"Iran is still our Most Substantial Defense Challenge"

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad, Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at IMOD, in a fascinating interview – the developments in the Middle East in 2015, the religious war that has reached Europe, the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas may bow out and a regional forecast for 2016

Six months after the signing of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the superpowers, the Iranian issue has not been stricken off the agenda of the Israeli defense establishment. On the contrary: Iran will continue to be the primary challenge in 2016, too, says Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilad in an exclusive interview to Israel Defense.

"The first challenge is monitoring the Iranian threat," lists Gilad. "The potential for the realization of a nuclear threat still exists in Iran, while at the same time the agreement provides the Iranians with more resources for building up a threatening military strength in Lebanon. If it were up to them, they would have built a layout opposite Israel that is similar to the layout of Hezbollah, on the Golan Heights as well.

"Iran's military industry manufactures an extensive range of missiles, and today they are a nuclear threshold country which, in their view, has been granted legitimacy. They want to implement the vision of a Persian-Shi'ite empire, while threatening the Arab countries, particularly Sunni Saudi Arabia. As far as they are concerned, the nuclear agreement is tactical, and the strategic path is what really matters: to consolidate the empire and disseminate its principles."

The interview with Gilad was conducted at his office on the 14th floor of the defense establishment building at the Kirya compound in Tel-Aviv, where the offices of the Minister of Defense and the IDF Chief of Staff are located as well. Maj. Gen. Gilad was appointed as the first Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs in IMOD's history more than a decade ago, following a long career in the IDF, at the peak of which he had served as head of the Analysis Division at the IDF Intelligence Directorate and as Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). Consequently, his perspective regarding the exciting occurrences of 2015 is unique and relies on many years of experience.

As the year 2015 draws to a close, Israel enjoys relative tranquility along the borders, despite the surge of terrorist attacks staged by Palestinians. Does this tranquility stem from the fact that the potential enemies of Israel, like Hezbollah, ISIS and al-Qaeda, are busy fighting one another? Is Israel's security situation improving or getting worse?

"In the Middle East there are always bad news and good news," replies General Gilad. "Along the northern border, the entity facing us is stronger than the State of Lebanon, which I call 'Hezballostan'. This entity has more than 100,000 rockets and continues to build up its potential even at sea, including the Russian-made shore-to-sea missile 'Yakhont' which is capable of engaging various marine and ground targets including our offshore gas drilling rigs.

"Hezbollah does not attack us, first and foremost because of Israeli deterrence, but also because they are immersed in a bloody war in Syria, where they have already lost hundreds of their men. On the other hand, they are determined to press on with the build-up of their strength opposite us.

"Generally speaking, Lebanon is an amazing country, where they have a constitution but not a state. In fact, the President of Lebanon no longer functions, and if a president is appointed – he will be a puppet in the hands of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah himself is connected by his umbilical cord to the Iranians, so 'Hezballostan' is actually an affiliate of Tehran. The nuclear agreement between Iran and the superpowers does not include any reference to the terrorism and missile threats, so these threats will intensify.

"Looking through a broader perspective, there are naturally historic layers to everything that takes place around Israel, like the Shi'ite-Sunni religious war that has been going on for hundreds of years. That may weaken the motivation to attack us, but we must not ignore the primary threat facing us: Iran in combination with 'Hezballostan'.

"Iran's record proves that it always strives to violate agreements. International sanctions have not changed their ideology. It is a very violent regime that deals with terrorism. This is what we face and prepare for."

So, looking retrospectively at the last six months, does the Israeli defense establishment still believe that the agreement with Iran was a mistake?

"At this time we have to address the future instead of grading the past. As far as Israel is concerned, the agreement will enable Iran to obtain more resources. They entered the negotiations when the sanctions threatened their economy, and were willing to back down tactically, as long as they could maintain a strategic capability, and that is why you see them operating in the Yemen as well.

"The Iranians are also active in Syria, but they do not tend to sacrifice Iranians. They prefer to have the people of Hezbollah and other elements pay the price.

"The shining path, as far as the Iranians are concerned, is very clear: to grow stronger and build up terrorism and military capabilities. Never before have 100,000 rockets been aimed at Israel – and the Iranians are working constantly to improve the accuracy of those rockets. We must never be complacent – not even for a moment, even if the build-up of the threat to its fullest potential will take many years.

"Israel specified as a red line the prevention of the development of strategic military capabilities aimed against it. This is the principle. As far as its implementation is concerned – we do not refer to reports as to whether it is being implemented and if so – in what way and how successfully."

You have categorically associated Hezbollah with Iran…

"Absolutely, as the person who actually manages Hezbollah is Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian. You find him all over the Middle East, advancing the affairs of the Iranian-Shi'ite Empire. As far as nuclear power is concerned – one day they will build the infrastructure. They will do anything to return to clandestine activity. The world may have rallied against them but as a result of the agreement they benefit from the lifting of the economic strangulation. As far as the war against ISIS, in which the Iranians participate, is concerned – the Iranians are even conceived as partners of sorts, but we should make no mistake about them.

"It is my recommendation to regard Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a one-piece entity. It is, in fact, an Iranian system that may be found in South America, Afghanistan and many other places."

Let's move on to Syria. Is there any chance that 2016 will be the last year of the civil war over there?

"No," replies Amos Gilad emphatically, and adds: "Today, there is no such thing as 'Syria' anymore. A human tragedy of the first magnitude took place over there. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, glorious cities possessing a magnificent historic background destroyed to the ground. President Bashar al Assad currently controls only one quarter of Syria, and is totally dependent on Iran and Hezbollah. Right now, the way out of the war is political – as indicated in the Vienna conference. A part of the world says that if Assad is removed, an arrangement will be possible, but the truth is there is not much demand for the position of President of Syria. No prompt, decisive developments should be expected over there. Everything is complicated. Syria is a mass of boiling lava with a sectarian division."

Let's speak a little about the Islamic State organization – ISIS. Today, they are conceived as the number one threat worldwide, especially following the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015…

"ISIS succeeded in uniting the entire world in the realization that it must be eliminated, but from this point onward, the road and the war against it are still very long.

"ISIS is not just a local threat – it is an idea that joins Muslim communities in Europe together. In comparison, al-Qaeda suddenly seems like a moderate organization, although it is just as merciless and brutal as ISIS. ISIS is the offspring of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Initially, it was the Iraqi affiliate of al-Qaeda, and then the organization evolved into an economic and military entity that aspires to dominate the entire world. Organizations from around the world that join ISIS provide it with monetary support and help recruit volunteers. They do not have any military depth, but the organization spreads and expands through the social media. ISIS is a phenomenon."

Why have they moved on to stage attacks in the heart of Europe?

"That was hardly surprising. If you take an organization with a radical ideology that advocates the elimination of the crusaders and the Jews, which succeeded in attracting to Syria thousands of Europeans carrying authentic passports, including highly intelligent individuals who were fascinated by the violence and prowess, then this will be possible. These people receive military training and are brainwashed against the magnificent democratic countries from which they had come. No wonder, then, that they will be involved in terrorist attacks later on."

Will the trend of exporting the war outside the boundaries of the Middle East continue?

"Certainly, and at the same time I expect that the Europeans will change their approach to counterterrorism, while restricting civil liberties to a certain extent. Eventually, the world realizes that the basic Israeli approach according to which democracy is maintained while effective counterterrorism tools are being developed is the right approach. In such a war, sometimes there is no other choice but taking controversial measures. The USA, for example, employs drones on a massive scale to attack terrorist elements. One must bear in mind the fact that the people they attack despise democracy, and should be handled using the appropriate tools."

Is it possible to hit ISIS by attacking its economic infrastructure, like destroying the oil fields and attacking oil tankers in northern Iraq?

"This will not subdue them, but it will definitely be a serious blow. I am convinced that following the terrorist attacks in Paris, the Europeans will significantly improve their intelligence and counterterrorism layouts, as the USA did pursuant to the attacks of September 11, 2001. This does not guarantee victory, but the chances of handling the threat will improve. Look what has happened pursuant to the murderous attack in Paris: the French employed all of their intelligence resources and very quickly reached the individual who was responsible for the attack."

Did this intelligence feat also stem from the cooperation between France and Israel?

"I like the fact that in such cases Israel maintains a low profile. I do not wish to go into it. Normally, Israel cooperates in the field of intelligence with organizations in the west, but I do not think it would be right to talk about it."

Does ISIS threaten the stability of the Kingdom of Jordan? Does this concern Israel?

"The regime in Jordan is stable and it deals with very dramatic challenges. It should be said to their credit, that after the Jordanian pilot had been murdered by ISIS under shocking circumstances, King Abdullah of Jordan demonstrated phenomenal leadership. He immediately returned to Jordan from the USA, met with the (pilot's) family and established a Jordanian identity.

"At the same time, we should note that in the past, Jordan had bordered to the north with the Syrian state, which no longer exists. To the east of Jordan there's Iraq – where ISIS dominates huge territories. ISIS is attempting to infiltrate from that area, for the time being on a limited scale.

"Jordan already deals with a million and a half Syrian refugees and half a million Iraqi refugees, and this country is not one of the richest countries in the world. So they have concerns. We should be concerned, too, but you cannot help being impressed by their capabilities – not just the military ones."

Was 2015 a year that improved stability in Egypt?

"Under the leadership of General el-Sisi, the current President of Egypt, Egypt is stable although it faces numerous challenges – economic, military and social."

You say that despite the blow sustained by the regime pursuant to the bombing of the Russian aircraft over the Sinai, and despite the never-ending war of the Egyptian Army against ISIS in the Sinai?

"Egypt is the true leader of the Arab world. It faces inherent challenges. The Muslim Brotherhood, which ascended to power a few years ago, was very close to changing the entire Middle East, but the current president, el-Sisi, who was commander in chief of the Egyptian Army, decided to march Egypt to a better future on the basis of a regime that attempts to improve the basic elements over which Egypt is built.

"The peace agreement with Israel is also important to Egypt. Look how it lasted, even while the Muslim Brotherhood was in power. This peace agreement has security aspects, and the assistance they receive from the USA depends on it."

What is the state of Hamas, which is involved in a dual confrontation opposite Egypt and opposite Israel?

"Hamas is an inseparable part of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. It cooperates with ISIS in the Sinai while at the same time it fights ISIS elements in the Gaza Strip. This may sound illogical, but it is true, because Hamas regards ISIS as an entity that may help it smuggle weapons from the Sinai. The Egyptians, for their part, regard Hamas as an enemy, and justly so. They are constructing an obstacle system along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, and the scope of smuggling into the Strip has decreased. The Egyptians are doing it in line with their own interests.

"The result: it has become difficult for Hamas to smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip. It is difficult for them to attack Israel, because Israel had delivered a serious blow to them, but they are determined to maintain the capability of attacking Israel, and they do everything they can to manufacture weapons and rockets. As they do not have the support of any element – they are doing their best to re-establish their connections with Iran, so that the Iranians may provide them with assistance (in their confrontation) against Israel.

"Today, Hamas regards the interior of Israel and the Judea and Samaria territories as the most appropriate space for staging murderous terrorist attacks. The only reason why they do not do it is the fact that they are unable to. The intelligence superiority of Israel, spearheaded by ISA and the IDF Intelligence Directorate, is significant. It is a refined system, and Hamas is currently unable to execute the plans that were intended to shock Israel."

Is Hamas preparing for the next round of fighting that would follow Operation Protective Edge of the summer of 2014?

"Unequivocally, yes. The role they play in the current surge of terrorism is insane incitement that converts very young people into knife-bearers whose duty is to attack and kill in an inflamed atmosphere. But they would have liked to see Israel sinking into a mire of blood and fire with many hundreds of deaths. If they could have executed a major suicide attack – they would have done so."

Does the security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority continue despite the current surge of terrorist attacks?

"The Palestinian system is split between the Judea and Samaria district and the Gaza Strip. Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), despite all of his attempts and efforts, has thus far failed to dominate the Gaza Strip and Hamas, on the other hand, has failed to dominate the Judea and Samaria district.

"There is incitement against Israel in the Judea and Samaria, but the Palestinian security system continues to confront Hamas. Abu Mazen may be considering retirement and is in a contrarian mood, and this could be translated into things that would affect security.

"If we analyze all of the statements and behavior patterns of Abu Mazen, we will see him, in 2016, drifting into a confrontation against us, in the political and security fields. The potential for this development is there. We take this possibility into consideration and regard it very seriously."

Saudi Arabia has experienced a smooth transition of power following the death of the King, but on the other hand – it has embarked on an arms race opposite the Iranians…

"That is correct. The Saudis are building up a substantial, state-of-the-art air force. The Persian Gulf is currently the scene of significant empowerment through acquisitions from the USA and other countries. The Iranians are threatening them and the economic situation could have an adverse effect on them because of the drop in oil prices, but something in the internal mechanisms of the Gulf States maintains stability over there. In general, it is amazing that no Arab kingdom has been undermined in the last few years, despite the turbulence experienced by the Arab countries where the type of regime is different."

Is the Cold War between the USA and Russia returning to the Middle East against the background of the civil war in Syria?

"Russia is not fighting the USA," says Amos Gilad. "Both countries fight the same enemy: ISIS. This is definitely true after the Russians made a formal declaration to the effect that their passenger aircraft had been bombed out of the sky over the Sinai by the Islamic State organization."

Nevertheless, if you analyze the Russian tactics, are they entering a kind of vacuum left by the USA, which is reducing the extent of its involvement in the Middle East?

"The Middle East has a strange characteristic – you can never leave it. The Russians entered Syria in order to prevent the capture of Damascus by ISIS. That was their consideration."

What are our relations with Russia like?

"We have a coordination liaison with the Russians regarding all of the aerial activities. I do not think that an incident such as the shooting down of the Russian aircraft by the Turks is likely to take place between us and the Russians. The Prime Minister finalized the coordination outline and Israel declared freedom of operation and the red lines in its war against terrorism, while Putin declared that he is committed to the security of Israel. We are definitely not pleased by the fact that the Russians supply state-of-the-art weapon systems to Iran and Syria, which end up in the hands of Hezbollah as well, but we conduct talks with them on an almost unlimited level. The dialog with the Russians is very sincere, candid and covers every possible subject."

When will the Iranians take delivery of the S-300 advanced anti-aircraft defense system they had acquired from Russia?

"The Russians signed the agreement with Iran as far back as ten years ago, and had it reaffirmed immediately following the signing of the nuclear agreement. The system in question is the S-300 PMU – the most advanced version short of the S-400, which the Russians do not export. Are we pleased about that? Certainly not. The nuclear agreement had Putin release the brakes and resume Russia's arms deals with Tehran. As to the question of when they are going to take delivery of the system, well, this is a purely technical matter, which could take weeks or months."

Have the relations between Israel and Turkey improved in the last year?

"The economic relations between the countries are reasonable. The defense/security relations with Turkey, which used to be a magnificent ally, have been stricken off over the last few years. These relations contained a negative aspect of provocation, as in the case of the Mavi Marmara flotilla in May 2010, but that has faded owing to various reasons. Today, there is no aspect of provocation against Israel."

And no hostility?

"First of all, we have diplomatic relations at the lowest level. Exterminating terrorism is the interest of the entire free world, including Turkey. The Turks are entering this process gradually but more and more intensively. At the same time, opposite Turkey we should conduct ourselves cautiously, consistently and with sensitivity."

Has Qatar reconsidered its support for Hamas, as it was reflected during Operation Protective Edge and in their hosting of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal? Are they not concerned about losing their opportunity to host the FIFA World Cup games in 2022 against this background?

"Even if Qatar has reconsidered, they are still hosting Khaled Mashal. Qatar is a very rich country, deeply-rooted in the West. I do not see any danger of Qatar losing their opportunity to host the games. They deny their support for terrorism, and everyone accepts that denial."

What are the points you would have paid particular attention to in 2016?

"There are many challenges. After Iran, the second challenge, quite naturally, involves such hostile elements as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Every single day, we must check and determine whether they are working against you.

"Additionally, there is the disconcerting phenomenon of ISIS attacking the Syrian Army, and the Syrian Army responding by attacking civilians using chemical weapons such as artillery shells, barrels and so forth. Syria had been forced to give up its massive chemical weapon arsenal. They had 1300 tons of chemical weapons, but as it sometimes happens in the Middle East, they kept some of those quantities and developed new weapon types. They have no qualms about attacking Syrian civilians using these weapons. The world has grown indifferent to it. Let's not go into details, but ISIS uses chemical weapons, too. This is highly dangerous. We must remain alert all the time.

"Naturally, the military rocket threat from Lebanon necessitates state-of-the-art intelligence as well as appropriate preparedness and deployment. We have complex relations with the Arab countries and they must be maintained.

"2016 will also be a highly important year for our excellent strategic relations with the USA: after the Prime Minister's visit to Washington in November 2015, the Americans are engaging in a dialog with us regarding the security needs of Israel. Our friendship with them is irreplaceable, and does not pertain only to resources. It is a profound friendship that stems from a wall-to-wall consensus in the US Congress. The over-all outcome of those relations is an extensive aid and assistance suit.

"The dialog will continue through the first quarter of 2016. The (Israeli) Minister of Defense had a very successful visit to the USA that encompassed numerous issues. In 2016, these things will be further consolidated. We have intelligence and security cooperation with the entire free world vis-à-vis all of the challenges. Israel maintains a relatively tranquil lifestyle, despite all of the severe phenomena around us."