Warning Iran, and lacerating Mitt Romney, a former Mossad chief steps out of the shadows

Efraim Halevy says an Israeli strike on Iran would provoke ‘revulsion’ throughout this region that would last years. But if the next talks fails, the only option left will be force

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)
Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)

In 2006, Efraim Halevy published a memoir – an improbable venture for the circumspect ex-intelligence chief – appropriately entitled “Man in the Shadows.”

Although Halevy was a former Mossad director, national security adviser and ambassador, who had played a significant role in fostering 1994’s Jordan peace treaty, and a central role in salvaging it after Israel’s botched Amman hit on Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal three years later, the book was no sensationalist tell-all. He did set off on the interview circuit – BBC Hard Talk, Charlie Rose, and a surprisingly enjoyable appearance on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, et al – but the volume he was promoting was notably short on headline-grabbing tales of hitherto unknown secret service derring-do.

“The book to a large extent is a promotion of Israel, not a promotion of the Mossad,” he told me at the time. “If I can project an image of a state which is just 6 million citizens strong but has played a role on the international stage devoted to protecting the values of society in their purest sense, then that is worthwhile.”

His Israel advocacy work complete, Halevy largely returned to those familiar shadows. And, since last year, it has been his successor at the helm of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who has sallied dramatically into the spotlight. Reporter-averse throughout his career, Dagan has metamorphosed upon retirement into denouncer-in-chief of ostensible plans by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak to smack down what the prime minister, employing curiously flippant tone and terminology, described in his AIPAC address three weeks ago as the Iranian “nuclear duck.”

This week, though, Halevy ventured back into public view, penning an oped article in The Times of London that warns Iran against stalling in April’s talks on its nuclear program, and sitting down with The Times of Israel to elaborate on the potential timeline for thwarting the ayatollahs.

Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)
Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)

Asked about Dagan’s repeated invocations against the “stupid,” “foolish” notion of striking militarily at Iran, Halevy is relatively understated. He says that “in this situation people should be very careful with the way they say things,” while asserting bleakly that a resort to force will be the only remaining option if the new round of talks fails.

Where he is atypically incandescent, however, is in confronting would-be Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who in early March penned a Washington Post article setting out how he would “check Iran’s nuclear ambition.”

Halevy thinks the article was “disastrous” because the candidate was essentially telling the Iranians that Obama is a feckless president whose threats can be ignored, but that if Romney became president they’d face a much tougher reality.

So if the Iranians take Romney seriously, says Halevy, the first thing they’ll do is set off “full speed ahead to get a nuclear device before the fourth of November. Number one priority. By hook or by crook.”

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets the crowd after speaking at NuVasive, a medical device company, Monday, in San Diego. (photo credit: AP/Steven Senne)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets the crowd after speaking at NuVasive, a medical device company, Monday, in San Diego. (photo credit: AP/Steven Senne)

“President Obama called this loose talk. It’s much worse than loose talk,” Halevy asserts of Romney’s public positioning. “This is highly irresponsible talk. He’s playing with our destiny. He’s playing with our lives.”

“In tradition, foreign policy in these matters has been the prerogative of a president,” Halevy notes. “And to introduce this into the equation in order to get a vote or two in Florida, or a vote or two in New York City. In order to get to the White House…!” Outraged, he tails off.

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David Horovitz: What should the world be doing right now to thwart Iran?

Efraim Halevy: The number one thing: investing enormous preparation into the P5+1 confrontation (the April talks between Iran and  the five UN Security Council permanent members and Germany) because this is really the Last Train to San Fernando. (The UK-born Halevy’s reference is apparently to a 1957 British hit by skiffle star Johnny Duncan.)  I don’t detect any signs of this.

This is a gigantic, Herculean task — to deal with the Iranians under this time straitjacket. It creates almost an impossible situation in which you have to deal with this matter under the pressure of weeks, when the other side will obviously want to prolong it as much as they can, as they’ve done up to now. It will need both a serious discussion (ahead of time) of the substance of what any agreement can be, and also the strategy and the tactics. When you have five-plus-one meeting one, most of the time might be taken up getting the five-plus-one to agree on what they’re going to tell the one, which I think would be tragic.

Secondly, I think they need a very high-level, experienced, wise and creative negotiator. The Iranians have a negotiator. Here you have all these diplomats sitting there, it’s going to be a very ceremonious affair. Ultimately you should have one person, just as the United States had when it was negotiating with the Soviet Union over START (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty over 20 years ago).

The problem here is that on substance I don’t see any great effort being made, and on the modalities I don’t see anything going on.

This is tragic. Because in the end if this fails… I think there’s no time for, you know, ‘Let’s meet again in two or three months, let’s do our homework, let’s not rush things, let’s look at it’ and so forth – this is exactly what the Iranians want; they’re playing for time.

Two to three months is too long? So you’re saying within weeks there has to be what kind of resolution?

There has to be a breakthrough. It cannot be otherwise. If there is no breakthrough, it means to say that the talks have failed.

A breakthrough is Iran saying, ‘We will suspend our program’?

I don’t want to say ‘Iran suspending the program’. I don’t believe that everything will become public overnight. What I’m saying is that if it will not be clear that there is a serious negotiation,  then there’s no point in going around there anymore. They don’t have to spell it all out, but it has to be clear.

I have a feeling that things are beginning to change on the Russian-American front. First of all we had this (unanimous) resolution last week at the UN Security Council on Syria, for the first time. The wording is more or less to Russia’s liking. But it means to say that they are trying to get their act together.  The Chinese are also beginning to show signs that they are very upset with the way things are going in Syria.

The Syrian story (is) the backdrop to all this — the one area where the parties are engaged on the ground in one way or another. If on Syria there can be a turning point which will lead ultimately to the removal of the Iranians from Syria — which should be a number one aim of Israel, which cannot play a role up front but which should make its views known — then I think this is a very serious signal for Tehran.

You have the time frame, you have the upcoming talks of the P5+1, you have this Syrian story. Rather than dealing with each one separately, they should be taken together. This is a package and should be treated as such. It should be part of an overall strategy vis a vis Iran.

So much for the international community. What should Israel be doing?

First of all, it should establish lines of communication with all the P5+1 partners to the talks,  and make sure it can have its input in an ongoing way.

Real time as the talks continue?

Real time or close to real time.

Israel should also try and convince the P5+1 of the efficacy of seeing the Syrian story as something which now needs quick attention in order to prevent this unraveling in a way which will be detrimental, and in order that it should end the way that I have said.

And Israel should create a reservoir of what it might be able to do to contribute.

What might Israel be able to contribute?

This could be the opportunity at which Israel settles its ongoing dispute with Turkey, since it’s important to have unity here. Israel can come and say to Turkey, ‘Look, in the spirit of thinking together, we’re going to make this contribution. Okay, you need an apology, you need something, we’ll do it.’

Secondly, of course, Israel can and should consider the necessity of speaking to the Palestinians as they are. The Palestinians have two groups, two elements, Fatah and Hamas. Israel can come and say, ‘We don’t think Hamas are a viable partner to the negotiations. But we will change our previous policy on not talking to Fatah if Fatah doesn’t renounce its agreement with Hamas. We are making a strategic change in our policy given the fact that Hamas has gone a long way to severing its relations with Iran.’ This, by the way, will serve our interests in solidifying the Palestinian front against Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

We should make strategic changes in our policy which will enable the United States to come to Russia and to Turkey and say, ‘Look, the Israelis are saying things they’ve never said before. They’re changing their policy because they realize that (thwarting) Iran (takes precedence). They’re making sacrifices, and they’re true sacrifices in terms of their previous policies.’ This would show that Israel  would sincerely prefer a diplomatic solution.

If Israel doesn’t do these things, then it would be said that Israel  didn’t really believe in the diplomatic solution, didn’t believe in the sanctions. And that what Israel wants is to attack Iran. ‘That’s what it wants to do, and nothing will deflect it from that.’

Are you saying Israel does actually want a diplomatic solution?

I’m saying Israel should want a diplomatic solution.

I’m asking you whether Israel wants a diplomatic solution.

I’m not sure every Israeli wants a diplomatic solution,. Let me say this. I’m not sure that the government is entirely behind this support for a diplomatic solution.

Do you think Israel should be readying a military strike? I assume you don’t think the moment of truth has quite arrived, but also that you don’t think it’s a long way away.

I have no doubt that for the past few years Israel has been readying its capabilities to meet the Iranians if necessary by force. Just last week I heard Carmela Menashe of Israeli Radio broadcasting from Berlin concerning the signature of the agreement to supply Israel with a sixth submarine. Mr. Barak personally attended this ceremony. She said, and I quote her, that it is reported that these submarines contain firing shafts which, it is reported, could service Israel’s nuclear capabilities which it is reported that it might have — something like that.

There has been an ongoing effort by Israel over the years, ever since it came across the Iranian effort; it’s not something recent. Creating what Israel calls a “strategic long arm.” All kinds of euphemisms. It’s an ongoing, exponential effort on the part of Israel.

But the time has not come to use that capability?

If the negotiations fail, and it transpires that the avenue for settling this problem diplomatically has been exhausted or to put it bluntly has failed, there’s nothing else left. There’s nothing else left. There are only two things: either you reconcile yourself to what you call an existential threat – I don’t call it existential, but you call it an existential threat – or to do what you can to remove the threat by force. There’s no third way.

So this session of talks is the last chance?

To get the breakthrough. We had the breakthrough with Egypt…

Sadat came in 1977…

And it took two years to finish the deal, but it was the breakthrough. You could see where things were going.

I don’t accept the notion that Israel is destructible. but I think that if Iran retains a nuclear capability, life here is going to be very tough for a very long period to come.

Maybe you think Israel can live with a nuclear weapons-capable Iran?

I don’t think that we should countenance that as long as we can do what we can to remove it. I don’t accept the notion that Israel is destructible. but I think that if Iran retains a nuclear capability, life here is going to be very tough for a very long period to come. Israel will not disappear but Israel will go through a period which I would not like it to go through.

And therefore if these talks don’t work, you do see that there would be an imperative for military action by Israel?

If the talks don’t go well, I think that the powers that be here would have to consider it. Look, once you’re out of government you cannot tell the government ‘You must attack Iran, you must attack Iran,’ because you don’t know all the facts. You don’t know how many aircraft we have. What weapons we have today.  What weapons the Iranians have today. There’s a whole host of considerations and facts which are not at your disposal.

I’ve been reading reports in the last few days – people saying the Home Front has not been prepared, the shelters are not in good state, all kinds of other things. I’ve not checked whether this is right or wrong. We have a minister (Matan Vilnai) for the Home Front, for the next couple of months before he goes off to Beijing (as ambassador); I suppose this is what he’s been dealing with.

Am I happy with the way I see it, gas masks for only 40 or 50 percent of the population? I can’t tell the government, ‘Look, go ahead and bomb Iran.’ They have to take in all the facts. They have to be sure –what can be done and what cannot be done.

We went through this in 2006, when the government went to war within a few hours (against Hezbollah in Lebanon) and most of the cabinet didn’t even understand they were going to war. They didn’t realize the true consequence of what they had decided. They didn’t understand the essence of what they had decided. And then we had all these rockets, with the north of the country more or less vacated, with chaos, disorganization. I don’t know whether we are ready. One of the considerations is preparation of the Home Front.

Can you make an assessment about the consequences of a strike on Iran? There are people who foresee apocalyptic consequences. When I was in the US earlier this month, Udi Segal of Channel 2, who I trust, reported that he was briefed by a senior American intelligence official to the effect that Israel doesn’t understand that this would prompt World War III and the casualties would be in the thousands — that Israel has made up its mind to strike and hasn’t thought through the consequences. Is that your assessment?

I said a few years ago that if there was such a confrontation then the effects would last for a century. Let me put it this way: The consequences could be the consequences that this American official said. Nobody can know for sure. But I am sure that the chances of an accommodation between us and our surroundings will recede for a long period of time, for scores of years – because the memory of this will not be like a month-long attack on the Gaza Strip or a month-and-a-half-long Defensive Shield (the 2002 IDF operation) into the West Bank. This is going to be major.

Whatever form this attack takes, it is not just going to be like the Osirak affair or the supposed Israeli operation in Syria (against nuclear reactors). This is going to be more extensive. How extensive I don’t know. I don’t have the facts or the data to tell you. But what I can be sure of is that the effect of this on the region, on the masses, is going to be enormous. It’s not just a question of how many people will die.

Whatever form this attack takes, it is not just going to be like the Osirak affair or the supposed Israeli operation in Syria (against nuclear reactors). This is going to be more extensive. How extensive I don’t know. I don’t have the facts or the data to tell you. But what I can be sure of is that the effect of this on the region, on the masses, is going to be enormous.

It’s not just a question of how many people will die. That’s also a consideration, sure. Mr. Barak says it won’t even be 500 if Israel is attacked. You know, Mr. Barak also said a month or two ago that the fall of Assad is a matter of weeks. Well, many weeks are going by. In the end he’ll be right, because if it’s 50 weeks or 500 weeks it’s still weeks. But these are statements that don’t have real validity.

The (wider issue is the) enmity between us and the region as a whole. We know we’re not newcomers, but we’re still viewed as newcomers of the last 100 years. It’s not true. We’ve been here all the time; you and I know this. But what’s important here is the sentiment of the people around us: ‘These  newcomers have come here, and look what they’ve done in the first 100 years of their existence. Look how they’ve made our lives miserable.’ It’s going to be a very deep-seated sentiment toward us.

Even now, when we have a peace treaty with Egypt and a peace treaty with Jordan, and we have this so-called agreement with the Palestinians, this is a very brittle combination of relationships. I don’t have to tell you that even today in Egypt the masses can’t (bear to) hear the word Israel. I don’t have to tell you that in Jordan not one professional organization will deal with its Israeli counterparts.

If this (attack on Iran) is going to happen, the revulsion as a result of this, the automatic revulsion towards Israel, will last for years. Many people will say ‘It’s good they knocked off the Iranians, yes, because they’re Shi’ites, the Iranians, and they’re causing trouble.’ But the masses? We’ve seen in Egypt now what happens when the masses take control. And I think that we might enter a situation in which there might be more and more chaotic conditions in the countries around us.

So all this has to be taken into consideration. It’s not just a question of what is the body count.

And yet you say that this is the last chance…

The last option, yes. Because to accept living under the threat of the Iranian nuclear strike is something which is very difficult indeed.

Your immediate successor is taking a very clear advisory public role, saying Israel shouldn’t be dreaming of a military strike; it’s foolish. What are we to make of that?

If I were an Iranian listening to this I would say one of two things – that either Israel is bluffing and they’re trying to dull our senses, or if this man says that, then really Israel is a paper tiger. And I see no merit in portraying Israel as a paper tiger. I don’t think there is any merit in telling the Iranians that they should go to bed reassured that nothing will happen and they can act with impunity. I don’t think so.

It is important to maintain pressure on the Iranians. It is most important that the Iranians know that they cannot stall indefinitely… In this situation people should be very careful with the way they say things. I don’t want to pass judgment on others. For myself I’ve been very careful with what I say on these things. One has to be cautious on these things as well, especially as the former head of an intelligence service.

I was at AIPAC hearing Netanyahu saying he won’t let his people live in the shadow of annihilation. There’s this sense that while there’s coordination between Israel and the US, there are different imperatives — we feel ourselves more closely threatened, we have less of a military capability than the US, and maybe the United States does not have a political climate to intervene. So, does it come down to Israel if these talks fail now? It’s going to be Israel that has to intervene militarily?

Not necessarily, but this will also hinge on the way we conduct our relationship with the United States. The introduction of this issue into the American political campaign for the presidency has been a serious mistake.

I saw a piece signed by Mitt Romney on the fifth of March in the Washington Post and I thought it was disastrous. Because what is he saying? He’s saying this to the Iranians among other things: ‘Don’t take notice of what Obama is saying. He’s a feckless president. He’s like Carter, you can dismiss him. When I come in, I’m going to do something else. A), I’m going to act against you. B), I’m going to support your opposition vigorously. And C), I’m going to introduce major elements of the American fleet into the eastern Mediterranean.’

If I were an Iranian I would first of all say to myself, ’If I’m to take him seriously, the first thing I must do is go full speed ahead to get a nuclear device before the fourth of November. Number one priority. By hook or by crook.’ And this idea of beefing up the Mediterranean, I don’t know, is this the beginning of a renewal of the cold war?

President Obama called this loose talk. It’s much worse than loose talk. This is highly irresponsible talk. He’s playing with our destiny. He’s playing with our lives.

In tradition, foreign policy in these matters has been the prerogative of a president. And to introduce this into the equation in order to get a vote or two in Florida, or a vote or two in New York City. In order to get to the White House!

I don’t think he would do it, by the way. I don’t believe he would do it. And that makes it even worse. That makes it even worse, because I think it’s misleading. But leave that aside. To tell the Iranians, ‘Look, friends, when I get in it’s going to be a new ball game,’ this is a provocative invitation to the Iranians to do their very best (to attain nuclear weapons) until Mitt Romney gets into power.

Do you think the Iranians are potentially susceptible to change – that with astute negotiations and a united international community, there is a realistic chance of a breakthrough?

Yes, because I believe the Iranians are first and foremost concerned with getting their regime secure. This was the number one exhortation of (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini when he established this regime. He said that your number one task is to ensure that our regime lasts forever, and every other consideration must be subordinated to this. They had the Iraq-Iran War, and for years Khomeini refused to reach a ceasefire with the infidel (Saddam Hussein) sitting in Baghdad. But when Baghdad began to target Tehran with Scud missiles, he did a U-turn. And when the people around him said to him, ‘But Khomeini, you said you can’t make peace with an infidel,’ he said, ‘But you know this is God’s wish.’ Which, by the way, shows you how important it is to have God on your side. And the mandate to speak in his name.

What was done to Libya last year was extremely damaging (in this context). Gadhafi’s Libya was the first Muslim Arab country ever to dismantle its capabilities both in the nuclear field and in the missile field, and there was an implicit understanding that there would not be regime change. When it came to it in 2011, eight years later or so, and civil war broke out in Libya, within minutes people started talking, and Bernard Henry-Levy, who has no understanding whatsoever in my view of strategic affairs, exhorted the president of France to go in. The result has been chaos in Libya to this day.

What are the Iranians learning from this?

That it’s very difficult to accept an assurance against regime change, because how can you guarantee that the commitment will be honored in years to come.

And yet you still think they can be persuaded…?

Yes, because other things are happening In Iran. The rial is going down. It’s gone down by over 50 percent. It’s almost impossible to describe the damage done. And in addition to that you have the removal of Iran from the SWIFT (financial) system, which makes it almost impossible to deal with foreign trade without paying in cash. A regime can’t go on like this forever.

I think Iran could now be malleable. That is not to say that they have lost their pride. There are many things which have to be done in order to assuage the Iranians in terms of reform. You must remember the Iranians for years have been treated very badly by the international powers, going back to the days of World War II. They have an account to settle. I don’t justify them or not justify them. I understand them. In order to talk to somebody you have to understand him, the way he thinks.

Ali Khamenei (photo credit: CC-SA-Sinaf77/Wikimedia Commmons)
Ali Khamenei (photo credit: CC-SA-Sinaf77/Wikimedia Commmons)

When I dealt with these matters in the past and I met kings and princes and all the rest of this, the number one rule was, Don’t think of it in your terms. Try to the best of your capabilities to put yourself in his shoes. Try and be a Khomeini. Try and be a Khamenei. See what your options are. And maybe that way you can devise some creative ways of meeting some of his concerns without necessarily paying something exorbitant.

And you have to create trust. You know, when the Americans negotiated with the Russians, the slogan was “trust and verify.” We will make an agreement, we trust you and we verify. With Iran, we are not in the state of trust yet. We’re not in a state of trust because they have obviously reneged on many of the things that they have undertaken in the past. And there is no sound verification capability at the moment, which by the way is very important. It’s the key to the whole thing.

And you don’t see the international community making the necessary preparations ahead of these contacts…

I’m hoping that somewhere in the smoke-filled rooms in Washington and maybe in other places people are sitting and doing it. I don’t have any evidence of it, but I’m hoping that suddenly they’ll come to the talks and we’ll see that all this has been streamlined and taken care of. And you’ll have a negotiator and you have a policy. A strategy. Tactics. That it’s all in place. You’ve looked at the people with whom you’re going to meet – at who they are, and what interests them, and how you can create the beginning of trust.

There will not be agreement without some level of trust here. And don’t expect them to lead (the building of) the trust. It’s you. You have to start creating trust with your enemy. It’s difficult. It’s almost inhuman. But you have to do it, otherwise there’s no basis for anything. Unless you go for unconditional surrender. With the Nazis there was no need for trust, because in the end they had to sign an unconditional surrender. This is not going to be the case. If we could get the Iranians to sign an unconditional surrender, walla, let’s do it. I don’t see it. I don’t see it now.

Do you think that a decision has been taken, or is close to being taken by the Israeli government?

I don’t think a decision has been taken. This is not a decision for one or two people. That is a misconception.

The prime minister and the defense minister cannot decide we’re going to strike Iran?


Without what?

Without having the key elements of the defense establishment behind them. Not because (those elements) have a vote, but because they’re going to do the job.

One of the problems here is to define the required result. The definition of the required result is the task of the political level. Not the operational side, not the chief of staff. The director of intelligence doesn’t have to define the required result. You, the political master, must define the required result. And it has to be defined in very clear terms. And if the result is realized, it is the achievement of the political level, period. And if there’s a failure, it’s their failure, alone, nobody else’s.

It’s not as if the prime minister gets up and says, ‘Ok friends, I’ve decided, meet me tomorrow evening and present your plans, period.’

The operation infrastructure will set out parameters? They’ll say these are the things we can do and these are the things we can’t do? The prime minister can only act within those parameters?

Of course.

And then it’s his decision.



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