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Spy Story

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Efraim Halevy.
Man in the Shadows.
St. Martin’s Press. 304 pages. $24.95

Screw-ups are not what the Mossad, Israel’s powerful intelligence agency, is normally known for, but a monumental one occurred on September 24, 1997, when two Israeli agents traveling on fake Canadian passports were arrested in Amman, Jordan after having injected a top leader of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, Khaled Mashal, with a nerve toxin. Four of their teammates had sought refuge in the Israeli embassy in Amman. The order to eliminate the Hamas terrorist had come from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to suicide bombing attacks in Jerusalem which had claimed 16 Israeli lives. But now the incident threatened to derail Israel’s newly completed peace agreement with Jordan, as King Hussein could not afford to be seen acquiescing in Israeli acts of retribution on his soil. The king was livid and threatened to have his commandos storm the embassy if the Israeli agents did not surrender.

On the instructions of the Israeli Prime Minister, an Israeli doctor with an antidote had been rushed to the unconscious Hamas leader, and he was revived. Subsequently, the terror organization’s founder, the blind and quadriplegic Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was released from an Israeli jail, where he was serving a life sentence, and handed over to the Jordanians. The sheikh was then flown to Gaza by a Jordanian military helicopter, where he received a tumultuous welcome. Nineteen other prisoners were also released, and more were to follow later. A stiff price to pay for the Israelis, but the lives of their agents and relations with Jordan took precedence.

The man sent by Netanyahu to defuse the situation and get the Israeli agents out was Efraim Halevy who, as deputy director of the Mossad, had been instrumental in securing the peace treaty with Jordan, and who was then serving as ambassador to the European Union. His handling of the crisis earned him the top job in the Mossad, its directorship, and the story is told in his new memoir, Man in the Shadows.

Intelligence chiefs are not usually in the habit of writing tell-all accounts, which would indeed run contrary to the nature of the profession, and Halevy is no exception. So, rather than writing a full-blown memoir going all the way back to when he joined the Mossad in 1961, Halevy concentrates on the years 1990–2003, a period of major upheaval for his country, and details some of the key political battles he took part in, settling a number of scores along the way.

For Israel, this was a time of intense outside pressure to enter into agreement with the Palestinians. And, as Halevy points out, it did not help matters that during this period Israel had five changes of premiership, with each prime minister having his own agenda, sometimes running contrary to that of his predecessor. And not only that: On occasion, the politicians would attempt to bypass the intelligence professionals in the pursuit of their goals, only to be forced to bring them back in when it came to implementation. Israel cannot afford to gamble with its security.

This was also a period in which the rules of the intelligence game itself changed. During the Cold War, there had been certain givens, certain agreed-upon ways of doing business. When it came to figuring out what the East Bloc nations were up to, in addition to the intelligence sources, Halevy notes, there was a variety of open sources, such as diplomatic and trade contacts, to resort to, all of which made the actions of the communist side easier to read. In the new world, things are different. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran — not to mention terrorist groups like al Qaeda —  are much harder to penetrate. New ways of countering these forces must be thought up, casting the intelligence chiefs in a new role as originators of policy. In short, the world has become less predictable, which puts a premium on reliable intelligence and equally important, on its correct interpretation.


On the surface, Israel’s security situation after the fall of the Wall looked much improved. Its Arab adversaries were losing their principal backer, the Soviet Union, which was coming apart. But according to Halevy, the Gulf War of 1991 quickly put an end to any Israeli complacency. In order not to break up the coalition of participating Arab states, the U.S. had appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to refrain from retaliating if Saddam Hussein attempted to hit Israel, and had rushed Patriot anti-missile batteries to Israel. These weren’t working as advertised, and 39 of Saddam’s Scuds got through to Israel. Though the material damage was limited, the damage to morale was significant. And Israel’s deterrent posture had been weakened. Until then, an aggressor could be certain that the Israeli response would be swift and deadly. Now things were less clear-cut.

What’s more, in order to demonstrate “even-handedness” in the region, the United States, after the victory in the Gulf War, increased its pressure on Israel to reach an accommodation with neighboring Arab states and with the Palestinians, with Secretary of State James Baker proving particularly diligent in the arm-twisting. The 1991 Madrid Conference under joint U.S. and Soviet auspices established three sets of negotiations: Talks would be held between the Israelis and the Syrians, between the Israelis and the Jordanians, and between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the latter case, the Jordanians were fronting for the Palestinians: Shamir and his conservative Likud Party refused official dealings with the plo, though his government had had unofficial contacts with them.

In fact, Shamir, whose party was wedded to the notion of “the entire land of Israel” — what is commonly called the West Bank is seen by many, both within and outside Israel, as the Biblical heartland of the country, ancient Judea, and Samaria — had little interest in negotiations that were almost guaranteed to kill that dream, but he was confident he could drag out the proceedings and preserve intact Israel’s position vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

But negotiations, once entered into ,have a way of gaining a momentum of their own. And in the meantime, in 1992, Israel had changed government, in part, according to Halevy, as a result of U.S. economic pressure. The new pm, Labor’s Yitzhak Rabin, was aiming for a kind of historic compromise with the Arabs, seeking peace treaties with Israel’s neighbors similar to the one that had been concluded with Egypt 14 years before, and moving cautiously to try to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Talks with the Syrians — who were the Palestinians’ prime backers, and an agreement with whom would therefore have weakened Arafat’s bargaining power — were going nowhere. But in the negotiations with the Palestinians themselves things were trickier. Here Rabin’s foreign minister and archrival, the perennial man in Israeli politics Shimon Peres, had been conducting clandestine talks with members of the plo in Norway, and the result of his labors was announced in 1993: the Oslo Agreement, the first of its kind with the Palestinians, which envisaged allowing the Palestinians a large degree of self-rule in a five-year transition period on the way to final-status negotiations and statehood, in return for which the Palestinians would forswear their campaign of terror.

With the agreement, Peres presented Rabin with a fait accompli and, according to Halevy, the agreement was indeed a model of how not to proceed. So vague were its provisions that Rabin characterized it as a Swiss cheese “where the holes outnumber the actual morsels of cheese,” but there was not much Rabin could do about it at the time. This, coupled with his deep disdain for Arafat, accounted for his pained expression during the famous handshake on the White House lawn on September 1993. But according to Halevy, Rabin hoped he could repair some of the damage at a later stage.

Thus the villain of the book on the Israeli side is Shimon Peres, who in his eagerness to reach an agreement completely ignored his country’s security concerns. In fact, the intelligence establishment had been deliberately left out of the Oslo deliberations. According to Halevy, Peres was extremely contemptuous of the intelligence community. It would be fair to say that these feelings were entirely reciprocated.

How long Rabin would have put up with Palestinian infractions before pulling the plug at the agreement one can only guess at. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli zealot. But the net result of the agreement, notes Halevy, was “more than a decade of strife and thousands of dead on both sides.”


Halevy’s own involvement in Israel’s peace efforts came in negotiations with the Jordanians where, as deputy chief of the Mossad, he served as Rabin’s secret envoy. Militarily the Jordanians did not amount to much, as had been demonstrated in the Six-Day War of 1967, in which Jordan promptly lost the West Bank. But as Halevy points out, Jordan plays host to several hundred thousand former Palestinians and Jordanian territory could easily serve as a launching pad for terrorist attacks or for a full-scale invasion. So a treaty with Jordan would be very much in Israel’s interest.

Israel had already been conducting clandestine negotiations with King Hussein for decades, but the king had been in no particular hurry, insisting that each issue be handled separately. In 1993, Hussein suddenly declared himself prepared to engage in negotiations across-the-board, involving borders, water rights, and security issues. The reason for his sudden conversion was the Oslo Agreement, which had caught him unawares and which he feared would shunt him off to the sidelines. The question of Jerusalem particularly worried him, as the Jordanians saw themselves as the guardians of the holy places, and the King certainly did not want to cede that role to Arafat.

In Washington, initially, the attitude was less than enthusiastic. The king’s stock in the nation’s capital was low, his credibility shot after the Gulf War, in which, to the dismay of the Bushies, he had chosen to be neutral, which actually meant favoring Saddam Hussein. Besides, King Hussein had made peace overtures before but had lacked firm commitment, and the Clinton administration was now busy working on the Syrian angle, which officials felt held the key to peace in the region. Halevy had to use all his powers of persuasion to convince the Clinton people that Hussein was sincere before they gave their go-ahead for direct talks in June 1994.

The enterprise was not without risks for the king, who remembered only too well the fate of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a result of his peace efforts. In order to secure the support of the armed forces on whom his crown depended, Hussein needed the U.S. to lift the blockade and start resupplying the Jordanian armed forces with new equipment and spare parts. His wish list also included a squadron of f–16 fighters and debt forgiveness. At first his request was turned down by the Clinton administration, but again Halevy was instrumental in getting the administration to change its position.

All the snags, twists and turns on the way to the Washington Declaration, and then on to the final peace treaty itself officially ending the state of war between the two nations, are recorded — with lawyers attempting to dilute the text, and with uncertainty as to who was to sign what going on to the last minute — and it makes for excellent diplomatic history.

And for comedy, too. Throughout these negotiations, Rabin’s mistrust of Peres kept Peres out of the loop, with Halevy being carefully instructed by the prime minister’s office on what the foreign minister could safely be told — which, one gathers, wasn’t much. At the very moment of the signing of the Washington Declaration, Peres still had not been allowed to see the actual document and sat in front of Halevy on the White House lawn fuming. Predictably, Peres went on to make a last-ditch attempt to hijack the final treaty negotiations but was successfully deflected.

As a reward for Halevy’s efforts, Rabin had promised him the ambassadorship to Jordan. Peres made it clear he would not accept the appointment, and Halevy withdrew his candidacy, asking instead for the post of ambassador to the European Union, which can only be classified as an act of supreme self-sacrifice. Just before Halevy assumed his new position, Rabin was assassinated and Peres succeeded him. But the Peres premiership only lasted six months before he was defeated in an election by Benjamin Netanyahu, signaling a return to the hard line.

As noted above, Halevy was called back from Brussels by Netanyahu in September 1997 to save the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty after the botched assassination attempt on the Hamas leader that had so infuriated King Hussein. Halevy’s recommendation, that the Israelis release Sheikh Yassin, caused great consternation in Israel, both in government circles and when it became public. An earlier attempt to free Yassin had seen an Israeli soldier taken hostage by Hamas terrorists and Rabin refusing any deals. The ensuing rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of the Israeli hostage and one of the would-be rescuers. So handing over the sheikh was not an easy thing for Israel to do, but Netanyahu ended up supporting it, as did Ariel Sharon, who was minister of national infrastructure at the time.

The accusation that innocent Israelis were subsequently killed on Yassin’s orders has naturally bothered Halevy. He responds that Israeli prisons are not airtight — indeed, he refers to them as “hotbeds of terrorist planning and inspiration” — and that the sheikh’s orders could have gotten out in a variety of ways. Yassin eventually got his just desserts in Gaza in 2004, when an Israeli missile from a helicopter gunship blew his car to bits — an example of the policy of carefully targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders that Halevy had instituted.


Before assuming the post of director of the Mossad at the age of 64, Halevy asked Benjamin Netanyahu to restore the powers that had been stripped from the man he was taking over from, General Danny Yatom. Halevy argued that while a prime minister’s approval for certain kinds of operations was needed, he should not be involved in the operational side, not only because this would undermine the authority of the director of the Mossad, but also because only thus could the prime minister be insulated from any failures. In short, a prime minister needs deniability, which would be impossible if he insisted on running the show himself. Halevy got what he wanted.

His next move was to take steps to reform the Mossad, making it less of what he calls the “family type” enterprise that it had been in its early days, when recruitments were through those already in the business, often among family members, and operatives tended to stay for their whole working lives. Today’s career people prefer shorter commitments. To attract the brightest and gain access to a wider talent pool, Halevy placed ads in the papers announcing that the Mossad was looking for candidates. His was the first intelligence agency to do so, and the cia and Britain’s mi6 have since followed suit. To the older folks, he notes, this bordered on sacrilege.

On the other hand, an intelligence agency can never be merely an impersonal career place — like, say, a ministry of health. Loyalty is crucial, and it cuts both ways. The national interest may demand that a government insulate itself from failures, but the state still has a responsibility to help those who are caught during missions undertaken on its behalf. Only when assured of this will people run risks. Thus, Halevy spent a good deal of time visiting operatives to pledge to them his personal backing in case things went wrong.

With these preliminaries squared away, he could get down to business. Much of his time as Mossad chief was of course taken up by Yassir Arafat. In his dispassionate intelligence officer’s assessment of the Palestinian leader’s abilities, Arafat gets high marks for his skill in surviving in a poisonous environment, which rested on his ability to play rivals against each other, and for keeping his movement together from his Tunisian exile, after the Israeli invasion had forced him and his plo fighters out of Lebanon in 1982. He was also very successful in his menacing mendicant road-show in bilking the Europeans of their money.

In pretty much everything else Arafat earns failing grades. He was not a statesman looking after the interest of his people, but essentially a brigand whose only concern lay in remaining in power and who failed to grasp one of the cardinal rules in international affairs, namely, that you cannot double-cross everybody indiscriminately and expect them not to notice.

Arafat’s great mistake, says Halevy, consisted in twice making a fool of the president of the United States, first when Clinton hosted the unsuccessful Camp David session with Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, and again in Clinton’s final frantic peace visit to the Middle East. Equally unwisely, after the Israeli army went into Palestinian territory to root out terrorists in March 2002, Arafat managed to incur the wrath of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with his appeals to the masses to take to the streets in Arab capitals in support of the Palestinians, an attempt to force the Egyptians to end relations with Israel. Mubarak does not like mass demonstrations in the streets of Cairo that he has not arranged himself. He did not lift a finger on Arafat’s behalf.

As to Arafat’s endless lies and ludicrous claims, Halevy notes, either he actually believed them, which would make him a poor deluded fantasist, or he did not believe them, which would make him a compulsive liar. In either case, he was not a credible negotiating partner.

After Palestinian suicide bombers struck a resort hotel in Netanya during Passover 2002, Ariel Sharon had had it with Arafat and was inclined to send him into exile. In Halevy’s opinion, however, such a step would only make him a martyr. Instead, a decision was made to confine Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah, from whence he would not be allowed to move inside the territories or to travel to foreign destinations. (In a later, slight adjustment, he was granted permission to go abroad, with the understanding that if he did, he would not be let back in again.) With his headquarters crumbling around him as a result of the two-year Israeli siege, Arafat tried to put on the great tragic act of the doomed warrior-king who stays with his people, but reaction in the world was muted. Everybody was fed up with him.

This also accounts for the international receptivity to a plan for regime change and the encouragement of a new power center in the Palestinian Authority — something Halevy had come up with in the agency’s enhanced role of policy originator. The plan argued that a new position as prime minister should be created in the Palestinian Authority, with Arafat kicked upstairs to a ceremonial head-of-state role, a kind of malevolently-bearded Queen of England. The plan was floated in Washington, Cairo, and Amman, and was quickly adopted by the international community, becoming official U.S. policy on June 24, 2002, when President Bush made a Rose Garden address entitled “A Call for a New Palestinian Leadership.” Mahmoud Abbas was installed as prime minister in March 2003.

Following their success in getting the world to accept their blueprint for reform of the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis suffered a nasty setback when, a week before going to war with Saddam Hussein, President Bush — on the insistence of his British ally — endorsed the so-called Road Map for peace in the Middle East. The plan, which had been kicking around European capitals, the un, and among State Department officials for a while, envisaged a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the question of Jerusalem, by 2005. Now Tony Blair, whose participation in the impending Iraqi war was intensely unpopular among his own domestic constituencies, had enlisted Bush’s help in trying to shut the locals up.

For Israel, this was not an attractive plan. It operated on an unrealistic time frame, and, of course, the idea of a divided Jerusalem is anathema to Israelis. The plan also left it up to others to determine whether the two sides were living up to its provisions, a right Israel prefers to reserve for itself, thank you. Having first dismissed the plan as dangerous to the Israeli national interest, Sharon, succumbing to American pressure, accepted the Road Map after the war, which in Halevy’s view was a mistake.

With the election of Hamas, the Road Map is, of course, a dead duck. The book went to the printer before the terrorist organization came into power, but Halevy’s thinking is revealed in a bit of “collegial advice” to the new Hamas regime, written in the form of a fictional memo from the Palestinian security chief to the Hamas prime minister, which he published in the New Republic. It reminds the Hamas leadership that Israel controls their economy, and warns them that if they continue on the path of violence, the consequences will be “existential.” Clarity is a wonderful thing.


Finally, Halevy’s views on 9/11 are worth noting. 9/11 was an intelligence failure of the greatest magnitude. Israel had been in a similar spot in 1973, when it was caught napping at the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, and Halevy later served on the body established to examine that intelligence debacle, the Agranat Commission. Significantly, Israel had in fact had excellent intelligence in 1973 — it had people on the ground, it saw all the preparations unfolding before its eyes, and it still managed to be taken by surprise, he says, because it got the analysis wrong. 9/11 was the result of the U.S.’s having failed to detect Muslim radicalism as a political force. People living in modern societies tend to discount the appeal of medieval religious practices. Israel had underestimated it, too. Thus, in its desire for oil and for obtaining Saudi backing for its peace initiatives, he says, the administration of George Bush the elder chose to ignore the Saudi practice of buying off its enemies to keep them from committing atrocities on its soil by supporting Islamic fundamentalism elsewhere, thereby becoming exporters of fanaticism.

Halevy also points out some of the inherent contradictions of the security debate in the U.S., for instance when one compares the 9/11 Commission’s conclusion that 9/11 was the result of a failure of imagination with the opposite claim that the U.S. intelligence community was suffering from too much imagination on the question of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction; this was the verdict reached by the Senate Commission investigating the reasons for going to war with Iraq. Here Halevy comes down firmly on the side of imagination. Of course you need hard facts to back it up, but when you do not have all the facts, as is often the case, it seems wiser to envision the worst.

He is sharply critical of the reorganization of the U.S. intelligence agencies, particularly of the creation of an intelligence czar to oversee the agencies. (Israel did something similar after the Yom Kippur War, and it did not work.) In his view, creating a new office of director of national intelligence and inserting it between the intelligence services and the political level only creates an extra lawyer of bureaucracy, and it demoralizes the intelligence community. Moreover, it makes it unclear who bears the ultimate responsibility and who is to blame when there is a cock-up.

Mossad chiefs are also paid for thinking outside the box. As noted above, the main difficulty today lies in penetrating the modern terror organizations. Sometime in the future, Halevy recommends trying to exploit differences between al Qaeda and the Hamas and Hezbollah movements. This might involve some very unpleasant alliances, but we have done that before. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein back when he seemed to offer a bulwark against the Mad Mullahs of Tehran, and we supported the mujaheddin when it came to fighting the Soviet empire.

It may not look pretty, and at the moment it does seem rather far-fetched, but in matters like these, you do whatever is necessary.