On the eve of Israel's 49th Independence Day, The Jerusalem Post interviewed Deputy Chief of General Staff Matan Vilna'i. Excerpts follow:
JP: How does the IDF prepare for a situation in which the chances of war with Syria have increased?
MV: There are three circles. We have to invest in the three circles and act accordingly. The first is terrorism, both inside and outside our borders. Dealing with the suicide attacker is very difficult and requires manpower and funding. In addition, you have the conventional threat. Right now, it focuses on Syria. The Egyptians and Jordanians are at peace with us. And then [we know] from the Gulf war, there are countries who don't share borders with us but threaten us. There is arming by Arab countries with long-range ballistic missiles. We have a great air force. They can't reach us so they use missiles. This threat requires a lot of resources. And the most important [thing] is that this threat is being fleshed out. I can't say what will happen. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, it is said that the gift of prophecy was given only to children and fools.
JP: Are there any changes in IDF priorities since the military began to improve its preparedness for war?
MV: Since last August the Syrians have begun to wave the war option. They didn't say they are going to war. They said this is an option and we took this seriously. We think that this option is being fleshed out.
JP: Are the Syrians actually preparing for war?
MV: We are listening to their words very carefully and we are examining what they are doing in the field. The Syrians have a large standing army. So, the Syrian forces in the Golan facing us at any particular moment are larger than ours. Just from this they can make one short move in order to achieve something. We have to prepare for this. It's very hard to assess.
JP: What is the role of the Syrian missiles in any future war? Are they a deterrent to an Israeli attempt to widen a war that Damascus starts in the Golan?
MV: This is in the realm of speculation. The missiles allow them to strike within Israel. We are having discussions about what they want to do with them. The Syrians learned the lesson from the Gulf war. They saw the influence of 42 Iraqi missiles against Israel. They could use the missiles to disrupt mobilisation. They could reserve the missiles to deter us from striking deep within Syria. In the Yom Kippur war, we struck infrastructure throughout Syria. They may be saying to themselves if Israel tries it again, they will attack. We have to be prepared for a difficult scenario. And that scenario is that in the beginning of the war they will try to exact the maximum from these tools.
JP: Does the Syrian introduction of VX nerve gas change Israel's policy of civil defence?
MV: It's part of the process. Only the Syrians have it. It's a dangerous gas that has an effect over time. The Iranians tried to develop this. Everything comes to this region.
JP: Does the stress on civil defence detract from Israel's deterrence to attack by nonconventional weapons? During the Gulf war, we gave out gas masks yet never retaliated against Saddam, leading several strategists to conclude we simply encouraged an Iraqi missile attack.
MV: Our assessment is that the difference between a protected population and an unprotected population means the difference in dozens of percentage points [ie: of numbers killed]. When the enemy strikes against a protected population, he understands that [the] effect will be limited and that he will be in trouble. You can't use the Gulf war as an example. There was a coalition and it was understood that we wouldn't act. Whoever deduces our future response from that of the Gulf war is mistaken.
JP: Are we in a better position regarding the level of military supplies needed for war?
MV: The models used to explain this issue are very difficult. It is clear that we have to determine whether the soldier in south Lebanon is to be protected or that we have war supplies for 30 days. I prefer that the soldier be protected. Every decision has to be balanced by the three circles of threats. It is a difficult decision. The simplest decision is that the soldier has to be protected. But what happens on the 29th day [when the military supplies run out]?
One thing is clear. We would rather have more units with shortages than fewer units with a full compliment of supplies. We would prefer four artillery battalions with 30% of required supplies than two artillery battalions fully stocked. We could always bring the ammunition from somewhere. But to establish battalions? That's something else. We have invested more than US$300 million [in resupply] and our situation has improved.
JP: Does the sensitivity of the IDF to casualties represent a failure of our fighting spirit?
MV: We have the most protected army in the world. The IDF is sensitive to casualties. From the start of Jewish settlement here, this has been true. We went through the Holocaust.[The late Egyptian President] Nasser said during the War of Attrition he would hurt us through [the fact] that our casualties [would be] reported in the newspapers. We would have six-eight casualties a day. He didn't understand that this [willingness to sacrifice] was the source of our strength.
JP: Today Israeli society has changed. Can we sustain high casualties in a conflict?
MV: We [regard] anything that can protect the soldiers as a supreme principle [to which] we invest without accounting. We have increased investment in protection by hundreds of percent. There are cases when not only has this saved lives but [it has] improved the efficiency of our forces. If you are in an unprotected vehicle and you are attacked you are finished. But if you are protected you can counterattack. You can see this in the recent incidents in south Lebanon. Protection is a means of battle. It does not mean we are cowards. The fighting spirit is something else. We draft wonderful boys who volunteer for combat units. But like every society there are developments that we have to cope with. People have to understand that we have not reached the stage of repose.
JP: Turkey and Israel are engaged in a strategic dialogue. What is the significance of Turkey in Israel's strategy?
MV: The Turks and us feel that the ties between us are very important. The geostrategic position of Turkey is very important. I don't want to go into details, but there is another side to consider. They have a good geostrategic position; there is a market [for weapons in Turkey].
JP: On Israel's 49th birthday, should we feel safer living in this country?
MV: We still face many threats and haven't got to the stage of repose and the capability to stand up to this depends on every citizen. The IDF is us. The more people understand this, the better off we are.
The Jerusalem Post, used with permission