There is no doubt that Israel has one of the best intelligence services in the world. The country invests a huge amount of resources to ensure that the Mossad, the Shin Bet General Security Agency and the Military Intelligence Directorate can provide Israel’s decision-makers with the world’s most accurate raw data and analysis available.
Israel’s use of technology for intelligence gathering is at the pinnacle of what exists today anywhere. It is also well known that Israel’s prowess has been translated into commercial success, with graduates of its intelligence services leading the world in advanced surveillance for cyberdefense and invasive cyber technologies. This is all essential in order to prevent war and terrorist attacks and to keep Israel safe.
If the investments in intelligence can prevent attacks against the country and its citizens, then it is money well spent. If the high costs or enormous human resources invested can provide the decision-makers with the data and analysis to prevent them from making bad decisions and avoid launching unnecessary military escapades, then those investments are very profitable and worthwhile.
A lot of the resources which Israel allocates for intelligence have been used for preemptive strikes as well. The killing of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers; the drafting, training and operation of agents in enemy states; the heisting of the Iranian nuclear archives; air and ground attacks against Iranian bases and personnel in Syria – all these examples of the “successes” of the intelligence services have been well publicized, especially in the recent past. And there are surely many others that have not been publicized. Israel’s successes in this area have created a name and a reputation that prove the saying that Israel’s long arm will reach anyone who seeks to do the country harm.
I WOULD contend that the same level of investment in Israeli intelligence apparatuses by the state – in using intelligence gathering, data collection and analysis for the purpose of preventing attacks – should be applied for a new and completely different use. There are moderates and opposition groups in all of the enemy states that surround Israel – Lebanon, Iran, Syria and Gaza. Normally the intelligence services try to recruit people in the opposition groups for spying and providing information.
Now it is time to add an additional approach which sees those people – in opposition groups, or others who could be defined as moderates, or those who believe that Israel has a place in the Middle East and doesn’t need to be wiped off the map – not as recruits or spies, but as allies whose strengthening in their own societies would be beneficial to Israel’s standing in the region.
Secret, direct back channels of communication were used by the US to approach scientists and human rights advocates in the former Soviet Union. They are good examples of what has had proven, positive results in the past by the American intelligence community. Negotiations between the West and Iran on the nuclear deal (which Israel opposes) actually began with secret, direct, back-channel talks between American and Iranian officials.
Back channels are normally fostered by NGOs and academics, and done in the framework of what are called “Track II negotiations.”
During the past 25 years, I initiated and participated in hundreds of back-channel meetings between Israelis and Arabs (and Iranians as well). But the tools at the disposal of an NGO or academic for fostering back channels are negligible compared to what the state’s intelligence services could provide and foster.
THE APPROACH proposed here is definitely long term, and does not have the immediate impact of preventing a terrorist attack. It is not suggested that Israel cease its intelligence gathering or decrease those services used for preventing threats and attacks.
But it is time to match the resources for those purposes with resources that create positive and constructive change in neighboring countries. Syria, Lebanon and Iran, as well as Libya, Algeria and perhaps other countries – and Gaza – do not have to always and forever be against Israel.
Of course, if Israel took constructive initiatives to end the occupation over the Palestinians and improve the conditions in the occupied territories, those steps would also have direct impact on the states which are enemies of Israel. But even if those actions are taken, it would require taking additional direct steps to foster dialogue and bridge-building within those societies.
INTELLIGENCE APPARATUSES for the purpose of creating back channels in neighboring countries should not be used to recruit new spies for Israel. In fact, there needs to be a total separation between the direct, security-related uses of intelligence from the proposals suggested here.
In the past, intelligence personnel participated in academic back channels, and these led to some very positive results. During the short-lived tenure of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, intelligence officers advised him directly, assisting him to understand political developments within the newly established Palestinian Authority.
Their purpose in doing so was to advance the development of genuine peace. Unfortunately Rabin’s tenure was cut short, and prime minister Ariel Sharon later disbanded the team that was created by Rabin for that purpose. To the best of my knowledge, no similar team has existed since then. The work of that team was highly secretive, very sensitive – and very important.
From my experience traveling in the Arab world, there are many people who would like to be engaged in positive ways to impact their own society’s relations with Israel. With the threats that political-radical Islam created, and with the threats faced in the region from Iran, Israel’s relations with the intelligence apparatuses, the upper echelons of the region’s military and the regimes, have greatly improved. But relations with Arab societies remain challenged and hampered.
The Palestinian issue, while losing its prominence in the Arab world, is still a great concern that limits possibilities of more normalization. While Israel believes that the Palestinians are the “non-partner” in the equation, the Arab street continues to view Israel as the primary refusenik in peace efforts.
Arab leaders and elites in the region, even as recently as this past week – such as Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi and others who attended the Warsaw summit – continue to present the Arab Peace Initiative as the best path for Israel to gain true acceptance in the Middle East. It seems that millions of people around the region would be much more willing to accept Israel as an ally, and be much more open to Israel, if it began to indicate a willingness to engage on this basis.
Back-channel contacts initiated by Israel through the intelligence community could be the best possible launching pad for an Israeli peace initiative – if Israel is truly interested in advancing peace.
The writer is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.
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