An Afternoon with Israel's Iron General

JERUSALEM - I am fortunate while in Israel to spend an afternoon with my friend Gen. Matan Vilnai.  He is not called "Iron Man" because -- as Deputy Defense Minister -- he coordinates defense against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.  The nickname derives from his exploits as a mountain bike rider, a passion we share.  Conversing in his spacious ranch home perched in the mountains on which Jerusalem is built, Vilnai draws on his impressive exploits as a special forces commander (he was second in charge in the 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe) as well as his lineage as son of one of Israel's  venerated writers. 

Tall, erect and taciturn, every word he speaks is carefully measured.  He says that defending against the radical Islamic terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah is challenging because they are supported by the civilian population.  Thus, a combined military-diplomatic solution, as well as alliances with other countries, must be pursued.  In addition, he says Israel must retain capabilities to fight conventional wars with Syria "and Iran over the horizon."  Vilnai says "We need to know how to do different things simultaneously.  This is a difficult challenge, I can't remember such a complicated period in my 40 years in the defense establishment."

Stopping Iran

There is nothing frivolous about Vilnai.  But when asked about the Israeli Air Force's destruction last year of a suspected nuclear facility in Syria, he flashes a smile and exclaims:  "I don't know what you are talking about."  Nor did he comment on the U.S. Special Forces' raid last week inside Syria, eliminating an al Qaeda chieftain and reminding the world that Syria is a Soviet-style dictatorship which harbors terrorist leaders and murders at will pro-democracy politicians and journalists in Lebanon. 

Vilnai said he respects the abilities of Syrian President Bashir Assad, who was plucked from obscurity as a Paris ophthalmologist by his late father when the heir-apparent elder son was killed in an automobile crash.  Vilnai points out the common element behind all these threats to the free world is Iran.  

He  asserts  "that strong and serious economic sanctions" could deter Iran's nuclear ambitions.  He believes there are two years left in which to stop Iran but is distressed that many countries are primarily concerned with "the profits they are making from deals with Iran."  Asserting "we can't allow Iran to obtain nuclear capability," Vilnai carefully adds:  "I am not in favor of making warlike declarations, but everything needs to be considered so we can determine the right course of action."  Determining the right course to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power will be a priority for the next U.S. Administration, hindered by the inept bureaucrats who,  for political motives, malignly minimized the threat in the National Intelligence Estimate ( which I and others duly excoriated).

Iran may be on the horizon, but Gaza is next door to Israel.  The Gazans had the opportunity when the IDF withdrew in 2003 to create an oasis of prosperity.  They chose instead, behind Hamas, to create a terrorist failed mini-state with the hope of destroying Israel.  Hamas has used the current unevenly observed "cease-fire" to enhance its capacity for war, including enlarged Iranian rockets with a 20 kilometer range that are assembled in Gaza.  Vilnai sternly warns:  "We will not let them expand their military capability, and we may need to use military force to stop this."

Hamas Imports Cement for War

I feel a personal sense of gratitude to Vilnai because when my two Israeli grand-daughters served in the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War -- one under fire in a radar unit, the other searching for unexploded Hezbollah rockets -- the Defense Ministry was headed by an incompetent labor leader as a result of a corrupt political deal with outgoing (but not soon enough!) Prime Minister Olmert. 

When Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, became Defense Minister, he appointed Vilnai as his Deputy, thus restoring confidence and morale.   As I prepared to leave Israel, the Iron Man was busy dealing with cement.  Intelligence reports disclosed an inordinate volume of cement being shipped into Gaza without new construction appearing.  The Hamas regime in Gaza has one overriding mission, i.e., to use whatever assets fall into  its  hands as devices to kill Jews (this is why I cringe when well-intentioned fools complain about a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza"-- the crisis is entirely self-created). 

It emerged that Hamas is using the cement to build underground military installations and tunnels similar to Hezbollah's in Lebanon.  Hezbollah and Hamas leaders deliberately place their civilian populations in the front lines (e.g., storing arms in mosques). Vilnai quickly limited Gaza cement imports and may ban them entirely.  One hopes that Israel's impending elections will not displace the Iron Man who so perspicaciously presides over day-to-day operations of its most vital Ministry.

Joel J. Sprayregen is a member of the Executive Committee of JINSA, a think tank promoting defense of the U.S. and its democratic allies. 
JERUSALEM - I am fortunate while in Israel to spend an afternoon with my friend Gen. Matan Vilnai.  He is not called "Iron Man" because -- as Deputy Defense Minister -- he coordinates defense against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.  The nickname derives from his exploits as a mountain bike rider, a passion we share.  Conversing in his spacious ranch home perched in the mountains on which Jerusalem is built, Vilnai draws on his impressive exploits as a special forces commander (he was second in charge in the 1976 hostage rescue at Entebbe) as well as his lineage as son of one of Israel's  venerated writers. 

Tall, erect and taciturn, every word he speaks is carefully measured.  He says that defending against the radical Islamic terrorists of Hamas and Hezbollah is challenging because they are supported by the civilian population.  Thus, a combined military-diplomatic solution, as well as alliances with other countries, must be pursued.  In addition, he says Israel must retain capabilities to fight conventional wars with Syria "and Iran over the horizon."  Vilnai says "We need to know how to do different things simultaneously.  This is a difficult challenge, I can't remember such a complicated period in my 40 years in the defense establishment."

Stopping Iran

There is nothing frivolous about Vilnai.  But when asked about the Israeli Air Force's destruction last year of a suspected nuclear facility in Syria, he flashes a smile and exclaims:  "I don't know what you are talking about."  Nor did he comment on the U.S. Special Forces' raid last week inside Syria, eliminating an al Qaeda chieftain and reminding the world that Syria is a Soviet-style dictatorship which harbors terrorist leaders and murders at will pro-democracy politicians and journalists in Lebanon. 

Vilnai said he respects the abilities of Syrian President Bashir Assad, who was plucked from obscurity as a Paris ophthalmologist by his late father when the heir-apparent elder son was killed in an automobile crash.  Vilnai points out the common element behind all these threats to the free world is Iran.  

He  asserts  "that strong and serious economic sanctions" could deter Iran's nuclear ambitions.  He believes there are two years left in which to stop Iran but is distressed that many countries are primarily concerned with "the profits they are making from deals with Iran."  Asserting "we can't allow Iran to obtain nuclear capability," Vilnai carefully adds:  "I am not in favor of making warlike declarations, but everything needs to be considered so we can determine the right course of action."  Determining the right course to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power will be a priority for the next U.S. Administration, hindered by the inept bureaucrats who,  for political motives, malignly minimized the threat in the National Intelligence Estimate ( which I and others duly excoriated).

Iran may be on the horizon, but Gaza is next door to Israel.  The Gazans had the opportunity when the IDF withdrew in 2003 to create an oasis of prosperity.  They chose instead, behind Hamas, to create a terrorist failed mini-state with the hope of destroying Israel.  Hamas has used the current unevenly observed "cease-fire" to enhance its capacity for war, including enlarged Iranian rockets with a 20 kilometer range that are assembled in Gaza.  Vilnai sternly warns:  "We will not let them expand their military capability, and we may need to use military force to stop this."

Hamas Imports Cement for War

I feel a personal sense of gratitude to Vilnai because when my two Israeli grand-daughters served in the IDF during the 2006 Lebanon War -- one under fire in a radar unit, the other searching for unexploded Hezbollah rockets -- the Defense Ministry was headed by an incompetent labor leader as a result of a corrupt political deal with outgoing (but not soon enough!) Prime Minister Olmert. 

When Ehud Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier, became Defense Minister, he appointed Vilnai as his Deputy, thus restoring confidence and morale.   As I prepared to leave Israel, the Iron Man was busy dealing with cement.  Intelligence reports disclosed an inordinate volume of cement being shipped into Gaza without new construction appearing.  The Hamas regime in Gaza has one overriding mission, i.e., to use whatever assets fall into  its  hands as devices to kill Jews (this is why I cringe when well-intentioned fools complain about a "humanitarian crisis in Gaza"-- the crisis is entirely self-created). 

It emerged that Hamas is using the cement to build underground military installations and tunnels similar to Hezbollah's in Lebanon.  Hezbollah and Hamas leaders deliberately place their civilian populations in the front lines (e.g., storing arms in mosques). Vilnai quickly limited Gaza cement imports and may ban them entirely.  One hopes that Israel's impending elections will not displace the Iron Man who so perspicaciously presides over day-to-day operations of its most vital Ministry.

Joel J. Sprayregen is a member of the Executive Committee of JINSA, a think tank promoting defense of the U.S. and its democratic allies.