Here in Washington, Israel’s President Shimon Peres is enjoying the highest possible American government accolades — receiving the Medal of Freedom Award from President Barack Obama.
The 88-year-old, still in good health and mentally sharp, now holds a ceremonial post; but in past decades Peres was a senior defense official, a cabinet minister in several capacities, and prime minister of Israel. He pops up often in our book, Spies Against Armageddon, as he was entrusted by Israel’s first prime minister — David Ben-Gurion — with carrying out the fateful, secret decision to develop nuclear weapons.
Peres also has been an active peacemaker, whenever peace efforts seem possible in the Middle East, and he calls on the current coalition government in his country to make stronger efforts at re-starting peace talks with the Palestinians.
In remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday evening at the White House, President Obama praises the newest Medal of Freedom honoree:
“The United States is fortunate to have many allies and partners around the world. Of course, one of our strongest allies, and one of our closest friends, is the State of Israel. And no individual has done so much over so many years to build our alliance and bring our two nations closer as the leader we honor tonight—our friend, Shimon Peres.
“…in him we see the essence of Israel itself—an indomitable spirit that will not be denied. … Shimon knows the necessity of strength. As Ben-Gurion said, ‘an Israel capable of defending herself—which cannot be destroyed—can bring peace nearer.’
“And so he’s worked with every American President since John F. Kennedy. And it’s why I’ve worked with Prime Minister Netanyahu to ensure that the security cooperation between the United States and Israel is closer and stronger than it has ever been. Because the security of the State of Israel is non-negotiable. And the bonds between us are unbreakable.
“And yet, Shimon knows that a nation’s security depends, not just on the strength of its arms, but upon the righteousness of its deeds—its moral compass. He knows, as Scripture teaches, that we must not only seek peace, we must pursue it. And so it has been the cause of his life—peace, security and dignity, for Israelis and Palestinians and all Israel’s Arab neighbors.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not only concerned, he is worried and angry, which has led him to go on the offensive.
Netanyahu (government photo)
He is concerned by the request — by most of the bereaved families of Operation Protective Edge (50 out of 67) — to establish a commission of inquiry into how his government behaved, before and during the 2014 Gaza war.
In addition to this request, which came as a surprise to the prime minister, the state comptroller’s report on the war is expected to be published soon. A leaked draft of the report suggests that it will be critical of the government’s and the IDF’s preparations for the war.
Netanyahu and his aides fear that the bereaved families’ demand for an inquiry and the comptroller report will be used by ministers and MKs in the coalition and the opposition in order to attack him and undermine his authority and position, in particular when he also has a police investigation into corruption allegations hanging over his head.
Therefore, the prime minister held a nearly three-hour briefing with military reporters and analysts on short notice Monday. He laid out before us his strategic viewpoint on Israel’s situation, the challenges facing the country, the threats against it and its capabilities to face these threats.
However, the bulk of the conversation was spent on the prime minister’s attempts to deflect the bereaved families’ criticism. As a bereaved brother himself, Netanyahu understands how sensitive an issue it is to argue with such families and to thwart the comptroller report and similar criticism voiced by ministers such as Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Liberman.
Convening the military correspondents was a smart move by Netanyahu. It was intended to give more “professional” weight to his claims than they would have had if they were conveyed through political or diplomatic correspondents.
The prime minister spoke at times with excitement and at times in anger, accompanied by fist-banging on the table. He presented data and quotes which sought to prove that the government, the cabinet and he personally took the Hamas tunnel threat seriously, as well as the group’s other military capabilities – rockets, naval commandos and aerial vehicles.
In the seven months prior to the war, between November 2013 and July 2014, the cabinet met eight times, almost a third of all of the forum’s meetings in that period, to discuss the tunnel threat. The prime minister also toured the frontlines and held discussions with Gaza division commanders. The cabinet heard situation reports from IDF commanders and senior Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) officials on the subject. At the conclusion of some of the meetings, decisions were made and orders were given, including by Netanyahu himself to the IDF and the defense establishment to prepare militarily for the tunnel threat and to develop technology to thwart it.
In these cabinet meetings, as well as in other forums, there was an intelligence-based estimate that Hamas had dug at least 20 tunnels into Israeli territory. In The Jerusalem Post’s sister publication, Ma’ariv Sofshavua, I published in October 2013 that the IDF had even estimated that there were some 30 tunnels (during Operation Protective Edge 31 tunnels were uncovered and destroyed). If I knew about the threat, then the IDF and the cabinet definitely knew about it.
Therefore, in this respect, the prime minister is right. The claims that the cabinet was not informed, or that the IDF did not know, are baseless. It is true that the defense establishment (and this is also Netanyahu’s responsibility) could have prepared better technologically and started to more quickly look for a solution if they would have listened years ago to the warnings of the geologist Col. (Res.) Yossi Langotsky. The solutions that are now being applied to the fight against tunnels are exactly what Langotsky suggested ten years ago, but nobody listened.
The prime minister, (and then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon) managed the war in the correct manner – carefully and calmly, while setting reasonable goals that took into account an exit strategy for the war. Netanyahu’s strategy was to avoid mass casualties on the Israeli side and to minimize the harm done to the civilian population in Gaza, while delivering a harsh and painful blow to Hamas without agreeing to any of the group’s demands.
If the prime minister will be wise enough now to make the decision to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Gaza – the establishment of a seaport is the required step – chances are that the danger of another war will be pushed back several more years, and in retrospect, we will be able to say that Operation Protective Edge achieved good results for Israel.
This past weekend, the weekly Forward newspaper — famous as a progressive Jewish news source for many decades — ran our article about Otto Skorzeny, who was one of Hitler’s favorite military officers. We reveal that during his postwar years living in Spain and Ireland, he worked for Israel’s Mossad.
For some reason, he seemed to take pleasure in being a secret agent for the Jewish state’s famed and feared spy agency.
Our article (click here) suggests some reasons he would do it — as well as discussing the debate within the Mossad about the morality of employing a Nazi.
Meanwhile, we were surprised (and generally pleased) to see our story repeated and reported in news media around the globe. But some of the repeats gave credit to the Israeli newspaper (and website) Haaretz.
It turns out that Haaretz has an arrangement with Forwardto run some of that New York-based newspaper’s features.
On Tuesday, the German newspaper Bild told our story — with our exclusive details about Otto Skorzeny and his Mossad handlers — but cited only the Israeli paper Haaretz.
Come to think of it, Bild didn’t see fit to mention our names — or Forward.
Oh — and the respected British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph? They also didn’t notice, apparently, on the Haaretz site that the story was from Forward.com. They just credited Haaretz, as though that Israeli paper unearthed this historical nugget.
In May 2000, the IDF’s Military Intelligence branch (the agency known as Aman) obtained reports and photographs from observation points and aerial patrols proving that senior Hezbollah figures were coming to tour southern Lebanon. The Lebanese Shi’ite officials would be checking on the IDF’s preparations to withdraw from the security belt which Israel’s army had held since 1982.
Hezbollah believed the IDF would leave that July, and the group hoped to come up with a plan to sabotage the withdrawal and launch an attack on the retreating troops.
“They wanted to turn the withdrawal into an inferno,” says Brig.-Gen. (res.) Amos Gilboa, who has written a new book that explores the issue: Dawn. The Real Story of the IDF’s Withdrawal from Lebanon (available soon, only in Hebrew).
“Dawn” was the IDF’s codename for the operation to withdraw from Lebanon.
The full menu of aggression planned by Hezbollah’s commanders included rocket launches, gunfire, setting off roadside bombs and car-bombs, and dispatching suicide bombers.
The IDF began a series of discussions about what could be done to stop senior Hezbollah officials from patrolling in southern Lebanon. On May 21, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Malka held a meeting that included “Little Mofaz.” That referred to Shlomo, the brother of then-IDF chief Shaul Mofaz.
Shlomo Mofaz was the head of the terrorism department in Military Intelligence’s research division.
“Mofaz presented information that the most senior officials in Hezbollah are coming to south Lebanon. It’s a certainty, and we have already made preliminary operational and intelligence preparations among ourselves. This is a one-time opportunity to assassinate them, or at least, their most senior member. We’ll present this to the IDF chief,” the book quotes Malka as saying.
“Shlomo,” Gilboa writes, “thought deeply about it and suggested that we transfer the responsibility to decide — from his brother the IDF chief, to the prime minister or defense minister,” who was then Ehud Barak.
The following day, a meeting was to take place to decide whether to take advantage of the opportunity and try to assassinate the senior Hezbollah officials.
What Gilboa does not write in his book and this writer has already published, is that the senior officials in question were “the Fab Five” of Hezbollah’s military wing.
They included the head of the military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, whom Israel, it was claimed, had failed to assassinate on a number of occasions.
Imad Mughniyeh’s official Hezbollah portrait
Also in the group: his deputies, Talal Hamia and Mustafa Badr a-Din (Mughniyeh’s cousin and brother-in-law), who is the Shi’ite group’s military commander today; and two others, one of whom was a senior officer in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who was supervising Hezbollah plans against Israel.
At a meeting between Barak and Gadi Eisenkot, the current IDF chief of staff who was then Barak’s military secretary, the following day, “Gadi got into a car with the prime minister and the defense minister and updated him on the planned assassination of senior Hezbollah officials that Malka was suggesting. Barak listened, and his face lit up when he heard the name of the most senior Hezbollah official [Mughniyeh],” Gilboa writes.
Later, Malka presented the issue of the assassination at a meeting that included Barak and senior IDF officers, including Malka, Shlomo Mofaz, division commander Moshe Kaplinsky and Col. Benny Gantz, who was then the head of the IDF’s liaison unit in Lebanon.
However, it was clear to those present that Barak was distracted. After a few minutes, Barak stopped Malka and declared: “Continue with the intelligence gathering against the object of the assassination.” His meaning was clear. Barak was not authorizing an assassination.
In Gilboa’s words: “The assassination that the meeting was meant to discuss was thrown in the garbage.”
IDF officers present at the meeting and senior Mossad officials who were aware of the plan, were disappointed since everything was ready.
Had Barak given his approval, the entire leadership of Hezbollah’s military command would have been erased from this Earth. Hezbollah would have been beaten.
A golden opportunity was wasted, and it would take Israel eight more years and a war (The Second Lebanon War of 2006) until intelligence and operational feasibility would converge again to enable the assassination of Mughniyeh.
According to foreign reports, the assassination of Mughniyeh in February 2008 — in Syria’s capital, Damascus — was mainly a Mossad operation aided by and carried out in coordination with the CIA.
Barak had refused to approve the action in Lebanon because he feared the ramifications it would have on his bigger plan – to fulfill his election promise to bring the IDF back from its 18-year presence in Lebanon.
Initially, Barak had hoped the withdrawal would be carried out through an agreement or understanding between Israel and Syria mediated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.
However, in 2000, after just a few months, he understood that the chances of reaching such an agreement were slim, and Barak ordered IDF Chief of Staff Mofaz to prepare for a withdrawal without agreement.
The timing of the withdrawal was dictated mainly by the rapid collapse of Israel’s mostly Christian allies — the South Lebanon Army (SLA) — to which the IDF turned over control of some of the outposts it evacuated.
When Barak understood that the SLA could not hold the outposts, he gathered IDF commanders on the evening of May 22 – the same day on which he had earlier rejected the assassination operation – and announced that he had ordered Chief of Staff Mofaz and OC Northern Command Gabi Ashkenazi to complete “their preparations to withdraw all IDF forces and prepare them to redeploy starting tonight.”
“Mofaz almost fell off his chair — he was so shocked,” Gilboa writes.
As a strategic decision, the withdrawal could be considered the crowning glory of Barak’s achievements as prime minister and defense minister. The IDF withdrew without casualties. But the price of the withdrawal was indeed heavy.
In the security, political and social arenas, history will judge Barak unfavorably.
True, it was impressive that Hezbollah did not succeed in sabotaging the withdrawal. However, the pullout exposed Israel’s betrayal of the 2,500 SLA soldiers who had worked with the Jewish state for years in cooperation and coordination. All of a sudden, in the dead of night, the SLA men and their famlies found themselves running for their lives to Israel.
In the wake of these events, the unanswered question remains: Did Barak err by not ordering the assassination of Mughniyeh and the other senior Hezbollah officials? In 2000 it would have changed the reality between Israel and the Shi’ite organization that fought a frightening and bloody war in 2006 and now has armed fighters helping Syria’s regime in that country’s civil war.
[This blog post first appeared here at IsraelSpy.com in June 2012. It is adapted from an article by Yossi Melman, then a correspondent for the newspaper Haaretz, published April 15, 2008. Professor Klingberg — exposed as a spy for Communist Russia, tried and imprisoned in secret in Israel, and totally unrepentant when interviewed later in Paris by Melman — died in late November 2015 in the French capital at age 97.]
A Soviet spy-turned-double agent led to the 1983 arrest of Professor Avraham Marcus Klingberg, the highest-ranking Soviet spy ever caught by Israel.
Klingberg, who was the deputy head of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona, immigrated to Israel in late 1948. Before immigrating to Israel, he had served and been wounded as a soldier in the Red Army during World War II. Klingberg initially told his Israeli interrogators that he began working as a Soviet spy in 1957, after being blackmailed by a Soviet operative, but Israeli intelligence believes he was already a Soviet agent when he moved to Israel.
In his book published in 2007, he said he was first enlisted in the early 1950s by a pro-Soviet Israeli while at a rehabilitation center, healing from injuries sustained in a car crash.
In his memoir, Klingberg wrote that during his trial for espionage, he saw a note that had been accidentally left on his file by the prosecution. The note revealed he had been exposed by a double agent. The military censor deleted this reference from Klingberg’s memoir.
Klingberg was suspected of being a Soviet spy as early as 1963, but he was exculpated after passing a polygraph test. Further information received aroused suspicion over Klingberg, but after having failed once, Shin Bet officials were reluctant to act prematurely.
The information from the double agent, received in 1983, was considered sufficient to prove Klingberg’s complicity. After being interrogated at a secret location in Tel Aviv, Klingberg admitted he had been working for the Soviets. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail. After having served 16 years in prison, he was released to house arrest.
In 2003, after the 20-year sentence was over, he was allowed to leave Israel and live with his daughter in Paris.
In the weeks following Congress’s refusal to block the Iran nuclear deal, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has had to reshuffle his deck of diplomatic cards.
Among other aspects of the current game plan are these:
–Netanyahu will give his annual speech to the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Thursday, Oct. 1, two days after the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s speech. Abbas has promised a “bombshell,” which probably has something to do with declaring an independent State of Palestine even without agreed borders or sovereignty. But, frankly, no one knows if anything significant will be said by either the Israeli or the Palestinian leader.
–Russia has begun a military buildup in Syria. Netanyahu, alarmed that Russian and Israeli forces could somehow get into an unintended conflict in Syrian airspace, made a lightning-quick one-day visit to President Vladimir Putin. Israeli military and intelligence chiefs went along on the trip, and one result was an arrangement to prevent collisions or hostile encounters.
Netanyahu Faces Several Potential Bombshells (photo: at UN in September 2012)
Israel reiterated that its interests in Syria center mostly on preventing the transfer of “advanced weapons systems” to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Yet when it was reported that Russia might be giving Syria’s army some tanks — and perhaps those could be passed on to Hezbollah — Israeli tacticians said they were unconcerned: Tanks are easily seen and hit; and it seems unlikely Hezbollah will deploy them.
–Israel needs a new national police chief, and the leading candidate for the job now is a man known publicly as “R” (the Hebrew letter reysh) — a reminder that identifying employees of Shin Bet (the domestic security agency also known as Shabak) continues to be illegal under Israel’s rickety, leaking censorship regulations. “R” is Shin Bet’s deputy director, and it is somewhat interesting that he was considered to be the likely successor to the current director — Yoram Cohen. It is legal to name the heads of the intelligence and security agencies.
–In Gaza, the Hamas leadership claims several of its senior radicals vanished while traveling through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Hamas says it has concluded that they are now held secretly in Israeli prisons; adding that Egyptian military commandos snatched the men and handed them to Israel; or Israeli special forces swooped into the Sinai and grabbed them. No comment from Israel, but it certainly could be true.
–On November 9 at the White House, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu. It is obvious that they will have to kiss and make up — to a degree — after their sharp, public disagreements over the nuclear deal with Iran.
Obama’s Democratic Party is concerned that the Republicans are making huge progress in winning votes among Americans who care deeply about Israel: whether Jewish, or not. Obama also wants to decrease the chance that Israel will stage a military strike on Iran — which he would see as dangerous destabilization. So he is expected to offer significant security and military aid to Israel. We wait to see how Netanyahu handles the offer and the vital Israel-U.S. relationship.
Israeli officials are increasingly concerned about the BDS — the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” anti-Israel movement in many countries. Now we unveil the role of Israeli’s intelligence community in investigating the BDS campaign — and fighting back.
by YOSSI MELMAN
A senior Israeli military source revealed recently that a special unit inside the Research Division of Military Intelligence has been assigned to monitor the activities of the BDS movement.
The unit was created as a result of lessons learned from the Mavi Marmara incident.
Israel’s Evidence Mavi Marmara Turks Were Violent
In May 2010 a fleet of six boats organized by pro-Palestinian groups sailed from Turkish ports — vowing to lift the siege of Gaza. While the activists (of various nationalities) aboard five of the boats surrendered to the demands of the Israel Navy and stopped their voyage, the Mavi Marmara crew and passengers refused to obey the order.
Israeli navy commandos raided the ship and were surprised by heavy resistance. In the ensuing clashes, nine Turkish activists were killed and 20 wounded; 10 Israeli troops were wounded as well. This incident further poisoned the already deteriorated Israeli-Turkish relations.
The military operation fiasco also exposed an intelligence failure.
The Mossad, Aman (Military Intelligence), and naval intelligence all had no information about the Marmara activists, most of them members of the Turkish Islamist IHH group, or their weapons of choice – knives, bats and chains, which they had prepared for the anticipated battle.
As a result, it has since been decided to build an intelligence unit to follow and monitor radical international groups and individual activists who support the Palestinian cause.
Though the assignment is to track down civilian groups that operate mainly in Western countries, strangely enough the mission was assigned to Military Intelligence and not to the Mossad or, even more reasonably, the Foreign Ministry.
A senior security official explained to me the rationale behind the decision. He argued that the international organizations involved in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and in other activities aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish state are directed by one center – the Palestinian Authority. Thus, since Military Intelligence’s responsibilities include understanding the PA and its political processes, it was natural to assign it the new mission against BDS.
The senior security official also claimed that the smear campaigns to undermine the legitimacy of Israel, including expelling it from international bodies and appealing to the International Court of Justice, must be considered the “new intifada.”
This self-victimization, which began a few years ago, is characteristic of the consecutive of right-wing governments which claim that the entire world is against us.
Even without a formal cabinet decision, this political perception has trickled down to the intelligence community. The Mossad has a special unit that tries to “follow the money.” It is a task force devoted to monitoring financial transactions and movement of money from abroad to finance terrorism in Israel and the West Bank and Gaza as well as what Israeli security officials call “subversive acts” against the state.
The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) has two more units in charge of monitoring financial support for terrorists and preventing entry of what they refer to as “radical left-wingers and anarchists who are trying to come to Israel or the West Bank to spread chaos and havoc.”
The units also conduct research and follow groups identified with BDS and organizations involved in the attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state.
In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in reports of nationals, especially young people – not only of Palestinian or Arab descent – from EU countries and even the U.S. who were denied entry by the order of the Shin Bet.
Some of them tried to enter Israel to participate in Palestinian demonstrations and protest against the security barrier. Others came to express solidarity with nonviolent Palestinian civil rights organizations, and yet their entry was blocked and they were sent back.
On numerous occasions senior State Department officials in Washington and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv have complained and demanded explanation from Israeli authorities for why Americans, of Palestinian or Arab origins, have been denied entry or badly treated at border points. The U.S. officials reminded their Israeli counterparts that the two countries are committed to reciprocity in respecting each other’s citizens.
A few months ago Ram Ben-Barak, a former deputy chief of the Mossad and currently director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, submitted a comprehensive plan detailing how to make the battle against BDS and similar anti-Israeli groups more effective.
Ben-Barak, who aspires to be the next head of the Mossad when Tamir Pardo leaves his post by the end of 2015, suggests combining the efforts of various government agencies dealing with the same issue. Accepting his plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced recently that the government would allocate for this purpose NIS 100 million (around $25 million).
But typical of Israeli bureaucracy, Ben-Barak’s plan has been subjected to fierce personal and political battles between various government ministries about turfs and responsibilities. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon is involved in political arm-twisting with his Likud rival Gilad Erdan, the public security and strategic affairs minister. Ya’alon and the IDF have refused to transfer the Military Intelligence unit to Erdan’s jurisdiction.
Yossi Cohen, chair of Israel’s National Security Council
In an attempt to close the political gaps and provide a sensible compromise, Netanyahu brought into the picture his national security adviser and head of the National Security Council, Yossi Cohen.
Cohen, a former deputy head of the Mossad and the leading candidate to be the next head of the organization, prepared a report that offers ways to bridge the bureaucratic divisions. Its key recommendation is to establish another small unit inside the Strategic Affairs Ministry which will coordinate between the various intelligence units dealing with the issue.
And still, no one seriously questions why a state that considers itself democratic has assigned its three leading security and intelligence agencies to fight a movement that — though it may well be damaging and bothersome — is overall nonviolent, political, grassroots-fueled, and civilian.
Perhaps the Israeli overreaction is another manifestation of right-wing radicalization and paranoia that unfortunately seem to be increasing their grip on Israeli society.
Israel and the United States worked together to formulate the Jewish State’s nuclear doctrine, archival documents released Tuesday by the US State Department reveal.
The documents detail the secret discussions that took place on Israel’s nuclear program between officials of the two countries.
“We would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device,” one of the US memos declares.
The documents reveal that — according to American intelligence — Israel planned to have ten Jericho surface-to-surface missiles (based on a French missile) equipped with nuclear warheads.
The publication of the documents comes as part of a routine release of historical information by the Department of State. However, the timing of the revelations — against the background of the disagreement between Israel and the US over the nuclear agreement with Iran — gives them extra resonance.
There are those who would claim that the timing of the release is not a coincidence, and is in fact intended to embarrass Israel, which staunchly opposes the deal with Iran.
Perhaps pointing to Israel’s unacknowledged — by widely known — nuclear arsenal is an attempt to undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who continues in his efforts to persuade Congress to reject President Barack Obama’ cherished deal with Iran. Netanyahu argues that the Islamic Republic, partly because it supports terrorist groups, cannot be allowed to keep a nuclear infrastructure.
According to the American documents now released, which cover events from 1969 to 1972, Israel was asked to provide a written obligation neither to arm its Jericho surface-to-surface missiles with nuclear warheads nor to deploy them.
Up until that point, the official policy of Israel — enunciated to the US in the early 1960s by then-deputy defense minister Shimon Peres — was: “We will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the region.”
This policy has been defined up until the present day as the hallmark of Israel’s “nuclear ambiguity.”
As a result of the “not be the first” pledge,it was agreed during the administration of President John F. Kennedy that American inspectors would visit — once or twice a year — the nuclear reactor in Dimona where, according to US suspicions, fissile material for a nuclear bomb was being made.
Golda Meir Visits Nixon and Kissinger
However, in 1969, as a result of the Six-Day War and on the background of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union — as well as efforts to promote negotiations between Israel and the Arab countries — the administration of President Richard Nixon looked to formulate a new approach centered on preventing, or at least limiting, the further development of Israel’s nuclear program.
The Nixon administration asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel had agreed several years beforehand to join the treaty — first signed by other nations in 1968 and in effect as of 1970. However, Israel employed stalling tactics in order to get out of that obligation.
In secret meetings attended by officials of the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and Nixon’s National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, American officials discussed how the US would react to a potential attack on Israel by the Soviet Union, which was arming the major Arab nations.
The Nixon administration established a special committee to explore the issues. The committee determined that “our goal is to convince Israel to join the NPT by the end of the year. And to ratify the treaty.”
Later, a meeting was set up between administration officials and then-Israeli ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin. According to the documents, Israel was asked “to provide us with written assurances that it will stop creating and will not deploy Jericho missiles or other strategic missiles with nuclear warheads.”
Israel was developing into a pro-American ally, yet there was an assumption that — on nuclear matters — Israel would cheat. One document expresses American concern that even if Israel joins the NPT, it is liable to continue covertly producing nuclear weapons and missiles.
Kissinger wrote in a memo: “We judge that the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Near East would increase the dangers in an already dangerous situation and therefore not be in our interest. Israel has 12 surface-to-surface missiles delivered from France. It has set up a production line and plans by the end of 1970 to have a total force of 24–30, ten of which are programmed for nuclear warheads.”..
Kissinger also pointed out: “When the Israelis signed the contract buying the Phantom aircraft [from the US] last November, they committed themselves ‘not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons’ into the Near East. But it was plain from the discussion that they interpreted that to mean they could possess nuclear weapons as long as they did not test, deploy, or make them public.
“In signing the contract, we wrote Rabin saying that we believe mere ‘possession’ constitutes ‘introduction’ and that Israel’s introduction of nuclear weapons by our definition would be cause for us to cancel the contract.”
Kissinger claimed that the vow not to “introduce” was not enough, because Israeli officials took this to mean that they could have nuclear weapons as long as they didn’t carry out tests, deploy or make the issue public.
And so, a Kissinger memo suggested the United States would demand a new Israeli pledge: “Reaffirm to the US in writing the assurance that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Near East, specifying that ‘introduction’ shall mean possession of nuclear explosive devices. [For our own internal purposes, we would decide that we could tolerate Israeli activity short of assembly of a completed nuclear device.] Give us assurances in writing that it will stop production and will not deploy ‘Jericho’ missiles or any other nuclear-capable strategic missile. [NOTE: I do not believe we can ask Israel not to produce missiles. Israel is sovereign in this decision, and I do not see how we can ask it not to produce a weapon just because we do not see it as an effective weapon without nuclear warheads. We might persuade them not to deploy what they produce on grounds that the rest of the world will believe that the missiles must have nuclear warheads.]”
Re-read that paragraph, written by Henry Kissinger on July 19, 1969, to consider the irony of the current issues with Iran: whether Iranian work on ballistic missiles and other military systems can indeed by prevented — whether as part of a nuclear restriction agreement or otherwise.
Did Israel make the commitment that Kissinger intended to demand in 1969 (six months after Nixon took office as president)? That is not clear from the documents just released.
Yet the fact is — as a result of a visit to the US by then-prime minister Golda Meir and her meeting with Nixon — the US stopped its inspections of the Dimona reactor in 1969.
In later foreign reports, it was claimed that ambassador Rabin and Meir promised that, in exchange for a halt to the inspections, Israel agreed not to be the first to deploy or arm nuclear weapons, and likely vowed not to conduct nuclear bomb tests.
To this day, Israel has yet to join the NPT, and it is believed to be, according to multiple foreign reports, the sixth biggest nuclear power in the world with a stockpile numbering around 100 nuclear warheads.
The authors are Dan Raviv (of CBS News) and Yossi Melman (the longtime Haaretz expert on intelligence, who now is a defense, strategy, and espionage analyst for the Jerusalem Post and other Israeli media).
This is their fifth book together. Their best seller (in 1990-91) about Israel’s intelligence community was Every Spy a Prince. They also wrote a character-filled history of U.S.-Israel relations, Friends In Deed.
“Despite the book being over 350 pages, it goes by very quickly (I read it in a weekend). ” –daniel michael | 17 reviewers made a similar statement
“Highly recommended read for those interested in Middle East events. ” –zedillo99 | 15 reviewers made a similar statement
“Raviv and Melman have written a wonderful history of Mossad. It reads like a thriller, but conveys a thorough history of the Israeli intelligence agency.” –Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winner
SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON is a powerful, vivid history of Israel’s intelligence community – led by the famous and feared Mossad – from the country’s independence in 1948 right up to the crises of today. Israel’s battle plan, aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, may drag the United States into war and soaring oil prices. The plan is based on deception, sabotage, assassination, and intimidation. The book tells the story, never told before, of Kidon – the super-secret unit that is like a Mossad within the Mossad. Kidon carries out special operations, including assassinations and sabotage. Kidon had a daring role in destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.
Israel’s methods and motivations can be fully understood only when seeing how they developed over the decades. Bold spies have penetrated enemy capitals, and secret agencies felt a historic responsibility to protect Jews worldwide. The authors chronicle major changes in Israeli intelligence agencies’ priorities – away from Palestinian peace prospects, shifting to Iran as the main focus. The book also exposes some episodes of which Israeli spies are ashamed; scandals they would prefer remain buried. Still, in the age of the internet and spy satellites, Israel is the most innovative nation in the use of espionage as an alternative to war.
Among the burning questions addressed and answered in SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON are these: Who planted a powerful computer worm in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges? Who has been motorcycling boldly through the streets of Tehran, assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists? Are Israeli spies regularly inside Iran and other enemy countries? Did the Mossad make a huge mistake when two dozen of its operatives were seen by hotel security cameras in Dubai, or was it a successful murder mission? Do the assassins, as portrayed in the movie “Munich,” really feel pangs of conscience? Have Israel’s enemies ever managed to plant agents in the Israeli government? Does the United States really trust Israeli intelligence, or is the relationship limited by mutual mistrust? Why do U.S. security agencies believe their close ally is spying on America? Is Israel trying to maneuver the U.S. into attacking Iran?
This book contains new information about the Mossad director from 2002 to 2010, Meir Dagan, and how he put “the dagger back between the teeth” of the spy agency. When he publicly declares that he opposes an Israeli military strike on Iran, what does he favor instead? The authors of this book have spoken with all the major players, and a multitude of minor players as well, to gain a balanced and deep understanding of Israeli actions at times of crisis – and Israel almost always feels it is in a crisis. Click here for reviews and more information on Spies Against Armageddon.
The hush-hush conversations in the hallways of the Mossad headquarters in Glilot, a few kilometers north of Tel Aviv, over the last few weeks have danced around the question: Who will replace the agency’s director, Tamir Pardo?
Curiosity surrounding his would-be replacement intensified when Pardo replaced his incumbent deputy – whom the censor has asked only be identified as N. – by a new person now known as A.
These deputies came from the two most prominent Mossad operational units. N., like Pardo, originated in and later commanded the unit known as Keshet, which directs surveillance and break-ins into “static objects” – offices and equipment belonging to adversaries, where bugs and cameras are installed and computers infiltrated.
A. comes from perhaps an arguably more critical unit, Caesarea, which is in charge of sending agents on operations in enemy lands. Since a decade ago when the Mossad was restructured, the deputy head has also overseen the Operations Directorate, which houses all of the organization’s operational units.
Pardo is no stranger to hasty in-house shuffling. In his four-and-a-half years in office, he has had four deputies. In this sense, he has continued the atmosphere of restlessness that permeated the tenure of his predecessor, Meir Dagan, who whimsically replaced his deputies like a new pair of socks.
Tamir Pardo, the Mossad director – Who’s next?
Nevertheless, the answer to the question of who will replace Pardo depends on another issue: Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend Pardo’s term, which is due to expire at the end of 2015?
Unlike Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), where the head is legally limited to a five-year term with the option for the cabinet to extend it for another year, there is no Mossad law on the books. The Mossad, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Justice Ministry have been struggling for the last seven years to draft such a law.
Witness the results: The almost-mythological Isser Harel held the office for 11 years until 1963; his successor, Meir Amit, lasted just five years. Yitzhak Hofi served in the post in the ’70s for eight; as did Dagan, who served from 2002 to 2010.
The media adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office declined to answer The Jerusalem Post’s questions on this matter. But insiders and officials familiar with the Mossad estimate that it is very unlikely Netanyahu will extend Pardo’s term beyond five years in December.
This is not to say that Pardo was a bad manager or failed in leading the Mossad in its new challenges and frontiers. While Pardo might lack some of Dagan’s charm and charisma, he has continued in the footsteps of his predecessor.
According to foreign media reports, the Mossad under Pardo was less involved in assassinations. Only one Iranian nuclear scientist was killed in 2011, in comparison to five when Dagan was in office.
But this does not indicate that Pardo is more hesitant and less daring than Dagan. It is more likely that those who were in charge of the assassination campaign – which was only one measure in a broader campaign to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons – reached the conclusion that the method was outdated and had exhausted itself as a useful tool.
Yet Pardo continued to see Iran as the Mossad’s number-one target — for gathering information, as well as other possible operations — with Hezbollah as the second.
Although the Mossad basically remained a human intelligence (humint) organization – recruiting and running agents as sources for information were its bread and butter under Pardo – it expanded its sigint (intelligence derived from electronic and communication messages used by the targets) and cyber capabilities; and it improved relations with its worldwide counterparts, especially America’s Central Intelligence Agency.
Indeed, last week CIA director John Brennan visited Israel and met with Pardo and other senior intelligence chiefs, exchanging estimates about Iran’s nuclear program and the likely impacts of the P5+1 negotiations – which are reaching a crucial point, as talks are set to conclude at the end of the month.
Another important development in the Mossad in the last five years is the enlargement and upgrade of its research and analysis department, to the degree that it is now almost equal to its big brother – the research department of IDF Military Intelligence, which is still charged with providing the cabinet with a national intelligence estimate.
It’s entirely up to Netanyahu
Yet Pardo will probably be replaced in six months, mainly because he didn’t get along well with Netanyahu. A well-noted incident occurred two years ago when Pardo, in a closed-door meeting with business executives, asserted that the Palestinian issue trumps Tehran as Israel’s biggest national security problem.
Saying that directly contradicted his boss, who time and again has beaten the Iranian drum, calling it an existential threat for the Jewish state.
In the corridors of the Mossad and the Prime Minister’s Office as well as in the media, four names are mentioned as potential successors to Pardo.
One is an outsider, Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel, commander of the Israel Air Force, and the other three are from within the Mossad.
It’s more probable that the next head of Mossad will come from within the organization’s ranks – and the remaining three candidates served in the Mossad’s operational units. One such candidate is the above-mentioned N., who until recently was Pardo’s deputy.
Another is Ram Ben-Barak, also a product of the Keshet department. As a young operative, he was arrested together with three team members by police officers near a building in a European city under suspicious circumstances.
The incident didn’t stain his career, and he reached the top echelon to serve as a deputy to Dagan; he then went on sabbatical and worked for the Brookings Institution in Washington, and most recently was director-general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
But the leading candidate is Yossi Cohen, who specialized as a case officer in recruiting and running agents from Arab countries, was head of the department charged with these tasks and served as Pardo’s deputy until two years ago. He was then chosen by Netanyahu to be his national security adviser and lead the National Security Council. Cohen, who managed to develop friendly – even warm – relations with Netanyahu’s family, is the favorite for the Mossad top job.
In an interesting twist, if he is nominated at the end of 2015, two out of three Israeli intelligence agencies will be led by persons by the name of Cohen – with the prospective Mossad head joining Yoram Cohen of the Shin Bet. [In Jewish tradition, the Cohens — or Kohanim — were the high priests: in this case, the high priests, perhaps, of espionage.]
One of Israel’s most worrisome concerns in the days preceding the 1967 Six Day War was that the Egyptian Air Force would attack the nuclear reactor in Dimona. This was revealed in the newly released and declassified secret documents of the IDF Archives, to mark the 48th anniversary of that war, which began June 5.
The war broke out with the Israel Air Force’s surprise preemptive strike, which within three hours destroyed the entire Egyptian Air Force, sitting like ducks on the tarmacs of its airfields.
On June 2, the government’s security cabinet convened for a tense and dramatic meeting with the IDF General Staff. It was the first session to include Moshe Dayan as the new defense minister, appointed only a day before. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol had held the defense portfolio, but had just been forced due to public pressure to relinquish it.
Eshkol’s decision to step down as defense minister was a result of a confusing speech that he delivered during a live radio broadcast in which he stuttered. The impression on the Israeli public, already under tremendous fear of another Holocaust, was overwhelming.
The times were of extreme emotions and tension, referred to as the “waiting period.”
Roughly two weeks earlier the Egyptian Army broke the international agreement with Israel, signed a decade earlier after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, and entered the demilitarized Sinai Peninsula. A few days later, the Egyptians expelled the UN peacekeeping force and closed the Straits of Tiran, blocking Israeli and international ships from reaching the port of Eilat. Israel, naturally, saw that as an act of war.
Moshe Dayan: Knew It Would Take 6 Days
Israel mobilized its military reserves, partially paralyzing its economy. The meeting of the cabinet ministers and the military echelon would later become known as the “generals’ putsch,” as some of these senior officers demanded of Eshkol and the cabinet to make an immediate decision to launch a preemptive strike.
As can be seen in the minutes that are public for the first time, the meeting opened with a briefing by then Military Intelligence chief Maj.- Gen. Aharon Yariv, who said that one of the battle scenarios was that the Egyptian air force would launch “a strike to destroy Dimona and airfields.”
Construction of the Dimona nuclear reactor began in 1958 and was completed in 1961. According to foreign analysts in the decades to follow, Israel — by the eve of the Six-Day War — had already managed to assemble one nuclear weapon.
Israel Air Force commander Maj.- Gen. Mordechai Hod revealed that Egyptian military planes had managed to infiltrate Israel’s air space on reconnaissance missions at least four times, photographing the port of Eilat on the Red Sea and another site – that was censored.
It can be assumed that their target was to take images of the nuclear reactor at Dimona.
Later, Yariv explained that efforts that the US or an international force would compel the Egyptians to lift their blockade had failed.
“We believe that the US doesn’t consider taking a strong and serious action to lift the naval blockade and solve the crisis,” he said, adding, “We believe that the US understands that we have to act.” Also, Yariv told the generals and cabinet members, “American experts estimate that Israel can win the battle.”
He stressed that “there are people in important places in the US who see an Israeli action as an easy solution for the US to get out of this entanglement.”
This remark by the chief of Military Intelligence can be interpreted as an Israeli understanding that the US administration was signaling Israel to launch the war.
Then IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Yitzhak Rabin – who had just returned to work after a nervous breakdown, which was hidden from the public and explained as “nicotine poisoning” – warned: “As time passes and Israel doesn’t act, Arab confidence is growing and our mission will be harder.”
Soldiers Prepare for the War, 48 Years Ago, that Changed History (IDF Archives)
Rabin added, “I feel that the military and diplomatic ring to strangle us is tightening.”
Nevertheless, he assured the meeting that “We can do it [win the war – YM], especially if the initiative is in our hands.”
Yet most ministers were not convinced.
They expressed concern that the Soviet Union might intervene if Israel launched a military campaign and asked questions about the defense capabilities of the IDF, especially the air force, to protect cities from Egyptian air raids and bombs.
Eshkol remained hesitant, which drove then Maj.-Gen. Ariel Sharon to use harsh words bordering on contempt for the government – a style that characterized him in years to come.
“Because of hesitations and our time wasting, we lost our main deterring factor – this is the Arab states’ fear of our army. We destroy it day by day. The loss of our deterrence is the most important factor,” Sharon said.
Moshe Dayan then had the floor for the first time. He said that, although there was no guarantee, the IDF could defeat the Egyptian Army in six days – exactly the same time it took to do it in the Sinai Campaign in 1956, when Dayan was chief of staff.
He added that extra days would perhaps be required to complete the task and conquer Sharm e-Sheikh, which overlooks the Straits.
“What are we waiting for?” Dayan asked, and his words were echoed by Maj.-Gen. Mattityahu Peled, who after the war became one of the first promoters of the notion of giving the Palestinian Arabs the West Bank and Gaza to be a state of their own.
Eshkol tried his best to calm the hot-blooded attitude of Dayan and the generals. He turned to Sharon and said, “I was disgusted by what you said.”
The prime minister continued to express concern that, despite the comforting words of Rabin that the Soviet Union most likely would not interfere in the war, it was still not known how the Soviets would react.
Eshkol explained that the waiting period was still important, because it helped to “engrave in [US president Lyndon] Johnson’s ears that we didn’t cheat him.
”I truly hope that we will not need him in the middle of the war.” Eshkol concluded.
The meeting dispersed after two and a half hours with no decision. Two days later, Eshkol and the cabinet gave the IDF the order to launch Red Sheet, the code word for the preemptive strike against Egypt and a war that changed the course of Israel’s history.
< Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before.>
In the South has occurred perhaps the most interesting and important development of 2014. Israel and Egypt have developed military, intelligence, security, and operations cooperation beyond anything seen before, not even at the height of secret contacts between the two countries when Hosni Mubarak was president — and when intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman felt very at home at the Mossad’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv.
Israel and Egypt, now under the leadership of Gen. Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi, see eye-to-eye on everything related to Gaza, Hamas, and terrorism in Sinai.
The regime in Cairo sees Hamas as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Gen. Sisi despises. Egypt treats Hamas as an enemy that it must humiliate, subjugate, and isolate.
Egypt accuses Hamas of increasing terrorism in Sinai by helping Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, al-Qaida’s local branch, which has recently pledged allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS).
Egypt’s army and security forces, with strong backing from Israel — only a little of which is made public — are waging an uncompromising war of destruction on the terrorist organization in Sinai.
In the past year they have had important achievements, but Egypt has also suffered heavy losses. The war on terrorism in Sinai will continue in 2015.
Israel, of course, found itself at war with Hamas for over 7 weeks last summer. Because Hamas’s military strength was severely injured, that represents a gain for Israel.
Yet the Hamas of 2015 is not just another terrorist organization — as the Israeli government and the IDF (the Israeli military) call it.
It is a regime that controls a territory and organizes its forces as a semi-regular army. It is a mix between a guerrilla organization and an actual army. But it is a weakened army, that lost 2/3 of its rocket capabilities (some 6,000 rockets were destroyed or launched), and saw almost all of its attack tunnels into Israel destroyed.
Hamas is trying to rehabilitate its military power and to get out from under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, by swallowing its pride and crawling back into the arms of Iran.
Iran isn’t rushing to take Hamas back into the ayatollahs’ good graces.
Hamas is internationally isolated, and it is also gradually losing its main source of support, Qatar — because the Qataris recently are trying to make peace with the Egyptian regime.
Militarily, Israel is challenged, at least potentially, by three things: radical Islam, Hezbollah and Iran.
The extremist Islamist terrorist groups are near Israel’s borders. Jabat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch) controls almost all of the border strip from Jordan to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights. Ansar Bait al-Maqdis is active in Sinai, not far from Israel’s border, and Islamic State is trying, unsuccessfully for now, to infiltrate Jordan.
All of these are potential threats, but at this time there are no signs that these terrorist groups are showing interest in Israel. Their focus is on acting against the states they are currently in: Syria and Egypt.
Despite becoming weaker due to its involvement in Syria, Hezbollah is still considered a serious military power. The group has tens of thousands of missiles that cover almost every point in Israel, including airports, the nuclear reactor in Dimona, army bases, and power stations. Hezbollah fighters are also gaining experience on battlefields in Syria, which will give them improved military capability in the case of a conflict with Israel
Yet Israeli deterrence, which has existed since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, is still holding. Hezbollah does not want war with Israel.
The second threat to Israel comes from Iran. It has hundreds of Shihab-3 missiles, which can hit any target in Israel.
In the eyes of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, Iran is an existential threat to Israel — mainly because Iran seems intent on secretly developing nuclear weapons.
There are senior experts in the defense establishment who believe differently. They privately say that Israeli leaders — above all Netanyahu — make Iran into a life-or-death national threat for domestic political reasons.
Iran is already a nuclear threshold state, anywhere from a matter of months to a year away from having the ability to build its first bomb. If Iran wanted to, it could have already built a bomb.
However, as of now, Iran is not interested in building a nuclear bomb, mainly due to the economic crisis it is facing due to UN and Western sanctions, and also due to the falling price of oil, which is its main source of income.
<A nuclear deal with Iran would be the most
interesting development of 2015>
The first months of 2015 will be focused on the nuclear talks between the P5+1 group of world powers and Iran to reach an agreement that will end the nuclear crisis, which has continued for the past nine years. If an agreement is reached and Iran allows tight inspections and limitations for a number of years on its ability to enrich uranium, it will probably be the most interesting development in the international arena in the coming year.
If Washington renews relations with Tehran, Netanyahu’s foreign relations and security policy — built on inflating the Iranian threat, frightening the Israeli public, and abusing the memory of the Holocaust — will be rendered useless.
But it is still far from certain that such an agreement will be reached. The ball is in the court of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to decide to compromise at the cost of national pride — and in doing so save his country from economic crisis and isolation.
Israel’s unquestioned military superiority stems from the deterioration of states in the Arab world (Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq), from the radical Islamist threat on Arab regimes, and mainly from Israel’s constant efforts to preserve its technological and scientific advantage over regional opponents.
This qualitative edge was created with the help of the strategic alliance with the U.S., but in the past year there have been cracks in this alliance. True, relations and cooperation in the field of security and intelligence on the operative level of both states have been preserved and even improved. But Netanyahu’s confrontational approach to President Barack Obama and his government — as well as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s overheard insults (for which he half-heartedly apologizes), are damaging Israel’s most important asset: its intimate relations with the US.
As a result of the policies of Netanyahu-Ya’alon (while Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has exhibited a serious and responsible approach on Iran-related matters and has looked like the gatekeeper), Israel is having difficulty leveraging its military advantage into strategic achievements.
The challenge is always how to combine military capabilities with foreign policy and international status.
Strategically, Israel has gotten weaker in 2014 because of the deterioration in relations with the US and — even to a greater degree — with European states.
This deterioration stems firstly from the government’s lack of desire to advance the peace process with the Palestinian Authority. Also, Netanyahu’s government stubbornly permits the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, to the point that, soon, any chance of an agreement that includes evacuating settlements and withdrawing from territories — in exchange for security arrangements and an end to the conflict — will be blocked.
On this matter, the end of 2014 saw the dam burst: European states, including traditional Israeli friends such as France, are prepared to recognize a Palestinian state and are not afraid of being blamed for having an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic approach.
The Palestinian issue remains Israel’s No. 1 problem and it will also be an important challenge, perhaps an existential one, in 2015.
Without the breakthrough of a diplomatic agreement, one of two scenarios is liable to occur — or perhaps both of them together: a popular Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, the buds of which we already saw in 2014; or Israel falling into a situation that will resemble the former apartheid regime in South Africa. The latter label will be branded on Israel if the Jews are perceived to be a minority ruling over an Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. That is not the situation now; not yet.
That kind of labeling — especially if accompanied by a Palestinian uprising that evokes global sympathy — would mean the deepening of Israel’s international isolation, possibly to the point of sanctions being levied against it. It is conceivable that Israel would not be rescued by a veto by the United States — especially if the U.S. starts to feel that the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace is mostly Israel’s fault.
In the euphoric years between the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the leaders of Israel — with defense minister Moshe Dayan chief among them — had a tendency to boast that “our situation has never been better.”
Within a relatively short time, reality flipped on them and the illusion died at the painful price of some 2,700 fallen soldiers. Since then, the same turn of phrase has been avoided.
Nonetheless, there is no better phrase to encapsulate Israel’s military situation in 2014.
According to most estimates, evaluations, and analyses by experts and all those correctly viewing reality — without any personal, political, or ideological bias — Israel?s military situation improved in the past year and its qualitative edge over its enemies has grown.
In actuality, Israel is the strongest military power: not only in the Middle East, but in the entire region stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. There is not a single state or coalition of states that has the military ability to threaten Israel’s existence or defeat it on the battlefield.
THE EASTERN FRONT: SYRIA AND IRAQ
In the East, the two large armies that made up this front in the past — those of Syria and Iraq, which in the past were considered major threats by Israel — have completely receded.
Iraq today is a country disintegrating into three or four parts. Despite the tens of billions of dollars invested by the U.S. in Baghdad?s army, it collapsed like a house of cards in the battles of the past half-year against Islamic State (ISIS).
In Syria, the civil war continues and March 2015 will mark four bloody years of conflict with no end in sight.
Armed Hezbollah fighters (courtesy The Israel Project)
Syria is a completely dismantled state. Bashar Assad’s regime controls only around a quarter of the country’s territory, mostly Damascus and its surroundings, the coast, a few other cities, and the roads connecting them. Assad’s army has suffered heavy losses in battles with the various rebel groups, both on the battlefield and through the desertion of tens of thousands of soldiers, including high-ranking officers.
Even without a U.S. attack on Assad — as threatened by Barack Obama after Syria’s army used chemical weapons — the international community has confiscated the regime’s chemical weapons, which had been developed and produced to answer the nuclear capability that Israel is reputed to have.
Even if the Syrian regime retains some residual chemical capability with Sarin gas and certainly chlorine, as is estimated among Israel’s intelligence community, that still does not pose a real threat.
This is evidenced by the fact that Israel stopped distributing gas masks to the public.
THE NORTHERN FRONT: LEBANON
In the North, Hezbollah has been significantly weakened over the past year. The group is up to its neck in the Syrian civil war, in which it serves as an Iranian military wing in defense of the Damascus regime.
However, the price that Hezbollah is paying for becoming more and more of an Iranian proxy and less and less of a Lebanese Shi’ite group is very heavy.
Hezbollah has lost hundreds, if not more than a thousand, of its best fighters in the Syrian war.
Among those lost are senior commanders with abundant battle experience. They are being buried in the dead of night in order to hide the ugly reality from the Hezbollah’s members.
Morale is low. Many in Lebanon, especially within the Shi’ite community on which the group relies, are asking the key question: Why do young Lebanese men need to sacrifice their lives for a foreign regime? In a certain manner, Syria is Hezbollah’s Vietnam.
At the same time, the war in Syria is crossing over into Lebanon itself. ISIS and extremist Sunni organizations such as Jabat al-Nusra, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, are transferring the war to Lebanese territory. They are blowing up car bombs in the heart of Shi’ite strongholds, planning ambushes on the Shi’ite group’s fighters, and forcing Hezbollah to take cover and defend its home.
Reacting to the protest letter by 43 sergeants and officers in Unit 8200 — the part of Military Intelligence that intercepts telephone conversations and “signals” of all kinds — here is what a former commander of the unit told Yossi Melman:
“If I was still the unit’s commander, I would terminate their [the protesters’] service, court-martialed them, and ask for severe punishment,” Brigadier General Hanan Gefen told Melman [co-author of Spies Against Armageddon].
“They used confidential information [in their protest letter shown to journalists], which they are privy to during their service, to promote their political agenda.”
The IDF Spokesman had this comment — as the official Army response: “Unit 8200 has been working since its establishment on gathering intelligence that enables the army and the security services to fulfill their missions and helps defend Israel’s citizens on a daily basis.”
A few days ago the submarine INS Tanin (Israeli Navy Ship ‘Crocodile’) began its 5,000-mile voyage from Germany’s North Sea port of Kiel, where it was built, to its future home in Israel’s Mediterranean harbor Haifa.
Tanin is the Israeli Navy’s fourth submarine, joining three previous models of the Dolphin class vessels. Two additional submarines will enter into service within four years, making the Israeli submarine fleet one of the biggest and most powerful in a region from the Indian Ocean, via the Persian (Arab) Gulf, to Europe.
An Israeli Dolphin-class Submarine (photo courtesy shlomiliss)
Israel began expanding its aging, outdated submarine fleet in the early 1990s, when it only had two British-made vessels. It was partly a strategic decision and partly exploitation of circumstances.
In 1991, during the first Gulf war and Iraq’s Scud missile attacks on Israel, then-German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher visited Israel in a gesture of solidarity. He was confronted with revelations that German companies had sold equipment, materials and technology to Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. Apparently feeling guilt at the German firms’ involvement in a program that could have threatened to gas the Jewish state, Genscher agreed to Israel’s request to finance its navy’s first two modern-day submarines. The total cost of the six subs is estimated at 2.5 billion euro.
Strategically, this was a visionary approach. Realizing that Iraq already had nuclear aspirations, and anticipating that other nations such as Iran would follow suit, Israeli leaders concluded that their country – which had always tried to maintain a strategic edge over its enemies – needed to have second-strike nuclear capability, according to foreign media reports.
Though Israel’s nuclear policy is defined as ambiguous – neither denying nor confirming reports that it possesses such weapons – it is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal.
Such a powerful fleet of submarines will upgrade Israeli military capabilities in two areas.
Firstly, improving its intelligence gathering efforts: a submarine is a launching pad that sails undetected near enemy coasts, listening to communications or landing naval commandos.
Even more importantly, however, as stealth vehicles the submarines can store and fire missiles, either conventional or nuclear, even if the country’s alleged land-based nuclear arsenal is destroyed by an enemy’s first strike.
The arrival of the fourth Tanin submarine has brought back into the public discourse an old reality. Despite the recent Gaza war — and the current panic over the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) as an additional terror threat to Israel, its pro-Western neighbors, Europe and America — the Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still mainly concerned that Iran will eventually have nuclear weapons.
This possibility is even more acute because of IS advances in Iraq and Syria. IS military successes would serve Shi’ite Iran as further justification that Iran actually requires a strategic and deterring weapon against its enemies – not necessarily Israel, but the Sunni Islamist barbarians.
In the last decade, when it became evident that Iran was rushing toward a nuclear threshold, there were voices both in Israel and outside advocating for an Israeli rethinking of its own nuclear possibilities. Scholars – but also some within the defense establishment – wondered about the causality of events, suggesting that Iran’s nuclear ambitions were a reaction to Israel’s alleged nuclear monopoly. Some even suggested that Israel promote a Middle East nuclear-free zone, and thus eventually agree to dismantle its nuclear arsenal.
Fortunately, this advice was rejected by Israeli decision-makers. With the changes and uncertainties in the Middle East, a region which today seems to be in the process of redefining its boundaries and national entities, it is clear once again the extent to which Israel’s founding fathers displayed vision when they decided that the only way to survive in this rough and hostile neighborhood was to have strategic state-of-the-art tools.
The ambiguous nuclear policy must remain in place. It will provide Israel not only with the ultimate insurance policy for its existence and also will give the leadership – though probably not the current government – the self-confidence necessary to take risks in peace negotiations, regional security arrangements and territorial concessions.
In reporting on the death at age 86 of Avraham Shalom (who as a Shin Bet operative used the last name Ben-Dor and other names), The New York Times cites some of our remarks about him – in our 1990 best seller, Every Spy a Prince.
This excerpt from Spies Against Armageddon (the updated edition published March 1 of this year) tells how the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir – himself a former undercover officer of the Mossad — kept in touch with his Shin Bet (domestic security agency) chief Avraham Shalom, in what became a serious scandal.
Facing an election to win his own term in the summer of 1984, Shamir sought to portray himself as totally firm on security issues. His party hinted that Shimon Peres, the Labor leader, was soft on Palestinian terrorism.
Shamir was interrupted by a phone call from Avraham Shalom. He was the Shin Bet director who had been involved in the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in 1960 and the mysterious visit to a uranium facility in Pennsylvania [by Israeli intelligence men] and later would run damage control with the Americans after Jonathan Pollard was caught spying in 1985.
The prime minister thought he knew the most likely subject of Shalom’s call. Shin Bet was on the verge of cracking a case so sensitive that it could have led to a war with the entire Arab world. In this instance, the terrorists being pursued were Jewish settlers who started a murder campaign against Palestinian politicians in the West Bank and plotted to blow up the major mosques in Jerusalem. Muslims worldwide would be outraged if that plot were to be carried out.
This phone call, however, was not about the Jewish terrorists. Because Shamir had authorized Shin Bet to plant informers among the settlers, the plotters would be arrested—but sometime later.
[from Shin Bet website]
Shalom, on this night, was reporting that an Israeli bus on line number 300, from Tel Aviv heading south, had been hijacked. The fear was that the hijackers would take the Israeli passengers into occupied Gaza and then cross into Sinai, which in 1982 had returned to Egyptian control.
Shamir was also informed that orders were given to the military to stop the bus. [The army’s] Sayeret Matkal’s hostage-rescue commandos and a Shin Bet operations team were rushing to the scene. The prime minister felt a certain sense of relief, believing that the security forces could handle this.
Soldiers at a roadblock managed to shoot out the tires of the bus and brought it to a halt in the Gaza Strip, less than six miles from the Egyptian border.
Shalom himself arrived on the scene. He was a field and operations man, not a paper-pushing bureaucrat, but he had limited experience in Palestinian issues—unlike Avraham Ahituv, the Shin Bet director he replaced in 1981.
Watching the motionless Bus 300 on the road near Gaza, Shalom knew that the army and police had units specially trained to storm all types of hijacked vehicles and rescue hostages. Shin Bet’s job would be to interrogate the four Arab attackers and discover their accomplices, sources of arms, and paymasters.
The Sayeret Matkal soldiers, who had practiced the technique hundreds of times, smashed windows and were inside the bus in seconds. They opened fire immediately, killing two of the terrorists and wounding the other two. The three dozen hostages were free, except for one woman who was killed in her seat.
When Israelis woke up the next morning, they heard good news: that all four bus hijackers were killed.
“But that can’t be,” said Alex Libak, a newspaper photographer who had witnessed the shootout and vividly remembered the charred bodies of two hijackers—the bus had caught fire in the gunfight—but had also seen soldiers and men in civilian clothes pummeling two wounded terrorists with fists and rifle butts.
His newspaper violated military censorship by publishing his photo of two hijackers being led away. This challenged the official version and would create an avalanche of revelations that would expose decades of misbehavior by Shin Bet. Until that week, Shin Bet had been almost invisible: an organization that Israelis never discussed.
Puzzled by the photograph, Defense Minister Moshe Arens decided to take two steps: to use old, rarely used emergency laws to shut down that particular newspaper for four days; but also to set up an inquiry commission to look into what happened that night.
Punishing the newspaper added to the credibility of its story, and indeed the commission concluded that two of the terrorists had been alive when the battle was over. Now the question was: Who killed them?
Testimony by Shin Bet men pointed blame at the IDF’s General Yitzhak Mordechai, who had been beating the two detainees during a brief “field interrogation.” Shin Bet provided multiple, corroborating witnesses who blamed Mordechai.
It eventually emerged that this was a deception campaign directed by the agency director, Shalom. He and his close associates approached the task as thoroughly as they might have planned an assassination, but here it was a character assassination of Mordechai.
This put the decorated general in a Kafkaesque position. He knew that he did not kill the hijackers, but he faced a court martial where no one seemed to believe him—and his entire career could be ruined.
Luckily for the general, a later inquiry commission found that the two terrorists had been very badly wounded during the firefight, and that was why they died. Mordechai was found not guilty.
Around the same time, the deputy director and two other senior Shin Bet men actually turned against their boss, Shalom. At first, they had thought that the agency would get away with yet another in a long string of cover-ups. But now, they were extremely disturbed by a web of lies they felt was damaging Shin Bet.
They knew that since the Six-Day War [of 1967], under two previous directors, Shin Bet had been torturing Palestinians and systematically lying to courts. The three men were part of the system. Yet now, after years of being accomplices to abuses, they were outraged by the thought of ruining an honorable general’s career.
And they concluded that lies and cover-ups were poisonous for Shin Bet.
Their goal was not public exposure, as they did not particularly want citizens to know the truth about the agency that was tasked with keeping them safe. The three rebels believed, however, that a professional organization should be telling the truth to itself.
One of them went to see Shalom, who strangely insisted that the meeting not be at Shin Bet headquarters—but at Tel Aviv’s main municipal garbage dump. In a scene torn out of an old-fashioned crime novel or movie, the agency director admitted that he had given the order to his operatives to “finish off” the bus hijackers. Shalom added, however, that he was obeying instructions from Prime Minister Shamir.
The three rebels, not satisfied by the private confession, all went to see Shalom and demanded his resignation. They argued that he was ruining Shin Bet with all his cover-ups. The director refused to step down, believing that one of the three was plotting to grab his job. Shalom suspended them, and they were ostracized within the organization.
Before long, staff meetings were convened and—in the style of the Soviet KGB—the order of the day was to denounce the three renegades. According to the officially sponsored smear, they were plotting a putsch against Shalom. Rumors then spread that they were involved in drug smuggling from Lebanon.
Undeterred, they decided to go to the new prime minister, Shimon Peres. Because of Israel’s Byzantine political system, after a near tie in the July 1984 election, Peres and Shamir had reached a unique agreement: a “rotation” coalition. Shamir was now the foreign minister, and the plan was for them to swap jobs in 1986.
Although Peres met with the three Shin Bet officials—who were practically breaking a blood pledge of absolute silence, not unlike the Costa Nostra’s omerta—the prime minister did nothing. He refused to be dragged into the Shin Bet’s squabble, however serious it was. He felt that the bus hijacking scandal began on Shamir’s watch, not his.
This entire dispute was played out in secret, with heavy censorship of the press preventing any morsel from reaching the public. In any event, only a small minority of Israelis would care about the deaths of two Palestinian terrorists.
Despite the realization that Israel, from top to bottom, preferred to bury this entire affair, the trio were practically obsessed with not giving up.
Later dubbed “the three musketeers,” these long-time Shin Bet men felt like victims of their own agency. They were wiretapped and under surveillance.
For their own protection, they recited everything they knew into tape recorders and hid the recordings for safekeeping, to be found if they met untimely ends.
They used their old tradecraft to avoid detection and went, in the middle of the night, to see Attorney General Yitzhak Zamir and his chief prosecutor, Dorit Beinish. Zamir and Beinish were shocked, hardly believing what they were hearing, and they decided to launch yet another investigation—a full two years after the bus hijacking.
Now, Prime Minister Peres had to pay attention, and he joined forces with Shamir.
When Zamir concluded that there was a basis for a criminal investigation and passed the case file to the police, Peres and Shamir responded by firing the attorney general. This was truly a coverup in the style of Nixon during Watergate.
The police kept doing their duty, however, and declared that Shalom and 11 others in Shin Bet should be indicted. It turned out that the head of the operations department, Ehud Yatom—the brother of a future Mossad director— had taken the two wounded hijackers away from the scene on that day in Gaza. Along with subordinates, Yatom headed in a vehicle toward a Shin Bet interrogation center, but on the way he took the two Palestinians out of the van and killed them with stones, sticks, and his own bare hands.
“I smashed their skulls, and I’m proud of everything I’ve done,” Yatom told a reporter years later. “On the way, I received an order from Avraham Shalom to kill the men, so I killed them.”
Yatom said his hands were “clean and moral,” adding, “I am one of the few who came away from the affair with a healthy soul.”
Peres and Shamir arranged one more extra-legal trick. They had installed an attorney general more to their liking, and they arranged for him to visit the president of Israel, Chaim Herzog. Herzog’s was primarily a ceremonial job, but, as in many countries, the president had the power of pardon. Herzog agreed to issue pardons to all 12 Shin Bet men who were under investigation— even before they were indicted, tried, or convicted. It was probably relevant that Herzog had been director of Aman: an old hand at black operations.
Most of the dirty dozen left Shin Bet, but not in disgrace. Shalom started a new career as an international security consultant, going back to his old last name, Bendor, for a small measure of anonymity. Yatom tried hard to become the principal of a high school, but the community raised a ruckus that a man who smashed skulls should be an educator. Yatom did go on to be elected a member of Knesset for the Likud Party.
If you’d like to see Dan Raviv answer questions from the C-SPAN television host and many members of the public who phoned in, please click here or watch on the video box below. The one-hour appearance was on Tuesday morning, May 27.
It’s a 40-minute video:
On Wednesday night (May 28), the cable channel Shalom TV interviewed Spies Against Armageddon co-author Yossi Melman for a full hour. Main subject? The history of Israeli espionage — including the Mossad and many other secretive agencies. The channel is also viewable at ShalomTV.org (and on Roku boxes). (When Shalom TV repeats the interview, we’ll post the dates and times here.)
A Mossad man who was convicted by an Israeli court and has been secretly imprisoned for about ten years – with Israeli authoritiespreventing any details from being published – was accused of treason, because it was charged that he transmitted secrets to a “foreign power”.
Referred to by security-agency insiders as “Prisoner X2,” the man was an importantoperative in the Israeli espionage agency that specializes in secretive and dangerous foreign missions. Authorities felt certain that his actions endangered his Mossad colleagues.
The man, who cannot be named due to the official information blackout on the case, has been imprisoned for approximately a decade. While the precise prison sentence is still a secret, it is suggested that the term could be reduced by one-third because of the inmate’s “good behavior” in captivity.
Prisoner X (Zygier) – We cannot show you X2
Hundreds of people were questioned during the investigation of X2’s alleged treason. The investigator who was assigned to the case considered it the toughest investigation of his career. The traitor’s motive, to the extent that authorities understand it, remains a secret: Money? Anger at his Mossad commanders? A personal problem with other secret agents? A desire to damage his homeland, Israel? Severe depression?
The mere existence of X2 became known when journalists started asking questions about another Mossad man who was being held in secret.
Known to some of his jailers only as “Prisoner X,” he hanged himself in a high-security isolation cell in Israel’s Ayalon Prison (near the city of Ramle) in December 2010. He turned out to be Ben Zygier, a Melbourne-born Jew who moved to Israel, became an Israeli citizen, and was recruited into the Mossad. Zygier, according to sources, was part of an Israeli espionage team that was based in Europe, from where it penetrated Iran.
Security officials say it was a mistake to hire Zygier, because the Australian did not have the stability and discretion needed to be a spy.
An Australian radio journalist, Raphael Epstein, has written a book about the case, Prisoner X, and reports that Zygier, while working for the Mossad, gave secrets about the agency to an Iranian businessman, probably working for his country’s security services. Zygier and the Iranian were both studying at Monash University in Melbourne in 2009.
The phrase “Prisoner X” has been used for decades in Israel, mainly to refer to employees of security agencies (including the Mossad) who broke the rules and were arrested and imprisoned. Publicizing those cases was banned, with officials claiming that censors and court-issued gag orders were protecting secrets that might damage Israel. Critics say that banning publication in a free country is really aimed at protecting the reputations of government and security-agency officials.
As revealed and discussed in our books – the best-seller Every Spy a Prince and the current and updated Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars – previous men imprisoned in the 1950s and ‘60s and identified only as “X” included Mordecai Kedar, who murdered his Jewish supporting contact in Argentina, and Avri El-Ad, who betrayed his colleagues in an Israeli-run spy ring in Egypt.
In the 1980s, a Soviet spy – Professor Marcus Klingberg, who had been deputy director of Israel’s secretive biological weapons research lab – was tried and imprisoned in complete secrecy.
Held under false identities, these prisoners were permitted to have visits from family members and defense attorneys, but nothing could be said in public about the men and their crimes.
Israeli officials did not intend to reveal the existence of Prisoner X2 and still are not permitting his name to be verified or published. A mistake in coordinating between court officials and Malmab – the Defense Ministry unit that deals with internal security – led to a failure to erase a reference to a second inmate held in secret from a report on Zygier’s death written by an investigating judge.
The official view that was revealed is that X2 was “a traitor who endangered the lives of his clandestine-operations colleagues.”
As our updated and revised Spies Against Armageddon says, at the end of Chapter 22 entitled “Assassins”: “Activists who press for greater openness wondered if hushing up Zygier’s case – and the more serious one – was aimed at guarding Israel’s security, or the Mossad’s image?”
This item, reprinted from the website of a synagogue in Ontario (Canada), may resonate with viewers of the Hebrew-language TV series from Israel, “Prisoners of War” (Hatufim) — the original basis for the Showtime hit series “Homeland.”
Slight spoiler alert: One Israeli spy has planted himself in an Arab family in an enemy country and seems, for a long time, to be an anti-Israel terrorist. What do his family and neighbors do, once they find out?
That’s TV…now the mention of a surprising long-term operation by Israeli intelligence:
Jewish Spies and Arab Wives
In movies and TV, intelligence operations are often portrayed as glamorously dangerous human chess matches with a series of sexual entanglements and ingenious double crosses. The operatives are master manipulators, forming intimate relationships they must cast off at mission’s end.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to discover just how closely these storylines reflect reality.
A new book by Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv, Spies Against Armaggedon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, tells the history of Israel’s intelligence establishment, whose main (known) arms are the Shin Bet (domestic intelligence), the Mossad (foreign intelligence), and Aman (military intelligence).
One of the book’s most vividly described operations launched in 1952. A Shin Bet unit of Iraqi Jews infiltrated Arab villages to monitor the population as a potential “fifth column” that might join with Israel’s enemies in case of war. The spies lived in these villages and most of them married local women and had children. As time passed, the intelligence provided by the men “proved to be almost worthless,” according to Melman and Raviv, but the emotional toll suffered by agents and their families was profound.
The unit was disbanded in 1959, and the spies’ wives, who faced particular hardship, were given the choice of being relocated to an Arab country or resettling with their husbands in Jewish communities in Israel. Almost all chose to stay with their husbands. Decades later, the project’s commander is still haunted by the social and psychological trauma the operation had on the children of these marriages.
The Secrets of Arab Men
Sayed Kashua has made a career out of being an anomaly: A Hebrew-speaking Muslim Israeli Arab. As a writer, he pens a weekly column for Ha’aretz, a major Israeli newspaper, and he writes the hilarious sitcom Arab Labor for Israeli TV.
His new novel, Second Person Singular, is about being Arab in a majority-Jewish country, and it’s also about being a man, and a husband, and a father. In the set-up, an Arab lawyer from Jerusalem–we never learn his name–finds a love letter inside a secondhand book, written in his wife’s handwriting. It’s addressed to someone named Yonatan–a Jewish name. Consumed with jealousy, the lawyer attempts to track down the letter’s original recipient, a quest which takes him across the country–ending in a poor Arab village, just like the one where he grew up.
Most of the book takes place inside the lawyer’s head, but it’s about very real conflicts–with the lawyer’s wife, who was the first woman he ever dated (and whom he still doesn’t know very well), and with Israeli Jews, whose upward mobility he identifies with, but whose social and sexual mores threaten him.
Second Person Singular is a startling novel about a culture in Israel that’s all but invisible. As the lawyer becomes consumed by tracking down Yonatan, the pressure builds to a crescendo in his head–showing us the very real insanity caused by clashes of both relationships and cultures.
Ariel Sharon has died. This article on the life and times of Israel’s former prime minister — whose career was abruptly cut short, to the shock of all concerned, by a stroke eight years ago — was written by Yossi Melman for the website of the Israel-based private television news service in English, French, and Arabic: i24News.
Meir Har-Zion, a member of the famous 101 commando unit formed by Ariel Sharon, was said to be the greatest soldier ever to fight for Israel. Ehud Barak is reputed to be the most decorated soldier of the Israeli army. Moshe Dayan is considered, especially abroad, to be the most renowned soldier.
In Sharon, all these essentials were rolled into one. He was a bold warrior and a cunning officer, a sophisticated commander and an intelligent leader. During his long military career he showed flashes of strategic genius occasionally marred by tactical failures and a tendency for adventurism and negligence – as happened in the 1982 First Lebanon War, which resulted in many casualties.
His soldiers adored him, but David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister) called him “a liar.” Dayan saw him as disobedient. Prime Minister Menachem Begin saw in him the great commander of ancient Israel, Judah Maccabee.
In 1945, at the age of 17, Ariel Scheinermann joined the Haganah and in the War of Independence he served as a platoon commander. In the famous battle for Latrun on the road to Jerusalem he was wounded in the stomach and was abandoned, bleeding on the ground. His life was saved by Yitzhak Moda’i – in later years Sharon’s colleague in the Likud and a finance minister – who dragged him to safety.
The battle greatly influenced Sharon’s perception of the military and political world. “I swore at the time that I would never permit IDF soldiers to be abandoned wounded on the battlefield or in captivity,” he told me when he was prime minister in 2004.
In the summer of 1953 Sharon was asked to set up a special unit that would be able to penetrate deep into enemy territory. The decision came against the backdrop of infiltrations of “fedayeen” Arab guerrillas from Jordan and the Gaza Strip into Israel.
Thus came into being Unit 101 – the first Israeli commando unit. Unit 101 made many violent cross-border incursions into Jordanian territory, laid ambushes and carried out reprisal operations following the murder of Jews.
The unit operated for only five months. Even at the height of its activities, it had no more than 50 soldiers and commanders. Nonetheless, its impact on the army was enormous. Thanks to the reprisal raids carried out by Unit 101, myths evolved around the unit that still shape the values of fighting spirit and dedication to mission that are credited to Sharon.
The famous (or infamous) operation for which it is best known, and which accelerated the decision to dismantle the unit, took place in October 1953. Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ben-Gurion ordered the army to exact harsh and painful retribution against the village of Qibya in the West Bank, in response to the murder of an Israeli mother and her two children by residents of the village.
The goal was to blow up and destroy 45 houses in the village. But the operation, under the command of Sharon, got out of control: the explosions killed between 42 to 69 men, women and children. The indiscriminate killings shocked the world. The United Nations and many countries condemned Israel, and Ben-Gurion had to lie when he claimed that the operation was not carried out by the military but by angry civilians who had taken matters into their own hands.
The Qibya incident, as well as other reprisals, sparked a heated debate in Israel on morality and military and political wisdom. The operation also earned Sharon the image of a relentless and ruthless warrior. Investigators of the affair found that he did not know that residents were hiding in the houses that were blown up, but many in the top brass did not believe his account.
In January 1954, Unit 101 was dissolved and merged with the 890 paratroopers battalion. Sharon was appointed commander of the new regiment, and retaliations in Jordan and Gaza continued.
During the Sinai Campaign in 1956, the brigade was dropped near Mitla Pass in the Sinai. Its orders were to dig in there, but Sharon wanted to send a patrol into the depths of the pass. Eventually approval was given. The Israeli force was ambushed by Egyptians, and 42 of Sharon’s soldiers were killed.
For years the army nurtured a legacy of presenting the battle as heroic. And indeed, paratroopers demonstrated immense courage under heavy fire. Yet years later Dayan accused Sharon of overstepping his authority and hinted that he violated an order.
In 2000, Israeli historian Professor Motti Golani wrote that the controversy surrounding the battle resulted from a disruption of contact between the chief of staff and the commanders in the field.
The battle and its harsh results dealt a harsh blow to Sharon’s image. In 1957, he went to study at the British Army Staff College in Camberley. At the time Ben-Gurion wrote about Sharon in his diary: “A brilliant and original thinker. Were he to overcome his addiction to lying in his reports, he could make a great military leader.”
Ben-Gurion continued to be interested in Sharon as a major talent and told then deputy chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin to “watch Arik.” Indeed, Rabin watched. Having been appointed military chief of staff in 1964, he took Sharon out of the freezer, promoted him, and in February 1967, gave him the rank of major general.
The two developed a friendship and appreciation for each other. During his first term as prime minister (1974-77′), Rabin appointed Sharon his adviser on terrorism, but ideological controversy would later strain their friendship.
During Rabin’s second term as prime minister, Sharon attacked him furiously for the Oslo agreements he signed with the Palestinians and for negotiating with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. Sharon (along with Benjamin Netanyahu and other leaders) was even present at a famous rally of the right-wing in Jerusalem where posters portrayed Rabin in a Nazi SS uniform. This was shortly before a rightwing Jewish Israeli murdered Prime Minister Rabin, in 2005.
In the weeks preceding the 1967 Six Day War, Sharon showed dissatisfaction with the indecision of the political leadership of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Levi Eshkol and Chief of Staff Rabin, who did not order the IDF to attack the Arab armies massed along Israel’s borders. Along with other senior officers, he attended various meetings which were later called the “revolt of the generals” –where participants demanded that the government order the IDF to go into battle.
When the order was eventually given, Sharon led his division to conquer Egyptian military outposts. His innovative tactics were later taught not only to senior IDF commanders, but also at military schools overseas.
Two years later he was appointed head of the Southern Command. His primary task, with which he continued to be identified, was the fight against Palestinian terrorism in the Gaza Strip.
He turned the Shaked reconnaissance unit, also known as Unit 424, into a commando unit. Low-intensity guerrilla tactics, combined with brutality, did the job.
In 1972, Palestinian terror organizations suffered a severe blow and terrorism was nearly completely eliminated. About 200 people were killed in clashes with the IDF and another 2,000 were arrested in joint operations with the Shin Bet security agency. Palestinian civilians paid a heavy price. Houses of terrorists and their associates were destroyed. Under Sharon’s orders, 1,600 families (over 10,000 people) were exiled from the Gaza Strip to Al Arish in the Sinai.
Sharon’s actions reinforced his image as goal-driven and uninhibited, earning him the description of a “bulldozer,” which stuck to him throughout his political career.
Sharon hoped to become chief of staff, and when he didn’t receive the appointment in August 1973, he retired. His successor in the Southern Command was Shmuel “Gorodish” Gonen. After the Yom Kippur War, when Gorodish was found responsible for the failures in the war — poor preparation for battle command and lack of equipment and emergency supplies — some asked whether it was not the fault of Sharon, who had resigned just three months earlier.
With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October, Sharon received an emergency appointment as commander of an armored division. From the second day of the bloody battles, Sharon favored a nocturnal counterattack to choke the Egyptian army that had crossed the canal to Sinai. Instead it was decided to attack during the day under the command of General Avraham Adan. The attack, which also included Sharon’s division, failed.
Still, the general had a group of avid fans — confidants and journalists — who hung out in his command post and shared Sharon’s hedonistic tastes for good food and juicy gossip.
Sharon’s greatest achievement, the one with which he is still identified, was crossing the Suez Canal during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The operation, achieved with heavy casualties, allowed the IDF to establish a bridgehead into Egypt and push back the enemy. Public admiration for him intensified, earning him another moniker -= “Arik, King of Israel.”
The fact that he walked around for days with a white bandage on his forehead, the result of a slight injury, also contributed to his popularity. All the while, though, he was thinking ahead to a political career. The joke that went around in those days portrayed Sharon telling his soldiers, “Don’t salute me – Vote for me.”
And indeed, after the war he went into politics and in 1976 founded his own party, Shlomtzion.
Sharon ran in the 1977 elections, failed and rushed to join forces with the Likud, which won a majority of seats in the Knesset. Likud leader Menachem Begin founded the first right-wing government in Israel, and Sharon was appointed Minister of Agriculture. He used his position to establish more settlements in Gaza.
After the elections in 1981 he was able to fulfill an old dream: He who had failed to become the IDF’s chief of staff was appointed defense minister.
Initiated by Sharon, along with Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan and Mossad officials, and with the approval of Prime Minister Begin, Israel conceived a plan to invade Lebanon in order to push back the PLO from Israel’s border by 40 kilometers. But instead of a limited war, Israel rolled all the way to Beirut. For the first time the IDF conquered an Arab capital, thus creating a provocation in order to draw the Syrian army into battle.
Following the massacre in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila by Lebanon’s Christian Phalangists, who entered the camps despite the fact that they were surrounded by Israeli troops, an investigative commission found Sharon responsible for ignoring warnings not to rely on the Phalangists. The commission also determined that Sharon was not fit to serve as defense minister. Under pressure from public protests initiated by the Israeli Left, he was forced to resign. Sharon accused Begin of betraying him.
Later journalists, researchers, and associates of Begin argued that Sharon had deceived the prime minister about his plans — intending all along to launch a sweeping operation and not just a limited one — and had led Israel into a Lebanese quagmire.
The entanglement lasted 18 years and resulted in the deaths of 1,000 soldiers. Sharon defended his reputation at every opportunity, including filing a libel suit against Time magazine, a court case in which he argued that his actions had been sanctioned by Begin’s government.
When he was forced to resign from the defense ministry in early 1983, his close associate and journalist Uri Dan coined the famous saying that “those who did not want Sharon as chief of staff, got him as defense minister. Those who did not want him as defense minister, will get him as prime minister.”