Israel’s former spymaster Efraim Halevy urged Israel to reach out to Russia in its efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and other ambitions, since Moscow, unlike Washington, has direct influence over Tehran.
Halevy was setting out his view of the world today, from Vladmir Putin’s Russia to Donald Trump’s America and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, at Jerusalem’s Beit Shmuel theater on Sunday night, in an event sponsored by The Times of Israel.
“If you’re an Israeli prime minister and you want to rein in Iran, why would you go to Washington?” the London-born Halevy, speaking from over four decades of experience in the Mossad, asked rhetorically. “If you go to Washington and say your biggest problems are: Iran, Iran and Iran,” he said, referring to Netanyahu’s White House talks with US President Donald Trump earlier this month, “what do you say in Moscow?”
Halevy, 82, who stressed he was no longer briefed on the work of the Mossad and didn’t want to be — he said dryly that he carries enough secrets already — also advocated attempting to speak directly with Iran and with most of Israel’s other foes.
“It is essential to talk to your enemy. You must do it, but we haven’t been,” he said. “We have to talk to Hamas. We must talk to [Hamas leader] Khaled Mashaal. Everybody’s talking to him.” (Halevy was brought out of retirement by Netanyahu to head the Mossad in 1998, having salavaged Israel’s ties with Jordan following a botched Mossad assassination attempt on Mashaal’s life in Amman the previous year.)
Reflecting for a moment, Halevy added: “I don’t think we have to talk to Daesh. Daesh is something else.” (Daesh is the Arabic nickname for the Islamic State terrorist group.)
“What do you have to lose from talking to people?”
Halevy served in the Mossad for over 40 years. He started in 1961, after service in the army’s Education Corps, and left the clandestine agency after acting as its ninth chief from 1998 to 2002. He played a pivotal role in the peace negotiations with the Jordanians in the early 1990s.
“I never had doubts about what I was doing. And I was never asked to do something I was uneasy about doing,” he said of his entire Mossad career.
Halevy appeared to take some degree of delight in noting that Israel’s only successful attempts at making peace with its Arab neighbors came about following direct involvement from his spy agency.
“Every successful peace agreement had some element of the Mossad in it. Everywhere where it failed, did not,” he said.
He noted that six Israeli prime ministers have attempted to make peace with Syria, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who tried twice, but all of them failed. The last efforts foundered over Bashar Assad’s demand for “paddling” rights on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he recalled, and said he was sure that the intelligence services could have come up with some kind of formula to resolve that demand, had they been asked to do so.
Had the Mossad been more involved in attempts at peace with Syria, had a deal been struck, and if as a consequence “three million Israelis were eating hummus in Damascus,” he suggested, the history of Syria and the neighborhood might have been very different from the past years of civil war.
‘Limited sovereignty’ won’t work
Interviewed by Times of Israel editor David Horovitz in front of a sold-out crowd, the former spy master required little questioning. Prompted with a short query, Halevy would often launch into lengthy answers, including historical insights, personal anecdotes and droll humor.
He recalled being taught chemistry in Israel in the eighth grade by famed contrarian thinker Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who on the last day of class “taught us how to make an atomic bomb.”
The white-haired, bespectacled British-born Halevy, who came to Israel aged 14 in 1948, is often compared to John le Carré’s fictional “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” spymaster George Smiley. But though a reader of Le Carré’s espionage novels, Halevy has said the character was not based upon him in any way.
Unassuming and proper, Halevy was prone to sitting back in his orange chair on stage with his fingers intertwined. He regularly addressed the audience as “ladies and gentlemen here tonight” and started many of his remarks with “let me be clear.”
Early in the conversation, Halevy was asked about the qualities that he thought led to him being recruited into the Mossad, and spoke of his language skills, and his persuasive abilities — the art of what he called “gentle persuasion”:
Along with biographical questions, Horovitz’s prompts centered around the conflict with the Palestinians and Israel’s strategic stance.
Halevy said he expected some degree of conflict between “Mr. Trump” and “Mr. Netanyahu” over the issue of the Palestinians. Trump, he said, was interested in “making a deal” between the two sides, while Netanyahu was in the business of “maintaining the conflict.”
According to Halevy, the government was not actively trying to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, but was conducting a “maintenance operation.” He warned that without taking risks toward reaching a resolution with the Palestinians, Israel “will never get anywhere.”
“Maybe today that’s necessary because of public interest. But I think that maintaining the conflict has enormous risk,” he said.
Halevy was wary of directly criticizing Netanyahu, but expressed doubt regarding the viability of the prime minister’s declared vision of a “state-minus” for the Palestinians. Under Netanyahu’s plan, the Palestinians would be granted a demilitarized state, with Israel retaining overall security control.
He referred specifically to a failed attempt at a regional peace agreement last year that was centered around this concept, in which Netanyahu met Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
“I don’t know what ‘limited sovereignty’ is. I know what sovereignty is. I know what ‘not sovereignty’ is,” he said.
Halevy was skeptical that Palestinians would ever agree to such a notion, since it would require them to accept Israeli security concerns as being more important than their own desire for a full state.
The third-largest superpower
The former head of the Mossad spoke with a mixture of admiration and concern about Putin, who he said was the “near perfection of an intelligence officer.”
Netanyahu “should be complimented for reaching a level of dialogue” with Moscow, which has been taking a previously unknown level of interest in the Middle East, he said.
Halevy cited World War II, in which Russia and Germany began as allies under the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, but later became bitter enemies, in order to show that Moscow has historically had no qualms about switching sides suddenly and dramatically.
For now, Israel and Russia have some level of cooperation in Syria. Russia has boots on the ground to bolster the Assad regime, while Israeli jets reportedly conduct airstrikes there to thwart arms transfers to the Hezbollah terrorist group. But that dynamic could change, he said.
Russia is also working working alongside the Iranians in Syria, he noted, and Putin is a key figure when it comes to Israel’s nemesis, Iran.
Moscow, which Netanyahu is due to visit next month, is the more relevant address for issues concerning the Islamic Republic, he said, also citing Russia’s “massive” rearmament of Iran following the nuclear accord that was signed in 2015.
“I think the Israeli public is entitled to know about the massive Russian support for Iran,” Halevy said.
Halevy said it was a mistake to refer to Iran as presenting an “existential threat” to Israel, which he described as “indestructible.”
Horovitz asked if he believed Israel was laboring under a false “siege mentality,” referring to the notion that the country is constantly under threat. “Are we stronger than we think we are?” he asked.
“I think so,” Halevy answered.
Speaking about the new US president, Halevy encouraged caution.
“I think we have to wait a little before assessing what we’re in for. I think we have to wait a little before we know what the significance of Trump’s victory is. Not to divulge any secrets, but I don’t think [Trump] knows either,” he said, prompting laughs from the crowd.
“I don’t know if he’s playing a part, if he’s an actor. Or if he means what he says. But I hope we won’t be in for a rude awakening.”