After sitting with terrorists, a Netanyahu stalwart seeks a Knesset seat
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Elections 2015: Profile

After sitting with terrorists, a Netanyahu stalwart seeks a Knesset seat

Anat Berko’s ideology dovetails perfectly with the prime minister’s. But her gender, Mizrahi background and past experience probing the minds of suicide bombers bring something new to the Likud slate

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Anat Berko at a pre-election debate in the Ohel Ari Synagogue in Raanana, March 9, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy)
Anat Berko at a pre-election debate in the Ohel Ari Synagogue in Raanana, March 9, 2015 (photo credit: courtesy)

Anat Berko, a criminologist and terrorism researcher, used to interview Palestinian terrorists for a living. A few years ago, she entered the prison cell of a Hamas operative and offered him a drink, as she always does. The man declined, saying he was fasting.

“He pointed to an iron bar that was lying around somewhere, and said, ‘How would you feel if I beat you with that, like the Israelis did in the intifada?’” Berko recalled this week. It was a tense moment but she didn’t lose her cool. “I looked at him and said: ‘Did I do you any harm? I’m engaged in research work. I’m sitting with you and you’re not handcuffed. You’re threatening a woman? Of course you’re stronger than I am. You’re a man who threatens a woman who came here to understand your life. How do you feel about that?”

The inmate, evidently embarrassed by her rebuke, immediately backed down and the interview proceeded.

Many Israeli politicians talk about Hamas, but very few can say they had close personal encounters with the group’s members, let alone their most senior leaders. Berko, who is running for Knesset with the Likud party, has spent her career researching Palestinian suicide bombers and their handlers and has interviewed countless terrorists, including an in-depth conversation with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the former spiritual and operative leader of Hamas.

“The interview was held in a very good atmosphere,” she said about her 1996 meeting with the terrorist mastermind, who was responsible for countless Israeli deaths before IDF troops assassinated him in 2004. “We sat for a few good hours and after the interview ended he said that he’ll always be happy to talk some more. I asked: Even if you’re released from prison? He said: If I get out of prison, I will invite you to Gaza and even to the moon.”

Despite the friendly tone of the interview, Sheikh Yassin made plain that he was not interested in a peace agreement with Israel and would seek nothing less than the Jewish state’s annihilation.

Thousands of Palestinians took part in the funeral of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza, March 22, 2004. Yassin was killed in an Israeli attack, as he was leaving an early morning prayer session. His car was hit by three missiles from an Israeli helicopter gunship (photo credit: Flash90)
One of thousands of Palestinians who took part in the funeral of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin in Gaza, March 22, 2004. Yassin was killed in an Israeli attack, as he was leaving an early morning prayer session. His car was hit by three missiles from an Israeli helicopter gunship (photo credit: Flash90)

Encounters like these have shaped the worldview of Lt. Col. (res.) Berko, who spent 25 years in the Israeli army and today lectures at Israel’s National Defense College and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Though she’s an academic who’s never been involved in politics, she couldn’t resist when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a few weeks ago and offered her the 23rd spot on the Likud list for the upcoming elections.

With the party currently predicted to win a number of seats in the low twenties her spot in the next Knesset is hardly assured, but the placement of Berko on the male Ashkenazi-dominated Likud list at all was something of a coup.

As a Mizrahi woman, Berko, the daughter of Iraqi immigrants, brings some balance to the Knesset slate, as well as academic and military credentials and a respectable career in terrorism research.

But the mother of three from Ramat Gan is no cookie-cutter Likud member. In a striking resemblance to Netanyahu’s positions, many of Berko’s views are decisively more moderate than those of party hawks Yariv Levin, Danny Danon, Ze’ev Elkin and Tzipi Hotovely.

In an in-depth interview this week she said she opposes the Israeli annexation of all or major parts of the West Bank and does not outright reject the idea of a Palestinian state there. She also revealed that she once supported the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, and even the Oslo Accords of the 1990s. She even defended controversial Arab MK Hanin Zoabi’s right to run for the Knesset, saying that while she has no personal sympathy for the firebrand lawmaker, a democracy must tolerate even repulsive opinions.

‘Freeing terrorists leads to the killings of citizens — to murder’

Berko, 55, first met Netanyahu in 2000, when she interviewed him for her doctoral dissertation about terrorism. Now she comes across as a die-hard fan of the politician.

But the two had no contact for 15 years until the prime minister, looking to fill the reserved #23 slot with a woman, remembered comments Berko had made in the media about last summer’s Operation Protective Edge and offered her the spot.

“He had a vision,” she recalled her interview with Netanyahu. “He spoke about an information revolution that would lead to a global typhoon — that’s what he called it — and the collapse of regimes, of the Arab dictatorships around us.”

It was unclear where the advent of the Internet and ever-improving information technology would lead, but Netanyahu was certain that the Arab governments would crumble. “Benjamin Netanyahu really predicted the so-called Arab Spring. That’s amazing; I really appreciate his vision on this matter,” she said.

Netanyahu, of course, has also made numerous prophecies that turned out wrong. In 2002, for instance, he told the US Congress that, “if you take out… Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.”

Berko didn’t want to read too much into that. It’s “very difficult to blame” Netanyahu for the situation in Iraq, she said. “Maybe things would’ve played out differently if the Americans didn’t make so many mistakes.”

Indeed, Berko’s views seem totally aligned with the party leader’s. She praised his “responsible, intelligent” leadership during Protective Edge “which saved lives.” And, reminiscent of criticism leveled at the prime minister, her views on the two-state solution are so nebulous that it’s basically impossible to figure out where she stands.

“We need to continue negotiating with the Palestinians, out of good intentions, to create some sort of entity — I’m not sure how to call it,” she said. This “entity” needs to be entirely demilitarized and the Palestinians will not be allowed to control their own borders, she insisted, but she did not say that the entire Land of Israel must always remain in Jewish hands or make other such statements that would preclude any territorial concessions.

Although the government needs to continue trying to reach peace, there will be no progress until the wider security situation in the Middle East stabilizes and “we know we have a partner,” Berko went on.

Currently, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas engages in “diplomatic terrorism” against Israel, she said. In the short term, therefore, the only thing Israel can do is to continue cooperating and perhaps strengthening the PA, she concluded. “This entity respectfully exists at our side. It’s live and let live.”

Terrorism expert and Likud Knesset hopeful Anat Berko (photo credit: Noah Melamed)
Terrorism expert and Likud Knesset hopeful Anat Berko (photo credit: Noah Melamed)

How does a terrorism expert, who has lectured before the United Nations and NATO, the State Department, the FBI, Congress and campuses across America, feel about the release of security prisoners?

“This is a very difficult question,” she said. “Freeing terrorists leads to the killings of citizens — to murder. We see that these people return [to terrorism] — they have terrorist careers.”

The Likud government released over a thousand Palestinians terrorists, in exchange for captured soldier Gilad Shalit and during the most recent US-sponsored peace negotiations.

And yet, the would-be MK refused to criticize the Netanyahu administration’s decision to release terrorists. It’s a dilemma and every case needs to be examined individually, she said. For instance, it’s less dangerous to release female terrorists since most of them don’t return to terrorist activity, said Berko, whose latest book, “The Smarter Bomb,” dealt with women and children suicide bombers.

She was also unwilling to condone or condemn Netanyahu’s willingness to release security prisoners instead of freezing settlement construction, which reportedly was an option.

Palestinians celebrate at the welcome reception for released Palestinian prisoners, at the Muqata'a in Ramallah, in the early hours of Tuesday, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Palestinians celebrate at the welcome reception for released Palestinian prisoners, at the Muqata’a in Ramallah, in the early hours of Tuesday, December 31, 2013 (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I don’t want to justify anything because I wasn’t there,” she said. “I don’t know what the considerations were.” Security needs to be the overriding concern, she opined, adding that she is not yet well-versed enough in politics to allow herself a judgment on the political pressures that led Netanyahu to free prisoners rather than temporarily halt settlement-building.

It’s her understanding of Palestinian terrorists’ mindsets that qualifies her to serve in the Knesset, she suggested. “The inner world of those people is what interests me; the operative or military aspect interests me less. But I do know what could influence them, and that also has operative implications.”

‘You enter their heads and understand how they’re thinking to be able to fight them’

Surprising as it may be for a woman with relatively hawkish political views, Berko feels empathy for her terrorist interviewees. “When I speak with them, I isolate my inner emotions entirely,” she said. “And if it’s a woman who yesterday could have blown herself up and killed my children — sometimes they cry and hug me. I give them a lot of empathy.”

To empathize with terrorists doesn’t mean to identify with them, she clarified. “I can understand them, especially when I talk about personal issues — it’s not empathy toward what they did.” In her interviews, Berko does not ask the terrorists about their bloody deeds, but rather about their childhood, their families and how they think about life.

Jailed terrorists have “the need to talk,” even if it’s with an Israeli, Berko observed.

“It borders on being a therapeutic conversation.” But for her, the point is better to understand the adversary’s mentality. In the army, much focus is placed on what arms the enemy possesses. But his key weapon is the brain, she suggested. “You enter their heads and understand how they’re thinking to be able to fight them.”

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