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General Nitzan Nuriel on Israeli Military and Iranian Containment

The Platform got the chance to sit with (reserve) Brigadier General Nitzan Nuriel to discuss his background and military service and his thoughts on the implications of a potential war with Iran in the near future.  General Nuriel served as the deputy commander of a division responsible for the Gaza Strip, as well as working in J-3 Northern command and serving in the Second Lebanon war. He also worked as a military attaché in the Israeli embassy in Washington DC serving as a liaison between the Israeli and American militaries. In addition, he was Director of Israel’s counter-terrorism Bureau after being appointed in 2007. Welcome General Nuriel and thank you for taking the time to speak with Platform!

The Platform: What led you to decide to continue with the army and make it a career?

General Nuriel: It was not a decision that I took many years ago. There wasn’t that one moment when I officially decided that I was going to do this as a career.  When I was 22-23, my military service continued and step by step and assignment by assignment, it became a career.

The Platform: What was the most challenging aspect of your military service?

General Nuriel: This depends on what level of command you are acting. There are different challenges you face as platoon commander then you would as a brigade commander. I will say that choosing the people, who would go with me behind the lines, was always a difficult decision. This is because when you are choosing people, you think about the possibility that some of these people might not come back, but in all my time in combat, I never lost a soldier under my command.

The Platform: You served in the IDF since 1977 and I’m assuming have seen quite a few changes in the strategies, techniques and structures of the IDF since you began your service. What do you think were the most beneficial changes and do you feel there are future changes which should be implemented in the future to improve the IDF’s capabilities?

General Nuriel: I’m still in the IDF reserves as a Deputy Division commander and I’m still involved in running the Juniper Falcon and Cobra, Israeli and American joint military exercises. You can’t compare the IDF when I joined in 1977, to the IDF of today. I would say the main change was the level of technology available to us, which changed the way the IDF conducted warfare. The technology of today was a dream to us then and was something that was straight out of the movies. So you can’t compare the army of 30-40 years ago to the army today. Yet many things are very similar, particularly in infantry. You have to run forward, open fire and see the enemy at a close distance and you need a certain kind of character to do that.

The Platform: In 2001 you were the military liaison between Israel and America’s militaries in 2001. Did you see a large scale deepening of this cooperation after the events of 9/11? If so, which techniques, technologies and skills in counter-terrorism expertise did Israel share with the US after 9/11.

General Nuriel: In order to give a full answer to this, I need to widen the scope. I was sent to Washington not because of my politeness or previous experience in this kind of diplomatic work. I grew up without this kind of background. I’m also running the Cobra exercise in 2022, which is going to be my last exercise, and I also have twenty-one years of experience and so I feel I can judge the cooperation and I’m very proud of the level of cooperation between Israel and the US. It is a very deep cooperation and Israel provides knowledge to the US and we gain a lot as well. So it’s two sides that understand how the cooperation can be beneficial for each other and not only in the field of counter-terrorism.

The Platform: You were appointed as the director of Israel’s counter-terrorism bureau in 2007 and were responsible for many counter-terror strategy changes that Israel implemented. Which do you think was the most important change you made and why?

General Nuriel: Around 2008, we had an event, which showed the need to provide solutions to new kinds of challenges. The 2008 attacks in Mumbai showed the need to put in plans to deal with attacks happening simultaneously in  three or 4 different cities or locations, so we had to prepare a response for such a scenario. The 2nd event was the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh. We understood that the Iranians and Hezbollah might take steps against us. So we had to change our approach from the status quo and consider steps and change our policies towards a potential confrontation with Hezbollah and this pushed us to create change in the way that we were prepared.

The Platform: Obviously the tensions between Israel and Iran have been in the news quite a bit recently, not only because of the nuclear issue but because of the attacks on Israeli and Iranian shipping. In a potential war with Iran, how likely is it, that Israel will face threats not only from Lebanon, but Iranian troops in Syria and Hamas in Gaza?  Do you think it’s likely that Lebanon’s current disastrous situation would keep Nasrallah from joining with Iran to attack Israel?

General Nuriel: I’ll start with the last part of the question. Hezbollah can’t allow themselves to bring another huge problem into Lebanon, but they may make mistake that would push us to take action. From their point of view they may make that mistake but Hezbollah doesn’t want to add another dimension to the chaos that’s going on right now in Lebanon. Regarding the worst case scenario, we have plans as well because we are always preparing for the worst case scenario. Missiles, rockets and drones, the IAF can deal with that. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but we do know how to deal with a multiple front attack and we need to make sure the rockets are not operational. Regarding the tensions between Israel and Iran, besides the shipping dimension and Iranian nuclear activities, it is also about Iran’s place in the Middle East. Iran is using the Israel issue to lead the Arab world. Iran, which is Shia, wants to convince the Sunnis to follow them. In order to breach this religious difference, they say, that since you failed many times, we will succeed where you have not and destroy the state of Israel. To achieve this Iran support Hezbollah, the PIJ (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and Shiite militias in Iraq, Yemen and Assad in Syria and has been developing Nuclear weapons and  has been telling the Sunni Arabs “we CAN do this”. Israel can’t take that chance and must prepare for this.

The Platform: How would Iran strike back, if Israel attacked Iran tomorrow and how serious is the Iranian threat to Israel?

General Nuriel: This is a tough question to answer. In 2006 Israel fought against Hezbollah and the Iranian response was almost zero. It’s tough to say what the response could be because Iran is far from Israel. They have rockets but they know that we know how to intercept them.

The Platform: How many years do you think Israel could set back Iran’s nuclear program?

General Nuriel: The right action would set them backwards ten years.  

The Platform: Biden recently said the US would consider other options should efforts to pursue the deal collapse. How credible is potential US involvement with Israel and how much of a deterrent is this to Iran? Is this affected by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

General Nuriel: It was a good decision to withdraw from Afghanistan but the process was a bit dramatic. I don’t believe there was any message to the world from the withdrawal. The world has seen America withdraw from many places before, Somalia, Syria and Iraq. All the terrorist organizations will kill each other for many years in Afghanistan and this is something that nobody can fix. With regards to Iran, Biden’s policy with Iran is that diplomacy is the main option and I believe him and let’s face it, if he can do it, why not? Although I also believe they (the US) are preparing the main strike needed to take out Iran’s nuclear capabilities and program and I believe he is preparing the public opinion of the world to show them “look I tried my hardest to avoid this outcome” if he does take military action.

The Platform: How credible are Israeli threats to attack Iran and do you think there’s any chance Israel would seriously consider allowing the Iranians to achieve nuclear capability and rely on mutual deterrence, similar to North Korea?

General Nuriel: Regarding Israel’s policy of not allowing Iran nuclear weapons, Israel will do everything we can, and it costs what it costs. Regarding the exact Israeli capabilities, I obviously can’t speak about it at this stage but we can knock them back many years, which would give us time, for a regime change and time for Iranians to understand the price of it government’s policies  and Israel will do everything in its power to make sure Iran won’t have nuclear weapons.

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