‘The reality is wilder than anything you can imagine’

Colonel Hasson Hasson is a long-time key player in actions that ‘provide the oxygen that sustains our country’.

(photo credit: MEIR VAKNIN/JINI)
It was head of IDF Manpower Directorate Maj.- Gen. Elazar Stern’s idea.
Elkana Harnof of the National Security headquarters approached Stern one day with a unique request: There’s a Druse colonel from the intelligence department with whom I’ve been working for years. He’s received lots of accolades and is a real national hero. The State of Israel owes so much to this guy. Why not appoint him as coordinator of government activities in the territories? Promoting him was a great idea, Stern said, but why to that position? Why not break through the glass ceiling and appoint him as the next military secretary for the president? Do you know what that would mean for the State of Israel to have a Druse officer representing the country around the world? “Can you get this done?” asked Harnof.
Stern replied that he would try.
It took time, but in the end he succeeded. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, was sent to speak with president Shimon Peres, who agreed to consider the idea. Avi Benayahu, who was the IDF spokesman and a close Peres confidant, told him, “Mr. President, you might want to investigate why prime minister Olmert invited the officer, his wife and kids to his office recently. I think he’s your man.” In the end, Peres agreed.
THE PERSON in question is Col. (res.) Hasson Hasson.
He’s tall, quiet and is often seen smiling. But you won’t find all the medals he’s won over the years displayed on his lapels, and apparently he’s spent most of his career working diligently behind the scenes.
Suddenly he was thrust into the spotlight. There were people who voiced concern, saying that Hasson would not survive the transition, but, boy, were they wrong.
The meeting with Olmert will be etched in Hasson and his family’s memory for a very long time. The prime minister decided that Hasson deserved special attention and so invited him with his wife Anem and their four children (Daniel, Eyal, Dana and Raz) to his offices. It’s interesting to note that he gave his children Israeli names.
“My children were growing up. Daniel was already serving in the IDF, and they began hearing rumors about things I’d done or not done, and I wasn’t allowed to tell them anything,” Hasson recalls. “And here was Olmert telling them how much the State of Israel owes to their father.
“After years of working behind the scenes and not being able to discuss anything with my family, being recognized like this was a really big deal. This is so important for officers, who are forbidden from sharing details with their families.”
“Hasson spent many years in positions where he needed to improvise quickly and solve complex problems under difficult conditions,” says Olmert.
“He belongs to a small group of people whose bravery and courage will always have to remain secret. When president Peres was searching for a military secretary, I recommended Hasson. I don’t even think Peres was aware of most of the heroic acts Hasson was responsible for. The time has come for the Israeli public to recognize the great work Hasson has done for our country. He is proud to be Druse and a citizen of Israel.”
HASSON WAS born in 1963 in Daliat al-Carmel. His father, Fahri, was the first Druse soldier to apply to an IDF officers’ course after the Druse draft law was passed. He participated as a combat soldier in four of Israel’s wars. In the First Lebanon War, both he and his son were fighting on Israel’s front line.
His wife, Anem, is the daughter of Kamal Mansour, an extremely well-respected Druse leader who received both the Israel Prize and the President’s Medal and has been an adviser to seven of Israel’s presidents on minority issues.
Hasson has been serving in the IDF for close to four decades. There’s nothing more frustrating than interviewing him, since every other sentence out of his mouth is, “Of course, I’d love to talk with you about all the things I’ve done, but that information is confidential. I could write an entire book about each operation or event. The reality is actually even wilder than anything you could imagine. But I can’t even tell my wife and kids about what I do. These actions provide the oxygen that sustains our country, so it’s worth it.
“I grew up in a family where all the men served in combat units. Some became officers, while others served in the reserves. Everyone had stories to tell about their military experiences. It was obvious to me that I would follow the same path.”
Hasson was drafted in November 1981. He was designated an outstanding soldier already during basic training and became a gunner in the 12th Infantry Battalion under Gabi Ashkenazi. He was sent straight from basic training to fight in Operation Peace for Galilee, which turned into the First Lebanon War. He didn’t even get a chance to go home before he was sent into Lebanon, and reached the outskirts of Beirut. During the three months he was there, he survived intense battles around the Beaufort Fortress, Ali Taher and Hamdoun. He fought against PLO terrorists, the Syrian commandos and snipers who shot at them from the rooftops of buildings.
“It wasn’t easy being a Druse combat soldier during that war,” Hasson recalls.
“The Phalangists tried to drag the Druse into the inferno, and we were stuck in the middle. But not once during the war did a Druse Lebanese open fire on IDF soldiers. We Druse soldiers in the IDF knew that the Phalangists had made a pact with Israel, but the Druse in Lebanon are our flesh and blood. You can’t stand by as your brothers are being slaughtered and not do anything about it. Luckily, [Paratroopers Brigade commander] Amnon Lipkin-Shakak had an excellent relationship with Druse leaders in Lebanon and he took matters into his hands. The Druse people believe that the soul is what’s important, not the body. We believe in reincarnation, which is why Druse soldiers fight so bravely on the battlefield. If we need to separate from our body, that doesn’t mean our soul dies.
“We’re also similar to the Jews in that we’ve always been a minority and had to fight hard for our survival. Maybe this is why we collaborate so well together. Both of our peoples promote nonviolence; we’re just trying to survive. When we’re defending the State of Israel, we’re protecting ourselves. We are inseparable from the state. There were a few incidents in which Druse IDF soldiers helped Druse Lebanese, even during battle. The IDF was able to accept this.”
Hasson was a company commander for the 17th Battalion, served at Bahad 1 officers’ school, and was slated to become a company commander in Golani under Ashkenazi. But then his life changed overnight. Hasson’s name appeared on the screen of the military intelligence division. He was a treasure trove for military intelligence, since he was a seasoned and courageous combat officer who spoke fluent Arabic. Then-head of IDF Intelligence, Lipkin-Shahak remembered Hasson from Lebanon. Now, all of a sudden, Hasson was told that he needed to undergo an exhausting series of secret questioning and checks. In the end, he was cleared.
Hasson served in Military Intelligence from 1987 to 2008. Some of the time, he assisted the anti-terrorist division.
What is it like to participate in intelligence gathering?
There are no hard-and-fast rules. Sometimes we would spend months planning an operation. We have the best minds in the country working in the IDF. We are very thorough, plan well and prepare for all the various possibilities.
When you carry out an exercise for the 20th time, are you less scared?
No, in fact the opposite is true. The longer you work in a unit, the more scared you are. You’re more human.
Your family has expanded, and you understand the ramifications better. When you’re young, you’re excited about everything and you are less scared.
Was your cover ever blown?
No. Never.
Did you ever feel like your cover was about to be blown?
Yes, of course. Many times. It’s natural, since even one tiny mistake can raise suspicion.
How do you handle the stress and fear?
We have a fantastic support system. We are the best of the best and the country knows how to provide us with everything we need.
So, you’re like a real-life James Bond.
Hah! James Bond is a little boy compared to us.
Spy movies don’t show anything nearly as amazing as the things we do. But we’re realistic. We know how to handle changes in real time. We have access to incredible technological devices and our people are extremely courageous. But we also know how to make balanced, responsible decisions. We always have a backup team ready to jump in if things don’t go the way they were planned. And we don’t take any unnecessary risks.
Do you work in conjunction with other Israeli intelligence organizations?
Of course, we are constantly coordinating with other units.
And still, you’re not allowed to give any details to anyone?
That’s right. This is very difficult. It’s the exact opposite of how it was in Golani. I got married when I was 25. I couldn’t talk with Anem about anything I was doing. She understands why, and that it is for the good of the country. She supports me wholeheartedly.
Do you ever feel like you’ve missed out spending time with your family?
Yes, but when you have such a strong wife who is with you all the way, it’s much easier. I’ve tried to spend as much time with my kids as possible, and that’s why we moved to a kibbutz.
Yes, that’s right. The Hasson family lives on a kibbutz. When their oldest child, Daniel, was young, and Hasson was busy with IDF secret missions, the family moved from Daliyat el-Carmel to Kibbutz Bahan.
“WE THOUGHT this plan through and I think it was a good decision,” says Hasson. “The kibbutz was great for the kids, and made it easier for us as parents. I was under intense pressure and when I would come back from a mission, I would be exhausted physically and emotionally.
I was wound up like a spring, but I couldn’t talk about anything when I got home. The kids would go to the swimming pool and were busy with friends. If we’d stayed in Daliat el-Carmel, our relatives would have come over every day and I would not have survived that. I needed the quiet and calm. It was the only way to keep the family together.”
Hasson’s appointment as military secretary to president Peres shook up the system.
“It took me a while to understand where I was going,” Hasson recalls.
“I was worried that I’d be stuck attending ceremonies all day. I would not have survived that. I didn’t want to leave such an active job and become a clerk. I voiced my concerns to Elazar Stern, who told me that the position would be what I made of it, and not the other way around.
“After I met with Peres, I began to understand what was expected of me. Peres was an international superstar, a real national treasure, and I wanted to make sure his value was not wasted. So I decided to help the president work in synergy with Israel’s security establishment. I received backing from the IDF chief of staff, and my intelligence background helped me open up doors for the president.”
Peres was soon connected to the military intelligence world and the results were dramatic. His connections around the world were now benefiting the entire system.
“Before each meeting, he would be briefed with secret background information. The reaction Peres received from foreign leaders around the world was incredible.
One time, he succeeded in solving a serious crisis for us with a single phone call. He used his immense influence to solve problems and send messages.
“One time, [former Egyptian president Hosni] Mubarak had just had an operation, and [vice president] Omar Suleiman told me before we entered the palace that Peres should be careful when hugging him so as not to open up the stitches. But I didn’t manage to tell Peres and of course he gave him a big hug. Afterwards, Peres told me how shocked he was that Mubarak was wearing a bulletproof vest.
‘Mr. President,’ I said, ‘It was a post-surgery bandage.’” Hasson is proud of what he’s done with his position as the president’s military secretary.
“The role of Israel’s president has become much more practical and influential. He is now involved in shaping strategy and achieving political goals.
I was very lucky to have been chosen by Peres and then to be able to continue working with [Reuven] Rivlin. It would be a crime not to take advantage of their status, connections and talents for the sake of the country.”
Did all of this take place with the agreement of the prime minister?
Of course. Both Olmert and Bibi have coordinated stances with the presidents.
This is how, over time, Hasson forged a strong relationship with the prime minister’s military secretary. The two began working together, updating each other after meetings, and also updating their bosses in real time. “When you put the needs of the country above everything else, it’s easy,” Hasson says. “[Former Mossad director Meir] Dagan gave an order to give us access to the Mossad and all the other intelligence organizations. All the big specialists began coming for regular visits to the president’s house. Peres loved being updated about all the sensitive issues. Even the representative of the atomic energy committee was a regular visitor here.”
Hasson participated in the most sensitive negotiations Peres held with leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which were held with permission from Netanyahu.
When Netanyahu was still new in the prime minister position, Peres held a seminar for him and Sara to discuss the importance of reaching a political agreement with the Palestinians.
Afterwards, Netanyahu approved Peres’s request to engage in secret talks with Abbas. After a series of meetings, the two had planned to meet and sign an agreement of principles, but on the appointed day, Netanyahu got cold feet and called it off.
Netanyahu claims that he never gave approval to Peres’s meetings.
“I can testify that they were held with the approval of the prime minister. Bibi knew about everything.
He’d been updated with every detail in real time.”
Were these real negotiations that could have led to the signing of an agreement of principles?
Yes, absolutely. The negotiations were thorough and detailed. The numerous meetings took place in Europe as well as locally. Abbas sent Saeb Erekat and Nabil Abu Rudeineh to represent the Palestinians and on our side there was Peres, Avi Gil and myself. We discussed everything, including specific details. We made tremendous progress, and Peres updated Netanyahu every step of the way. We would request permission again each month before proceeding.
What was the goal of the meetings?
This was after Netanyahu’s Bar-Ilan speech [in 2009].
Our goal was to come up with a list of principles, to infuse the region with hope, and to eventually hold a summit between Netanyahu and Abbas. Peres had convinced the world that the Bar-Ilan speech was serious and that Bibi meant what he’d said. Peres himself believed it, too. Peres never stopped striving for peace. Until his last moment, he believed peace would prevail.
But then Bibi changed his mind?
That’s right. It was quite a shame. We’d kept every detail super secret, and I was very careful to maintain this. I really believed that both Bibi and Peres were very serious about the peace agreement.
Even Bibi?
Yes, during the entire process, Bibi appeared to be very committed to the process.
What was your relationship with Bibi like?
We were very close at the time. Peres didn’t care at all about Bibi’s electoral success over him in 1996. He never looked back. He viewed Netanyahu as someone who could make a dream come true.
Do you think that Bibi secretly despised Peres?
I’m not sure. I can’t tell you how many times after meetings, the prime minister would tell me, “Hasson, what would we do without you?” When Peres died, Bibi also felt like he’d been suddenly orphaned.
Do have any idea why Bibi vetoed the meeting at the last moment?
No. The deal was prepared down to the very last detail. Bibi was in the picture the entire time. Details were discussed only on the red secure phone. Nothing was ever leaked. But then Netanyahu changed his mind.
Were you disappointed?
I truly believed in this process. Any person who understands even a little logic would prefer hope over war.
You also experienced the intense crisis that developed between Peres and Netanyahu with the impending Iran attack. There must have been lots of drama in those days.
Yes, that’s right. It’s no secret that Peres was strongly opposed to Israel initiating a preemptive attack on Iran.
He understood that such an attack would cause more damage than good, and all of the leaders of Israel’s security organizations were in agreement. Peres thought that it would be better for an international coalition to deal with the issue instead of Israel at the lead.
Netanyahu and [defense minister Ehud] Barak had different opinions?
Peres told the prime minister and defense minister his opinion at every opportunity that arose. More than once when I got to the office in the morning I found Peres with puffy eyes from not having slept at night.
“Hasson,” he told me, ‘we have built such an incredible country. I won’t let those two ruin it.”
Was he referring to Netanyahu and Barak?
I think so. He was in close contact with the heads of the security organizations, the Americans, and the Europeans. He was in a position in which he could say certain things that other leaders couldn’t. And so he said them.
Did Peres really think that Bibi and Barak would be able to follow through?
I think so. But even if not, their actions led to a deterioration. I can’t go into details, but all of Israel’s security leadership were of the same opinion. They relied on Peres.
Do you think he overstepped his position?
After all he was the president, a mostly ceremonial position, not someone who is in a decision-making role.
He was Israel’s No. 1 citizen and it was totally appropriate for him to express his opinion. He did not have the authority to make decisions, but he did have the power to wield influence. Peres and Rivlin are the responsible adults here.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.