In a recent courtroom testimony in Jerusalem regarding a suit by terror victims
against the Palestinian Authority, the former head of the Military Intelligence
Research and Assessment Division made a startling statement. Yossi
Kupperwasser, now a deputy security minister, accused the Shin Bet (Israel
Security Agency) of having blinders about the Palestinians.
happened to the Shin Bet officials is that they fell in love with the
Palestinians with whom they were in contact,” he said. To what degree Shin Bet
officials “understand” and even sympathize with the Palestinians they are
charged with arresting and interrogating is not clear, and will likely never be
known, but these allegations bring to mind similar stories from
Al Sieber, the famous 19th-century Indian fighter from Arizona
territory, was reputed to have been asked why he hated the Apache so much. “Why
do you like them so?” was his reply. However, he also told a confidant, “Had I
been born an Apache I would have rode with Geronimo.”
Sieber was not the
only man sent to suppress the “hostile” Native-Americans who had a begrudging
respect for them. George Custer, before he was hacked to death in battle with
the Sioux in 1876, called them “the best light cavalry in the world,” and
fathered a child with a native woman. George Crook participated in almost every
important campaign to crush Indian tribes in the 1870s and 1880s, and came away
a major supporter of the Indians in their request for fulfillment of treaty
promises by the US government.
The stories of Sieber, Custer and Crook
are not unique. All the revelations that came out of Dror Moreh’s Oscar
nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, to the effect that the Shin Bet directors
came to sympathize with the Palestinians demands, have now been laid bare by
Yossi Kupperwasser. But it fits a pattern that is not necessarily uncommon in
real life and has been a frequent motif and plot device in Western film and
Intelligence work is carried out in the shadows.
is especially true of work that requires infiltrating the ranks of the enemy and
being intimately involved in his operations and capabilities. The true
intelligence officer lives and breathes the “other.”
Depending on his
position he or she will learn the language and culture of the enemy.
may interact with the enemy more than he interacts with his own people. In long
hours of interrogations he may come to know his prisoner more than he knows his
He also comes to see the enemy as helpless, especially if he
is dealing with prisoners, because he is on the “winning” end of the carrot and
the stick. In this context he not only sees the enemy as weak but he feels he
understands the enemy better than the enemy may understand himself, and he
thinks that his own society is ignorant as to the intentions of the
Consider the Cold War. During this period many of the depictions
of intelligence work never showed the agencies of the West and the Soviets to
truly be hate-driven adversaries.
In the brilliant book Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre. The central hero, George Smiley, doesn’t
particularly dislike the Communists. He is obsessed with defeating the soviet
spy chief, Karla. There is little animosity between the two men when they meet
in a New Delhi prison. In real life, numerous high-profile figures in British
intelligence, the so-called Cambridge Five, defected to the Soviets during the
Cold War, believing wholeheartedly that the Communist model was
Shakespeare captured the dilemma in his excellent play
Coriolanus, which is based on a true story. In this epic tragedy, a Roman
general is spurned by his people and called a traitor.
In revenge he
seeks out his old enemy, Aufidius, of the Volscian nation that is at war with
Rome. Aufidius embraces Coriolanus as an honored enemy, and together they lay
siege to Rome.
The romance of the interrogator coming to sympathize with
his interrogee has found its way into modern dramas as well. In the Ralph
Fiennes film Land of the Blind a soldier assigned to guard a high-value
political prisoner comes to admire the prisoner. He sneaks the prisoner into the
presidential palace where the man is able to assassinate the leaders of the
country. The prisoner subsequently becomes a brutal dictator and throws his
guard-collaborator into prison. In the epic film Cloud Atlas, the human
“fabricant” Sonmi-451 joins a rebellion, only to be captured and interrogated
However just before she is led off to die, it becomes
clear that her interrogator has come to believe in her cause.
however, of the intelligence service or commander coming to “love” his enemy is
not borne out by the large majority of historical examples. For instance the
leaders of the Inquisition don’t seem to have had much sympathy for their
victims. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, had no sympathy
for the Catholic spies and rebels he executed and tortured. Adolph Eichmann,
despite learning Hebrew, had no qualms murdering millions.
So what to
make of the assertion that the Shin Bet “fell in love with the Palestinians”?
First of all, unlike in the case of the Cold War, there is no way that anyone in
Israel can “defect” to truly join the Palestinians. In the type of
religio-ethnic conflict that exists here, there can be no moving from one polity
to the other. Thus a situation such as the one Alcibiades found himself in,
defecting from the Athenian side to join the Spartans at Syracuse in the
Peloponnesian War, isn’t possible. Sparta and Athens were both
EXPERTISE ABOUT the enemy, as intelligence work inevitably
requires, results in knowledge that leads to nuance. Just because people come to
“understand” those that are considered the enemy doesn’t mean that they
necessarily lose sight of their job.
That being said, no one should
seriously think that intelligence services make better policy than civilian
Those strongmen who relied on their intelligence
services too heavily for policy-making, such as the Shah in Iran and Fulgencio
Batista in Cuba, found them utterly lacking.
Intelligence services that
lost sight of their mandate and seek to control state policy become engrained
bureaucratic self-perpetuating machines, as the Pretorians were in Rome and the
Jannisaries in Ottoman Istanbul.
What Israel should learn from
Kupperwasser’s allegations and Gatekeepers is the need to keep a healthy rein on
the Shin Bet and enforce clear civilian control over it.
District Court Judge Moshe Drori scolded Kupperwasser for daring to critique the
Agency, claiming, “you are speaking of Shin Bet officials, whose whole existence
since the age of 21 is based on serving Israel.”
When an organization in
society is above reproach, above civilian critique or investigation, then that
in itself represents a problem.
A balance can be struck. The message that
John Le Carre sought to convey clearly in Tinker, Tailor was just that: a
security service is fallible. After all, George Smiley has been forcibly retired
in the book, when he is brought back to save the service from
Ultimately responsibility in the Le Carre novel rests with civil
servants; “the minister” and “Oliver Lacon, of the Cabinet office,” not the
generals and not the spooks.