"It does not matter so much what we decide, yes or no to two states, yes or no to separation, but we need to decide... We can’t live indefinitely with... tohu vavohu [chaos]” on the diplomatic front, Ram Ben-Barak told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview at his ranch in Nahalal in the North.
Mossad deputy chief until 2011 and Strategic Affairs Ministry CEO until May 2016, Ben-Barak proudly shows off old black-and-white photographs in his house of his grandfather first arriving to help found Nahalal and of Nahalal’s first tree. Nahalal became the first agricultural moshav cooperative in 1921, and the tree still stands.
But even as the tall and both imposing and friendly Ben-Barak speaks easily at length about his family heritage in Nahalal, with a possible career in politics on the horizon, he was careful not to fully stake out his specific solutions to the country’s diplomatic problems.
Rather, he identified the problems, the problems with the status quo, and in a not-so-veiled rebuke of the government said that the practice where “we say one thing and do another thing... can’t continue... At some point we need a direction.”
Ben-Barak, also a fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, did not show his cards about which political party or parties he might be in contact with.
But he was clear that whatever Israel decides about fateful diplomatic issues with its neighbors, it should then pursue that path “with all of its energy. Don’t stutter, tell the whole world, including the lawyers and the diplomats,” and act on it in a unified manner, whether the rest of the world supports the new direction or not.
With the newest factor in the diplomatic arena being Donald Trump, what is the former top spy’s take on the US president? “He is the president of the US, and I want to respect that. No doubt he is a different kind of president. I hope he will be a good president for the free world and for Israel,” he said.
Asked about some of the controversies surrounding Trump, he contrasted him with former prime minister Menachem Begin and former US president Barack Obama.
“I am disturbed how he has spoken about minorities and women. Pluralism and protecting democratic values are the most important. With Begin, I didn’t agree with him on everything, but he was still liberal and believed in law... I was against almost everything Obama did, but could respect that we had the same democratic values. I hope Trump will be like this,” said Ben-Barak.
Regarding Trump’s recent claim, from which he has partially backed off, that Obama had him wiretapped, Ben-Barak said, “I don’t think it happened. There are limits on wiretaps. It is not simple. You need a court to approve it. I don’t think it happened, don’t think Obama asked, and don’t think they would do something against the law.”
On the other hand, he added, “But who knows? Things have happened. Watergate happened. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.”
One idea that could change the face of Israeli diplomacy that Ben-Barak likes is Transportation and Intelligence Minister Israel Katz’s concept of an off-the-coast man-made Gaza port with special security arrangements.
He said that “we need to give Gaza a horizon and some hope. Maybe we will do a unilateral move, like Katz’s idea, which could give them hope and let them become less dependent on us. We need to think about how to move forward.”
Discussion of how to improve the destabilizing and depressing economic situation in Gaza inevitably led into discussion of the State Comptroller Report’s recent criticism of the summer 2014 Israeli government – that it allowed itself to be dragged into an unnecessary war with Hamas. The report said the government overlooked how the poor economic situation made Hamas readier to jump from small military escalations into a full-scale war.
Ben-Barak responded, “I am modest enough to say I don’t know enough to say if it was a mistake or not... I also know that sometimes things spring out of control, beyond whatever the plan was, and you can be dragged in.”
Relating to tipping points where war can break out or be narrowly avoided, he said, “Almost an identical event could happen whenever a rocket is fired – it could hit a preschool or miss. We go according to the result. Maybe we shouldn’t, and we should look at intent. Life is more complex. No one wants violence all of the time. We try to avoid conflicts.”
In other words, for the cabinet to decide when it needs to react strongly or more cautiously to a rocket fired by Hamas is a nearly impossible art, not a science. That means being dragged into unwanted scenarios, when there is so much uncertainty, may sometimes be inevitable.
A major issue that Ben-Barak reportedly and undoubtedly dealt with at the helm of the Mossad alongside then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan was preventing Iran and Syria from advancing their nuclear weapons programs.
Though Ben-Barak refuses to discuss past operations he was involved in, it is public record that during the same time he was in high positions in operations, the US and Israel joined forces to unleash the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran to sabotage its nuclear machinery, Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated in a variety of mysterious and creative ways, and Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor was destroyed.
At most, when confronted with reports that the Syrian operation was personally his operation, he has told reporters: “So they say.”
However, then he was pressed with accusations from the film Zero Days
in which CIA and NSA sources anonymously accuse Israel of having been overly aggressive with Stuxnet to the point of losing control of the code, which fell into the hands of Russia and Iran. To this, he pushes back hard, like someone whose work was being attacked, while still not acknowledging any involvement.
“For 15 years Iran has tried to get nuclear weapons, and until now it has none. It has none not because it did not want one, but because of many reasons which stopped it from succeeding... and we need to make sure it never gets one,” he said.
Ben-Barak clarified: “I don’t think Iran will use a nuclear bomb, but it will feel immune to outside pressure. It will spread instability throughout the world, without worrying about consequences. This is not just a problem for Israel but also for Europe, the US, the Gulf states. They are already doing it now, so think what they would do if they had a nuclear umbrella to deter others from pushing back against their aggression.”
Regarding the Iran nuclear deal, which Ben-Barak has criticized in the past, he said “a deal is always better than war, as long as it is a good deal. With this deal, the problem is it could have been much better. There are too many problematic issues.”
However, remaining ever a pragmatist, he said the focus should still be: “What do we do now? First, make sure they don’t violate the deal. Second, think now about the day after the deal. Make a new deal which will be the after-deal deal, so that Iran knows it can’t do whatever it wants after the deal. Third, there should be an assortment of new sanctions.”
Generally, he advocated using military force to stop Iran only as a last resort – but the option should always be ready. While usually with Iran and military options, people talk of air strikes, he also advocated “covert operations – if we can achieve the same thing – because the big benefit is you can avoid getting pulled into a war.”
Ben-Barak knows quite a bit about covert operations. He could also be called “the comeback king,” as he is a rare operations officer who was caught, arrested and had his photograph published during an operation in a foreign country that fell apart in 1991, and yet he recovered and reentered the covert operations field.
Asked how he was able to return to covert operations despite being “unmasked” as an agent, he said, while coyly still refusing to personally confirm the well-publicized specifics, “It was a different time. There were things you could do then which you can’t do today. There are also things you couldn’t do then, which you can do today. It was lucky to be able to continue.”
Pressed on what role luck plays in the success of highly challenging and complex operations, he recalled Napoleon requesting generals who are lucky, since they would not need to be smart, and admitted that “in any operation there is an element of luck. But you also need to help luck. You check the details of the operation repeatedly and do everything you can to avoid a mistake.
“Where you don’t know how to withdraw from an operation that falls apart – don’t do it. But if you act only when you have 100% certainty, you will do very little. So you take calculated risks. But you do take risks,” he stated.
As a top and recent Mossad administrator, Ben-Barak was also able to give a bird’s-eye view of why the Mossad recently did its first-ever woman-focused public recruiting push.
The Mossad has had a tradition of women serving for decades, so many asked why a focus on women specifically at this point?
Ben-Barak said that women serve as Mossad agents on average for much shorter terms. He said “it is hard to be a warrior and a mother, it is harder on the household” than for men, “since there is no such thing as half a warrior.”
He estimated that if many men serve in the Mossad for 15 years, many women may serve only for five years, and so more of them must be recruited.
That covers Ben-Barak’s views on a range of major hot issues in the headlines. But what about his insights into being a Mossad agent?
Having spent decades in the Mossad, reached its No. 2 position and come in a close third to getting the top job in 2015, when he narrowly lost out to current Mossad director Yossi Cohen, Ben-Barak has significant insight into what it takes to be in the agency.
Sighing and looking off into the distance, he said it requires “very special qualities... different from any combat fighter. People think of a fighter as holding a gun or a knife. A Mossad warrior’s weapon is his individual intuition, ability to cope with adversity and play multiple roles. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you have no weapon. No bulletproof vest.
“You need to go all over the world with your intuition. You need to recruit people. Your interpersonal abilities must be very high to get people to work for you... You need to be very quick with sharp insights in sizing up a situation and have a strong ability to push and stay committed. You need to be able to talk about anything. Special operations experts are an integration of high technical expertise and high interpersonal expertise,” he said.
There is a major dilemma in finding the Mossad recruit who strikes this correct balance. He explained that you need someone who, “in their capacity as a regular citizen, obeys the law,” but in their Mossad capacity takes actions that, in his understated expression, are “not so legal or acceptable in the foreign country in which you are operating. And you need to do it without drawing attention or raising suspicions.”
Ben-Barak described “needing to be able to be two people at the same time. You need to be ready to be focused, rock-solid, with great courage, but you need to know how to be crafty, tricky, to know how to lie, to get people to do what you want.
“Usually, these traits do not work together. Finding people who have integrity, but know how to be crafty not as a way of living but only as needed” for achieving the country’s objectives is “very complicated.”
In discussing what makes a good Mossad agent, the conversation also turned to what makes a good Mossad director, with the yahrzeit of Mossad chief Meir Dagan occurring in March.
Recounting what was special about Dagan that outsiders might not know, his former deputy said that “Meir was a man of knowledge. He could focus on an issue, connect it with long-term goals and lead an entire organization to actualize the goals. He was never afraid to take big challenges on himself.”
Also, Ben-Barak said Dagan had an “extraordinary ability to make his agents feel like he “had their back. So agents who worked for him, even if they made mistakes, which were not huge mistakes, were not afraid to take risks or fail. This was one of the reasons he was so successful.”
At the same time, Ben-Barak stated that it could be good for different Mossad chiefs to excel in different areas, so that all the various elements of the Mossad are given greater focus over time.
Ben-Barak has made history in ways that we suspect and in a variety of ways that we likely cannot even imagine. Yet after the long and fascinating life Ben-Barak has lived, it seems that whether in politics or his other endeavors, he still may have some surprises to spring on us. •