Ex-Mossad intelligence agency chiefs voiced their opinion of the fourth-term, right-wing leader in a joint interview excerpted on the front page of Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s best-selling newspaper.
Published on March 28 2018
We Hereby Warn
By Amira Lam
They saw governments rise and fall, they were there when the most difficult decisions were made, and they devoted their life – always in complete secrecy and far away from the eye of the media – to the security of their country. A moment before the 70-year celebrations, we met with six former heads of the Mossad, and found that they are concerned. Gravely concerned. In a joint interview they talk of past operations, explain why we should have supported the Nuclear Agreement with Iran, reveal what they consider to be Israel’s worst security threat, and most importantly send out a warning: The current leadership crisis places Israel in danger. A non-optimistic conversation.
Photo: Yonatan Blum, Yedioth Ahronoth
“As head of the Mossad, one of the hardest things is that you’re required to make decisions, knowing that if you make a decision and the operation fails – you won’t be able to look yourself in the eye”. Speaking is Tamir Pardo, who until two years ago was head of the Mossad. “When Isaac Rabin (RIP) made the decision to embark on Operation Entebbe, he knew that he was taking a risk that cannot be quantified. Should it succeed – the State OF Israel would gain glory and adoration from the whole world, but should it fail – he himself would have to look himself in the eye and fail to justify the decision that he made to himself. As head of the Mossad, you’re required to make dozens of decisions like that. These are the dilemmas that characterize the job; since ultimately, a Mossad agent, wherever he is, is always alone and outnumbered in a hostile environment. He has no tanks, no fighter planes. Mossad agents have to understand where the danger is, how to extract themselves from danger, and most of all how not to get into danger, since if they do – no one will be able to help them. This secret combat is different from military combat. As head of the Mossad, you can delegate authority, but the responsibility is always yours, and as commander you are in most cases far away, sometimes even completely disconnected, from your agent in the field. Our whole way of thinking derives from this”.
Pardo spoke these words in a special joint interview we conducted, as we approach Israel’s 70-years celebrations. Present are six former heads of Mossad: Zvi Zamir (93), Nachum Admoni (88), Shabtay Shavit (78), Danny Yatom (73), Efraim Halevy (83) and tamir Pardo (65). The goal: to gain even a small understanding of the way of thinking that Pardo described here, to talk about the present, to note the past and yes – to look to the future. Spoiler: this was not an optimistic conversation.
A problem of values
In the Mossad’s first years, the names of its head were kept confidential. “I felt very comfortable being anonymous”, says Nachum Admoni, one of the last Mossad heads whose names were not publicly known. “I could travel anywhere I wanted to, no one knew me, my neighbors didn’t know what I did for a living. Ultimately, I was exposed by the CIA, who visited me at home in black limousines. I think that nowadays this anonymity could not have been kept”.
We met them in the “Yediot Aharonot” newspaper offices. The atmosphere was relaxed, collegial, some of them had shared years of working together, or in their own words: “We recognize the scent of each other’s sweat”. Admoni headed “Tavel”, the department responsible for external relations with foreign intelligence services and countries without diplomatic relations with Israel, when Zamir was Mossad head. Shavit headed “Caesarea”, the department in charge of operating agents in enemy countries, when Admoni was Mossad head. Efraim Halevy, among his other roles, headed the department for saving Jews when Admoni was Mossad head, and was deputy head for Shavit. Pardo headed the operational unit when Halevy was Mossad head. Yatom is the only one who didn’t climb his way up in the organization. If there were any aggravations in the course of the years, they were not in evidence. They all drink strong black coffee, and remember how the others take their coffee. Zamir, the oldest, is enveloped by the others. Shabtay was the one who drove him to the meeting.
I ask them if today, as they observe the country that is celebrating its 70th year, they are satisfied. “I was the first Mossad head who didn’t belong to the 1948 generation”, says Shabtay Shavit. “I was born to a country that already existed, and I feel extremely bad about what’s happening in it today. The damage is so great, so very deep, so all-encompassing. There are no red lines anymore, no taboos. Add to that the split between people of various groups. The concept of national strength has been completely eroded. As intelligence agents, our most important ability is to try to predict the future. I ask myself what kind of country I’m leaving behind for my grandchildren, and I don’t really have an answer”.
Netanyahu. Pardo: “The system needs leadership of another kind, restraining, level-headed. Leadership that can navigate between the crises and take them to the right places. That doesn’t exist today”.
Pardo: “The problem is one of values, of splits. The world is going through a time of revolution, and the system needs leadership of another kind, restraining, level-headed. Leadership that can navigate between the crises and take them to the right places. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist today”.
Halevy: “I said at the time that in my opinion, the citizens have to rise up and say what’s on their mind. Not a revolt, but a movement that comes from the people, because things are happening that are unacceptable”.
Levy Eshkol. “A Wise Man”
Zamir: “I agree with what Efraim says about going out into the streets. Although I don’t go to demonstrations because I’m uncomfortable about being recognized, I follow the demonstrations in the media and I’m worried about the limited number of people who go to them. I have no doubt that the political leadership today has so much to learn from the leadership of the past. I knew two leaders personally: Golda Meir and Levy Eshkol. Golda had two guiding principles, the Land of Israel and the Jewish People, and she was endlessly loyal to both; and Levy Eshkol was the Wise Man, the deep-rooted Jew. Today I look with concern and pain at what appear to be the basic values that guide the leaders’ decisions. I’m not sure that for the Prime Minister and those who surround him, public interest overcomes personal interests of more power and more money. And it’s even more worrying to see what’s happening to the state, to the statesmen”.
Golda Meir. “Loyal to the country and the people”.
“After all, Netanyahu will go one day. What will he leave up with? His norms have penetrated his entire environment. It sorrows me that such a group can run our country, because we have children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren here, I want them to live in a health country – and this country’s sick. We’re in a fatal medical condition. Netanyahu may have received the country with symptoms but he brought it to the severe condition of an incurable illness. We’ve become a corrupt society. A split society”.
Admoni: “I find it hard to accept the splits and internal wars. It’s stronger now than it ever was. For several years now, not only are the splits and gaps not closing, they’re growing wider – the split between the religious and secular, between Israelis of oriental and European origin. Not that it wasn’t there in the past, but I had hope that the splits will mend through the years. It didn’t happen, and no one tries to minimize it, on the contrary. That’s what worries me. Even if the country isn’t sick, clearly it’s not in a good condition”.
Danny Yatom: “We’re going downhill fast. There are very deep troubles here. People in the Prime Minister’s vicinity and people in key positions are being investigated for public corruption, and it’s all because they put their own interest before that of the country. I’m worried by the tongue-lashing against gatekeepers, and the inactivity in the political area, leading us to a two-nation country, which is the end of the Jewish and democratic country.
“As heads of the Mossad, I think that we shouldn’t only address the period in which we served. In the framework of our job we saw many things: we saw Prime Ministers, we saw decision-making processes in governments. We saw wars. We saw times of peace. And more than many others, we worked closely with Prime Ministers and senior statesmen. I think it would be wrong not to say what’s on our mind”.
Admoni: “I want to look at things from another angle. I still remember that as a young soldier in ’47-’48, we operated like children who know nothing, believing in our commanders and in our leadership and setting out naively to do what we had to do. That’s how we started. From that point of view I have tremendous satisfaction. I think that despite the problematic and even disgusting things that exist in our leadership today, and which penetrate our society, we should also look at the full half, which is actually much more than half of the glass”.
Pardo: “As part of the system and partner in the decision making, there’s a certain degree of unfairness in criticizing it in retrospect. Netanyahu was the one who appointed me, I served a term of five years in the job. The prime Minister knew my position on the Iranian issue, the Palestinian issue. He knew that there are disputes between us, and it didn’t prevent me from doing my job. If I had come to a conclusion that I can’t or won’t do something because it would place the country at risk, I would have left. The fact that I never left is a sign that things never came to that”.
“I do think that something very bad happened to the leadership in Israel. I think that a country’s leadership is measured first and foremost by its values ad public behavior. There’s a very severe flaw in Israel’s political system: anything that isn’t criminal – is Kosher. The problem isn’t criminal, its value-related. We want people who set a personal example to head the country, in a way that’s value-related rather than a criminal issue. Once that’s gone, we’re lost”.
Yatom: “And that’s why I think that Netanyahu should go home. Take a leave of absence right now. He can’t run a country with so many problems, while at the same time fighting for his reputation and his need to ensure that he doesn’t go to jail”.
Halevy: “Netanyahu likens himself to Churchill. I grew up in England at the time that Churchill was a leader, and I can say that although he didn’t share everything that was going on with the people, he did tell the people what the situation was. Netanyahu is doubtlessly very intelligent, but the connection between his need for headlines and preoccupation with his public image on the one hand, and running the country and its security affairs on the other hand – that’s problematic. For instance, the story with the security officer in the Jordan embassy and the ceremony that Netanyahu organized for him. Making the decision to evacuate the embassy and then turning the evacuation into a heroic act, accompanied by pictures of people calling him, “Mr. Prime minister, thank you for saving us”? That connection – between the internal needs and the way in which you frame the event for the public, and the matter itself – is extremely dangerous”.
Shavit: “I headed the Mossad when Rabin was Prime Minister. When it came out that Leah Rabin had a bank account in Washington, Rabin immediately took responsibility and said “I’m resigning”. Could the differences be more marked? As for Bibi, I don’t know – does he understand? Doesn’t he understand? Even if we censure and clean and analyze in order to look for all the things that you can say in his favor – still, listen, there was never anything like this in the country’s leadership, such a low point”.
Separation of Israel
Halevy: “Shabtay spoke of the national strength that’s been eroded. I’m also extremely troubled by a process that I would call “Separation of Israel”, which is in contradiction to the “Gathering of Israel” that was expected to take place here. The feelings of racial deprivation, the gaps between religious and secular Jews – all these should already have been in the past, and they’re not, among other things because of the separating leadership. In the nineties, more than a million Jews immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, and to this day – hundreds of thousands of them has not been formally recognized as Jews. We’ve create a very sad reality here, in which many of these people cannot live a normal life, even when they’ve served in the Israeli army. It’s intolerable. It’s not a religious problem. It’s a leadership problem. I also regard religionization as a severe problem, because it leads to extremism. I say this even though I immigrated to Israel as a religious boy, and even though when I came to the Mossad I led a process of turning the Mossad kitchen Kosher, together with another senior Mossad member with religious roots like mine. I think that there has to be absolute separation between religion and state”.
Pardo: “I remember that young Jews who tried to escape from Iran were caught and tortured by the Iranians, and we were required to bring the Rabbis proof that they were killed so that they would pronounce their wives to be widows. It took years, and efforts were made that in retrospect seem very strange, until we reached Rabbi Ovadia Joseph and he released these women. Such things are illogical in a modern country”.
Halevy: “That really aggravates me, because the Gathering of Israel issue was extremely central in the Mossad’s activity for many years. The Mossad is responsible for the immigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews to Israel, in top-secret operations”.
Admoni: “At a certain time we almost emptied the refugee camps in Sudan of Jews, and then I decided to call the Jews of Ethiopia to come to Sudan, because if they got there we would be able to bring them to Israel. I didn’t evaluate the dangers of the journey correctly. They were robbed and raped and murdered. I think hundreds of them died this way. But I wouldn’t have made any other decision because that was the only way to get them out”.
Halevy: “But the important question is what happened after we brought them here. The operation to brings the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel involved tremendous risks, in an enemy country, in extraordinary intelligence conditions, and then, when we brought them here, a process began of how to turn them into Jews. Among other things, by demand of the religious authorities in Israel, they began to draw blood, which is emotionally a very difficult phenomenon (this refers to the strict conversion to Judaism that was enforced on the Ethiopian immigrants, and which included ritual immersion and the drawing of circumcision blood – A.L.). When Ezra and Nehemia brought the exiles of Babylon to the Land of Israel, no one was preoccupied with the issue of how to turn them into Jews. Today, things are different, and it’s all a result of political pressures”.
Ethiopians demonstrating against the religious authorities, 1985.
Halevy: “The operation to brings the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel involved tremendous risks. The important question is what happened after we brought them here.
Zamir: “Sometimes I think that we actually brought the Diaspora to israel. When you see the fight that takes place in cities for the right to open shops on Saturday, you understand that we’re living in the State of Israel, but their source of inspiration is the Shtiebel. The Jewish institutes in Poland and Lithuania. The orthodox Jews have a very strong influence on the country’s character, and there is no counterbalance in the leadership”.
In your opinion, what is the greatest danger to the country’s security?
Pardo: “The fact that between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan river there is almost and identical number of Jews and non-Jews today. The central problem, from ’67 to this day, is that Israel, with its entire political system, hasn’t decided yet what kind of country it wants to be. We’re the only country in the whole world that hasn’t defined its own borders to itself. All of the governments avoided coping with that issue”.
Yatom: “Rabin’s government didn’t avoid it. He was murdered”.
Halevy: “Danny’s right. 1993 was the only year in the history of the State of Israel in which there three peace negotiation channels took place simultaneously – with the Palestinians, with the Syrians and with the Jordanians”.
Pardo: “But no Prime Minister declared the borders of the country that he hopes for”.
Yatom: “Barak did. He was both ready to leave the Golan heights and to return more-or-less to the ’67 borders”.
Pardo: “Excuse me but I stand by my opinion. The Israeli governments didn’t do it. Olmert also had a vision, and so did Sharon, and Rabin had a vision too. Each of them walked the one mile that he chose – but none of them said: These are the country’s borders. If the State of Israel doesn’t decide in a hurry what it wants, ultimately we’ll have one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It’s the end of the Zionist dream”.
Yatom: “It’s a country that will go downhill and become an Apartheid state or a non-Jewish state, if we hold on to the occupied territories. I regard that as existential danger. That’s not the kind of country I fought for. There are those who’ll sat that we did everything and that there’s no partner on the other side, but it’s not true. There is as partner. If we want it or not, the Palestinian and whoever represents them are our partner, and that’s who we have to cope with”.
Halevy: “We’re the dominant ones, and in order to come to some kind of a settlement, we have to treat the other side with some degree of equality first. Beyond that, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to the Hamas. The Hamas was established 31 years ago, we’ve used everything that we have against it and they still exist, so we can’t ignore it and just say: They’re terrorists. Hamas also made a certain change in its covenant, which recognizes the ’67 borders as the country’s temporary borders. It’s an enormous change”.
To what extent is the peace matter critical to the existence of the State of Israel?
Zamir: “It’s critical. Ultimately, we’ll have to find a formula that can constitute the basis for discussion with the Palestinian”.
Pardo: “The State OF Israel needs peace in order to exist in the long term”.
Halevy: “I’ll say it in the most severe way possible: without peace, the survival of the State of Israel, its very existence, is uncertain”.
Yatom: “In my opinion, if Rabin had not been murdered, we would already have been at peace with the Palestinians for years, perhaps even with the Syrians. As the strongest country in the Middle east, we have to take calculated risks and to return to the path of discussion”.
Shavit: “Peace that is based on the idea of two states is more important for the Jews than it is for the Palestinians. The state of affairs that we’re in now is a result of our insistence on not really trying to make peace”.
“It’s a bluff that there’s no partner. Neither us nor the Palestinians will voluntarily make peace, of our own free will. In such a situation, someone will come from high-up, someone big and strong and influential, and if needed he’ll just make us do it”.
So you’re saying that Israel has to reach a peace settlement even if there’s an element of coercion from above, by the Americans or the Saudi Arabians?
“Yes. Because in the test of time, if we go to a two-state solution on the basis of the Arab Legion proposal, which was originally wrote by the Saudi Arabians, the largest dividend we’ll get if a declaration of the end of our dispute will all 22 Arab Legion countries, plus diplomatic relations with them and with 30 other Muslim countries in the world. If 50 Muslim countries make peace with Israel tomorrow and maintain diplomatic and economic relations with us – we can leave behind all the Scandinavian countries and Holland and Switzerland, they can all eat our dust. But instead, what preoccupies us today? When’s the next war in Gazza, and when’s the next war in Lebanon? We have to break that cycle. What are we living here for? So that our grandchildren can go on fighting? What’s this insanity that territory, land, is more important than human life?”
Pardo: “I think that within the border of a country there cannot be Class A citizens and Class B citizens. Whoever thinks that for the long term we can keep two types of populations, those with rights and those without rights, is preparing trouble for our grandchildren that they will not be able to cope with, and they may very simply just leave”.
Zamir: “We’ve talked about the split in the people. About the national strength. I’m concerned about the fact that there are parts of the population who don’t see how essential it is for everyone to carry the burden and responsibility for the country’s security, regardless of their beliefs. I’m worried about the lack of basic commitment of the orthodox Jews who don’t want to enlist. There’s no unity in the concern for the country and no identical national goals”.
Ego battles with MID (Military Intelligence Directorate)
Last week, the Mossad was in the headlines due to publications about an attack on the nuclear plant in Syria, 11 years ago. Pardo talked to the media and said that the late discovery of the nuclear plant was an intelligence omission on the scale of the Yom Kippur War, and this led to a vociferous fight of versions against the MID. I ask them whether the tension between MID and the Mossad is a built-in one.
“I didn’t say anything against MID”, Pardo replies. “I argued that it’s a reverberating failure of the whole intelligence community, and the MID has no copyright over this matter. It’s an MID and Mossad failure to the same extent. I take the blame both for the Mossad and for MID. In my time, there was excellent cooperation between the Mossad and the IDF in general and MID in particular. We were beyond colleagues, we were also friends, and so I was surprised by the reactions in the intelligence system”.
Halevy: “It’s not the first time that there are ego fights. There is a hidden competition with MID. This time is stronger because of the volume of the event, but there were many years in which MID took the credit because it has interface with the public and it has PR, while we’re a small and secret group without a spokesperson, and we didn’t know how to conduct our public relations”.
After the attack on the Nuclear Plant in Syria, 2007.
Pardo: it’s a reverberating failure of the whole intelligence community. It’s an MID and Mossad failure to the same extent.
It appears that the intelligence about the Nuclear Plant was largely found by coincidence.
Pardo: “It was really just luck that brought us the intelligence about the Nuclear Plant. The transition from general suspicions about a nuclear project of an unclear nature, status and location happened as the result of a single event, several months before its activation. There are surprises in our work, even if we try to minimize them, and this was a complete surprise. Sometimes there are also good surprises. In many cases you come to realize in retrospect that there were also many things within the giant sea of information – that you didn’t see. Things suddenly connect. That also happened here”.
Halevy: “There’s a lot of coincidence in life, not only in intelligence. A Mossad agent’s work is not like that of a fighter pilot who’s sent to throw a bomb and who has a specific path and target. Here there are a lot of variables. In this case, it was fortunate that someone on the other side was irresponsible”.
Is it somehow possible to deduce from the bombing of the Syrian Nuclear Plant and the Iranian nuclear issue?
Pardo: “These are two completely different situations. Syrian doesn’t have abilities to develop anything. It received a project that Northern Korea built for it from A to Z. in Iran – a country that’s much further away, on a completely different scale – it’s a national project. Except for the word “nuclear” there’s really no place for comparison”.
Halevy: “What’s important about the bombing of the Syrian nuclear plant is that it’s the second time that Israel has made it clear that it will not accept the existence of a nuclear plant of a military nature. The first time was in Iraq. A pattern has been formed, aimed at anyone who wants to walk down that road”.
When did we first become aware of the magnitude of the Iranian threat?
Shavit: “As far back as 1966, I lived in Iran for two years, undercover, as a Persian man, with my wife. That’s where our eldest daughter was born. For years, the Mossad’s perception was that Syria was the central threat over Israel, while Iran and Iraq received lower priority. In 1991, intelligence began to arrive about the development of their missile abilities. The Shihab 3, the central spine of their missile array, was planned even then to a range of 1,300 kilometers. That’s when I began to understand that it’s not just against Iraq, it’s also against us”.
Did Israel do the right thing in the matter of the nuclear pact with Iran?
“I have a lot of criticism about Obama, but we should have evaluated our size and influence correctly, rather than jump to talk in the American Congress. Excuse me, but it only leaves an impression on the people in the street, who regard Netanyahu as a hero. That’s not very smart”.
“If we had cooperated with Obama, we could have inserted our own interests in the agreement that was signed with the Iranians. Instead, we boycotted the negotiations, thinking that we would be able to persuade the Congress to bend Obama’s arm – that’s such nonsense. Netanyahu went there with his eyes wide open, because the pose in the American Congress brings him five mandates here. At the same time, I do think that we have to prepare some independent ability of our own, for the worst-case scenario in which we find ourselves alone”.
Halevy: “I think that the biggest threat over Israel in the next five or seven year is the abolition of the Nuclear Agreement, because then Iran is immediately released of all its commitments, and anything it would or wouldn’t be able to do in eight years – it would be able to do immediately. We should be very much against the agreement’s abolition, but our Prime Minister wants just that, for his own reasons, even though it’s against the country’s real security interest.
“by the way, I believe that Israel isn’t at risk of being destroyed. The Iranians are incapable of destroying us. Churchill once said: “We’ll fight on the beaches, we’ll fight on the streets, even if we won’t be in Britain we’ll fight and even win, from the outside”. These are a leader’s words, not “we’re at risk of being destroyed”. A leader shouldn’t be continually frightening the people”.
Can the Iranian nuclear project be completely thwarted?
Pardo: “in three possible alternatives: one is conquering the country – but Iran is the size of half of Europe, so I don’t think even a country like the united Sates could conquer it tomorrow morning. A second alternative is to change the regime, and I don’t believe in an external ability to change regimes. The third way is to put pressure on Iran, through various means and abilities, as I said before, which could ultimately lead the regime to an understanding that it’s just not worth it, which used to be the State of Israel’s rationale”.
Will our grandchildren talk about Iran in twenty years?
Shavit: “If at all, they’ll talk about it like some kind of story that long over. As history”.
Where does that optimism come from?
“Today we can see opposition phenomena in Iran. The young women who stand in the street and take off the Niqab and wave it – and no one arrests them – that’s an indication of change. There are large gaps between rich and poor over there. A lot of symptoms that constitute potential for blowing up from the inside”.
Pardo: “I think that Iran isn’t far from other countries which are defined as threshold countries, and I don’t think it will ever need to be more than that. As for the grandchildren question, I think that whoever lives in the Middle East will always have a considerable pile of challenges to cope with, but I appreciate that this specific challenge will fade away with time”.
Halevy: “What worries me is that Russia is sitting on our border with a military force and becoming the dominant country in the region, and Netanyahu meets Putin six times, and then he says: “I’m taking care of Israel’s security”. What do you mean by that? There are millions of citizens here who see what’s happening in Syria and what the Russians are doing, and know that the Prime Minister is talking to Putin, so that can remain a secret between them? Or take that incident in which our fighter plane was taken down – it’s impossible that the Syrians took down an Israeli plane without the Russians knowing about it. So what, we just let it go? What’s going on? That troubles me. In such critical issues, the prime Minister should tell the public the truth, within the limitations. What are we, a dictatorship in which we trust a leader who doesn’t make the clarify the picture?”
Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad
Halevy: In such critical issues as Syria and the connection to Russia, the prime Minister should tell the public the truth.
What is the situation in Syria, in your opinion? To what extent does Syria pose a threat to Israel?
Pardo: “Putin has very clear goals. The Russians have for many years wanted to have a foothold in the Mediterranean area. Now they have an opportunity and I don’t see them getting out of there, certainly not in the near future. Russia has an interest for Bashar Assad to stay in power, as well as combined interests with Iran that are incompatible with Israel’s interests. This requires us to be extremely clever; to tread carefully”.
An appetite for peace
Throughout their career, all six were also deeply involved in peace processes. Halevy was extremely active in the Jordanian arena, and often served as liaison between Prime Minister Shamir and King Hussain. Shavit took Isaac Rabin to meet Suharto, the president of Indonesia, while Admoni formed ties that could not be talked about. “In the Mossad, we say “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy war”, says Halevy, “But the Mossad was also involved in “For by wise counsel thou shalt make thy peace”, or at least create an appetite for peace.
You served at different times, under different Prime Ministers. Describe the nature of the relations between Mossad Head and Prime Minister.
“If there isn’t complete and endless trust, the work is compromised”, says Shavit, Mossad Head in the years 1989-1996, working under Shamir, Rabin and Peres. “In such a situation, two things take place. The Prime Minister will be ready to take smaller risks when approving operations that are proposed by the Mossad Head will. And on the other hand, the Mossad Head will hesitate when seeking the Prime Minister’s approval for operations”.
“I worked under three prime ministers: Begin, Peres and Shamir”, says Admoni, who headed the Mossad between the years 1982-1989. “Begin was a man of culture and it was good to work with him, until the last months, when he lost his health, and then the relations became more problematic. I would come to a meeting, he would welcome me in but after five or ten minutes his head would drop and his eyes would close, and I didn’t know whether to go on talking”.
Menachem Begin, after the bombing of the Iraqi Nuclear Plant, June 1981
You also served under him in 1981, when the Iraqi nuclear plant was destroyed.
“The recent publicity about the bombing of the Syrian nuclear plant brought me back to that operation. In my opinion, in the whole matter of the Syrian nuclear plant there’s too much talking. In 1981 I was deputy to the Mossad head Isaac Chofy (Chaka), and I was appointed to coordinate the activities in this area. Chaka objected, because he was afraid that it would compromise the peace process, the Vice Prime Minister Yigal Yadin threatened to resign, but Begin took the decision with great courage, and the air force performed extremely well. This was a very critical experience for me, too, because my position was in contradiction to that of the Mossad Head. But back then all these things didn’t come out. Today there’s too much talk.
“Later on, when I was already Mossad Head, Shamir was Prime Minister and Peres was the Foreign Affairs minister – it was customary that the Mossad Head also reported occasionally to the Foreign Affairs minister. I updated Peres in a meeting and the he said, Nachum, I’ve met with a senior Moroccan personality. I asked, who did you meet with? And he says, I can’t tell you because you’ll run and tell the Prime Minister and I don’t want him to know. In another case, when I reported to Shamir on a certain matter, I asked naively if he doesn’t think that I should also report to Peres, so he said: Let go, leave it to me”.
Yatom: “And that’s the way it stayed, everyone hid things from everyone”.
Admoni: “That’s the way it stayed, yes. When Peres was prime minister, I was uncomfortable working with him. I think that he didn’t appreciate the Mossad’s work, except in cases where it provided him with a possibility to prove himself in some matter”.
“I was Rabin’s military aide”, says Yatom, who was Mossad Head between the years 1996-1998, under Netanyahu. “I saw Rabin conduct his relationship with the Mossad heads. He had all the attention and time to give them. He knew how to make decisions, to provide backup. On the other hand, I experience the relationship as Mossad Head with Prime Minister Netanyahu in his first term, and of his backup and support I can say – there wasn’t any”.
Isaac Rabin: “Knew how to make decisions”.
Pardo: “I didn’t expect the Prime minister to back me up when something went wrong. It wasn’t his problem”.
Admoni: “I think that the Mossad head has to take responsibility, especially when something goes wrong, even if the operation in which something went wrong had received the Prime Minister’s full approval”.
Yatom: “There’s a huge difference between taking responsibility and backup. We all expect that the person we’re working under will back us up, even when something goes wrong. The responsibility is yours, as Mossad Head, but you expect the Prime Minister to back you up in the sense that he won’t undermine you or make things worse”.
You’re talking about the failure of the operation to kill Khaled Mashal in 1997?
“Yes, when the operation failed, Bibi was afraid that the failure will stick to him, so he changed his position. Immediately after every meeting between us, a message would be sent out to the media that he’s looking to replace me. And if Bibi is looking to replace Yatom, that means that Yatom is to blame, right? And I’m a Mossad Head under investigation, continuing with operations at the same time, so this message can affect the investigation committee and the way in which I’m perceived within the Mossad. I didn’t expect Bibi to take responsibility, but I did expect him to back me up”.
Shavit, commanding the unit that sends agents to enemy countries, is that a different kind of responsibility?
“These are difficult situations. When your agents are in their destination, in Arab countries, you constantly live in enormous tension, attention and concentration, because the risk threshold in case something goes wrong is on a life-or-death level. Sometimes your intelligence creates an assessment that the life of the people there is at risk, but the agents themselves are unaware of it. You often get a kind of feeling as if your diaphragm is lifting in your chest and blocking your airway”.
Admoni: “There are moments in which your heart beats very fast. As deputy head of the Mossad, in the days before the first Lebanon War, I went to Lebanon several times. The Christians were located in Junia, and in order to maintain contact with them we had to physically reach them. I wasn’t a young man any more when they took me to a Flotilla 13 course and threw me in the water and then pulled me up by helicopter and sent me off in a rubber boat in order to train me to get there. These journeys to Junia through the sea, and the knowledge that if you fail, you fail – that involves tremendous tension. I won’t even go into the dilemma that was created later on in the matter of Sabra and Shatila, I’ll only say that in times of war, the IDF took over from the Mossad in maintaining connections with the Lebanese Christians”.
Shavit: “There’s tension and drama of various kinds. Like in Africa, the Mossad used the agricultural lever in South-East Asia in order to form contacts. So when in the sixties, President Sokrano of Indonesia wanted an agricultural farm, the Mossad brought agricultural experts from Israel who built him an agricultural farm. He wanted a dairy farm – they built him a dairy farm. He wanted cattle of the quality of Israeli cattle – we bought him several Israeli bulls. But that wasn’t enough, so once in a while the Mossad would bring him bull sperm from Israel in stainless steel dishes. The Mossad worked with these countries, which aren’t democratic countries, and in the nineties, when Rabin was Prime Minister and went to China, I organized a secret meeting for him with Soharto, at the end of which Soharto said: I’ll be following you. I can promise you that if I see that you’re making progress, we’ll also make progress. Even if there was no risk to life in this operation, there was a lot of tension in it, because sometimes the difference between success and failure is a very thin line”.
Even in the capture of Mordechay Vanunu, the “Nuclear Spy”, in September 2986, they say, there was a lot of luck involved. “I don’t think that was one of the Mossad’s greatest success stories, it was mostly luck”, says Admoni. “We sent a team to England, VanunU was walking around Leicester Square and by chance our guys were there. One of the girls recognized him (this refers to Sheryl Bentov, also known as agent “Sandy” – A.L.) and he approached her. The encounter was completely accidental, not as it was presented in the media, as though we sent a seductress to catch him. We wanted to avoid illegal action in England, so the girl let him understand that it would be worth his while and of his own free will he went to Italy. But it’s not that her role was planned in advance, to seduce him”.
Mordechay Vanunu after he was captured and brought to Israel.
Admoni: “The fact that he succeeded in writing “I was kidnapped in Rome” on his hand was of course a great disappointment and the result of sloppy work by his guards.
Shavit: “They said “girl” – but it wasn’t some Mata Hari working alone, a soloist. It’s a whole array of people and tools and intelligence. What people remember ultimately is a girl who seduced him but that wasn’t the plan that we had made in Israel”.
Admoni: “When Vanunu was brought to Israel, it was already the responsibility of the police and the General Security Services. The fact that he could put his hand on the window and write “I was kidnapped in Rome” was of course a great disappointment for us and the result of sloppy work by his guards, who enabled him to do that. Really sloppy”.
A world of Real Time
I ask the six whether today, in a world of biometry and changing technological abilities, the work in the spy world is more difficult. “in 1960 it was more difficult than in 1950, in 1990 it was more difficult than in 1980, and in 2018 it’s more difficult than in 2002”, says Pardo. “When I began working in the Mossad, there was one television network, there was no Internet. The world is changing and the challenges are becoming more difficult, but I believe and know that the young generation, those who enlisted in the past decade, are much better, talented and sophisticated than my generation ever was”.
Shavit: “Until the end of the seventies, contact with the agents was conducted in Morse. Today, it’s possible to talk from any point in the world to any point in the world, with encoding that no one can decipher. But the threats are also getting larger, faster, more distant. We live in a world that’s completely transparent, a world of Real Time. The biometric passport is creating tremendous problems and there are cameras everywhere”.
Unlike military and Security Service workers, very few Mossad agents have crossed the lines to the world of politics, as Ram Ben Barak did only recently. Would you consider it?
Shavit: “There’s no organization in Israel in which the secret component is so very powerful and deep as it is in the Mossad. We live in complete darkness. Exposure is our greatest enemy. I wish Rami Ben Bara luck, but when I think of myself in politics, going to the Bar-mitzvah of someone’s son so that he’ll support me later on – I’m simply not there”.
Pardo: “I’m not built for it either. I wish Ram great luck on his new path. I don’t find it attractive. I also think that politics is a profession, and as in every other profession – you have to start from the bottom, and I think that one of the mistakes that took place in Israel throughout the years was that people were dropped down from the top of one pyramid to the top of another pyramid”.
Halevy: “It’s true that the leadership has to be changed. But you need to make room for young people. I’m also against dropping down generals, heads of the Security Services, Mossad heads, instead of growing young people. I would have liked to see a kind of Macron here. It’s happen ultimately. At the moment we’re in an intermediate period, even quite a dark period, but I believe that we’re reaching its end. Now, when the country is 70 years old, it’s time to freshen up”.
Ronen Bergman / Prophesies of the Mossad Heads
Six former Mossad heads come to a conclusion that Israel is at risk. The real question is: will the public listen to their words?
Names are inscribed in golden rings on the lower part of an elegant brown wooden pole, called “The Mossad Staff” and stored in one of the protected rooms of the organization’s headquarters. The top part carries the symbol of the secret organization and its famous moto: “Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety”. Six of them are still alive, and their important words here should be read carefully. Their reference to specific operations is interesting, as are their words about their relations with the political echelon and their perception of the job. But far more interesting and important is their perception of the social-political-diplomatic-international reality in Israel, and in particular the severe and wide criticism of Prime Minister Netanyahu that is implied in their words.
How does it come about that such Middle East experts, the very heart of the security establishment, the House of Lords of the Israeli secret world, people who were forged by fire and through secret operations across enemy lines, the most senior of senior agents – come to a conclusion that the State of Israel is in danger, and they all (except for Pardo and Admoni, who were more cautious) personally criticize Prime minister Netanyahu?
The role of Mossad Head is one of the most unique roles given to public servants in the Israeli executive authority. There are much larger organizations – the Mossad began with several hundred workers and today employs several thousands. The Israel Police is far larger. There are military units in the IDF that are bigger and have larger budgets. But there is no dispute about the centrality of the Mossad Head, far beyond all the others, and often equal to the Commander in Chief of the IDF and the head of the Security Service, for several reasons: first, he’s subordinate directly to the prime minister, and thus meets him often in order to receive updates, as well as approval for his central operations. That also has a negative aspect: when something goes wrong in the Mossad, this has direct implications for the Prime Minister and may jeopardize his ability to stay in office. Secondly, the topics that are addressed by the Head of the “Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations” (Mossad) are naturally also those that preoccupy the political upper echelons. Thirdly, this is a super-centralistic organization, in which almost nothing takes place without the Mossad Head’s knowledge and approval, and he is involved in all the details, including some of the operations. Fourthly, variably and as a function of the personal relations and extent of appreciation between the Prime minister and the Mossad Head, the Mossad head often becomes the Prime minister’s central counselor in matters that exceed the organization’s role. This was the case with Zvi Zamir and Prime minister Golda Meir, as well as with Meir Dagan and Ehud Olmert. Hence the important of the words said here by the former Mossad Heads. There are no better involved-expert-witnesses such as them to what took place in the past, and no better evaluators of the future.
Make no mistakes about the relatively uniform and collegial front that these men demonstrate in a public discourse. Things are not always like that behind the scenes. Meir Dagan, for instance, severely attacked some of this predecessors for “degenerating the organization”, using protocols and regulations “as an excuse not to set out on operations” and leaving behind some very bitter enemies who felt that they had been neglected by the Mossad.
The other person who is missing from the interview is of course the present Mossad Head, Yossi Cohen, who by no fault of his own began his term in a problematic position, as does anyone who’s appointed by Netanyahu, but who has staked out his own independence in the past two years and has accumulated compliments within the organization, as well as from decision makers in Israel and colleagues in foreign services. In the three years left to complete his term, Cohen has yet to prove that he can complete the central task that he has committed to: to block the Iranians from expanding all over the Middle East, beginning with Syria.
To conclude, it will be interesting to see how the Mossad Heads’ words with affect the Israeli public. Here stand the six men who are most knowledgeable about what’s happening, with an accumulated experience of hundreds of years together in diplomacy and secret operations, and they prophesy a real danger to the Zionist vision. They used to carry great influence over the Israeli public. What response will they awaken today? Meir Dagan attempted to use the power and popularity that he has accumulated in his job and opposed Netanyahu directly before the last elections, but as we know – his efforts were in vain. “I thought I could influence, make a change”, he said in our last phone conversation, several weeks before his death two years ago. “I was sadly surprised and disappointed”.
The dispute between the generals – who used to “hold a knife between their teeth” but later on came to understand the limits of power, and the majority of the people in Israel – is the sad reality of our life.