“Obama’s policies did nothing to promote peace or democracy in the Middle East. Assuming that promoting them was American policy and not just lip service, they have actually set them back. Whether Trump wants to or can reverse this situation is not clear. At least as far as Israel is concerned, he says he does — but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” — Eado Hecht
With the eight-year Obama Administration having come to a close on Friday, it seems fitting for Mideast Dig to have one of Israel’s leading military experts reflect on the retired President’s legacy in the Middle East.
Meet Dr. Eado Hecht, a renowned defense analyst specializing in military theory, doctrine and history. He is also one of the world’s leading experts on “underground warfare” — in particular the tunnels Hamas builds in its ongoing efforts to infiltrate Israel. (In 2015, he testified on the subject for the U.N.)
Dr. Hecht is a research fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), an independent, nonpartisan think tank near Tel Aviv that was launched in 1993 and named in memory of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat — whose efforts to create peace laid a foundation for conflict resolution in the region. He also lectures at several academic institutions in Israel, including Haifa University and the IDF Command and General Staff College.
1. Eado, before you obliterate former President Obama, as we suspect you might, surely he achieved something of value in the Middle East.
Assuming the public statements made by Obama and [former Secretary of State] Kerry over the past few years on their goals in the Middle East did indeed reflect their official policy goals rather than lip service, then the two consistently proved themselves completely incompetent in most issues relevant to the Middle East. If they are not incompetent, then apparently their real goals were not those they stated publicly.
The only success Obama can point to is that he reduced American casualties in the region by withdrawing the U.S. military from Iraq. For America, that is obviously a good thing. I was against the Bush Administration’s decision to conquer Iraq from the moment it was first aired, because the illusion that the U.S. could convert Iraq into a Western-style democracy showed a total misunderstanding of the local culture and local rules of the game. For the Iraqis it was a disaster, setting off the civil war that continues today. However, the withdrawal was no less disastrous, enabling the resurgence of Sunni radicals.
In the eyes of the Middle Easterners — [the views of] both the allies and the rivals of the U.S. — Obama consistently and repeatedly betrayed all of the U.S.’s allies in the region, and again, apart from keeping American involvement to a minimum, failed in achieving most of what his rhetoric described as the official goals of the U.S.
Obama’s people kept saying that no previous administration did more than him to strengthen Israel’s security. That may be true if all that matters are how many dollars were given to Israel, but that is not the only measure, and I would argue that since President Johnson decided to change previous American policy and begin treating Israel as an ally, no subsequent administration did as much — on purpose or by mistake — to make Israel actually need that aid. The Iran deal and the attempts to pressure Israel during the Gaza 2014 war (including sudden delays on ammunition supply) are cases in point. I would prefer less monetary aid and more diplomatic support.
2. In comparison to former presidents, Mr. Obama last month made a decision that was unprecedented — his refusal to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution  that condemned Israeli settlement activity. That covered every part of the West Bank, including areas that would surely remain in Israel’s control after any peace deal is reached — such as the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. He and Mr. Kerry hope this move will jumpstart peace talks. President Trump, on the other hand, may believe that moving the American embassy to Jerusalem could be an igniter of a peace agreement.
Trump cannot undo the UNSCR resolution, as there is no retro-veto — which was the latest stab in Israel’s back. But I think we can expect a lot of attempts by Israel to get him to say and do things that contravene the resolution — the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem being one. There would undoubtedly be a lot of acrimony around such an act. Very likely there would be verbal protests by most, if not all, Muslim countries. It is likely there would also be some escalation in the constant violence.
Yes, constant — as there are on average about 90 to 150 Palestinian attacks per month, not including stone-throwing incidents. I think that most of the Muslim protests would be lip service rather than actual anger, and I fail to see any actual action by the non-Palestinian protesters in response (as opposed to diplomatic theater).
On the other hand, such an act [embassy relocation] would be a clear response to the recent UNSCR resolution. It would also be a clear message of the change in policy of the new U.S. administration from the perceived hostility to Israel of the previous administration, and a show of credibility. And that would be another break from the previous administration, which made clear statements and then waffled out of them — the Syrian chemical weapons ‘red line’ as the supreme but not only example.
Obama and Kerry failed completely in all the attempts to ignite a Palestinian willingness to negotiate with Israel. There is absolutely no reason for the Palestinians to conduct a negotiation if they can achieve the same gains without paying anything in return. The pre-decided results of these negotiations, as described by Obama and Kerry in their [subsequent] statements, and in the UN Security Council resolution, makes the negotiations superfluous. Nothing is new; its all been said before and was even offered by Israel in summer 2000 and again in spring 2008 — and was rebuffed both times by the Palestinians as not enough. And yet each time the Administration blamed Israel for the Palestinian refusal and demanded more concessions.
3. From their journalism on the subject, it seems most American reporters in the region either don’t know (or simply don’t care about) the history of the conflict. For one thing, they almost never hold Palestinian leaders to account for their decades-long rejectivism. They do, however, see the settlements as a major barrier, if not the biggest barrier, to a peace deal. As a consequence, most Americans see the settlements in a similar light. In fact, a recent Brookings Institute poll found that nearly half of Americans support imposing sanctions on Israel over its settlement policies. We know that polls can be unreliable, but that percentage doesn’t seem unimaginable.
The settlements are an ideological issue, a negotiating issue and a practical issue. First, they are not a barrier to peace — in fact, they can be dismantled if necessary, as were those in Sinai, in Gaza and in northern Samaria. All Israeli proposals differentiate between settlements that will remain in Israeli hands and those we will have to give up. The vast majority of the former cover less than 5% of the territory in question and in return Israel has offered a territorial swap. About 90% of the Jewish settlers live in these areas.
Second, the negotiating issue: Every time we make a concession, the Palestinians accept that this is the ‘start line’ of the negotiation and now they can demand more. For any negotiation to succeed you cannot begin by starting at the final price you are willing to pay, because it automatically becomes the first bid before the other side demands more and you are required to pay more. Bibi [Prime Minister Netanyahu] halted the building and what did we get in return? Nothing — so why bother?
Third, the population living in the settlements is growing, they need housing, so if they aren’t leaving they need a place to live.
As to Obama’s statement [as reiterated in his final press conference] that the two-state solution is dying or dead, it isn’t because of Israel building houses — especially not in enclaves that even the U.S. agrees should probably remain in Israeli hands.
It is because the Palestinians insist on continuing to attack Israelis, which creates a complete lack of belief among the Israelis that they want peace rather than an improved staging ground for more attacks against Israel.
It is because a period in which there are only 90 to 150 Palestinian attacks with deadly weapons per month on Israelis are called ‘quiet periods’ — an escalation being hundreds per month. In fact we have a cynical joke in Israel that says that in lunch breaks you go to eat, in cigarette breaks you go to smoke, so of course in fire breaks — the literal translation of the Hebrew word for ‘ceasefire’ — the shooting continues. Ceasefires only mean less attacks on Israelis, not no attacks.
It is because the Palestinian leadership has repeatedly refused to accept a two-state solution or even Israel’s very right to exist. In the case of Arafat in the summer of 2000, his response to Israeli offers was an escalation of violence that lasted almost six years and cost approximately 1,120 Israeli lives.
In the case of Gaza, which Israel withdrew from in 2005 — uprooting 8,000 Jews from their homes and dismantling their settlements — this was followed by an escalation of attacks on Israel, including the shooting of at least 17,000 rockets and mortar bombs from Gaza into Israel from 2005 until today. That compelled Israel to launch four major military operations and hundreds of smaller ones. And in the case of Abu Mazen [PA President Abbas] in 2008, he simply ignored the offers and occasionally also incited more violence, such as the escalation of so-called lone-wolf attacks in autumn 2015 which began after a series of deliberately inflammatory statements by Abu Mazen and other Palestinian leaders.
And by the way, two states do exist — one is Gaza — so actually today we are discussing a three-state solution.
4. Many non-Israelis would be surprised by your statistics on current Palestinian attacks. You said there are 90 to 150 per month, involving deadly weapons. Our colleagues in major media outlets are certainly not presenting such a dire monthly picture.
Lets take two examples — a low-end month and a high-end month.
One month ago, in December , there were 97 attacks — ten in Jerusalem, and 87 all over Judea and Samaria [West Bank]. Sixty-seven were petrol bomb [bottles with petroleum and a fuse] attacks against passing Israeli cars, buses or the Jerusalem Metro; 19 involved IEDs [improvised explosive devices]; nine were the shooting of firearms; and two were stabbing attacks. As is usual, most of the attacks failed to cause casualties. During that month, six Israelis were wounded.
October 2016 was the worst month since February 2016: 151 attacks — 103 all over Judea and Samaria, and 48 in Jerusalem. [They comprised] 121 petrol bomb attacks, 19 IED attacks, eight firearms, two car-rammings, one stabbing. Two Israelis were killed and ten wounded in a drive-by shooting, five wounded in three separate shooting incidents, five wounded in the car-rammings, one wounded by the stabbing, one wounded by an IED, and one wounded by a petrol bomb.
In addition to the above, on the Gaza border there were two attacks — one which included a rocket and a mortar bomb being fired simultaneously across the border, and one incident of light cannon fire across the border. No one was hurt.
Stone-throwing incidents average from a hundred to a few hundred per month and are publicized only if someone is hurt — a rare occurrence, though damage is often sustained to cars or other property, or if there is a very large incident involving dozens of participants.
5. There are many people who wonder why Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry didn’t publicly push President Abbas hard to get to the negotiating table without pre-conditions. What did they think they would lose by doing so? Meanwhile, they almost never talked about the decades-long repression by Palestinian leaders of their own people.
What can I say — that is part of the issue. They were completely focused on having Israel make concessions and telling us that this will be good for us, despite the proven history that every concession has failed or made things worse.
All the Arab regimes were and are repressive. Some are worse, some less. The only state to improve its lot from the Arab Spring is Tunisia — and note that per capita it is the biggest provider of fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Instead of a repressive, corrupt regime in Libya you now have a civil war; likewise in Syria and Yemen. Likewise, though to a lesser extent, in Egypt — with “only” a few hundred killed per year rather than thousands per year in the other civil wars. Is that better?
Morsi’s regime [Egypt] was democratically elected but heading towards a repressive radical Islamic policy, one that included — not as their first priority, but further down the road — the end of that democracy, and the end of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Al-Sisi [Egypt’s current president] does what is necessary for his regime to survive and for Egypt to function.
Liberal democracy is a good idea if everybody agrees to play by the rules. It needs certain cultural circumstances to work. These [conditions] do not exist in virtually any state in the Middle East, so collapsing the regimes that hold these states together only gets worse results.
6. You’ll recall that a UN commission of inquiry on the Israel-Hamas war found what they called “possible” war crimes committed by both sides. Eado, as one of the world’s leading experts on underground warfare, the commission invited you to give testimony about the tunnels that Hamas built in efforts to get access into Israel. Did your testimony influence their probe? And can you update us on what Hamas is doing nowadays with tunnels, as well as the state of the technology that can detect them?
I don’t think my testimony had much effect on the UN commission because it was a prejudged case. They wanted to lynch Israel and preferred the appropriate testimony of the Palestinians and various pro-Palestinian NGOs. If you recall, the first head of the commission was actually fired for expressing these goals more or less openly, but the other people chosen to participate remained. I kept my contact with them to a minimum, and demanded to conduct my testimony in writing only. So they sent me questions, I answered, and they pretty much ignored me.
Hamas continues to prepare for the next round, while at the same time working very hard to prevent an escalation it doesn’t yet want — arresting anyone who defies the official ban on attacking Israel.
Hamas’s lessons from summer 2014 were that the best offensive weapons in its arsenal were the cross-border tunnels and naval commandos, so it is working hard to rebuild them. The speed of the work has reduced some of the quality, leading to a spate of tunnel cave-ins that killed digging-personnel. Their defensive capabilities fell short; they did not prevent the IDF ground forces from entering Gaza to search for and destroy the tunnels, so Hamas is probably working on that too. In spring 2016, after capturing a couple of Hamas personnel involved in the offensive tunnel operations, the IDF destroyed a couple of offensive tunnels. Not all tunnels are offensive — many are defensive, to hide people and equipment from Israeli forces and provide hidden fighting positions.
There still does not exist a technology that can efficiently detect deep tunnels of the kind Hamas is digging to attack Israel. The IDF response now is to build a deep wall, of a few dozen meters, with detection technology. The exact details are of course classified, but a few points are clear:
a) The wall won’t prevent tunneling operations. Hamas will have to go deeper, making them more difficult, slower and more expensive to dig, thus reducing the number available within a particular time-frame — and perhaps delaying the next escalation. Or, conversely, bringing it closer because the wall-building operations threaten to discover and enable destruction of existing tunnels — creating a pressure to use them before they lose them. When the IDF worked to destroy the tunnels in spring 2016 there were miniature escalations of fighting, carefully controlled by both sides to avoid a full-scale flare-up.
b) If another war begins, the most efficient and effective counter to the tunnels will still be for the IDF to go into Gaza to look for the entrances of the tunnels in order to destroy them.
7. You’re a fierce critic of the nuke deal Mr. Obama struck with Iran. He considers that agreement to be one of his top accomplishments in the region.
The so-called success with Iran is a fraud. First, it actually allows Iran to continue the project. At best, completion of the program has been delayed by a few years, in return for alleviating Iran’s fiscal ability to maintain that program and a variety of other offensive programs that are officially contradictory to American policy — such as the support Iran provides to the Assad regime [Syria]. It also alleviates the economic situation in Iran, making the Iranian regime sturdier. The duration of the delay achieved is also debatable, as the issue is more complex.
To achieve a military nuclear capability, fissile material is necessary but not enough. One also needs to be able to create a working device capable of igniting this material into a nuclear chain reaction that creates an explosion. After that, one needs to reduce the size of the device so that it will fit into a bomb or missile warhead that can be carried to the target. From all the reports that have been published the Iranians have still not achieved these capabilities, so they do not yet need the fissile material.
Furthermore, once Iran has all three technological abilities to create a working nuclear weapon, there are two strategic issues:
First, how many can Iran make before hostile intelligence services discover the capability and it is attacked to preemptively destroy that capability? To deter such an attack, Iran needs to be able to go from no nuclear weapons to many dozens within a very short period. That would be the only way to deter a foreign attack aimed at destroying this capability — by having so many that the potential attacker could not be sure of missing some and opening himself for retaliation.
To do this requires a quality of centrifuges Iran does not currently possess, and work on improving the centrifuges continues unabated. It also needs to have the required number of warheads already manufactured and waiting for the nuclear material. It is very unlikely that they would cross the nuclear threshold before they have developed all the required technologies and acquired a sufficient capability to achieve the required rapid mass-manufacture capability.
Second, does Iran have the ability to hit targets that the potential enemy actually cares about losing? Thus, if Iran’s nuclear weapons can target only adjacent Middle Eastern countries, would that deter the U.S. from attacking it?
Iran has been working on developing long-range surface-to-surface missiles that could reach western Europe. I am not sure how advanced that program is, but as far as I know it has not been completed yet. Again, assuming they believe that the U.S. will not care about nuclear bombs exploding on Iran’s close neighbors, even if they have already achieved all the above capabilities, the final crossing of the nuclear threshold would be delayed until they have this capability.
This of course begs the question of why, if in any case the threat is years away, the Israeli government was so vociferous and loud about the issue. The simple reason is that this was the only way to get the U.S. and other Western states to care about the issue and actually try to do something to stop the project. The sanctions were imposed only because of Israel’s threats to do something drastic if they were not, and Israel’s opposition to the agreement is for the same reason. The focus on the development of fissile material technology was the only issue that actually got them to do something tangible, beyond minor sabotage — killing individuals, damaging machines, etc. — that could delay but not stop the program.
The sanctions did not directly affect the Iranians’ ability to continue the nuclear program — that program was prioritized over other issues — but it weakened Iran in general and perhaps, in the long run, raised the possibility of weakening the Iranian regime from within, if the sanctions sufficiently damaged Iran’s economy over an extended time. Increasing the sanctions to crash the regime would have been the best approach. Instead, the deal with Iran allowed the U.S. and Europe to wriggle out of their commitment, strengthened the Iranian regime, and enabled it to put money to use elsewhere.
Obama has kicked a very explosive proverbial ‘can down the road.’ Doing that has raised concerns among the U.S.’s Arab allies that they can no longer trust the U.S. to protect them from a nuclear-armed Iran. That, in turn, could lead to some Arab states seeking their own nuclear weapon capability.
Why has Israel gone virtually silent on the issue? Because that ship has sailed and re-escalating the argument will achieve nothing. Hopefully, the new American leadership will see things differently and some effective response might be developed before the proverbial can explodes in a very real way.
8. You said earlier that withdrawing the American troops from Iraq was Mr. Obama’s only success in the Middle East.
The official description of the situation in Iraq was more or less ‘mission accomplished’ — that mission being defined as a democratic regime and virtual peace in Iraq. And the excuses given later when Iraq re-exploded show a disconnect from the reality on the ground. That’s assuming they actually believed this was the situation and weren’t deliberately selling fictitious propaganda of the kind used to push the Iran Deal, as Ben Rhodes’ interview suggested.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In May 2016, Ben Rhodes (then the White House’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications) stated the following…. “We created an echo chamber [to build support for the Iran nuclear deal]… They [journalists] were saying things that validated what we had given them to say… All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
If the critical need for Mideast Dig could be encapsulated in one quote, it might be what Rhodes conceded about the way inexperienced U.S. journalists are often handled by Washington. Rhodes cited Moscow and Cairo as examples of cities where journalists who “literally know nothing” ask the White House to explain to them what’s going on inside those regions. He could just as accurately have added Jerusalem, or any number of other Middle Eastern cities.]
Iraq was not peaceful, it was not democratic and the Sunni Awakening was not some revelation to the Sunni-Arab tribal leaders of the advantages of the new Iraq. It was merely a response to increasing pressure on those Sunni-Arab tribal leaders who found themselves simultaneously under attack by the U.S. military surge, the demands of their more fanatic co-religionists — the progenitors of ISIS — who demanded they adopt their religious interpretations and killed or tortured Sunni leaders who disagreed with them, and the continuous Shiite attacks that were forcing Sunnis out of formerly mixed-areas.
The illusion, that after a withdrawal of U.S. military presence the Shiite dominated Iraq would treat the Sunni-Arabs in any way other than they did is one more example of the misunderstanding of the local culture and rules of the game. Blaming Maliki [Iraq’s former prime minister] as a misguided individual misunderstands the entire Sunni-Shiite relationship and the people he represents. After the American withdrawal the Sunni tribal leaders had no choice but to search for another ally, paving the way back for ISIS. They are having to repeatedly choose whether to stay in the frying pan or jump into the fire, or vice-versa.
The American delay in acting when ISIS burst forward, and especially when it attacked the Kurdish regions, is another example of letting down allies — not to mention the entire American policy to the Kurds. Comparing the level of American support, when it finally began, and its effectiveness, to the effectiveness and strength of the Russian support of its ally in Syria, did not improve the US standing either. With fewer and weaker forces, the Russians achieved more and more quickly in Syria than did the Americans in Iraq. It wasn’t because of American military incapability; it was because the Russians came to fight. The American forces were sent for show.
9. On what subject does Israel come in for sharp criticism from you?
I would say that I am not enamored with some of the tones used by Israeli leaders. I am more in favor of British-style understatement. This probably exacerbated some of the disagreements [with the Obama administration].
I personally would rather we reduced financial aid from the US. We probably cannot do completely without it — but still. Until the late 1990s, Israel received both military and civilian aid from the U.S. Netanyahu, in his first stint as prime minister, asked the Americans to cease the civilian aid and stated that over time we should work to reduce the military aid as well.
Instead we have asked for increasing amounts. Today our military gets more aid than was given then for both military and civilian uses. The combination of sometimes shrill tones of criticism on the one hand and coming to ask for more aid on the other does not look or sound good.
We have become overly technophiliac in finding solutions to military problems, and this is raising the cost of the defense budget and making us overly dependent on American aid. Instead of trying to acquire more and more advanced technology — each new piece costing much more for less extra capability — we should be working on the technology to get the same capabilities for less money.
10. Militarily, what do Americans get in return for the billions of aid that it provides Israel?
It varies. Originally, during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, the idea was simply for the U.S. to have a loyal, stable and strong ally in the Middle East. Someone once referred to us as the unsinkable aircraft carrier, a stepping stone to the Gulf at a time when Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq were pro-Soviet.
As part of the Cold War, Israel also provided intelligence services, and information about Soviet technology in Arab hands — what worked against it, and what didn’t. Israeli victories reflected well on the U.S. in its global competition to gain more allies versus the Soviets.
Since the U.S.S.R. collapsed, things have shifted a bit. First, some of the money given to Israel was compensation for Israel giving up the Sinai buffer between it and Egypt — which was an American interest in order to get Egypt to leave the Soviet camp and join the Western camp. Also, in order to wean Egypt from the Soviet camp, the USA needed to give Egypt money to buy weapons — without strengthening Egypt to a point where it threatened Israel. So there was a decision that Egypt would get $1.3 billion dollars per year and Israel would get 1.9 [billion dollars]. This was written into an annex of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
Second, most of the money Israel receives is spent in the U.S., providing jobs for Americans and maintaining production of materials the U.S. army doesn’t need at the time but wants the production lines maintained for emergencies.
Third, there are a lot of projects in which Israeli technology, funded by the aid, assists American needs. Take for example Reagan’s Star Wars program. Of all the countries originally involved in that program, only Israel and the U.S. actually created anything that works. Again, a lot of American companies are involved in the Israeli projects, thus creating new American capabilities. In fact, Israel’s Arrow missiles and Namer APCs [a leading brand of armored personnel carriers] are manufactured in the U.S. This provides American companies with both work and knowledge.
Fourth, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Israel provided storage and training facilities and equipment for the American military. For example, during the first Iraq war , Israel provided obstacle-clearing engineering equipment that wasn’t available in the U.S. because the army hadn’t needed it in Europe. During the second Iraq war, Israeli-developed protection was added to the U.S. military Hummer — also called HMMWV or Humvee vehicles — saving the lives of many U.S. soldiers.
Ironically, the U.S. treatment of Israel is seen as a litmus test of American credibility by the U.S.’s other regional allies who are hostile to Israel. The nuclear deal with Iran was seen as a betrayal not only by Israel, but also by America’s Arab allies. They concluded that if Israel failed to prevent that disastrous U.S. policy, and its non-nuclear regional political and military fall-out, then they too could no longer trust the U.S. And their foreign and defense policies have reflected this – the strengthened position of Russia in the Middle East is one consequence.
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