Israel in the Present Tense

Chuck Nash next to a tank from the Yom Kippur War
Bill Cowan and I returned from a five-day trip to Israel where we were hosted by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Israeli Defense Forces. The trip was very well orchestrated and the level of access, event timing, and transportation/billeting arrangements were all terrific.

Meeting with Chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, Dr.Yuval Shtainitz:

Israel says they are moving to the Mediterranean Sea to build "strategic defensive depth."  This means heavy, long-range guns (70-100 tons reaching 100-200KM) on ships (the only thing capable of transporting such weapons), which will be harder to target because of their mobility.  They would also carry long-range rockets and cruise missiles.  The rationale for the shift?  In recent years  "primitive weapons" like artillery have become so accurate and long range, that Israeli jets can be taken out on the ground and the airfields interdicted from afar, thus offsetting the technical advantage they’ve enjoyed previously.  From the sea, ships could again be the system counted upon to deliver ordnance with relative impunity.

Meeting with Major General (ret.) Uzi Dayan, Chairman of Security Fence for Israel:

We toured locations of the fence.  Hard data shows a 90% reduction of violence in some areas where the fence construction has been completed and a substantial overall reduction of completed vs. attempted attacks. There are differing views as to whether the fence is a temporary structure or a definition of the border and thus a strategic item.  The fence seems to follow the "Green Line" (1967 border) but allows for deviations under a three item routing protocol.  Major Gen. Dayan allowed for the fact that regardless of whether the fence is temporary or permanent, they should get on with the construction as it is a security imperative.  He pointed out the fact that ZERO suicide bombers have come from Gaza, which has had a fence for several years now.  In addition, present Arab/Palestinian birth rates will lead to the current Jewish Israeli majority becoming the minority within 10-15 years.  The Major General’s analysis of the situation seemed to see the Palestinian objective as buying time until the demographics continue to improve their position.  He says the Palestinians can be expected to continue the unrest to make sure there is no agreement before they are ready and hold better cards.

Jordan's not too hot on the idea either, as 80% of Jordan's population is Palestinian and the West Bank would be a new political entity on their western border.  Interestingly, Jordan's agreements on their western border are with the government of Israel, and not the Palestinian Authority.  A Palestinian homeland between Israel and the Jordan River valley adds huge political unknowns for Jordan. The potential for the Palestinians within Jordan to want to "unite" with the new Palestinian homeland is a situation that would be extremely stressing for the Jordanian government. 

Tunnels and Smuggling Brief:

We also received a briefing on the tunnels in Gaza through which illicit weapons, explosives, drugs and people are smuggled. We learned that the people who allow tunnel entrances to be dug in their homes make good money and are paid monthly. (Of course until the tunnels are discovered, and then they meet an IDF bulldozer driver.)  The entire area along the Gaza Strip/Egyptian border is less than five miles long, yet finding and destroying the tunnels soaks up a lot of the IDF's manpower and money.  These tunnels are deep in the earth (about 40-50 feet down) and are not built by amateurs.  They use motorized drilling and tunneling equipment built in their own machine shops. This is an area where Israel wants Egypt to step up to the plate on their side of the border. Since criminals and terrorists both need the same secretive transport/logistics routes, and as long as there is a profit incentive and the Egyptians don't clean up their side of the border, this activity will continue.  The Israelis fear that they will bring or perhaps already have brought over long-range Katyusha rockets or SA-7/SA-14 SAMS, that if employed, would cause a significant escalation. (Note: This Katyusha concern is also a fear in the north of the country where such rockets - launched by Hezbollah - could reach the chemical plants near Haifa. Such actions could almost certainly be expected to cause immediate and severe retaliation.) 

Settlements and Checkpoints:

We visited several locations/settlements in the West Bank including Ariel, one of the major settlements, and spent two hours with its mayor, Ron Nachman.  We gained some interesting perspectives on the settlement issue, potential paths forward, and complications with various options.  Mayor Nachman views the fence as a necessary evil, which ought to be temporary, or rather, a security tool.  He is frustrated that although he and the people of Ariel built the city over thirty years ago (on what he says was land purchased from the previous owners) and have constructed a modern, very high-tech community of 18,000 people, 7 schools, 25 pre-schools and a college, they are still referred to as "settlers," and have been called "an impediment to peace" by former President Jimmy Carter.  The Mayor's question was pretty simple; “So what are we supposed to do, just walk away from all this?  And go where?   The government encouraged us to settle here.”  The settlements that we saw are what we in the U.S. would refer to as housing developments or small towns.  I don't know what I was expecting but they looked more like a development you would find near Santa Barbara, California.

We toured the Israeli settlement Gilo and visited an IDF observation post which sat on top of the Tomb of Samuel the Profit from which the entire panorama of Jerusalem can be seen.  We visited a checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem to observe how the IDF inspects border traffic.  It is clear that not all vehicles can be inspected thoroughly enough to find a suicide bomb belt as traffic would be shut down.  It is VERY clear that the IDF, Shin Bet (internal security) and the Mossad (external security) have an extensive human intelligence network, and are alerted and respond to specific threats.  While we were at the checkpoint, papers and manifests were checked and traffic moved in a very reasonable flow.  Of note was that the Palestinians are not permitted to drive their cars out of the West Bank or Gaza.  Palestinian vehicles have white plates with black lettering while all Israeli citizens have yellow with black lettering.  Palestinian workers are permitted to walk across the border and have someone pick them up and take them to work, but it requires an Israeli sponsor who is willing to vouch for the person and provide them transport.

Golan Heights and Galilee:

We did an all-day trip to the Golan Heights and Galilee to gain appreciation of the strategic nature of this real estate. We spoke throughout the trip with officials and regular folks alike and got their views of whether or not to allow the Golan to be used as a negotiation element with Syria. A "Land for Peace" option is trading the Golan Heights for peace with Syria.  The people we spoke with had different views.  The minority opinion was the land had to be returned to allow Syria to regain its pride and thus allow them to move on.  The majority view is simply that it would be a strategic disaster and cannot be allowed to happen.  We toured the command center, observed the IDF's remote surveillance activities, and spoke with some of the troops.  We saw Hezbollah emplacements and recently discovered roadside bombs (found the morning of our visit) and spoke with people about the activity on the northern borders and the prospects for peace.  We gained an understanding of the training and level of operational detail that is required to know who does and does not belong in the villages on the other side of the fence.  Facial recognition and an intimate knowledge of the patterns of life are essential elements in this very serious activity.  Conversely, any patterns established by the IDF are immediately noticed and exploited by the Hezbollah with deadly result. 

Intelligence Brief with IDF Director, Assessments Production Division:

We asked him about the reports that Iraq’s WMD were taken to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, but he politely refused to answer the question.  He also said they believe Al Qaeda’s next target most likely will be one of the moderate Arab regimes. What really keeps him up at night? Iran.

The Future and Conclusions:

We also spoke with officials and regular folks who offered differing opinions on what the future of Israel looks like. Many literally have no firm opinion as to how things are going be in just five years.  If there is no common vision for a future, there appears to be even less agreement on a common path to it.  This is frustrating for them but also a source of some pride that they are all free to disagree. They actually joke about this national pastime of spirited debate.  As with most politicians, not all are confident in Prime Minister Sharon.  Several people we spoke with were very direct and said he has no vision and is "plodding."  We heard several times that Benjamin Netanyahu stands the best chance of being elected the next Prime Minister of Israel.  It appears that PM Sharon is not moving fast enough for those who want the fence up in their area by yesterday, but he is moving too fast in building a barrier that detractors say will worsen the situation. His military background (former IDF Chief of Staff) is responsible for, what a critic said, is his linear thinking and a lack of appreciation of real politics. Several observers referred to him as unwilling to make the tough choices. 

Overall it was a fascinating trip. It was interesting to see the changes since I starting visiting Israel in 1978 as a naval officer.  People are going about their lives as they do almost anywhere else, and there was little disruption to the daily routine.  It is obvious that they have a very good human intelligence network established in the West Bank. But there is concern among some with whom we spoke that there is no clear vision for the future of the country or a path out of the current problems.  This could be true or simply a reflection of fighting this for so long that they are just tired.  It seemed they were tired of the danger and tired of the rest of the world telling them they need to do more and accept more.  In the meantime, they are building a fence, living seemingly normal lives, and hoping for the best.  One hope is that the U.S. keeps the pressure on, as the Israelis see the U.S. actions in the war on terror as having a positive affect on their lives and a moderating influence on the behavior of others in the region. 

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Chuck Nash is a military analyst for FOX News.  Nash retired from the Navy in 1998 after serving more than 25 years as a naval aviator and serving in numerous Navy tactical and training squadrons and staffs ashore and afloat accumulating more than 4,300 hours of flight time and 965 carrier landings. A graduate of the National War College, Nash is founder and president of Emerging Technologies International Inc.