It's hard to find a member of the Likud faction with more experience and understanding of security matters than MK Avi Dichter. His record is impressive: He served in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, was an operative for the Shin Bet security agency for years and went on to head the agency from 2000 to 2005, and served as public security minister and homefront defense minister -- but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kept him out of the current cabinet.
Dichter expresses himself with clarity, not avoiding any question. The vast experience he chalked up in his years in the Shin Bet help his analyses of current security and defense issues, based on the secret reports he received as part of his job.
Q: It seemed the terrorism wave of this past year was ebbing, and this week we witnessed a despicable act of terrorism in Jerusalem that claimed two lives. What can we learn from this?
"There's no doubt that the wave of terrorism that began a year ago has ebbed, mainly due to actions by the [Israeli] security forces. But, clearly, terrorist attacks like the ones that took place in Jerusalem this week could still be perpetrated. 'Terrorism wave' is a definition designed to characterize attacks that are carried out day after day, week after week. It's important, operationally, to correctly define -- to ourselves and especially to security entities like the IDF, the Israel Police and the Shin Bet -- what kind of period of terrorism we are facing. Is this a wave of terrorism that is striking us, or individual attacks? The distinction allows the security bodies and the political echelon to take more effective steps against terrorists and take drastic steps that could move us from a reality of lone attacks to a wave of terrorism.
"There is no doubt that the wave is already behind us. One of the ways of identifying a wave of terrorism is to check the statistics, and they show us that in October 2015, when it began, there were several dozen terrorist attacks [compared to isolated incidents in October this year].
Q: You were head of the Shin Bet during the Second Intifada. Can the profiles of typical terrorists from the intifada and the current wave of terrorism be compared?
"From the terrorist's perspective, it makes no difference whether he carries out an attack using an explosives belt or a knife. In both cases, he understands that he's going to commit suicide and knows very well that his chances of coming out alive are very slim. But with a knife, he must first of all stab to kill, whereas with an explosives belt he has to press a button and a fraction of a second later he causes deaths. In most cases, [attackers] are terrorists who were recruited at the last minute, without any infrastructure. We have to ask ourselves how we can make it difficult for them or cause them to conclude that suicide isn't worth it. In the end, the number of suicide attackers drops only when they themselves realize that it's not worth it."
Q: The trial of Sgt. Elor Azaria, who shot an immobilized terrorist in Hebron in March, is ongoing. Do you stand by the senior security officials who testified on his behalf, or with the military prosecution, which is accusing him of manslaughter?
"People who are versed in fending off attackers will say that the hardest thing [to do] is to subdue a terrorist with a knife who is in the craze of stabbing. If you have a gun, shoot him, and if you don't, run away. When a crazed terrorist like that attacks you, even if in the end you've subdued him, you'll wind up wounded. Don't take a chance when facing a terrorist. Always be one step ahead of him. Because he's always the one who surprises you with a gun or a knife. We've paid the price for that plenty of times. I embrace the saying, 'When someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.'"
Q: Is the Azaria trial being handled wrongly, in your opinion?
"In my eyes, this is an operational process that was polluted by everyone who had a hand in it, including politicians. ... There are plenty of operational incidents in the army that it investigates, and when it concludes that the soldier's judgment was overly inappropriate or malicious, it tries him in disciplinary or criminal proceedings. I don't understand why they didn't do that this time. Unfortunately, the tainted disciplinary-criminal process that the army undertook has hurt the soldier and the public. We're six months into an incident that should have been over in two weeks. No doubt, this affair will end with a petition to the High Court of Justice."
Q: Do you support Education Minister Naftali Bennet's proposal that Azaria be pardoned?
"The call to look into a pardon for the soldier while the judiciary process is still underway is an attempt to influence that process and the judges. This approach is unacceptable and dangerous, and it would be best if we were all patient until the verdict is in. ... From the moment the judiciary starts its work, it's unacceptable and even dangerous from a democratic perspective to influence the judicial process."
Q: Is Israel prepared to confront the Iranian nuclear threat?
"Unfortunately, there are people here who are mistaken in their understanding of the Iranian threat. I think that we're talking about the threat of a one-ton or a half-ton bomb, and nuclear weapons are a whole different story. ... When you examine the Iranian threat, you need to look at what tools they have and what their intentions are. When it comes to the intent, the Iranian leadership says openly that it intends to wipe out Israel. When it comes to the method, they won't wipe out Israel with a missile or with a bomb. Is that statement meant to placate the [Iranian] masses, or does it reflect capabilities?
"When we look at the capabilities, we see that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. The intent and the methods together create a potential existential threat. The disagreements between the intelligence agencies of the world were about how long it would take Iran to create nuclear weapons, with assessments ranging from a few years to as many as 10 years. In my opinion, Netanyahu's fight over this issue is justified. What was achieved [by the nuclear deal] did not check the construction of the means, just slowed the process down by a few years. The question that must be asked is whether 15 years from now Iran will be a country with nuclear weapons capability, and if there is a chance it intends to use them. I don't think that anyone in Israel or the U.S. thinks that Iran has abandoned its intentions, so all that remains is to [obtain] the methods."
Q: You didn't answer: Does Israel have the capacity to prevent the Iranian nuclear threat from becoming a reality?
"Israel must develop its defense capabilities to handle the threat. At the same time, it must develop its offensive capabilities. ... It makes no sense for us to focus all our activity on defense, only to discover that our defense capabilities stand at 80%, so if 10 nuclear bombs are fired at Israel, eight will be intercepted and only two will fall. That's a totally unacceptable concept of defense, so we constantly have to take integrated action. The capability we achieve today won't necessarily allow us to confront the threats of five or 10 years from now. It's completely clear that any offensive move by Israel will have ramifications on the deal the U.S. signed. I'm happy to say that the people in Israel who are in charge of this matter are methodically building [our] defensive and offensive capabilities, and there is no intention of allowing any Iranian platform -- a missile, a plane or anything else -- to reach us, and certainly not carrying nuclear weapons."
Q: Is the relative quiet from the Gaza Strip since Operation Protective Edge -- other than sporadic rocket fire at Israel -- the result of Hamas being afraid of a conflict with Israel?
"Hamas understands the limitations of its power after events and operations that took place. Right now, it's busy building its power, but, like every terrorist organization, it is also making mistakes. Its biggest mistake was when the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in Egypt and Hamas aligned itself with that, cutting itself off from Iran. In 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted, but Hamas continued to supply weapons to Islamic State forces in Sinai, opening a front against us and against Egypt. Two years ago the Egyptians -- who for years allowed [Hamas] to smuggle rockets and other equipment into Gaza -- started searching for tunnels and dammed up the smuggling into Gaza. Hamas found itself in trouble when it came to building up its strength and was forced to start developing weapons with what it had in Gaza. They also realized that their advantage was below ground, not above ground. They built tunnels for logistical and communication purposes. Today, there is a network of tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip, including attack tunnels, the first of which we saw during Protective Edge. Today they understand that taking risks with Israel could draw us in, bring down the Hamas rule in Gaza and destroy the terrorist infrastructure that they now don't have the ability to rebuild."
Q: Do we currently have a solution that will prevent them from being able to surprise us?
"Israel is making unprecedented investment in terms of technological development, budget, combat tactics and intelligence gathering to confront this new threat. At the same time, Hamas is also investing everything it has in terms of people, equipment, and money. Half of the goods that enter Gaza find their way to the tunnels. Every day, over 1,000 people in Gaza go underground in the tunnels. They understand that in the next round, they will need logistical tunnels that will let them move freely underground as well as attack tunnels that will allow them to change the face of warfare against us."
Q: Do we currently have the technology to find and destroy every tunnel, before we are attacked from inside it?
"I can say with the caution befitting this sensitive issue that our situation today [regarding the tunnel threat] is completely different than it was during Protective Edge. Every defense establishment, not only the IDF, is expediting efforts to find an operational, intelligence and technological solution to the issue of tunnels. This subject is at the top of our list of priorities. Even Hamas, an organization that has a leadership and strategic plans, realizes that an offensive gambit that will cause numerous wounded and heavy damage, possibly even many abducted, on our side will bring the Gaza Strip down around its ears. I believe that with the capabilities the defense establishment and the IDF are building, the army will eventually reach a point where it can turn the Gaza tunnels into Hamas' biggest graveyard. This, of course, is if Hamas, which has a big appetite, is foolish enough to use the tunnels to launch an attack on Israel. It would be a move that would have catastrophic results for Hamas."
Q: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is already 81. Recently he underwent cardiac catheterization, and he's not a healthy man. What do you think will happen after he is gone?
"Abbas has ruled the PA for 10 years. There haven't been elections since 2005. I believe he will put off presidential elections as long as he is in power. I'm not sure that the next PA president will be from the Fatah movement, because Hamas is poised to take control of the PA through democratic means. They know very well that the moment Abbas steps down because he is no longer able to serve as president, his place will be filled by Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Aziz Duwaik, who is a Hamas man. According to the constitution, two to three months after that, elections will be held, and I wouldn't be surprised if [Hamas political bureau chief] Khaled Mashaal ran for the office. If he wins and becomes president, one of two things will happen: Either Hamas will announce the cancellation of all the agreements the PA signed with Israel, or declare that Hamas is not bound by those agreements. Israel won't be able to accept that situation and will have to seize control of the territories immediately, because otherwise we can expect a constant threat because the agreements that make all of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip territories free of military weapons would be invalid. That would thrust us back into a much worse reality than existed before the Oslo Accords, because we would be facing the Palestinian Terrorist Authority."
Q: How can we prevent Mashaal from being elected?
"Israel tried once to shape the face of a regime. In Lebanon in 1982 we supported the election of Bachir Gemayel [a top Phalange Party official and supreme commander of the Lebanese Forces militia during the Lebanese Civil War, who was assassinated in September 1982 after being elected president], but since then we've understood our limitations. Obviously, the election will be a complicated one for Palestinians. Fatah might want to put Marwan Barghouti, who is a despicable murderer currently in prison after being sentenced to five life sentences, up as its candidate, but we need to remember that Hamas is greatly admired in Judea and Samaria."
Q: Does the fact that Hezbollah is involved in the war in Syria guarantee us quiet on the Lebanese border?
"Hezbollah is the strongest power in Lebanon. When its forces entered Syria, they tipped the scales, but they have suffered heavy battle casualties. Over 1,600 of their fighters have been killed, and 6,000 wounded. There are also some Hezbollah fighters being held captive by the rebels. That's a lot for an army of 30,000 people. For us, it's definitely a positive thing, but on the other hand, Hezbollah is training in Syria as part of regular armed forces, using the battle tactics of large-scale military forces, so if we have to fight them in the future, it will be a different kind of war than in the past."
Q: To what extent can the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee oversee the IDF and the defense establishment?
"The committee plenum, but mainly the subcommittee, delve deep into the defense establishment. They hear overviews and conduct field tours. I'll give you an example. I was recently informed that a tour in the Golan Heights by the subcommittee revealed that the emergency stocks on the Golan Heights were in a very bad state. Immediately, we sent a letter that included a report of the findings, and the IDF took it extremely seriously. The committee delves into issues such as the defense budget, cyber defense and more."
Q: During Operation Protective Edge, the committee held almost 100 discussions and put together a lot of critiques. Why don't you compile them into a conclusive report?
"When I was appointed chairman of the committee, I was informed that it had devoted 10 meetings to putting out a conclusive report on Protective Edge. The report wasn't published because the 20th Knesset election was moved forward. [The mostly classified report will be published] after the discussions on the defense budget are over. ... It would really rankle if all the work invested went to waste."
Q: Were you disappointed that the prime minister didn't appoint you to the cabinet?
"I believe that with my abilities, my experience and my talents, I could have contributed to the political system as a minister. I was certainly disappointed not to receive a cabinet appointment. ... A few months ago, I suggested to the prime minister that he appoint me foreign minister, but he didn't. At one point, I was offered the post of ambassador to an important country, but I rejected the offer."
Q: What are your goals?
"I'm looking forward and upward, and I'm determined to remain in politics and integrate into the cabinet. Right now, I'm fulfilling my role as chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at full force, while also building my political future. I served in the IDF and the Shin Bet for 35 years. All my life has been devoted to military and security service, with everything that means, giving everything else up. When I finished my service, it was clear that I would go into politics, and I was appointed public security minister, then homefront defense minister. In the 11 years I've served in politics, I've learned that there are no shortcuts and you need patience."