The Israel Defense and Security Forum (IDSF), an Israeli NGO made up of thousands of former security officers, hosted its first-ever Israel Defense Conference on May 9, bringing together former IDF brass, Israeli politicians and the press for a broader look at Israel’s national security challenges, one it says is lacking and necessary.
Among the speakers at the conference in Jerusalem, which was co-sponsored by Israel Hayom and The Epoch Times, were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, former IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Economy and Industry Minister Nir Barkat. Panel topics included Iran, challenges to sovereignty, the worldwide delegitimization threat, and the future of the Palestinian Authority. Some 300 people attended the conference.
“Our biggest challenge is to change Israel’s focus regarding what the really big issues are,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Amir Avivi, founder and chairman of IDSF, known in Hebrew as Bitchonistim, told JNS.
The government, when prioritizing its security challenges, relies mainly on the military, which has “an army way of thinking,” Avivi said. “Iran is No. 1, Lebanon is No. 2, Gaza, 3, and so on. We see other challenges on the national level that are not necessarily army-focused.”
At the top of those challenges, Avivi put internal security. “Most Israelis don’t feel secure anywhere in Israel, not in the Negev, not in the Galilee, not in Jerusalem or the mixed cities,” he said, referring to areas with large populations of both Jews and Arabs.
The second challenge is growing antisemitism and the delegitimization of Israel. “Jews around the world are having a terrible time. Israel has the responsibility to defend them and connect them to Israel and to our Zionist values,” he said.
Perhaps most important, given that it goes directly to “our resilience as a society,” is the need to reinvigorate the teaching of Zionist values, Avivi said. “There’s been a dramatic decline in our education programs for the last 20 to 30 years. It affects the motivation of our young people to serve in the army. It affects our ties as a society and as a people. It’s a different way of looking at national security that must be brought to the attention of the Israeli public and to the decision-makers.”
Avivi underscored this idea in his opening speech. “What we see above all in our survey of the security situation is a nation that has stopped believing in the justice of its cause. This fact has led to anti-Israel activities within the state and the disintegration of Jewish communities without.”
Avivi said, “Israel must understand that national security is first of all national ethos—it’s ‘Who are we? Why are we here? What’s our legacy as a nation? These are the things that bind us together.
“The paradox is that the nation of Israel has never been as strong as it is today, technologically, economically, physically, militarily. Despite this power, we’ve never had such a spiritual collapse as we see today,” he said, noting that the atmosphere in every community he visits is one of “anxiety, fear of the future.
“We need to restore our national pride, our values, our spirit. Spirit is what brings victory,” Avivi said.
It was a theme repeated throughout the conference.
IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Effie Eitam, a former leader of the National Religious Party, said at the panel discussion on sovereignty (a term referring to the increasing problem of enforcing state authority in areas with large non-Jewish populations) that the core issue preventing Israel from effectively confronting its enemies is that it’s become “infected” by subversive ideas undermining the entire Western world.
The West has turned against the idea of nationalism, he said, which is now viewed as “a primitive idea, arrogant, aloof, a cause of wars and, in essence, a lie.” The idea of “hierarchy” is another that’s fallen out of favor. “The idea that one person should be above another has become intolerable.” The use of force is also passé, “on the border of immoral.
“Our institutions have absorbed and internalized these ideas. They are conquering and crushing our national ethos,” Eitam said, noting that the country now struggles to maintain control in locations never before disputed.
National Security Minister of Ben-Gvir said Israel needs to be more aggressive.
“I sit in meetings with people whose abilities are above dispute, yet I’ve heard too many times the word ‘containment,’ ” he said. “Israel must change its policy to one in which it strives to engage and defeat the enemy.”
Netanyahu, who spoke via Zoom (he planned to address the conference in person but heightened tensions with the Gaza Strip prevented this), thanked the IDSF for its “valuable and principled work on behalf of the State of Israel.”
Iran remains the No. 1 threat, he said, tracing “95% of the problems” Israel faces to “that fanatical regime.”
Netanyahu broke the Iranian threat down into three elements: 1) the nuclear threat; 2) the missile threat, including Tehran’s efforts to supply its proxies with precision missiles; and 3) “a ring of aggression,” Iran’s attempt to surround Israel with hostile forces.
“We will do everything in our power to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said, noting that Israel can’t ask other countries to do the job for them. “No one will defend us if we don’t defend ourselves.”
Most on the Iran panel agreed. Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of research for IDF Military Intelligence, said U.S. “vagueness” on Iran leaves the “weight of the decision” to Israel.
Ariel Kahana, a political commentator for Israel Hayom, expressed pessimism that any U.S. administration, Democrat or Republican, would take on Iran militarily. To wait for a green light from America would be against Israel’s interests, he said.
“We can’t rely on anyone, only on ourselves,” Brig. Gen. (res.) Hasson Hasson said.