"The Iranians will uphold the First Stage of the Nuclear Agreement"

A special exclusive interview with the Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information about the surge of Palestinian terrorism, the Iranian nuclear bomb and coping with the threat of the boycott and de-legitimization of Israel

Erdan during a tour in Jerusalem (Photo: Ministry of Public Security)

When Gilad Erdan was appointed as Minister of Public Security while at the same time assuming the responsibilities of Minister of Strategic Affairs and Information, it was difficult to envision that he would find himself facing three 'hot' fronts.

Erdan was appointed to these positions only less than a year ago, and in the time since then the current surge of Palestinian terrorism erupted, placing the Israel Police and public security at the core of Israel's security concerns. In the realm of strategic affairs – Israel should prepare for the day when it is realized that Iran continues to strive for a nuclear bomb, the agreement it signed with the superpowers in July 2015 notwithstanding; In the realm of information, Erdan is heading the recently-announced campaign against the BDS Movement (the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement attempting to de-legitimize the State of Israel).

The conflicts on the various fronts led Erdan to hold an unusual meeting with a senior executive of the social medium Facebook, who travelled to Israel from the company HQ in London. The meeting took place at Erdan's office in the Knesset building, Jerusalem, in February 2016.

"The wild and unrestrained incitement in the social media is associated not just with the BDS Movement but with the surge of terrorist attacks we are currently facing as well," Erdan explained the background for his dialog with the Internet superpower. "We have irrefutable proof of that association, as in the admissions of captured terrorists we interrogated, they told us that they made the final decision to attack Israelis pursuant to things they had read on the web."

So, in your view, there is a direct connection between the incitement on Facebook and the terrorist attacks?

"Absolutely. Plain and simple."

So what are your expectations from the people at Facebook in this regard?

"We are currently in an interim era. I met with the internal security ministers of Australia and Britain, and like myself they are frustrated by the way ISIS (the Islamic State organization) takes advantage of the social media to glorify itself as well as to recruit new volunteers. All of the world's countries are in a conflict between freedom of speech and the need to provide security to the public, but when you know that the web serves as a platform for incitement in favor of murder and terrorism or for empowering terrorist organizations – you must act against it. No red lines have been drawn yet, but it will happen following a dialog (with Facebook) and legislation (that will restrict the contents in the social media).

"In the course of our examinations, I found out that despite the general freedom, Facebook are absolutely willing to restrict the contents," Minister Erdan continues. "In the USA they undertook to deactivate any (Facebook) page that contains an offer to sell firearms, in line with President Obama's policy of combatting firearms sales in that country. Apparently, Israel is not rated high on Facebook's scale of priorities, as over here they do not have even a single executive who's authorized to deactivate a (Facebook) page. In Israel, Facebook only has marketing people and anyone wishing to file a complaint should reach as far as their office in Britain. That is ineffective.

"I would like to remind everyone that Facebook is not a voluntary organization, but a company that earns billions and knows everything about its users. They accept huge advertising budgets, but refuse to assume any responsibility for the contents on their platforms. So, by the end of this interim period, either we consolidate restrictions over the contents in cooperation with them, or states will start supervising the activities of the social media."

Our interview with Gilad Erdan was also held in the Knesset. Erdan, 45, is regarded as one of the senior ministers in the present government. In the last elections, he was nominee number 2 on the Likud Party's list, a close second to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That is why he is naturally regarded as one of Netanyahu's potential successors – one day, naturally.

How do you regard the Palestinian surge of terrorism that erupted in October 2015? How is it similar to the previous intifadas?

"I am a bit too young to make any comparisons, but in my view each one of these periods is different, with regard to the external contexts as well as with regard to what takes place in the Palestinian Authority. Generally, the picture that emerges regarding the current surge of terrorist attacks is so complex that you face it and say 'I'd better concentrate on my work'. I do not think it can be influenced from above.

"It is our duty to see to it that the situation does not deteriorate any further, and focus on tactical measures for stopping the attackers and dealing with the measures they have for executing the attacks. The instability of the Palestinian Authority and the competition over radicalization among the various organizations and the potential successors of Abu Mazen as Chairman influence the situation on the ground. The Hamas movement also influences the discourse and takes it to extremes. The younger generation may be incited 24 hours a day from anywhere. These are no longer the days when we could stop the incitement by bombing a TV station or dropping down the antenna of Ramallah Radio.

"Today's young generation, as it is described by our intelligence, is also influenced by personal and family frustrations, and some of them wish to end their lives in a manner that would take them to heaven, according to their faith."

Understanding the surge of terrorism – is it the responsibility of the Ministry for Public Security or the responsibility of the IDF Intelligence Directorate?

"To the best of my knowledge, it is the responsibility of ISA first and foremost, but everyone shares this effort. The potential of the attackers is substantial. The weapons they use in many cases are knives and screwdrivers and the decisions to stage an attack are often spontaneous. The Israel Police has tightened its cooperation with ISA and the situation calls compels us to show professionalism. It projects significantly on the future of the Police – the organization is becoming technology-oriented more than ever before."

Do you see a similarity between the developments in Europe (in the context of ISIS) and the developments over here, or are these separate phenomena?

"I definitely see no difference between those who go out to stab someone over here, knowing that they are going to die, and those staging terrorist attacks in France or in San Bernardino, California. In my view, in most cases they are motivated by a religious interpretation of Islamic commandments, and I say this with regret."

What is the working assumption of the Police regarding the current surge of terrorist attacks – will it die out on its own or will it intensify?

"I think that none of our security agencies has a well-founded estimate as to how long it will last. We have initiated numerous tactical activities – from changing the rules of engagement (and I have to point out that the Israel Police had used almost no live fire since the Orr commission pursuant to the events of October 2000), through arrests, a revision of the licensing of firearms so that former members of special operations military units and officers of any rank may walk around armed as a force multiplier, to demolition of terrorists' houses. We use every tool democracy and the law allow us to use. We are considering the deportation of terrorists' families, but the legal counsel are strictly against it.

"I also tried to advance the initiative to outlaw organizations that were engaged in agitation and incitement around Temple Mount, like the Islamic Movement, as well as fines to be imposed on the parents of minors participating in terrorist activities, the use of administrative detention and so forth.

"Over the years, new interpretation of the Basic Laws and individual rights develops. Sometimes it is very frustrating. Even the demolition of houses, which is a measure we would like to implement promptly, involves a process that takes time. However, we live in a Western country and there are standards we are committed to."

What about the delays in the return of terrorists' bodies?

"During the second intifada, as you recall, there was a cemetery for enemy casualties. Today, in consultation with the Head of ISA, I directed the Police to consolidate a list of demands opposite the return of each dead terrorist's body. The cabinet endorsed my proposal to demand that the funerals of killed terrorists be held at night rather than as a major daytime procession, as a prerequisite for the return of each body. IDF consolidated their own policy and continue to return the terrorists' bodies in the territories for which they are responsible (Judea and Samaria). The Prime Minister authorized me to set forth a separate policy and the Defense Minister to set forth a separate policy for the territories under IDF responsibility.

"The military authorities think that too much agitation builds up when they keep the terrorists' bodies, so they promptly return the bodies of terrorists killed in the Judea and Samaria. I manage this issue differently. Who folds in the end? The families, not me."

From ISA to the Police

In the previous government, Gilad Erdan served briefly as the Minister for Home Front Security, but was forced to fold and close down the ministry pursuant to a serious disagreement over authority and responsibilities with Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. To this day, the Defense Minister and the Minister for Public Security fail to agree on many security issues, and have become bitter political rivals.

As a new Minister for Public Security, Erdan insisted on appointing as the Chief of Police a candidate who had not advanced through the ranks of the Israel Police. He was forced to withdraw from his intended appointment of Brig. Gen. (res.) Gal Hirsch to the position of Police Chief owing to overwhelming public criticism, but is very pleased with the person who eventually became Israel's Number One Policeman – former Deputy Head of ISA Roni Alsheikh.

"I am very pleased with him," says Erdan about the recently appointed Police Chief. "We have consolidated the policy together and I think that his plan of listening to the public by regions is spot-on. The plan says that each commander of a police station is a sort of regional battalion commander, and the force is built up around him.

"Like any other person, Roni, too, has a learning period, but I am already very pleased with the directions he set forth for the Israel Police."

How did you manage to convince him to leave ISA, despite the fact that he was a leading candidate for the position of the next Head of ISA?

"Initially, he refused my offer of becoming the Chief of Police, and explained how difficult it was for him, psychologically, to imagine himself outside of ISA. I told him that ISA was a structured, functioning organization while the Police was undergoing a crisis – and to my delight he eventually agreed to undertake the challenge."

As far as the force build-up of the Israel Police under Alsheikh is concerned, what is the over-all trend – more policemen or more technology?

"Both. Everything starts with the quality of the manpower and for this reason the pay of police personnel in certain units will be raised in March by 50% at once. We live in an era of individual terrorism, but must also prepare for major events, like a war on the northern front or a two-front war. The performance of the Police is one of the most important elements for national fortitude in emergency situations. All of these, as well as the task of coping with large-scale public disturbances and riots, require a mass. At the same time, I have already pointed out that the Police is evolving into a technology-oriented organization. For example, its cyber warfare unit is expanding all the time and is logging some major achievements."

Iran and the BDS Movement First

What are your responsibilities under your hat as Minister of Strategic Affairs and Information?

"The Ministry of Strategic Affairs is a 'title' – it was established in 2006, closed down and reopened in 2009, then merged with the Ministry of Intelligence Affairs. It is a ministry into which the Prime Minister pours the contents he wishes to address. While in the past it was the Iranian nuclear program, more recently the Prime Minister stressed that the emphasis should be placed on the development of a plan for coping more effectively with the threat of de-legitimization. At the same time, the agreement with Iran is already behind us and some of Israel's missions include closely monitoring Iran's violations of the clauses of the agreement with the superpowers and its activities as a country that inflames and supports terrorism."

What do you do to monitor the implementation of the agreement?

"Look, we do what we do through the intelligence agencies. My responsibility is to present it to the professional and political echelons."

For the time being, as we understand it, do the Iranians uphold the agreement?

"I can say that according to our estimate, they will uphold the agreement during the initial period. As these are smart, intelligent people, they will do everything to maximize and fully utilize the tremendous economic advantages the agreement offers them.

"What will happen later on? We are constantly monitoring the situation. The Prime Minister is doing everything he can to prevent the agreement and even more than that. We cannot prevent the American government from doing something they want to do. We are currently consolidating a policy for after the agreement, which we are still formulating. All of the options remain on the table."

Are we preparing for a situation of a nuclear Iran? Will this be a responsibility of your ministry?

"I would rather not comment at this time. At the moment it is not a responsibility of my ministry."

Do you think that as a result of the Israeli attempt to prevent the agreement, we lost the trust of the P5+1 superpowers and mainly that of the Americans?

"This is not true, even in the last few weeks the connection remains solid. I think the superpowers are fully aware of the Israeli knowledge, capabilities and experience, and take advantage of our assistance.

"At the professional levels, the ties have not been unraveled. Obviously, the political-diplomatic controversy has had an effect. But today, as the agreement became a fait accompli, the situation has changed. The Prime Minister and President Obama disagree not just on the Iranian issue, but on the Palestinian issue as well – on all sorts of issues, so I would not like to isolate just one issue or another.

"Generally, if we had not raised several issues and included them in the world's agenda, the agreement with Iran would have been much worse. For example, just recently sanctions were imposed on Iran in connection with the issue of the ballistic missiles. Even the effort to monitor Iran in connection with their support of terrorism is something the superpowers take part in. Obviously, the parties to the agreement have a greater responsibility for ensuring that Iran does not take advantage of the agreement to provide even more support to terrorism. In this context, my ministry and myself will monitor and present (our findings), as best we can, as to who Iran is and what it strives for."

In your view, which is the greatest strategic challenge facing Israel: Hezbollah, the Palestinian arena or Iran?

"Iran is the primary issue with regard to the nuclear aspect as well as with regard to the conventional aspect, as Hezbollah in Lebanon is, in fact, a representative of Iran."

What is the primary concept of the effort against the boycott on Israel and the de-legitimization movement?

"No other country in the world faces such a threat of de-legitimization. It was decided to have the effort against it concentrated and coordinated by a single ministry, as it is associated with the responsibilities of numerous ministries – foreign affairs, economy, education, justice. There are offensives by FIFA, by universities and by all sorts of other organizations. An integrative, coordinating element should lead the counterattack – a ministry for which this is the top priority. It is the same as the issue of the home front – no ministry had ever placed the issue of home front security as its top priority, and that was why I attempted to establish the Ministry of Home Front Security at the time.

"Regarding the BDS, I have come to actually fight over this issue, so that I may have a complement of people who will deal with this issue exclusively. There has been an empowerment of the government's ability to provide a solution to this threat as well as to collect intelligence regularly in order to find out in advance what offensives we should expect. If no minister assumes responsibility for this effort – it will not make any progress. Since the beginning of 2016, we have a director general at the ministry who works on this issue from morning till night (Brig. Gen. [res.] Sima Vaknin-Gil, formerly the IDF Chief Censor). She develops the plan for this effort.

"Factually, I have obtained for the benefit of this effort a budget that was never available in the past. Did anyone prevent former foreign ministers from allocating 100 million ILS to this issue? No. So here comes someone who regards this as his personal political campaign and considers it important. I can sit down with Jewish and pro-Israeli organizations in order to fight this threat with them. I do not compete against any other ministries or any other organizations."

Can technology be a part of the solution?

"Definitely – yes. I said that at the CyberTech 2016 Conference just recently. The threat has physical effects – like the incitement that leads to stabbings, and it has the potential of encouraging hatred for Israel among substantial segments of the public who are not really familiar with the situation here or with the conflict. One of their other objectives is to encourage hatred for us among the next generation of leaders in Europe and the USA, and to isolate Israel. With all of the knowledge available in Israel and with our high-tech and cyber technology capabilities, we can provide a technological solution as well. For this reason, my ministry will lend a hand to cooperation with technologies created in order to fight the BDS Movement." 

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