Ilan Mizrahi is used to the shadows. He lived in the shadows during a 33-year career in the Mossad, including a stint as "Aleph," its deputy head. And he also stayed in the shadows for the last 17 months as the head of the National Security Council, the planning and advisory body to the prime minister that is still struggling for status, acceptance and influence.
During his time at the NSC, Mizrahi remained completely out of the limelight, preferring to operate behind the scenes.
Chances are that 95 percent of the country would not know what Mizrahi looks like, and a large percentage are probably unfamiliar with his name. And, true, bureaucratic obstacles, as well as ego battles and institutional rivalries, kept Mizrahi from gaining the stature that his lofty title would presume. He wasn't Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's right-hand man during his tenure as NSC head, neither on diplomatic nor security issues.
But, still, Mizrahi was very much on the court over the last 17 months, giving advice, hearing all the chatter. If he wasn't necessarily one of Olmert's starting five, he was very much in the huddle. As such, he not only has an intimate knowledge of the thinking in the Prime Minister's Office on a wide variety of issues, but also influenced that thinking.
Mizrahi, 60, formally left his position last week and sat down with The Jerusalem Post for an all-inclusive interview - his first since leaving office - on stopping the ayatollahs' race toward nuclear power following the US intelligence report, on the need to negotiate with Syria and the chances of making peace with the Palestinians.
This interview took place at a coffee shop in Herzliya, with Mizrahi - an old espionage hand for whom old habits apparently die hard - constantly glancing at a mirror on the wall to see what was going on behind his back.
How do you understand the new US National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran?
When I read the report for the first time, it smelled too much of politics. I think that the US intelligence community following Iraq - and I am being careful with my words - is very careful. Their Iraqi experience has influenced them, particularly attempts to point at them and their remarks as responsible for US involvement in Iraq.
So the US is traumatized by Iraq?
Trauma is a very hard word. Let's say that someone who was burned by hot water is careful with cold water. Let's not forget that within the military and intelligence communities in the US there is an ongoing argument about what needs to be done with regard to Iran. There are those who want to use military force and those who are against.
This is a report that says very clearly and convincingly that in 2003 the Iranians stopped their pursuit of a nuclear bomb. They cannot say as convincingly, however, whether Iran renewed this program and they don't, in the report, refer to Iranian intentions.
For these reasons I accept the Israeli intelligence assessment - which refers to the situation today and over the past two years - that the Iranians are pushing their nuclear weapon program forward with full steam.
Were you surprised by the report?
I participated in the Israeli-US Strategic Dialogue in November and there were indications already then that something was cooking within the American intelligence community. I had a feeling that it was connected more to growing voices in the US to diplomatically engage Iran. I came back and did not expect such a dramatic change.
Does Israel have "smoking gun," concrete intelligence on Iran?
The evidence that we, in the State of Israel, have is such that I have no doubt that Iran is advancing toward a [nuclear] military program. I cannot provide more details, but I am convinced that they are moving toward a military program.
But we shared this intelligence with the Americans and they reached a totally different conclusion.
They did not reach totally different conclusions. The report says with "high confidence" that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. With much less confidence the report says that Iran did not restart it. This report also contradicts a report from 2005. This is why I say there is something about this report that smells of politics and it is possibly connected to power struggles within the top US echelons of power.
Unfortunately, this report comes at a problematic time. To publish a report like this at a time when you are trying to tighten sanctions against Iran takes the wind out of the sails and plays into the hands of Russia and China [which are opposed to sanctions].
What is more important and problematic is the fact that it plays into [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad's hands ahead of very important parliamentary elections that are scheduled for March. These are important elections since the internal discourse in Iran over the nuclear program is very important. and I am one of those who believe that the change needs to come from within. This report essentially improves Ahmadinejad's status, which had lately been declining. He can now say that he was right. His status can gain strength. He can now come and show people this report and say, "See, my way was right." This is disturbing.
Why is Iran developing nuclear capability to begin with?
It is more complicated. In my opinion they are developing nuclear weapons and the ayatollahs want it for deterrence purposes since they are concerned about the survivability of the regime.
The ayatollahs look around them from a strategic perspective and see, for example, the Sunnis in Pakistan with a nuclear capability. They despise the Pakistanis, since they say "we once occupied parts of Pakistan and if they have nuclear capability then so should we." Iran also views Pakistan's nuclear capability as a potential threat since they are radical Sunnis and in Iran they are Shi'ites. There are also the Indians and the US as well as Israel. They see that America attacked Iraq even though the country had chemical and biological weapons and they asked what could be a better deterrence and protect them. The answer was nuclear capability.
Their objective is to not only lead the Islamic world and project power but also to create hegemony not just in the Middle East but in their region, which includes the Middle East, South Asia and the entire Islamic world.
For hegemony, do they need to have a bomb or just to cross the technological threshold?
I wish I knew. This is the million dollar question. I know that they are moving toward nuclear weapons. Will they stop in the middle? Someone who pursues nuclear weapons goes until the end. Take Japan, which is today at a position that it has all the capabilities and could in thee-to-six months have a bomb. Will the Iranians stop where Japan is? I don't know. What I know is that when they find a benign growth, they take it out and don't wait for it to become cancerous.
I know that this is a radical regime that is not crazy. Ahmadinejad is not crazy. He is super radical. He is also not the one with his finger on the button. He does not make fateful strategic decisions for Iran. These are made by [Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei.
Will they use a bomb against us?
I cannot prophesy. What I can say is that the future of the State of Israel is in the balance and that as long as this capability is in the hands of someone who is motivated by radical Islamic ideology, I am very concerned. This is a very enticing weapon. Will they use it or not? I believe they will think 200 times since they understand that they can also be destroyed. Without talking about using it, however, the fact that they have the ability is enough to dramatically destabilize the strategic balance in the Middle East.
If they succeed in developing the capability, it means that international efforts led by the US failed. As a result, the US's status as a world superpower would be badly damaged and when this happens, our status also declines. They will be able to say that they beat the US. This will also open a race for nuclear weapons in the Middle East. This is a very stormy and unstable region, and nuclear weapons in the region are dangerous. We need to prevent this from happening. This is not just an Israeli interest but a world interest.
Iran's success would also advance radicalization in the Middle East and serve as a blow to the concept of normalizing ties between Israel and Arab countries. In recent years, we succeeded in getting this concept accepted in the region: We have peace with Jordan and Egypt; the Syrians are talking about a dialogue with us and other Arab countries are waiting to join. The moment Iran succeeds, all radical elements will say they found the answer to Israel and they will continue with radicalization, opposition, terror and guerrilla warfare and not a normalization of ties with Israel.
This will put a question mark around the future of normalizing ties with Israel. Pragmatic countries will see that Iran is setting the tone in the Middle East and they will say, "If you can't beat them, join them."
How much time is left to stop them before military force is needed?
It is not important if is 2009 or 2010. Maybe it will be before. Maybe we will be surprised. What is important is the process and that is that Iran is moving forward with all its power to develop nuclear weapons and we need to stop them. Let's not forget that they are also a powerhouse when it comes to missiles. They have surface-to-surface missiles that can reach targets more than 2,500 km. away. This shows clearly that they have aspirations that are way beyond the region.
Do we need to attack them?
I did not say that. We are at a more difficult stage now with the report, but I think that sanctions can contribute to creating a wider debate within Iran and this is important within Iran. Sharper sanctions can enhance and increase the internal debate in Iran that has potential to make them rethink their continuation.
I also think that it would not be right for Teheran to think that the international community's only tool is sanctions. The military option needs to be on the table.
Is an American military option now off the table?
I would say carefully that this report decreases the chances.
Does it completely remove the possibility?
I don't know. It is not right to try to predict. I know that there was a struggle in the American top echelon over this, and the report does not help those who are in favor of the more aggressive approach.
I am not interested how they will stop Iran. If they can stop them diplomatically or if there is an arrangement with Iran with safeguards, inspections and control and this does not harm Israeli interests and they stop their nuclear weapons program, I am not opposed.
What type of arrangement are you talking about?
There are those who say to stop them you need a military strike and there are many considerations - will it stop them, for how long and what will the results be? There is a military option and it needs to be considered.
There are also sanctions, which is a long process and might cause an internal debate and might stop them. And then there is a third approach that says military pressure combined with diplomatic pressure and, at the same time, a proposal for an arrangement. If there is an arrangement with the Iranians and they completely stop what they are doing today and it will be controlled and has safeguards and sanctions are imposed if it is breached and it doesn't hurt Israel, then I am not against it. As long as they stop, since Israel's goal is to ensure that Iran will not become nuclear.
But can Israel live with a civilian Iranian nuclear program?
The Bushehr reactor will one day be activated. The international community will not be strong enough and united to stop the activation of a civilian reactor in Iran. A civilian reactor has a smaller uranium enrichment capability, like Busher. Israel is not against Bushehr and is not saying that Bushehr cannot be activated if there are tight inspections, control and safeguards in place. The fear is that Bushehr will be platform for a different [military] type of enrichment.
Let's move now to Gaza. What do you see happening in Gaza?
Hamas' military wing is setting the tone in Gaza today, and I find it difficult to believe they will give up control. Hamas is strengthening its control there and the gap between Gaza and the West Bank is growing. I don't see Fatah, on its own, taking control of Gaza.
So how can Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] go back there? Only on Israeli tanks?
There are those who think that the only solution is that Israel should go back into Gaza, damaging Hamas militarily, and that will make it possible for Abu Mazen to go back and regain control.
I personally don't think we should crown kings, that is an internal Palestinian matter. If Israel needs to go into Gaza, it will do so because of its own interests and considerations, because of the strengthening of a terrorist group that continues a policy of attacks against Israel.
What do you think about talking to Hamas?
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in my view, is secondary to the more central issue in the region, which is the struggle between the radicals and the pragmatists in the Middle East. That struggle impacts on the Israeli-Arab conflict, and not the opposite.
There are those who say that if we solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that will have ramifications on the stability of the whole region. But what is the connection between what is going on in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli conflict? What is the connection between what is going on in Iraq? You want to tell me that al-Qaida and Sunnis and Shi'ites who are killing each other, and are killing the Americans in Iraq, are looking to see what is gong on in Gaza? No way. The opposite is the true. The radicalization in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan influences the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not the other way around.
So we don't need to talk to them?
The Israeli interest in my mind is to strengthen the pragmatists and to stop the radicals. If you look at your immediate neighborhood, you say, "I don't want the Palestinians to join up with he radicals and will do everything to ensure that they don't." For this to happen, I need to support the pragmatists there. True, they are without strength now, but I need to support them. Any Israeli agreement for dialogue with Hamas will weaken the pragmatists.
I am against a dialogue with Hamas today because it will weaken Abu Mazen and [PA Prime Minister] Salaam Fayad. But I always say, "Never say never." I am looking at the process in the Middle East strategically. Why am I in favor of a dialogue with Syria, because - among other reasons - it will weaken the radicals. It will weaken Hizbullah in Syria, Hamas in the territories, and it will weaken Iran's ability to be a hegemonic power. And it will strengthen the pragmatic camp in the Arab world that doesn't want to see a hegemonic Iran in the Middle East.
If Abbas is too weak to take over Gaza, and Hamas isn't just going to walk away, what do you do with Gaza?
There are options. One option can be that Israel will return and control Gaza; I don't think that is a good option. Or you can say that the Egyptians will take it back; But they run away from it like from fire. A third option can be international control, Arab control, but there is a question mark there as well. It is difficult to say anything intelligent about what will be the future in Gaza - it necessitates a great deal thinking.
I am very skeptical of people who see quick solutions, who think that we can finish things with the Palestinians very quickly.
But until there is a solution, should Israel not withdraw any further from the West Bank?
I think that at this stage, as long as you don't see that there is anybody who can take authority in the West Bank and take control of the terror forces there, and be a factor to ensure that there will be a halt to terror actions, then we cannot leave there. That is my opinion, we can't leave there.
For how long? Five years, 10 years?
I don't know. Those who say five or 10 years are just throwing out numbers. I won't say that; I don't know. I know it is long path, and there are huge problems.
If we sign an agreement with the Palestinians by the end of 2008, are we not raising expectations and signaling that this is not a long process, but that a solution will be reached very soon?
Unfortunately I don't think it will be possible within a year to reach an agreement on the core issues with the Palestinians. Perhaps, we can get to a general understanding, but implementation - that is a very long road.
There is a need to differentiate between an agreement and implementation. There is a long way to agreement, and even longer to implementation.
I do not hide my position that I see a preference in dealing with the Syrian issue, in giving that a higher priority. Dealing with the Syrians would make it easier to deal with the Palestinians.
Because if you leave the Palestinian issue as the last thing with the Arabs, and have an agreement with all the other Arab states, then you would weaken Syria's moral and practical support for Hizbullah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. I take a long-term strategic view and believe that the main threat is Iran, not the Palestinians. That is why I am in favor so much of dialogue with Syria, to get them out of the Iranian embrace.
The prime minister has said that talks with Syria can start only if the Syrians show they are serious by kicking Hamas out of Damascus and stopping support for Hizbullah.
Who do you enter a dialogue with, a good neighbor or with a problematic one? Even though Syria is strengthening ties with Iran, and supports Hizbullah and Hamas, we have to try to enter a dialogue with it to remove it from that axis.
Were disagreements with the prime minister on the Syrian issue the reason for your leaving the NSC?
There were no disagreements. He did not accept my opinion at a certain stage, but at another stage he took a step forward.
What does that mean?
You heard it from the Turks. They said they were the go-between [in contacts between Israel and the Syrians] If the Turks say they are the go-between, they know what they are talking about.
Anyone who comes to the NSC and thinks he is going to replace the foreign minister and the defense minister, and if they don't accept his opinion, he will leave, shouldn't come. When you come to a position like that, you need to know that some recommendations will be accepted, and others won't be. If every recommendation you put on the table is rejected, you need to understand this is a waste of time. But that was definitely not my case.