“Iran poses a credible threat, and we are the target, so let’s not delude ourselves,” Uzi Dayan said emphatically at the start of our interview.
“Iran is building its nuclear strength not just because of Israel, but I would recommend that we take the Iranians at their word. We are not a weak country, but we are a vulnerable target [since we are] a small, densely populated state. If Iran comes into possession of nuclear weapons, then terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Al-Qaida and global jihadist groups will be even more dangerous.”
“They will operate with the protection of a nuclear umbrella, which is a bad combination. Every small problem that arises, every incident, will bring with it a nuclear threat. This is an international threat that concerns not only us, but capitals stretching from London, as we've seem with recent comments by the British foreign secretary, to Riyadh. So this is a credible threat.”
Blunt and to the point, Maj. Gen. (res.) Dayan boasts an impressive resume, having amassed considerable experience in numerous defense posts, including chief of the National Security Council as well as deputy chief of staff. He now heads the National Lottery. Dayan has formulated a cogent doctrine when it comes to Iran. The prospect of attacking Iran does not frighten him, nor is he deterred by the threats highlighted by other former and current defense chiefs. Dayan also lambasts the various petitions in favor of army insubordination that have been circulating, the latest of which calls on Israel Air Force pilots to refuse orders to attack Iran. He warns that it would not be wise for Israel to put its trust solely in the Americans.
Dayan believes that the Israeli homefront will withstand a barrage of Iranian missiles, despite the fear-mongering that he has witnessed over the last few weeks. “We need to get a hold of ourselves,” he said. “The enemy is Iran, not us. We need to be united and to stop being afraid. We know how to deal with threats and we are doing this very well.”
But even when discussing such a somber issue in his office on the sixth floor of the National Lottery building, Dayan also displays a sense of humor. "Did you know that in the last Olympics – not the one in London, but the Math Olympics – the Iranians came in eighth, while the Israelis finished in 30th place?!” he said. “This is a trend that has been going on for 10 years.”
As for the lively public debate over the Iranian nuclear issue, he views this matter with great importance. “The prime minister and the defense minister succeeded in putting the nuclear issue on the international agenda,” he said. “Nobody would have bothered with it otherwise and one day we would have woken up with a nuclear Iran. We managed to get the U.S. on board on the issue of sanctions, and this is important.”
One of the terms that we hear most often is “point of no return.”
“When it comes to nuclear weapons, there is no such thing as a point of no return. Nuclear weapons can always be safeguarded, deployed, and spread out in a way that would make it difficult to destroy them. Iran is today in the process of manufacturing [a bomb], and once it has amassed a certain quantity of enriched material, then it will have all the ingredients to assemble a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, even at that point it is still possible to go backward, just like Libya did when it made its ‘U-turn.’”
That doesn’t mean we have nothing to worry about.
“Yes, one needs to keep in mind that as time goes by, it will be harder to stop or suspend the Iranian program for a long time.”
Dayan is familiar with the tense discussions that the government has been holding with the Americans regarding the issue. “The U.S. clock and Israel’s clock are not ticking at the same speed,” he said. “Perhaps this stems from conflicting assessments regarding the pace at which the Iranians are progressing, and perhaps this stems from the fact that the Americans are a stronger power that can afford to take their time and react at a later date. They can launch a massive military operation, while for Israel the issue is much more urgent.”
“It’s obvious to everyone that it would be preferable for the Americans to be in the picture and for them to lead a campaign, but we cannot depend wholly on the Americans because this would paralyze Israel. The enemy must also know that we can do this without the Americans. The moment we declare we can’t do it without them, will be led to a dangerous paralysis. While we do have someone to trust, we must only rely on ourselves.”
Is there the danger of a rift with the U.S. over this issue?
“This is all part of a fear-mongering campaign. David Ben-Gurion declared independence even though the Americans were not in favor, and relations with the U.S. continued. After the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the U.S. imposed a limited embargo, and the annexation of the Golan Heights was also decided upon in contravention of the American position. I’m not saying that we should take the opposite approach just for the sake of it, but when it comes to critical matters of national importance, a country makes its own decisions. Ultimately, this is an Israeli decision, and I am convinced that ties with the U.S. will be preserved in every way. We should also keep in mind that the Americans also understand the global nature of this threat.”
The public discourse over this issue has received greater attention in light of the statements made by former security chiefs. “Everyone likes to say that the public chatter is intolerable and everyone likes to chatter about the chatter,” Dayan said. “In my view, bringing this issue up for discussion in Israel was the right thing to do for two reasons. First, without a public debate, the world would have ignored this danger. Secondly, this is an issue of national security for the Israeli public, so the public needs to be a part of this.”
“Yes, when people talk a lot, a lot of nonsense is also said, and we don’t need to get into operational aspects of an attack like when, how, and what will be hit, because these are things that the public doesn’t need to know and these details could also endanger those who have to carry out the missions,” he said.
What else should we be wary of discussing in public?
“As I said, it is good to have a public debate, but not one of fear-mongering. We need to stop scaring the public. There is no point in this, particularly when it comes to the highly exaggerated assessments regarding Iranian retaliation and Iranian capabilities. The decision is a difficult one, even if it is of historic proportions, but there is nothing that Israel cannot handle.”
Do you also oppose the petitions and calls for insubordination that are being circulated by those who deem themselves “intellectuals?”
“People can express their opinions, but exhorting others to refuse army orders on an issue like this is grossly irresponsible. [The petition’s authors and the intellectuals] are no more knowledgeable on this issue than the average Israeli parent who is concerned for his family. From this point of view, they can say whatever they want.”
“For those who signed the insubordination petition, I would recommend that they try to do the same thing in Iran. I would suggest that they circulate a petition calling on women and scientists to halt the manufacturing of nuclear weapons. Let’s see how that turns out. In any event, they do not have any influence on the defense leadership and this certainly has no influence on the decision-makers. This is just another expression of concern, one that the average Israeli can also offer.”
Do you also demand that the defense chiefs act responsibly?
“In the military echelon, there are three important figures: the commander of the air force, who has to decide on operational aspects; the head of military intelligence, who is responsible for Israel’s overall intelligence assessment; and the chief of staff, because of his overall responsibility for the operation. The military echelon must express its precise views, particularly on matters related to how the mission will be carried out and how major gains can be made. On the basis of my assessments, this can be done.”
“This is a matter of utmost importance from a national and political perspective. If someone in the military establishment thinks that this shouldn’t be done, then that person should step aside immediately. Moshe Dayan once said, ‘I prefer to fight galloping horses instead of complacent bulls.’ This should be a guiding principle for army men. They need to explain how to specifically carry out this mission, which is possible, and to explain how the army can deal with it.”
What about the former defense officials who continuously offer their opinions?
“They are permitted to express their views, but they should demonstrate the same modicum of responsibility and restraint as if they were still in their positions. Besides, retired senior defense officials like the head of the Mossad, the head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the former chief of staff, and other well-intentioned and highly-qualified individuals can very easily get an audience with the key decision-makers and reveal their views. If any one of them feels uneasy about what is taking place, then they should speak up in the appropriate forums.”
It’s not just the security chiefs that are voicing their views on this sensitive topic; President Shimon Peres has also chimed in.
“I respect the president, and I don’t want to directly comment on his statements. In any event, as I said before, we mustn’t agree to be dependent to the point of paralysis on the fact that coordination with the Americans is important, but we cannot pull the military option out from under our own feet. This is the order of the day. The country has leaders who until now have correctly led the struggle against this threat, and it is faced with a very difficult decision that has yet to be made.”
You insist on not waiting for the Americans, at least not at any price.
“The Americans are capable of stopping Iran. They have the forces to do it, but there needs to be a deadline for sanctions. And obviously one cannot take away the Israeli military option because doing so would have an impact on the international community’s behavior in general.”
The war has already begun
Before Avi Dichter was appointed to the position, Dayan’s name was mentioned as a possible successor to Matan Vilnai as homefront defense minister. According to Dayan, his current role as head of the national lottery is critical at this juncture.
“I was very grateful that I was offered [the ministerial position] and I politely declined,” he said. “Yes, at this time the homefront is part of the war effort, but the socio-economic goals of the national lottery are no less important, and my first obligation is here. I’ve been in this job for a year and there’s much to do here. There are many government ministers, but there’s just one national lottery chairman. I have always showed up for every mission without fear. I offer my services in the reserve forces and voluntarily, whenever I have a chance.”
Perhaps you passed up the ministerial post because it is a difficult job, especially given the state of the bomb shelters?
“I have never shied away from a challenge or from failure. I’m in the lottery now, there are important things to advance, and there were other candidates for the homefront minister’s job. In fact, they found a good candidate.”
Is the homefront ready?
“Our homefront is in a much better state now than it was during the Second Lebanon War. There has been tremendous progress. On the other hand, people are wildly exaggerating the Iranian retaliation. At the most, the Iranians can activate Hezbollah and Hamas to fire missiles.”
“This is very serious and dangerous, but this isn’t something that we haven’t faced in the past and we are facing this now. Today, Iranian terrorism is being turned against us via Lebanon and via Hamas. The war against them has already begun.”
This sounds like an effort to calm people down.
“Any response today will be no less severe than an Iranian response on the day that Iran becomes a nuclear power, and this too needs to be taken into account. Relatively speaking, we are ready and protected. We have a good defense system. But the key factor should be what happens when Iran comes into possession of the bomb, and this could be even more dangerous.”
“The Israeli civilian needs to ask himself if we can afford to live with a nuclear Iran. We don’t have to come to such a situation. This is avoidable. Our country is strong. The homefront is much better prepared. In the time we have left, we should improve whatever we can. The people are much stronger than we have been led to believe.”
Dayan spares no criticism for the media as well as the political agenda that he believes it is trying to advance. “The media did not initiate this discussion, and it is appropriate to hold a public discussion on the Iranian issue, but the one thing that bothers me about the media is that there are those who have a clear agenda, and they are advancing their own campaign,” he said. “They do not know how to differentiate between expressing an opinion and reporting the news and the facts.”