Looking beyond the lamppost

By David Horovitz January 2, 2005

A former head of the Mossad and briefly Sharon’s national security adviser, Ephraim Halevy stresses that he has been out of the intelligence business for quite a while now. But perhaps with distance, he muses, he sees some of the threats facing Israel more clearly

For most of his life, Ephraim Halevy was a Mossad man, working in the shadows to protect Israel and its people, advance their interests.

Quietly, with a minimum of fuss, he helped smooth the path for Ethiopian immigration to Israel, aided in the tentative forging of relations with certain regional states, played a key role in the establishment of a peace treaty with Jordan, and, it can safely be assumed, joined and oversaw countless espionage initiatives whose full details may not be known for many years to come.

Even when he moved on from his post as head of the Mossad to become Ariel Sharon’s national security adviser, for a brief 10 months from late 2002, he was hardly an outspoken or prominent public presence. It was not his way.

But Halevy is speaking out now, and how. He was not the most willing interviewee, readily agreeing in principle but proving extremely hard to pin down over weeks of phone-tag. But when we finally got to talk last week, he unleashed a great torrent of concern over the potential dangers awaiting Israel if the road map process is allowed to go ahead, along with practical suggestions on alternative, more effective ways forward.

In impeccably constructed English sentences (he arrived here from the UK in 1948, in his early teens), Halevy also offered some unconventional thinking on the benefits of pushing for peace with Syria, a calm perspective on the strategic threat posed by Iran, and instruction on the need to expect the unexpected as regards nuclear proliferation elsewhere in the region. Excerpts:

What do you think Abu Mazen is going to be able to do, or going to want to do, about Palestinian terrorism, assuming he wins the January 9 Palestinian Authority election?

I believe that after the election there will be a concerted effort on the part of the Palestinians to get their act together – that they are going to reorganize, streamline the security system. And it will get very near what was originally requested of them by the international community and Israel – that is, to reduce the number of security groups who were vying with each other.

This new system of government will not be based on Arafat’s system – whereby he used one [security apparatus] against the other whenever he felt it served its purpose.

I believe that there will be a concerted effort to bring about a cease-fire, first of all between the various factions inside the Palestinian Authority. The municipal elections held a few days ago show that the Hamas has a very firm following – it’s a minority, but a very, very powerful minority. Though they have indicated they are not going to participate in the presidential elections, sooner or later there will be a parliamentary election and then most probably Hamas will participate. If Hamas wants to maintain its individual positions, and if at the same time it wants to be part of the governmental system in the Palestinian Authority, it could well be that, as a result, it would moderate some of its positions in practical terms. In other words, for all practical purposes, if they were to accept a more moderate stand, the level of violence would recede.

And therefore Abu Mazen wouldn’t need to take them on?

I don’t think Abu Mazen will contemplate a violent showdown.

And we can live with that?

There are conflicting messages emanating from the powers that be on this issue. On the one hand you often hear the prime minister saying that if there’ll be quiet on their side, then there’ll be quiet on our side. This seems to indicate that he’s not interested in the method by which [quiet] is obtained. But you hear other voices saying that as long as the Palestinians don’t dismantle the terrorist infrastructures and so forth, it won’t be possible to proceed.

My understanding is that if Abu Mazen succeeds, with the help of the Egyptians and others, in bringing down the level of violence over a period of time – a period of several months – it will be very difficult for Israel to say that this is unacceptable, very difficult for Israel to demand that these or those steps be taken, steps which, if taken, might in themselves provoke violence.

I just mean to say that there will be pressure on Israel to begin negotiating within the confines of the road map – even though, maybe technically speaking, the steps that were taken in order to [reduce violence] were not exactly the steps which were outlined in the road map.

And the road map, as far as you are concerned, is something we should be troubled about being forced into…?

I have maintained from the outset that the road map was an aberration. It is based not only on the UN Resolutions 242 and 338; it also mentions the Saudi initiative and other resolutions. The road map itself was approved by the Security Council… It is not only accepted by the parties, but is the official document which is the basis for the future. And the fact that Israel has these or those reservations on the ’14 points,’ so to speak, this is immaterial. The 14 points were not accepted even by the United States. I didn’t think the 14 points were anyway of any importance. Many of the points were very badly drafted. Some of them are even linguistically inexplicable.

[Furthermore], the ultimate judgment of whether Stage A or Stage B [of the road map] has been obtained is in the hands of the Quartet (the UN, US, Russia and EU), not in the hands of the parties. And this is the beginning of an imposed solution. It certainly creates the beginnings of pressures which can be very damaging. It places Israel in a very precarious situation both diplomatically and internationally.

Could you elaborate on how and why you see those pressures developing?

I would like to recall again that the concept of the unilateral disengagement as it was presented was that it would be not part of the implementation of the road map.

It was specifically stated that this was… a kind of diversion from the road map. I don’t want to use the expression ‘formaldehyde’ (the word employed to describe the likely status of the peace process after disengagement by Dov Weisglass, the top aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Weisglass was Sharon’s bureau chief at the time of Halevy’s resignation as national security adviser in 2003). This is an unfortunate phrase.
The concept was that unilateral disengagement would create a new situation which would last for some time, the assumption being that the parties were not ripe for final status negotiations.

On our side, I think the anguish and the pain involved with what is going to happen over the next few months will be such that it will not be politically easy to move very quickly to final status negotiations. On the Palestinian side, it will take some time for the Palestinian leadership to be sufficiently in the saddle to be able to concentrate on the painful decisions that they have to make, like the refugees and so forth. But from the Palestinian point of view there is a lot of merit to moving as quickly as possible to the final status of negotiations, because the onus on Israel will be very, very pronounced.

So that’s why you’re so wary of the road map?

It had the elements of an imposed solution, and the elements of final status which are difficult for us to accept. Even the letter of President Bush [given to Sharon during his April 2004 visit to the White House], which spoke about taking into account the situation on the ground, didn’t state what the Palestinians would possibly gain in exchange if we were indeed to maintain the settlement blocs that we are going to maintain. That was left in the air and obviously so. Even on the issue of refugees, Bush said that they should be settled outside rather than in Israel – rather than in Israel, which is not to say, linguistically, that there will be not one solitary refugee coming to Israel, although this is a position which could be taken and I think rightly so. So although President Bush’s letter appears on the face of it to be very strong support of Israel and Sharon, there is still enough wording, verbiage, in it to enable people to work on these things in the future. We have seen in the past that you can take a document and read interpretations into it once it becomes public knowledge.

[What happens after disengagement] will also depend on the way things go in the Middle East in general, for what length of time the Iraqi drama will play itself out. The longer it takes, the more the inclination of both President Bush and Mr. Blair to try and achieve a major breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It will be important for them both regionally and also domestically.

Yes, we’ve agreed to the [British prime minister's planned] London conference [ostensibly designed to encourage PA reforms]. And Blair has agreed that this should not be a political conference… But it will be a very high level conference to be attended by very senior people and although Israel will be absent, obviously some of what will happen there will not be purely economic.

So we must see now that we’re moving in a direction which was not foreseen.

You make it all sound disastrous.

The word disastrous is too extreme a word to use. I don’t think there’s much to be done at the moment to change this. Very often what happen in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and it has happened in other conflicts too), is that when initiatives are launched, the initiators, in this case the prime minister and those around him, delude themselves into believing they can control the way the initiative will play itself out and the various roles of the different players – that we, Israel, will apportion to each one of the players a set role to play and thus the initiative will be controlled. This is not the way international affairs play themselves out.

Take the Madrid Conference, which was initiated at the time by Mr. Shamir, [but] took on a life of its own which was very different to that which Mr. Shamir originally wanted. Or when those who initiated the Oslo process felt they would control and sort of monitor the process in their own spirit. That didn’t happen due to political changes in Israel.

Here, again: the [disengagement] initiative was launched when Arafat was still around. I think his timely death, if I can call it that, on the one hand relieved everybody from his presence, a presence characterized by almost everybody as being an obstacle to peace. On the other hand it released all the other vectors in the game and it is no longer possible to control things.

In actual fact the unilateral disengagement will not be unilateral and it will not be disengagement. Even before Arafat died, the Egyptians were going to take a role.

So much for unilateral. Why won’t it be disengagement?

Because we will control access to Gaza – we will not accept in advance that they will immediately have their own port and airport – and because the Gazan economy will depend on Israel for quite some time to come.

Specifically, what kind of post-disengagement international pressures do you fear Israel will find itself facing?

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 which will be very difficult for us to make. And we put ourselves into this situation – because the whole structure of the road map creates an international forum which sort of adjudicates, it doesn’t just monitor, the situation. This is something that we have shied away from for years and years. There’s always been an understanding in Israel, both on the part of the Likud and on the part of the traditional Labor party, that we should not finalize negotiations under the aegis, under the auspices of an international conference.

Why? Because [that kind of structure] contains seeds of compulsion, of imposition. And imposition in the end is something that takes into account the interests of the imposers no less than the interest of those on whom the settlement is imposed… One should be very careful before sort of entering this channel without considering all the consequences.

But the situation is what it is now. And there’s no going back on this. And we have the road map and Israel is committed to the road map… Anyway that’s the way things are. The important thing now is not to look backwards. What I’ve said now is history. The historians can debate whether I’m right or wrong…

[After disengagement], the question will arise: what happens next. And I believe that the next step after disengagement will be a move on the Syrian track.

Just a second, are you sure that disengagement will be carried out?

I have no doubt that there will be disengagement.

I have no doubt that the prime minister has the political will.

Clearly there is a very extreme fringe…

Moderation will prevail if the government takes a different position on its policy versus the settlers. The idea of legislation with very severe punishment of people who resist the evacuation is ill-conceived. If I’m not mistaken, in the committee stage it has been dropped and wisely so. I think that intimidating the settlers and alienating the settler community is a major mistake…

What I would like to say is that the responsibility for the prevention of bloodshed is the total responsibility of the government. The government will not be able to absolve itself by saying that this or that happened because the settlers behaved in this or that way. The government has a heavy responsibility, a tremendous responsibility, to prevent bloodshed. I have no doubt that the prime minister must be aware of this. I’m not sure that all the others are.

There is one more reason why I believe from every point of view we have an interest in not moving to final status: I’ve heard it said that we should not fear the road map because in order for the Palestinians to meet the requirements of the first stage they would have to be like the Swedes. And that since everybody recognizes the Palestinians will never be Swedes, there is no danger in the road map. If that is so [in the government's thinking], it also indicates a lack of sincerity because it says we accepted the road map based on the assumption that the other side would never be able to meet its requirements. I think a responsible government cannot officially promote such a position.

That’s why I think it will need a pause. There has to be a pause after the disengagement. And since you cannot have a pause in a vacuum with nothing happening for a variety of reasons, I think then will come the turn of the Syrians, because I think it’s difficult for any Israeli government to deal with two such issues simultaneously.

I think the Syrian issue is important for a variety of reasons: Because although the US is officially not pressuring Israel to speak to Syria – there have even been statements indicating the US would be unhappy if Israel began negotiating with Syria – I’m not sure this is the case. I’m not sure at all. Syria is a key player now because Syria is the main staging ground of the entry of international insurgence in Iraq. Syria is still the vital conduit for Hizbullah support in Lebanon and Syria is still the epitome of extreme anti-Israel positions in the Arab world. But Syria is also very weak at the moment and very vulnerable and I think it’s very useful to deal with Syria at a time when it’s not at the peak of its power.

If we can get a peace with Syria, the inevitable result of the peace 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.

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 we have four things we can gain simultaneously, and make a major contribution to the US. And since we have so much to gain from the US, and have seen so much support from the US, it would be relatively easy to sell this to the Israeli public as part of the overall efforts of the free world to face up to international terrorism.

We’re part of an alliance, and in an alliance you have to gain and you also have to pay your dues.

Our dues on the Syrian front being?

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

You make it sound like this will be very straightforward.

Negotiations of this type are not concluded overnight. I think the latter part of 2005 will be the time when negotiations can be under way.

Bashar Assad wants this to happen?

Whether he’s serious or not I don’t know. He has asked to renew negotiations with Israel without prior conditions. We have to put his feet to the fire. We have to put it to the test. And I think this should be the time when this should happen. And maybe after that I’m sure the Palestinians will want a little more. 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.

What do you mean by a state with provisional borders?

If you recall, the statements of President Bush [from June 2002] were that if the Palestinians have a new leadership and so forth, that if they get their house in order, they will have a state with provisional borders… I mean border issues sometimes take a very long time.

What exactly are you suggesting would apply in the West Bank? That they would be sovereign in areas A and B [42 percent of the territory]?

A and B, and maybe there would be another withdrawal of sorts which could be worked out. I don’t know. Not a return to the ’67 borders. I know that the Palestinians will be fearful that this would be the end of the process, but if it was stated that they get their state… 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.

Again, the problem with the road map is that it was supposed to be the implementation of President Bush’s vision – a new leadership for the Palestinians, reform in the security apparatus [as a precondition for statehood in provisional borders]. This was the idea, which by the way was initiated by us, in spring 2002, and we were successful in selling it to all and sundry. But the road map has taken on a life of its own. And the road map does not deal with provisional borders. The road map is a blueprint for a permanent solution.

But as I said, that’s history. It’s gone. We have it now. We are now committed to negotiating a permanent solution, according to the road map, with international verification.

Does the prime minister share your assessment that therefore we should move away from that by looking towards the Syrians?

I have no idea whatsoever what his views are. He may well feel I’m now concerned with one thing and that is disengagement and I don’t want anyone to stir the waters.

Does he share your dismay at how the road map has developed?

You’ll have to ask him. I know originally he was very unhappy with the road map.

Changing the subject for a moment, were we absolutely wrong about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?

I don’t think so. This is an issue that in my view is still open. I believe that Saddam Hussein’s regime was intent on restoring its projects of WMD. I don’t think we knew exactly how far they’d gotten.

Do you think material was moved abroad, to Syria?

Everything is possible.

Why are we not more panicked about Iran’s drive toward a nuclear capability? Are there all sorts of plans that we don’t talk about for all kinds of understandable reasons?

I don’t think we’re acting wrongly on the Iranian issue. Iran is the only member state of the United Nations which has a stated policy of the destruction of another member of the international community of nations. It’s unprecedented – very serious.

It so happens there is a meeting of interests and a meeting of concepts between us and the civilized world. There’s a threat against Israel but not only against Israel. We are wise to defer to the international community to try and resolve this problem.

Would Israel be able to tolerate Iran going nuclear?

I think that’s the wrong question. If Iran became nuclear, Israel would have to rephrase and reform the strategies… I don’t think it would be wise to theorize before something happens.

Can this yet be resolved diplomatically?

I don’t know. The US is dealing with this issue sensibly.

I want to draw your attention to a very interesting article that appeared in The New York Times [on December 26] on the programs of A.Q. Khan in Pakistan. (Khan, a key player in the Pakistani nuclear program, has been pardoned by President Pervez Musharraf after making a non-specific televised confession relating to his alleged black market in sales of nuclear bomb-related material, considered the largest illicit nuclear proliferation network in history). It contains a lot of information on the extent and scope [of the alleged trafficking by Khan], and raises questions marks about how many countries in the world were recipients of elements of nuclear capabilities… With or without the acquiescence of the establishment, he was purveying his goods extensively in the Middle East.

Is there somewhere else we should be looking, apart from Iran? Is that what you’re saying?

The question arises: Syria, question mark; Saudi Arabia, question mark; Egypt, question mark; many other question marks.

Are you saying that those countries might have a nuclear capability we are not aware of?

Could well be. I don’t know. It’s certainly something that should be looked at.

Sometimes in the history of this region we looked for the object under the lamppost. Maybe we should be looking beyond the lamppost. Maybe the lamppost is Iran and we should be looking elsewhere.

I stress that I’ve been out of business for the last two years. I’ve had no access to classified information since then. Sometimes the lack of information enables you to look creatively where you were hamstrung by too much information.

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