Israeli intelligence: The Mossad's last nameless spy

Former Mossad Director Shabtai Shavit speaks to the "Post" about peace, Trump, Iran, ISIS and conscience.

January 9, 2017 14:51
Spy wars

Spy wars. (photo credit: REUTERS,JPOST STAFF)

"Whoever doesn’t want to make mistakes should not do it [join the Mossad] at all,” declared former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine. “If you take action, you will also make mistakes. This is an axiom… I don’t have a heavy conscience about even one thing I was involved in.”

One of the things that is so striking about Shavit is how open and straightforward he is. He directed the Mossad from 1989 to 1996 and is credited with leading it through massive geopolitical changes and into a new post-Cold War era. His term was nearly double that of some other former directors and he served in operational roles in the Mossad since 1964.

At 77, dressed in an unassuming light jacket in an office with minimum accommodations, Shavit does not necessarily immediately jump out as a man who was once on the shortlist of people who held the country’s fate in his hands.

Former Mossad head Shabtai Shavit (left) hugging his successor, Danny Yatom, during the change of command ceremony in the Prime Minister’s Office in June 1996 (Sa'ar Ya'acov/GPO)

But any misimpressions that he is past his prime or anything but an extraordinary thinker are put aside within moments of confronting his incisive mind (not to mention that he is still active as Chairman of Herzliya’s IDC-ICT Board of Directors).

Another major fact about Shavit is that he was the last Mossad director whose name was kept classified during his term. This is something he thinks should have continued and flows with the unmatched authenticity he projects as someone whose views on the world are informed by a lifetime of experiences few people ever witness.

KNOWN FOR some time to have had conceptual issues with aspects of how the 1990s Oslo process was constructed, he said, “I claim methodologically that the two-way negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which was the long-standing strategy of Israel, has failed. There were some small achievements, but overall it was a great failure.”

Pressed that some credit the Oslo Accords for ending a state of war at least between Israel and the Fatah-run West Bank (even as there is still unofficial West Bank terrorism), he responded, “there are no wars, but also no peace.”

“Today we have an interesting set up in the Middle East,” he explained, “and I see windows of opportunity to find a settlement – a long-term multilateral settlement.”

He explained that Israeli officials are more than ever holding both unofficial and even some official meetings with countries like Saudi Arabia, as well as building on already strong formal security ties with Egypt and Jordan.

Shavit said that the “common interests with the Saudis are like never before regarding Iran pursuing a nuclear capability and its supporting global jihad.”

With the confidence that one probably finds only in a man who made life-and-death decisions for decades and who during his seven-year term as Mossad director knew as much secret information about what was going on around the planet as anyone, he said, “It is so simple. What is missing is just a little bit of goodwill and arm-twisting. All of the parameters for an agreement can be found among the Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert proposals for a settlement – the solution is already there.”

Confronted by the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has espoused some similar ideas about a multilateral approach to resolving the Israeli- Palestinian and Israeli-Arab conflicts, he said after the last Saban Forum in the US, an audience member called him and they discussed that, in fact, Netanyahu had adopted elements of Shavit’s ideas, and not the other way around.

“I believe that he [Netanyahu] doesn’t want a binational state,” said Shavit about Netanyahu’s commitment to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The second thing is I think that even though he wants a resolution, he can’t [reach one] because of where he sits and the position he is in. He can’t pass [policies] for a resolution” because of rightwing messianic religious Zionists, he explained.

How would Shavit’s peace idea work on a nuts-and-bolts level?

“First, we have to come to terms with the Americans regarding the Arab League’s Peace Initiative of 2002. Then America needs to go to the Saudis and to sell it to the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, each separately, one on one, and present a full package,” stated Shavit.

“The third stage will be selling the package to the Palestinians by this moderate Arab coalition. If they don’t agree, then we tried. We get lots of credit even if we are not successful because we took the initiative, we were proactive, we were ready to make concessions, and they are the bad guys. But what if it does succeed?”

Shavit claims that he had identified that the moderate Arab countries he had mentioned are “fed up with the Palestinians and that since they have been supporting the Palestinians for so many years, they could go to Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] and tell him, ‘Listen chump, this is the game plan,’ and explain what he has to gain and “why this is right, important and doable.” Then they would add, “but if you want to be stubborn, all of us will throw you to the dogs. The Palestinians annoy us, we are sick of you. You lived off our pockets for 60 years, you make trouble for everyone, no one can handle you. You got the best deal you can get. For the first time in history you will get an independent state and the US stands behind it.”

Another important part of the negotiations would be for the “beginning to be secret or you kill it at the start.”

MOVING ON to his thoughts on US President-elect Donald Trump, Shavit was asked if he thought a greater convergence of views between Netanyahu and Trump would solve much of the criticism he has directed at Netanyahu about creating distance with the US under the Obama administration.

He brushed this off and said that many people “get carried away” when something new happens. He remarked that “Trump reacts spontaneously to issues. When they bring him an issue he decides from the gut. He is going to have a very big learning curve and he needs to work on it. He has no patience for working through problems using background research, preparatory memoranda and meetings of experts – of thinking through the different options, the costs and benefits.”

Shavit complained that Trump is ignoring “CIA briefings because it is too early in the morning. Israelis are clapping that he will save us. Maybe yes, but I would not rush to judgment. Anyone who is trying to predict the policies of Trump is either a complete idiot or a complete charlatan.”

Overall he expects that many hallmark US policies and approaches to the world will continue, or that changes will be a byproduct of standard giveand- take between a US president and his professional bureaucratic level advisers.

As an example, Shavit said he did not expect Trump to dismiss the entire US State Department, which has remained consistent on a range of issues for 70 years as presidents came and went.

He also noted that Trump has appointed a team of officials with serious military, public service and business experience and that simple logic says when people work together there is a reciprocal influence. Accordingly, he said it is unlikely that Trump will upend the entire system and bureaucracy as some fear.

Regarding Iran, where Shavit served from 1966 to 1968, and Trump, Shavit said that Trump’s threats to “tear up” the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were all bluster.

“No one in America will take the agreement and tear it apart,” he said, “that would be the most ‘Chelmish’ [boorish] thing to do” due to the at least short-term benefits of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program.

SHIFTING TO discussing how to confront ISIS, Shavit was asked to explain his controversial statement that “Dresden was erased from the map… That’s what needs to be done in all of the territorial pockets controlled by ISIS.”

Shavit responded with a question:

“What is ISIS? A nihilistic, terrorist organization. It is extremists and undesirables from many countries whose only unifying aspects are that they are Muslims and that they use methods of extreme violence that even the Nazis didn’t use.” ISIS has brought on unprecedented world criticism for savagery, for example producing and propagating high-quality videos of decapitations, of burning caged people alive, of slowly submerging and drowning people and more.

“You can’t measure them according to any laws, ethics or international conventions… With [conquering ISIS’s capital in] Raqqa, if we need to do carpet bombing, I would not hesitate for a second. The only consideration against doing this is collateral damage,” he said.

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