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Q&A

Former Israeli national security advisor: ‘Israel doesn’t have the time it thinks it has to fight this war’

Eyal Hulata explains why humanitarian aid for Gaza is in Israel’s interests and why Iran pushed the Houthis to attack Israel

MAZEN MAHDI/AFP via Getty Images

Eyal Hulata, Israel's national security advisor, speaks during the 17th IISS Manama Dialogue in the Bahraini capital Manama on November 21, 2021.

Twenty-six days into Israel’s war with Hamas, it remains unclear how thousands of terrorists were able to infiltrate Israel and attack for hours without being stopped by the IDF. Equally unclear are the parameters of the Israel-Hamas war: Will the fighting be contained to Gaza, or will another front open in Israel’s north? 

With hundreds of thousands of Palestinians displaced after Israel warned civilians to leave the warzone in the northern Gaza Strip, the humanitarian situation has become an international concern, with pressure growing on Israel as a result.

Eyal Hulata, Israel’s national security advisor until January who is now based in the U.S., spoke with Jewish Insider this week to provide some clarity and suggestions as to what Israel should do moving forward. His remarks have been edited for clarity and length.

Jewish Insider: You were national security adviser under Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. Do you think their governments were prepared for the possibility of a terrorist invasion?

Eyal Hulata: We discussed scenarios of a surprise attack by Hamas, but I don’t remember discussing something of such a magnitude. The possibility that Hamas would surprise us and try to take soldiers and civilians hostage was always something we considered. We knew Hamas is an opportunistic organization and that it would try to find opportunities to [take hostages]. But I don’t remember warnings about such a broad event.

JI: There are reports that Hamas planned the attack for years. How did Israel and its vaunted intelligence services miss those threats?

EH: It was a very, very successful campaign of deceit. They understood our methods of gathering intelligence better than we realized. They knew how to feed us information that made us think everything was business as usual. In addition, very few people [in Hamas] knew the whole picture. 

Unfortunately, our intelligence system waited for concrete information before giving warnings. We fell into their trap.

But there was a bigger problem. The whole defense system was supposed to prepare for surprises and be prepared to defend our citizens, even if the intelligence doesn’t say what will happen, and that didn’t happen for many reasons. And that is the responsibility of the political level. The security cabinet is supposed to be prepared not only based on intelligence but in weighing all of the ways of understanding what is happening.

We went into [Simchat Torah] with insufficient forces spread out, not only for this scenario. The Re’im Base [the IDF’s Gaza Division headquarters] was conquered. They were not ready for a surprise attack. That is the big problem and that is the responsibility of the politicians.

JI: How can we prevent it from happening again?

EH: First, we have to win this war. The goal that the prime minister set, of dismantling Hamas’s capability to rule the Strip, is a very big goal. It’s not clear to me that we can achieve it. I don’t think we have the time to finish the war that the Israeli system thinks we have.

We have to bring all the hostages home and bring back the public’s sense of security to the public. Two hundred thousand people will not go home if they don’t understand that something has changed to prevent this from happening again.

Hamas is still close to the fence. That is unbearable. We need a wide buffer zone to…prevent the smuggling of arms into Gaza, which we knew about, but no government dealt with sufficiently. Otherwise, we won’t be able to bring back security to the residents.

JI: What do you mean when you say Israel won’t have the time it thinks it has?  

EH: The pressure to end the ground part of the war will come faster than what we heard in last week’s press conference [with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and others, who said the war may take months]. 

[President Joe] Biden has been saying that the humanitarian situation disturbs him and we will hear it from other leaders. The demonstrations against Israel that are currently taking place can turn into demos against the governments in the capitals around the world, and when that happens, business as usual will not continue even if the leaders’ hearts are in the right place…

The dynamic will end up being what we knew from the Second Lebanon War and Operation Protective Edge [in 2014]. There are other interests around us [aiming to bring the war to a close.] 

Therefore, we need to go above and beyond to improve the humanitarian situation in southern Gaza. That is the only way to improve our situation with various governments, and we have to be aware of it.

JI: In an interview with The New York Times, Bennett called to cut Gaza in half and choke off the north. What do you think of that idea?

EH: I think that’s what’s happening, but I don’t think it’s happening at enough of a magnitude. That’s what Israel said in advance, that civilians must evacuate to the south of the Gaza River, and most of the military activity is in the northern strip – that’s where the ground invasion is. We have de facto divided Gaza.

Now, we need to go above and beyond to make the humanitarian situation as good as possible. Even then time is not on our side. I think we only have a few weeks.

JI: If we only have a few weeks, what should we do first?

EH: It is of supreme importance to take advantage of this time to free the hostages. It will be much harder to do after the war is over. The war cabinet is right that a ground invasion can push Hamas to free them, and we have to push hard.

We have to create a new security situation in Gaza. We have to create a demilitarized zone on the Gazan side of the fence, a clear strip that will be a new buffer zone that Israel will know how to protect, not necessarily with a physical presence, in the Gaza Strip.

We must follow Hamas’s pressure points in northern Gaza to force them to change their policy. The insistence on not providing diesel fuel is the right thing to do, because that’s what Hamas needs for its tunnels, electricity and ventilation. They’re not lacking in diesel, they’re just not giving it to civilian needs, like hospitals.

JI: There are reports now of the US and Israel considering an international peacekeeping force in Gaza. Do you think that could work better than, say UNIFIL, which has not managed to keep Hezbollah from stockpiling missiles?

EH: I don’t think there is a good precedent for an international force in our region that does its job.

But we have to look at the alternatives. I don’t think the Palestinian Authority will be able to control Gaza in the near future, and I don’t think Egypt will do it. If there is no force to ensure that terrorists don’t take over, clearly they will. 

Israel has to be concerned with the question of how we make sure Gaza stays stable. I don’t know that we need to occupy it and do it ourselves. Some in Israel think that, but I don’t. 

I don’t know about this specific offer, but it is clear to me that none of the scenarios sound good, yet we have to do something. To not have anyone in control means terrorists will take over again.

JI: Do you think things will heat up with Hezbollah?

EH: It’s complicated enough to meet our goals in Gaza. It’ll be worse if we have to act in Lebanon.

I don’t think Nasrallah is looking to do more now either, and not because he’s deterred, but because of a cold calculation. He and Iran understand that if they go in now and we strike them hard like they know we will, Hezbollah won’t be available when Iran needs them for other scenarios.

That’s why we see the Houthi arena heat up. The Houthis joining is cheaper for Iran than Hezbollah. Israel can’t strike Yemen like it did in Lebanon, so the price Iran pays in loss of assets is lower.

JI: The U.S. is showing strong support for Israel, but some have argued that the Biden administration is also limiting Israel. What do you think?

EH: I don’t see the U.S. limiting us. I see the U.S. asking questions that are appropriate for the government of Israel to ask itself, like how will this plan develop and what will happen the day after the war. For the U.S. to ask this isn’t preposterous or problematic. Israel should have good plans. We don’t see the U.S. limiting our ground operation. I don’t think they really got in the way of Israeli decision-making.

I am very satisfied with the way the U.S. government is supporting Israel and giving us space to act. It’s not unlimited, and I think that’s reasonable.

I think U.S. has to ask itself how the things happening here influence their policies.

Biden said that other actors should not take advantage of this war, but we see that it’s happening – apropos the Houthis, and strikes on Americans by Iranian proxies [in Iraq]. I don’t want to tell the Americans what they need to do, but certainly, the U.S. is watching these things and needs to think about its own policies.

JI: How do you assess the response from Abraham Accords countries? Is there still hope for Israel to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia?

EH: I think the responses are good considering the reality. We can’t expect them to totally support us, but I think that as time goes on, the responses of the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain are balanced. The Emirati minister to the U.N. condemned Hamas and was criticized in the Arab world, but she did it anyway.

I think we can see that they understand Israel’s situation and understand that if Hamas did this in Israel, it would mean dangerous things about the Muslim Brotherhood in their countries and certainly pose a danger to their national security. 

As for Saudi Arabia, I think it’s very clear from all we see and hear that the Saudis would like very much to continue the process that happening before. They need an agreement with the U.S. and I don’t think this changes their relation to Israel.

It’s clear that a significant goal of this attack was to stop the normalization process, and Iran is reaping the benefit. That doesn’t serve the Saudi interest, and I’m sure they’re thinking about what that means and what they need to do.

JI: Egypt and Jordan’s reactions were much more negative.

EH: The closer countries to us, Jordan and Egypt, had very problematic responses

For Queen Rania herself to say that Israel has no right to defend itself because it’s an occupying force is unacceptable. 

Egyptians should be more active. I’m glad we could get the injured and foreign nationals out of Gaza, but if they could do that, they could get our hostages out. Hamas threatens them too, and [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi knows this well. They can and must do more.

JI: There don’t seem to be any consequences for Qatar, Hamas’s sponsor. Israel even thanked Qatar for helping negotiate to release hostages. What do you think of that?

EH: Qatar is trying to avoid responsibility and the international community cannot accept it, certainly not the way they acted after [the Hamas massacre] happened. Their influence on Hamas is very big and they haven’t used it. If they want to pressure Hamas to free the hostages, they can.

I think the government of Israel needs to be more suspicious of Qatar’s intentions and not to be impressed by their slick words and attempts to look like they‘re balanced. Qatar is responsible for strengthening Hamas and isn’t fully using its influence to free hostages. I hope they will do it soon and I suggest not to be fooled by their attempt to present it as though they’re balanced and have no responsibility. They are not balanced and they are responsible.

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