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Israel, Iran, and ISIL: A Report on Security Challenges for the Greater Middle East

May 7, 2015

Jerusalem. CREDIT: Shutterstock

DAVID SPEEDIE: I'm David Speedie, director of the program on U.S. Global Engagement at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. This is another in our occasional series of Ethics and Security Bulletins.

I'm delighted today to welcome back to the Carnegie Council Charles Freilich. Charles is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He also teaches at Tel Aviv University.

He was previously a deputy national security advisor for Israel, a senior analyst in the Israel Ministry of Defense, a policy advisor to a cabinet minister and a delegate to the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. He has also been the executive director of two non-profits: Israel's Zahavi Association and the Golda Meir Association in the United States.

Chuck, welcome back to the council. It's good to have you here again.

CHARLES FREILICH: Nice to be back.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We'd like to cover a fair bit of territory today. What seems a good place to start because it's very topical is the ongoing negotiations between the P5 and Iran, which, of course, reached something of a draft framework back at the beginning of this month. They are now aiming for some sort of a more formal agreement by the end of June.

When we last spoke, Chuck, you expressed some significant concerns about this, and I quote, "For example, leaving the Iranians with more of the centrifuges but just disconnecting the plumbing. Is that face-saving for the Iranians but it really keeps them away the six to twelve month minimal break-out period?" You expressed skepticism, but in a recent piece in Haaretz, you actually said that you felt this was a good deal for Israel. What has changed in your thinking over that period or, indeed, have the circumstances in Lausanne brought about that change?

CHARLES FREILICH: I define this actually as a good bad deal in the sense that this will leave Iran essentially as a nuclear threshold state. I believe that Iran will retain its nuclear aspirations, notwithstanding the deal, and in the long term it still aspires to become a nuclear power. The deal has some major problems from what we know.

Three of the most important issues were not resolved. That's not by chance. That's the issue of the future inspections review, how and under what circumstances the sanctions would be lifted, and what's called in the technical jargon, the PMD, the Possible Military Dimensions, of Iran's nuclear program—in other words, what it's done in the past trying to get a full handle and understanding of that. It's not by chance that those three issues were made open because they really are some of the more difficult ones. Those are some of the issues where Iran really has to make major concessions.

First of all, we have to see that this deal actually is signed and that those three issues can be resolved satisfactorily. If so, I come back to saying it's a good bad deal. Iran should have been dismantled from its nuclear capabilities, completely. That no longer proved the case. Therefore, given the alternatives, I think that this deal, as we know it and as the administration presented it, is better than the alternative. It's not great. It's just better than the alternative.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Foreign Minister Zarif spoke yesterday (April 29) in New York, of course. Actually, to some extent, he agreed with you that there were still some significant elements of this deal to be worked out by June 30. He reiterated that he and Secretary Kerry had met earlier in the week and resolved to reach some decision by June 30. One thing, for example, that the Iranians say is that the additional protocol to the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] inspection process would pretty much cover the question of all inspections and, therefore limit break-out possibilities. That's not enough as far as you're concerned?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think that it's the additional protocol and some additional measures that the United States has been negotiating. This deal, again, as we know it, gives us pretty significant confidence that Iran will be not be able to break out from the known sites during the 10-year period of the agreement. It also gives us some confidence that we'll have a better ability to prevent what's called a sneak-out capability from unknown sites. It gives us better confidence, but not enough.

That's why one of the issues is whether the inspectors will really have unfettered access and whether they'll really be able to go wherever they want. We have to recognize here that there is a fundamental problem. No country has ever allowed inspectors to have totally unfettered, complete access to every site in the country. From that point of view, the Iranian position is understandable.

On the other hand, we really do have to have better confidence that they're not going to try and develop covert capabilities and, certainly prevent the sneak-out possibility. So, we have to find some sort of way here that preserves not just Iranian pride, but there are national security considerations here. At the same time, there really are legitimate and substantive American—and not just American—demands for truly intrusive sanctions.

DAVID SPEEDIE: In the context of all this and your recent piece in Haaretz [see above], you pretty much took Prime Minister Netanyahu to task for his role in all of this. Of course, the context is that there was this extraordinary appearance before the U.S. Senate just before the Israeli elections. Someone jokingly mentioned to me that perhaps Netanyahu is the new senate majority leader.

Then you basically say, in this article, that he's inserting himself in an almost unprecedented way between an American president and a major foreign policy objective, with an overt design on his part to torpedo the agreement with Iran. You say, "Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent actions regarding Iran indicate that he has become intoxicated by his own rhetoric." That's pretty colorful language. What do you see now as to how this plays out?

CHARLES FREILICH: The good news is that for the last few weeks, I think Israel has taken the tack that I think it should have adopted from the beginning, which was that it cannot defeat a president who's determined to pursue a new diplomatic course. It can try and quietly talk to him. It can try and make the case. Once the president has made a determination, he's really the junior player here.

So, in the last few weeks, what we've seen is an attempt to work with the administration. It's more than loopholes. It's major issues that still have to be resolved. I think Netanyahu grossly mishandled his role in the last few months; or maybe I would say, actually, in the last year and half since the interim agreement was signed.

I think he deserves great credit for what he did beforehand. He, to a certain extent, put this issue on the international agenda. I don't want to give him complete credit for that, but he certainly made a major contribution. That was a very important role.

Before him, by the way, it wasn't just Netanyahu, it started with Prime Minister Rabin as early as '93 or '94. Israel was actually the first country to uncover the Iranian program and to bring its intelligence information to the United States. That got the United States onboard by the mid-90s. The United States has been working ever since then with the Europeans and finally got the Europeans onboard for sanctions in 2012. Netanyahu made a great contribution to that.

I think from the point of the interim agreement, he overplayed his cards. He didn't realize that, at that point, it was no longer in his hands. This was a deal being led by the United States and the other members of the P5. Israel's role, at this point, was no longer getting everyone's attention. It was working quietly with the United States to shape the nature of the agreement that came out.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Why did he overplay his hand at this point do you think?

CHARLES FREILICH: I don't think an Israeli prime minister should ever put himself in the position of being in direct opposition to the presidential position.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I mean why do think, in his mind, did he see this as being the appropriate thing to do?

CHARLES FREILICH: Unfortunately, I have to say that I think the timing of what he did was certainly related to Israel's election. He used this for electoral purposes. But beyond that, there is a real issue. The prime minister certainly viewed this as a potentially existential threat. That does guide what he's doing.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Also, you go on to express the concern that this could backfire on Israel. You say, "Many in the U.S. public may accuse Israel of gross interference in their domestic affairs, which may even lead to U.S. involvement in a bloody war." What exactly do you mean by that?

CHARLES FREILICH: If Netanyahu's efforts were perceived to have derailed the agreement and the United States, not as a direct result, but the United States, let's say, chose to go the military route with Iran, there would certainly be some people in the United States that would accuse Israel as having created a situation in which the United States is forced to go to war. Again, that's something that Israel should not be in the position to do.

I think that basically, short of existence, there is nothing more important to Israel today than the nature of the relationship with the United States. It has to be the overwhelming consideration.

Israel needs the U.S. and Iran. It needs the U.S. for the peace process. It needs the U.S. for an entire region which is coming apart at the seams. Hezbollah have got 100,000 rockets targeted at Israel today. We need the U.S. for all of these issues Yes, the Iranian one is overriding; it may be an existential threat. But even there, Israel cannot permit itself to position itself in opposition to the U.S. I think that he mishandled it. I hope that what we've seen in the last few weeks is a greater attempt to coordinate. I hope that will be the position.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We're, of course, in the first week of the ninth review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty here in New York, even as we speak. One of the things that certainly was one of the items not delivered on, as it were, from the last review conference in 2010 and one that will be on the agenda again for sure, from all reports I've heard, is the question of a weapons of mass destruction [WMD] free zone in the Middle East. What would Israel's position on that be, do you think?

DAVID SPEEDIE: Israel has actually cooperated with this process more than what was expected by the various parties who forced their decision in 2010. Let's be realistic. The Middle East is coming apart, as I said before, at the seams. Egypt has gone through three changes of government. Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen no longer really exist as states. It's questionable whether they will in the future.

Who are we talking about reaching a nuclear weapons free zone? Iran still has to sign onto this agreement. The situation is just unrealistic. It's very nice to have, and it should be our long-term aspiration, but it's diplomatic game-playing. I think we should understand that's what it is. If and when the Arab countries around Israel are capable of making peace, they're willing to give up their WMD program, okay—but that's years away from now.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Iran, of course, claims to be one of the strongest proponents of a weapons-free zone and, of course, has accused Israel of a double standard, to say the least. Again, you would point to the instability in the region as a whole as the background to all of this?

CHARLES FREILICH: Iran can say whatever it wants. Iran says many things. The Iranians weren't the first to use doubletalk. They are the ones who at the moment who are trying to develop a nuclear program that pretty much the entire international community is worried about.

When Iran is no longer calling for Israel's destruction and is willing to recognize Israel; when the Arab countries in the region are willing to recognize Israel and guarantee seriously, truly, that they will not pursue WMD programs, we can talk about this. But I think any expectation that Israel can discuss its capabilities today in this kind of situation is unrealistic.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Last time we spoke, we spoke about rejoining the entire Middle East. Now, you sound even more pessimistic. The Middle East is falling apart. Let's look at Syria for a minute, which looms large again, even as President Obama has tried to, I think, focus more on the Iran deal and addresses the threat of ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] or ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria]. (I prefer ISIL, but you know what I mean.)

Recent reports are of a series of setbacks for Assad. Of course, it's a place where the whole Middle East scenario, to some extent, is being played out around being in Assad's corner, while Saudi Arabia, under new King Salman, along with Qatar and Turkey, has sought to reinvigorate the rebel side.

This has resulted in, as described in a recent Washington Post article, "an unexpectedly cohesive rebel coalition called the Army of Conquest that is made up of al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, an assortment of mostly Islamist brigades, and a small number of more moderate battalions." To the extent that the opposition in Syria is shifting, therefore, it seems that the extremist elements are in the driver's seat. How does Israel feel about this? Obviously, you're no great friend of the Assad regime, but what results, could be perhaps significantly more unstable from Israel's point of view?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think this is a no-win situation for everyone, and not just from Israel's point of view but from everyone's point of view. None of the players in Syria is in any way a savory actor. Assad has slaughtered over 220,000 of his own people. So, this is a man who, to put it mildly, should no longer be the ruler of Syria.

The various rebel forces are also made of various radicals—Islamic organizations and other radicals. There's no one there that I think any of us want to see in charge either and the alternative is ISIS. There are no good outcomes in Syria today for anyone. For Israel it's obviously particularly problematic because it's right on our border. But this is an issue where Israel can't affect things. As a matter of fact, I think there isn't a great deal that the United States or anybody else can do to affect it.

It would be nice to try and identify better players in Syria if we could. I don't think there really are any. Mostly, we're all—I hate to say it—almost passive observers here, waiting just to see how things play out. It looks like whichever outcome it is, it's going to be a bad one. That's first and foremost going to be an absolute tragedy for Syria because the country has already been devastated, horrifically.

DAVID SPEEDIE: There have been some recent incidents I think, such as an attack on a Syrian military base near the Lebanese border, which, again, quoting Haaretz as saying "Israel neither confirmed or denied," and then, "mortar attacks from Syria landed on the Israeli side of the Golan." The Haaretz article describes this as, "not unusual escalation but a chance accumulation of events." Could this, however, escalate if the situation in Syria deteriorates in a rather immediate sense for Israel?

CHARLES FREILICH: Yes, first, though, let me just add one thing about your previous question, if I may. You mentioned the recent reports that the rebels seem to be more organized, coherent, and doing better, that the regime may be in trouble. This may be the case. It's very hard to read what's happening on the battlefield.

In the four years of the civil war in Syria, we've seen ups and downs before, where the rebels have been doing better, the regimes been doing better, and then the rebels have been doing better. So I think the reports in The Washington Post and other places may be very important. We may have reached a tipping point, but I'd also say equally that the reports might be too early. Let's wait and see how it goes.

Now, in answer to this question: Could there be an escalation here? You're absolutely right. There could be. There have been repeated incidents on the border. Hezbollah has been trying now to build a presence on the Syrian border with Israel and the Golan Land Heights border trying to expand its border.

It's not just a Lebanese front against Israel, but making Syria part of the front as well, building a presence of their own there. That's something that Israel cannot allow to happen. Hezbollah has become such a huge threat in Lebanon, ISIL cannot allow it now to expand into Syria. To date, the Israeli approach has basically been a hands-off one in what's happening in Syria because of what I said before.

Nobody can identify any good players or any beneficial outcome. Each of us can't affect it. So, the approach has been not to be involved. There have been, according to the reports, a number of attacks designed to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah, Lebanon. That seems to me to be an appropriate approach and basically, just to stay out of it.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Let me switch now to a situation within Israel and also the situation in Gaza. There was a recent report of a rally for Palestinian unity. When we talked the last time we spoke about the national unity government that was attempted on the Palestinian side.

This seems to be, if not unraveling, at least sort of creaking at the seams and there are the questions of control of Gaza's border crossings and so on and so forth between the various parties. There have also been reports that the commander of the Hamas military wing that Israel tried to eliminate during last summer's 50-day war in Gaza is alive and back at the military helm and that the rebuilding of the tunnels is designed to help carry out attacks on Israel, restocking rocket supplies, and so on and so forth. Are we looking at an imminent series of attacks or instability from this front also?

CHARLES FREILICH: Unfortunately, we may very well be. The situation in Gaza is really bad. The question is whether the pressure they're under will lead them once again, as they did last summer, to come to the conclusion that, actually, things are so bad that they have no choice but to try and break out of this situation by provoking another mini-war or whatever you want to call it.

I think that last year, Israel misunderstood the situation. We thought that things were so bad that Hamas would have to make some concessions. Their conclusion was different. Things were so bad that they had no choice but to try and break out militarily. Today, we're in the somewhat paradoxical situation that the primary problem is actually the fact that the Egyptians have responded as strongly as they have because of their reasons. They've closed their Gaza border completely. Israel has actually partly opened up and has turned to the Egyptians, to the best of my understanding, in the last couple of months and asked them to ease up a bit also so as not to produce this total pressure cooker situation.

But the bigger question is where is Gaza going in the long term? I don't think that the chances of Palestinian reunification are any better today than they were when we spoke last or in the last few years.

It doesn't look like there's any chance of that happening. That means that regardless of who is in office in Israel, there are really no prospects for any peace talks. We can't reach a final agreement as long as Gaza is an independent entity, not part of a Palestinian deal. I'm unhappy that a right-wing government seems to be emerging in Israel. I would like to see a centrist government, but the truth is there's no ability to reach an agreement with the Palestinians in any case.

DAVID SPEEDIE: I wasn't even going to raise the process with you because that has been so under the radar at this point amidst all the other turmoil. But last time we spoke, you did mention in passing that one of the dangers from this recent intervention on the prime minister's part in the Iran deal was that we need to keep the United States on-side for the peace process itself. The last time we spoke, you said that, basically, no deal was better than a bad deal. I assume you still feel that and that we're not ready for anything approaching prospects of a good deal.

CHARLES FREILICH: I don't think that there's any chance of a deal today. I know that's a strong statement. The government in Israel is a right-wing government. On the Palestinian side, President Abbas is 80 years old. He's at the end of his reign. He has, unfortunately, repeatedly proven himself not to be a bold leader. He's been offered at least one truly dramatic peace proposal. He turned away from it, I think, because he did not get what the Palestinians call the right of return. The proposal gave him, basically, everything else he wanted but not the right of return. There was no one in Israel who will agree to that. That may also be why he, in the end, turned away from the Kerry initiative last year.

In any event, both in Israel and on the Palestinian side in the PA [Palestinian National Authority], there's no one today who's going to go forward. Then, there is the fundamental problem, a deeper problem, that I mentioned a minute ago, which is that the Palestinians are totally divided. Abbas cannot sign a final peace agreement as long as Gaza is its own independent mini-state. If Israel's true bottom-line objective in a peace agreement is a final agreement, what's called in the diplomatic jargon an end of claim, end of conflict, it can't get that as long as the Palestinians are divided, and Gaza isn't part of the agreement. I hate to say it, but I think the peace process is moribund—we can say it's dead for the moment.

I think there's a question whether the president will try in his last 21 months of office. There's been something of a tradition in recent administrations that a last minute or end-of-term effort is made to try and broker a peace agreement. I hope the president won't do that because he's going to fail.

Another failure just further discourages people. Those who still believe in peace—and there are fewer and fewer on both sides—are further discouraged. I would like to wait for the right circumstances, then see the United States come in with all of its influence and clout and then to broker the deal, not when the circumstances are wrong and it's going to fail.

DAVID SPEEDIE: We're getting towards the end of our time, Chuck, and I hate to lurch from one depressing topic to another, but you may have seen recently in The Atlantic a long article by Jeffrey Goldberg titled "Is it Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?" It's a pretty dire situation, as you know better than I, with the attacks in France, Southern Belgium, and Copenhagen. At one point in the article, Goldberg writes, "The Israeli government, as one might expect, is interested in accelerating the departure of Jews from Europe. Israeli leaders have lectured French Jews about the necessity of Aliyah, or emigration to Israel. Netanyahu, himself, said, after both the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, 'To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray. The state of Israel is your home.'" What are the implications of that?

CHARLES FREILICH: This is a case where I couldn't agree with the prime minister more. I, myself, as a teenager, made Aliyah—I emigrated to Israel from the United States. Israel's raison d'être [reason for existence] is to be the homeland of the Jewish people and to absorb the so-called ingathering of the exiles, to encourage Jews from all over the world to make their homes in Israel. I actually think it's a fundamental duty of every prime minister to publicly encourage that.

You can question whether the timing was right after the attacks in France, but I, personally, have no problem with what he said. I think we've built a national homeland and despite all of its problems, it looks pretty good. I will join in the cause and encourage Jews from around the world to make Israel their home.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Perhaps on a slightly lighter note, for those of us who are political junkies and following elections in Britain, where there's probably going to be a coalition government, although, no one seems to know exactly who will make up the coalition—there are infinite variables apparently—Netanyahu, himself, is in the midst of some poker-game-playing with various other parties to form a coalition. How's that coming along? What's the domestic political situation like in that sense?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think he's close to forming the coalition. He's at the end of the extension period he was given by the president to do that. He'll form it, in all likelihood. It looks like it's going to be a narrow coalition based on the right-wing and religious parties. As you may have gathered from my earlier comments, I'm not particularly thrilled with that outcome, but that's the outcome that we have. I think it's going to be bad for Israel, both in terms of its foreign policy and its domestic policy. The good news is that I think the internal contradictions in his cabinet are such that in this coalition it won't last more than two or three years and then there will be elections once again.

DAVID SPEEDIE: What would it take for a centrist movement to emerge as a viable robust political force?

CHARLES FREILICH: I think, for one thing, the head of the centrist party this time, who is a very good guy, is very talented and maybe in the future could be a strong presidential candidate. I'm talking about Isaac Herzog. He wasn't that kind of candidate yet. He doesn't have weight. He doesn't have the gravitas.

He wasn't the guy who could challenge Netanyahu. If the center wants to win next time, it's going to have to find that kind of a leader. The bad news is that I don't see that person today. I don't see who it is. We'll see. We'll see what happens.

DAVID SPEEDIE: Chuck Freilich, one of these days, my friend, we may talk and have perhaps a more upbeat view of things, but whatever the circumstances, it's always a great pleasure. We are greatly informed by your input in these conversations. Thank you so very much.

CHARLES FREILICH: Thanks for having me.

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