Friday, August 11, 2006

To Beirut if necessary

Gidi Weitz, Haaretz: Israeli Intelligience Views of Hezbullah
"I was absolutely not surprised," declares Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, who until a moment ago was head of the research division of Military Intelligence. "This is exactly the Hezbollah I know. It's an organization with a backbone, very well trained, well equipped and determined. We knew they had thousands of rockets and hundreds of long-range rockets. There is not a gram of surprise here."

Then why is there a powerful feeling among the public that the political and military echelons were caught with their pants down? Why was the expectation for a short, purposeful operation?

Kuperwasser: "I suggest the press ask itself just that. Everything was explained to all those who were entitled to see the material." READ MORE

If I had asked you a month ago whether Hezbollah would still be firing hundreds of rockets at Israel after a month of attacks by the IDF, would you have agreed that this is what would happen?

"Of course. Militarily, the working assumption was that Hezbollah would have the ability to wage war for a long period. There is no misconception here. We knew exactly what Hezbollah's capabilities were, and on the other hand what capabilities we had to inflict damage on Hezbollah, and we knew the question marks that existed in terms of intelligence."

A bit of modesty wouldn't hurt, you know. We already had one director of Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, who talked about a "low probability" on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. Modesty is a requirement in military intelligence.

"Intelligence hasn't been so mistaken in Israel in recent years. Israel has had an excellent intelligence service in the past few years. We said at the beginning of the year in the intelligence assessment that in the Lebanese system we see efforts at abduction by Hezbollah and there is no way to guarantee they will not be successful."

What didn't you know?

"We didn't know where every rocket was or even where every tunnel was dug. We knew exactly what damage would be caused to them and what capabilities would remain after the damage. In the order of priorities of the intelligence EEI [essential elements of information], the Lebanese issue occupied a very high place. So it is amusing that people are now coming with complains about intelligence. We knew all that."

Did you coordinate your assessments with Home Front Command?

"There was close coordination."

Yet the home front was extremely vulnerable: lack of shelters in many cities, hazardous materials that were left exposed.

"I don't think you are right, but I am not an expert on the home front. Home Front Command received the relevant information and it seems to me they did what they were supposed to do with it. There are questions, such as what happened to Project Nautilus [the project to intercept missiles with laser beams]. After we made this point over and over, in the end we go to war and it doesn't exist. That has to be examined."

Nasrallah's confusion

There is something a bit disturbing in a conversation with Brigadier General Kuperwasser. If in peacetime it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between self-confidence and a firm stance by military men, and arrogance and superciliousness, during wartime the last thing you want to hear from a senior officer is a premature trumpet of victory. Morale is nice, maybe even important, but a restrained reading of reality, a dollop less assertiveness, can also be calming in its way. Especially when the remarks come from the person who until very recently was the brains of the Israel Defense Forces, the head of the research division of Military Intelligence, the man who presents the annual situation assessment and submits the most highly classified reports to the prime minister and the defense minister. And that man, Brig. Gen. Kuperwasser, it turns out, beyond the fact that he was not surprised for a second, as he says, in contrast to the wretched patrol of the reservists who were killed and abducted when this whole mess started, also has little good to say about Arabs.

"The root of the problem lies in how the residents of the Middle East look at the world and at their situation," Kuperwasser says as he expounds upon his doctrine about Israel's neighbors. "The approach that unites all the extremist elements in the Middle East, and enjoys political clout in the Middle East - because it speaks to the guts of the masses - says they are victims. They are not responsible for their fate. The reason their situation is not good is because someone had it in for them. The perception of Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaida, Iran and Syria, and of many among the Arab public, many of the people on the street, is that these outsiders, the Israelis and the Americans, are responsible for their fate because of their ambition to exploit them. That is a philosophical conception. And therefore Israel is a threat by its very existence, even when it does not shoot. They have a deep sense of victimization."

Maybe there is something to that feeling?

"It's nonsense and is not grounded in anything. It is a very good method to absolve yourself of responsibility for your fate."

Such a meaningful ethos is based on nothing?

"Why are you so surprised? In Germany, too, the anti-Semitism line was, 'Why are the Germans so wretched? Because of the Jews.' Projecting your problems on someone else."

And are we different? Don't we have a historic version of victimization?

"Absolutely not. Israel never presented itself as a victim. Always Samson. The conception of Zionism is to take our fate in our hands, not to be victims."

And there is something passive in these Arabs you are talking about?

"Very much so. Those who say, 'We have no initiative, we did not succeed in connecting to progress and someone else is responsible for that and deliberately wants us to be backward.' There are others who are trying to put forward a different approach, less vociferous and less forcible, such as in Iraq, where the majority insisted on going to the polls and in continuing to live there. There are also some like that among the Palestinians and the Lebanese, but they are not courageous enough."

Do you have any regard for any Arab leader of stature?

"One of the problems of the Arab world today is the absence of a leader of stature."

And Hassan Nasrallah?

"Nasrallah is a person who is full of himself. In love with himself. Confident of his capabilities. In practice he has limited knowledge. His analytical capability may be not bad, but the self-confidence he has to demonstrate publicly makes him confused. That's what happened to him this time. He developed a theory and was caught in it without being able to judge himself critically. He had to justify his existence, so he explained that he was defending Lebanon and safeguarding its interests.

"Today, you know, people in the Arab world are coming to him with complaints and asking him: 'What made you abduct the soldiers without asking the government of Lebanon?' And he replies: 'Me?! There is a decision by the government of Lebanon that the prisoners have to be returned, so I went and did what has to be done on behalf of the Lebanese government.' He wants both to obtain the cover of legitimacy and also not to allow the Lebanese government to bear responsibility for his actions. Both things together.

"That worked for six years. Lebanon sat by the side, Nasrallah carried out operations and Israel focused its operations only against Hezbollah targets. He believed Israel would not dare strike at Lebanon because it would not be able to cope with the state irresponsibility. He said to himself, 'Israel will not dare do anything from the air because I have a lot of missiles and I am telling you, gentlemen, you don't even know how many I have, I won't tell you how many I have: 12,000, 13,000. I have a lot of missiles, and therefore you will not dare to attack me, because I can attack Hadera and Haifa and I don't know what. Beyond Haifa. And you will also not dare to launch a ground attack. Because I prepared a massive force on the border and you carry the memory of the blows you sustained in Lebanon and therefore you will not enter, also because you have no territorial interest in Lebanon, and I can do whatever I want.'

"He became increasingly convinced that this thesis was correct, and he sold it to the Lebanese. He failed to grasp one basic thing. He is not an intelligence officer. He did not evaluate the strategic change. He thought Israel would carry out a local action in the south and that would be that. In his speeches during the war he kept addressing Olmert: 'You, c'mere, what do you want? You have to behave like Sharon. Sharon held negotiations with me about captives. You are the worst prime minister Israel ever had.'"

The truth is Nasrallah did not really look surprised.

"Physically he was ready. In terms of his consciousness he was not ready. At the political level, he has no choice but to lose this war."

Lose? He doesn't seem to be losing.

"He will not lose from the point of view that he will stop firing rockets - Saddam also kept firing rockets in 1991. The political conditions in Lebanon will change. After the war Hezbollah will have a weaker or stronger political status, but its military status will be entirely different. It will not be on the border with Israel. It will not continue to be a threat to Israel."

Do you know that the general public feeling is one of defeat, while you're talking about victory? That is a major dissonance.

"In Lebanon they don't understand what is happening in Israel and vice versa. Rockets are falling in Israel, and until they stop, from our point of view we have not won. Here people thought the air force would wrap up things in three minutes, so there is a feeling of helplessness that is creating the frustration. Besides that, there is no action in this war that is being presented as a victory image, like the guy in the Suez Canal in the Six-Day War."

The Six-Day War was a victory even without that photograph.

"Yes, but there were also victory images. The guy in the canal, Dayan at the Western Wall. And here our media is dealing with things that are not done in wartime. I don't say we need a media that spouts the official line, but you don't ask the chief of staff about a commission of inquiry, as Ilana Dayan did - that seems to me insane. Do you understand what a chief of staff is? You say yes, but you don't really know what a chief if staff is."

To ask is democratic.

"But there are democracies that went crazy, that started to do harm to themselves."

According to Kuperwasser, the only commission of inquiry that will be established will be in Lebanon. He does not for a moment doubt the outcome of this confrontation. "Hezbollah will be disarmed. The government of Lebanon will disarm Hezbollah, and if not, Israel will have to do it. Israel will reach Beirut in the end if necessary. You ask me if that is possible? yes, it is. We have to reach a situation in which the international pressure and the Israeli military pressure and the Lebanese political pressure bring Hezbollah to understand that it cannot go on presenting itself as the defender of Lebanon."

Aren't you concerned that the bombings and the refugees in Lebanon will push moderate people into the Hezbollah fold?

"No way! Not one person has been added to the Hezbollah fold. We may have added people who hate Israel, but not to the Hezbollah fold. The Lebanese are not dumbbells: they know why they are suffering."

Talking nonsense

Israeli intelligence has been criticized in the past few weeks for not having been able to supply reliable information about Hezbollah's military capabilities. But on the subject of the shelling on Israel and the abduction that started the whole military process, there are no complaints to Military Intelligence. The writing was on the wall and appeared in a multitude of articles. Time and again we read that Hezbollah had more than 10,000 Katyusha rockets, and time again we read that the organization intended to abduct soldiers. For some reason, that knowledge was not translated into action until the moment of truth. And still, Kuperwasser says, "There is not even a gram of surprise here."

How can it be that there is not a gram of surprise? You knew nothing about the Iranian missile that struck the Navy ship off Beirut.

"Yes, that was a surprise, I admit."

That is not just any surprise; it is tremendously significant.

"It is very significant for the Navy."

Is that an intelligence blunder?

"Anyone who expects that intelligence will know all things all the time - that is an impossibility."

Soldiers in the Armored Corps who went into Lebanon say they were told that Hezbollah has second-generation Sagger rockets, nothing serious, but in practice they have far more sophisticated antitank weapons.

"We knew they had antitank capability. But at the same time, during the fighting we discovered also specific items that we did not actually know about."

Another surprise?

"The word 'surprise' is not good here. We are not surprised that there are things we are not familiar with."

Soldiers are complaining about serious flaws in the most basic field intelligence.

"That has nothing not do with us, not that intelligence, but with Northern Command."

If intelligence, as you maintain, said that Hezbollah wanted to abduct soldiers, why wasn't it prevented? Even the level of alert was low.

"Nasrallah tried five times to abduct a soldier and four times it was prevented, and awareness was high. In principle, I assume there was no specific, concrete warning. There was a strategic warning."

Over the years you and your colleagues told the political echelon that Hezbollah had thousands of rockets. Why, in the six years since the withdrawal, was no attempt made to neutralize the organization's strength?

"Who says so? Anyone who says that is simply hypocritical. If someone thought we should go to war against Hezbollah only because they were accumulating missiles, why didn't they say so over these six years? We did not keep the information about Hezbollah to ourselves. I did not hear one voice in the country that said, 'Hey, Hezbollah has missiles, let's go to war against them.'"

You didn't hear voices like that from the military or from the politicians?

"No, no one said that, because it's clear that it's impossible to do it. To do something like that you have to adopt an approach for which the Americans were unable to mobilize world support. An approach based on a preventive strike. When the United States went into Iraq to carry out a preventive move, it did not succeed in obtaining international backing. So do you want Israel to do that? Let's be serious. Anyone who asks today why we didn't do that, did not ask the question then, and if anyone had said that, everyone would have said he was nuts."

Time passed and the arms buildup continued.

"People don't know. They just talk nonsense. We did a great many things that were vital in order to be able to maintain the fighting today. First of all, we collected intelligence. Is that something trivial? Part of the intelligence was obtained at tremendous risk. There were big arguments with foreign elements about some of the cases of the missiles from Syria and Iran that Hezbollah received, about whether the missiles arrived. Foreign intelligence sources were skeptical. We took political risks to obtain the intelligence, such as in the regular flights over Lebanon. We were assailed by the whole world for that, including the United States."

In this period didn't Hezbollah continue its military buildup?

"What happened in the past year or two, and was significant and changed the situation, is the Syrian missiles that reached Hezbollah. In the end, what made possible the arrival of some of the long-range missiles from Iran to Lebanon was a dirty trick they pulled. In the wake of the earthquake in Iran in 2003, they sent planes to bring equipment for the earthquake victims, and when the planes returned from Iran they actually brought with the long-range missiles. Syrian planes that went for that purpose brought the rockets."

What are we? Dumbbells?

Kuperwasser finds a close connection between the outbreak of the war and the Syrians' withdrawal from Lebanon: "This whole war started because Hezbollah was afraid it would be dismantled. After the assassination of [former Lebanese prime minister Rafik] Hariri, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for the Syrians to leave Lebanon. They left, on the assumption that with a strong Hezbollah and President Lahoud in place, they could preserve the situation in Lebanon even without being there. Nasrallah wants to show he is vital to the security of Lebanon and therefore he carried out the abduction. He was wrong here. He went into this move out of distress. He is not that much of an idiot. He knew there was a risk. He tried to abduct a soldier four times and failed."

How much control do Iran and Syria actually have over Hezbollah?

"Hezbollah's decision-making body has over it Iranians who make the decisions for it. There is no doubt that Iran gave the authorization in principle to abduct a soldier, in the same way that the significant person in Iran is Khamenei and not Ahmadinejad, whose importance is limited. They don't authorize every little thing in Hezbollah, but things of this magnitude, definitely. That does not necessarily mean that on July 10 he called and told them, 'Guys, tomorrow night.' They rely on him. He knows what they want and they know what he wants, even if not every little thing has to be authorized.

"As far as Syria goes, Hezbollah is a third hand and therefore it supplied them with the finest weaponry. The Syrians do not have weapons such as Hezbollah has in these spheres. They gave them training, instruction, money. And the Hezbollah people ask, 'Do we represent Iran and Syria?' And all the Arabs who look at them die of laughter: 'Who are you kidding? What, are we dumbbells?' Nasrallah has both a Lebanese Shi'ite identity and a broad Islamic identity, and Nasrallah has ambitions to be a leader at the Islamic level. He has Arab ambitions. He has ambitions at many levels. But his central role is to be a terrorist element on behalf of Iran and Syria."

Maybe it would have been possible to avoid the war and instead to conduct negotiations with Hezbollah on the release of the abducted soldiers?

"That is what Hezbollah thought would happen. At some stage we would have had to get into this confrontation. We should have understood well that intelligence told us this confrontation would entail no few casualties, we should have understood this confrontation would be lengthy, we should have understood well that for Hezbollah there are existential issues at stake here and they would not give themselves up easily. But we should have understood also that the timing is advantageous, because we are still ahead of the Iranian nuclear project. The political echelon took these things into account. That is their role. They get paid for that."

What is the danger of a flare-up with Syria?

"They are not interested in that. It's a low possibility."

And what is the prospect of negotiations and a peace agreement with them?

"If Syria loses Lebanon, there is a better prospect of arriving at peace with them. If they emerge victorious and nothing happens in Lebanon, why should they go to peace?"

You said in the past that by 2007 Iran will have nuclear weapons.

"Maybe I said that in 2002 and there were many delays in their program. Iran is playing with time to complete the process of controlling the enrichment of uranium, which began in January 2006. To complete that process requires approximately six months to a year. From there to nuclear capability takes time. Maybe by 2009-1010. The Iranians are refusing international importuning to stop the development, and a situation in which Iran controls all the technologies is a very undesirable one. The world understands this and therefore both China and Russia voted for the Security Council resolution."

Could the third world war erupt here in a few years?

"It could well be, but the third world war has already been on for the past five years. The extremist elements in Islam against the West. Al-Qaida might try to perpetrate a mass attack using non-conventional means. Al-Qaida needs to do something bigger than Hezbollah."

Meanwhile, back on the southern front

The degree of contempt that Kuperwasser has for Arabs includes also the Palestinians, of course. "They also maintain the philosophy of the victim," he says, "and here is the proof: Now they are saying that 'barbaric Israel is striking at us with the backing of the United States,' and that is what allows them to stand fast.

What you are saying is that the Hamas Palestinian leadership would like to see more Palestinians dying.

"That is appropriate for the Hamas leadership. They always tried to perpetrate terrorist attacks in transition periods in order to exacerbate the situation of the Palestinians and argue, 'Look how bad things are because of Israel.'"

Maybe things are bad for the Palestinians because of the occupation?

"I think the Palestinians themselves do not want the occupation to end. This is to understand why they are pursuing us with rockets from Gaza, where the occupation ended. What is this pursuit? An attempt to force us to shoot at them? It's not all the Palestinians, but groups within them. The moderate voices are heard only faintly."

Some maintain that in the unilateral disengagement Israel killed the mainstream in the Palestinian society and brought about the rise of Hamas.

"There is no connection, apart from the conjunction of time. In any elections held on the Palestinian street they would have scored a significant achievement, because Hamas appeals to the primal emotions of the Palestinians, and Fatah became corrupt, split and was a wreck."

That was not your assessment earlier. Immediately after the rise of Hamas it was claimed that the army had failed to predict this development.

"That is incorrect. The army said that in the Palestinian Authority elections, Hamas would have a significant achievement."

There is a difference between a victory and an achievement.

"Give me a moment. In retrospect, when we checked ourselves, we saw that when we said 'significant achievement,' people didn't understand what we meant. But we said also that Fatah would not win, that there was a possibility of a stalemate."

Is there an option for peace talks between Hamas and Israel?

"Hamas, like Hezbollah, wants ... the annihilation of the State of Israel. Let's not get confused here. Even if Hezbollah is disarmed, it will not change that goal."

The PLO also had a declared goal to eliminate Israel; it was annulled and peace talks were held.

"There is a big difference. Fatah's goal was based on a national conception. In nationalism one can make compromises at critical moments. Hamas is a movement that views itself as religious. It is dogmatic, and the prospect of it being flexible in its approach is extremely low. Hamas is committed to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the entire territory of historical Palestine. They are ready to adopt the phased program, to establish a state in the 1967 borders and leave open the question of 1948 for a time. In these conditions, there is no place for Israel to talk to Hamas."

Is Mahmoud Abbas a significant player?

"He is a kind of player. The PA is now a Hamas entity. We in intelligence were not surprised and knew that. From the outset we said Hamas' participation in the elections has to be prevented. We have to cause Hamas to lose its strength and the Palestinians to choose another way ? that is why Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] is still important. He is the representative of the approach that is contrary to the one I spoke about, which is also shared by Siniora in Lebanon and by King Abdullah, who are moderates who want to take responsibility for their fate. But the political culture I spoke about is problematic and places the blame on the other, against whom we must fight so that we can restore our honor. Because the organizing value of life is honor; as Nasrallah tells the residents of southern Lebanon, 'You will return to your homes walking tall.'"

So honor is very meaningful for these Arabs?

"It is not something meaningful, it is the meaningful thing. The only way to restore it is through readiness for great suffering. This is a primitive fundamentalism, which holds that through suffering and self-sacrifice you restore your lost honor ? whether we are talking about a whole population, be it the Palestinians or the Lebanese, or the sacrifice of the individual."

So according to what you say there will be no permanent settlement in the years ahead?

"I don't see it. [Mohammed] Dahlan once said that a Palestinian Ben-Gurion is needed. He hasn't yet been born."