The bombshell dropped this week by Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, head of the research division of Military Intelligence, sparked a bigger cloud of fallout than the army expected. Speaking on Tuesday at a conference on “Security Challenges of the 21st Century,” organized by Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, Brun stated that, “to the best of our professional understanding” − referring to MI − the Syrian army has made use of chemical weapons against the rebels on a number of occasions. He added that the Assad regime had probably used sarin, a lethal nerve gas, rather than a gas that produces a temporary neutralizing effect. Brun cited two incidents on March 19, near Damascus and near Aleppo, the circumstances of which remain in dispute among intelligence organizations in the West and the Middle East.
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Brun’s remarks were not a slip of the tongue or a chance error. Some of his assessments were also included in the detailed visual display that accompanied his talk. As far as is known, his superiors in the Israel Defense Forces − but not the political policy makers, namely the prime minister and the defense minister − were aware beforehand of the text of his speech. A report appearing on The New York Times website a few hours after Brun spoke quoted other senior IDF officers saying that information about the chemical weapons had been presented to the U.S. administration. One of the authors of the Times item was the paper’s senior defense correspondent, David Sanger, who was in Israel to attend the TAU conference.
Brun had entered the sensitive and dangerous territory in which intelligence analysis clashes with policy. A debate between the United States, Israel and a few other Western countries over the nature of the weapons being used by Assad has been going on behind the scenes for several weeks now. The revelation by MI is inconvenient for Washington, as it puts the administration in the position of possibly having to make good on its commitment to take military action against the regime in Damascus in an instance of this kind. Just the day before, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had said in Tel Aviv that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would be a game changer.
The visits to Israel by Hagel and, earlier, by Secretary of State John Kerry, were designed to demonstrate as uniform a stance as possible between the two countries, following the successful visit by President Barack Obama last month. Hagel had barely taken off when his plane was hit by a metaphoric Israeli surface-to-air missile. It’s not surprising that both he and Kerry reacted with strenuous denials to Brun’s assessment, and maintained that no such information had been presented to them when they were in Israel.
Israel has for years been considered the country with the best intelligence coverage of Syria, its great military adversary for decades. However, it is possible that the situation has changed in the wake of the upheaval in that country:
Sources in Jordan claimed this week that soil samples smuggled out of the area of the purported incidents in Syria by British intelligence agents prove that sarin was indeed used. Until proof is presented, every such claim is a matter of analysis and interpretation, with these, in turn, depending on the vested interests of those doing the analyzing and interpreting.
The impression is that the IDF did not fully think through the implications of Brun’s remarks, or anticipate the swiftness of the Americans’ acid response. As a consequence, a feeling of embarrassment pervades the General Staff. Now they’re trying to put out the fire that sprang up between Jerusalem and Washington.
Another question that has to be asked is: What did the IDF actually expect the U.S. to do? Moreover, Israel, contrary to its public hand-wringing over the massacres in Syria, has a salient interest in having the fighting there continue. The longer the mutual attrition goes on, the weaker Assad’s army becomes − and at this stage it is apparent that if a new, central regime ever comes to power in place of that of the dictator, it is likely to be hostile to Israel. Furthermore, even if Assad is actually using chemical weapons against the insurgents, it is extremely unlikely that he would choose to open a new front in this sphere against Israel. If so, why does Israel suddenly want the U.S. to step up its involvement?
One explanation is that Brun may be talking about chemical weapons but that he is really referring to the need for American determination to act against the smuggling to Hezbollah of other dangerous weapons: antiaircraft missiles (Brun said explicitly at the conference that the convoy that was bombed in Syria last January was carrying SA-17 surface-to-air missiles) or Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles. These advanced Russian missiles, which are in the possession of the Assad regime, are particularly worrisome to Israel, and continue to be the focus of discussions between Jerusalem and Moscow. If Assad decides to provide
Yakhont missiles to Hezbollah, a direct threat will be posed to the newly operational Israeli gas drilling facilities in the Mediterranean.
A second explanation relates to the broad regional picture. Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin, a former director of MI and now the head of INSS, who spoke after Brun, claimed that Iran is dexterously crossing all the red lines that have been drawn in connection with its nuclear project, including the line that Prime Minister Netanyahu drew in his speech at the United Nations last September.
It’s possible that mention of chemical weapons was also intended as a wake-up call to the U.S. Israel may have expected that the Americans would stick to their guns in the Syrian case, as well, as a way of sending a regional signal that would also be understood in Tehran.
Waiting for a revolution
In addition to the expected issues (the Palestinians, Iran), the TAU institute’s annual conference also devoted a relatively large amount of time to the state budget and the defense budget, specifically. Finance Minister Yair Lapid chalked up a first successful public appearance, a day after he squabbled with ultra-Orthodox MKs in the Knesset. A combination of rhetorical skills, newfound political clout and the fact that his ministry is now dealing with the most urgent issue on the public agenda, makes Lapid the No. 1 generator of headlines in the country. Whatever he says − about “Riki Cohen,” doing battle for the budget, the “vision of the working man,” and even about his right to use Facebook on Shabbat − is immediately played up. This situation also places him in an advantageous (and rare) position of strength in the confrontation with the defense establishment.
By contrast, Moshe Ya’alon seems to have settled comfortably into the defense minister’s armchair, but is not yet making headlines. Apart from using an Israel Air Force chopper to get to his daughter’s wedding, he has not yet become entangled in incidents of the sort that weighed down his term as chief of staff.
Lapid told the conference that “the cut in the defense budget is essential and will be considerable.” Ya’alon chose not to speak at the event. Working teams of the treasury and the Defense Ministry held long meetings again this week. There are some areas in which understandings have not yet been reached. To some extent, they depend on the missing piece of the puzzle: the new draft arrangements under discussion in the interministerial committee for “sharing the burden,” headed by Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry, from Lapid’s party.
In their talks at the INSS event, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Maj. Gen. Nimrod Shefer, head of the IDF’s Plans and Policy Directorate, took a somewhat unclear line regarding the army budget cuts. It’s clear from what they said that the IDF understands that the defense budget will be cut, but they also made an effort to stress the complex nature of the security threats facing the IDF, in the hope of reducing their scale.
For his part, former Plans and Policy Directorate head Maj. Gen. (ret.) Giora Eiland was unusually blunt this week when he told the financial newspaper Calcalist that the defense budget could be slashed by NIS 8 billion. This is the type of insight generally arrived at by P&P chiefs only long after they have retired from the IDF. While he served, Eiland defended the existing defense budget passionately and with considerable persuasive ability.
We will not see the defense budget trimmed by NIS 8 billion this year. Lapid is aiming for NIS 4-5 billion, but no one will be overly surprised if the final figure is NIS 2-3 billion. In some cases, the arrangement will involve a two-year deferral of payments for projects, in the hope that state revenues from taxes will increase in this period.
The public discussion of the defense budget is focused on how to trim excess fat in the army, and on whether nonmilitary projects with which the IDF is engaged are necessary: from religious conversion courses and immigrant absorption programs, to expensive, enhanced service conditions for the relatively few Haredim who serve in the army and have families.
As most reserve soldiers have noticed, the IDF remains unwieldy and wasteful. Despite praiseworthy efforts at cutbacks in specific areas, the answer you get to the question of why the army continues to be active in nonessential programs is, “Because this is what we have always done.” The sight of low-ranking soldiers sitting around idle at 10 A.M. at the entrance to bases such as Tel Hashomer − or of dozens of soldiers wandering around Azrieli Mall in Tel Aviv for hours every day − is truly maddening and needs to be dealt with. But that is not where the big money is.
Eiland talked about part of the answer to this problem: the fact that rear command posts have accumulated more and more unnecessary officer positions in recent decades.
Another question concerns the structure of the combat command posts. Is the current deployment of divisions, many of which are grounded in obsolete tank battalions that are ponderous and cumbersome, appropriate for dealing with the threats the army will have to cope with in the years ahead?
Chief of Staff Gantz, whose term has so far been characterized by stable and judicious management of the army, is aware of both the problems and their possible solutions. In recent months, he has spoken in the General Staff forum about the need for genuine reforms. If he manages to implement them, he will chalk up two milestones: It will be the first time a chief of staff has fomented a shift at the end of his tenure, of all times, and also the first time the word “revolution” will be associated with Gantz’s name.