US President Barack Obama is due to arrive in Israel for his first presidential visit in March, and speculation abounds surrounding the true intent of his trip. Rafi Eitan, a former high-ranking Mossad official and government minister under Ehud Olmert — banned from the US since the capture of his most famous agent, Jonathan Pollard — says Netanyahu should await the president with a diplomatic proposal of his own: unilateral disengagement from the West Bank.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who was advised by Eitan for years, was engaged in drafting exactly such a plan, which would include the annexation of roughly one-third of the West Bank to Israel, when he suffered a debilitating stroke in January 2006, Eitan told The Times of Israel.

At 86, Eitan — a long-time intelligence operative who oversaw the capture of Adolf Eichmann in 1960, and had a late-life improbable career as a cabinet minister and head of the Gil Pensioners party in the Knesset from 2006-9 —  is as sharp and eloquent as ever. This slight man, with his trademark thick-rimmed glasses, did not mince his words when speaking of what he perceives as fatal American mistakes in handling the “Arab Spring” — particularly at that crucial moment in June 2012 when the administration could have imposed a secular president on Egypt, Ahmad Shafiq — and by doing so change the course of that country’s history.

Relating to the Ben Zygier Mossad suicide scandal, Eitan said he believes that holding prisoners in solitary confinement may be justifiable if the secrets they divulge can potentially harm Israel’s national security. He refused to address the specifics of the Zygier case, but said that a number of prisoners have been held in similar conditions in the past; their names have all since been revealed by the media.

Israel should withdraw from the West Bank, even without a Palestinian partner

A month before prime minister Sharon suffered a stroke, in January 2006, he was on the phone with Eitan. Four months after Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, the two discussed a preliminary plan to leave the West Bank as well, while maintaining the maximum number of Israeli settlements under Israeli control.

“Sharon knew that we must disengage from the Palestinians in the West Bank too; that we can’t continue occupying a foreign people,” Eitan told The Times of Israel.

Sharon dubbed his plan “the mosaic separation,” because it left most Israeli settlements intact, allowing isolated Palestinian villages access to large urban centers through an intricate system of underpasses and tunnels.

“Arik [Sharon] said: Let’s divide Judea and Samaria and take roughly one-third for ourselves, leaving two-thirds for the Arabs,” Eitan said. “Under this plan, the Jordan Valley and the Judean Desert would remain ours.”

With the Palestinian body politic divided today between Gaza and the West Bank — while internal rifts within the PLO prevent “even the signing of an interim agreement” — Eitan said he would advise Netanyahu to implement the Sharon plan immediately.

“We must disconnect from them [the Palestinians] as much as possible,” Eitan said, adding that he would even favor a plan attributed to former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman of handing over the area known as “the Triangle” in northwest Israel — with its 300,000 Arab citizens — to the future Palestinian state.

Allowing Morsi to win in Egypt was ‘stupidity that will resonate for generations’

“The military unequivocally decided that [Ahmed] Shafiq will be president, not [Mohammed] Morsi,” Eitan told The Times of Israel. “But the Americans put all the pressure on. The announcement [of the president] was delayed by three or four days because of this struggle.”

Immediately after Egypt’s presidential elections in June 2012, Eitan spoke to unnamed local officials, who told him that with a mere 5,000-vote advantage for Islamist candidate Morsi, the military was prepared to announce the victory of his adversary Shafiq, a secular military man closely associated with the Mubarak regime.

But secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Eitan said, decided to favor democracy at all costs and disallow any falsification of the vote.

“This is idiocy. An act of stupidity that will resonate for generations,” Eitan said. “I also thought Mubarak should be replaced, but I believed the Americans would be smart enough to replace him with the next figure. Mubarak would have agreed to that, but the Americans didn’t want that; they wanted democracy. But there is no real democracy in the Arab world at the moment. It will take a few generations to develop.

“The United States is a real democracy. But for the past 50 years I’ve been saying that when it comes to dealing with small nations, the Americans are a foolish nation.”

Will Obama release Pollard?

Beginning in 1984, Eitan was responsible for handling Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard as head of Lekem, the bureau of scientific relations in Israel’s Defense Ministry. Following Pollard’s exposure and arrest the following year, Lekem was disbanded and Eitan retired from his security position. To this day, he is banned from traveling to the United States.

Eitan sitting next to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the Knesset, July 2006 (photo credit: Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

Eitan sitting next to prime minister Ehud Olmert in the Knesset, July 2006. (photo credit: Pierre Terdjman/Flash90)

Pro-Pollard activists — who appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court in 2006 to prevent Eitan’s appointment as cabinet minister, for his perceived failure to protect his operative — are turning up the pressure on Israeli politicians to raise the issue with the visiting US president.

But Eitan believes these efforts are futile.

“Obama will not ‘bring’ Pollard. He can do it, but the American system is built like a machine and he needs to overcome that machine to produce Pollard. The best he can do is use Pollard as a goodwill gesture towards Israel.

But will he come with serious proposals for negotiations [with the Palestinians]? I doubt it. I’m skeptical, because previous American proposals of this kind haven’t worked.”

Holding prisoners in the dark

When asked whether there is security justification for holding prisoners in solitary confinement — even hiding their identity from the public eye, as was the case with Australian-born Israeli Mossad agent Ben Zygier — Eitan’s answer is unequivocal.

“Certainly. When you’re isolated, you don’t talk to other prisoners… there’s a reason for these things. A person full of secrets, who failed in one way or another, should be held in isolation at least during his investigation period.”

Eitan said that a few similar cases occurred in Israel in the past, and all have eventually been exposed by the media. He added that in today’s media reality, Israel’s security agencies will have to find new methods to protect sensitive information from leaking.

“Today there is no possibility to protect sensitive secrets. They leak out. Twenty years ago you could assemble the [newspaper] editors’ committee, give them your story, and they would make sure the matter was not published. This doesn’t exist anymore. Today, when you sit with the editors, they are surrounded by two circles of journalists.

“Loyalty to the community, and indeed to the state, has diminished due to social networks and the cheap cost of travel,” Eitan ended on a somber note. “Now, keeping secrets is hard.”