Uri Lubrani has been advising the leaders of Israel for decades. He
started as secretary to Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister. He was
adviser on Arab affairs to prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and prime minister
Levi Eshkol’s bureau chief and political adviser. He was head of the Israeli
mission to Iran from 1973 to 1978 in the heyday of Israel’s relations with
Tehran, and predicted the fall of the shah – to Israeli and American
indifference and doubt.
Lubrani served as ambassador to Ethiopia and to
Uganda, and as a longtime coordinator of Israeli activities in Lebanon. He
oversaw the clandestine Operation Solomon airlift of 15,000 Jews from
civil-war-riven Ethiopia in the space of a single weekend in 1991. Prime
minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed him to head the team negotiating the release of
missing Israeli soldiers.
From various small offices in the Kirya
military headquarters in Tel Aviv, he has worked as a special adviser to a
succession of defense ministers – valued by some, barely tolerated by others.
Today he is part of the office of our minister for strategic affairs, Moshe
Rather than dwelling on advice that was heeded, Lubrani,
now 84 and doubtless the country’s oldest civil servant, tends to focus these
days on insights that were and are being ignored. In a lengthy interview with me
and The Jerusalem Post’s
military correspondent Yaakov Katz, he offers all
manner of provocative assessments, and describes a series of adventures
successful and aborted, including a previously undisclosed effort to help
resolve Palestinian refugee property claims back in Ben- Gurion’s time. But
Lubrani – slower of pace physically, but sharp as ever – reserves his greatest
passion for one piece of advice he feels most anguished not to have inculcated:
His conviction that more Israelis, indeed all Israelis, need to master
“It stuns me and amazes me that in [the Israeli Arab towns of]
Taibe and Tira the Arabs can speak Hebrew, but we don’t speak their language.
And we want to be absorbed! We want them to think we’re part of this region!”
And that would have helped Israel achieve normalization in this region, we
wondered? That would have led to greater acceptance from the Palestinians and
the rest of the Arab world? That would have meant that Egyptians, when liberated
from dictatorship, would be instinctively less hostile to Israel?
saying it would have solved everything,” he fired back, hearing our
skepticism. “[But] it would have changed our attitude to them and theirs
to us, too.”
Lubrani has warned for decades of the dangers posed by
Iran’s Islamist regime, and long urged greater international assistance to the
domestic opposition that seeks to oust it. Here, he lambastes President
Barack Obama for what he considers the delusional effort at engagement, and sets
out the steps he urges the West to take to expedite the demise of the mullahs.
The regime will fall, he says, but since the West should have every interest in
that happening sooner rather than later, it needs to offer unequivocal public
rhetorical support to the Iranian opposition, and a great deal of practical
So how do you see the regional tumult playing
I have no idea. It’s still bubbling. But it will certainly lead to a
considerable weakening of what we call the moderate regimes of the Middle East.
It will also lead to a weakening of American influence.
strengthen the more ruthless regimes? Where will it stop?
Again, it’s not clear
yet. Is it going to stop in Libya? It could go to Morocco. To Saudi
Arabia. Dubai. Abu Dhabi. There are population problems there, too. A
Shi’ite majority in Bahrain and Sunnis who control it.
It will certainly
encourage [the rulers of some of these regimes] to find agreements with the
Iranians. If I were in the Gulf today, looking around me, estimating how much
support I’ll get from the US, I’d begin to think of looking
The US presence – the Central Command in Qatar and the Navy
Fifth Fleet in Bahrain – won’t prevent that?
Bahrain is indeed one of the most
important US naval bases. But look at what’s happening there. I’m not
sure whether the Americans are giving them the support they expect.
look at everything through the eyes of Iran. The Iranians see that area, the
Gulf principalities, as theirs. They consider what’s unfolding as an
opportunity. The Iranians have a quality that we and others lack:
patience. Unlimited patience. And a capacity to absorb. They play chess.
They look two or three moves ahead.
You sound rather pessimistic about a
push for freedom.
What’s happened in Egypt is absolutely a cry for
something more than they had under [president Hosni] Mubarak – which wasn’t a
terrible dictatorship, but was a dictatorship nonetheless. But it will take
years to play out. And it won’t always meet our interests.
it might be good for Israel if the region truly changed, but that the interim is
likely to be very problematic, and maybe beyond that too?
Absolutely, we’re in a
problematic situation. To my sorrow, in 62 years, we have not managed to root
our existence in this area and to ensure that we are recognized as part of
it. We have peace deals with Jordan and Egypt that are all well and good,
but we know what kind of peace those deals are. They’re not quite what we
The most obvious thing that drives me crazy is that we don’t
require our children to learn Arabic from the first grade. They can’t
speak it. It stuns me and amazes me that in Taibe and Tira the Arabs can speak
Hebrew, but we don’t speak their language. And we want to be absorbed! We want
them to think we’re part of this region!
It’s our fault that we’re not accepted
I’m not saying that [all of us speaking Arabic] would have solved
everything. But Ben- Gurion in the first few years of statehood should have
required the youth to learn Arabic. In truth, there weren’t actually enough
people to teach it. But that should have been the declared aim. We achieved all
sorts of things in agriculture and in the military sphere, defying the odds. We
should have done the same with Arabic.
It would have changed local Arabs’
attitude to us?
It would have changed our attitude to them and theirs to us,
too. I’ll give you a personal example. I grew up in Haifa – a mixed city. My
late father had many Arab friends. They would come to our house. After 1948, one
of those friends moved to Ramallah and those connections were retained. I was
overseas for a long time and when I came home I invited that family to come and
visit us. It had been years. They came from Ramallah in their car. It was a
wonderful evening. We sent them home to Ramallah. Later that night, the friend
called me and said “It was a lovely evening but I’ll never do it again.” I said,
“What happened?” He said that on the way home, they came to a Border Police road
block. The Border Police checked the car and asked him to open the
trunk. He said they slammed the trunk down on his head. He said to me,
“Apparently, we’re not yet ready to live together.”
Most of the things we
do in the territories can be done with exactly the same result but in a
different way: “Excuse me, can we come in?” “Can I move this from here to
That would really make a difference? The Palestinians would hate us
Without a doubt. Understand how important respect is to them. More
important than money and many other things. Do you know what it’s like
for a husband to have his wife and children watch as soldiers slap him in the
face? What a blow to his honor? Why the need to do it? It’s a matter of
I know I’m a Don Quixote. [Better behavior] wouldn’t
have solved all our problems. But it would have solved plenty. And
it would at least have lowered the level of hatred – among Israeli Arabs,
And that would have made the Egyptians, similarly, like us more? It
would have had an effect, by osmosis. Do you think that in Egypt they like to
see how we kick the Palestinians? They don’t. They are prepared to kick and hit
their own Arabs, but when infidels like us do it, they don’t like it.
we could have maintained our security control more politely?
Without a doubt.
I’m not saying that in every case you can [be polite]. There are some terrible
people out there.
And it would have meant, in 2011, that the Egyptian
public’s instinctive relationship to us would have been more positive?
I’ll give you another example from my life. I’m not a dove. Far from it. And I
feel there is something in the expression that “the Arabs only understand one
language.” Okay. But you can translate that language more
effectively. I was on a bus one day as a child, between Haifa and the
Carmel, with my father. An Arab woman got on, with two baskets. My father told
me to stand up and give her my seat. The man sitting behind us butted in,
asking why my father had told me to do that. My father said again, “Stand
up and let her sit down. We’re going to be living with her for another 2,000
years together.” That stuck in my head.
If we had managed to
deport them altogether, I wouldn’t have minded. But we didn’t. They’re
here. And if they’re here, we have to live with them in a certain way and we
haven’t succeeded in that. We’ve succeeded in many different matters, and we
have every right to be proud of that. But on this, we didn’t
Another personal example. I was in Tel Hashomer [hospital] years
ago, visiting a friend. At that time, I would appear quite often on TV since I
was the coordinator of government affairs in Lebanon. Suddenly this cleaning
woman grabs me. I asked: “What’s the problem?” She pleaded with me, “Please,
teach your children to speak Arabic. I come from Gaza. And the soldiers
can’t even say the word ‘curfew’ in Arabic. There was a curfew and my son went
outside and he was shot.”
You say you’re not a dove. What are your
positions on the ’67 lines, on negotiations with the Palestinians?
I always knew
that we would have to divide this land. I’m not more of a dove than Ehud Barak –
who offered what he offered and agreed to what he agreed. If we could hold more,
I’d want to retain more. I’m a Ben- Gurionist. I know we have to push for things
that are not accepted in the Arab world. But we also have to find the way to
demonstrate that we know we live in a state that has to live together with the
I’m opposed to relinquishing all of the West Bank. I want border
corrections that will ensure we are not surprised. And I don’t care what people
say about that.
I favor retaining the Jordan Valley.
That’s not a minor matter.
Is it too late to build ties with the Egyptian
people? Will they be more hostile the more the people genuinely control their
It will certainly be harder for us with a new regime in Egypt. Those
days when our negotiations were with a single ruler are over. We’ll need
to find ways to build a network of relations based on give and take. We’ll need
to give it a lot of thought.
Give and take what?
First, we’ll always have
the possibility to give them the sense that we have influence with the United
Second, Egypt has very serious economic difficulties. Let’s see
if we can create a situation whereby their tourism and our tourism sectors work
together. Create a mutual dependence. We can do that with Lebanon, too, when the
time comes. I won’t be alive by then, but it will happen. Then there are options
for joint industry. We have to give them the feeling that, while they might not
love us, the fact is that we are here and are strong and can’t be booted out,
and that a certain cooperation will benefit both sides.
And we can
overcome their inclination to look in a different direction – toward the
I don’t believe they’ll look that way. They’re Sunnis and the
Iranians are Shi’ites.
That religious gulf is greater than the gulf
between them and us? It hasn’t prevented the relationship between Hamas and
The rift between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis is deeper than
anything else. The Hamas matter is a function of money. Twice in recent years
I’ve watched meetings between [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal and [Iran’s
President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and it’s obvious that Ahmadinejad is the
dominant player there.
Let me tell you something from when I was in
Tehran. It took me two-and-a-half years before the shah would even agree to see
me, but eventually I reached a situation where, if I wanted to see him, I saw
him. At one of those meetings, in 1976, I asked him, “Your majesty, could you
explain to me, why are you spending so much money on military equipment?”
looked at me like I was a fool and said, “I need a strong army.”
“Why. You’ve just signed an agreement regarding the Shatt al-Arab [river] with
Iraq and thereby solved your key problem on the Iraqi border.”
“Obviously you don’t understand things. I’m going to be attacked by the
I persisted: “You’ve just signed an agreement!”
He said, “It’s
not worth the paper it’s printed on. I’m certain that the Americans will protect
me from the Soviet Union. If the Russians attack, I’m sure the Americans will be
there. But if the Arabs attack, the Americans will say it’s a local conflict. So
what do you need? You need an army to protect you. And the Arabs will
This almost endemic antipathy between the Arabs and the Iranians
is indescribable. They hate each other.
But in the same way that
you have partnerships between the likes of Syria and Iran, strategic agreements,
can’t you have that between Egypt and Iran?
Everything is possible. Strategic
agreements are not a function of love or hate. But the Iranians – almost 77
million today; when I left it was 30 or 31 million – are going to be a central
factor in the Middle East under every regime, whether we like it or
Now, this regime regards itself as having been sent by the divine
power to stand at the head of the Muslim camp, to face off against the infidels.
They consider that this is the moment for Islam to retrieve what the infidels
took away from them. Ultimately, they regard Malaga in Spain as being theirs!
That’s the way they think. Ahmadinejad makes no effort to hide it.
do they get over the Sunni-Shi’ite split to achieve that goal? How do they curry
favor among the Arabs? They take the Palestinian issue, the Palestinian
conflict, and elevate it into the key cause. That’s what they have done. They
created a situation – first with Islamic Jihad and various other extremist
groups, and now with Hamas and all of them – where they are the patrons of the
cause. It’s all money, and not that much money for the Iranians at that. They
have given maybe $500 million to Hamas to date.
But then what would
prevent a similar relationship between Iran and Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood
are not potential partners?
They’re Sunnis. I don’t see that
Do you see the Muslim Brotherhood taking control in Egypt?
No. The average Egyptian does not see himself defined as a Muslim
I must stress that many people know Egypt much better than I
do. But I do think that it’s much too early to draw conclusions. My only
conclusion for now, for us, is to not talk. Not to create points of friction.
Not to insult. Let it flow. In any case, you can’t control it. But I would add
that you have to internalize how interdependent the Egyptian army and the
Egyptian economy are. It would require a whole other convulsion for that to
change, and I don’t see the army letting that happen.
So don’t talk,
beyond expressing empathy for the Egyptian people’s desire for freedom?
Unfortunately, we don’t have many tools even to do that.
Let me digress.
I have these out of the box ideas sometimes. One of those was to establish our
own version of Al-Jazeera. An Israeli-inspired Al-Jazeera in Arabic. One of the
people who helped me was a person intimately familiar with Al-Jazeera and its
funding, who did a costing [analysis] for me four years ago, but I couldn’t find
anyone who wanted to listen...
We know you had problems ensuring funding
for Israel Radio’s small Farsi service.
I have had to find them the
funding for pencil and printers. But now things have improved
So you wanted to set up a TV station of the same power and
quality as Al-Jazeera. Let’s hazard the cost: $100m. per year?
million sterling, actually. Almost as much. Nobody wanted to listen. (Smiles
wistfully:) If Teddy Kollek were still alive, and I’d have gone with him to
That reminds me of another idea I once had: To this day I
believe that we need to give financial compensation to every refugee who has any
claim to property inside sovereign Israel. Not the property, you understand, but
I went to Ben-Gurion about this. I was his
adviser on Arab affairs. The head of the Greek Catholic Church in Haifa had a
community of 25,000-30,000 refugees in Beirut. He came to me. He said, “At least
give them some money. They’re in terrible financial condition.” I said,
“Would they accept it? He said, “Of course.” I said, “I want to meet with their
So he arranged for us to travel together to the
Vatican. I got Ben-Gurion’s approval for the trip. And the head of the Greek
Catholic Church in Haifa brought me 20 representatives of the Lebanon
Not only Catholics.
I had established at the time a
rough estimate that the value of property claims of the entire refugee community
was a few billion dollars. A lot of money, but still. Reuven Aloni, the
husband of [former leading left-wing politician] Shulamit Aloni, who headed the
Israel Lands Authority, had given me the estimate.
[president] Haim Herzog’s brother, the minister at the Israeli Embassy in
Washington in the late 1950s, had spoken to [secretary of state John Foster]
Dulles, who had told him that the Americans would help Israel with this
I showed the refugee representatives the draft agreement and they
said they were prepared to sign. But then fate stepped in. Soon after I came
back from the Vatican meeting, Ben-Gurion resigned. Then I became the head of
[incoming prime minister] Eshkol’s bureau. When he’d found his feet and I went
to him with the idea, he rejected it.
This agreement would have applied
to all refugees in Lebanon?
Yes, and the idea was that this would be the
exemplar agreement, which could then have been extended to all refugees’
property claims. They weren’t prepared to sign off on the nonmaterial claims.
Only the material claims. They weren’t relinquishing the political
I also suggested that every Israel legation around the world
would have a desk to handle requests. And there would be an office in Israel to
check the claims and pay out the money. It would have taken years. But it would
have shown that we weren’t bent on taking their property [without recompense]. I
felt we had to do something.
I was given the incentive to check if it was
possible. It wasn’t simple. But I traveled to the Vatican, alone, with no aides.
I was very sorry that it didn’t work out.
Let’s get back to the question
of whether the wave of protests will come to threaten the regime in
Anything is possible. But I fear that it’s not going to happen at
this point, even though it looks like Iran is being affected as part of the
wider process of protest. You have to take into account that the regime had
prepared for the possibility of a public challenge for a long time – certainly
since [the furor surrounding the fraudulent elections in] June 2009, in fact. It
took every possible step in advance to ensure that there would not be problems
this time. Despite this, despite the fact that they’ve hanged 80 or 90 people in
the last two or three months to terrify and deter; that they’ve arrested and
tortured and sent people into exile to prevent any organized protest, still
people ran in the streets. These kids are heroic. To protest in the
street is to court death, and yet they run. But it wasn’t enough.
is needed? Millions in the streets?
Yes – and I’d be very happy if it happens
while I’m still alive. What’s needed, first of all, is unequivocal support from
the West. That isn’t there today – not from Europe and not from the
United States. The US is hesitant. President Obama said something laconic
when the latest protests erupted, about the irony of Iran supporting people
power in Egypt but quashing it at home.
He needs to say that the US
supports by every legal means the effort by the Iranian people to achieve
freedom and democracy. That the US will invest efforts in this. That the
US will invest money in this. That would electrify the Iranians. That’s what he
has to say publicly. And we need a decision to the same effect in both houses of
Is it too late now?
No. It’s never too late. It’s not too late
to say, ‘We share the sorrow and the pain borne by the Iranian people because of
the regime’s abuse of it, and we’ll do everything to ensure there is no
recurrence.’ Practically, I’m much more concerned about regime change than about
the nuclear matter. I’m absolutely convinced that the nuclear matter will
resolve itself once there is a regime change.
Despite the reports that
they’ve overcome the effects of the Stuxnet computer virus?
They’ll always say
they’ve overcome it. They’re poker-faced.
What’s needed, along
with the public support from the West, is strike action. The economic situation
in Iran is catastrophic. You have to ensure that it gets worse. What does that
entail? Closing down their capacity to sell oil. And the US can help
considerably in this matter if it wants to, by placing sanctions on companies
that deal in Iranian oil.
And then you need to encourage strike action,
to bring the country to a standstill.
What happens then? What is already
starting to happen. Maybe I’m too optimistic. But I see some cracks in the
Pasdaran [Revolutionary Guards]. I hear there are defections from the senior
You must also bring about a situation in which the army – the
most neutral organization – will be prepared to do something. The army has a
long score to settle with the regime.
All this requires the US to come
out publicly. So far, the Americans have been giving the impression that
they’re willing to engage. It’s either self-delusion or an effort to
sweep it all under the carpet. From the moment that Obama entered the White
House, the Iranians have been having a ball with the engagement approach.
There’s not a chance in the world that they’ll halt their uranium
enrichment. So they are delighted if the Americans think that they’ll
meet in January here, in Istanbul in April, we’ll all sit down and talk and
nothing comes out of it, and then a spokesman for the Iranian parliament says
there is still some chance, and everyone says, Oh look at what he said, and the
Iranians buy another few months.
Can’t Israel get the message to the US?
To stop engagement. To support the rebels.
Our relations with the US are
not so good these days. They say that relations between [Prime Minister]
Netanyahu and Obama aren’t good. You would certainly know better than me. They
have to reach the final conclusion that engagement won’t work.
that’s not in Obama’s character.
You said it. He doesn’t take no for an
answer. That’s the man. That’s his character. That’s his world view. He
doesn’t want to make waves.
I was just in Washington, at the conference
of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies – FDD. They asked me about the
military option. I said I oppose the military option. But for me as an
Israeli, it should always be on the table. That’s only for the end of
days. When the sword is at my throat, I’ll use it.
Which is when?
I can’t say. I don’t believe the Iranians would have to use a bomb. The threat
of them having it would be enough to turn the whole Persian Gulf pro-Iranian and
force the Saudis to change course.
They can’t do that now?
They have to make some kind of demonstrative act –
demonstrate some kind of nuclear device and proclaim that they have become
members of the club. For the Iranians it would be a very, very important
political weapon. If Ahmadinejad and his gang get it – well, that must never
If your plan for bringing down the regime is so clear and
straightforward, and the stakes are so high, why the inaction?
People no longer
believe in themselves. And who the hell is Uri Lubrani anyway. He’s 84.
An alte–kaker. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But there’s a
minister who has apparently adopted you...
I have to warm him up. That
You’re the crazy guy in the Kirya?
Yes, I’ve become the
But Ya’alon must have some time for you if he took you
under his sponsorship.
He didn’t say “come.” They told him: “You take
him!” Life is more complicated than you may think.
But I get by. I am
very pleased to be under Ya’alon’s patronage. I’m very proud of my capacity for
patience. That’s something I learned in Iran.
Look at the patience the
Iranians have. [Ayatollah] Khomeini, in his will, told them to export the
revolution. They decided back then that Lebanon would be their first objective.
In 1983, they killed almost 250 Marines, in order to boot the Americans out of
that country. And they succeeded. The great [president] Reagan said, Let’s
leave. And since then they’ve slowly, gradually built up Hezbollah’s
status in Lebanon. And today they are the de facto rulers. And it won’t take
long before they take de jure control. And the same will happen with Syria.
Syria will become a surrogate. It’s unfolding there already.
Assad doesn’t see this?
Assad obviously feels the decline of American influence.
And he needs a bolster from the rising power. And the rising power is
Iran. It has money.
Even if it swallows him in the
He’s convinced they won’t swallow him. But they have
patience. So much patience that encourages, in Syria, a process of the Sunnis
becoming Shi’ites. There’s a shrine near Damascus that’s important to the
Shi’ites – of Sayyida Zeynab [granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad]. All kinds
of pilgrims go there from Iran. Slowly, slowly. No hurry. In short, Syria is
already on the way.
So what went wrong in 1979 in Iran? People succeeded
in bringing down the shah but they didn’t get freedom. What mistakes did they
make and what are the lessons for Egypt?
The dominant figure in the 1979
revolution was Khomeini. The vengeful. The initiator. He had a score to
settle with the ruling family.
He manipulated the secular opponents of
They joined up with him. Iran was a dictatorship. The secret
services didn’t let anyone raise their head. The only network that worked well,
legitimately, was the religious network. There were perhaps 60,000-70,000
villages. Every village had its mullah. Not a policeman but a mullah. And each
group of mullahs had a bigger mullah on top of them. All the way up to
And the shah made catastrophic mistakes. He lost his
connection to the people. He was sick. He did some things that he should
have done more slowly and some of which he should have initiated much
earlier. On rights for women, his wife pressured him. The mullahs didn’t
like it. It needed to be done more slowly. He should have introduced
democratization slowly. Instead, he tried to play at democratizing. He had two
parties up against each other; both were run from the same office in his palace.
That was nonsense.
So it’s wrong to think there was a secular uprising in
They rose together. But the dominant factor was Khomeini.
regime he built won’t fall without outside intervention?
Oh, it will fall. That
will happen in any case.
The question is when?
Yes. And since we
burningly need that to happen, this process must be
(Interview conducted by David Horovitz and Yaakov Katz)