Editor’s Notes: The spy who went into the cold

By David Horovitz December 31, 2004

To escape from the mess it has created with the road map, says ex-Mossad chief and National Security Adviser Ephraim Halevy, Israel may have to ‘bite the bullet’ on a peace deal with Syria

A couple of years ago, I found myself walking behind Ephraim Halevy through London’s Heathrow airport, fresh off a plane from Tel Aviv. Amusing myself with the irony of tailing the former head of the Mossad, I followed him through passport control. He barely merited a glance from the immigration official on duty. Mild and avuncular, the last thing he looked like was a spy. Effortless self-effacement; what an asset in his former profession.

He doubtless appeared similarly unremarkable to the young man who served us coffee at the Jerusalem hotel where we talked a few days ago, when two months of dogged phone-calling by my tenacious secretary finally persuaded him to set a time and meet with me. Even as we sat down, he protested his irrelevance, professing to doubt that anything he had to say, well over a year after he resigned as Ariel Sharon’s National Security adviser and more than two years after he left the Mossad, could be of interest now to anyone but the historians.

On leaving Sharon’s employ in September 2003, he had given an interview to Haaretz in which he highlighted the dangers he saw in the way the road map framework was developing, protested the ‘offhandedness’ with which crucial decisions were being made, and warned that something deeply worrying was transpiring in the Prime Minister’s Office, whereby Sharon was being ‘denied some of the options that should be available to him.’

Was the culprit Sharon’s then-bureau chief, now senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, interviewer Ari Shavit inquired?

‘I don’t want to comment on personal questions,’ Halevy politely responded.

What could this British-born most civil of civil servants, careful, though anything but miserly with his verbiage, have to add all these months later that could possibly top those damming charges?

An avalanche of concerns, as it turns out, most of them emanating from what he frets over and over is that abhorent, skewed road map. Concerns that go to the very heart of our future here, and that resonate the more profoundly because of his well-documented, longstanding admiration and respect for Sharon, and his endorsement of the basic strategy followed by Sharon as prime minister until summer 2002.

HALEVY’S ARGUMENTS are too carefully constructed, too precisely detailed, to present fully in this column (even at the inordinate length at which I have found myself writing here on recent Fridays). The Post will publish the complete interview on Sunday.

But to summarize, Halevy is convinced that Mahmoud Abbas, the shoo-in to succeed Yasser Arafat, is telling the absolute truth in PA leadership campaign speeches when he flatly rules out the prospect of aggresively confronting the terrorists of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. But because Halevy also believes that Hamas is interested in taking a role in formal Palestinian goverance, he nonetheless predicts a continued decline in violence.

And, crucially, with that decline, he worries about escalating pressure on Israel to return to the dreaded road map – ‘an aberration,’ he calls it, a recipe for the kind of internationally imposed solution that previous Israeli governments always had the nous to avoid.

‘Frankly, there will be those people who say that the time has come to demand of Israel to move quickly to the ’67 borders and to make concessions on Jerusalem that will be very difficult for us to make,’ he warns. ‘And we put ourselves into this situation.’

Time and again in our conversation, we move away from the benighted subject and off toward some other point on the Israeli diplomatic and political horizon, only for Halevy to drive us into road map territory again, and raise yet another pained objection to its construction and development: the 14 ‘irrelevant’ Israeli objections; the debilitating consequences of the document’s formal approval by the Security Council; the delusions of the prime minister and those (still unnamed) officials around Sharon who thought they would be able to assign roles to the various international players and thus control the way the initiative would develop.

‘This is not the way international affairs play themselves out,’ Halevy says with exasperation.

And time and again, he catches himself, stops, murmurs, ‘But that’s history’ or a similar phrase, and moves off again, only to return later.

Perhaps more than any other player, Halevy may be credited with smoothing the path to Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with King Hussein’s Jordan (and with saving it three years later after Mossad agents botched a daylight assassination attempt on Hamas’s Khaled Mashal on the streets of Amman). And the only avenue of escape he offers now from the road map trap is via another Arab peace treaty – with Syria.

He says he has ‘no doubt’ that disengagement will be carried out next year and that on the Palestinian front, after that, there will have to be a pause. ‘And since you cannot have a pause in a vacuum with nothing happening, I think then will come the turn of the Syrians.’

WHILE THE United States is publicly indicating that it doesn’t want Israel to so much as smile in the direction of Damascus, Halevy is of the opinion that, in truth, Washington would be anything but inconvenienced by a renewal of Israeli-Syrian talks. And he offers a whole list of potential benefits to Israel, as well.

‘If we can get a peace with Syria, the inevitable result,’ he says, ‘would be that the Syrian-Iraqi border will be closed from insurgent activity, and that would be a major plus for the US – a major factor in deciding the war inside Iraq.

‘It would be a major blow to Iran, because Syria is the main Iranian ally in the Arab world.

‘And it would signal the beginning of the end of Hizbullah capability, which is extremely important, because the way things are at the moment Hizbullah is the single example of a non-state which has a balance of mutual deterrence with a state, with us. If we can catch this bird as well, then we will have caught three birds in one [go].

‘And finally, as you know, Syria is the center, still, of terrorist activities, of, shall we say, masterminding terrorist activities, in Israel. Once there is a peace, Damascus will no longer be a haven for Palestinian terrorists.’

So much to gain, but what of the price?

‘The negotiations have reached the point between us and the Syrians in the past where the core issues are very clearly narrowed down,’ he says. ‘Ultimately Israel will have to bite the bullet. That will be the time, after disengagement, when this will be the right thing to do.’

And Bashar Assad wants this to happen?

‘We have to put his feet to the fire.’

And maybe after that, he goes on, ‘I think the Palestinians can get their state with the provisional borders, without reaching the final status negotiations which are not in either their or our interests. That would be, in my opinion, the right thing to do.’

I ask him about the interim dimensions of this state with ‘provisional borders.’ Is he thinking of areas A and B, as defined by the 1995 Oslo II accord, which represent about 42 percent of the territories?

‘A and B, and maybe there would be another withdrawal of sorts,’ he says. ‘Not a return to the ’67 borders.’

Why is he recommending this further pullback? ‘The alternative is that they would press for final status negotiations which we could not get to, and then of course one of two things will happen: Either the international community will accept our position or we will be under pressure, yes through the road map, to negotiate final status.’

Eerily, as I sit to write these lines, our reporter Etgar Lefkovits has just filed his exclusive interview with Ehud Olmert, in which the minister speaks of the need for a second stage of disengagement ‘on a wider scale’ than the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria, arguing that this offers the only realistic alternative to a yet more massive pullback as a result of the road map.

HALEVY SPENT most of his working life in the Mossad – in the US and Europe – rising to deputy head before leaving to become Israel’s ambassador to the European Union in Brussels, then returning as Mossad chief after the Mashal fiasco, and finally spending that brief period as Sharon’s National Security adviser. It was an extraordinary career, but he’s still barely into his 70s.

And while he wonders at one point in our interview about whether he sounds ‘old-fashioned,’ and often sounds much more like a lifelong academic than the assured strategist and fixer he was for so long, I come away from our conversation quite convinced that Ephraim Halevy is far more astute than many of those who have succeeded him in key positions. That his departure was premature and surely constituted a grave loss to the prime minister. And that if he is this worried about Israel’s governance and future, we should all be.

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