by Erez Winner
Dear Mr. Secretary of State,
We don’t know each other personally, but in my position as assistant to the IDF chief of General Staff, I have been closely following your every move. When you met, as a senator, with Bashar Assad in Damascus, I was flabbergasted when you proclaimed that this was a great opportunity to make peace with Syria’s modern and moderate leader.
Over the past few months, I’ve been listening very closely to your speeches and statements about events in the Middle East and what actions you think Israel should take. I would like to describe to you a slightly different reality, one which I’ve experienced through the various senior IDF positions I’ve held, through the military reserve duty which I still actively carry out and from living with my family in Beit Horon, a community situated between Jerusalem and Modi’in (you’d probably call it a West Bank settlement) where we have been living alongside Palestinian neighbors for many years.
We have all been witness to the fact that the Arab Spring has turned into a cold and stormy winter. Your and President Barack Obama’s joint efforts to shape a new foreign diplomacy has brought America’s status in the world to an all-time low. This reality primarily affects the US’s influence as a world power (including in trade and commerce), but indirectly affects Israel, since the US is our strongest ally. The US’s desire to quickly solve all of the problems and disputes in the Middle East (preferably before the 2016 elections) might quiet things down in certain areas in the short term (or might not), but it could lead to even greater violence and radicalism in the long run. This is the reality that I have experienced during my modest life.
Israel is enjoying a relatively quiet period, something which has been rare in recent years. This quiet is not the result of a lack of will on the part of our enemies, but of serious and thorough intelligence gathering and security control by the Israeli authorities.
Judea and Samaria (or the West Bank, as you call it)
After the Palestinians violated the Oslo Accords and began, in 2000, launching unrestrained attacks against Israeli citizens (known in Palestinian circles as the Al-Aksa Intifada), Israel succeeded in carrying out what most of the experts around the world (and, unfortunately, some of our own experts who claim to understand security-related issues) claimed could not be done: We won an absolute victory against the terrorist organizations that were trying to destroy us.
Granted, we did not succeed in achieving peace, but we succeeded in almost fully eradicating terrorism. But keeping the peace under these conditions is extremely difficult and this has only been possible due to constant vigilance and work that is carried out by Israeli security personnel in Judea and Samaria, day and night. If we were to give in to your demand that Israel stop thwarting terrorist activity in Judea and Samaria, the number of terror attacks carried out by Hamas and extremist Salafist groups would increase exponentially overnight.
Each and every one of these attempted terrorist attacks is prevented or thwarted by Israel. However, if Israel were to halt its activity to thwart terror, a new wave of attacks would break out almost immediately, and extremist Palestinian groups would instantly take control.
If you were to ask me how I know this, my reply would be: from experience. When Israel halted counterterrorist operations in northern Samaria after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, a wave of attacks began at once. Israel was only able to suppress this violence after it reinstated its counterinsurgent operations in the area.
Jordan is a US ally that has a signed peace agreement with Israel. Jordanian-Israeli relations are stable, albeit chilly. King Abdullah and those close to him have lost many nights’ sleep worrying about the border it might eventually share with a Palestinian state.
Nothing could undermine the security situation in Israel and Jordan more than an open border between a Palestinian state and Jordan. Here, too, I am not speaking about my personal fears, but from concrete experience.
When Israel withdrew from the Philadelphi Corridor in 2005 and transferred control of the Sinai-Gaza border at Rafah to the Egyptians (in an agreement which was meant to be backed and guaranteed by international forces) an extensive smuggling network mushroomed and huge amounts of weapons were systematically smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
And if you were to suggest that we station international forces on the border – even US troops – I would tell you that we’ve tried this before and failed. International forces failed to prevent smuggling and terrorist attacks in Sinai (where US troops had been stationed) and in Lebanon (where UNIFIL troops were stationed).
Syria is deeply embroiled in a bloody civil war with no rules: Rockets are fired at civilians and residential areas, planes and helicopters attack people and forces have broken the taboo and are using nonconventional warfare.
Hundreds of thousands of innocent people have lost their lives, millions of Syrians have become refugees and who knows how many more will die before the war ends.
There are two lessons to be learned from this war. The first is that we cannot rely on international guarantees and that the civilized world and international institutions’ readiness to protect us, even when spelled out in signed agreements, are worthless. The second is that the Western world and international organizations are totally hypocritical.
On the one hand, they condemn Israel and establish investigative committees for every single Palestinian who was ever harmed by Israel, and on the other hand, they sit by and watch as President Assad (as well as many other leaders around the world) massacres his own citizens month after month, doing nothing except for stating halfheartedly that they condemn this type of behavior.
Hezbollah has been the strongest organization in Lebanon for years. It’s a bit strange to call it an “organization,” though, since it has in its arsenal of about 100,000 rockets and missiles which it can fire at will into Israel. Hezbollah has a larger arsenal of projectiles than any country, aside from the superpowers. Despite Hezbollah’s significant military power, Israel’s northern border has been its quietest for the past seven years.
And why is that, you might ask? It’s certainly not because Hezbollah has turned into a pro-peace organization.
It is due to the tremendous blow it suffered during its most recent military confrontation with Israel, in 2006. Even though the IDF did not give as good a fight as it could have, it succeeded in causing the Hezbollah enough damage so that it prefers a quiet and stable border.
The result is a status quo similar to one we might have attained had we signed a peace agreement with Lebanon.
On the other hand, the cease-fire agreement (Security Council Resolution 1701) has not succeeded in preventing Hezbollah from rearming and bolstering its armed forces, mostly with assistance from Iran and Syria.
Since Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip (2005), when Israel gave up control of the Strip’s border with Egypt, Gaza has turned into a hotbed of terrorism.
The billions of dollars in donations from around the world, including from the US, have not helped one bit to improve the lives of Palestinians living in Gaza.
Although Israel has withdrawn from every inch of Gaza and all the Israelis living there were uprooted from their homes, the Palestinian people is not any closer to forming a state or a free government. The opposite is true: Hamas carried out a violent and cruel military coup (in 2007) and now controls Gaza. Many Palestinian Authority supporters were thrown to their deaths from rooftops or shot in the knees. This is what we have to look forward to if we take your advice and withdraw from Judea and Samaria.
The calmness we’ve been experiencing on the border with the Gaza Strip these past few years is not the result of changes in Hamas policy, but of deterrence. Hamas is not willing to suffer the consequences of another military operation like Cast Lead (December 2008 -January 2009) or Pillar of Defense (November 2012 – Hebrew name: Pillar of Cloud).
Surprisingly, over the past few months, the Egyptian army has for the first time been actively preventing smuggling and has been fighting an all-out war in the tunnels.
In the past, I personally participated in meetings with senior Egyptian military leaders – meetings in which the US was involved – during which the former stated that it was impossible to hermetically seal the border. This was reiterated even after agreements were signed and generous amounts of funding were allocated to deal with these issues.
From this example, we learn that the parties must have common interests in order to solve problems in the Middle East, not just sign agreements.
The cold peace between Egypt and Israel has remained intact all these years because the countries have common interests. The Egyptians are very concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood will attain too much power. Israel has similar concerns about Hamas (which is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood). US aid to Egypt, which has been made possible following the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, comes at the behest of Israel, since it is in Israel’s best interest that Egypt be strong enough to overcome the Muslim Brotherhood.
Unfortunately, Obama and the US administration’s policy vis-à-vis Egypt’s deposed president Hosni Mubarak and their position regarding Egypt’s current military regime weaken this common interest. The Egyptian military is suppressing terrorist activity in Sinai and blocking smuggling activity on its border with the Gaza Strip, not out of a desire to help Israel, but because Egypt knows that terrorism carried out by Islamic Jihad in Gaza is a threat to Egypt.
And last but not least, Iran
Iran is the country responsible for carrying out the most terrorist attacks around the globe and for creating a general feeling of unease.
With or without nuclear capability, Iran is a threat not to Israel alone, but to the entire world. Israel, under the leadership of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, recently found itself leading a struggle against the nuclearization of Iran, not just for its own sake, but for the sake of the entire world. As it says in the Talmud, “In a place where there are no good people, strive to be a good person,” (Ethics of the Fathers, 2:5).
A nuclear Iran would be more of a threat to Europe and the US than to Israel. Iran could raise the price of oil and then engage in extortion. And if the world fails to meet Iran’s demands, the world will end up paying dearly.
North Korea is a perfect example of what kind of threat a nuclear Iran could become.
Mr. Secretary of State, I would like to conclude my letter to you with a request. The next time you visit Israel, take a good look at the incredible view out the window of your suite at the King David Hotel. You will see the tall, sturdy walls of ancient Jerusalem. This city has experienced endless wars and battles over the past few thousand years. The long periods of prosperity and security in between were never the result of compromise or agreements with enemies who surrounded this small but significant strip of land, but of deterrence. And the only way to create deterrence is by showing one’s strength, which unfortunately sometimes includes military operations. This is how it’s been since the time of King David and King Solomon and it continues up until the present era, when the city of Jerusalem was reunited during the Six Day War.
Before you pressure Israel to hastily sign one agreement or another, and to rely on “security arrangements” and signed documents, I ask that you please take these words into consideration and remember that true peace can only come from a position of strength, one where the sides have common interests and are not being forced to make compromises regarding safety.
And what will we do in the meantime, you might ask? We’ll continue to live our lives, thrive and fight when necessary. In the words of King David, “The Lord shall grant strength to His people, the Lord shall bless His people with peace,” (Psalms, 29:11).
Peace will come only out of strength.
Erez Winner is an IDF colonel (res.) and a former assistant to the chief of General Staff.
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