Video Interview with Uzi Arad

by July 2024

The JST’s Ksenia Svetlova interviews Israel’s former National Security Advisor Uzi Arad, about a strategy to counter Iran and the current war in Gaza. This transcript is lightly edited for clarity and concision. 

Ksenia Svetlova: Did Israel ever encounter something similar to Iran’s power, determination and also the number of proxies spread around the Middle East that are targeting Israel today?

Uzi Arad: Several conclusions come to mind. First, you have to separate them [Iran and its allies] one from another. So if you can divide, if you can cause dissention in the ranks, you lower the risk of some concerted action. Second, you can also have allies and present one alliance to confront the other’s [Iran’s] alliance. As you know, there is an alliance of countries which are threatened by Iran and which become our allies almost by default. And third, the rule that I think we should employ in these turbulent times is to be extremely cautious and wherever you can avoid escalation, avoid escalation. 

In principle, Israel should limit the threat coming from those parts. Having learned the lessons of the past, we cannot tolerate the presence of an extremely hostile entity on our borders. We cannot allow or tolerate heavily armed semi-military systems like Hizbullah being contiguous to our borders, and in so doing, being able to attack us. We have to have either buffer zones or some distancing. That we should have in Lebanon. 

When it comes to Gaza, we cannot allow the continued presence of Hamas. It is a small military group, but it possesses missiles and other capabilities. It has shown its ability to penetrate our borders when they attack, so we cannot have them there. 

Ksenia Svetlova: How?

Uzi Arad: We have to bring about their dismantlement. It’s easier said than done. But let me remind you that under the principles of the negotiating process with the Palestinians – on terms agreed to also by the parties involved, the UN, Russia and America – the principle was the territories that we would evacuate would remain demilitarized. That principle of demilitarization applied until the Wye Agreement and throughout [the 1990s negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.] 

What does it mean, demilitarized? It means that local security forces should have police capabilities, light weapons but not heavy weapons, and certainly not rockets and missiles, which are the most terroristic of all weapons. 

Q: How do you implement this principle?

Uzi Arad: We have to create the conditions in which we come to this end. Nothing is easy, but at least the principle [of demilitarization] was understood at the time and it can be pursued. Even the great United States took a long time to successfully suppress some of these radical Islamic groups. It took time to fight DAESH. It took time to fight Al-Qaeda, it took time to control areas. These are difficult missions, which require time. 

We have misled ourselves, and others, by saying we could have an instant degradation of Hamas. We should have known better and we should have known that it takes time, and we should not have thought that we could do a “shock and awe” campaign in this case. Maybe we did a little bit of that, but it takes longer. And I can assure that even if this current route arrives at a period of truce [with Hamas in Gaza], because we have to collect our strength and we have some other duties to recover. We have some casualties to take care of. We have homeless people who have been uprooted from their homes. We have certain things to do, but we will fight Hamas and gradually they will not be there.

The only way we can fully demobilize Hizbullah is if you occupy Lebanon and move systematically, finding them and rooting them out. But we don’t want to do it. I don’t think it is within our means to have a full occupying army. We’ve been to Beirut once and we don’t want to commit ourselves to this kind of effort.

Therefore, we have to think of more limited means that can do the job. We could attack the capabilities of Hamas as much as we can without reaching them territorially. Or we could put pressure on the Lebanese army and government, to the extent that they have any capacity, to force Hizbullah. Or we could occupy the parts [of southern Lebanon] which Hizbullah controls, and then position ourselves more effectively further north. There is no easy, quick, completely effective solution to defeat Hizbullah. 

In the entire history of the Arab-Israeli wars over the past 100 years, Israel has lost 30 to 40,000 people, and the Arab side, three times as much. That’s a fraction of what was lost in one week of civil war in Syria. So we’ve been fortunate that even our big wars with Egypt or Syria have been devoid of that level of mass civilian casualties.

Ksenia Svetlova
Ksenia Svetlova is the Executive Director of ROPES (The Regional Organization for Peace, Economics & Security) and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. She is a former member of the Knesset.
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