(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In 1961, Israel launched Shavit 2 into space. It was a puny, suborbital research rocket, but it fired the imagination of 12-year-old Isaac Ben-Israel. He scrounged materials on the air force base where his family lived, built his own rocket and set it off near the base fence. The rocket rose to a height of 20 feet or so, flew over fence and landed next to an army jeep carrying (then Colonel) Ariel Sharon, one of Israel’s most storied commandos.
Decades later, when the two men met, Ben-Israel was a major general in the air force and Sharon a defense minister. Ben-Israel introduced himself and apologized for almost killing him. Sharon burst into laughter. “You’re that kid? You’re the only guy who ever shot a missile at me and lived.”
During a 32-year military career, Ben-Israel became a legendary figure. Twice he was awarded the Israeli Defense Forces’s top prize for developing weapons systems (and a third time he won a similar award from the Air Force). He was a key planner of the operation that destroyed the Iraqi atomic reactor in 1981.
Ben Israel studied mathematics, philosophy and physics at Tel Aviv University. His book on strategy won an award for military literature. In his last command, he headed the IDF/Ministry of Defense R&D Directorate where he played a central role in developing the modern Israeli military-industrial complex.
As a civilian adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben-Israel urged the prime minister to invest in a massive national cyber program. Colleagues have compared his influence to Albert Einstein’s appeal to FDR to build the atomic bomb. Ben-Israel is currently co-chairman of the National AI Initiative, chairman of the Israel Space Agency and the head of two of Israel’s most prestigious scientific-military think tanks. I caught up with him recently to talk about Israel’s defense readiness and Iran. This is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Zev Chafets:. An election is two weeks away. Both Bibi and Benny Ganz, his primary opponent, have been loudly warning that Iran is a hostile regional power and terrorist state that poses a strategic threat to Israel. Are they right?
Isaac Ben-Israel. It is true that Iran is an avowed enemy whose goal is the destruction of Israel. But there is a big difference between Iran’s ambitions and its ability to achieve them.
ZC: Iran is 10 times the size of Israel.
IB:. Size doesn’t matter. Egypt is bigger than Iran, its army is larger and it is on Israel’s border, not 1,500 kilometers away, like Iran. And yet Israel has repeatedly defeated Egypt. The last time Iran fought a war, in the early ‘80s, it couldn’t even beat Iraq, and it hasn’t gotten any better. The Iranian air force belongs in a museum, not on a battlefield. Its navy can’t even control the Straits of Hormuz. As a conventional force, it poses no serious threat to Israel.
ZC: Iran is trying to deploy troops and proxies in Syria. It could be much more lethal from 500 kilometers away.
IB-I: This is what the IDF is fighting to prevent. Most of that campaign has been unreported, although recently Israel has been more open about its operations.
ZC: Would you say the IDF has been successful?
IB-I: On the whole, yes. There have been tactical decisions I disagree with, but the strategy is sound and the operations have been well done. Israel won’t allow Iran to build an army in Syria that can threaten its borders or shorten its supply lines to Hezbollah. It can keep that from happening.
ZC: All right, but Hezbollah already has a lot of Iranian supplied missiles.
IB-I: Yes, between 100,000 and 150,000.
ZC: That sounds like a strategic threat.
IB-I: It is a threat but not “strategic.” The great majority of the rockets in Lebanon are unguided, like those that Hamas and Islamic Jihad fire from Gaza. Iron Dome is very good at shooting down rockets like that. In the 2014 war, for example, 4,500 unguided rockets were fired from Gaza. How many Israeli civilians were killed? Zero.
Hezbollah has a few hundred Iranian guided-missiles, and they can do damage. But Israeli anti-missiles defenses are constantly improving and the combined air and ground forces of the IDF are capable of silencing most of the really dangerous missiles within a few days.
ZC: Okay, let’s look at hi-tech, which seems to be the way war in the Middle East is heading. There have been reports that Iran is working hard to develop offensive cyber weapons, and that it constantly launches cyber-attacks on Israel.
IB-I: It tries. But Israel is one of the world’s five major cyber powers, along with the U.S., Russia, China and Great Britain. France, India, Australia, Italy, Germany, South Korea, Japan and one or two others are in the second rank of cyber powers. Below them, in the third tier, are another 10 or so countries. Iran? It’s in the fourth tier, both in offense and defense. We are rightly worried about their limited capability because we are the enemy and they concentrate their attacks on us. But they haven’t been able to hurt us significantly. What we can do to them is a different matter.
Israel also has other strong intelligence capabilities. For example, space is full of Israeli-built satellites that give the IDF an extremely clear picture of what Iran is doing. You can see the result in the success Israel is having in interdicting Iranian missile supplies to Hezbollah and preventing Iranian forces from establishing bases near our border on the Golan Heights or in western Syria.
ZC: Doesn’t Iran have intel satellites?
IB-I: It launched one small extremely small one that lasted three months in orbit. Since then, they have failed again and again to launch new ones. Just last week they failed again. By comparison, Israel is one of the world’s leading space nations. There are high schools in Israel with a greater satellite-building ability than Iran. Two have already succeeded in launching their own satellites.
ZC: Let’s discuss the nuclear threat. I recall that you weren’t opposed to the nuclear pact that Obama negotiated with Iran.
IB-I: It had weaknesses, but I didn’t believe we should fight what seemed like a reasonable opportunity to delay Iran’s nuclear program. Basically it is an inspection deal that gives us good monitoring of Iran’s nuclear efforts. That was the opinion of most Israeli experts, by the way. We didn’t want to see the deal fail.
ZC: Have you changed your mind?
IB-I: Well, Trump has left the deal, but the Iranians are still in it and haven’t ended the inspection regime. That’s good. U.S. sanctions are clearly having an impact on the economy which explains Iran’s sudden interest in negotiating. If the U.S. can improve the deal, so much the better. One way or the other, Iran does not currently pose a nuclear threat to Israel. Who knows what will happen in 20 years.
ZC: The U.S. has declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its proxies, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, to be terrorist entities. Certainly the Israeli government characterizes them that way.
IB-I: It does, but it is an emotional subject and there’s lot of exaggeration. The fact is, Iran hasn’t carried out more than one or two direct acts of terror against Israel in the past 20 years. Iran also supplies and supports Hamas and Islamic jihad, which actually do foment and carry out attacks. They are painful but not game changing. Israel suffers 10 to 15 deaths a year from Palestinian terrorism. By comparison, every year more than 50 Israeli men commit suicide because they are distraught over divorce court verdicts. It may sound cold, but strategic assessments require a sense of proportion.
ZC: So, you think the actual strategic threat to Israel is overstated?
IB-I: If Iran ever gets nuclear weapons, it would become a strategic threat. Israel needs to do everything possible, diplomatically and operationally, to prevent that from happening. But without nuclear weapons, the threat from Iran is highly exaggerated. And I don’t think it will be worse 20 years from now.
To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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