An Interview with Dr. Chuck Freilich

An Interview with Dr. Chuck Freilich

On October 29, 2018, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Freilich gave a talk titled “Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change” at The Fletcher School. This interview was conducted by Lukas Bundonis, a Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.

FF: Dr. Freilich, thank you for coming in to speak with The Forum. I understand you are giving a talk at Fletcher titled Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change. Could you summarize your work on Israeli national security to include the title and context of your new book?

DF: I spent a large part of my life in the Israeli defense establishment. I was an analyst in the Ministry of Defense, and in my last position I was a deputy national security adviser. Surprisingly, Israel doesn’t have a formal national security strategy, or hasn’t even issued major strategic statements unlike the U.S., where you have the National Security Strategy and the Quadrennial Defense Review; or Britain, where they have White Papers. Israel has never done that. So I identified what I think is a major lacuna, something that should have been done. I’m certainly not starry-eyed about written strategic documents--they are not engineering blueprints that you have to follow. But I think the idea of thinking things through in a systematic way, which is what writing a book, in my case, or writing a governmental national security strategy [entails]. I think that process is very valuable. Even just the act of writing it—some people are happy to just do PowerPoint or something similar—but I think you really have to work your way through it because that forces people to see where the differences are between different agencies, between different individuals. It forces people to confront the issues.

FF: Building on that, what do you believe are the primary security challenges that Israel faces today, and how is it tackling those challenges?

DF: I think there are three or four primary issues. One is obviously the Palestinian issue, and the question of whether or not we can achieve a two-state solution. I think the answer to that question for the foreseeable future is no, because I don’t think there is the leadership on either side that both want [it] and can deliver. But I think that in the final analysis that is the foremost challenge that Israel faces. And of course, that is also translated into the conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

The second issue is Iran. I believe that Iran is a threat to international and regional security, but I also think it is at least a dire threat to Israel. Some people say it is an existential threat, and I can’t disagree with that—they could be right. I think Iran has to be prevented from achieving a nuclear capability and I hope it can be done diplomatically, and if not I think Israel has to prevent it at all costs.

Now the Iranian threat from Israel’s point of view today isn’t just a nuclear issue, it’s also Iran’s support for Hezbollah, which is a non-state actor but one which has capabilities that are state-like. They have something like one-hundred and twenty thousand rockets aimed at Israel, which is a simply a staggering, massive number. And it means that the next round, which could be anytime, or hopefully not, is going to be extraordinarily painful for both sides. Israel will get hit in a way that it has never been hit before—the home front. But Hezbollah [and] Lebanon will be hit even harder. Iran is busy trying to set up base now in Syria as well, to establish ground, air, and naval bases there, in order to create one joint front from Lebanon through Syria and then to have a corridor all the way through Syria, through Iraq, to Iran. Some people call it the “Shiite Crescent”. Again, I don’t think Israel can allow Iran to set up military base in Syria. It is simply too dangerous. I’m the guy who is always advocating restraint, diplomacy, and taking things easy. But this is a threat that Israel cannot allow to happen.

So if you ask me what are the primary issues that Israel faces today, one is the Palestinian question, the others are Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas in Gaza.

FF: How do you assess Israel’s handling of the recent Gaza war protests? Do you believe that any side won the PR battle, and what do you think it portends for the immediate future of the peace process?

DF: I think in these kinds of confrontations, Hamas tends to win because you have pictures of people—ostensibly civilians—throwing rocks against an organized army, guys in uniforms who act in a disciplined fashion. The idea that this was a non-violent demonstration is absurd. This was extraordinarily violent. There were IEDs, there were grenades, there were all sorts of things thrown and used. This is an intentional, ongoing provocation. Israel has to defend its border.

The question is whether there are prospects for peace. Now first of all, regardless of who is in office in Israel, as long as the Palestinians are divided between the West Bank and Gaza and don’t have one government (the official government is the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank), the Palestinians couldn’t sign a peace agreement even if they wanted to. The other problem is, yes, there is a right-wing government in Israel today which has no intention of making the necessary concessions, but previous Israeli governments have put virtually one hundred percent of Palestinian demands on the table. They agreed to establish a Palestinian state on one hundred percent of Gaza, nearly one hundred percent of the West Bank, and divide Jerusalem—and that wasn’t enough for the Palestinians. So, the question is whether there is any deal whatsoever that the Palestinians want to sign, or whether they are still fighting over Israel’s very existence.

FF: Pivoting back to Iran, what is the Israeli perspective on the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran? How do you see the sanctions’ effectiveness, and how do you see the Israeli perspective on them?

DF: The sanctions are directed first and foremost at the nuclear issue, which is where they should be directed, but also at its missiles and Iran’s general behavior in the region. I was a strong supporter of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], the 2015 nuclear deal, not because I thought it was such a wonderful deal, but because I thought it was the best of the bad options we faced. I still think that’s the case. But that’s spilled milk, because President Trump has decided on a different approach. Now, I could be all for the hardline approach—sanctions and more against Iran—if I thought the U.S. was pursuing a comprehensive strategy here. I don’t see that strategy in place.

In 2012, the Obama administration managed to bring most of the world community onboard for even more comprehensive sanctions than the current ones. The pain was enough to bring Iran to the table, and to get them to make some pretty significant concessions. But they were not enough to make Iran give up its nuclear program. Basically, they agreed to postpone their aspirations, not to give them up. Now the question is why it should be any different this time, when the sanctions are less comprehensive. They’re pretty comprehensive because most of the multinational corporations in the world are afraid of the effects, and so they’re abiding by the sanctions in any event. But why should the sanctions achieve more today than they did then? Well, the answer may be that if Trump pursues these sanctions for a longer period, hangs in there with it before he’s willing to cut a deal, since he says he wants a deal, just a better one, then maybe the pain will be severe [enough].

But I find this hard to believe. The Iranians have their own domestic politics. It is extraordinarily hard for them to make any concessions. From their perspective, the United States proved itself to be an unreliable partner because it signed the deal and then unilaterally backed out of it, even though no one, including the U.S., claims that the Iranians violated the deal. The American position was just that it was a bad deal to begin with. So, I have a hard time seeing how we get to the deal. Again, I hope I’m wrong. If we can’t reach a deal, then I think the Trump administration has basically used up most of their sources of leverage.

It leaves us with two other options. First is regime-change, which I think is a pipe dream. It’s certainly not going to happen as a result of external instigation; maybe it’ll happen at some point for domestic reasons. But that’s not in the immediate future. That leaves us with the military option, and I don’t see the Trump administration wanting to go the military route at all, which means in the end Israel might be left holding the stick all by itself. That’s not a happy scenario.

FF: Speaking of holding the stick, how do you see the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel? Do you think it’s stronger, weaker, or about the same as it has been for the past few administrations?

DF: I think the relationship is fundamentally very strong. Like all relationships, it has some ups and downs. People portray it at the moment as if it’s the best it’s ever been. It is certainly good at the moment, but it’s partly good because Trump is supporting Israel in all ways, he’s not putting any pressure on Israel. Obama provided more military aid to Israel than anyone in history, but he also tried to put some pressure on Israel on the diplomatic front. As a result, he was portrayed by some people as being less pro-Israel. I don’t think that’s the case.

I think Trump, if he comes to the conclusion that Netanyahu was not playing well with him on the peace process, if and when he presents his plan, he could put unprecedented pressure on Israel. As a matter of fact, he was recently quoted in a conversation— I don’t think this made the American press, but it made big headlines in Israel—with President Macron of France who asked him if he was going to do anything vis-à-vis Israel. And Trump said, “Look, I’m beginning to come to the conclusion that Bibi [Netanyahu] is not playing along on the peace process. We give them a lot of aid every year, I can put the pressure on Israel.” I think that could happen.

I also think there’s been a change in American support. If you look at the polls, overall it’s as strong as it’s ever been. But the nature of the support has changed: it used to be really bipartisan, and today it is far more on the right and has weakened on the Democratic left. That’s something that I don’t think Israel can afford. The source of the strength of the relationship was that it was bipartisan.

FF: Do you think actors like the U.S. and Russia have a role to play given they both made overt commitments to modernize their nuclear arsenals and expand their capabilities? Do you believe their credibility when it comes to steering negotiations, whether it’s for a different version of JCPOA, or the region more broadly to prevent nuclear expansion?

DF: I guess it does hurt their credibility, but the U.S. and Russia are the two leading nuclear powers. There are three other recognized nuclear powers. I do not think we can allow Iran to go nuclear, and it would be really nice if we could roll back North Korea. But in the Middle East, a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. You have to take into account that if Iran goes nuclear, the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the Turks may very well go nuclear as well.

The thought of a nuclear Iran--and Israel is thought to be nuclear--is enough of a nightmare. Now, imagine a nuclear crisis between the two—they don’t have any channels of communication, and this is an area where missiles fly in a couple of minutes, literally. Now, let’s [take into consideration] the Saudis, who have only limited channels of communication with Israel (and certainly no hotline), and have no diplomatic relations with Iran. Now bring Egypt into the picture: Egypt and Iran don’t have diplomatic relations. Egypt has ties with Saudi and can talk to Israel. Bring Turkey into it. Turkey’s relations with both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are terrible, and its relations with Israel today are even worse.

A multi-nuclear Middle East is a nightmare that I think it makes the U.S.-Soviet confrontation pale in comparison, in terms of the likelihood of somebody using a nuclear weapon. Obviously, a U.S.-Soviet conflict could have destroyed mankind—that's not the case here. These are “friendly neighborhood bombs”. (Put that in quotes!). But the danger of someone actually using it is absolutely frightening. I don’t know of any way to manage that kind of a thing.

FF: Speaking of channels of communication, how do you see the landscape for cyber threats and cyber security in the Middle East? Iran has certainly invested in it very significantly over the past decade. How do you see the Israeli perspective on countering cyber threats?

DF: Funny you should ask, because I am completing a book on Israel and the cyber threat. Israel is one of the countries that is under the greatest number of cyber-attacks in the world. It’s an advanced country so obviously cyber is everything. Now, it’s also considered one of the top five in terms of its response to the threat. U.S., Russia, China, Israel, and the UK—that's the top five today.

The reason I’m writing this book is that I think Israel’s an interesting cyber case. Yes, you can learn a lot from the U.S., but it is so big that it’s almost not a model for most other countries.  Israel is very small; it’s closer in size to many European countries, so I think what it has done is something of a model to be studied and to learn from. Israel really got its act together rather rapidly for this threat—more so than for others—and, though it took close to a decade, it passed a lot of legislation. There’s a whole new law which was just submitted to the Knesset for consideration. It built national institutions on the civil side to protect the private sector and the governmental sector, and of course, the military, the IDF, has taken many measures to build up its defenses as well as its offensive capabilities. Israel is under one of the greatest threats: there are a couple of million attacks every day, most of them are low-level but some of them aren’t. Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas are the primary threats, as well as various groups in the former Soviet Union. So far, Israel has dealt with this issue pretty successfully.

Image: Kotel (Western Wall)

Courtesy of Florian Prischl / Flickr

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Dr. Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center and the author of Zion's Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy (Cornell University Press, November 2012), Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change (Oxford University Press, 2018), and Israel and the Cyber-Threat (forthcoming late 2018).

His primary areas of expertise are the Middle East, U.S.-Middle East policy, and Israeli national security strategy and decision-making. He has taught political science at Harvard, NYU, and Columbia in the United States, and at Tel Aviv University and IDC Herzliya in Israel.

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