'It's hard to be ideological in the intelligence world'

Netanyahu's former National Security Adviser Uzi Arad talks of politics and strategy, and the changing nature of intelligence work.

Uzi Arad 390 (photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
Uzi Arad 390
(photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
Binyamin Netanyahu's former National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, won't be seeing The Gatekeepers anytime soon.
“I said I won't see the film, I'll wait for the musical,” he joked, before adding “I will have to see the film because it is a phenomenon but it's not a healthy one. I don't know why it happened in Israel, all of these gentleman should have kept their mouths shut.”
Arad, who spent 24 years in the Mossad, eventually heading the organization's research branch, said “have you seen such a thing elsewhere? Have you seen five or six former heads of MI5 all reminiscing together and all hoping to win an Oscar, why was this necessary here?”
Arad said he couldn't picture seeing a Mossad version of The Gatekeepers, saying “you would not see a similar parade by the still living five or six heads of the Mossad, they wouldn't do it at all,” adding that the movie sets a bad precedent.
When asked about the ideological break-down in the Mossad, or if agents tend to lean one way or another he said “maybe the Mossad are leftists to begin with, you don't know, we never bothered with that. I used to think in my time, if I knew the political positions in the division I headed, it would have been roughly the same as the distribution of views in Israeli society.”
“It's hard to be ideological when you work in the intelligence world, you can't be ideological on either the extreme right or the extreme left. You encounter reality too much and reality forces you to be more nuanced and not to cling to all kinds of utopian principles which are ideological and have absolutely no moorings in reality so usually intelligence people are more pragmatic and seldom are they extremists.”
Arad said he thinks it could be different for members of the Shin Bet, in that “if you work on your own soil you have more of an assurance of confidence, you are the master of the house and it instills in you a certain degree of certainty. But if you work in foreign lands conditions are precarious, things can go wrong at any time, you tend to be much more cautious.”
Arad spoke to The Jerusalem Post at his house in Tel Aviv ahead of his participation as a speaker at the Jerusalem Post Conference in New York in April. In the sprawling library at the top floor of his house, which includes a history book signed with a thankful greeting in green pen from a former head of the MI6 named simply “C” (for chief) as per tradition, he spoke of politics and strategy, and the changing nature of intelligence work.
“You're putting me in a corner of falling back on nostalgia and all types of images that perhaps are selective memory,” Arad said, before speaking about how he was fortunate enough to enter the intelligence world during the Cold War, when there were rather clear lines drawn between the West and the Soviet bloc, and their sometimes proxies Egypt and Syria.
“The world was well organized and many of the great figures in the intelligence world were great figures who were formed in the Second World War, all over the world. Many of the ones here in the intelligence world had fought in the war of independence and I looked up to them.”
Arad said that not only were the politics different, “but also technologically different so trade-craft was different...The world of intelligence today looks so much more complex in many ways and benefiting of superb technologies that are facilitating everything but also may do things that are problematic. I don't even have a clue what trade-craft looks like today, it must be more technocratic and specialized.”
“The old world was very challenging and very very very different, but I know very little about the new world,” he added.
When asked how the image of the Mossad has changed in recent years, with the recent exposure of the Prisoner X affair, along with a number of previous agency missteps over the years, Arad said “I don't like all this talk about the Mossad. The Mossad is and should have been an institution that operates in the quiet without being spoken about. The very fact that people speak about it is bad enough and then what people say is often not the truth but you cant correct them or rectify so it is completely unnecessary so one would hope the days come back when it simply works in quite in anonymity without unnecessary interest in scandals or if the press should do this or do that and then it becomes a sort of sideshow which is of no benefit at all. The less said the better.”
In between the intelligence talk, Arad spoke of Israel's “perennial conflict” - the Palestinians. Arad says Israel must work with the American policy makers to achieve a balance or a constructive process, saying that the absence of such a process “is by itself destabilizing.”
“The fact that we have a record now of a stalemate [with the Palestinians] is not only their fault, although their positions make it very hard, but have we performed our best, I don't know. So we should get our act together and maybe under the new administration here we'll have some fresh new faces and some new approaches that would approve our ability to perform.”
Ahead of the visit by Obama, Arad spoke about how the American administration has dealt with the Iranian nuclear program, and the degree to which there is daylight between Jerusalem and Washington on the matter.
“What I can make as a guiding principle is that by and large these issues are done in consultation and jointly between Israel and America because two things are clear - Israel doesn't have fully identical interests as America – among other reasons because its more exposed to those risks, America is more distant and more powerful - but accounting for these differences, the most dominant factor is the commonality of a shared strategic purpose.”
He added that he does trust the current [American] administration when they say they are determined to do all they can to prevent Iran from going nuclear.
Arad's successor as Netanyahu's National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror was quoting recently as saying that “construction in the settlements has become a diplomatic problem and is causing Israel to lose support even among its friends in the West.”
Arad said while it is true that the Palestinians “have chosen to make an issue of that [settlements]”, at the end of the day “our real problems between us and the Palestinians are the larger problems – borders, legitimacy, security, economics, refugees. Settlements are an expression of a condition and we've shown by the way that its not an irreversible process so one shouldn't make any more of it unless you want to score points or make fissures with the international community.
With Syria in flames, Egypt appearing to be on the brink of disaster and Iran racing for a bomb, Arad answered quite quickly when asked what is the greatest security threat facing Israel.
“Israel doesn’t have the luxury of deciding which is the number one problem or threat or challenge and then to prioritize its strategy in a way that’s commensurate with this priority.”