Amos Gilboa, lion of intelligence dies at 81 - personal viewpoint

Gilboa was the ultimate expression of the indomitable Israeli.

IDF intelligence soldiers (illustrative)  (photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
IDF intelligence soldiers (illustrative)
(photo credit: IDF SPOKESMAN’S UNIT)
Former IDF intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Amos Gilboa, 81, died on Tuesday after a sudden and unexpected health deterioration which started only last week.
After retiring from the IDF, Gilboa remained involved as an adviser on intelligence affairs to the Israeli intelligence community and to various prime ministers and defense ministers.
He also taught for years at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and published a regular column for Maariv right up until the end.
I had spoken to him extensively, even this month, about a joint marketing campaign we would undertake for a new book we worked on together which is coming out in March. He was primary author, while I wrote some new sections about Iran, edited and translated from his 2017 Hebrew edition of the book.
He was full of energy and as opinionated and up-to-date as ever on world events, and there was no hint whatsoever that this lion of Israeli intelligence would not go on to further achievements for another 10 years.
It has been my privilege and honor for over three years to get to know this Israeli legend not only in his public capacity, but also the real man up close and personal.
While the book we worked on together will be our concrete legacy, the two qualities I will most take from him were some of the same characteristics that I think have made Israel safe, strong and even a powerhouse over the last 50 years.
One was that Gilboa was the ultimate expression of the indomitable Israeli.
Hard-working, capable of incredible commitment, intensity and creativity to protect Israel and, in his later years, to explain its story to the world, Israelis like him were and are the match that even the country’s most creative enemies in Iran simply cannot beat.
For every time an Iranian, Hezbollah or Hamas official mistakenly predicts that they will overtake Israel because of its commercialism and perceived Western softheartedness, they will be blindsided by the Amos Gilboa types who never stop watching, will never falter and will not be beaten.
Another quality was an uncompromising commitment to the truth in the intelligence process, no matter how inconvenient and no matter where it would lead.
Gilboa actually also had a fairly active and heated regular debate on a closed email list of former experts and officials (which I was lucky enough to be added to) about politics and national security where there were fierce disagreements about what policy should be.
But no matter the heated disagreements about policy, everyone on the list and all who knew Gilboa had a deep and abiding respect for his professionalism and determination to study intelligence issues in an apolitical manner, which our current era could learn a lot from.
I FIRST met Gilboa in early fall 2017.
I was writing about his new book in Hebrew about Yasser Arafat’s 2001 mega-weapons boat Karine A Affair for two long pieces in The Jerusalem Post.
We met at a café to discuss the book, and I was immediately struck by the unmatched depth that this man had in Israeli intelligence.
This was a man who had been at the top of the intelligence period back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Then he had managed to stay close to the action all the way through working hand in hand with IDF intelligence and others to bring amazing and true stories to the fore over time.
The Karine A Affair was a classic example. While it was a major event, I told him he needed to convince me why it was still so significant 16 years later.
He explained that his book was one of the most detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of a major intelligence operation ever written. He added that the intelligence coup was a rare victory which led to a strategic diplomatic realignment of the region and had lessons relevant to 2020 about Iran.
Like many before, Gilboa left me completely convinced.
His unique background led the IDF to give him unparalleled access to every single player in the saga.
This ranged from interviews with former IDF chief of staff Shaul Mofaz and access to his personal yellow notebook to interviews and minutes with the low-ranking navy intelligence officers who were often at the heart of the issue.
Capturing the Karine A was reported all over the world in 2001.
But the full behind-the-scenes classified story of ups and downs, failures along the way and the difficulties of burrowing through mounds of information to find a few critical hints was a story that only Gilboa could tell properly.
Some months after I had published my articles, Gilboa told me he was impressed enough and thought I had a serious enough understanding of the material that he would like me to work with him on an English translation.
We went through a lot in the three years since then.
EVEN IF he never got to see the physical book in English, I take some comfort in the fact that he saw and had approved the final typesetting draft, which means he knew that he had succeeded.
Working with him week to week was a pleasure, as he had a famous cutting sense of humor and was always ready to put me or others in our place. (A few months ago I had suggested dropping one of the diagrams of the Karine A capture due to some bureaucratic issues, to which he responded with his mixed intimate and brazen signature: “Have you gone crazy?!”)
In those three years, I may have learned more about how intelligence really works from Gilboa than from dozens of others I have interviewed over the years.
As unparalleled as our book will be in diving deep into the intelligence world moment by moment, there were many issues we discussed which still 19 years later could not go into the book and which I may never be able to publish.
There were fascinating discussions we had about how he and those in the book analyzed and cut through disinformation from Iran and terrorist groups.
I LEARNED about some wild intelligence assets that Israel has managed to recruit which may also never be published.
He had “war” stories with golden gems that showed me new sides of famous figures whom I and others otherwise only know through the impersonal pages of history books.
I will also miss Gilboa as a friend and grandfatherly figure. We would periodically update each other about our families, and we were excited to get to meet in the coming months, post-corona vaccination, after an extended period of only phone and email correspondence.
His death is both a personal loss for me and a loss for the State of Israel.