Reality Check

The Spymaster

The Spymaster

In December 1998, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent me to Israel and the West Bank to monitor the first phase of the recently concluded Wye River Memorandum, a soon-to-be-forgotten agreement President Bill Clinton had brokered between then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

While in Jerusalem, I gave a public talk on the state of the negotiations. Having worked on this near-hopeless accord for over a year, I was on some sort of negotiator’s high. And in one of the most naïve statements of the century, I told the audience that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had achieved a measure of irreversible progress, and that there was no going back.

Within a month, the Wye River accord was dead.

Four months later, I received a letter from a man I’d never met — Efraim Halevy, then deputy director of Israel’s Mossad. In it, Halevy gently reminded me of the broader forces and currents at work in his turbulent region and wondered about the positive forces of change I’d identified. What if these rivers of change left most of the proverbial fish — in this case the Israelis and Palestinians  — behind?

Halevy foresaw confrontation. And he was right. I’ve been learning from him ever since.

Halevy, now 78 years old, reminds me of a cross between an Oxford don and a character out of a John le Carré novel. He speaks carefully and precisely — rarely forcefully — and has little problem attracting an eager audience. Born in London, his British inflection — not greatly tempered since immigrating to Israel in 1948 — only adds to the sense that you’re speaking to a highly intelligent and acutely erudite man.

Halevy is a man of the Mossad serving there for 40 years — 33 of them in the Directorate, the initial designation for Mossad’s intelligence collection unit. He headed Mossad under three prime ministers — Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon  — and served as deputy director under two more, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. He ran a variety of secret missions for Rabin, most notably as key negotiator and confidante of King Hussein during the period leading up to the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

The Israeli spymaster has recently made headlines by calling for dialogue with Iran — thereby joining the burgeoning ranks of former Israeli intelligence officials, notably former Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, critical of the Netanyahu government’s approach toward the Islamic Republic. He was in Washington last week speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I put 11 questions to him on the vital political issues of the day before he returned to Jerusalem. What follows are his answers:

Aaron Miller: Is a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel?

Efraim Halevy: I object to the use of term [existential] for several reasons. First of all I’m convinced that Israel is here to stay. We’re going to stay here for the next couple of thousand years at least, and after that we can meet and talk. It’s not just a question of semi-religious or mythological belief — I believe that Israel is a strong country. I think we have sufficient capabilities to deal with any threat of any kind.

Now, I also object to the use of the term because I believe it is a fatal mistake to say publicly that there is existential threat. It means that if the Iranians by one way or another obtain such a capability, you begin to countdown to the end of the state of Israel, and I think that is unconscionable.

And the third point is I think it is a terrible mistake to tell your enemy that it is in his power to destroy you. It is wrong tactically, it’s wrong strategically, and it’s wrong professionally. To come publicly to the Iranians and say, "Look, you are existential threat to me" only pushes them into trying to prove that what you say about yourself is true. So from every point, I think it’s a terrible mistake to use this.

AM: If good-faith negotiations and sanctions do not deter the Iranians from continuing their quest for a nuclear bomb, are there any circumstances under which you would be willing to consider military action?

EH: Yes, if we had followed all the other avenues to try to persuade the Iranians from doing what obviously they’re still trying to do, then I believe it is not only acceptable — it’s also logical that one should use military means in order to get this capability removed. I say removed because I don’t believe that it will be destroyed. I mean it will be delayed. And I think that delay is important, because time is of the essence — time sometimes gives you the breathing space to develop other possibilities, which would negate the capability now in front of you.

Now, I believe that if we are looking for the best way of doing it, I think that the United States’ capabilities are far beyond Israel’s in terms of causing such damage to Iran as to prolong this period. That’s why I believe the major priority should be to get the United States to agree to take this this task upon itself.

AM: Is Iran, in your judgment, a rational actor?

EH: I think that yes, the Iranians are rational. I think at this particular point in time they are focused on trying to inflict major damage on Israel. Maybe they believe that they do have it in their power to remove Israel from the face of the Earth. And I think that if they really believe that they could do it and they have the means to do it, one has to assume that they might actually use these means. I don’t believe that once they have the means, they will not use it.

AM: I know you’re an analyst and not a fortune-teller. But will 2013 in your judgment be a determinative point in this process? Will the issue of the Iranian nuclear weapons program either be joined in war and/or diplomacy, or might we find ourselves at the end of 2013 where we are now?

EH: I think 2013 is a decisive point in history, a point in time. I think that there is time now to energetically engage in efforts to find a solution other than a military one. I think that there’s much that can be done and should be done. And I think, of course, that if all other options are exhausted and have been unsuccessful, then yes, 2013 may be the time when Israel and/or the United States takes action.

AM: Why don’t we have a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians?

EH: I can give a long dissertation as to why we don’t have one, but I’d like to focus on the immediate reasons. And I’d say that at this particular point in time, there is not a viable possibility [for an agreement]. It’s not viable because the Palestinians don’t have their act together. They’re divided both geographically and politically. I think anybody who signed such an agreement would not have a real mandate to sign it. And even if he believes he has, he will not have the capability to implement it, certainly not in the Gaza Strip.

And therefore, an agreement of such a nature will be misleading. It will create the notion that an agreement has been reached and a serious historical event is at hand when in actual fact it’s going to be something much worse than just a non-event. It will be an act of hypocrisy of the worst particular kind.

I also think that the present makeup of the Israeli political scene is such that there is no majority in place — either in government or in the nation — for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. People enjoy life the way it is and they say "why take the risks, why move to something which is going to be very painful and which is going to have lot of repercussions internally?" There are very, very bitter memories of what happened during the Gaza disengagement, and that was only 10,000 people [who had to be relocated].

AM: And what are the consequences of no agreement?  Do you agree with those who argue that demography and the absence of a solution will undermine the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel?

EH: Yes I do. And I’m very concerned about that, because I think that the no solution means that there’s going to be a one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley in which you’ll have two distinct populations. One will be a majority that is gradually decreasing, and the other will be a minority which increasing. And therefore we will have a situation where, between Jordan and the sea, there will be a democratic system for the minority and a non-democratic system for the majority. This is unsustainable and untenable.

AM: Are you concerned about the viability of Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian -Israeli relationships in the face of the political changes sweeping the Arab world?

EH: I think so far the reaction from Egypt has been encouraging. This is not say that I’m happy with many of these statements coming from Cairo, but the most important are repeated statements by the Egyptian president and his representatives and advisors to the public that Egypt will abide by its international obligations.

I think the Egyptians are trying to get their act together. I think they’re behaving responsibly. I don’t think that they are enamored with Israel — they don’t have to be. And I think that there’s room for improvement here.

AM: Does it matter to you whether there are Islamists, democrats, or dictators in power in the Arab world?

EH: I would put it this way: I don’t think we have it in our capacity to influence what is going to happen in states other than our own, and if that is the will of the people around us, there is nothing that we can do about it. We have to find ways of living with it.

I think we have to accept realities the way they are. That’s why it was very encouraging several hours after [Egyptian] President [Mohamed] Morsy won the elections, my prime minister Netanyahu sent a messaging saying, "I congratulate you on your success and I want to work together with you." I think that was a right thing to do.

I would much prefer that there would not be extreme Islamist regimes in these countries. But again, there’s nothing we can do about it. So for us, it’s a test to find ways to live with them. And we have to work on it, rather than simply throwing up our hands in despair, closing up the shelters, and praying for supreme godly protection.

AM: Where is Syria is headed?

EH: I think there’s a good chance that Syria will implode and disintegrate into small statelets. I don’t think the Alawites are going to just give up and go home. But there is also a possibility that once Assad is out of the way, other Alawites will come and find a modus operandi with whatever powers prevail.

What I am very much concerned about is whether the Iranians will be there once Assad is gone. And I believe it’s a basic Israeli interest to do everything we can — and to prevail upon everybody we can — to ensure that at the end of the day the Iranians are out of Syria.

I don’t believe that there will be a religious regime in Syria, similar to the kind that exists in Egypt. I think that because the population is composed of Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Christians and others that it’s not possible to have an Islamic state in Syria, and it might very well be some kind of secular [government].

AM: Any thoughts on the U.S.-Israel relationship and our upcoming elections?

EH: Israeli-American relations have gone through several bumps. I think that basically they have been very good. On the practical side, the United States has been very supportive of Israel during President Barack Obama’s administration — both financially and strategically, we have received a lot of support.

I think there should be a little less complaining on the part of Israel that the administration has not embraced us warmly. International relations is not a love fest — it has to be a practical business. And Israel should not always expect to be embraced and hugged. We’re grown up and we should act as grownups.

Regarding the election, I think many of the statements made by the Republican candidate are very undesirable as far as Israel is concerned. I remember an article of Governor Romney’s in the Washington Post in March where he advocated dispatching American warships to the Eastern Mediterranean. Shooting from the hip on these matters is a very dangerous sport to be engaged in. And I think that drawing Israel into this campaign is detrimental to Israeli interests, and I regret that one of the candidates is doing this.

AM: As a former intelligence officer, what do you think is the most important factor that a policymaker must keep in mind in formulating policy?

EH: I think that before strategic decisions are made, one has to take into account your capability to actually carry out what it is you’ve decided. And this is something that, at a political level, only a master can do. And as an intelligence officer, you must give the policymaker accurate information or assessments of the situation. But you cannot determine for him what his capabilities are, because capabilities are not just counting the number of troops you have or the number of guns you have. It’s also the resilience of the country’s people and many other factors. That’s number one.

Number two, I think it’s very important not to be attached to a single policy option. I think it is imperative to present more than one option to the political decision makers. That doesn’t mean to say you don’t express your preference for one or the other, but presenting one "take it or leave it" option — I think that’s a mistake.

And the third thing is — and I learned this from Yitzhak Rabin — is that whatever you are pursuing, always prepare an alternative. Never be caught without an alternative. Don’t be left in a position where, if the initiative you have undertaken fails, you are left empty-handed.