A candid and freethinking spymaster

Former IDF intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi Farkash talks about his identity and the importance of speaking up when lives are at stake.

FORMER IDF intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi Farkash (right), playing Iran, sits with experts during an Iran wargame in Herzliya in 2010 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
FORMER IDF intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi Farkash (right), playing Iran, sits with experts during an Iran wargame in Herzliya in 2010
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
His Romanian neighbors were throwing rocks at him. He had not known until that moment that he was not a Romanian, but a Jew.
Yet only a few years later, at age 14, when he and his family made aliya, former IDF intelligence chief Aharon Zeevi Farkash found that in Israel he was more of a Romanian than a Jew. He was supposed to write a letter to a mentor in Romania if that prediction – that Israelis would frame him as primarily Romanian – was wrong.
“I never wrote him,” Farkash said in his deadpan style to The Jerusalem Post Magazine.
At one point, he and a group of other adolescents who had recently moved to Israel went on a two-week strike against eating in their school’s cafeteria until they felt the teaching staff had solved the problem of discrimination – for the recent immigrants felt other students were still eyeing them as outsiders, and not treating them fairly, in terms of seating.
Later, he was embraced in the IDF, which he praises for putting merit above all petty ethnic considerations.
Still, this experience of being a stranger sums up why Farkash, the chief of IDF intelligence from 2001 to 2006, conceives of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict as he does.
He told the Magazine in an interview last month that the antisemitism he experienced in Romania was a big part of what led his parents to move to Israel. “My parents did not want me to grow up with this fear.”
While the experiences of some Jews as an oppressed minority have led them to become more nationalist and weigh other people’s concerns less, Farkash, wearing a gray shirt with his sleeves rolled up, went in a different direction.
“We must be sensitive to our minorities. The Torah obligates us. These are our values... It goes beyond just loving your neighbor, there is also, ‘Justice, justice, you shall pursue in order to live and inherit the land,’” he said.
Farkash is a bit of a puzzle. He comes off as bold, yet highly cerebral, willing to ruffle feathers, but wanting to frame himself in a more philosophical light.
Farkash, whose office was immaculate with nothing on his desk but a pitcher of water, grew up Orthodox, but moved away from it as an adolescent. Nevertheless, it appears that the humanistic principles of the Bible stuck with him.
Interpreting the biblical verses and sounding more like a rabbi than an intelligence chief, he said, “The first obligation as a believing Jew is to pursue justice. It’s part of our roots – and then we will have the merit to inherit this land.” “When I see what is happening to the Palestinians, it hurts me. I don’t want to do to them what happened to me,” he said.
Framing Israeli society today, he said much of the current citizenry is “fourth- or fifth-generation Israelis who did not undergo the War of Independence or the Holocaust… so they don’t feel it. I am not even sure I succeeded in fully conveying the feeling to my children – that is to being sensitive to a minority.”
Often top intelligence chiefs are broad strategic thinkers, and Farkash is no different. This is why he seemed to feel the need to lay out many philosophical and identity parameters, before he confronted the present dilemmas swirling around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From this extended introduction, he summarized, “If we don’t deal with the roots of the conflict, there will always be something they [the Palestinians] will try to find to justify their war” – and new hostile tactics that Israelis will need to cope with.
“There was a time when they hijacked airplanes. Then there were shootings, then suicide bombers and now knives and attack tunnels,” he continued.
US AMBASSADOR to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon, tour a tunnel in June, excavated by Hamas near the Israeli-Gaza border.
US AMBASSADOR to the United Nations Nikki Haley and Israel’s UN envoy Danny Danon, tour a tunnel in June, excavated by Hamas near the Israeli-Gaza border.
Have the IDF’s billions of shekels and new technologies finally neutralized the tunnel threat from Hamas?
“The IDF has made progress, and detecting and destroying tunnels is important, as Hamas cannot build them in one day. It takes time… It is an important military- professional effort, but Hamas will not give in on such a strategic weapon. If we think we are closing off the tunnel and other terrorist threats, in parallel we need to allow the Palestinians to live and find other alternatives to just beating them on the military front.”
How do you suggest dealing with the roots of the conflict?
“There is a change in the rules of the game. There were the Clinton Parameters of 2000. People tried the same things. These rules ended last year. The manifestation of this was [US President Donald] Trump’s Jerusalem declaration. The world changed; seventeen years changed things. There did not use to be smartphones and videos of everything… and there were not 400,000 Jews in the West Bank, not counting Jerusalem! You cannot ignore this and the world is starting to understand. Even the UN is starting to understand. I am not sure the Clinton deal from 2000 is still the foundation.”
FARKASH THEN delved into his own proposed solutions. “Gaza needs to be bigger,” he said, suggesting that Egypt could cede some of Sinai to Gaza to increase its area. He also supported Transportation Minister Israel Katz’s idea of an off-the-coast island port for Gaza. “They are in a box and can’t leave,” but a port would take off some pressure.
He also said that maybe the West Bank and Jordan should link up somehow, being that Jordan is 70% Palestinian. Moreover, he said he would entertain various kinds of land swaps, including giving parts of pre-1967 Israel in the South in exchange for the Jewish settlement blocs, though without specifying exactly where.
“I don’t see an Israeli government that will move 400,000 Jews. Maybe 50,000, that is more doable and we already did. But there needs to be a broad resolution. We will not be able to just wake up in the morning without Palestinians.”
These solutions cut across the positions of both the Left and Right. For example, the Right has suggested for decades that Gaza be absorbed into Egypt. Instead, Farkash suggests that Egypt give territory to Gaza.
He also advocates investing more in the Palestinians’ socioeconomic growth and in more joint economic projects.
He added, “We need to resolve things. If we don’t give hope to four million Palestinians, even if the world does not care about them, we won’t live in peace.”
Regarding the holy sites in Jerusalem, he said “Jerusalem is very sensitive,” but he did not reject creatively shared sovereignty arrangements that have been proposed in the past. He was adamant that we “need to give a solution to all of the different religions.”
One thing Farkash is sure about is that even the latest national unity talks between Fatah and Hamas, the most successful talks in 10 years, will eventually go nowhere.
In his skillful sarcastic and cutting manner he explained, “National unity between Fatah and Hamas will happen when Hamas disarms, which will happen when it is not Hamas. If Hamas transforms into Fatah – then okay!”
HIS PLAYFUL sense of humor came out again when discussing the various threats presented by Iran. Farkash referred to the infamous story in early 2004 of Iran bulldozing a nuclear site at Lavizan-Shian, a northeastern neighborhood of Tehran, once the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) asked to inspect the site for signs of illegal nuclear weapons development.
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran.
Missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran.
He could not reveal all he knew about the site, but the former intelligence chief noted that it is public knowledge that the site was photographed by Digital- Globe’s Quickbird commercial satellite in 2003 and 2004. Further, he said it is public knowledge that the first image shows large buildings inside a secure perimeter, and the second image shows scraped earth where the buildings once stood.
By the time the IAEA inspectors inspected the site months later, he said it had turned into a leafy park.
In that sense, Farkash rejected those who predict that Iran will openly violate the nuclear deal with the West. In his unique incisive manner, he said that Iran is far craftier, more patient and strategic in its thinking.
He believes Iran will abide by the deal, but will eventually pursue a nuclear bomb without making too much noise.
“Everyone believes Iran will have a nuclear bomb in eight to 10 years. In the end, it will not be able to give its pursuit of such weapons for internal Iranian reasons. The Iranians cannot allow what happened to Iraq and Afghanistan to happen to them. They also see how world powers and the US treat North Korea differently. If you want to build a nuclear weapon, you will have one eventually,” he said. On military options to stop Iran from getting such weapons, he said an attack would only delay the inevitable. “Getting rid of only 60% to 70% [of the nuclear program] is not enough.” In any case, he explained, Iran’s cyber and technological abilities were now too advanced to send them back to square one.
That does not mean Farkash has lost hope.
Harking back to his religious upbringing, he said, “I learned in yeshiva the prayer and concept, ‘We are the chosen people’ – God picked us and everything is based on that. But Iran doesn’t always think about Israel. And ISIS doesn’t always think about Israel.”
In Farkash’s telling, what would be dangerous about a nuclear Iran would be its increased strength and ability in becoming a Middle East regional power, and to a lesser extent, that it poses an immediate genocidal threat to Israel. According to foreign reports, Israel has a far more powerful nuclear arsenal.
How threatening is Iran to Israel in the north with all of the talk of it creating a Shi’ite bridge extending from Tehran to Lebanon?
“I don’t want to downplay the presence of Iran in Syria, but I claim we are far from Iran stationing its forces in Syria in numbers that could pose a threat. There are Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Syria who helped with the war against ISIS, and Iran sends forces of non-Iranian Shi’ites to coordinate between Damascus, Beirut and Tehran – but changing from this to there being divisions of Iranian forces in Syria is a big stretch.”
Farkash did agree that some of the non-Iranian Shi’ite militias in the area could impact the situation in the Golan and Lebanon and could broaden Iran’s ability to fight “the Zionist enemy” through proxies. But cutting through the doomsday scenario put forth by some politicians, Farkash simply did not see adding another Iranian proxy on Israel’s border along with Hezbollah as a dramatic shift.
“We have limits on them. They also have their own domestic limits. Their people don’t want to see Iranians in coffins,” he said. Israel currently “has the right policy of keeping Iran from getting game-changing weapons into Syria… but we should not go too far… to avoid a huge miscalculation.”
Why didn’t the US fulfill Israeli hopes to keep Iranians completely out of Syria as a condition for the cease-fire and postwar deal it negotiated with Russia?
“These words are not connected to anything. What does it mean to say, ‘We expected from the US and they didn’t act?’ We need to understand that the US is exhausted. Trump is not going to change that. They see this area now like the Far East. Since 2010, the US has been leaving the Middle East. They want Israel to be a strong democracy.”
He explained that this won’t stop the US from at making at least a partial exit from the Middle East – leaving a vacuum that Russia is filling. One thing that is striking about everything that Farkash says is how little he fits into standard boxes about how Israel should confront the Palestinian and Iranian issues.
Where did Farkash’s independent streak come from?
He explained that the IDF chief of intelligence needs to “have a strong backbone to say what he thinks, even when it includes criticism.” This must happen, he explained, even when Israeli politicians might not want to hear it.
Sometimes he and others in intelligence may be obligated to go over the head of their immediate commander, the IDF chief-of-staff, he added.
“The military intelligence chief does not need to accept the opinion of the IDF chief or even of the defense minister. If he thinks their views about intelligence are incorrect, he must bring his concerns to the premier and cabinet.”
Along the same lines, he said that, while on the job, he learned some lessons. “You cannot just write a memorandum about certain threats. You need to say some things directly, verbally and with strong emphasis to the prime minister. The prime minister could be busy with lots of things. Politics, domestic issues, foreign affairs, the most recent terrorist attack – and may not always see the critical issues. The heads of military intelligence and the Mossad must be stubborn.”
To drive home the point, Farkash shared two anecdotes about those walking the halls of power. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon once turned to him and asked why it was the first time Sharon was hearing from him regarding an issue over the Syrian army. Farkash was taken aback. He responded that his office had written 31 memoranda for Sharon over the previous six months about the issue in question.
He then realized how important it was to deliver verbally critical messages. Incidentally, Sharon was a big supporter of Farkash and gave him a special menorah which he prominently displays in his office.
In another instance, the ex intelligence chief needed to speak his mind about maintaining work permits for around 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. He told an emotionally wrenching story about one of the worst bombings in Tel Aviv that took place during his term.
“We only missed stopping the incident by five minutes. One of the hardest things is to forgive yourself that innocents were killed.” But eventually, he added, the defense establishment beat the suicide bombing war.
The key to reducing security threats during the Second Intifada and the more recent Knife Intifada has been taking strong security measures, he said. But it was also vital to maintain Palestinian work permits as much as possible.
The political world may want to end these permits for populist reasons, he added, but “you need to stick to the right policy.” This returns to Farkash’s belief in giving Palestinians hope.
So who is Farkash and how does he see Israel’s future? He is a rare warrior poet who has fought fiercely to find his place in the country and defend it. But he is also an open-minded humanist, eager to bring Israel and its neighbors some long-awaited quiet.