Israelis and Palestinians alone will find solution, not let others do it – 20th IDF head

Israeli Air Force strikes in Syria are getting bolder – targeting Iranian military installations in the country. Will Israeli actions provoke an all-out conflict in the Middle East? We talk to Lieutenant-General Benjamin Gantz, the 20th Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Lieutenant-General Benjamin Gantz, the 20th Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you with us. Lots to talk about. Russia is planning to deliver S-300 missile defense systems to Syria following the U.S. coalition and Israeli strikes earlier this month. Israel has always criticised the prospect of Damascus having S-300s, but S-300 systems are in essence a defense weapon. Why do they make Israel so nervous?

Benjamin Gantz: Well, definitely S-300 system is a serious system that covers lots of areas that include the airspace of Israel. And once they are in the hands of Syrians and not in the control of Russia it may end up using it the way it think it is. Israel is operating in the Northern Arena not against Russia, of course, not even against Syria itself, but it’s actually acting against what we believe to be negative elements with strategic capabilities in the hands of the wrong people. This system, if it’s there, might challenge us a little bit. But I believe, we know how to deal with everything.

SS: Former head of Israel’s military intelligence Amos Yadlin thinks Israeli Air Force is likely to strike the S-300s if those are deployed in Syria, since they view the missile system as a threat. Do you think it’s a likely scenario?

BG: I cannot put myself in the heads or in the shoes, as we say, of acting generals, Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence. I’m sure that our strategic leadership is not trying to operate against Russia, of course. All it wants to do is to ensure Israel’s security. And I have full confidence in their discussions and the way things are being done. We let the future speak.  

SS: But, General, I mean, unexpected things happen every day. So if that was a scenario that hypothetically would happen would that set Moscow and Tel Aviv on the dangerous path of confrontation? Is Israel ready for that, taken that both have enjoyed really good relations recently?

BG: Definitely, the relations between Russia and Israel are both good and definitely important. And I don’t see a collision between Israel and Russia as such. Once again, Sophie, Israel’s interest in the Northern Arena is pure security interest. In many ways, if you wish, we are warriors by default - not because we want to but because we have to. I sure, if there’s a way to bypass the need of confrontation people will definitely like it. However we cannot jeopardise our security interest whatever comes under those considerations.

SS: Israel’s Defence Minister Lieberman said that the Israeli retaliation will come if “anyone attacks us” - that the country will strike whatever systems it needs to. But so far, it’s Israel doing the attacking in Syria - so if it stops doing that and risking a counterstrike, it shouldn’t be worried about anything, should it?

BG: Well, you see, the point is that everybody is trying to promote stability in the Northern Arena. Russia tries to promote it. Israel definitely supports the stability in the Northern Arena. So we have this strategic trend of political stability that everybody respects. But underneath this canopy of stability, if you wish, we can see the positioning and the potential rise of radical elements with strategic capabilities in their hands. This is not something Israel can bury its head in the sand and say it’s nothing. If someone spits at you it doesn’t mean that it’s raining outside. We have to look reality in the eye and really operate against what, we believe, seriously endangers our security in the region. And, therefore, that’s what, I think, Minister Lieberman rightly said that we will have to operate against whatever we have to operate if that endangers us.   

SS: But what exactly do you mean by “dangerous elements”? You said Israel is after stability in the Northern Arena but striking Syrian targets or Iranian targets in Syria does not really bring stability at all, how does it work?

BG: Iranians that operate from Syria or Lebanon against Israel are radical outposts that don’t just look to stabilise Syria but they like to build capabilities against Israel. And if those capabilities become potentially dangerous this is something very serious that we have to take in our consideration. And I believe that our leadership is doing just that.

SS: Since 2012 Israel is believed to launch more than 100 airstrikes on the Syrian territory aiming at suspected Iranian-linked targets, like you said. Is this the reason for Israel’s opposition to S-300s in Syria? I mean, the reinforcing of Syria’s missile defense shield won’t allow Israel to do what they did before on a regular basis...

BG: Well, I’m sure that within the official channels between the Ministry of Defence, Prime Minister, and President Putin whom I respect very much for trying to put this stability on the ground, the discussions are made over there. And once again, I think, we shouldn’t ignore the real facts under the surface. Stability is on the upper layer, underneath there are negative elements being pushed. Hezbollah is the biggest terrorist organisation operating from the Northern Arena. It is being supported by Syria and Iranians, it is being equipped with high technologies that will endanger Israel’s security. We cannot ignore it and, therefore, we are very clear with what we are saying and definitely clear with what we are doing. This is exactly what you are saying. Nobody’s seeking for Syrian society, nobody’s seeking for Syrian territory, nobody’s seeking for Lebanese territories. You are talking to the man who was the last one to leave Lebanon in May 2000. You are talking to the man who ordered to build field hospitals that already treated more than 4000 Syrians, in our Israeli hospitals. So Israel has nothing against those countries, the only thing we care for - and this is exactly what we are doing - we are defending ourselves on the day-to-day basis and we must be responsible enough, strategically speaking, to look into potential future threats to us. This is exactly what we’re doing.   

SS: I understand the logic behind what you are saying and I understand your devotion to the cause that you’ve been fighting all your life, but as of today Hezbollah and the Iranian targets that you call dangerous are fighting the Syrian civil war. They are not fighting Israel…

BG: Yeah, let’s not get too naive, Sophie. Missiles and rockets of long distance and with high level of accuracy and explosions are being delivered to the Iranians. And none of that has been used against Syria and I’m glad they didn't use it. I’m just saying that they are building pileups of ammunitions. It has no other address than future Israel’s targets. We cannot ignore that fact and this is exactly what we are doing. And I’m sure, if you close the camera and speak to whoever you want, intelligence officials in Russia or in other places, you will get pretty much the same answer. 

SS: Well, I’ll tell what everyone else is worried about. The escalating strikes against Iranian targets in Syria are making people nervous - can a direct Iran-Israeli confrontation break out because of this?

BG: I’m just saying, I mean, there is a solution for that. If Iran doesn’t push in its strategic capabilities and we know what their end target is, that will make things different. If Iran is not involved in Syria, if it doesn’t position its strategic capabilities in Syria, if the Revolutionary Guard that operates there doesn’t turn itself against Israel, then I see no problem. But the reality is that they are doing something. Even if you go to the declarations of the Iranians, unfortunately, they do talk about destroying Israel etc. Once we see all that around there’s no way we can ignore it and we shouldn’t ignore it.

SS: Once again, Amos Yadlin (and I keep quoting him ‘cause I just spoke to him recently) thinks that Russia could play a mediating role between Israel and Iran to prevent an all-out conflict. Moscow enjoys a good relationship with both sides. Will Israel accept Russia’s help in preventing a big conflict?

BG: I respect Russia’s strategic activity in Syria in trying to stabilise the area. Once again, I don’t think we should sacrifice future threat for that stability. I think, it can come together. Push for stability, push for human rights, ensure everybody’s interests, make sure that no negative elements (let’s put it this way in the course of our discussion) being put on the ground. I think, this might change the picture a little bit.    

SS: A confrontation with Iran means a confrontation with Hezbollah, and the last time it happened it didn’t go very smoothly for Israel. Is another costly war like that really worth the risk for the country?

BG: Well, definitely, an escalation in the northern area, by and large and in Lebanon specifically will not be a hike in the park, as we say. And I hate to see it’s happening, obviously, from the Israeli perspective. But seriously speaking since I understand that in Lebanon so many houses and buildings that possess both living room and missile room in the same house I would really recommend Lebanon not to let this happen. Because, I think, the price that Lebanon will end up paying - an unfortunate price, I must say, - will be far higher than what will be on the Israeli side. We know it’s not easy but we are capable of dealing with any threat coming from the north. 

SS: The Iran deal is once again in jeopardy as the Trump administration is weighing in new sanctions against Iran by mid-May. Tehran threatens to vigorously resume the nuclear programme if U.S. scraps the deal. I know that Israel didn’t like the deal since the very beginning, but would it be happy if the deal collapsed altogether?

BG: I think, what we must bear in mind is the goal of the deal as it was. The idea was to keep the Iranians away from approaching the ability to create potential military nuclear capabilities. All the discussions of what used to be the deal or what might be the agreement for future times -  we’ll have to look at it to see whether it serves the goal of keeping the Iranians away from this ability. It’s something that the Americans need to put their way they think about it, other people have already said that they are supporting the deal, but this is something those countries will have to deal with.

SS: But it’s obvious that if the deal collapses Tehran will renew uranium enrichment, it makes no secret out of it, it says it will, and Israel will then have to strike an Iranian nuclear site - how’s that good for anyone? There will be retaliation strikes from Iran, then the Americans will step in, the whole region will be on the brink …

BG: That’s why I said that the main strategic goal of everyone should be to keep Iran away from nuclear enrichment, the means could be different and there are so many of them, but the goal should be the one - keep them away from the ability to produce military nuclear capabilities. And it’s not an Israeli interest, it’s the world’s and the region’s interest. And, yes, it’s an Israeli interest as well. If you speak to some of the Arab countries in the Gulf area and in other places, I guess, you would hear the same answer.   

SS: So the deal does precisely that - it keeps Tehran from enriching uranium. Does that mean that Israel is in favour of the deal?

BG: The Prime Minister of Israel has said this so many times and he’s been doing this in his discussions with the world leaders: what are the gaps that he sees in this deal and what needs to be improved to make sure that at the end of the road Iran doesn’t get a future permission to produce these nuclear capabilities. And that’s the idea, I think, there are a few holes over there. And, of course, world inspections of everything are very important.    

SS: Another topic that’s been discussed very much lately - a grand delegation is prepared by President Trump to go to Israel to mark the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem. Seeing how his announcement of the transfer really made the Palestinian issue heat up, do you see this as maybe a little over the top, an unnecessary, maybe even provocative move?

BG: Well, I don’t look at it as a provocative move and the reason for a potential escalation. Definitely Jerusalem is the capital of Israel - you’ve been in Israel so many times, you know it yourself - since the days of King David. We don’t need to have President Trump saying it. Jerusalem is our capital. It’s my opinion that all countries should move their assets to Jerusalem, just like the case in Moscow, just like the case in Washington DC even though the New York City is the financial capital of the United States. You’ve been to Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv is definitely the financial capital of the state of Israel. But the capital of Israel is Jerusalem. And that is where all those embassies need to be. Sometimes it’s hard to get that. But that’s part of life.

SS: Yeah, but so far, it’s just the Americans red carpeting the Jerusalem embassy and others aren’t too prone and too quick to accept that...

BG: I hope and I believe that more countries will follow. It has to do nothing with the Palestinians, it’s just an excuse for them to do anything. 

SS: I’ll tell you how it looks from the outside - with so many politicians coming over to Israel, it seems that this is not about the Israelis, it’s more about the American voters - and I mean, it’s great for Trump to portray himself as a friend of Israel to his voters at home, but should he really be doing it at the expense of Israel’s security?

BG: Well, once again we believe that Jerusalem has been our capital for decades, for hundreds of years, for thousands of years and will remain in the future as well. Without Jerusalem Israel is not Israel as we understand it according to our Jewish history. Sometimes this principle comes at a price. I don’t think, it should come at a price, it has nothing to do with the Palestinian issue, all those places … Talking about Jerusalem as we know it, it’s location as such, it really has no interaction with the Palestinians’ idea. If we really like to put politics aside for a second and look at the essence itself, I don’t see why there should be any major problems. But, once again, Jerusalem is essential for us and we will stand for it forever.        

SS: So, General, you know, most of the time I talk to the Israelis about the Palestinian issue they tell me that the Palestinians do not want peace, that Israel is ready for concessions but Palestinians are not, that you can’t talk to them. And when I talk to the Palestinians, they say the exactly same thing about Israel. Now you are obviously a very patriotic man who served and serves your country, are you able to take a step back and see this from a distance, see how unbending both sides are?

BG: I think, I can, Sophie. I think that both the Palestinians and Israelis need to give up illusionary dreams of getting rid from the other. We’re staying here, they are staying here and eventually we have to find ways of living side by side peacefully. They already got historical political suggestion from Prime Minister Olmert, from Prime Minister Barak. In both cases they rejected them and we faced a wave of violence as a result. We didn’t give up on our security and on our existence, nor should we do it in the future. But I really hope that on both sides we will find leaders that will understand that they need to sit with one another, nobody’s going anywhere, and find the ways of living side by side peacefully without Israel risking its security and existence. And I think, if people are serious enough ways will be found.   

SS: Do you think, it’s wise to be so stern on the Palestinian issue? I’ll tell you I’m asking because this is something that hits me personally. You shoot at people at the Gaza border, and then a man wearing a kippah is attacked in broad daylight in Berlin, and in France where I grew up and most of my childhood went and most of my French friends are Jewish people and it’s getting dangerous for the Jews and it’s getting dangerous for the Jews, it’s so interrelated, don’t tell me it’s not related. Does being tough on the Palestinians endanger the Jewish communities in Europe?

BG: Unfortunately, we might see a negative linkage between what happens here and what happens under the wave of anti-semitism in different places in the world, just like the examples that you have given. And once again, let’s be honest enough to say what we’re saying in Gaza - those are unfortunate events. Instead of Hamas supporting its people and taking its budget and rebuilding the education system, water, electricity, whatever, they take them and use them as human shields at the border, trying to penetrate, trying to damage the infrastructure over there. This is something that obviously we cannot allow. Unfortunately, just saying that we don’t agree isn’t enough. Sometimes we have to do things. And those unfortunate events will continue to happen as long as Hamas doesn’t stop them on their side.    

SS: Do you think, the current line-up of states that are mediating the conflict is working out well? I mean, the US is Israel’s biggest ally, but as a mediator it might not be the best, since the Palestinians don’t trust the White House, do you think, a change of format might help move this issue along?

BG: The way I see it - it’s an Israeli-Palestinian challenge. It should be an Israeli-Palestinian issue with the support of whoever who decides to give his support. And I think, that for the benefit of the future of the Palestinian kids that were born yesterday, today or will be born tomorrow - and same stands for my kids and other kids in Israel - it’s both sides’ leadership needs to sit down and try to solve it with the help of the others, but the others cannot solve it for us. 

SS: General, thank you very much for this very candid take of the issues that we’ve discussed. We were talking to Lieutenant General Benjamin Gantz, the 20th IDF Chief of Staff, discussing Israeli view on the situation in Syria and other pressing issues of the Middle East.