ROBERT K. LIFTON: I want to welcome you to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting. It’s a meeting I’ve been looking forward to with great anticipation, knowing about our guest, as I expect you have also.
First let me note that this meeting is on the record. Second, please turn off all cell phones, BlackBerrys and other wireless devices. Also, when we start the questions—I’ll try to remind you again—please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it and state your name and affiliation.
I won’t spend much time introducing General Eiland. My friends in Israel uniformly described him in terms they use for the highest levels of professionalism, which in that competitive society is high praise indeed. You have his most impressive biography, reflecting the highly responsible military and civilian positions he has held. So I’d rather use our time today to maximum advantage by immediately starting the discussion.
Let me set the stage for our discussion. A few years ago, some of us who attended a council meeting with the U.S. Chiefs of Staff, heard General Shinseki, then head of the Army, tell us a story about the Romans who won their battles by effectively placing their soldiers in the form of a phalanx. They won, that is, until they ran into the Huns who forced them to fight in the forests where the Romans could not maintain the phalanx because of the trees. And that new method of battle defeated the Romans and changed the course of history. The lesson from this, General Shinseki said, is that the job of the military leaders is to plan how to fight the next war, not the last one.
With that lesson in mind, General Eiland, I’d like to ask you whether you think that Israel fighting in Lebanon, or the U.S. and Iraq, are the new Romans fighting the last wars? And if so, what is the new way to make war in the 21st century? And if you will, I’d like you to take into account the actions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, if you think they’re relevant. (Laughter.) And that’s for openers! (Laughter.)
GENERAL GIORA EILAND: Good afternoon. I admit that I thought to begin with something else, but since this question was mentioned, I want not to ignore it or to avoid it. And I’ll say that—can you hear me?
Maybe I’ll stand.
LIFTON: No, standing doesn’t make any difference. You can sit. Just speak up louder.
EILAND: All right, I’ll try to speak louder.
We can say that since the end of the Second World War, if you want, in Israeli terms, since the end of the ‘73 War, we could see a transformation of the nature of war from total conventional wars between countries to low-intensity conflict between countries and organizations. Therefore, we are talking about the two dimensions—low-intensity conflicts rather than total war, and what is more important, a world between countries and organizations rather than between countries.
Now, the implication’s so huge, and most governments and most military establishments fail to understand all the consequences. And if I answer you more directly, many of the mistakes—
LIFTON: You could be a moderate. I don’t know, you know. (Light laughter.)
EILAND: Many of the mistakes that were made by all governments in all countries—and I’m not talking only about Israel, I’m not talking only about the United States—but many others, the Russians in Afghanistan, for example, and many others repeated the same mistakes simply because they did not understand what are the meanings of this new kind of armed conflict.
Now, I’m not going to talk about all the elements or all of the characteristics of this type of armed conflict, but I’ll mention very briefly three important points. All of them are relevant both to the last war that we had in Lebanon and very relevant to the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But first is that in this kind of world a natural gap exists between the expectations of the politicians, of the public opinion, of the press, and the real catastrophe of the armed forces to deliver. The gap is part of the characteristic of this kind of war. Now, the gap is related to four dimensions: to the duration of the war, to the number of casualties, to the damage, to the innocent civilians who are on the other side, and what is more important than anything else is the solution to the problem of the question of whether or not a decisive victory can or cannot be achieved.
Now, I’ll say a few words about each of those four elements because they’re relevant, as I said, to almost every possible conflict that we can see in the 21st century.
The first is the duration of the conflict. If you make a—if you estimate the situation only according to the traditional old terms of ordinary conventional war, then you are much stronger than the other side. We are talking about very modern army on one side, and on the other side, there could be a few hundred, maybe a few thousands of relatively primitive combatants with primitive weapons. So it has to be very simple to eliminate the threat. That’s the way that you think if you make the—(word inaudible)—interpretation about the nature of the conflict.
Now, I remember the first war in Lebanon in ‘82. At that time, I was battalion commander, and when we began this war, we were promised that the operation would last only two days. Later they changed it to three days, later to six days. But only after the sixth day we began to understand that it was the beginning of the operation rather than the end of the operation. The operation lasted another 18 years because this is the nature of this kind of conflict. So this is number one.
Number two, the casualties, very briefly. You are stronger than the enemy, you have high technology, so why to risk our forces? Can’t you do it a different way? Can’t you do it carefully? Can’t you engage from distance not to risk our forces? Very natural expectations, but you cannot do it because this kind of war happened among the people in very populated area, and if you want to be successful, you have to be there. And if you are there, then you suffer from casualties.
The third expectation is no innocent victims on the other side. You say, okay, Saddam Hussein is a very bad guy. The Taliban are very bad guys. Hezbollah is very bad. Okay, you have license to kill them, but we don’t want you to kill the innocent civilians who live there. And, of course, this is the natural expectation, but you cannot avoid it because the other side, what he is trying to do is just to assimilate within the population and to create ambiguity in regard to who is what. So the mistakes are part of the game, and you kill civilians. And when the TV shows innocent victims, children, women that are killed by wrong decisions or wrong use of force, then the reaction is, well, that’s not exactly the war that we supported. That’s not exactly the result that we tried to achieve.
And number four is the result, whether or not you can achieve a decisive victory. And again, in this kind of war, you cannot reach the decisive victory in terms of the Second World War, when the other side surrendered with no conditions and they get off the bunkers with the white flags and said, “Okay, you won, we lost. Now you can do whatever you want.” Because even if you managed to bring to a collapse of the regime, like in Afghanistan, like in Iraq, like in many other places, then some other movement, some other groups of people will emerge and they will continue to fight, even if the regime itself is in a total loss.
Now, the problem is that the gap between the expectations and the real capability to perform are huge. But when the high political level and the high military level want to initiate operational war, they want to gain as much public support as possible. So whether they do it deliberately or not, they tend to promise that it would be much better than the way that it really could be.
Now, when the reality comes to and suddenly the results along all those four dimensions are different from the expectations and from the promises, then the frustration becomes to be a very important factor, and the disappointment usually leads to a lot of political consequences, as everybody understands.
So this is one element of—about the nature of this war. Maybe I’ll add only one other element of the others. As I said, this is old seminar, and, of course, we cannot talk only about that. But one of the important things that we can see in this kind of war is that the old dialogue between the political level and the military level has to be completely different from the ordinary dialogue that we knew when we had only the regular or the ordinary wars. In the ordinary wars, the dialogue was quite simple. I mean, there was the enemy; the enemy—it was very clear who is the enemy, and the armed forces were given very clear instruction: your mission is to destroy the enemy and to achieve decisive victory. Now let’s kill the bad guys. And when you are through, tell us, and report back and say what exactly you have done. That’s more or less—a little simplified, but that’s the nature of the dialogue that was relevant or was enough or could be enough 40 years ago, 60 years ago, 100 years ago.
Today it is different. Every specific military operation does have political dimension, and every political initiative does have some security dimension. And the dialogue between the political level and the military one has to be completely different. They have to sit together and to decide together what exactly they want to achieve.
I once heard a British general who had a lot of experience in the first war in Iraq and in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Northern Ireland, and I liked one thing that he said, so I’m trying to quote it. And he said that today to decide and to design and to write the strategic goals for specific operations and later on to translate these strategic goals to military objectives is extremely hard and complicated and it is like to attempt to hold jelly in your hands; the harder you want to hold it, the more it slips through your fingers. It is very hard to decide what, exactly, you want to do.
And it is relevant in many places. And I can tell you from our experience, when there are conflicts—the current conflict with the Palestinians emerged—erupted six years ago. The first dialogue that we had in the military with the political level was based on the old framework. And it didn’t work.
And at that time, the Israeli prime minister was Ehud Barak, and I remember very well at that time I was the head of the Israeli—of the operation branch of the IDF. So each time when the Palestinians caused us another damage or there was an escalation or there was a more lethal terrorist attack, we were called immediately to the office of the prime minister.
And the prime minister at that time was also the defense minister, so if he happened to be in Tel Aviv, we had to come to his office in five minutes, and if he was in Jerusalem, then we had to rush in 50 minutes. And we came to his office, and there was only one question that we were asked: Show me the (aerial ?) photograph of the target that you recommend to attack as a retaliation for what had happened. This was the only kind of dialogue that we had with him in the first few days or weeks.
And after two or three weeks, one of us was courageous enough and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, maybe the real question is not which of the targets that should be attacked; maybe the real question should be whether to attack the target. Maybe we should do something else right now because the situation is more complicated, and it is not only the other side does something, now what is the appropriate retaliation, and vice versa.”
So if you ask me do we repeat the same mistakes or do we find a way to learn fast enough in order to improve ourselves, unfortunately I can tell that neither the United States nor Israel has learned enough, and many mistakes that could be avoided are repeated again and again because we continue to speak and to be heard and to act according to certain—rules or certain way that was very convenient and very well-known but many times which is completely irrelevant to the nature of the world that we face.
LIFTON: Well, if you were the national security adviser in the Lebanese war, what would you be telling the prime minister that he should be doing differently, or what would you be telling the military that they should be doing differently?
EILAND: The problem with the way that we conducted the last war in Lebanon was not that we made wrong decisions. I wish that this was the problem. The problem was that we didn’t make any decisions. And everything happened because it happened, not because someone decided that this should be the right way to do things.
And what should have happened in the meeting of the Israeli cabinet when three Israeli soldiers—two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped, and eight others were killed, and there was a very emotional cabinet meeting, and the cabinet was under real public pressure to do something. The situation is not bearable anymore; we cannot continue with this very moderate policy of containment. Now time has come to do something.
Now, let’s accept it as premise that the old rules of engagement are not relevant. We have to do something different. Okay.
The government could have made three possible decisions, or they could estimate the situation and found out that there could be three different courses of action. Now, if you analyze the situation in a real professional way, and you can distinguish between one course of action, the second and the third, and you can compare between them, then, in the end of the day, hopefully you make the right decisions. But even if you make not exactly the right decision, at least you understand the consequences of what you are doing.
Now, what could have been the three possible courses of action?
The first one could have been let’s only retaliate and use only the air force for a very short operation of 24 hours or 48 hours. It is not going to bring the two Israelis back, and it is not going to destroy Hezbollah, but it will punish those who are responsible for this event. And what is more important, the Israeli deterrence will be recovered after a series of unsuccessful events along the border. So maybe we could not solve the problem of this event, but at least for the future we might create a little different rules of engagement, so the other side will think twice before they do something like this. So let’s conduct a very limited airstrike, and after 24 hours we will respond positively to all requests from the Arab world for international community to stop the fire, to agree to cease-fire, and we will get whatever we can get by the use of force for a limited period of time. This could be one course of action.
The other course of action could be different or almost opposite, and it means that no, we cannot tolerate the existence of Hezbollah along our border, and time has come to do something in order to destroy, if not all, at least most of the military capacity of this terrible organization that is supported by Iran, et cetera.
So in order to do it, we have to understand that we have to call up at least three divisions. We have to make certain preparations for a few days. We have to translate this strategic goal to very clear military objectives in terms of terrain and time and targets. And then we can execute it, and we have to understand that it might last few weeks. And during this time we will suffer from a lot of missiles that might be launched against us from Lebanon, but in the end of the day, we might reach much more, let’s say, ambitious goals. This could be the second course of action.
And the third course of action could have been to distinguish between the strategic level and the tactical one—in other words, strategically to accept the second course of action, which is to begin a wide operation in Lebanon. But because we are not ready because of many, many reasons, let’s not do it today. Let’s wait a few months. Anyway, Hezbollah will give us another excuse in a few weeks and a few months. And when it happens, then we will be much better prepared, and we can do what we actually are talking right now.
This could have been the three different courses of actions.
Now, such a discussion didn’t take place, and no one raised even other options and could we have, by the way, more than only three courses of actions, could be more. The only decision that was in that meeting was, okay, time has come to begin to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon, and we will see what happens.
Now, when something like this—this is the process that takes place, then two people can leave the room and each of them have wrong interpretation, number one, in regard to what exactly was decided; number two, what are—exactly are going to be the achievements of this operation. And that’s exactly what happened in Israel a short time after such a decision was made.
So the process in Israel is not exactly the best example that can be copied, and this is something that is—unfortunately, this is something very typical to us, that we don’t have a very deliberate and organized and patient decision-making process. And too many times we could see the results, and the war in Lebanon is, unfortunately, a very good example.
LIFTON: Well, one of the things you point out, I think was also true, many people believe, in Iraq, that political leaders try to do everything on the cheap without huge commitments, without huge risk, and they’re willing to listen to someone who is willing to tell them that.
Now, as I understand, the meeting in Olmert’s office with Peretz and Halutz was someone saying, “We can bomb them, and that will end it pretty quickly.” Which is the same kind of theory our people had. Is that a fair statement or not?
EILAND: No one really said it, that’s the problem. When you don’t analyze the situation in real professional terms, and if the right questions are not asked, and if the right answers are not told, then different people might have different interpretation in regard to what is going to happen. And naturally, people prefer to speak about what they are going to do rather than to speak about the outcome, because what I’m going to do is something that I can be responsible to, or it is easier to say I am going to do A, B, and C. But what are going to be the results, that some of them might be beyond the Lebanese arena, this is something more complicated, and if the right questions are not asked because no one is patient to listen, then you first do something and let (the army ?) understand what are the consequences.
By the way, there is another matter that I don’t know to what extent it is relevant in this country, but in Israel it is extremely important. You know, in the past six years, Hezbollah carried out dozens of attacks against Israeli civilian military targets. Some of them were even more deadly than the last one. Why the government this time was under real pressure of the public opinion to do something contrary to the past? It was not because the strategic—the military situation was different, and it was not because the result, the military results were different. It was different because of other variable which is extremely important in Israel.
What happened was that after this successful attack of Hezbollah, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, held a press conference and he talked about us in such a humiliating way, in such a way that the vast majority of Israelis couldn’t bear not the results of the attack, but the way that Nasrallah speaks. Everybody felt the need to do something in order to retaliate or to punish that person. So emotional things play a lot of game.
By the way, four years ago—four and a half years ago, after another deadly Palestinian attack on Israeli civilians, we began a huge operation in the West Bank and Gaza, especially in the West Bank, something that we tried to avoid for many months before that. And if you ask what caused the government of Israel to decide this time not to take a constrained approach but to retaliate with massive force, it—again, it was not because the result was different from the previous attacks. It was different in a different sense. It happened to be on the eve of Pesach. And since it was on the eve of a very important holiday, when all the people in Israel were sitting and celebrating the holiday, and suddenly something like this undermined the spirit of the holiday, it caused so much emotional anger that I believe that this was the main reason why we decided that time and not, let’s say, one attack before that.
LIFTON: One of the questions you touched on, which I’d just like to delve into a little bit more, is the interrelationship between the political leadership and the military leadership. One of the areas we saw in the war against Hezbollah was that the political leadership was actually tying the hands of the military leadership in a number of respects as they became concerned that civilian populations were attacked and that the rest of the world would decry that action. Did you have that feeling, or do you have that feeling at all?
EILAND: No. Unfortunately—usually the best excuse that military people have is, yes, we have a great idea, we have a great plan. If we only will give them the opportunity to execute it, the results could have been completely different. But unfortunately, the political level didn’t let us do what should have been done. That’s not the case.
LIFTON: That’s not the case?
EILAND: So even this excuse cannot be used.
LIFTON: I’d like to turn a little bit to tension—to the subject of Iran, if I may, and start by saying in a meeting I had many years ago with the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shortly after his election, he confided in me that he viewed Iran, even then, as the major threat to Israel and that his strategy was based on making peace with Israel’s immediate neighbors—Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians—so Israel could face the Iranian threat most effectively and without the distractions of those countries and the Palestinians and without Iran and being able to use that area as platforms. Do you agree with that view at this point in time?
EILAND: Not exactly, because I think that the Iranians are motivated by certain things that, even if we managed to have a better relationship with some of our neighbors, it is not going to affect some of the real strategic goals.
And contrary to Lebanon, where most of the problems are—it is not only that the problems are ours, but also we could have some of the answers—whenever we are talking about Iran, then, of course, Israel is very limited. We can say certain things. We can whisper to our friends. We can give certain offers, but the real decisions are made in different places, and especially in Washington.
And I’m afraid to say that—and I know that I have to be very careful; and I agreed that this conversation would be on record—but I believe that certain mistakes have been made by the United States and by other Western countries in the past three years, and certain achievements that could have been made two years ago, three years ago now are probably not possible.
And one of the problems, if I can emphasize—one of the problem of the American policy in regard to Iran has nothing directly to do with Iran, but has to do a lot with other countries and especially with Russia. And let me say something about the relationship between the United States and Russia, not because this is my expertise, but because I can see the immediate influence of such a relationship on something which is important, and this is Iran. If we talk about Russia—and as a matter of fact, we should not talk about Russia, we should talk about Putin, and we try to list the priorities of Putin, then we can say the following:
The Israeli prime minister met him a few days ago, quoted Putin and said—he was very satisfied—and said, “Putin told me that Russia is not interested to see nuclear weapons in Iran, and I believe them. I believe that the Russians are really not interested to see nuclear weapons in Iran for many reasons.” But Iran is not more than, let’s say, number five in the Russian priorities, and the other matters are extremely much more important for Putin. Now what are they? The most important thing for Putin is to make sure that the Russian influence in the former republics of the Soviet Union will continue to exist. And what are his real ambitions for the future? I don’t know. But what is extremely important for him is to make sure that those countries don’t become to be too dependent, and they will continue to be dependent on the Russian economy or the Russian goodwill or maybe on some other Russian capacity. This is the most important interest of Russia.
The second important interest of, again, Putin himself is to make sure that his regime is not only sustainable and continues to exist, but there will be less and less criticism from the West against things like democratization, the lack of human rights, the lack of some of other nice Western values in Russia. This is something that makes him furious whenever he hears certain people who say the situation in Russia is not as good, and the time has come for the Russian government to change certain things. This is for him—it is an involvement from the outside on the internal problems of Russia, and he’s very sensitive about that.
The third interest is to make sure that the Russian economy becomes to be a factor that will enable Russia to return to be a real superpower and especially to use the oil resources and the gas resources in order to increase their economic/political influence. And I’ll give you an example. Russia offered us, two years ago or less, to build a gas pipe and to supply gas—natural gas from Russia to Israel. Now, based on economic consideration, it doesn’t make sense because the distance is too long, and it might cost a lot. And one might ask himself why the Russians are so interested to build this pipe from Russia to Israel, and the answer’s very clear. They believe that if Israel is more dependent economically on Russia and because we have huge influence in Washington—at least this is their perception, reality’s a little different—then this is a good combination of economic leverage in order to include political influence. So this is the third thing.
The fourth thing is whatever is going on in the East—North Korea, China, India, et cetera—and Iran is not more than the fifth thing that is important for the Russians.
Now, the United States has dialogue with the Russians on all matters. Now when you have a dialogue with someone, it is very clear that if his priorities are A, B, C, and D and your priorities are different, then you have to pay something in order to get something.
I don’t want to get into details in this matter, but at least the Russian impression during all the three years was that the United States is not sensitive to the real interests of the Russians; that the United States does embarrass the Russians in many cases; and when in the end of the day the Americans call the Russians and say, “Okay, why don’t you join us in this or this initiative in regard to Iran?” they say, “Well, we suffered so much from you so far, why should we help you?”
I’ll give you an indirect example. Two years ago I visited Moscow and I met my counterpart, Igor Ivanov, the head of the Russian National Security Council. And he told me a little story that happened the day before. He said the day before he got a phone call from Condoleezza Rice. At that time she was the head of the NSC. And she said that the day after, there was going to be a vote in the Security Council in regard to arrangement in—new arrangement in Cyprus. That the United States worked on this arrangement between the Turks and the Greeks—details are not important—for many years, and in the end of the day, this is a proposal that is presented by the United States, and she wanted that the Russians will support this initiative.
He said to me, “Cyprus, we don’t care about Cyprus. We can support this initiative, we can be against it; we don’t care. But the United States is working on this matter for the past five years. They never listened to us. They never asked for our opinion. Now the day before we vote, suddenly they decided that since we have a veto power, they want to put us on vote. Why should I help her?” That was his words.
So without giving too much details in regard to the Iranian nuclear project, many times along the way better things could have been done if the West—not only the United States, also the Europeans—were much more sensitive to the Russians’ needs.
And I’ll give you now an example which is relevant to this matter. And this is what was known as the Russian proposal. The Russians came with a proposal two years ago and they said: Okay, we, the Russians, have a lot of influence in Iran and we don’t want that Iran will have nuclear weapons. And we know that in order to have nuclear weapons, you have to have the capability to enrich uranium to a certain level. So if the Iranians claim that the only reason why they need nuclear energy is for peaceful purposes, fine, we will offer to build a huge project, combined project or project—Russian/Iranian project.
From the economic point of view, we will share the profits of this project, but this new facility is going to be built on Russian land, and we, the Russians, are going to be the only ones who will control the technology. And this is the important thing. And we are ready to offer such a fair proposal to the Iranians.
And more than that, if the Iranians don’t agree to cooperate with such a fair proposal, then we will be ready to move to go with the West with the issues of sanctions and other things. But we have two conditions.
First, we want to make sure that the Europeans are not going to offer the Iranians any other projects that can compete with our ones. So we are going to be the only ones who supply the Iranian reactors and the nuclear fuel and other technology that is regarding this matter. And this is one condition.
And the second condition: we want that our proposal will be recognized as THE international initiative, so whenever there is a dialogue between the international community and Iran, it will be based officially on the Russian initiative.
Neither the United States nor the Europeans were ready to cooperate with such an initiative. Now, since Iran is not that important for the Russians, they said, “Okay. You don’t want—okay. We have other things to do. Why should we help you?” And this unfortunate, a typical thing that could happen, and Israel is not in a position to say very much about that.
Now, let’s jump to the current situation, and this is much more relevant. I believe that the real decisions can be made only in Washington in these very days. And the United States face three bad alternatives or three bad choices, but one of them have to be chosen. All of them are bad. But as far as I know, there are—no real decision has been made, but this is the crucial time to make such a decision.
The first is to give up and to say: Well, nothing can stop the Iranians. They’re so eager to get nuclear weapons, and they will be ready to do almost anything in order to achieve it. So we cannot stop it, and we don’t want to begin really a war, so let’s give up.
No one will say it in these words, but this is going to be the meaning of such a decision. And the only thing that we can get is to isolate Iran politically and economically, so at least the price that they will pay for this way will be high enough. Maybe someday it will lead to the collapse of the regime. And if not, at least other countries in the region, like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and others, will not try to duplicate the same Iranian experience, so at least we will not see a real nuclear race in the region. At least it will be contained only in Iran. This is one course of action.
The opposite course of action is to conduct a military strike. Now, a military strike, with all the severe consequences, is something that either you do it in the next year or you might not be able to do it—not politically but militarily. Why? Because the Iranians right now are in the phase of research and development, and most of the important assets are still located in some specific places. And from the military point of view, in relative terms, it is easier to do something now than later.
If in a year nothing stops the Iranians, and when they accomplish this phase and they turn to the phase of industrial production, then this industrial production can take place in dozens of place simultaneously, and then it might be even too late to stop them.
So the second option is a military strike.
What is the third option? If you’re asking Washington, I guess the answer will be, there is no third option. If you ask the Europeans, they will say, “Yes, there is a third option, and we tried to urge the Americans to accept it.”
The third option is to say the following: Look, in order to persuade Iran politically to stop or at least to suspend these activities, we should offer them something.
Now, in the past maybe only economic incentives could be enough. Today it’s not enough. Today we have to offer something bigger. And that something bigger could have been, if the United States changes completely the policy toward Iran, an open and—and resume an open and full engagement with the Iranians, something that might be perceived as the full recognition of the American administration and the legitimacy of the Iranian regime. And if such a dialogue begins—and in Iran it might be understood as a big political and moral achievement—then for something like this, the Iranians might consider certain suspension of certain activities, and at least we will gain some time.
This is the second—the third possible option that at least the Europeans, at least a few months ago thought that this should be the right way, and they had a feeling that the Iranians will respond positively if such a dramatic U-turn in the American policy will be—as I said, three terrible options, and I don’t know what is going to be the decision.
LIFTON: Let me—I’m going to turn the meeting over for questions in a minute, but let me just ask my last question apropos of the second option.
People like Ephraim Sneh, even Tommy Lapid, when he was here, talk about the fact that if the United States will not act to stop Iran or the Europeans will not, that Israel would have to consider the military option. Is that a realistic threat? And is there a military option?
EILAND: There is a military option that we can choose. But besides, of course, the extremely severe political consequences and besides the real objective difficulties that we have, at least the distance is much—
LIFTON: Well, that’s what I’m talking about. Is it realistic?
EILAND: There are some other threats if we decide such a decision. For example, suppose we decide to do something and we fail. Then what? Then the Iranians will say to the rest of the world, “We told you. We told you that all of the problems are caused because of the Israeli aggression. The Israelis are responsible for all the difficulties, all the problems in the region. So our doctrine that was based on the assumption that the state of Israel cannot exist is now justified, and see what Israel has tried to do.”
I hope that we will not face such a dilemma, but I cannot again see that in a year or so, Israel would not face a real terrible dilemma that could be either not to do anything—and this is dangerous—or to try to do something that might be even more dangerous.
LIFTON: Let me finish my part by just adding that when I met with Prime Minister Rabin, he posed the following question to me at the time. He said if Iran can threaten our population centers and we can threaten Iran’s population centers, which one of us will blink—we who care about life or the mullahs who don’t?
Let me turn to questions from the audience at this point and remind you once again to stand up, talk into the microphone and state your name and affiliation.
QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. George Schwab, National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Coming back to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and the Israelis, one reads in the American press that Israel was the loser, and, of course, this echoes what is being said in part in the Arab world. On the other hand, you get views that Israel was the actual victor by sort of weakening Hezbollah. I wonder whether you would care to comment on the two.
EILAND: As a matter of fact, the real outcome of the war is still not known. And the two important things might be known in few months—one of them could be either good or bad, the other is going to be bad, but I don’t know to what extent it is going to be bad.
The first thing that might be either good or bad is the internal dynamics inside Lebanon. And for the first time, maybe, after six years, there is a real debate in Lebanon about the nature of the country and about the question whether or not Hezbollah should continue to be perceived as the defender of Lebanon, therefore, should have all the legitimacy and all the capabilities to initiate military actions against Israel whenever Hezbollah feels that this is the right time. And since there is a real debate about that, I would say the following. If in a year from now Hezbollah will return to be in its previous position, not only militarily, but what is more important, if it will continue to enjoy the political status that will enable this organization to continue and to fight against us whenever they feel and no one in the government will stop them, if this is going to be the final result, then we will be able to say that we totally lost this war.
On the other hand, if Hezbollah faces much more trouble a year from now, and even if they have some new military capacity, they will be perceived in Lebanon as the destroyer of Lebanon rather than the defender of Lebanon, therefore, a lot of obstacles will be used against Hezbollah politically in Lebanon, then we might be able to say that we did achieve something.
The second thing is bad whatsoever, but I don’t know how bad it is, and this is what happened to the Israeli capacity to deter our enemies or our potential enemies. And a real erosion has occurred on this matter, and we still don’t know what are the consequences. But there is good reason to believe that the Syrians, for the first time, might believe that one of the most important pillars in their policy in the past 34 years, that was to keep the Israeli-Syrian border silent because Israel might retaliate in a way that they could not tolerate, now they might think in different terms, and if they do, then we might anticipate some problems that so far we enjoyed the freedom not to feel them. So what happened to the Israeli deterrence—so this is something else—it is going to be bad. So in this regard, we lost the war. How bad it is, I still don’t know.
QUESTIONER: Jim Dingeman, INN. In the latter part of your comments, you were comparing the terrible choices that the U.S. faces in terms of what would happen if a military attack occurred on Iran. And I wondered if you could also say, if you were a combination of Lee Hamilton and Secretary of State Baker, what kind of recommendations would you come up with in terms of the U.S. and coalition policies in Iraq going ahead?
EILAND: There are certain things that I cannot say, and it is not going to be appropriate to say and to offer what should be done in Iraq, what should be done in other places. By the way, even in regard to Iran—something that we do have some interest—we cannot say that, “Israel suggests that the United States will adopt policy A, B, or C.” I cannot say it.
And, of course, on Iraq—and Iraq is something that we prefer, even if I’m not a government official right now, to say anything.
Surprisingly, I can say something positive about Iraq. And this positive thing is that despite the severe security situation in Iraq, at least one thing works quite well, and this is the political system in Iraq. And it reflects the common interests of all groups in Iraq—the Shi’as, the Sunnis and the Kurds. All of them want to keep Iraq as one unified state, each of them because of different reasons, but at least in this sense they do cooperate among themselves and at least indirectly they do cooperate with the Americans. So the political situation in Iraq, in a way, is more stable than the way that it is perceived.
But this is not an answer for the security problems, and the security problems reflect many mistakes that have been made—not today, but three years ago. Some of them, in a way, I mentioned. And now it is quite hard to fix some of the mistakes that were made between April and May, June 2003. And I know that most of the lessons have been learned by the American forces in Iraq, but as I said, there is a difference between knowing what should be done and the real capacity to implement it.
QUESTIONER: Thank you, General. My name is Roland Paul. I’m a lawyer; I’ve been in the U.S. government a couple of times, and certainly a strong supporter of Israel, and my wife and I were there last week.
Coming back to the war in Lebanon, just to flesh out a couple of things about the cause of the outcome which you just described: What is the—in an unclassified—what is the number of the Hezbollah? In other words, I’ve heard something between 3,000 and 5,000, and maybe the Israelis killed or captured, what, between 500 and 1,000. If you could give us some more refined term of that, because if that number is very high, militarily it’s very significant, I would think. And the other dimension of that is the Hezbollah anti-tank weapons. They seem to be much more effective from where we’re sitting than was expected; I wonder if that’s true. And if you care to answer, what would Sharon have done?
EILAND: How many—how many soldiers serve in Hezbollah organization? This is exactly the—using not necessarily the right terms, because if you ask how many people support Hezbollah and ready to proactively assist Hezbollah, then you are talking about tens of thousands of Lebanese. Some of them don’t necessarily have to fight, but they can give shelter, they can supply food, they can give intelligence; they can listen to, let’s say, to some communication systems. So there is a lot of indirect support. So we are not talking about a few thousand fighters; we are talking about the organization that enjoys the support of at least the Shi’a community in Lebanon, or at least in the south.
The anti-tank weapons, this is a real problem. By the way, most of the sophisticated anti-tank weapons were supplied by the Russians to the Syrians, and from Syria it found its way to Hezbollah. And in a way we were a little surprised by the quantities, I would say, of the sophisticated anti-tank weapons. It was not that big a surprise, but it was something a little beyond our expectations.
LIFTON: I think, just to—I think one of the questions Roland was asking also is the people who were killed—is that—among the people killed, how many of them were—do you think were Hezbollah soldiers and how many were not?
EILAND: They don’t wear uniforms, so this is one of the problems. You can kill someone who is a very respectful lawyer or doctor or businessman in his office and, at the same time, he operates for Hezbollah. So it depends whom you ask. If you ask the Israeli forces—would say, “Yes, he worked for Hezbollah; we have very good evidence.” If you ask the Lebanese—say, “What do you want? This is a very respectful lawyer sitting in his office. Why do you attack the civilians?” So this is some of the confusion that we have.
QUESTIONER: Edward Bleier. I appreciate the sensitivity of your being on the record, but you talked before about expectation and perception, and the perception in America is that Israel’s never had a stronger ally than this administration. Could one infer from your description of our handling of the Russians in the Viron (ph) or even of Lebanon—and I might personally add the neglect of the Camp David process—that Israel is in fact in worse condition today because of America’s love? (Scattered laughter.)
LIFTON: That’s an unbiased question. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: And Bob did not put me up to the question.
EILAND: I will not respond directly—(laughter)—to what you asked, but if you ask in general terms what is the situation of Israel right now if compared to other periods, basically I think that we are not in the best possible situation, and not because of the result of the war in Lebanon—which is something that is, in a way, bearable, and I hope that we will find a way to learn the right lessons—but because of two other things. The first, that we already discussed, and this is the Iranian threat, and the second thing that so far we didn’t say any word about that, and this is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I want to say something about that because this is, I believe, important and this is somehow more important than other matters. It is less and less in the news because there is nothing new to tell. I mean, we fight against the Palestinians, they fight against us, so nothing’s really interesting here.
But if we want to take it to a little higher level, then I would say something quite paradoxical, or something quite unique about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On one hand, it is extremely important to try to solve this conflict. Why? There are dozens of other conflicts all around the world. Many of them are not solved; many of them are managed for years or for generations, and no one cares. Take Kashmir, for example, a disputed area between India and Pakistan. This conflict exists or continues for the past 60 years. It has not been solved, and I don’t believe that it will be solved in the next 600 years. By the way, every year the number of casualties in this area are much greater than the number of casualties in the Middle East, but who cares?
But the difference between this conflict and other conflicts, including the conflict between Israel and Syria about the Golan Heights, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is that whenever the problem is only territorial dispute, it is a problem, you can manage it; you don’t necessarily have to solve it. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is different, and even the Israeli prime minister Sharon was, I would say, politically very brave to say three years ago that we have to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the fact that 3 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation is not an acceptable phenomenon in the 21st century. So on one hand, this is a problem that should be solved. It has a lot of severe implications beyond our direct contact.
Unfortunately—and this is the second thing—no real solution is seen in the foreseeable future. More than that, it is not only that the solution is not seen, but the obstacles that exist are much greater than the way the—(inaudible)—they are perceived. And let me say only a few words about what are those obstacles, or why a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not achievable, at least according to the existing concept.
The first and the least important one is the government of Hamas, government of (very ?) religious fundamental movement that does not want to recognize that the state of Israel has the right to exist. I can elaborate about that at length, but this is not that important. But this is, of course, an obstacle right now because there is no real partner. But the three other matters are much more substantial.
The second is the problem of the process—not the content or the substance, but the process. Look, the Israeli prime minister says almost every week that time has come to meet the Palestinian president, Abu Mazen. The time has come to resume negotiations. The Palestinian leader, president, says every two days the time has come to meet the Israeli prime minister, the time has come to resume negotiations. The distance between the office of one person and the office of the other person is 10 miles. So if in the past nine months or so were eager to meet, then they could solve the problem and they could meet. Why didn’t they meet? They didn’t meet because they understand that the first thing that they have to discuss before the substance is the process—how exactly we can proceed. And when you touch the process, the positions of both sides are completely conflicting. Why?
Suppose they meet tomorrow and after they have the coffee and the cookies the Israeli prime minister is going to say the following: “Look, my friend, the president of the Palestinians, Israel is ready to make painful concessions. We are ready to take unbelievable security risks; we are ready to evacuate thousands of Israelis, et cetera, et cetera. But we are not going to do it as long as the threat of terror exists. So before we begin to talk about those sensitive political matters, you, the Palestinians, have to completely dismantle all terrorist organizations. And when this threat is eliminated, or disappears, then we can sit together and touch the very sensitive political problems.”
The Palestinian president will say the following: “Look, my friend, the prime minister of Israel, before there is a full and comprehensive political settlement to our problems with very detailed information, with very clear benchmarks, with very known timetable, and with international guarantees—before all those things happen and I will be able to say this is a very solid agreement, I don’t even intend to try to persuade the leaders of the militant groups to give up their weapons.” So what is going to be the day after, after they meet?
The third problem is this: The maximum that any government in Israel will be ready to offer the Palestinians and to survive politically is much, much less than the minimum that any possible Palestinian leadership will be ready to accept and to survive politically. So the gap is huge.
And—(audio break)—(their/that ?) solution, and (their/that ?) solution is more or less known. The solution—two-state solution—Israel and a Palestinian state alongside, these two states that have to be contained or located in a very narrow piece of land between the Jordan River and the sea—this solution is not attractive to either side. We are not interested in this solution because it is not going to be viable, and the Palestinians are less interested in this solution because they know that it is not going to be viable. So the only solution that exists in the minds of all the politicians all over the world is not attractive to either side. That’s why no one is ready to take any risk in order to move forward, in order to implement such a solution.
So I believe the time has come to think in a little different terms. This is not the right time to elaborate about that, but to think that the ordinary concept of two-state solution is something achievable, and the only thing that we have to do is to meet and to begin discussion and then we will reach a solution, is a big illusion. And it is not going to happen, at least not in the foreseeable future.
LIFTON: Yes, sir. We only have five minutes left, and—eat the cookies. (Scattered laughter.)
QUESTIONER: I’m Jeff Newell. I’m a visiting fellow here at the council and an Air Force officer. I’d like to ask you about the air campaign in southern Lebanon, if you will. You talked a little bit about the jelly in your hand of translating military objectives into political outcomes, and I’d like to ask you what you intended to achieve by an air campaign. You said that there wasn’t much talk of strategy, but there must have been some.
And secondly, could you comment on what seemed to be some uncharacteristic mistakes by the Israel air force that really got some bad press in the international media, the dropping of the bomb on the U.N. outpost, the vast destruction in Beirut, and then lately we’ve seen reports about the bomblets apparently dropped in the last days of the war—obviously uncharacteristic and maybe not true. They’re from the international media. But I’d like it if you could comment on that and, once again, just comment on the objectives of the air campaign and what—maybe some lessons learned.
EILAND: If you want, we can—elaborate about that later, because I’m not sure that the specific military knowledge is something—that I can elaborate about that here in front of everyone. But one thing about the air campaign, and this is something quite amazing, I might say, is there was one thing that was well known to all generals of the IDF and was said and written and repeatedly announced was that the air force is not capable to confront tens of thousands primitive rockets that are located in very populated area and most of them are operated by batteries. So you don’t even have the time to see the target, because they just use it and they disappear. We knew it very well. And for some reason, the perception emerged as if the air force was capable to do it. And I don’t know who exactly said what and who was responsible for this wrong impression. But this is not something that should have been a surprise to those who knew this matter before and talked about that. It appears in dozens of documents that said we are not capable to do this kind of work.
I think that the performance of the Israeli air force was very good, by the way. There is some wrong impression about that. I’ll give you some examples how effective it was. But it was effective whenever they fought against certain targets, and it was not very effective, not effective at all, when it fought the wrong targets.
LIFTON: All right. I think we’re just—that’s about the end of our—all right—last question. That’s the way to do it.
QUESTIONER: Isolde Tenenbom from the Neusehland Agency in New Zealand. Since you talked that most of the decisions Israel’s government makes are not logical but are emotional, don’t you think one of the biggest problems of Israel is the fear of being called the Jews are doing against something in the world? Isn’t it the fear of—or this necessity to want to be loved or embraced by the international community? If any other country was attacked like Israel was attacked, I think any other country would act differently.
EILAND: I tend to agree with you that we are sometimes hypersensitive, I would say, to certain things. And some of our previous prime ministers—Menachem Begin, for example, and Ariel Sharon, for example—just emphasized exactly what you are saying. Ariel Sharon, for example, used to say whenever he was frustrated, because he wanted to do something and the international community was not ready to approve what we were going to do, he usually used to say, “But the Jews have the right to live also; we also have the right to exist.” So there is something emotional in the way that we feel and of course the way that sometimes we make decisions, and it does not necessarily have to be so when you touch very important strategic and political matters. I agree with you.
LIFTON: General Eiland, thank you so very much for a most enlightening discussion. (Applause.)
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