Sunday 17 March 2013

Soundbites from a Conference - Day 4.

The final day of the 13th Annual Herzlia Conference began with an analytical assessment of Israel’s military and security position in a turbulent Middle East delivered by Maj.Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the Director of Military Intelligence. IDF.

Here are some recent facts that affect Israel’s military security. The Syrian air force has conducted over fifty air strikes against their own civilians. Between 400-500 Egyptians have been murdered in Egypt since Morsi took over from Mubarak. Jihad is being waged in Syria and the Sinai. These are the tip of the iceberg in the Middle East. Each has an input on Israel’s security forces. We are experiencing a complex reality. Islamization, and the shake-up in the region, is the main generators in our region. With the shake-up of failing states, Islamization is filling the political void from the Magreb to Turkey. Islamization is involved politically, socially, with welfare, education, and the military. The Muslim Brotherhood promotes their agenda. Egypt is now based on the Ashura religious doctrine. Journalists are imprisoned in Egypt, Palestinian territories, and Turkey for speaking out against their regimes. Ongoing riots show the dissatisfaction of the people with the new Egyptian regime. They don’t see economic results from the change of government. In places like Egypt, Gaza, and even Lebanon, the extremist Salafists are gaining strength. The old definition of “radical and “moderate” is no longer relevant. We now have the Shia-Sunni divide. Hamas is looking for support from Egypt and Qatar rather than Iran.  There is a rift between Jordan and Egypt. For the first time in the Middle East there are four superpowers – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Iran – all driven by religious realities. It is a religious paradigm. Apart from issues of borders, religion is important. Israel, to them, is a foreign body. Despite their dislike of Israel, they are not one block. There are hues and shades, but Israel is perceived as unacceptable in the Middle East neither by political or radical Islam.
In Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Mali, the borders re up for grabs. Jihad is moving from global to local. It is not only in our area. It is happening in Africa. The Sinai and Syrian borders affect us in Israel. In Syria, both sides of the conflict are creating ties and moving into Lebanon, over our northern border.

It is dismal looking at the economic situation around us. Syria, Jordan, Egypt, with their poverty, growing populations, food crisis, water and energy shortages. These are factors that will leave them in dire straits. These failing states give us major security headaches with the additional of the radical elements filling the vacuum. The reality looks bad. Some have already declared the next stage, for them, is Israel. This will create yet another reality.
Syria is a country falling apart. They have 1,400,000 refugees.  There have been 1200 terror incidents. It cannot be seen as a complete country. There is now an Assad state and a rebel state with shifting lines. The decisive battles will take place in Tartus, on the shoreline, in Halab, and Damascus.  The areas around these places, including the roads, are in the hands of the rebels. In other words, most of the Syrian towns are in rebel hands.  The Golan Heights have enclaves with rebels or the Syrian army. Gas, water, pipelines, power stations are in the hands of the rebels. Damascus has regular power cuts of up to eleven hours a day. The regime cannot impose their authority. Inflation has grown to 50%. The price of bread is up seven fold. The Syrian army now has less than 13,000 people. They can’t recruit from their own people as they many have fled the violence. Their soldiers have taken heavy casualties. Most of their weaponry and ammunition are in the hands of their Division 4 and their Republican Guards. Their air force is only used for attacks against rebels and civilians. They use live ammunition, Scud missiles, and 200 kg rockets on town centers. His armory is degrading. Assad is preparing, but has not used, chemical weapons. He is bringing in Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Iran and Hezbollah act strategically to prolong this regime. Iran and Hezbollah are also preparing for the after the fall of Assad so that their own forces will remain to claim a stake in a future Syria and keep the Shiite influence in that country.   The opposition to Assad is made up of the Free Syrian Army who now has a new chief and is 100,000 strong. There are also radical elements including Al-Qaida affiliates. Qatar supplies the weaponry and they are trying to eliminate the radical elements. The jihadi fighters number about 5000. They are armed with more sophisticated weapons than the other rebel forces. Most Syrians are Sunni and want a complete Syria. They oppose the Shiites. Assad’s allies, the Iranians and Hezbollah have flooded Syria with a militia of 50,000 fighters who will remain as spoilers after Assad’s fall.

Iran’s nuclear plan is progressing. They have three main agendas – the struggle to maintain influence in Syria, their nuclear program, and developing Iranian sectors around the world. They already have 10,000 working centrifuges and another 5000 to be installed. They have 240 kg of uranium enriched to 20%. This quantity is good for 4 or 5 bombs if the Ayatollahs give the order. This will take a few more months. They continue to produce plutogen. They keep trying to buy time but there are cracks in the coherence within the regime due to sanctions. Iranian oil exports have dropped from 2.2 million barrels a day down to 1.1 million.  Their vehicle industry production dropped 60%. Criticism grows in the street and in the regime, but they still haven’t reduced their nuclear program. They increase global terror. Sudan has turned to Iran and has become the main terror transit to Sinai.  Iran does not perceive an attack on its nuclear facilities as being a reality.
Following Operation Pillar of Defense, Hamas has turned more to governance due to the damage and deterrent caused by our response to their rocket fire. Their people know that they suffered damage but that the Hamas campaign against Israel did not achieve them anything. Mahmoud Abbas is irrelevant after Operation Pillar of Defense. The Palestinian Authority is in deep financial distress. There is no peace process. So he waits and drags his feet. This can lead to him losing the West Bank to Hamas. Palestinian prisoners are an authentic issue for them. Hamas is employing a “strategic-diplomatic track” aimed at taking over the West Bank through conciliation with the Palestinian Authority.

There are 200,000 rockets aimed at Israel. Most are short range. They improve their trajectory, range, and efficiency.  The IDF needs to secure its four borders. The IDF also faces terror abroad, a growing cyber threat, and a deteriorating neighborhood with jihadi elements. There is a general lack of certainty and growing instability. The IDF Military Intelligence is reforming itself and is changing systems, intelligence gathering, and the social networking to face the new challenges.
Aviv Kohavi’s report was both breathtaking and comprehensive.

The panel for “In Search of a Strategy: US, Europe, and the Middle East” was kicked off very candidly by Alexandr Vondra, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister of the Czech Republic. In 2009, the Czechs had the presidency of the EU and proved to be a good ally of Israel.  In fact, they were the only European nation to vote against the Palestinian UN move for statehood. “There is popular sentiment in Europe that is critical of Israel,” he said, “but we in Czechoslovakia don’t have Mosques and Muslims unlike Belgium, and EU policy is demographic. It is difficult for a unified EU strategy with these different views and attitudes.”  He also pointed out, to applause, that in the recent Czech presidential elections all three candidates, including the Social Democrat candidate, were strongly pro-Israel.
Derek Collett, the US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs explained the close security ties between America and Israel. There have been a hundred defense engagements between the US and Israel a year. Leon Panetta met Ehud Barak more than any other Defense Minister. We appreciate the work of Barak and look forward to working with Israel’s new defense Minister.” There have been 32 robust training exercises between America and Israel in four years. “Chuck Hagel is keen to continue these exercises. We want Israel’s participation in NATO to deepen and we are working on that. It is not possible to see NATO involvement in the Middle East without Israel’s involvement.”

Jasper Vohl, the Director of the Private Office of the Secretary-General of NATO said, “NATO has no desire to be involved militarily in Syria. While NATO is not ready to take a military role we do want a dialogue role and engage with practical assistance in a strategic partnership. We have tools to offer for security in the turmoil in the Arab world and with the Arab League. Non-discrimination is a key to NATO.”
Major-General (res.) Amos Gilead, Director of the Political-Military Bureau in the Ministry of Defense said, “There is no way that the US, EU, or Israel can tolerate a nuclear Iran. Ayatollah Khameni asks ‘Can we develop a bomb?’ He only wants to hear one answer –‘Yes’ Ahmadinajad is the best marketing agent of the Iranian regime, but he doesn’t make the decisions. Khameni does. The United States is concerned about the timing, not the process. If Iran gets the bomb Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt will follow and the Middle East will look like hell. How will Middle East terror look with a nuclear Iran? “Gilead said it is a clear policy of the US to cooperate with Israel and this is a major pillar of Israel’s national security. “I can’t see us without it. We also have a better cooperation with Europe. It’s better than it appears in the newspapers.”

“The military option must remain on the table and this is homework for the United States, if I may speak as a little Czech. This country, Israel, has the right of self-defense,” said Alexandr Vondra.
There was a question addressed to Derek Collett. “There are questions in Israel of is the United States serious about ‘all options on the table.’ We are leaving our national security in your hands. Are we right?” The answer given included the current American military capability that has been employed to the Gulf and close to the Straits of Hormus as a clear message to the Iranians that America is serious.  He was challenged again by the statement that the Iranians do not believe that force will be used against them. Collett pointed out the diplomatic and sanction pressure on Iran. “We still have time. We are in constant dialogue with Israel, trading intelligence, but there is no question in our resolve. The President will make that clear when he comes to Israel as will Hagel.”

Amos Gilead was asked would Israel step in if the international community does not deal with Syria? His answer was that the Golan Heights was still a relatively quiet border. The chemical weapons are under control. Any high profile Israeli action is damaging. “It is an international problem. Syria is a multi-dimensional problem. The less Israel does the better.”
We heard differing views on Syria in other panels. Here are some of the soundbites from the experts.

The attitude not to meddles in Syria is wrong and naïve. The Iranians and Hezbollah have their allies and proxies in Syria. They continue to rain and arm them. We cannot allow them the freedom by not getting involved.”  Salameh Nemett. Jordan Communications Consultant.
“In Syria, we are not seeing Western intervention even on humanitarian grounds.”  Kerstin Muller. Spokesperson for the Alliance 90/Green Party Parliamentary Group, Germany.

“If the United States continues its policy of ‘leading from behind’ we  could likely see a worst case scenario where neither side wins in Syria with the rebels taking the periphery and the Assad regime controlling Damascus.”
“The Red Line in Syria is that you can kill everybody but don’t use chemical weapons.”

“Lack of interest with the opposition in Syria leads to the Islamic Sunni block with a resentment against American and the West. The closest target for this resentment is Israel.”

Soundbites from the panel “Economic Crisis and Political Instability on a Post-Spring Middle East”  began with moderator Judy Miller of the Manhattan Institute and Fox News contributor explaining economics and the upheaval in the Arab world this way, “Rich or poor having money eases the pain of the Arab Spring.  Rich or poor, being a king delays the disaster. The absence of America encourages the deterioration. “
It often takes an Israeli at these conferences to talk common sense.  I recall two years ago the Herzlia Conference had panels on the ‘Arab Spring.’ Most European and American experts saw this as something fresh and positive. All the Israeli experts  spoke gloomily about what it was really all about. This year the overseas panelists are less willing to call it the ‘Arab Spring.’ Those that refuse to see it as the ‘Islamic Winter” struggled to find a new definition. We had people offering ‘The Arab Awakening,’ and  the ‘Arab ReAwaking’ . This may be true. They are coming out of a dream and discovering a nightmare in reality. Others tried ‘A Middle East Transition’ as if what we are seeing is something positive. Distance from the turmoil, it seems, blunts the use of language.

Israel Elad-Altman, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzlia spoke a lot of sense about the new Egyptian government and their terrible economic situation. “If the Muslim Brotherhood had partnered with the non-Islamists it would have stopped the flight of capital and talented people. This Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t think of Egypt. It thinks of the Islamic Umma. They say ‘Who is not part of the Muslim Brotherhood is not part of us.’ They pushed out the secular elements and they have burned their bridges. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has to stop being Pan-Arabist, Islamic Umma.To complete the reality check, there is no opposition in Egypt. The opposition was attacked, discredited, and called traitors. This led to the disappearance of the opposition. Democracy, for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Hamas, is the right of the majority to oppress the minority. Morsi needs to change his name to Mohamed Mandela and step back from his party to be an inclusive president.”   
Summarising the topic of the emergence of a Sunni Axis and the Balance of Power in the Middle East, the main events included the attempt of secular young people to revolt in Tahrir Square being hijacked by the Islamic Muslim Brotherhood, Iraqi disintegration, the impending fall of Assad, and the emergence of the Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar as key players to challenge Shiite Iran and the Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon. With failing states and the rise of tribalism, the Sunni-Shia divide became even stronger. This vector of chaos leads to conflict. As one wit put it “We are now eating more SuShi (Sunni-Shia) these days.”  The disintegration of Syria will escalate the Sunni-Shia conflict. If Iran is deprived of its nuclear capability it will deprive it of its Shia hegemony. If Iran gets nuclear it will increase it and the Shiite element as a regional and global power.  Elliot Abrams agreed that the Sunni axis is a reaction to the Shia axis. This comes as a result of the perception of a rising Iran and a weakening America. “We have,” he said, “ a common interest with the Sunnis against Iran and their proxies. The Sunni axis is increasingly an anti-China axis. China has, despite sanctions, kept strong commercial ties with Iran. They back Assad against both Sunni, US, and also Israeli interests. It is a fear of the Iranian-led Shia axis.”

Brian Katulis, Senior fellow at the Center for American Progress said that the Middle East has become a multi-polar, multi-dimensional struggle for power. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have differing views on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sudan is a Sunni majority yet has strong ties with Shia Iran. It doesn’t neatly fit into the Sunni-Shia divide.

Riad al Khouri from Jordan said that King Abdullah did coin the phrase “the Shia Crescent.” He said it is helpful to describe the two as the Sunni “Conservative” axis and the Shia “Radical” axis. Jordan is stable but economically fragile. Jordan’s stability is important to Saudi Arabia. “We hope new forms of energy can help our economy and energy needs to maintain Jordan’s neutrality.”

Salameh Nemett from Jordan said the failure of the rulers and parties to build modern states encouraged an Islamic form of politics. The Sunni axis is to cut the Iranian tentacles in the region. Worryingly, a Jihadi Salafist movement is emerging. Nemett gave a list of murderous events that had taken place in Iraq a day before that included suicide bombing, car bombs, murders of prominent people, most of which didn’t register in the main media channels. He listed how Sunni political groups and parties were shifting away from Iran. He included Hamas which was now being supported by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and by Qatar.  He was critical of the election slogan posted by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that “Islam is the way!” “There is no Islamic way to collect the garbage and make the buses run on time. There is no way to run a country according to Islam. Not in Pakistan and not in Iran.”

Riad al Khouri thought that Israel could be the example to the Muslim world. “The new government has reformed and appears to separate synagogue and state while remaining a Jewish state.  This may calm down the Muslim world. They cannot continue to accuse Israel of radical Judaism. They should begin to separate Mosque and State.”

Elliot Abrams jumped in and protested that nothing Israel will do will affect the anti-Semitic hatred of Islamic regimes. Hamas, he said, will call to murder Jews whether they be religious or secular. Suicide bombers don’t differentiate between religious and secular Jews when they blow up a bus in Jerusalem.  “Having a secular Jewish life in Israel does not affect the attitude and agenda of radical Islamic regimes.”

The final panel covered Israel’s National Security strategy in a changing Middle East. The keynote speaker was Dan Meridor who was Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Intelligence ans Atomic Energy in the outgoing Israeli government. He gave us a brief history of Israel’s national security history starting with David Ben-Gurion who based it on four pillars – the military, linkage with a superpower, projecting the image of a nuclear power as a deterrent to our enemies, and the global support of the Jewish people. Since then, he claimed, there has not been a clear national security strategy. He headed a committee just before the Lebanon War of 2006 which was not formally adopted. Since then Israel’s NS strategy has evaporated. Security not only protects Israel’s existence, it plays a central role in Israel.

Echoing IDF Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz, on the first day of the conference, Meridor said, “If you are ready for last year’s war you may not be ready for next year’s war. You can’t be fixated on the past while the world is changing under our noses.”

Reflecting on the misconceptions of regime change in the Arab world he remarked about Egypt thus, “We thought that the old regimes was about to topple and Thomas Jefferson was going to sail up the Nile. This world is turbulent with its religious identities. There is an enormous wave of change and we are being swept up in it. We once had three or four defined enemies. Today we have tens, if not hundreds, of regimes, groups, organizations, acting against us.”

Major General Ido Nehushtan, former Chief Commander of Israel’s Air Force and former head of IDF Planning Directorate, addressed the issue of deterrence and the ability of act to prevent terror. One main pillar is high quality and precise intelligence. Another is pro-actively strengthening our capabilities. We are engaged in the defense against rockets, the protection of borders, and the challenges of cyber. “Churchill once said ‘We’re out of money. That means we’ve got to think.’ Budget restrictions force us to think how we can maintain and build an efficient defense force in the future while we maintain our qualitative edge. That involves the equipment we use, the training, and the size and structure of the army. This all has long term impact. This is risk management at the highest level. “

Shlomo Avineri, of the Hebrew University and former Director-General of he Ministry of Foreign Affairs reminded us that, for the last forty years, Israel did not find itself at war with an Arab army. Up to 1973 Israel had to fight for its life. Since then, not so. “This is a strategic achievement,” he said. “Today we have another complex. With the recent Arab ReAwakening, they were all in military dictatorships. The kingdom weren’t really challenged. This may change. The Arabs kings claim some sort of family link with Mohammed. If you are an offspring of the Prophet it gives you some sort of protection from riots. The structure of a religious civil society gives them pause.”

“It’s not a question of who is going to rule Syria, but what.”

Regarding Israel’s national security strategy, Avineri rhetorically questioned, “To what extent do my politics affect my ability to recruit the support of important allies?”

Amos Yadlin, the Director of the Institute for National Security Studies joked. “In Israel there is no euphoria, no panic. Just slight paranoia. We think that 200,000 missiles will fall on us  that Syrian chemical weapons from Syria will be launched against us, that we will face a third Intifada from the Palestinians, and that an Iranian nuclear bomb will destroy us. So far, none of these things has happened. Israel has the strongest army and the best air force. Our public expect us to win the war in three hours, maximum six days. There is also an attitude that our civilians can get killed but not our soldiers yet expect us to wipe out the enemy. The nuclearization of Iran continues but Israel has not yet attacked. We are the pigs and monkeys according to Egypt. Israel has managed to deter terrorin the north and south. Our failing is that we haven’t deterred our international legitimacy and, without that, our ability to protect ourselves is harmed.”

Addressing Iran, Yadlin said, “America and Israel is drawing closer together over the prevention of a nuclear Iran. The danger of bombing Iran is less than being a target. After sanctions there could be a blockade on Iran. Having them come to the table is conditional on stronger sanctions. The axis that goes from Tehran to Damascus to Beirut is broken. Syria is being broken for us for free. As for the Palestinians, we do not put our fate in their hands. We must take our fate into our own hands.”

I have given you the gist of a massive and wide-ranging conference. With its closed-door roundtables, simulations, war games, sessions, keynote speakers, and intensive networking in the coffee breaks and lunches, it is a mind-blowing experience allowing me only some of the most interesting soundbites to give you the flavor of the event. I hope my four reports offer you some light on the complexities of the major issues that burden Israel and the free world. If you would like copies of all four report please let me know and I will be pleased to send them to you.

Barry Shaw,
The View from Israel.


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