Thinking the unthinkable

Good intelligence officers should be non-conformist in their appraisals.

barghouti in handcuffs88 (photo credit: )
barghouti in handcuffs88
(photo credit: )
Good intelligence officers should be non-conformist in their intelligence appraisals; they should be able to think the unthinkable, and that is true for politicians as well. Some of our biggest setbacks were caused by a failure to understand that need. That, for example, was the reason that we were caught with our pants down on a bleak Yom Kippur day in 1973 - our Military Intelligence thought it inconceivable that Egypt would start a war against us that it could not possibly win. A failure to think the unthinkable brought a Military Intelligence appraisal in September 1977 to state that "even though we have detected some semantic modifications (in Egypt's position), we believe that at this point of time there is nothing more to it beyond semantics and propaganda tactics." A month later the Middle East was turned on its head with President Sadat's announcement of his impending visit to Jerusalem. Our failure to grasp the enormity of the change that was happening brought our deputy prime minister at the time - a former general - to demand that we immediately mobilize two reserve army corps, for, as he put it, the announced visit was most probably no more than a cover to launch another surprise attack against Israel. "You people are crazy," a senior Military Intelligence officer told me when he heard that some Mossad operatives had set up a team to examine intelligence material for signs of a possible peace with Arab countries. We had been so attuned to search for signs of a possible war that the idea of looking for peace signs was seen as ludicrous. Today, conformist thinking has it that there is no possible chance of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians, that we have no partners to engage in peace negotiations, and that we and the Palestinians are destined to live by the sword indefinitely. And, indeed, all the facts seem to point to this being the case. Israel cannot possibly negotiate with a government that refuses to recognize our existence, which will not abide by previous agreements between us and the Palestinians, and refuses to dismantle terror infrastructure. The Hamas set-up is a non-starter, as far as we are concerned. Yet that does not mean that we cannot move forward toward peace with the Palestinians. It may not be achieved in one dramatic move. There may be need for more than one step before we reach the desired goal. But those steps are not unattainable. They can be achieved through PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, by-passing the Hamas government. And just as a majority of Israel's population would welcome such an initiative, so would a majority of Palestinians give their approval. For although many people here think otherwise, the Palestinians want and need peace as much as we do, but they, just like us, do not believe it is attainable. Just like us, they believe they don't have partners for peace. A poll published this week by the Hebrew University's Truman Institute and by Khalil Shikaki shows that an amazing two-thirds of the Israelis polled are in favor of end-of-conflict negotiations with Abbas or with a unity government that would include Hamas ministers. More than half of those questioned agree to have such negotiations with a Hamas government. Fifty-two percent of the Israelis and 48% of the Palestinians favor a solution along the lines of the Clinton proposals or the Geneva initiative. Eighty-one percent of the Palestinians prefer negotiations for a final settlement of the conflict rather than intermediary steps. There are, at present, a number of plans on the burner for moving forward on the Palestinian front. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is reportedly active in this field. Again, what is needed is non-conformist thinking. It would, for example, be non-conformist in the extreme to think of releasing a prisoner serving three life terms. Yet if Marwan Barghouti were to be set free it would make all the difference in future Palestinian elections. According to a recent Palestinian poll, if presidential elections were to be held at this time Mahmoud Abbas would obtain 46% of the votes, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh 45%. Yet if the contest were between Marwan Barghouti and Khaled Mashaal, the hard-line Hamas leader, then 57% would vote for Barghouti and only 36% for Mashaal. It could be said, with some justice, that the release of a prisoner with blood on his hands is inconceivable. Yet it could also be said, with no less justice, that Yasser Arafat had vastly more blood on his hands than Barghouti, yet Israel's prime ministers, including Binyamin Netanyahu, embraced him and feted him. They did it because they felt it was in Israel's interest to do so. It is, today, in Israel's interest that in any forthcoming elections, Hamas does not emerge yet once more as the victor. The dismantlement of 24 barriers out of a total of more than 500 that exist today in Judea and Samaria will not make much difference; nor will the release of a few dozen prisoners for Sunday's Eid al-Adha. Such gestures, welcome as they are for the Palestinians, will not necessarily make them flock to the voting booths as supporters of Fatah. The release of Barghouti, however, would do just that. It is the one move that Israel could make that could assure a victory of those who do not accept the three "no's" of Hamas. Barghouti had been one of the founding members of the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace, better known as the Copenhagen Group. In that framework I held long talks with him and got to know his political thinking. He does not like us. He will continue to fight against us as long as we remain as an occupying power, lording over the Palestinian people. But he is a strong believer in the need for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. Once a Palestinian state is established in the West Bank and Gaza, Barghouti, in contrast to the Hamas religious fundamentalists will accept Israel and live in peace with his Israeli neighbors. So should we think the unthinkable, and call for Barghouti's release? If that is in Israel's interest, if it can help us to get rid of a Hamas government that has turned its back on peace, then let's go ahead and do it.