Tahrir Egypt, and what the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood may mean for the region.

Think tanks around D.C. are hectically trying to provide some answers for policy makers, but the bottom line is no one actually knows how the Brotherhood will jibe to its new reality.

A discussion yesterday at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank created after 9/11 to help develop policies to protect the West against its enemies, underscored more the dilemmas rather than the answers.

Thomas Joscelyn, senior fellow and the executive director of the center for law and counterterrorism at the Foundation, said the discussion on whether the Brotherhood can be approached is hardly new in the West - and stressed that they should be seen by the Western decision-makers through a simple prism of whether they can be called a non-violent organization.

"The decision to renounce violence in Egypt was a tactical one," he said. "They didn't reject violence in Iraq, Hamas, Afghanistan - they justify suicide bombings there. The ultimate test for me is the simple question - are the suicide bombings not violent? Because if they are, how can this group be called non-violent? In the West they justify mainly defensive jihad. Where they can use violence, like with Hamas in Gaza, they use it. It's important to establish the facts to understand who you are dealing with. I don't see at the U.S. administration this kind of analysis, and that's what makes the policy making very difficult."

Lorenzo Vidino, a visiting fellow at the RAND corporation and the author of "The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West," warned against puffing the group up to be larger than it is.

"It would be a mistake to make the Brotherhood a 10-foot giant," he said. "The organizations in the West have been very good at adapting to the West. There are generational changes. But support to Hamas is the one issue they do not compromise on, it has caused them a lot of PR headaches; the fundraising for Hamas caused them lots of legal headaches. As for the engagement - they do not like us anyway, and I am not so sure they are going to be dominating the political scene in Egypt. But you want to keep a channel of communication open."

The last speaker, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former specialist at the CIA's Operations Directorate, when asked what Israel should do in relation to post-Tahrir Egypt, delivered a blunt answer.

"The Israelis have the easiest position here, because they should remain skeptical and suspicious and maintain the robust military budget and accept that in the short they are screwed," he said. "Will they push very hard for review of the peace treaty with Israel? I think it's highly likely, because it's simply anathema to them. It is possible to see this treaty nullified, but I suspect the military will push back hard, because they don't like to see the U.S. money go. ... It will be very difficult for them to maintain the same unity as under the dictatorship. The pressures inside the Brotherhood are quite real, and we could expect the evolutions there to develop. We didn't see these debates 40 or 50 years ago because the military dictatorships cut them off. Now you are going to have these debates - and we'll see who wins. It's not clear, but this process is not only unavoidable, but essential if we want these societies to become more liberal."