In his new book, Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change, Charles Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, presents what he calls the first-ever public proposal of a comprehensive Israeli national security strategy. The new strategy places greater emphasis on restraint, defense and diplomacy to address the challenges Israel faces. Born in New York, Freilich moved as a child with his family to Israel. He is now a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Freilich speaks with Moment about the threat of the Iranian-Hezbollah-Syrian axis, whether Israel is too dependent on the United States and why Israel cannot let Iran establish a permanent military presence on its border.
You were a strong supporter of the Iran deal; are you still?
Yes. Not because it was a perfect deal. It wasn’t. But we have to adapt policy to the world we live in, not the one we want to live in. In the world we live in, it was the best of the bad options and I still think so. But it looks like President Trump is tearing it up soon. I could support that if I thought there was a strategy behind it. But like many things, it seems like he doesn’t like it, and he promised to tear it up—so he’s going to tear it up. And then, we’re in a really bad position: The Iranians will likely wait about a year before renewing their nuclear program in order to make the U.S. look like the rogue actors, and at the same time they will set up bases in Syria. So I think this is a terrible mistake that the president is probably going to make.
How worried should Israel be about Iranian influence in Syria?
Very worried. Iran is in the process of turning Syria into an Iranian-dominated state. In effect, they’re erasing the border between Syria and Lebanon turning it into one big front against Israel. The Iranians seem to be trying to establish military bases in Syria: air, naval and ground bases. Israel can’t allow them to do this. I’m the guy who’s always writing that Israel should exercise restraint and act defensively, diplomatically. But I think we have to continue air strikes to prevent this. And if this escalates to a war, then so be it, because we can’t allow it to happen.
Is there a diplomatic solution to this? Does it mean turning more toward Russia or toward other countries?
In the short-term, I think Russia is the primary player. Paradoxically, they’re the only stabilizing force in this situation because the U.S. isn’t playing in Syria. I don’t see that changing, the Trump administration’s rhetoric notwithstanding. The Russians really don’t want to see a war in that region, but they’ve got strong interests when it comes to Iran and Syria. I don’t know if they’re really going to be the balancer. So I’m afraid that this is going to lead to a military clash—and maybe in the not-so-distant future.
How has Trump being president affected the U.S.-Israel relationship?
Short-term, there’s an improvement in the atmosphere. But I think he’s made a fundamental mistake with the Jerusalem decision, in the sense that he could have kept that as a major inducement or a carrot for Israel. If there was a deal with the Palestinians—or even progress toward it—then he could give that to Israel as a present. But he gave it away for free. Now, the Palestinians are angry. They say they don’t trust the United States anymore. They’ll probably get over it, because they have no alternative. If they want a state, they’ve got to work through the U.S.
Is Israel too dependent on the United States?
Israel is extraordinarily dependent on the United States, and it almost never makes decisions without taking the American interest very strongly into account. One example is the Yom Kippur War. We didn’t preempt. We knew Saturday morning, October 6, at noon that there was going to be an attack that day. We didn’t preempt because we were concerned about American policy. That was a very controversial decision at the time. More recently, one of the reasons Israel didn’t attack the Iranian nuclear program is because the U.S. was against it. So we’ve made some really difficult choices because of the U.S. There are outliers, of course. For example, settlement expansion and the Iran nuclear deal. The part of the Israeli republic that is supportive of settlements has been very organized, and they’ve made their opinion known. It’s understandable that the Israeli government takes that into account. The Iran nuclear deal, as much as I disagreed with Netanyahu, there is a legitimate school of thought that says the agreement was a bad one, and he thought it was an existential threat to the State of Israel. From that point of view, he had a right to oppose it.
Financially, could Israel survive without the U.S. aid?
Yes, but it would mean a bad hit to the economy. It would mean a devastating hit to the current defense budget. But could Israel make up for it? The answer is yes. It’s 1 percent of the GDP. It’s 3 percent of the national budget. Now, to slash 3 percent of a national budget, in any country, is a lot. That’s huge. But it’s not undoable. It means a dramatic change in the standard of living. But that’s one form of dependence. Another form of dependence is American strategic backing. It’s not just the weapons. It’s global backing for that. It’s diplomatic backing. It’s the vetoes and the UN Security Council.
Should Israel be looking elsewhere for allies?
Nobody wants to put all their eggs in one basket. The U.S. was at the height of its power in the Middle East in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it’s been deteriorating continually since the the last two years of the George W. Bush administration. Are there alternatives to the United States? Who? Russia, China? There are no other alternatives to the United States. So we better maintain American support. I think the right in Israel has gotten so self-confident and cocky lately and some people in Israel today are saying, “Oh, we can do without the U.S.” I don’t think anybody responsible in Israel believes that.
What happens if that support disappears in America, as some people are predicting?
I think it’s an overstatement to say that it’s going disappear. It has remained pretty much the same because what Israel has lost on the left, it’s gained on the right. The Orthodox population is the fastest growing part of the American Jewish population. And, except for the nuts, they’re very pro-Israel. So you could even make the case that a different kind of pro-Israel activism is going to grow.
What about outside the Jewish community?
There are tectonic changes underway in the United States today in demography. The two most rapidly growing population groups are the Hispanics and the religiously unidentified. And they have few ties with Israel. So there are changes underway regardless of what’s happening in the Jewish community or what’s happening in Israeli policy.
You wrote that Israel should sign a defense treaty with the U.S. What would that look like?
It could be some sort of formal commitment to Israel’s assistance. My primary motivation for it isn’t actually to protect Israel from the military threats. It’s to ensure the long-term vitality of the relationship. That’s the primary reason. It might be linked to a deal with the Palestinians in the sense that this would be a way of reassuring the Israeli public, which is deeply afraid of the consequences of an agreement, for good reason. A Palestinian state, a two-state state solution—I couldn’t be more for it. Not because I think it’s going to be a stable, wonderful thing. I don’t think it will be. I think it’ll be another failed Arab state, of which there are many. But we just have to separate from the Palestinians.
Israel is celebrating its 70th birthday. Are you hopeful about the next 70 years?
I always put things in perspective. I’m very unhappy about Israel’s overall course as a nation. But let’s remember where Jews were 73 years ago. They were being put in ovens. And Israel‘s purpose was to create a situation in which that would never be possible again. And I think we’ve done that. Israel is a fundamentally secure state today. It doesn’t mean we don’t have big threats but no one can wipe Israel out anymore. And that’s a dramatic success. Israel has relations with more states than ever before, including strong economic ties, military ties. We can celebrate that fact that Israel has become a prosperous state, mid-European standard of living, and is a stable, vibrant democracy. Maybe we don’t like the way the people have been voting in recent years. We have to get through a bad period. People should remember the United States has also had bad periods in its history.