Out of the shadows

A legendary intelligence chief breaks a lifetime's code of silence.

sept11 feat 298 (photo credit: AP)
sept11 feat 298
(photo credit: AP)
For a man accustomed to eschewing the spotlight and keeping the lowest of profiles, it's a radical change. When I met him last week, Efraim Halevy had already been interviewed on the BBC's Hard Talk, and he was about to fly out to the United States to do more TV - Charlie Rose, John Stewart and others - as well as a series of talks on university campuses and at think tanks. The "Man in the Shadows," to quote the title of the former Mossad director's newly published memoirs, has stepped out of them. He's not written a tell-all book. In fact, he's hardly written a tell-anything book, at least in terms of revealing hitherto unknown hard facts. His purpose, rather, for writing the book and now determinedly promoting it, "is to promote the State of Israel. The book, as I'm sure you've seen, to a large extent is a promotion of Israel, not a promotion of the Mossad," he says. "It is a promotion of a whole approach to life, to international affairs, to problems confronting large parts of international society today. And if through this book I can project an image of a state which is just 6 million citizens strong but has played a role on the international stage devoted to protecting the values of society in their purest sense, then that is worthwhile." Man in the Shadows is anything but a conventional memoir, not even a conventional ex-spy's memoir. There are no chapters on Halevy's early years as a young immigrant from England, or on his rise through the ranks of the secret service. Instead, he has chosen to focus on some of the events of the last two decades in which he played a central role, notably the process toward peace with Jordan and the political marginalization of Yasser Arafat. And, near the end of the volume, he offers some thoughts on the (appalling) scale of the danger posed to the free world by international terrorism and on the (appallingly inadequate) steps taken to date by the world community to counter it. It is primarily this last subject that we discussed over coffee in a Tel Aviv-area cafe' just before Halevy set off on his US book tour. We spoke English; his is wonderful. Like the late, much-missed British chief rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Halevy sets out on lengthy, complex sentences that, however much they twist, prove on transcription to have been immaculately constructed. Like his analyses, his language is precise, and if the right word doesn't immediately pop into mind, he waits for it rather than selecting an inferior substitute. He is scrupulously courteous - insisting quite unnecessarily, for instance, on paying for my coffee. And whether by design or, given his trade, natural good fortune, he cuts a quiet, self-effacing figure. Had they bothered to glance across, nobody at any of the nearby tables would have imagined that the soft-spoken, silver-haired gentleman sitting next to me was the legendary ex-head of Israel's esteemed intelligence service, a man moreover who was called back in the twilight of his career to successfully rehabilitate that service at one of its lowest points. Some of these characteristics and milestones invite an irresistible comparison to a fictional counterpart - not a parallel, I stress, but a comparison nonetheless: to the most affecting creation of that finest of spy writers, John Le Carre's George Smiley. Efraim Halevy is George Smiley made flesh, without the pathos but, to Israel's immense and abiding benefit, with all the wisdom and the patriotism. Your proposal for combating Islamic terrorism in some sort of concerted international way seemed to me obviously sensible but also… Impossible? Well, unlikely to happen. If after 9/11 there wasn't any such concerted action, if after the Madrid bombings the people threw out the government rather than asserting a need for greater international cooperation, it looks pretty bleak. Yes, [concerted military action] is not going to come about unless there are more terrorist attacks. The world doesn't react to threats. It reacts to actions. The best example of this is what happened in World War II. The Nazi threat was there. The German threat was there… Even when Europe had been overrun by the Germans, the United States did not enter the war, despite the experience it had in World War I. It was only after the Japanese hit Pearl Harbor that suddenly American public opinion was galvanized. That is the sad part of it. International cooperation will come about [only] after there are one or two [terrorist] events which affect more than one country. Suddenly public opinion will be attuned to action of a certain kind. It will last two or three months, not more. In order for these actions to be effective, you have to plan them in advance. And once something happens you have to sit down and say, "Okay, which of all this arsenal or variety of options do we [use]?" Is any of that advance planning taking place? I doubt it, and I think that's a tragedy. One would have expected that the governments of the world would be sitting almost around the clock, planning how to overcome these threats. This is not the case. What potential do you see for worse terrorism than 9/11? I don't want to give people ideas. I can imagine all kinds of things. Maybe I know one or two things, as well, from my past - possible really diabolical acts which were on the table of those who practice international terror. Did you encounter plans for acts of terrorism more diabolical than 9/11? I don't think these ideas reached the stage where it was necessary to counter them. Some of them were snuffed out at a very early stage and some didn't sort of pick up and become serious. But after 9/11 you have to think the unthinkable. Who would have thought in advance that somebody would take a civilian aircraft full of passengers and turn it into a weapon? You need a really warped mind, a diabolical mind, and look at the results. They changed the face of the earth. It's very unfortunate to say, but very often those who are committing acts which are unthinkable change the course of history. Take the small example of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin. One individual, murdering the prime minister of Israel, certainly changed the course of history of Israel for some time. That's a fact of life. It was an act which left not only its stain on the history of the nation, but also on the course of the history of the nation. That question of our history depends not only on what Israel would have done. It depends on how Arafat would have behaved had Rabin lived. Arafat would have behaved more or less the way he behaved, because that was the man. He was a failed leader. He was able to forge a national liberation movement out of dust, so to speak. [But] when he was on the verge of success, and he obtained a chunk of land which he could rule as a stepping stone for the future, he messed it up. I wonder if he felt that. I wonder if he rather felt that by not compromising, he left open the possibility that we would be eliminated. If he believed that Israel could be eliminated, then he was a failed leader from another aspect, that is the aspect of a very, very flawed assessment of the balance of forces in the Middle East. If he thought that by pursuing his policies he could ultimately bring about the destruction of Israel, just as today I think Hamas believes, really believes, that they can bring about the destruction of Israel through their policies, then Arafat was a failed leader, and they are going to be a failed leadership. The only chance that Hamas now has of saving the Palestinian movement is to change course. If Hamas does not temper its policies, if it doesn't come to terms with reality, it will end up as a failed movement - not because Israel makes conditions, but because the balance of forces in the region is such. Israel is not going to walk away and Hamas is not going to succeed in destroying Israel, just as I don't think Iran has any chance in the world of destroying Israel. By setting that as a goal, as a realistic goal, this Iranian regime has more or less signed its fate. Not because Israel is going to attack or not attack, or the Americans will do this or do that, but [because] ultimately the international community will never be able to digest a policy in which one country denies the other country's right to exist, and then destroys it and then life will go on. No, this is not going to happen. The whole structure of the international community is such that this [Iranian approach] will not be stomached. It is not possible. [Stopping] it may take more time. The Nazi threat took six years to overcome in a bloody war. But ultimately sanity prevailed. Righteousness prevailed in the very basic sense of the term. And that's why in this particular case it's a foregone conclusion that Israel, the United States, the Western World, even Russia, even China - they will prevail. This kind of approach of the Iranians or Hamas will not prevail. It cannot prevail. That's very cheering, but how do you foresee this playing out? At the moment you have Hamas vowing never to come to terms with Israel. It is breeding further generations of people who hate the very essence of Israel. They are being told that their God requires them to fight against Israel. The demographic element is on their side. And we are a tiny physical entity. As for Iran, again, that's a very robust and encouraging picture you painted. Why would you believe that? Are you so sure of this fundamental, international morality and commitment to the defense of a sovereign state? On what basis are you so sure, apart from the fact that 60 years ago, in the end, after some fairly dicey moments, countries that were much stronger physically in terms of territorial size, yes, they prevailed? It was a close thing and we don't have as much room to maneuver… Hamas has been in existence for 19 years only. In these 19 years its achievements are mind-boggling. They created a social system, a medical system, an educational system, a political structure of sorts. They've survived the onslaught of the Israeli defense establishment for years. They've survived the destruction and the annihilation of their leadership. They've emerged as probably the first Muslim Brotherhood movement in the region which has achieved power, if we don't take into account the Sudan which is a different story for a variety of reasons. They've done what their sister movements in Jordan and Egypt did not achieve. And they have people there who have capabilities. But I was very struck by the [recent] appearance [at a conference] in Teheran of an Algerian who harangued Hamas and said, "Why are you coming to us for money? What about all the money [that has flowed in from] around the world for the Palestinians? What about you people who are sending your children for education in the best universities in the West? You're coming to us now? What about you?" And this was met by a bit of, shall we say, displeasure. But there was no substantial reply. Hamas is very careful not to send their own children as suicide bombers. This is something that will gradually become an issue in the Palestinian camp. Hamas came to power, to a large extent, as those who are fighting corruption. Corruption is not just corrupt practices in government. Corruption is also related to the way you conduct yourself. This is going to be a serious problem for them. That's number one. Number two, they have a domestic agenda. They are unable and they will be unable to implement even the first item on their agenda without Israel's passive, let alone active, concurrence. We can snuff them out. And I think they have not yet come to terms with the realities of the situation. So they are making all kinds of wild statements. You have a guy like Khaled Mashaal making statements. He's not here. He won't be allowed in. Rightly so. They have to rein in some of their more extreme people who are outside the country. Just as Faroukh Khaddoumi was sitting in Damascus, making all kinds of statements, they have Khaled Mashaal: We will never recognize Israel. We will do this. We will do that. There's no money in the bank to support this kind of policy. They've just gone to Teheran and they got $50 million, which is less than what they need for one month. The Iranians are not going to bankroll them for hundreds of millions of dollars per month. So what do they do then? Some of them are going to feel the crunch. Now it could well be that they will not be able to get their act together. It could well be that Hamas will fail as a government, because they will have failed to grasp the realities of the situation. After Hamas, there is nothing. After Fatah, there was Hamas. After Hamas, what is there? There is anarchy. Anarchy in the Palestinian territories is something very bad for Israel but it's also very bad for them, first and foremost. And this will be a failed leadership, in other words, they will pay the price politically and socially for having got to power and then messed it all up. You'll have millions of people roaming around, and, in the end, the world will have to create some kind of structure to deal with this mass of people. But from the Hamas point of view it will be the second nakba, the second tragedy of failure to create a viable, national entity. And then what? It could well be that the Palestinians will then fail entirely as a national movement. It's not pre-ordained that the Palestinians will succeed. In order for them to succeed, they have to meet certain requirements, benchmarks. Not because we set them. Because that is the way life is. You cannot become a state if you're just a pariah group of Wild West creatures. Hamas will have to sit down very carefully and work it out for themselves. I don't think we should make it easy for them, but we should give them a chance. Maybe they'll come up with a reasonable solution. They have it in their power to come up and say, "Let's have an armistice." Not a cease-fire, an armistice - the hudna in a different sense. We have been asking them to recognize us. We don't need their recognition. They need our recognition. They'll have to come to terms with us, to sit with us, to deal with us, for practical reasons. Will they come round to this? I don't know. If they don't, then the Palestinian national movement can implode. Now if you go the Iranian side, the mass of the Iranians don't want to live according to [President] Ahmadinejad. They wanted him to solve their domestic problems - problems of unemployment, of domestic strife. That's why they voted him in, because he was the mayor of Teheran, because they thought he did a good job there. But he's not doing this at all. He's coming up with all these daily statements, and he's making it very easy for countries like Israel and the United States. As far as the Israeli propaganda machine is concerned, they are having one of the easiest times they ever had. They don't have to say anything. They just issue the daily statement of Ahmadinejad and disseminate it around the world. Ultimately, I think, the Iranian people are not going to accept this and there will be a regime change in Iran. Now regime change in Iran will not come about because somebody is going to come from the outside and impose it. From within, there will be those who in the past did not succeed - the students, and so on, the intellectuals. If they are encouraged from the outside, then there can be a serious change in the fabric of the regime in Iran. The Americans are doing the right thing. Last year, they appropriated four million dollars for this. This year, Secretary Rice asked for $75 million. I think that is the right direction to go. Solving the problem of Iran is not just solving the problem of the threat of the nuclear capability. You have to solve the threat in its entirety. Hizbullah is a threat. The threats to annihilate Israel. All this will not go away by neutering this or that particular capability today or tomorrow. There has to be a change in Iran. It's doable. But there's a timing issue here, isn't there? If Iran is maybe three years away from a bomb, what are the chances that by then there will have been an internally achieved regime change? Anybody who has dealt with science and technology knows that you cannot really gauge time-wise what happens. I don't think there is an alternative to the long-haul. Gradually the world is gearing up to the Iranian threat. The more active on this are the EU three - Germany, France and Britain. They are in the driver's seat. The United States is supposedly in the back seat, but a very formidable back seat. Even the Russians will realize in the end that they are not going to confront the United States on this. And therefore you see a circumstance where there will be economic and diplomatic sanctions, and that these will help prompt internal dissent, and that is the realistic path to change in Iran? Gradually what will happen is that the regime will become a pariah regime - an outcast internationally. And the people in Iran will take encouragement from this. So your recommendation would be to say, "Folks, let's stay calm on this nuclear program. There are other forces here that will work in our interests. We don't need to get military. We should hold our fire." You must prepare for the worst. You have to take all the necessary contingent steps. I have full confidence that those who have to do so are preparing what has to be prepared. At the same time, I believe that the ultimate path will not be this kind of path. It will be a path that will bring about a change inside Iran. I want to remind you in 2002, after Operation Defensive Shield, we were able to get the world to accept a policy that there should be a leadership change [for] the Palestinians. This ultimately became the policy of the president of the United States. And within months the Palestinians took the initiative into their own hands. They pushed through the necessary legislation to create the post of prime minister, who would hold the executive power in the Palestinian Authority, and the president would be elevated to a position that, somebody said, reminded him of the Queen of England. People would say that this is now playing to our disadvantage [with Mahmoud Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh]. Now we want it the other way. Okay, this was not foreseen. You could say this was an intelligence failure. But once the world as a whole was behind this [idea of a leadership change], from Moscow to Tokyo, from Washington to Berlin, from Beijing to Delhi, once there was this sense, people in the Palestinian Authority, legislators, felt that there was sort of a grip on them to do it. I think something similar could happen in Iran, if the people in Iran began to feel that the world as a whole is not going to allow this [Ahmadinejad approach]. The [Iranian] people would somehow have courage. Up till now, they didn't have the courage because, in past confrontations of this kind, there was polite applause but nobody did anything to save the students in the streets of Teheran. Coming back to Hamas, judging by the statements made by Israel, even were Hamas to say, "We'd like an armistice with Israel," the Israeli government's position would be: "We won't deal with you at all." That's right. Is that a mistake? One of the great things that Mr. Ariel Sharon did was that he destroyed the whole concept of taboos. He was the one who said that Netzarim will be like Tel Aviv and then he went and gave up Netzarim. There might be circumstances in which we'll talk to Hamas. Or I'll put it the other way: There might be circumstances which will bring Hamas to talk to us. There has to be a realization that this is a possibility. There has to be a plan of action to see to it that one of two things happens: Either there is a regime change in the Palestinian Authority, or Hamas bites the bullet. There are those who believe there is a viable option to turn the wheels of history back and bring Fatah back. I don't believe this is possible, not in the near future. If Hamas begins to feel the realities of life, and wishes to save the day for itself, then it should be made clear to them that this is a possible option, given their accepting the rules of the game. You had one sentence in the book on unilateralism, in which you did not really pass judgment on it. You were talking about it in the context of Hamas choosing not to emphasize victory by firing on the departing army. What is your assessment of unilateralism - both last summer and the "convergence" plan? The catchphrase, "unilateral disengagement," was misleading. We have not left Gaza to the Gazans. We're not allowing them to build a port, we're not allowing them to build an airport, we're restricting their access. We supply the water. We supply the electricity. We withdrew the settlers from there and we withdrew our forces from there. We did not disengage. And it was not unilateral. We negotiated with the United States, with the Egyptians. We indirectly negotiated with the Hamas: The whole structure of Hamas not attacking us, the tahadiyah, we never accepted it, but we benefited from it, and we knew it was happening. The Egyptians were the masters of all this. We brought the Egyptians into the act. The Egyptians are deeply involved now in the Gaza situation, in the Philadelphi access and so forth. We changed some of the provisions of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. So it was not unilateral, it was not disengagement. That's why I don't think that convergence would mean that we would disengage [from the West Bank]. I'll give you one example: You cannot maintain a reasonable regime of water preservation in the area between the sea and the Jordan River without there being a semblance of cooperation and understanding. If the Palestinians do what they like on the aquifers there, it would be a disaster. So you say, "No, water is something else." Well then, air space. Are we going to leave the air space? Access. Are we going to leave the area, and let them enter and leave at will? Or are we going to have a system of international terminals which will give us control? If we have control of entries and exits, we did not disengage. I don't want even to go into the question of the legal, international implications, whether as a result of our doing this we have divested ourselves of the responsibility internationally and legally for the wellbeing and safety of the people there. I'm just talking about the practicalities. So it sounds good. It sounds attractive. You know: "We will take our destiny into our hands. We'll have America. America will get up and say "bravo," applaud us. And then the rest of the world will probably half applaud, half not. It doesn't matter anymore. And the problem is over." It's not over. What is the alternative to such a policy, in the event that Hamas doesn't come to its senses? I wouldn't like to say. But if convergence will bring about a presence in the territories similar to the Egyptian presence in Gaza, what does this mean? Is Jordan going to enter the West Bank and take over again? I don't believe this is in the cards. Is Egypt going to come to the West Bank? Do we want this to happen? Do they want this to happen? I don't know. The fence will create a problem of Palestinians who cross daily to till their soil. If there is no agreement with the other side, will the Palestinians be allowed to cross? Or are we going to say that "the Palestinians live in the territory which is under Hamas, which for us is a terrorist entity, therefore they are not going to come to their olive groves?" Or if we do allow them [to cross], with whom do we negotiate the modalities of this? It's not a simple mathematical theorem, in which we say, "Okay, we have convergence, we have a system, we have a formula and the rest will take care of itself." There are thousands of questions which will have to be solved on a daily basis. This is not just saying, "We have a magic solution and we wave the wand, and we converge, and peace on earth." The one thing convergence would change is the presence of tens of thousands of Jewish civilians in the area we would be leaving. If convergence is only a change in the positioning of the Israelis, that's a different story. But convergence is not that. The idea is not just withdrawing 60,000 or 70,000 people. Would it be in Israel's interests to define the future dimensions of our country and say that, while on the other side of that barrier there are still many things we need to attend to, we are better served nonetheless by converging our civilian population? We are better served by converging our civilian population, yes. But it should be clear that what we are doing is limited to the issue of where these tens of thousands of settlers are going to be. It does not relate to the relationship between us and the Palestinians. Is there any significance to the fact that Ehud Olmert is not mentioned by name anywhere in the book? I finished writing the book in October of last year and Mr. Sharon was prime minister. I had no reason to mention the interim prime minister. If I was writing the book today, I would probably have mentioned him. I think he is a very able and very competent person. And I'm sure he will do an excellent job. And this has no relation to my views on convergence and so on. There can be differences of opinion. I only hope that he will create an atmosphere in which people will speak their minds, freely, and that there will be free access to him of all shades of opinion. Is there a direction we are not looking in because we are focused on Iran and Hamas, areas internationally where we should be paying more attention? I want to say again, I have no idea at present what the intelligence community is doing. I'm not briefed and I don't want to be briefed. I want to speak my mind. Once I'm briefed I can't speak my mind. I think that a lot of attention should be given to what is happening in the Arabian Peninsula. The future of Saudi Arabia is a very important issue. Of the 19 most wanted people after 9/11, 16 were Saudis. There have been very serious terrorist activities in Saudi Arabia. Only a month ago there was a foiled attempt on an oil refinery there. Osama bin Laden has his origins in Saudi Arabia. Instability in Saudi Arabia would rock the world, because of the centrality of the Saudi contribution to world energy. Coming finally to the last sentence of your book, about the simple fact of living on this planet becoming ever more complicated: My sense from you is that the international community has not internalized the gravity of the terrorist threat, and has not made concerted plans for what would need to be an immediate response to further diabolical terrorist action or actions. And that in all likelihood therefore something awful will happen again, and then there will be lots of hand wringing. And the only realistic hope is that, after that, there will then be the beginning of an effort to respond more effectively to a second series of such attacks. It is becoming more and more difficult for responsible leaders in the world to push through decisions and legislation to support the effort against international terrorism. The greatest example of this is what happened in Britain after what we call 7/7, after the Tube and bus attacks. [The bill that would have provided for a] 90-day period in which suspects can be held more or less without access, this was shot down in the British Parliament. This is indicative of what happens when, after two or three months in which nothing happens, people say that human rights and these things are more serious considerations than giving the police another 30 or 40 days. A month ago the president had great difficulty in getting renewed approval of the Patriot Act in the United States. More and more people are placing emphasis on how detentions are done. If nothing happens in the next year or two, the world will gradually subside into a state of apathy. You cannot maintain a degree of public awareness and public concern by simply crying wolf all the time, saying, "We have to be careful about terrorist attacks, we have to be careful about terrorist attacks." Somebody will get up and say, "Well, we've had two years without terrorist attacks. Yes, there was 9/11. That happened five, six years ago. It appears it's been taken care of because nothing has happened. Let's stop this paranoiac craze about international terrorism." Therefore if there are no serious terrorist attacks, no successful terrorist operations in the next year or two, the world will sort of… Now this sounds terrible, as though I'm almost wishing that there should be a terrorist attack. I'm not. I'm saying this is a problem. I don't think there is a solution. If the terrorists were clever, they would now sit back for a year or two and do nothing. Then you'd see that at the airports, this enormous [security] effort will probably be curtailed. People will say, "There is enormous cost and enormous inconvenience to millions of passengers. What are we afraid of? A bomb in a plane? It's gone. Let's come back to normal." And then you also have what I mentioned in the book, the concern of the statesman-politicians for their constituency: If you have a prime minister who is saying all the time, "beware, beware, beware," crying wolf all the time, he may be voted out of office, because people are going to say "We don't want a guy like this. We want somebody who is more reasoned and less acerbic and less playful on our nerves." There are serious problems. I can't solve all the problems of the world, but that's the way I look at it. And therefore the fear is that it will get worse before it gets better? (Heavy sigh.) Yes, unfortunately.