Ex-Mossad chief Efraim Halevy on Iran, Hamas and Israel's political crisis

Halevy should know something about difficult situations. Since arriving as a teenager to Israel in the year of its birth, 1948, he’s been involved in some of the country’s most earthshaking events.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu joins Halevy as he succeeds outgoing Mossad chief Danny Yatom in a toast at the Prime Minister’s Office during the Mossad handover ceremony April 8, 1998 (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu joins Halevy as he succeeds outgoing Mossad chief Danny Yatom in a toast at the Prime Minister’s Office during the Mossad handover ceremony April 8, 1998
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like the rest of Israel, Efraim Halevy has spent most of the last year with his wife Hadassah in their Tel Aviv home while sitting out the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s been a challenging year in many ways, but we seem to have come out of it quite well, in the final analysis,” the 86-year-old former director of the Mossad told The Jerusalem Post in a pre-Independence Day interview on Zoom.
“We were isolated much of the time, since we’re not as young as many others. But we’ve learned over the years to manage in situations that are even more difficult.”
Halevy should know something about difficult situations. Since arriving as a teenager to Israel in the year of its birth, 1948, he’s been involved in some of the country’s most earthshaking events.
Joining the Mossad in 1961 after being recruited by then the agency’s deputy head David Kimche, Halevy worked his way up the ranks in Tevel, the Mossad’s foreign liaison unit. In 1970, he was posted to Washington as Tevel’s representative, where he developed a lasting bond with Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States Yitzhak Rabin.
Halevy served as the Mossad’s deputy director from 1990 to 1995. During that time, Rabin, at that point prime minister, asked him to play a pivotal role in sensitive negotiations with King Hussein that eventually led to Israel’s peace agreement with Jordan.
After leaving the agency and becoming the Israeli envoy to the EU in 1996, Halevy was brought back to help resolve the crisis with Jordan in 1997 after the botched assassination attempt of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal. The next year, at age 63, after the resignation of Danny Yatom, he was appointed the director of the Mossad, where he served until his retirement in 2002.
Since then, Halevy has written books and remained active in many pursuits. He’s also become a vocal and eloquent commentator on the state of affairs in Israel and its future direction.
In our conversation, Halevy reflected on the US-Iran-Israel triangle conundrum, the gnarly question of Israeli-Hamas (non)contact, the political paralysis in the country and his vital contributions to Israel in his Mossad leadership roles.
“I’ve read the [John] Le Carre books and I’ve seen the James Bond movies and have enjoyed them,” said Halevy. “Since much of my life has been lived in the atmosphere which that art supposedly reflects, I can tell you that life is much stranger than fiction. And that the Mossad is much better than James Bond.”
The United States and Iran are dancing around the resumption of negotiations about a return to the 2015 nuclear deal. What should Israel be doing?
As we speak, there’s news that the US has made another overture toward Iran and the initial response has been cool.
I imagine that both sides will look at this issue seriously and ultimately there will be a resumption of a dialogue between the two, unless the Iranians are setting up for a confrontation. However, I think they probably do not seek that at the moment, as it’s also very dependent on the political conditions in Iran. There’s an upcoming election for the presidency, and there was the recent announcement of an understanding between Iran and China [a 25-year economic and security agreement]. So the Iranians are involved in multi-national and multi-faceted discussions and decision-making. It’s too early to say whether they are going to settle for the new proposal from the US or wait until after their presidential elections this summer. 
Around all this, Israel should be very careful in how it conducts itself vis a vis the new administration in the United States. It’s very clear that the policies on many issues that involve Israel are different than that of its predecessor.
And the fact of the matter is that Israel’s relationship with the previous administration was very close, and this isn’t something that enamors the current leadership in Israel to the new leadership in the US.
Since this is an issue between the US and Iran, Israel would be well advised to watch the situation closely and to refrain from making a move like we did in the past, which was not successful. The lesson learned from what happened in 2015 [when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke before Congress in a head-to-head confrontation with president Obama over Iran] should be studied before rushing in and trying to repeat a performance like that.
Efraim Halevy (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)Efraim Halevy (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen believes Israel can prevent Iran from ever getting nuclear weapons with continuous cyber and covert operations like what occurred during the last year or so of his term. Do you agree with that?
There’s been an ongoing conflict between Israel and Iran. Sometimes it bubbles up to the surface, but more often than not, it’s subterranean.
I think that the subterranean conflict will continue as long as there is nothing to replace it. In recent weeks, there’s a new aspect that’s come to public knowledge, which is the transport of oil in Iranian tankers to Syria.
If one should believe The Wall Street Journal, then one should assume that Israel has been very active in this field. And the Iranians have begun to react gingerly, against two Israeli ships.
Whether this will remain a viable policy is something that I cannot assess at the moment, but we need to take into account the announcement of the Iran-China agreement, which needs to be included in any future Israeli calculations.
What do you think Israel’s strategy should be regarding the Hamas threat in the South? Is it a matter of time before rockets fall again on Sderot and closer to Tel Aviv, and is there anything now that Israel can do to prevent it, diplomatically or on an intelligence level?
I’ve been on record, since immediately after I left the Mossad in 2002, in an interview with Haaretz, of supporting the idea of opening direct negotiations with Hamas. And I haven’t changed my views to this day.
I believe so because in principle, there is a benefit in having a dialogue – in order to influence, to better understand and to be better equipped with the necessary data required in order to confront them.
My view has been the minority view over the years, but several officials in the General Security Service (GSS) have adopted those views since then.
Hamas is still a big factor in the equation concerning the Palestinians, especially in the years since we carried out the withdrawal from Gaza [in 2005]. The word “withdrawal” is not very popular in certain quarters in Israel, but that is what we did. It was unconditional and was not the result of any negotiations with Hamas. We unilaterally left, and because of that, we had no reason to negotiate with them. On their end, they got something for nothing.
A former colleague – Jim Andelton, who as head of counterintelligence at the CIA was my counterpart when I was stationed in Washington – told me that American policy is you don’t get something for nothing. I think giving Hamas something for nothing produced a result that they didn’t have to pay for their de facto recognition as rulers of the Gaza Strip.
Israel, over the years, has refrained from confronting Hamas and trying to destroy it and remove it from the face of the Earth. Because, if we were to bring it to its knees, we would become responsible for another 2.5 million Palestinians. The issue with Hamas is – do we continue negotiating with them the way we do now, through third parties, or do we negotiate directly? If you have a third party, there is always a fee – political or security – that is extracted. You don’t get something for nothing.
Direct contact has never even been sought by Israel. Hamas is therefore free from the dilemma of what to do if they were approached and asked to have a direct liaison with Israel.
Hamas’s position is that they don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. But in many discussions with third parties, they had stated they are willing to accept 1967 borders as a temporary Palestinian state. This means, practically speaking, they have accepted that the 1967 borders would also be the borders of Israel. That’s a euphemism that they adopted because it’s important for them politically.
By saying that Hamas is not acceptable as a partner to talk to, we are playing into their hands. They’re getting what they need without having to pay too much. However, I think such a practical approach to Hamas isn’t possible in the current ideological quandary Israel finds itself in.
HALEVY (CENTER back) looks on as Jordan’s King Hussein shakes hands with IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak at the royal palace in Amman on January 12, 1995. (Maariv)HALEVY (CENTER back) looks on as Jordan’s King Hussein shakes hands with IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak at the royal palace in Amman on January 12, 1995. (Maariv)
The country was recently witness to an extraordinary public statement by Yossi Cohen saying that he wasn’t a supporter or detractor of the Likud or the prime minister. Do you think there’s been an attempt to politicize the Mossad?
The current prime minister has used the Mossad in ways that it has never been used before. It’s a question of how the prime minister conceives the Mossad.
In this respect, there’s been a deviation from the traditional approach of the political master maintaining a distance between himself and the Mossad. In that way, the Mossad is free to express opinions and give assessments, whether they are in line with the views of the PM or not.
The political use that has been made of the Mossad has not served Israel well over the past couple of years.
You wrote in your book [‘Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man who Led the Mossad’] that former Mossad director [1989-1996] Shabtai Shavit once told you that you would never become Mossad chief. Did he ever tell you later that he had been wrong to say that or acknowledge that you did a good job?
Once I became head of the Mossad, I never discussed that with him. I never aspired to be head of the Mossad. I was deputy head for five years and I left the agency, because my name had become public, therefore my freedom of action became constrained as a result.
I went into a different field and became Israel’s ambassador to the European Union.
What brought me back was the crisis in the Mossad, a severe crisis because of the Mashaal Affair. [On September 25, 1997, Mossad agents, under instruction from Prime Minister Netanyahu, unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal by poisoning him on a street in Amman, Jordan.]
It wasn’t just a crisis between Israel and Jordan, there was also a crisis inside the Mossad. This had been a failure, a botched assignment that had many ramifications inside the Mossad. It damaged the morale – for months on end after the event, the Israeli press attacked and maligned the agency. I was chosen to take over because, under the circumstances, the prime minister felt it was necessary to pick someone who would be universally acceptable to all the political leadership in Israel.
I had multiple crises to deal with when I became the head and I had no occasion to discuss with Shabtai Shavit why he thought this way or that way. It was no longer important. But I know that he supported my appointment under the circumstances that developed after the Mashaal affair and the resignation of [Mossad head] Danny Yatom.
Do you think that the Abraham Accords with the Gulf states have really changed the diplomatic landscape for Israel?
For reasons that are common knowledge, these accords have been portrayed in terms which are bordering on peace treaties.
They are not peace treaties. There was never a war between Israel and the Gulf states. I was in all the Gulf states, either in a senior position in the Mossad or as director of the Mossad, and was a figure in dealing with the developing relations with those countries. What ultimately took place was the normalization of relations that have existed over the years and have flourished.
What happened is an achievement in itself, but for reasons well known, the timing of the accords were related to domestic politics. I think it was Henry Kissinger who once said that Israel doesn’t have foreign affairs, only domestic affairs. He was probably right.
Israel has been through a year of pandemic, which we seem to have overcome. At the same time, we’ve been mired in four elections in two years. What’s your assessment of the country as we celebrate Independence Day?
I’m very deeply concerned about the state of affairs in Israel, not because of the fourth election or this or that result. There is a deep divide in Israel that is reflected by the political results of these elections. We have a hung parliament, and this is a failure – not of the people but of the leadership. 
HALEVY WITH Shabtai Shavit, who served as director of the Mossad  (Yossi Aloni)HALEVY WITH Shabtai Shavit, who served as director of the Mossad (Yossi Aloni)
A failure of leadership is something Israel has suffered from ever since the murder of Yitzhak Rabin [in 1995].
What should have been sought is a coalition that gives the opportunity for a cross-party national government charged with bringing about a different domestic agenda. As we speak, we don’t know what will happen, but if the government continues to be a continuation of Likud supremacy or not, my guess is that the internal strife will continue and the damage will only become more serious. We need someone at the head of the government to bring about reconciliation on a national level. I’m very worried that if the current prime minister continues, he won’t bring national conciliation. He won’t bring about conciliation with the Arab population, but that is not the problem. He also won’t bring about conciliation with the Jewish majority.
I’m less concerned about whether we look weak to our enemies or how the world looks at us. I’m more concerned with how we look to each other. The current divide is a dangerous one. We have a ruler supreme and it’s dangerous. I think that a person who has been in office for several years should step down for the benefit of the country.
But this is not what we are going to see. If he steps down, it will be against his will. And if he carries on, he will probably magnify the aspects of being a supreme and sole ruler of the country. If you have a sole person who makes life-and-death decisions for citizens of the country, it presents a very dangerous situation.
When you look back on the history of the country and the role you played in developing and safeguarding it, what are your strongest memories?
I’ve had several areas in which I was able to play a role. My part in achieving the peace treaty with Jordan is well known. Commanding the Ethiopian rescue from Sudan and other missions that are not very well known were also important moments to me.
I was the first person to have a meaningful relationship with the late ruler of Oman, whom I met in 1975. That’s an example of the kind of activity I was involved in over the years of which I’m proud. I have no reason to believe that I’m bereft of any shares in developing the State of Israel.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.