IDF Chief of Staff-turned-vice Premier: 'We Are Not Bluffing'

Moshe Ya'alon tells Ari Shavit he is preparing for war. He suggests you do the same.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Exactly seven years ago, I interviewed the chief of staff. On the eve of his retirement from the Israel Defense Forces, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon spoke with an expressionless face against the Gaza disengagement, against a Palestinian state and against giving terrorism a “tailwind.” He predicted that Hamas would seize control of the Gaza Strip and that rockets would rain down on Israeli cities. But when, at the end of the interview, we were joined by the Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman and a Haaretz photographer, the chief of staff became a different person. As the photographer had him pose in his office, he started telling jokes.

With a mischievous smile on his face and a naughty twinkle in his eye, the tall, bespectacled officer had everyone roaring with laughter at ethnic jokes, accent jokes and small-town jokes. Suddenly he was no longer a tough chief of the General Staff in a starched uniform, but a delightful jester bursting with life. If I describe this scene to my readers, I said to the IDF spokeswoman, they will think I was on some sort of drug: No one will believe that behind the stone face that Chief of Staff Ya’alon puts on lurks this affable, free-spirited Bogie with a terrific sense of humor.

A great many things have been burned into people’s minds since that standup act on the 14th floor of the IDF tower in the Kirya defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. To the astonishment of many, Hamas did in fact seize control of Gaza and did indeed rain down rockets on Israeli cities. To the amazement of others, Ya’alon did not pursue a career as a school principal in the Arava, but pursued a political career and has even done well in politics. Within a few years, the dairy farmer from Kibbutz Grofit, north of Eilat, became one of the most right-wing leaders of the right wing.

True, Bogie has surprised the “national camp” time and again. He spoke out against the exclusion of women from public events due to religious strictures, opposed racism against migrants and objected to the silencing of reporters. He supported same-sex marriage and the right of Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran not to sing the national anthem.

But despite his partial “otherness,” this son of the Labor Movement became the hero of the followers of Jabotinsky, the hero of the settlement project and the hero of hawkishness. It is only in regard to the Iranian issue that the minister of strategic threats is perceived as a dove. In closed conversations he reiterates his deep concern about the influence wielded by Ehud Barak on Benjamin Netanyahu, and about the possibility that the former will drag the latter into a wanton Iranian adventure.

In the modest living room of his kibbutz home, where he lives with his wife Ada, Ya’alon sits across from me in shorts, a blue shirt and sandals. He gets up to make a cup of black coffee and pushes a dish of dates toward me. This time he doesn't tell jokes. In a very accurate and concentrated way, the vice premier describes a harsh reality. That is why he agreed to give this unprecedented interview. Ya'alon believes the time has come to narrow the gap between what he knows and what we know. He believes it is time to tell the people of Israel what they are up against.

Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, could a war erupt this year?

“I hope not. I hope that in regard to Iran it will be possible to say, as the old saw goes, that the work of the just is done by others. But obviously we are preparing for every possibility. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

If you had to provide a comprehensive intelligence assessment today, would you say that the probability of a war in the year ahead is negligible, low, middling or high?

“The probability of an initiated attack on Israel is low. I do not see an Arab coalition armed from head to foot deploying on our borders − not this year, not in the year after and not in the foreseeable future. Despite the trend toward Islamization in the Middle East, we enjoy security and relative quiet along the borders. But the No. 1 challenge is that of Iran. If anyone attacks Iran, it’s clear that Iran will take action against us. If anyone, no matter who, decides to take military action against Iran’s nuclear project, there is a high probability that Iran will react against us, too, and will fire missiles at Israel. There is also a high probability that Hezbollah and Islamist elements in the Gaza Strip will operate against us. That possibility exists, and it’s with a view to that possibility that we have to deploy.”

What the vice premier is telling me is that we are close to the moment of truth regarding Iran.

“Definitely. When I was director of Military Intelligence, in the 1990s, Iran did not possess one kilogram of enriched uranium. Today it has 6,300 kilograms of uranium enriched to a level of 3.5 percent and about 150 kilograms enriched to a level of 20 percent. When I was chief of staff, in the first decade of this century, Iran had a few hundred centrifuges, most of which were substandard.

“At present there are about 10,000 centrifuges in Natanz and in Kom, which are enriching about eight kilograms of uranium a day. Since this government took office in 2009, the number of centrifuges in Iran has almost doubled and the amount of enriched uranium has increased sixfold. The meaning of these data is that Iran already today has enough enriched uranium to manufacture five atomic bombs. If Iran is not stopped, within a year it will have enough uranium for seven or eight atomic bombs.

“In addition, the Iranians apparently possess a weapons development system which they are hiding from the international supervisory apparatus. The Iranians also have 400 missiles of different types, which can reach the whole area of Israel and certain parts of Europe. Those missiles were built from the outset with the ability to carry nuclear warheads. So the picture is clear. Five years ago, even three years ago, Iran was not within the zone of the nuclear threshold. Today it is. Before our eyes Iran is becoming a nuclear-threshold power.”

But to build a nuclear bomb Iran needs uranium enriched to a level of 90 percent and above. At the moment it is still not there.

“True, but if Iran goes confrontational and goes nuclear, it has the capability to enrich uranium to above 90 percent within two or three months. Even if it does not build a standard nuclear bomb, within less than six months it will be in possession of at least one primitive nuclear device: a dirty bomb.”

If so, maybe it’s already too late. The Iranians won and we lost and we have to resign ourselves to Iran’s being in possession of nuclear weapons in the near future.

“Absolutely not. It will be disastrous if we or the international community become resigned to the idea of a nuclear Iran. The regime of the ayatollahs is apocalyptic-messianic in character. It poses a challenge to Western culture and to the world order. Its scale of values and its religious beliefs are different, and its ambition is to foist them on everyone. Accordingly, it is an obligation to prevent this nonconventional regime from acquiring nonconventional weapons. Neither we nor the West is at liberty to accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. What I am telling you is not rhetoric and it is not propaganda. A nuclear Iran is a true threat to world peace.”

Crossing red lines

But you yourself are telling me that the Iranians have already crossed most of the red lines. They have swept past the points of no return. Doesn’t that mean that we are now facing the cruel dilemma of bomb or bombing?

“We are not there yet. I hope we will not get there. The international community can still act aggressively and with determination. Other developments are also feasible. But if the question is bomb or bombing, the answer is clear: bombing.

The answer is clear to you but not to me. We survived the Cold War. We also survived the nuclearization of Pakistan and North Korea. Israel is said to possess strategic capability that is able to create decisive deterrence against Iran. Would it not be right to say that just as Europe lived with the Soviet bomb, we will be able to live in the future with the Shiite bomb?

“No and no and again no. The first answer to your question is that if Iran goes nuclear, four or five more countries in the Middle East are liable to go nuclear, too. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and other Arab states will say that if Iran has a bomb they also need a bomb. The result will be a nuclear Middle East. A nuclear Middle East will not be stable and therefore the world will not be stable. Iranian nuclearization will bring in its wake nuclear chaos.

“The second answer to your question is that a nuclear umbrella will allow Iran to achieve regional hegemony. The Gulf states, finding themselves under that umbrella, will ask themselves which they prefer: distant Washington or nearby Tehran. In my view, they will opt for nearby Tehran. A nuclear Iran is liable to take control of the energy sources in the Persian Gulf and of a very large slice of the world’s oil supply. That will have far-reaching international implications. But a nuclear Iran will also challenge Israel and bring about a series of brutal conventional confrontations on our borders. That will have serious consequences for Israel.

“The third answer to your question is that one day the Iranian regime is liable to use its nuclear capability. That does not mean that the day after the Iranians acquire a bomb they will load it on a plane or a missile and drop it on a Western city. But there is a danger of the use of nuclear weapons by means of proxies. A terrorist organization could smuggle a dirty bomb into the port of New York or the port of London or the port of Haifa. I also do not rule out the possibility of the direct use of nuclear weapons by means of missiles. That risk is low, but it exists. That extreme scenario is not impossible.”

But the Iranians are rational, and the use of nuclear weapons is an irrational act. Like the Soviets, they will never do that.

“A Western individual observing the fantastic ambitions of the Iranian leadership scoffs: ‘What do they think, that they will Islamize us?’ The surprising answer is: Yes, they think they will Islamize us: The ambition of the present regime in Tehran is for the Western world to become Muslim at the end of a lengthy process. Accordingly, we have to understand that their rationality is completely different from our rationality. Their concepts are different and their considerations are different. They are completely unlike the former Soviet Union. They are not even like Pakistan or North Korea. If Iran enjoys a nuclear umbrella and the feeling of strength of a nuclear power, there is no knowing how it will behave. It will be impossible to accommodate a nuclear Iran and it will be impossible to attain stability. The consequences of a nuclear Iran will be catastrophic.”

Bombing too will have catastrophic consequences: a regional war, a religious war, thousands of civilians killed.

“Anyone who has experienced war, as I have, does not want war. War is a dire event. But the question is: What is the alternative? What is the other option to war? I told you once and will tell you again: If it is bomb or bombing, from my point of view it is bombing. True, bombing will have a price. We must not underestimate or overestimate that price. We have to assume that Israel will be attacked by Iranian missiles, many of which will be intercepted by the Arrow system. We have to assume that Hezbollah will join the confrontation and fire thousands of rockets at us. Rockets will also be fired from the Gaza Strip. The probability of Syria entering the fray is low, but we have to deploy for that possibility, too. I am not saying it will be easy. But when you pit all of that against the alternative of a nuclear Iran, there is no hesitation at all. It is preferable to pay the steep price of war than to allow Iran to acquire military nuclear capability. That’s as clear as day, as far as I am concerned.”

How many casualties will we have? Hundreds? Thousands?

“I cannot estimate how many will be killed, but I suggest that we not terrify ourselves. Every person killed is great sorrow. But we have to be ready to pay the price that is required so that Iran does not go nuclear. Again: I hope it does not come to that. I hope that it will be done by others. In the Iranians’ eyes, Israel is only the Little Satan, and the United States is the Great Satan. But as I told you: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? “

Hezbollah scenario

Hezbollah can hit every place in Israel today: population centers, army bases, strategic targets. Doesn’t the scenario of a massive missile attack make you lose sleep?

“My assessment is that Hezbollah will enter the fray. But what happened in the Second Lebanon War will not be repeated. The way to stop the rockets is to exact from the other side a price that will oblige it to ask for a cease-fire. We have the ability to hit Hezbollah with 150 times the explosives that it can hit us with. We can also do it a lot more accurately. If we are attacked from inside Lebanon, the government of Lebanon will bear very great responsibility.”

You answered my question about the home front. But what about the argument that bombing will spark a permanent religious war and will unify the Iranian people around the regime? What about the argument that bombing will in fact cause the collapse of the sanctions and allow Iran to go confrontational and hurtle openly toward nuclear capability?

“First things first and last things last. In regard to a religious war, isn’t the regime in Iran waging a religious war against us today? In regard to the people unifying behind the regime: I do not accept that. I think that an operation could even destabilize the regime. In my estimation, 70 percent of the Iranians will be happy to be rid of the regime of the ayatollahs.

“Let me reply in greater detail to the argument that Iran will hurtle toward nuclearization on the day after the bombing. Those who focus the debate on the narrow technological aspect of the problem can argue that all that will be achieved is a delay of a year or two, not much more. If so, they will say, ‘What did we accomplish? What did we gain?’ But the question is far broader. One of the important elements here is to convince the Iranian regime that the West is determined to prevent its acquisition of nuclear capability. And what demonstrates greater determination than the use of force?

“Therefore, it is wrong for us to view a military operation and its results only from an engineering point of view. I want to remind you that in the discussions of the security cabinet before the Israeli attack on [the nuclear reactor in] Iraq, the experts claimed that Saddam Hussein would acquire a new reactor with a year. They were right from the engineering aspect but mistaken historically. If Iran does go confrontational and tries openly to manufacture nuclear weapons, it will find itself in a head-on confrontation with the international community. The president of the United States has undertaken that Iran will not be a nuclear power. If Iran defies him directly, it will have to deal with him and will embark upon a collision course with the West.”

But the Americans are with us. The Americans will rescue us. Why jump in head-first?

“There is agreement between the United States and us on the goal, and agreement on intelligence and close cooperation. But we are in disagreement about the red line. For the Americans, the red line is an order by [Ayatollah] Khamenei to build a nuclear bomb. For us, the red line is Iranian ability to build a nuclear bomb.

“We do not accept the American approach for three reasons. First, because it implies that Iran can be a threshold-power which, as long as it does not manufacture nuclear weapons in practice is allowed to possess the ability to manufacture them. Second, because in our assessment there is no certainty that it will be possible to intercept in time the precious report that Khamenei finally gave the order to build a bomb . Third, there is a disparity between the sense of threat and urgency in Jerusalem and the sense of threat and urgency in Washington.”

Yet, Israel is not believed either internationally or domestically. The feeling is that Israel is crying wolf and playing a sophisticated game of ‘Hold me back.’

“Let me say one thing to you in English, because it is very important for English speakers to understand it: ‘We are not bluffing.’ If the political-economic pressure is played out and the other alternatives are played out, and Iran continues to hurtle toward a bomb, decisions will have to be made.”

Is there a danger that the Iranian crisis will reach its peak already in the year ahead?

“There was a time when we talked about a decade. Afterward we talked about years. Now we are talking about months. It is possible that the sanctions will suddenly work. But presently we are in a situation that necessitates a daily check. I am not exaggerating: daily. From our point of view, Iranian ability to manufacture nuclear weapons is a sword held over our throat. The sword is getting closer and closer. Under no circumstances will Israel agree to let the sword touch its throat.”

‘Cruel truth’

Bogie, what happened to you? You are a Mapainik from the Labor-oriented Haifa suburbs, a kibbutznik and a Rabinist from Oslo. Why did you suddenly move to beyond the hills of darkness of the right? Isn’t it odd for you to wake up in the morning and discover that you have become a Likudnik?

“The question is not what happened to me but what happened to the camp in which I grew up. The Labor Movement had Yitzhak Tabenkin and Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Even Rabin, from the Oslo process, was never from Peace Now. A month before he was assassinated he spoke in the Knesset about an eternally unified Jerusalem, and about the Jordan Rift Valley under Israeli sovereignty and about a Palestinian entity that would be less than a state. Rabin supported the Allon Plan in the broad sense and was firmly against a withdrawal to the 1967 lines ... Morally, mortal danger overcomes land, but in practice giving up land causes mortal danger. That is the reality we live in. That is the truth, however cruel.”

Let’s assume there is no “land for peace,” but that there is “land for Zionism” - land in return for our ability to maintain a Jewish democratic state that does not commit suicide by occupation and settlements.

“As long as the other side is not ready to recognize our right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I am not ready to forgo a millimeter. I am not even willing to talk about territory. After land-for-peace became land-for-terror and land-for-rockets, I am no longer willing to bury my head in the sand. In the reality of the Middle East what is needed is stability above all. Stability is achieved not by means of imaginary agreements on the White House lawn but by means of defense, by means of a thick stick and a carrot.”

And we can live like this for another 20 years?

“We can live like this for another 100 years, too.”

But we are rotting away, Bogie. Demographically, politically and morally, we are rotting.

“The demographic argument is a lie. As for the political legitimacy, I prefer to operate against a threatening entity from within the present lines. And morally, as long as the Palestinians do not recognize the right of existence of a Jewish state, they are the aggressor. After all, they do not recognize my right to live in Tel Aviv, either. From their point of view, the occupation did not begin in 1967 but in 1948. Anyone who claims otherwise is throwing sand in your eyes or deceiving himself.”

And what do you propose for the future? Another 100 settlements? A million Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria?

“The establishment of more settlements touches on political and state sensitivities. But there are now already 350,000 settlers in Judea and Samaria. If the political reality does not change, their number could rise to a million.”

If so, what kind of reality will we be living in 10 years from now? A million Jews in Judea and Samaria, the Palestinians with no state and the two populations intermingled?

“The Palestinians will have autonomy and have their own parliament. I can tolerate that state of affairs. Any other state of affairs will be irresponsible in security terms. Do you want snipers in Jerusalem? Do you want rockets hitting Ben-Gurion airport? It is the Palestinians who are placing us in this difficult situation.

“I was ready to divide the land. They are not ready to divide the land and recognize my right to exist here within some sort of border. Therefore, because they say ‘either them or us,’ I say ‘us.’ Until I hear Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] say there is a Jewish people with a connection to the Land of Israel, and until I see the three-year-old in Ramallah learning that Israel has a right to exist − that is the state of affairs.”

If so, there will be no peace, no withdrawal and no Palestinian state. There will be no two-state solution.

“In the present situation ‘solution’ is a dirty word. One of our biggest problems is that we have become solution-oriented and now-oriented and expect a solution now. We believe that we are omnipotent and have the ability to find a solution to this problem which torments us. But I believe a person should be more modest. What’s needed is not to look for a solution but to look for a path. There are problems in life that have no solution. And at the moment the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a problem with no solution. Anyone who suggests a solution-now of one kind or another is not suggesting a true solution but a false illusion. A golden calf. Self-deception.”

Syrian debacle

Bogie, I understand what you are saying, but it is impossible live with what you are saying. All you are offering me is a wall, an iron wall, a determined stance. There is no hope in your words. No latitude. No movement toward some sort of horizon.

“I am actually very optimistic. I see where my grandfather and grandmother were and where my parents were and where I am and where my children are − and I see that time is not working against us. Time works in favor of everyone who knows how to take advantage of it. That is the secret of Zionism. And when our ethos is to build and the ethos of the other side is to destroy, our ethos will triumph. But what we have to free ourselves of is being solution-oriented and now-oriented and of self-blame. We have to free ourselves of the way of thinking that holds that if I give to the enemy and if I please the enemy, the enemy will give me quiet. That is an Ashkenazi way of thinking; it is not connected to the reality of the Middle East.”

The Damascus regime understands that very well and is defending its honor by killing thousands of innocent civilians. Aren’t you concerned that the chaos in Syria will result in chemical weapons being smuggled out of that country?

“As of now, we are seeing good control by the Syrians of their chemical weapons supplies. But everyone with eyes in his head should prepare for future developments. There is international deployment in this regard. The Western states are focused on securing the stocks of chemical weapons in Syria.”

With your permission, as the interview draws to a close, we will move to a few personal pleasures. Why do you despise Ehud Barak?

“When you live in a military system, you are living within a particular ethical system. There are values, there are codes, there is high regard even when there is no agreement. When you see someone distancing himself from those values, a crisis ensues, and disappointment. It is a moral disappointment.”

At the moment we are going through a serious moral crisis as reflected in the Harpaz affair. Where do you stand in regard to that grave issue?

“It is hard for me to read what is being published. What is being published demands explanations from the two bureaus and from the two people who headed those bureaus. It’s clear that what this affair did not have was a responsible adult. Now it is necessary to complete the clarification process as quickly as possible, whether by completing the state comptroller’s report or by a criminal investigation. If I were defense minister I would have treated the wound when it was small, and not allowed it to become a festering abscess that damages the government, the army and the country’s security.”

But you are not the defense minister; you are a kind of upgraded minister without portfolio. Yair Lapid claims that this is a form of corruption.

“There is a knight-on-a-white-horse phenomenon in Israeli politics: the Democratic Movement for Change, Shinui, the Center Party, Kadima. These knights appear like fireflies and then disappear. Why? Because they do not possess an ideological backbone, only rhetoric that generates white hope of a white knight on a white horse. Regrettably, there are fools who flock to these white knights.

“I certainly welcome everyone who is ready to plunge his hands into the cold water of politics. Truly. But it seems to me a little pretentious to appear on television and write columns in a newspaper and think that you can be prime minister. A little humility, a little responsibility. First work as an MK, then become a minister, prove that you can manage a system. Occupy yourself with questions of life and death, like the ones I dealt with for 37 years. I find the notion that you can move from the media to being the leader of the country a bit childish.”

But you suffer from the opposite problem. You are tough, you are grim. There is a feeling that you are uncomfortable on television and on the stage and in the public arena.

“I am in the game and I have to play by the rules of the game, but it’s possible that people also discern that it’s hard for me.”

And the goal is to win the game: to become prime minister?

“One of the good things in Likud is that when there is a leader, he gets backing. No attempt is made to subvert him. But in the remote future, after a lot more water flows in the Jordan and Benjamin Netanyahu decides that he no longer wants to head the party and the country, we will be in a different situation. I definitely see myself contesting the leadership. The premiership, too.”

Men watching the launch of a Shahab-3 missile near Kom.Credit: AP
Illustration by Alon Gaash.
Iran’s Natanz reactor. Credit: AP



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