By Yonah Jeremy Bob January | JPOST | 24, 2019
Former Mossad Personnel Division chief Rolly Gueron and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) deputy chief Arie Pellman have spent their lives in Israel’s intelligence community protecting the country’s security and internal and global interests.
They are no lightweights. When they talk about national security, you can not only hear, but also feel from their animated expressions, that their unique experiences in the Mossad and Shin Bet have given them a much deeper understanding of the issue than most.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine about Hezbollah, Iran, terrorism, the International Criminal Court and other security issues, they connected all of this to the need to give the Palestinians a peace horizon.
Their backgrounds in intelligence, which give them perspectives even different from some of their IDF compatriots in the group Commanders for Israel’s Security, are what make their views so interesting.
As part of CIS, they are campaigning for various coordinated interim withdrawals from the West Bank and rehabilitating Gaza in exchange for quiet and some interim concessions from the Palestinian side.
They also have a report arguing that the opposite approach, annexation of the West Bank, would cost the state NIS 52 billion per year, or equivalent to NIS 2,500 per Israeli.
The two were pressed that, even if arguably in the 1990s it might have seemed that reaching compromises with the Palestinians could help solve Israel’s other security issues, most experts now say that threats have evolved. In other words, the threats from Hezbollah, Iran and possibly Syria, will remain problems regardless of the Palestinian issue.
If so, then why make concessions to the Palestinians when there are so many other threats wielding more powerful weapons to use against Israel than the Palestinians?
WITH FOCUSED eyes that have seen more of the world than most, Gueron acknowledges that the issue is very complex. “I do see the Iranian threat and its proxy Hezbollah as a very serious threat to Israel. But they are not an existential threat that could lead us to cease to exist.
“The harm from a conflict with Hezbollah… could be severe and almost unlivable, especially to Israeli infrastructure.”
Showing his bipartisan attitude, he also compliments Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his handling of the Hezbollah-Syria threats. “All that Israel is doing today to deal with these issues are the correct strategies.” But, crucially, he adds, “that doesn’t mean we need to hide from the Palestinian issue and I would not compare these issues as being on the same level.”
Gueron’s experience with threats ranged from nearly 30 years in the Mossad at all levels to fighting in the 1967 Six Day War, the War of Attrition, stationed at the Suez Canal, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, on the Golan Heights.
He calls the Palestinian threat “an existential threat that presents a clear and present danger to the future of Israel as a majority Jewish nation and a Jewish and democratic state.
“We need to deal with Hezbollah, but what about the Palestinians? The situation is urgent. Israel has enough power and energy to deal with Hezbollah rockets and tunnels, Iran and the Palestinians at the same time,” he says.
“This sounds explosive, but the root of the debate between us and the annexationists is we want to guard ‘Medinat Yisrael’ [the State of Israel] and they want to guard ‘Eretz Yisrael’ [the Land of Israel] – and this is a big difference.
“They are ready to sacrifice the State of Israel for” thinking that they will only pay an “unrealistic low price. This is intolerable. If it were possible and realistic” for Israel to hold on to more of the West Bank, that would be one thing, “but in fact we cannot” hold onto it and the price will be unconscionably high.
If Gueron talks like a philosopher, Pellman expresses himself like a straight-talking tactician.
Pellman spent 30 years in the Shin Bet, starting from operations in the field and at all levels.
He was part of the paratrooper units that took Jerusalem during the Six Day War and was an IDF artillery commander whose units reached a point only 94 km. from Cairo during the Yom Kippur War.
Pellman also says he agreed with Netanyahu’s decision in November to seek a ceasefire with Hamas “under what were not the best conditions,” partially in order “to prioritize confronting the bigger threat from the North. I get that.”
But he also says that the state should follow that logic further of prioritizing how it deals with threats. “Israel must also reduce threats. The ability to reduce the threat in the North is very limited,” implying that even as Israel may currently be reducing Hezbollah’s attack tunnel threat, it is still exposed to the Lebanese terrorist group’s primary weapons – around 130,000 rockets.
“But in Judea and Samaria we can do a lot to reduce the threat and even remove the military and terror threat. We also have an ability to influence Gaza” more than Israel can influence Hezbollah, he says.
Further, the West Bank and Gaza multiply the threat posed by each other in a way that other fronts do not, he says. “If there is an uprising in Judea and Samaria, there is no way that Gaza will sit quietly.”
PELLMAN AND Gueron discussed with the Magazine the IDF intelligence’s and the state comptroller’s conclusion that 2014’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza was set off to a large degree by the killing of three Jewish teenagers by West Bank terrorists and the IDF response to it, Operation Brother’s Keeper.
Moreover, Pellman says that a key point was “for the IDF to be ready for the next conflict with the North… We need a coalition of the US and others to back us so that if” Hezbollah provokes Israel a certain amount, “we will be able to act” strongly.
He says that since there has been no peace deal on the horizon or negotiations, Israel currently has no credit globally “to do what it did during Operation Protective Edge” – which was against Hamas – against Hezbollah in a future conflict in the North.
Questioned whether it’s true that Israel does not have this backing in light of the fact that US President Donald Trump has supported Israel’s uses of force almost without exception, he says, “It is unclear with Trump – look, he just withdrew from Syria.”
Also, he questioned whether support from Trump would translate into long-term support or whether it is just covering up weakened support for Israel globally and among portions of the US.
Noting that, at most, Trump will be around for six years, Pellman says that “six years is not a lot of time. 50 years is not a lot of time. But would you sell off all of our future,” maintaining policies that alienate many countries, including a large portion of Democrats?
Gueron points out that Democrats who nearly unequivocally support Israel, such as Chuck Schumer, Joseph Biden and Joe Lieberman (who is no longer a Democrat) “are disappearing” and that Israel needs backing for the use of force and for reaching a ceasefire since “it is not built for a war of attrition.”
Getting personal about what brought him to join Commanders for Israel’s Security’s campaign, Pellman says that there wasn’t any one incident in his Shin Bet work that altered his perspective. Rather, he reached the conclusion that a divorce from the Palestinians was necessary from his cumulative experiences.
He says that he routinely would “enter families’ houses at late hours of the night and would see the fear in the [Palestinian] children’s eyes and mothers holding their kids hoping that we would not take them… It was a very rough picture and an everyday picture.
This needs to be taken into account that” sometimes these searches must be carried out “every night in order to make sure there is quiet.” He says that he doesn’t criticize it, but that he wants to reach a solution where the nightly searches are unnecessary.
Moreover, he says that “if you are not already a liberal, then one incident” does not change your views. “But that when you see this volume, you ask yourself: is this the right solution?”
Gueron mentions that prior to serving in the Mossad, he had served in a special unit for guarding the Gaza border and performing searches in Gaza at a time when Israel still maintained forces throughout the territory.
Echoing Pellman, he says he still had strong memories of “going into houses and seeing scared families.”
Pellman estimates that sometimes around 3,500 Palestinians could be arrested per year – “these are astronomical numbers.”
This means that there are tens of thousands of Palestinians who have been in Israeli jails and that “each Palestinian has family members” who have been imprisoned by Israel.
All of the searches create “bitterness” among average Palestinians, he says, and it makes it harder to “end the cycle” of fighting terrorism in a way that leads to new terrorists.
Gueron also got more personal, saying that from firsthand experience as a Mossad official serving outside the country, “You start to understand two profound things: 1) the limits of force – even the US has limits, and 2) what our place in the world is.
“We think we are the center of the world. This is a bubba maiseh [fairy tale]. We are just part of the world and we need to be connected. It is complex with unpredictable challenges that you cannot see in advance.”
Israeli interests come first. But this still means a diplomatic horizon that the world can live with, even if it might be updated from past proposals. Explaining the importance of that horizon to the Shin Bet’s role of fighting West Bank terrorism, Pellman says his experience directing much of the counter-terrorism fight went beyond the IDF’s general security role.
He says the Shin Bet specializes in intelligence and tactics to “prevent terror before an incident” happens and not just to arrest and catch terrorists who have already committed crimes.
Praising current Shin Bet Director Nadav Argaman for his recent announcement that the Shin Bet prevented 480 terror attacks and a larger number of potential attacks, he says that even with the success, the volume was simply “out of control” and that “things are erupting” on the Palestinian street.
From his vantage point, this volume represented “a breakneck pace for continually collecting intelligence and knowing where and how to arrest someone before they act,” which is not sustainable, or at least will mean some attacks getting through the net.
Pellman says he worked insanely hard to keep terror down and that when he retired from the Shin Bet, “I left an area clean” of terror, but that his successor was still stuck working just as hard “as if the area had not been cleaned out.”
“The lesson I have learned from many years” in the Shin Bet is that, “the volume in the war on terror goes up, and then you bring it down… But just like mowing the lawn, the rain comes and it grows again.”
He says the only way to prevent the growth of new generations of terrorists is “to give the Palestinians a diplomatic horizon for a better future so many people will not choose the direction of terror.”
Out of the 2.6 million Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, he says he believed that there were not even 2,000 people who were inevitable terrorists.
Discussing the problem of fighting lone-wolf terror, he says, “There are no lone wolves. There is an atmosphere that gets normal people to take actions when they feel pushed into it and then fall in with Hamas.”
RETURNING TO his diplomatic horizon, Pellman lays out several things the government should do. First, he says that when responding to terrorism, the government should never use arbitrary collective punishment, but should divide between punishing the small areas that have a high density of terror and rewarding the much larger areas that do not.
Second, he says strategy must replace tactics when dealing with the Palestinian Authority. “Is the PA a burden or an asset? The country has not decided, so what does the IDF do… it just mows the lawn. What does winning look like? What do we want regarding Judea and Samaria? Just saying ‘I want quiet’ – that is not a strategic goal,” but a limited tactical perspective that will lead to “a national catastrophe.”
Regarding the PA, he says Israel should strategically and systematically commit to strengthening it since whenever it weakens, “there is no vacuum. Where the PA goes down, Hamas goes up and vice versa.”
He also says Israel must truly come to terms with Palestinian statehood, as absent a state, “how can they fully control their own public?”
In addition, Pellman slammed Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel for a period in which he blocked workers permits of Palestinians to enter Israel. His argument was, “Economics have proven that with Palestinian villages where more people go to work in Israel” within the Green Line or within Jewish West Bank areas, “the level of terror goes down.” Likewise, if a Palestinian village “gets a well-paved road instead of an unpaved dirt road, this keeps them quiet for longer.”
How about broader diplomatic and image benefits to diplomatic moves toward the Palestinians? In the 1990s, many believed that diplomatic moves toward the Palestinians would completely alter Israel’s global image and get it favored treatment from UN-type organizations that currently criticize or harass it.
But since 2015, when the PA asked the International Criminal Court prosecutor to probe Israel on war crimes allegations, under the ICC’s rules, it now can decide to go after Israel even if the PA later backs off during peace negotiations.
The two say that “everything is political” and that they are still confident that if there is reduced violence between the sides and a strengthened peace process, “there will be pressure on the ICC” to slide the case back under the table so as not to rock the boat.
WHAT IS the ex-Mossad and ex-Shin Bet official’s message to the government and the public?
Gueron says, “many agree that debating whether to annex or not is legitimate in a democratic state. On top of that, the elected government in a democracy has the right to move its agenda forward according to its ideology.
“But I do complain that if the decisions have fateful consequences, then serious work is required to understand those consequences. We know this government has not carried out research to understand the consequences. So we did the research,” he says. “This is an issue of showing responsibility. The government has rights, but it needs to act responsibly.”
Answering their own call, Gueron and Pellman handed over a summary of a 400-page report authored by a group of experts that included three ex-Finance Ministry director-generals, Avi Ben Bassat, David Brodt and Yarom Ariav, describing “all of the consequences – economic, diplomatic, social and political” of annexation of the West Bank.
“The results would be grave,” they say, including an around NIS 52 billion per year price tag, which comes out to around NIS 2,500 per citizen to the extent that the cost is passed on in various ways.
The former director-generals arrived at NIS 52b. based on adding expenditures that Israel would owe for education, health and other socioeconomic rights for the 2.6 million Palestinians and some additional security costs, subtracting estimated taxes Israel could collect.
Israel simply “does not have the capacity to swallow this without choking ourselves,” they say, and that a divorce from the Palestinians is the only path.
Though most of their emphasis is on the West Bank, they also support reducing tension with Gaza by rehabilitating it with an offshore man-made island port. Pellman says that “as a career Shin Bet man, my view is that there is no way to guarantee Hamas will not bring problematic people, containers and weapons unless there is Israeli security supervision.
“This is the position of the Shin Bet and it is correct. You need to take into account that the dream of Hamas in Gaza is to be given an opening where they can bring in weapons on an industrial scale,” and that Israel must be ready to combat that.
Although Netanyahu previously said at a Knesset hearing that the Shin Bet was opposed to the man-made island port concept and did not mention qualifications, the Post has confirmed Pellman’s view as accurate that the Shin Bet would support a man-made island port if there was full Israeli security inspection authority.
In any case, Pellman says that it should be approved as a running concept since anyway it could take 10 years to become operational. During this time, Israel would be able to continue to monitor how well Hamas stuck to an indefinite ceasefire.
He says that in a much longer time, tossing out 25 or 50 years – “until it is quiet” – possibly Israel could hand over security to the Palestinians.
Gueron surprised on this issue, saying that while he “supports the Shin Bet and I trust them professionally and some of this is based on information I don’t have, personally [this is not a CIS view]” the port is not the real issue anymore.
“Sometimes it gets too much attention. It’s only symbolic,” saying the real issues were ending the rocket fire, bridging gaps between Hamas and the PA and “major reconstruction of Gaza” with or without a port.
Summing up the most basic and concrete benefit for Israel of avoiding annexation and moving toward a diplomatic horizon, Pellman says the PA would act more strongly against terror on its own.
“Today it is a dilemma for them… struggling against terror” when they cannot explain the benefits to their public. “But if they have a bloc of territory of their own, they will finally be able to do better at explaining why” cracking down on terror from their side to protect Israelis is in the Palestinian public’s interest.