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The IDF and the Israeli Spirit

By Moshe Yaalon

The former Chief-of-Staff addresses the greatest threat facing the Jewish state.


The September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington led many Americans to understand that in order to avoid future attacks it will be necessary to deal with the roots of terrorism, in other words, to confront not only terrorist operations, but to bring an end to the kind of education that nurtures terror. This explains America’s well-considered demands for democracy in the Middle East and for educational and social reform among Israel’s neighbors.
Indeed, anti-terror warfare is important, but it addresses only the ability to commit terrorist acts rather than the roots of terrorism. Even when we succeeded in bringing about a significant decrease in the number of wanted terrorists, the phenomenon of terrorism always struck me as a kind of bottomless pit, with an endless stream of new candidates always ready to fill the shoes of the old. Of course, the pit does have a bottom: It is full of three-year-olds masquerading as suicide bombers, nine-year-olds writing essays in praise of the suicide-bomber death cult, and fourteen-year-olds whose greatest ambition is to become a martyr.
The Palestinian education system continues to ignore Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state, uses the term “occupation” with regard to the entire historic land of Israel “from the River to the Sea,” and denies any connection between the Jewish people and their ancestral homeland. An educational system of this kind is preparing Palestinians not for conciliation, but for war. The dictatorial regimes around us prefer to perpetuate the conflict and to externalize their failings, especially in the direction of Israel and the United States. They are certainly not interested in the kind of education that would lead to a more peaceable attitude.
The enlightened world, with the United States taking the lead, must continue to make financial assistance to Arab states, and especially the Palestinian Authority, conditional upon fundamental educational reform. The first step should be a ban on incitement to hatred in government-controlled mosques and media, followed by significant changes in school textbooks. This is not to say that Israel should take a paternalistic or authoritarian attitude by imposing educational reform on Palestinians by force. The path is not so much one of conversion but of persuasion. We ought not actively intervene except for encouraging cooperation and educational encounters between Jews and Palestinians—not just encounters in which the Palestinians accuse the Jews and the Jews accuse themselves, but encounters which take the Zionist self-understanding as a legitimate point of departure.
As long as no such changes are forthcoming, however, no demands can be made on Israel, since any Israeli concession immediately becomes a new baseline from which hostilities are undertaken, as the Palestinians have repeatedly proven over the last decade. Yet Israel can act to encourage the democratization of the region, especially in the Palestinian Authority. It is, after all, in Israel’s interest to be involved in the Middle East, rather than to live in permanent isolation within the region.
 
The challenges facing Israel’s military are no less formidable. In the area of conventional warfare, Israel will continue to maintain a military built on a regular army and reserves, on a scale that addresses the potential threat. To maintain our competitive edge, however, will require continued investment in our human capital, by nurturing future generations of scientists, engineers, and technicians—those who will develop the IDF’s technological infrastructure, its security industry, and its roots in both the civilian economy and in academia.
As far as unconventional warfare is concerned, Israel must maintain its deterrent capability and make every effort to prevent our enemies from acquiring nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran poses an extremely serious threat; such a capability in the hands of an extremist regime that does not hide its intentions regarding Israel would fundamentally alter the strategic balance in the region. Such a regime could provide a “nuclear umbrella” for terrorists and could radically undermine democratization in moderate regimes. This could also trigger a regional arms race, in which other regimes seek to acquire nuclear weapons as well.
For this reason, the recent speeches of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be taken with utmost seriousness. In his messianic Shiite worldview, the arrival of the “Hidden Imam”—the messiah—can and should be hastened through practical measures. When he was the mayor of Tehran, he invested in initiatives to prepare for the day of the arrival of the Hidden Imam. As a disciple of the Ayatollah Yazdi, he believes that the precondition for the coming of the Hidden Imam is the destruction of the State of Israel. This is a genuine belief, and any attempt to dismiss his words as mere posturing in order to garner internal support or as simple baiting misses their meaning and underestimates his intentions. Once again, the Jews stand face-to-face with a leader possessing a radical messianic worldview, who sees the annihilation of Israel as a necessary stage in defeating the West; except that this time, he may soon have the most powerful of means to achieve his aims. Israel must view the Iranian threat as profound and existential, and respond accordingly.
Indeed, the Iranians are looking to undermine moderate regimes even as we speak. If they had their way, the Jordanian king would no longer be alive, and other regimes in the region, including in the Persian Gulf, would fall. Most of the terror directed at Israel today is funded by Iran. Although Hamas has its own fundraising apparatus, it has received a great deal of money in recent years from Iran. “With regards to the challenges ahead of us, we count on an expanded role by our Iranian brothers in Palestine,” Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal said in a recent joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. Meanwhile, the Fatah Tanzim fighters are funded by Iran, and of course Hezbollah receives tens of millions of dollars to work and act from within Lebanon and to operate Palestinian terror in Gaza. Today a large part of the terrorist activity is moving to the Gaza Strip, and the Iranians are behind all of it. (This is also true regarding many attacks directed against the coalition forces in Iraq.)
To put it bluntly, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who never talked about the Hidden Imam, was nothing short of a moderate compared to Ahmadinejad, whose resolve to obtain nuclear weapons is closely related to his messianic vision of defeating the West. There is a battle within the Muslim world as to who will lead this global jihad: Will it be Osama Bin Laden, or one of his deputies like Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi; or will it be the Iranians? Israel, it must therefore be emphasized, is far from alone in this war. For many years I have struggled with the challenge of convincing people in other countries that they, too, are in danger. As head of the IDF’s intelligence branch I went to Washington in 1996 in order to convince the Americans that the Iranians aspired to obtain nuclear weapons. Back then I found few people who were willing to listen. The good news, such as it is, is that in the last few years not only the Americans but even the Europeans have come to understand the Iranian threat.
Have they truly internalized its severity? Not completely. When I visited Europe as IDF chief of staff not long ago, several officials said to me: “So what? We endured a conflict with the Soviets, and they also had nuclear capability.” And yet it should be clear that the Soviets are not the Iranians, and Europe is not the Middle East. It is to be hoped that the Americans and the Europeans will not fail to recognize the Iranian threat, and that they will take steps toward imposing diplomatic and economic sanctions. But Israel must prepare for the possibility that these steps will not be effective. And if we are not for ourselves, who will be for us?
 
The challenge posed to Israel by sub-conventional warfare, however, is the most difficult of all. I have already pointed out that in this sphere we do not enjoy adequate threat-detection or an adequate deterrent, and that it is not enough to deal with terror through military means alone. It must be dealt with at its roots.
But there is no chance of such a change taking place so long as we appear to be giving in to terror. So long as those who are hostile to us believe they can achieve their aims through violence, they will continue to try to do so.


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