Question: Are the Americans deployed in the Gulf with sufficient forces to enable them to land a crushing blow on Iraq already?
“So it seems. They are capable. When the command is given.”
Question: So you do not intend to instruct the citizens to raise the level of alert, to start walking around with masks starting next week, to prepare sealed rooms?
“No. When we reach a situation when we see a reason to raise the alertness, we will tell the population to prepare for the worst case scenario, even if there is extremely low probability of it taking place.”
Question: The assessments speak of the US strike beginning in the middle of February, the end of February or the beginning of March. Do you accept these assessments?
“More or less.”
Question: So is it not worthwhile, in any case, to give people instructions to prepare, at least two to three weeks in advance?
“No. Not yet.”
Question: You will only give people instructions prior to the confrontation itself?
“Yes. We are continually carrying out situation assessments, and checking ourselves every day. When it is necessary-the instructions will be given.”
Throughout the entire interview, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe (Bugi) Yaalon projects the feeling that the Iraqi threat is very low. When he is asked to try to outline the worst case scenario-in the event that it should take place-of Scud launching or large terror attacks during the confrontation in the Gulf, he refuses. He fears that every description of his will lead to provocative and disproportionate headlines. “Still,” we insist, “What will happen here, according to your understanding?”
Yaalon bursts out laughing: “What will happen? I’ll tell you what will happen. The media will deal with threats. It will shower us with smallpox and various kinds of threats. We have already been through several such experiences.”
Question: Are you saying that the probability for any sort of occurrence is negligible?
“We must be cautious. If the probability is negligible, there is no need to prepare at all. What we are saying, is that there is very low probability. That is all. And we simply do not have to deal with it so much. I have already said several times: It is not the Iraqi threat that worries me. There are threats that concern me much more, such as the nuclear potential that is being built up in some of the countries in the region, and the fighting with the Palestinians. You are just hunting for headlines, and it is unnecessary.”
Question: After Powell’s speech, is there room for a change in our situation assessment?
“The main components upon which the situation assessment is based have not changed, and therefore there is no reason for a change. The assessment is that there is a low probability that we will be attacked.”
Question: This week it was published in The Guardian that the Iraqis have succeeded in stationing long range missiles in western Iraq. Does Israel have information about this?
Question: Is there any new intelligence information, an indication of the fact that they are doing something in western Iraq that should concern us?
Question: Is the Iraqi deployment in western Iraq today similar to what it was a year ago?
Here the response is more complex: “It is not what it was a year ago, but it is much less than what we saw in the Gulf War in 1991. The main thrust of the Iraqi deployment today is around Baghdad.”
Question: Then why should we be concerned?
“They can move equipment, they can fly a plane. We are not just talking about western Iraq. But the probability is very low. We will have to reach a very extreme situation so that a decision will be made in Iraq to employ measures against us. It would have to be a state of desperation. And therefore we must presume that in such a state of desperation, Saddam will still have the capability to employ something against us. That is a very extreme situation, and therefore the probability is low. But we must be prepared. And therefore our arrays-in passive defensive, in active defense and in offensive capabilities-are prepared for the possibility that this will take place.”
Question: According to your understanding, is the US strike certain?
“We have been operating for months under the working assumption that a US strike will take place in Iraq. I will be surprised if it does not take place. The circumstances lead me to the conclusion that it will take place.”
The option for a response is ready
Another issue that the chief of staff tries to circumvent-with the explanation of possible damage to the relations between Israel and the US-is the issue of coordination between the two countries prior to and during the confrontation.
Question: Are you satisfied with the “protection package” that the Americans are supplying us with in western Iraq?
“The State of Israel is an independent state. It must, first and foremost, take care of itself. All the rest is a bonus.”
Question: Why don’t the Americans want to give us the specific operational details that will enable Israel to respond if attacked?
“I am not sure that you know everything.”
Question: We are called upon to exhibit restraint. Still, what are our “red lines”? What would you define as a harsh blow, one that would require a response from us?
“The Americans would be very glad if we were not involved. But the State of Israel must be prepared to defend itself.”
At this point, the chief of staff reveals an inkling of his outlook on a situation in which Israel is attacked during the confrontation in the Gulf:
“A state that is attacked has apparently not deterred sufficiently. It must rebuild its deterrence.”
Question: Is the Israeli option for an aggressive response in Iraq prepared and in place?
Question: Will you, contrary to Israel’s restraint in 1991,recommend to exercise that option?
“When the time comes, we will hold the discussion. But we are prepared.”
Question: Are the IAF and IDF in a state of complete preparedness today? “Yes.”
Question: Have you reached the highest degree of preparedness? There are no shortages? The units have undergone all the necessary training?
“That is correct.”
Question: Is the anti-aircraft deployment complete?
“Not yet. But all the equipment is prepared and in working order.”
Question: In other words, the next stage is merely to declare a raise in the level of alert.
“That is correct.”
Question: What is the probability that during the confrontation in the Gulf Hizbullah will open a second front from the north?
“At the moment, I do not see an interest in an escalation on the northern border, not on the part of the Syrians, nor on the part of Hizbullah or other parties involved in Lebanon. On the contrary, I actually see elements of restraint. What will happen after the American strike? That depends on the results.”
“The situation in the north, in any case, must change. Lebanon has become a platform in the service of the Syrians and Iranians-both for creating tension and a threat in the north, and for operating Palestinian terror. In fact, Lebanon is utilized as a platform, on the back of the Lebanese state,for applying pressure to the State of Israel.”
“At the moment, the situation in the north is relatively stable. This stems primarily from our deterrence; from a Syrian fear that an escalation will occur, and then the Syrian army will have to stand a test against the IDF. And that is an arena that the Syrians do not wish to enter. On the other hand, Hizbullah is constantly required to explain why there is quiet.
Therefore, it occasionally carries out some sort of incident or terror attack in the north. It takes responsibility for some of these, and does not take responsibility for others.”
“In addition to the Israeli deterrence,an additional element in the present period is the threat of a US strike against Iraq. Neither the Syrians nor the Iranians or Hizbullah wish to ascend to the top of the American’s list for the axis of evil. And this is a restraining factor. The last time they tried to escalate was during Operation Defensive Shield.
But when we began to mobilize reserves,they calmed down.”
“I don’t think there is a structured, unavoidable process of military conflict between us and Hizbullah in the north. But there must be a change.”
Question: How? Through a political,Lebanese and Syrian decision? By military activity?
“Correct. Those are the possibilities.”
Question: Military activity on our part?
“That is correct.”
Question: Have we made it clear to them, that if they try to escalate the situation on the northern border during the confrontation, we will take action at a different level of force than what they have known in the past?
“That is what they assume. The Syrians, in my opinion, are quite wary of facing the IDF. That is the way I read the picture. And therefore there is deterrence.”
Question: Do the Syrians have reason to believe that if Hizbullah exceeds the limits of a restricted confrontation in Har Dov, they too could pay a painful price?
“Certainly. We have already attacked Syrian targets in Lebanon over smaller issues. The Syrians are responsible for what happens in Lebanon. Syria uses the Lebanese weakness to gain quiet in the Golan Heights. As a compensation, it creates tension on the Lebanese border, at the expense of the Lebanese state.”
We will wait and see
The Palestinian press is currently reporting fear of an Israeli move against the residents of the territories during the confrontation in the Gulf. They speak of a firm hand, of the possibility that Israel will occupy Gaza. The Palestinian street is stockpiling food and medicines, for fear that supplies will be blocked off. The hospitals are preparing. The Palestinians speak of a possibility of transfer, expulsions outside the territories and within the territories. Lebanon, too, has increased the supervision over its border to prevent the expulsion of Palestinians to its territory.
Question: Did you give the Southern Command and Central Command special instructions for action in case of an increase in the number of terror attacks during the confrontation in the Gulf?
“We will wait and see. There are a lot of plans. We are prepared for every eventuality and will implement what is right. We will wait and see.”
Question: How, in your estimation, will the Palestinian arena behave during the war? Is an increase in the activity against Israel expected? Is there information on preparations for mega-terror attacks during the confrontation?
“All the organizations would already be carrying out severe terror attacks,if they only could. Therefore, I see no change in the situation in light of the confrontation in Iraq. The fact is that for several months, they have not succeeded in recreating the month of March 2002, in which we had 135 dead in a series of severe terror attacks-until the seder night massacre. In other words, terror is not succeeding in supplying the goods that it aspires to: A sufficient number of Israeli casualties. Our military activity is mainly offensive, within the cities, within the refugee camps, within the casbahs, in the heart of the Gaza Strip-when necessary. Arrests, finding weapon workshops and the like. This causes them, ultimately, to deal with their own survival and makes it difficult for them to carry out the terror attacks.”
“Only last week, around election day, they intended to carry out a large number of terror attacks. In Jenin, for example, they planned to send a car bomb to one of the cities in the heart of the country on election day itself.”
Question: Is this the same car bomb with 400 kilograms of explosives, that was detonated in the Umm el-Fahm area?
“No. This is a different car bomb. Inside Jenin, we found four car bombs that they prepared. One was supposed to be sent around election day. We found the people behind the car bombs. The head of Islamic Jihad in Jenin was killed at that time. In Nablus, we obstructed the intention to carry out a suicide bombing around election day. They fired Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip, since they were not able to initiate terror attacks from there.”
Question: I understand, from what you are saying, that you believe the peak of terror to be behind us.
“With regard to their motivation and intentions to carry out terror-no. But with regard to their capability-the answer is yes.”
Question: Then you see the light at the end of the tunnel. You actually see the end of the fighting.
“Yes. I see a chance for an end to this round of violence in its [present] characteristics. But not an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor will terror disappear completely.”
Question: You have said, on various opportunities, that 2003 will be a decisive year in the Palestinian arena. What did you mean?
“In recent months,since Operation Defensive Shield, several interesting processes have taken place in the Palestinian arena. From the onset of the terror offensive in September 2000, which reached its peak in March 2002, they have arrived in recent months, in light of our military activity and other factors,at a situation of internal discussions on a cease-fire.
First discussions within Fatah, then between Fatah and Hamas, and now the Cairo talks as well. There is a substantial number of significant elements in Palestinian society and the Palestinian Authority who understand that terror is not bringing them where they expected,and they are willing for a cease-fire. This is a very significant process.”
Question: Your idea, then, is that the failure of the Intifada must be imprinted on the Palestinian consciousness?
“I claim that this process exists. Every day that goes by they pay a higher price. For example, a very interesting phenomenon has been happening over the past week: PA officials have been preventing the launching of Kassam rockets from the Gaza Strip. They are not fighting terror, but officials from the Palestinian police and security services are trying to prevent rocket launchings, since they fear that we will take action in the same way we operated in Beit Hanoun and in the heart of Gaza.
This proves that they understand that launching the Kassam rockets does not, apparently, bring benefits, and they pay a price for it.”
“There is one element who opposes a cease-fire and still thinks that terror will break Israeli society. He sits in the mukataa. Surrounding him there are people who think and understand differently.”
“In any case, this decisive year that I am talking about does not only have to do with our military achievements and internal Palestinian processes, but also to the fact that in the next few weeks there is going to be a regional earthquake here: the American offensive against Iraq. After it, I believe, there will be a new balance in the region. A new structure. A successful American offensive will have a positive effect and will strengthen all of the pragmatic parties in the region. If the offensive is not seen as successful, it will have a negative effect on our arena. I want to remind you that the previous Intifada ended in 1991, in the Gulf War.”
Question: There are more and more reports of harm befalling Palestinian civilians during operations in the territories. Have they reached you?
“I suggest that we not make too much of this. There are not that many incidents of this type. Many of the reports are false Palestinian propaganda. In any case, in every report of Palestinian civilians killed or wounded, the investigation reaches me. I receive a preliminary investigation into any such incident within 72 hours. This is an investigation carried out by the brigade commander, and it passes through the division OC and the command OC. Not more than three weeks after the incident takes place the commanders come to me, and I look into it. In some instances we find that the Palestinian reports were false. In others we reach the conclusion that we should dismiss certain commanders or court-martial others. Harming innocent civilians is firstly a matter of morals and values, and we cannot permit ourselves to let this happen. I deal with it personally.
“The Palestinians use this in a crooked fashion. The Amnesty report, for example, attributed to us dozens of children killed. When you look at the details you see that their list includes suicide bombers under the age of 18. Two weeks ago I received a report regarding an 11-year-old boy who was killed in Nablus by fire from our forces. It turns out that he was hit by a fragment of the bomb that he and his friend were setting off. On the same day I looked into another matter in which a tank commander acted improperly. By the time the report reached me the battalion commander had already told me that this commander was already in jail.”
Question: You changed the style of General Staff meetings. You hold discussions according to subject. For example, two weeks ago you held a meeting of the General Staff at the Democracy Institute on the subject of ethics, law, and morality. What is the problem? Do you find yourselves in a moral quandary?
“It is not a quandary. But I believe that the reflection of the army’s behavior in the Israeli media, of the moral dilemmas that commanders face during combat, is one that is skewed. Most of the time we find ourselves attacked as if we freely harm innocent civilians.”
Question: In the Southern Command the procedure for opening fire is much more flexible than in the Central Command.
“First of all, the orders there are not more relaxed, and they received the approval of the General Staff. In the Southern Command, you must understand, there are special security areas along the fence. When there is a fence in Central Command, these procedures for opening fire will be valid in Central Command as well.”
Question: You said in an interview five months ago that if you had the money to build a separation fence on the seamline you would use it for something else. You are not thrilled about the idea of building a fence.
“From the beginning of the debate about the fence I have said that we should either build the whole fence, or we should build nothing.”
Question: That is to say, you oppose going halfway, not the idea of a fence.
“Let’s make do with the answer I gave you.”
Question: If the matter of the fence is so important, you could have at least decided in the meantime who is in charge, in terms of command, of the seamline area.
“Ask the one who is supposed to make the decision. I already made a decision that the army should be responsible for the seamline.”
Question: So what is delaying the decision?
“It falls between two government ministries: the Defense Ministry and the Ministry of Internal Security.
This appeared in Yediot Ahronot on February 7, 2003