Amos Yadlin: A New Type of Israeli War

This transcript is from a CSIS podcast published on March 5, 2024. Listen to the podcast here.

Jon Alterman: Amos Yadlin is the founder and current president of MIND Israel, an Israeli national security consultancy. He previously served for a decade as the director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, following a 40-year career in the Israeli defense forces, including as the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate and as defense attaché to the United States. He proudly says that he's the only human being to have participated directly in the elimination of two nuclear weapons programs.

Amos Yadlin, welcome to Babel.

Amos Yadlin: It's a pleasure, Jon.

Jon Alterman: You have fought in a number of Israel's wars. How is the Gaza war different from other wars Israel's fought?

Amos Yadlin: Yes. This war is different in two aspects. First, for the first time since the independence war, we are fighting a multi-theater war basically against seven entities and nations, including Gaza, Lebanon, and Hezbollah. Missiles are being fired at us from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, while the West Bank is sending terror. Iran is behind all of this.

It's a multifront war that we haven't seen since '48. We haven't seen more than one front since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago.

Second, it is a long war. Israeli defense is saying, "We need a strong deterrence. If deterrence fails, we need an early warning to call the reserve and to be ready for a war. We need a good defense and a decisive victory in a short war." Since we are reliant on mobilizing the reserve, the economy is paralyzed.

In this case, it's a long war. We had long wars, like the second Intifada, but this was carried out by the regular military. Now, we have mobilized 300,000 reserves to form an air defense against seven entities. So once again, a long war goes against Israel’s defense doctrine.

Gaza is also unique. We are fighting in an urban area. The United States fought in an urban area, but it was never prepared for 15 years of war with a lot of underground facilities, tunnels, holes, and production centers. Gaza’s underground military is a huge challenge that I don't remember any military dealing with.

Last but not least, we came to this war from a political crisis. We came to the war when Israel was split into two camps. A prime minister who has tried to carry out a judicial revolution and a very strong camp against it. We entered the war when half of the people had very low trust in the Israeli judiciary, in the prime minister.

Jon Alterman: It also feels to me like there are members of the ruling coalition who have some pretty hardline views on a number of things, especially Palestinian self-determination, the right of Palestinians even to live within the boundaries of mandatory Palestine. How does that shape what a settlement might look like, when on the one hand you have deep divisions in Israel, but you also have people who are in the government whose views are rather extreme by likes of traditional Israeli policy?

Amos Yadlin: We have to differentiate between two issues. One is the fact that the prime minister depends on this very minority of extreme right-wingers that you mentioned. He depends on them for his political survival - he has no government without them.

It is not so much affecting the war, but it's affecting how to get out of the war, what you call a settlement of the conflict. On the other hand, it is very important to know that the two-state solution today in Israel has no support in any quarter.

What Hamas has done on the 7th of October proved to the Israelis their nightmares - that the Palestinians want to kill them, to destroy them. We are dealing not with a nation that you can do business with; you are dealing with a jihadist organization that's supported by the people. So, the idea of having a Palestinian state controlled by Hamas is unacceptable to any Israeli, even in the center and the left.

Jon Alterman: Do you think Israelis have the right concept of victory as they look at this war? As you look forward, do you think that people have properly calibrated what a successful outcome will be?

Amos Yadlin: We have to forget about a decisive victory as we knew it. We must forget about the unconditional surrendering that Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin defined vis-a-vis Nazi Germany or the unconditional surrender of Japan in 1945.

Look at the United States. Where have you won a war? In Vietnam? In Iraq? In Afghanistan? This is a different kind of war. The only problem for us is that we cannot declare victory and leave. We are living here. You can leave Afghanistan, and you haven't won, but life in New York and D.C. are the same. Same thing with Vietnam and Iraq.

For us, it's different. The government put two goals to the war, which are very ambitious: to dismantle Hamas and to bring back the hostages. We are halfway through meeting these goals. From the very beginning, I personally said that the goal of dismantling Hamas is a yearlong goal. This cannot be done in six days or six weeks.

I asked my friend General John Allen, "How long did it take for the Americans and their 84-country coalition to destroy ISIS in Mosul?" The answer is nine months. Mosul is much easier than Gaza. Nobody supports ISIS. Hamas is supported by Iran, Qatar, and Turkey. They had 15 years to prepare themselves for the war. So, if it took nine months for the American-led coalition. The IDF is dealing with something which is 10 times more difficult.

The problem is with the second goal of bringing back the hostages. Here, the clocks are not synchronized. If dismantling Hamas will take a year, the hostages are running out of time. They are starving as we speak. They may die from their wounds. The females are raped. The need to bring them back home should be number one. The second goal of dismantling Hamas can be done later.

Jon Alterman: How do you think about the increasing practice of taking hostages? Is that something you think we're going to start seeing in future wars? Do you think Israelis are especially sensitive to hostage-taking?

Amos Yadlin: The idea that every human being in Israel is your brother or son and you have to do everything to bring him back, has been a moral guidance for us for many, many years. After the governments of Peres and Shamir, we saw Israeli soldiers being released in exchange for terrorists. In 1985, Rabin released thousands of terrorists for eight Israeli soldiers who were prisoners of war. Netanyahu released 1,000 terrorists, including Sinwar, for one Israeli soldier. I think by now, Israel has understood that these numbers are unacceptable. In a way, it's encouraged kidnapping and taking hostages. I think the United States just released $6 billion for a couple of hostages in Tehran, so it's a problem for every democratic country that deals with a terror or a rogue state.

Jon Alterman: You mentioned your conversation with John Allen, and when I've spoken to retired U.S. generals in the last several months, many feel that they've been spending several decades fighting insurgencies in the Middle East. They seem exasperated that few Israeli decision-makers think that their observations, especially about the importance of targeting the views of noncombatants, are relevant to the Israeli situation. The American approach to counterinsurgency says that you have to divide the combatants from the people who support them and show people that there is a better way than supporting the combatants. It also says that you have to care for the civilian population. Is that just not applicable in your view in Gaza? Do you feel that the civilian casualties are unfortunate but necessary for the military task?

Amos Yadlin: First, let's deal with the second part of your question. Israel is fighting according to international law. We try not to target any civilians. However, we don't let Hamas use the civilians as a human shield. We already know by now that Hamas always places command posts under hospitals, UN posts, schools, camps, and so on, and so forth. That's why in the first weeks, we asked the population to leave Gaza. To leave anything that is associated with Hamas.

Some people did stay, whether because of their connection to Hamas or because Hamas forced them to stay. We haven't targeted the hospitals, but we went into the hospitals. Nobody was killed in the hospitals, only Hamas. So, we feel that we are fighting according to international law, and the blame is on Sinwar who started the war. On Sinwar, who adopted a doctrine of human shielding and is holding the hostages. The whole blame is on him. We feel that anybody who has complaints should contact Hamas leadership.

Jon Alterman: When President Biden says that the Israeli reaction is over the top, is he misinformed in your view?

Amos Yadlin: Absolutely. Absolutely. I'm referencing the U.S. way of doing business. Why did you go to Iraq and Afghanistan? Go to Japan and Germany? I don't remember that you differentiated between the innocent people in Dresden. I don't remember that you did it when you attacked Tokyo in 1945 with firebombs. Unlike what your generals are telling us, it hasn't pushed the Germans or the Japanese to be more extreme. On the contrary, they've become democratic. They've become peace lovers. The idea that you failed in Iraq and Afghanistan is not something that we have to take as guidance to our activity.

I met some of your generals when they came here before we entered Gaza. Their prediction was that Gaza was impossible. That we will have thousands of casualties. Yes, Gaza was very difficult. But due to the heavy bombardment of areas that should have been empty of any civilians; due to advanced weapons and advanced protection, what has been done in Gaza is a unique military achievement that nobody thought could be achieved on your side of the military from the generals. They are surprised.

Jon Alterman: You talked about the post-conflict environment in Japan and Germany. How do you get there with the Palestinians? Is there a strategy to create a post-conflict peace? Israelis are deeply traumatized. Gazans are deeply traumatized. I'm not sure how we get beyond the trauma of a post-conflict political environment.

Amos Yadlin: Yeah. I have an idea. I'm running this small consultancy firm called MIND Israel. After multiple months, MIND Israel came up with a way forward for “the day after.” We said first, you have to dismantle Hamas. As long as you leave Hamas there, nothing will happen. It will be a combination of Somalia and Afghanistan. You need to finish the job to dismantle Hamas.

Then, you should bring a Palestinian bureaucracy that can take over Gaza and rebuild it. It cannot be done by the current PA, which is corrupt, weak, unable to control Jenin and Tulkarm in the West Bank, and which is not legitimate in the view of their own people because there were no elections there for many years.

A revised PA - and here I am, using the same terminology that the Biden administration is using - which is mentored by an Arab consortium of Egyptians, Saudis, and the UAE, is the way to start and rebuild a demilitarized and deradicalized Palestinian state. Otherwise, the war will continue, and the conflict will continue.

I am a veteran of the Yom Kippur War, which was a very tough and bloody war. But five years later, President Sadat came to Israel. He said, "No more war. No more bloodshed." And since then, we have not been fighting with the Egyptians, which is now our strongest and largest neighbor.

Jon Alterman: You've thought long and hard about this, and I'm sure you have a reaction to the argument that some people make; that you can't destroy an idea and Hamas is an idea. You can dismantle the organization, but you have to provide an alternative idea for people to embrace. Or, it has to be an alternative idea for people to embrace, and Hamas cannot be wiped out. Does that ring true to you? Or do you think there's something fundamentally mistaken about it?

Amos Yadlin: At this moment, we are not trying to destroy the idea. We cannot destroy an idea. We have to destroy their capabilities to do it again. So, it's not what they think. It's not their heart and mind, it's their capability.

We are not going to change the heart and the mind, but their capability will be destroyed. But let me ask you another question. Have you destroyed the Nazi thinking? You need to achieve it by unconditional victory, which we are far from because we are not alone with Gaza. The whole world is now trying to stop us. So, it will not be unconditional surrender. Then, we will not be able to have a different culture in the Gaza Strip.

Jon Alterman: That's exactly what Hamas is trying to do, they're trying to isolate Israel in the world. I think you would agree that they've been successful in large parts of the world. Does that matter for Israel? What do you think, if anything, Israel should be doing to try to mitigate this isolation, both around the world but also in the United States where it's becoming a more polarizing issue?

Amos Yadlin: It was polarizing before. As Israelis, we want to live first and to be popular second. Of course, if you can live well and have good relations with everybody, fine. But if you have to choose whether this country will be safe and not so popular or popular and not safe, it is not a tough decision.

After all, 82 percent of Americans prefer the Israeli narrative and not the Hamas narrative. We shouldn’t imply too much from college campuses. I've been there. I teach a class there. The people were against Israel and demonstrated against me before this war. They want Palestine from the river to the sea, which means genocide to Israel. They don't always know which river and which sea, but they are exposed to all the propaganda. At the end, despite the fake news and the propaganda, I think any decent human being in the world will understand that Israel is the better side in this conflict.

Jon Alterman: As somebody who was the defense attaché to Washington, are you concerned with rising criticism of Israel in the Democratic Party, in the sense that Israel is becoming a more partisan issue than it has been for a half-century since Israel initially started as a Democratic issue?

Amos Yadlin: You are absolutely right that Israel was a bipartisan issue in America. The fact that it is not anymore is not because of this war. It started 20 or 15 years ago. For as long as “Bibi” was the prime minister, it's become even worse because Netanyahu basically sided with the Republicans, so the Democrats were against us.

Let me tell you something that I believe in the end will work. Bernard Shaw used to say, "If you are at the age of 20 and you are not a communist, you have no heart. If at the age of 40, you are still a communist, you have no brain." When these 20-year-old people grow up a little bit, they will understand who is right and who is wrong.

I still think most Americans support Israel, but some of them support the Palestinians. If they enjoy supporting murderers, those who want to destroy the Jewish people, fine with them.

Jon Alterman: So let me ask you a question about truth to close things out. Israelis are relentlessly blunt and confront hard facts. There will be an effort to understand what went wrong and to promote accountability. When do you think that is going to really get some traction? How is it likely to unfold? What kinds of consequences might we anticipate from it?

Amos Yadlin: Very good question. It is important to learn from the mistakes that have been done. But there are three different processes to it. One process is called briefing, professional briefing. The goal of this professional briefing is to understand what went wrong and to correct it for next time, to have the lessons learned, and to implement.

The second is an inquiry committee. This committee, which, according to the law in Israel, is done by the Supreme Court, has to find who to blame and who is responsible. They are looking for the blame, not for the lesson learned. The last one is the people's verdict. You go to an election.

So, the first process will start if there is a ceasefire for hostages there. The IDF will start the process of debriefing because this is important. The IDF will do it professionally as we did it after '73, after the Second Lebanese War. I'm very confident that this learning process will make us better.

Jon Alterman: Is that a sort of a three-month or 12-month process? I mean, give me a sense for how long it might take.

Amos Yadlin: Yeah, it's a three-month process. The committee nominated by the Supreme Court has to be nominated after a government decision. I'm afraid that Netanyahu will try to postpone it as much as possible. Unlike after '73, when the process was a couple of months, Israel is now giving the people who may be found guilty the possibility to call lawyers and have testimonies. This will make the process very long. It's very long. So, the election may clear the system even earlier than the inquiry committee. I'm not an expert of politics, but my instincts are that it will be in the coming year.

Jon Alterman: Do you think that the Israeli inquiry that follows will be somewhat like the 9/11 Commission Report or very different? How would you think about that in terms of output?

Amos Yadlin: 9/11 was mostly an intelligence failure. It was not an operational failure; it was not a political failure. The 7th of October has three layers of failures. Unfortunately, all of them align to create a catastrophe on the 7th of October.

It's an intelligence failure that didn’t give the early warning about what Hamas was going to do. It’s the operational failure that the Southern Command was not ready. There is the political level of encouraging Hamas, giving Hamas the Qatari money, and basically leading Israel into a domestic crisis that gave our enemies the idea that this is the right time to attack Israel.

So, there are three levels. All of them need to be looked at by this committee. I hope it will be with people of prestige such as professional judges and people from military, intelligence, or political backgrounds that will deal with the three levels of failures that we, unfortunately, had on the 7th of October.

Jon Alterman: Amos Yadlin, thank you very much for joining us on Babel.

Amos Yadlin: My pleasure, Jon.