In recent weeks Israel has increased efforts to convey messages to the Assad regime via Russia detailing its vital security interests, including an outline of its ‘red lines.’
These efforts are taking place against the backdrop of military defeats of the Islamic State in the killing fields of Iraq and Syria.
Most military experts are well aware that concerted international efforts will soon bear fruit, despite the contradictory interests of various warring parties.
Israeli decision-makers at both the military and government echelons know very well that a new era – in which the shape of a future Syria will be determined – is imminent. It is also clear that Syria will not return to be a “normal” state, as it was before civil war broke out six years ago.
Bashar al-Assad: still in power, though diminished
Israel fears that when Assad again consolidates his grip on power it will lead to the deployment of Iranian, Hezbollah or other Shi’ite militias along the Golan Heights border. That possibility is now the most serious concern on the minds of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his General Staff, even more than the transfer – from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon – of long-range, precise missiles, which has occasionally triggered Israeli air strikes inside Syria.
As a result, Israel is trying to advance its agenda and influence the various parties and processes within the international community, in order to reach a post-war agreement that will regulate the situation in Syria.
The main actors in efforts to reach an agreement are Russia, the USA, Turkey and even some Arab nations such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – all of which Israel hopes to successfully reach with its concerns and red lines.
Various ideas have been raised in recent consultations among the military, the prime minister and the defense minister. One, is a promise to reduce involvement in Syria – with actions such as the recent air strikes and many others, some of which have been officially admitted – in return for a Syrian commitment to keep its Shi’ite-Iranian allies from the border.
If Israel manages to reach a tacit understanding along these lines there is reason that the Syrian army will be welcome.
King-maker, dictator-saver: Vladimir Putin
It’s worth mentioning that the Syrian Army has the right to deploy along the border, according to the Agreement on Disengagement reached in 1974, the year after the Yom Kippur War. However, most of those positions have now been taken over by rebels forces in the course of the current war. Today, most of the border is controlled by al-Qaida, ISIS and so-called “moderate” rebels. The only place where remnants of the Assad army are currently found is near Mount Hermon in the North.
It is no secret that the major force exerting the biggest influence on Damascus is Russia, which practically saved the regime from collapse by deploying its military – mainly its air force – 18 months ago.
The keys to an agreement are in Moscow, which explains why Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times in the last a year-and-a-half and spoken by phone with him at least two dozen times.
In one conversation between the two leaders and their teams, Netanyahu and Israeli military officials raised the idea of some sort of non-aggression pact with Assad.
Putin showed interest in the idea, according to some sources, saying that he understood the concerns and vital security interests of Israel. He also reportedly was clear in reiterating that all foreign armies, including Iran and Hezbollah, will leave Syria once the war is over. But, he said, his No. 1 priority at that moment was to defeat ISIS and end the war with an agreement.
April 5, 2017
[Six years after the beginning of the bloody, horrendous civil war in Syria, some analysts feel we are seeing the “end game” unfold. Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime is part of the picture, but so are the concerns of Syria’s southwestern neighbor, Israel. Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israel’s intelligence community, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars wrote this analysis for The Jerusalem Post.]
Contradictory reports, most of them unconfirmed and unofficial, have emerged in recent days regarding Israeli-Russian understandings over the war in Syria. The reports follow Jerusalem’s admission that its warplanes last Friday attacked missiles being transfered via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Putin and Netanyahu Meet Often, but Does Fear Reign?
The rare admission, which was contrary to the traditional Israeli policy of ambiguity, of neither confirming nor denying past strikes, triggered a chain of events in which, just hours after the attack, Israel’s ambassador in Moscow was urgently summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry and asked to provide explanations.
Media reports suggested that President Vladimir Putin, who is the sponsor and savior of the Syrian regime, expressed anger, while Syria’s ruler, Bashar Assad, boasted to Russian lawmakers that Putin had promised to rein in Israel. Israeli commentators wrote that the operational freedom hitherto enjoyed by the Israel Air Force is over.
Judging from statements by Israeli leaders and military commanders over the past two days, it seems they are not seriously worried.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a state visit to China, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot remained undeterred, delivering, more or less, the same message to the effect that Israel will continue pursuing its national security interests and defend its red lines in Syria.
Israeli policy is non-interventionist, with three exceptions. One is that the IDF retaliates from air and land whenever shells and rockets hit on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, regardless of whether it was targeted intentionally.
Another is the establishment of terrorist networks near the Israeli border; attempts to do so have resulted in the assassination of Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.
The third and most important exception is the occasional bombing, without admission, of convoys carrying and warehouses storing long-range, accurate missiles sent from Iran via Syria that are destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2013, some 20 such incidents have been recorded by the media based on Syria’s official statements and rare Israeli claims of responsibility.
Since Moscow deployed its forces in Syria 18 months ago, Israel added another factor to the equation; it reached understandings with Russia in order to know each other’s interests and avoid mistakes and even dog fights between their two air forces. These understandings are formulated in the creation of direct lines of communication between intelligence and air forces of the two countries, and are known as a “deconflicting mechanism.”
The unrattled reaction by top political and military brass indicate that they know better, especially Liberman, who is considered to be close to and have a good understanding of the Putin administration. It is very likely that Putin is playing a two-sided game – he understands the Israeli concerns and interests, but when Israel confirms that it has attacked Syria, he has no choice but to publicly denounce it.
However, on top of the understandings with Russia and the red lines, there is now one more important Israeli interest – to prevent the deployment of Hezbollah or Iraqi-Shi’ite militias sponsored and guided by Iranian officers near the Israel-Syria border on the Golan Heights.
The recent success of the Assad regime and expected defeat of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria make this scenario more and more possible. Iran and Hezbollah hope to be positioned on the border and thus threaten to open a second front alongside Lebanon against Israel in case of a future war.
Israel is committed to stop this, either by reaching another understanding with Putin, and through him influencing Assad, Iran and Hezbollah in that direction, or, as a last resort, by force.
March 22, 2017
[This is based on an article for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the history of Israel’s intelligence and security agencies — Spies Against Armageddon.]
We should not ignore — or underestimate — the warnings of the Syrian Government and its army’s capability to respond to Thursday night’s attack, which Syria attributed to Israel. The spokesperson for the Syrian Army claimed that Israeli planes flying near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) in northern Israel fired missiles that hit the Mezzah military airport, located near Damascus. The airport is approximately five kilometers from Basher Assad’s presidential palace. Opposition leaders claim that there were more targets, in addition to the airport.
This is not the first time that the Syrian Army and Assad’s government have blamed Israel for attacks in Syrian territory, threatening retaliation. Until now, the threats have been empty threats.
It is clear that Assad does not want to open a new front with Israel. Just recently, with the help of Russian fighter jets, Hezbollah forces alongside Iranian Shi’ite ground forces and the Syrian army were able to defeat rebel forces and regain territory. These successes raised the Syrian army’s morale, upping their confidence. In their next conflict or the one after, Syrian leadership may develop “Crying Wolf” syndrome. Strike after strike and in the end, Assad may decide to respond.
public CIA map of Syria
Another possibility is for Assad to use a proxy to attack, using Palestinians or Hezbollah on the Golan Heights border in order to rattle Israel. This is something that already happened two years ago when Iranian forces, together with Hezbollah, Palestinians and pro-Syrian Druze created cells which attacked Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.
According to foreign reports, Israel managed to squash the cells by assassination, which included Jihad Mughniyah, whose father, Imad Mughniyah (Hezbollah’s “defense minister”), was assassinated in a joint Mossad and CIA operation in 2008. Druze terrorist Samir Kontar was also killed.
The Israeli security establishment does not belittle threats from Syria, taking into account a reaction from Damascus, though the probability of an attack is currently low.
According to foreign reports, Israel has attacked Syria ten to fifteen times in recent years, eliminating sophisticated weaponry such as air defense systems, navigation and guided systems as well as long-distance missiles — all of which were supplied from Iran and Syria to Hezbollah.
However, what is especially interesting is Russia’s silence. A spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry has in the past warned the United States and coalition forces not to attack the Syrian regime. Yet Russia has remained silent on the alleged Israeli attack.
If Russia, Assad’s biggest supporter, was against Israeli attacks and warned against them, it would have limited Israel’s freedom of action.
This leads us to believe that there is probably a quiet understanding between Jerusalem and Moscow. Beyond “de-conflicting,” or preventing the two militaries from shooting at each other, the full nature of the agreement remains unknown.
The deal was reached in meetings involving Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IAF commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel — with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military chiefs. It seems as though Israel enjoys freedom of movement in firing missiles into Syria.
It is possible to conclude that Russia understands that Israel’s interests are solely to prevent arms transfers of sophisticated weapons from reaching Hezbollah. They also know Israel’s red line. Israel has no interest in entering Syria’s civil war, not by supporting the rebels or by acting against the regime.
It seems that so long as Russia continues to accept these principles, Israel will continue to act from time to time with accurate intelligence.
January 15, 2017
[Note: Although the Israeli government will never confirm it, it is assumed and even obvious why Israel has created a fleet of submarines: to let its enemies believe that the subs carry nuclear warheads. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself said recently that the additional submarines Israel has agreed to buy from Germany — a deal that has become controversial, largely because the Israeli military seems not to want them — are necessary in order to guarantee the survival of the Jewish state. Was there anything corrupt about Netanyahu’s decision? Here is an article written by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the current Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for the Jerusalem Post.]
The decision by Israel’s attorney general, Amichai Mandelblit, to open a police investigation into what is wrongly termed the “submarines affair” has dragged many in the media to suspect, or even accuse Prime Minister Netanyahu of corruption.
But Netanyahu is not a corrupt politician. He does not need to be, with casino tycoon friends such as American Sheldon Adelson and Australian James Packer, who would be more than happy to offer him top jobs with plenty of money if he retired and joined their organizations.
He is not corrupt.
Yet, this latest saga indicates that he is careless about selecting his confidantes, and may even be blind to seeing when they exploit, manipulate and use state secrets to advance their own interests. Two of them are at the center of the police investigation: his own and his family’s personal attorney David Shimron, and former deputy head of the National Security Council Brig.-Gen. (Res.) Avriel Bar Yosef.
There are four parallel and interwoven aspects to what should more accurately be called the “navy affair.” They are: submarines, new corvettes, the maintenance, and the role of agents and middlemen.
He hired attorney David Shimron to represent him. Shimron is a reputable Israeli lawyer, but no doubt he was approached by Ganor, not only because of his professional skills, but most probably also because of his access to Netanyahu.
The two went to Histadrut (labor unions federation) Secretary-General Avi Nissenkorn with a proposal that maintenance should be privatized. The submarines are maintained by the navy shipyards in the port of Haifa. Because of their strategic nature, the IDF and the navy do not want anyone without top security clearance to be able to get a close look at them.
Nissenkorn’s spokesman told me that in the meeting, Shimron and Ganor asked that both the submarines and the corvettes be taken care of by a private company, which the German corporation would create. Shimron denied that, telling me that they did not discuss the submarines, but only the ships, and in any case it was a very preliminary conversation. Whatever the truth, Nissenkorn rejected the request, because he opposes privatization.
Ganor is one of hundreds of Israeli agents, dealers and middlemen who represent international corporations that hope to clinch civilian or military deals in Israel. They serve as door-openers and lobbyists. In return, they are handsomely paid: the money variably defined as salaries, dividends, commissions and success fees.
In almost any sale of foreign-made weapons — be they planes, ships, intelligence equipment, or components for missiles — an Israeli middleman gets a cut.
You may say that this is the way of the world in doing business.
The problem in Israel, however, is that transparency and supervision by the government barely exist. Being a small and intimate society where everyone knows everybody, Israel witnesses the “revolving door” phenomenon.
Army or intelligence officers work on top secret projects while in service and later join the companies with which they worked. This opens many doors to potential corruption.
Israel society was once considered “unbribeable.” Not any more. From a small and unimportant military branch, the navy has become a big and powerful organization with a budget of billions. No wonder it attracts people like Ganor and Ben Yosef, among others.
Embarrassed by the media attention, ThyssenKrup said this week that they will open an internal inquiry to see whether Ganor operated according to their guidelines.
It will be interesting to see whether the German giant will express trust in its Israeli agent or replace him.
The Israeli police mission is much more complicated. It will have to find out whether Shimron, equipped with inside information, acted to enrich himself. And more importantly, whether Netanyahu knew about it or even encouraged him. Both Shimron and Netanyahu deny it.
In the Israeli defense establishment, particularly in the navy, there is concern that the affair may lead to a decision by Germany to suspend, or even cancel the submarine deal. If that happens, Israeli security will suffer the consequences.
November 30, 2016
[This is the announcement released in Hollywood by a public relations agency for the production company, Studio 8.]
A MOST DANGEROUS MAN
– Studio 8 has finalized the deal for A MOST DANGEROUS MAN. The film is based on the article ‘The Strange Case of a Nazi Who Became an Israeli Hitman’ written by journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman for the New York based weekly Forward. Raviv and Melman also have a book proposal based on the story.
– William Brookfield & Oded Ailam are attached to co-write the screenplay. William most notably adapted KIDNAPPING MR. HEINEKEN for Informant Media, directed by Daniel Alfredson (director of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO Swedish film series) starring Anthony Hopkins and Sam Worthington.
— Oded Ailam worked in the Mossad for more than 22 years. At the time of his retirement, Ailam served as the Deputy Head of Global Operations. Prior to attaining this position, he served in various other capacities in the organization such as the chief of the Counter Terrorism Center.
— William Brookfield and Oded Ailam are represented by Camille McCurry at United Agents and Echo Lake Management.
— Dan Raviv is represented by Russell Galen at Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. Yossi Melman is represented by Asaf Carmel Associates. Raviv and Melman’s non-fiction books include the national best seller EVERY SPY A PRINCE and the current SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON.
– Tanya Seghatchian is attached to produce for Studio 8, alongside John Middleton and Alex Foster at Middleton Entertainment and Amotz Zakai at Echo Lake Entertainment will executive produce.
– Jon Silk, Chris Goldberg and Rishi Rajani are overseeing for Studio 8.
– True Story, Action, Thriller genres
– Logline: The true story of Otto Skorzeny, a high ranking Nazi special forces soldier and Hitler confidant who was considered by the Allies to be “the most dangerous man in Europe”. After the war, Skorzeny was located and recruited by an intrepid Mossad agent to work with him as a double agent to eliminate Nazi rocket scientists working on a secret Egyptian rocket program.
-- Tanya Seghatchian was a co-producer and then executive producer on the first four HARRY POTTER films, and produced MY SUMMER OF LOVE. She was later appointed Head of the Development & Film Funds at the BFI/UK Film Council. During her time there, she worked on BRIGHT STAR, THE IRON LADY, SHAME, THE KING’S SPEECH and UNDER THE SKIN. After overseeing the merging of the Council with the British Film Institute, Tanya struck a first-look deal with Studio 8. She most recently executive produced Peter Morgan & Stephen Daldry’s upcoming Netflix series, The Crown, for Sony Pictures Television.
— Formed in 2016, The Middleton Media Group is the Production Company of John Powers Middleton and Alex Foster, who serves as President of Production. In addition to partnering with Roy Lee’s Vertigo Entertainment, Middleton also recently launched The Affleck/Middleton Project (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) with Casey Affleck. Middleton served as an executive producer on Spike Lee’s OLDBOY, RUN ALL NIGHT, POLTERGEIST, THE BOY and the upcoming films, DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, THE STAND and DEATH NOTE remake, as well as SLEEPLESS on which Alex Foster is also an executive producer and the TV series, BATES MOTEL. Middleton was also a co-producer on THE LEGO MOVIE and associate producer on the upcoming film, RINGS.
— Studio 8 is a filmmaker driven company focused on building longstanding relationships with filmmakers in order to develop, produce and acquire both potential tentpoles and prestige pictures. Studio 8 is funded in partnership with the Chinese investment management firm Fosun Group and with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which will distribute up to six films worldwide annually. Studio 8 has secured $1 billion in financing. The company’s initial film projects include SOLUTREAN, which is currently in post-production, WHITE BOY RICK, which is currently in pre-production with Yann Demange directing, and Ang Lee’s BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK (November 11, 2016) in partnership with Sony’s TriStar Pictures.
October 28, 2016
[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, for The Jerusalem Post newspaper.]
The revelation that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, was a KGB agent shouldn’t surprise those knowledgeable of the PLO movement and the Soviet Union’s methods.
Since its creation in 1959, the Fatah group and later the PLO were influenced and supported by various Arab intelligence communities, the KGB, and its satellite security services in the communist bloc. Beyond solidifying ideological bonds, the cooperation was a marriage of convenience.
The PLO needed financial support, military training and weapons. The Soviet Union, entangled in the Cold War with the West, wanted to increase its influence in the Middle East.
The Soviet Union and its client states in Eastern Europe supported “progressive” movements and groups around the globe, including those who were involved in terrorism.
Abbas and his Cabinet in Ramallah: Only KGB Spy is Man in the Middle?
While the Soviet Union tried to keep its hands clean, it instructed the security services of its client state to do the dirty work. The East German Stasi and also the Hungarian and Bulgarian agencies trained PLO officers, gave them weapons and documents, and hosted notorious terrorists such as Abu Nidal, Carlos and Wadi Haddad. The Black September terrorists who killed the 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics traveled via East Berlin.
Yasser Arafat himself was photographed by the Securitate, the Romanian security service, in an intimate position in his hotel room in the company of his bodyguards while visiting Bucharest.
The Soviet Union gave grants to and hosted thousands of students from Asia, Africa, South and Central America at its universities.
The Soviet generosity was also a tool to recruit agents of all sorts among the foreign students.
Based on the belief that “quantity will turn into quality,” the KGB method was to recruit as many agents as possible, hoping that some of them would reach the top of their countries or organizations and be a quality agent.
Was Abu Mazen one of them? It shouldn’t be ruled out, despite his denials. In such circumstances, a denial by the president of the Palestinian Authority is only to be expected.
If it’s true, it happened when he studied in the early 1980’s at Moscow’s Oriental University, where he submitted his PhD thesis. But we still don’t know — from the Soviet-era document that reportedly names Mahmoud Abbas as a KGB mole in the PLO — how long he was run as an agent, how often he met with his controller, whether he was a paid agent and if so how much was he paid, or whether he was just an agent of influence who from time to time shared bits of information or estimates with his Soviet contacts.
If indeed he was a full-fledged agent, it was a good catch for the KGB. Abu Mazen was among the founding fathers of Fatah and a close friend of Arafat and the other top leaders of the group. Although throughout his career he mostly dealt with political and diplomatic matters, Abu Mazen must have known at least about some of the terrorist attacks carried out by the PLO against Israel, Jewish targets and Western targets.
One can assume that if he was an agent, he passed some of his knowledge on to the Soviets.
The KGB was a successful professional intelligence agency.
It managed to recruit and plant good agents in many Western countries, including the US and the UK. It also reached the Israeli top echelon, having agents in the Mossad, Shin Bet, IDF, the Foreign Ministry, the Ness Ziona Biological Institute and probably in other government ministries. It can be assumed that not all of them were caught by Israeli counter-intelligence.
One more interesting observation regards the intriguing relations between the Middle East and the world of espionage. The KGB and its satellites were not alone in the game. The CIA and British and French intelligence agencies also went on fishing expeditions, and their catch was not bad at all.
Many Arab leaders were either paid agents or agents of influence for these services.
King Hussein, for example, was a paid agent of the CIA and also worked closely with British intelligence. And so were Syrian leaders in the 1950s and ‘60s. Even Ali Hassan Salameh, who was Arafat’s chief of security and responsible for the planning of the Munich Olympics massacre, turned out to be an asset for the CIA in Beirut. In 1979 Mossad operatives killed him in the Lebanese capital.
The Israeli intelligence community, Mossad and military intelligence didn’t stand idle. The Israelis were also very successful in penetrating the Arab world and the PLO — recruiting leaders, top government officials, scientists and senior military officers. It is interesting to note that, during the Israeli-PLO negotiations in the ‘90s, it was revealed that the Mossad managed to plant a listening device in Abu Mazen’s desk in his office in Tunis.
September 8, 2016
[This analysis by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and the new history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, first appeared at MiddleEastEye.net.]
The failed coup in Turkey — exactly one month ago — and subsequent events are having a strong effect on Israeli-Turkish relations. At this point, there is a complete freeze on the reconciliation process between the two countries.
Prime Minister Erdogan
The Turkish government is now focused on tightening its grip on society by persecuting and purging the military, intelligence and practically all other security and civilian structures of the state from its real or imaginary enemies.
Externally, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is preoccupied in stepping up Turkey’s war against the Kurds and mending his relations with Russia’s Putin. His limited span of attention is excluding Israel.
“Nothing is happening on our front, for good and bad,” I was told by a senior source in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“At least we aren’t any longer bashed by Erdogan as he used to do. And unlike the accusation levelled by the Turkish-controlled media against the US and the EU, Israel isn’t accused of any plots and involvement in the revolt.”
According to the source, “The relations are on hold and the agreement is not implemented; but on the other hand, we keep getting messages from Ankara that nothing has changed and that they are committed to the agreement.”
The Turkish parliament is set to vote on the deal before it goes into summer recess later this month, the country’s foreign minister said on Thursday – but what happens next is anyone’s best guess.
More than six years after the relations between the two countries deteriorated as a result of the tragic incidents of the Mavi Marmara, representatives of the two governments signed a reconciliation agreement at the end of June 2016 in a Rome hotel.
The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish boat which carried Turkish and international “peace” activists who wanted to break the Israeli siege and reach Gaza. The ship was purchased in 2010 by IHH, a Turkish NGO active as a charity organization in more than 115 countries.
But Israeli intelligence sources claimed that IHH smuggled weapons on behalf of terrorist groups and had links to al-Qaeda. In 2010, the US State Department expressed great concern over the group’s links with senior Hamas officials.
In May 2010, while sailing on international waters enroute to Gaza, the boat was stopped by the Israeli navy.
For Israel, most of the passengers were terrorists or at least agents of provocation who were equipped with clubs, chains, and bats and came to cause trouble, not humanitarians. A clash broke out, resulting in the death of nine Turkish citizens and the humiliation of one of Israel’s top commando units – Shayetet 13 (Flotilla 13).
The reconciliation agreement contains diplomatic, economic and security-related topics. The most annoying clause from the Israeli side is the readiness is to pay $20 million to the Turkish families of the victims.
Here is some perspective: Israel reluctantly paid less to the victims’ families of the USS Liberty, a spy ship of the US’s National Security Agency which sailed near the Sinai Peninsula coastline during the 1967 war. The Israeli Air Force mistook the Liberty for an enemy ship, attacked it and killed 34 crewmen. (Relatives of the slain Americans and many Navy and NSA veterans believe that Israel did it intentionally.)
All in all, in 2016, it was Turkey that needed the agreement — much more than did Israel.
Erdogan’s foreign and security policies have failed completely since the bloody civil war in Syria began more than five years ago. He announced that his policy would revolve around “zero” troubles with his neighbors. Exactly the opposite has occurred: Turkey has found itself in disputes with the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and with Russia, Iran, the Islamic State and Kurds at home and in Syria.
What Israel Got
Thus, the new deal contains some positive elements and advantages for Israel.
Turkey bent to Israeli pressure and agreed to shut down an office established by Izz A-Din Qassam, the military wing of Hamas. From this office in Istanbul, as Israeli intelligence officials would later disclose in a briefing, Hamas operatives had issued orders, sent money and ran terror operatives in the occupied West Bank against Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
In 2015, the Israel Security Agency (ISA also known as Shin Bet) foiled a few attempts of these kinds, the largest almost a year ago, when dozens of Hamas members were arrested and caches of weapons found.
The orders were given personally by Salah al-Aruri, the Turkey-based Hamas commander who benefited from the personal protection of Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).
To the agony of Fidan, Erdogan gave orders to expel Aruri already a few months ago. Fidan doesn’t like Israel. Over the past six years, he tried to avoid meeting his Mossad counterparts. He seldom met Tamir Pardo, the former director of Mossad, and his successor, Yossi Cohen, and reduced the links between the two agencies to the minimum.
Mossad suspected that Fidan was pro-Iranian, and American intelligence sources accused him of informing Iran about an Israeli espionage ring operating on Iranian soil. As a result, Iran’s authorities made arrests inside their country.
Another important success for the Israeli government is the fact that the siege of Gaza has not been lifted. Unlike Erdogan’s claims and boasts, Turkish humanitarian aid to Gaza will be sent via the Israeli port of Ashdod.
There it will be inspected, making sure that indeed it is only humanitarian in nature – food, medications, toys – and transported by Israeli trucks like all supplies to Gaza. One such shipment was sent by Turkey after the Rome agreement and days before the military rebellion.
There are also other security benefits for Israel which have been ignored or barely reported. The Turkish parliament, for example, will pass laws that prohibit the suing of Israeli officers and officials involved in the Marmara incident in Turkish courts. In recent years, a few Turkish courts issued warrants against senior Israeli officers.
Turkey has also promised not to oppose the inclusion of Israel in NATO events and in other international forums.
The History of the Covert Connections
The special security and intelligence ties between the two countries began in the second half of the 1950s. Encouraged by the US and the UK, the intelligence communities of Israel (Mossad), Iran (Savak) and Turkey (MIT) established a tripartite consultative body known as the Trident alliance.
The intelligence chiefs of the three services met annually and exchanged information on common enemies – Egypt, Syria and Iraq. The relations reached their peak in the 1950s, with Iran’s involvement ending after the country’s 1979 revolution. Israeli-Turkish intelligence sharing continued through the first decade of the 21st century, peaking around 2005 and ending when Erdogan walked away.
Turkey became an important market worth several billion dollars for Israeli military and security goods. Israeli security corporations sold drones, intelligence equipment and upgraded fighter planes and tanks for the Turkish army.
Turkey also fed Israel with information which it had obtained about Syria, Iraq and, to a degree, Iran from its spies and listening posts built by the US. In return, Turkey asked for and got information obtained by Israeli intelligence on Kurdish organisations — especially the PKK.
Mossad officials met regularly with their MIT colleagues either in Ankara or Istanbul or in Tel Aviv. During some of these sessions, senior MIT officials in charge of monitoring the PKK even felt at ease and close enough to ask their Israeli counterparts if they would be willing to help them to assassinate Kurdish terrorists. The Israelis listened politely, usually didn’t comment and ignored the requests.
It all ended when then Turkish prime minister, now president, Erdogan changed the course of Turkish foreign policy and orientation.
It is clear to Israeli security officials that when the new agreement is implemented, the golden era of close, even intimate military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and Turkey, will not return.
August 15, 2016
[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince — and the current history of Israeli intelligence and security, Spies Against Armageddon (published by Levant Books).]
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.
July 30, 2016
[Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller on Israeli espionage and security, Every Spy a Prince, and the current book Spies Against Armageddon, wrote this for The Jerusalem Post in early March. Today (June 27), Israel and Turkey are announcing the restoration of diplomatic relations after long, difficult negotiations. What’s likely to happen now?]
Even if Israel and Turkey soon announce an end to their diplomatic crisis, which began almost six years ago as a result of the Mavi Marmara flotilla ship incident, relations between the two countries will not go back to how they once were.
The golden era of cooperation in the security and intelligence fields between the two countries up until a decade ago will certainly not come back.
Turkey was a large and important market for Israel’s security industries, which provided drones, intelligence systems, tank and planes upgrades, and more. For years, there was close cooperation between the Mossad and Turkey’s intelligence agency, the MIT, which included meetings, an exchange of each countries’ situational assessments and more.
This cooperation began in 1958 with the initiation of an intelligence pact between Iran’s SAVAK, under the Shah, the Mossad and Turkish intelligence. The codename in Israel for this pact was “Clil” (Complete).
Prime Minister Erdogan
These intimate relations were ended by Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he rose to power in 2002, first as prime minister, and currently as president. It was a gradual process that deteriorated after the Marmara incident. However, the 2010 flotilla was merely a symptom of a deeper issue. Yet, despite the security and intelligence disconnect and the diplomatic crisis, both commercial and tourism ties did grow under Erdogan.
The initiative for a turnaround in relations has come from Ankara … Erdogan’s foreign and defense policies have failed miserably. He saw himself as the renewer of the days of the Ottoman Empire and as a modern-day, 21st century Sultan. He aimed to turn Turkey into a regional power, and perhaps into the strongest force in the Middle East, but this did not happen.
Instead, Turkey finds itself in a conflict with Russia and Iran over Syria, where Erdogan hoped to see President Bashar Assad ousted. Erdogan supported the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and now he finds himself at odds with Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Because of Turkey’s uncompromising fight against its Kurdish population, as well as in Syria and Iraq, Ankara is also losing its influence with NATO and with the U.S.
Turkey is now more isolated than ever and is therefore interested in renewing ties with Israel, in the hope that the Jewish state can help Ankara improve its standing in Washington. Turkey also needs natural gas from Israel in order to diversify its sources of energy and to reduce its dependency on Russian gas.
Most of the disagreements between Israel and Turkey stemming from the Marmara incident have already been rectified. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the incident in which nine Turkish citizens were killed. Israel has already made clear that it is prepared to pay some $25 million in compensation to the families of the victims. Turkey has deported senior Hamas military wing official Salah Aruri from the country and has tightened its supervision of the organization’s members at Israel’s request. Ankara has also agreed to institute special legislation that will prevent IDF commanders from standing trial for the Marmara incident.
However, the bigger problem to be solved is connected to Hamas in Gaza. Turkey is looking for a foothold in the Strip. [The Israeli government view is that] Erdogan broke the rules, and therefore he bears the responsibility for rectifying the situation. Egypt’s Sisi as well is not prepared to easily forgive and grant Erdogan a prize for his behavior, as if nothing happened.
If the golden formula is found, and the crisis is indeed solved, it will be part of a three-way deal: Israel-Egypt-Turkey, in which the strategic alliance with Egypt is much more important to Israel than rehabilitating ties with Turkey.
June 27, 2016
In his latest documentary, “Zero Days,” the award-winning Alex Gibney reveals that the Obama Administration believed an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — which seemed in 2012 to be a very real prospect — would draw the United States into war. To prepare, the NSA created a set of cyberattacks — code named “Nitro Zeus” — which could have crippled Iranian industry, transport, and other modern services.
“Zero Days” was the opening feature of the AFI Docs festival in Washington, DC, on June 22. Gibney was interviewed by Dan Raviv for the CBS News Weekend Roundup radio magazine; and Yossi Melman is seen in the film as an expert commenting on Israeli motivations in confronting Iran’s nuclear program. Melman also credited in the film as a consultant.
Raviv and Melman are co-authors of five books, including the current history of Israeli intelligence — Spies Against Armageddon.
Here is part of an article Melman wrote for The Jerusalem Post in February 2016, when the documentary was first screened at the Berlin Film Festival.
Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA, is in the film and claims the goal of a potential Israeli strike on Iran would be to drag the U.S. into war. The film also quotes other sources in the US intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly and in opposition to agreed-upon plans. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.
A graphic from the documentary “Zero Days”
The film contains testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran. The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.
According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow. The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).
“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”
The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities: “Olympic Games” — as revealed by New York Times’ journalist David E. Sanger.
Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran). Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.
Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software. As a result, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.
The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation and enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.
According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation caused by Israel’s action’s also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.
“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and Iran – the country against which it was developed.”
June 23, 2016
[This post is based on an article in Hebrew by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books, in the newspaper Maariv.]
The Mossad — Israel’s famed foreign intelligence agency — placed unusual advertisements in several Israeli newspapers on Wednesday. It is not the first time that the Mossad published “want ads,” announcing that jobs are available for the right men and women. This one also seems to be polishing the secret agency’s image as a cutting-edge, entirely modern and exciting place to work.
The ad shows rows of numbers, apparently meant to represent computer code on a screen — and among the digits are English letters that read: “ARE YOU READY FOR A CHALLENGE?”
At the bottom, in Hebrew, is the official symbol of the Mossad — with its motto quoting the Bible: “Where there is no counsel, the nation falls; but there is salvation in a multitude of counsel.” (Proverbs 11:14)
And intriguingly at the bottom is — apparently — the name of the Mossad department looking for brilliant employees: “The Operational Cyber Arm.”
The agency’s website also invites job applications.
Mossad.gov.il came into existence only about 15 years ago. In part that was part of a new wave of relative openness: acknowledging that the Mossad exists and making it legal to publish the name of its director (Yossi Cohen this year replaced Tamir Pardo). Also, the website is part of a recruitment effort — in Hebrew, English, Russian, Arabic, and Farsi (Persian) — which suggests that working for Israeli intelligence can give a person amazing experiences.
It was also, in the past 10 to 15 years, that the Mossad — instructed by Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert — stepped up its efforts to derail and sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.
May 11, 2016
[This article is based on an item written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books on Israeli defense, intelligence, and culture.]
A moment of truth for Israel’s nuclear policy is nearing. Haim Levinson’s article in Ha’aretz (in Hebrew on April 26) regarding the defects in the core of the nuclear reactor in Dimona only emphasizes this fact.
Such reactors are normally taken out of service after 40 years or so. Ultrasound examinations found 1,537 flaws in the metal core in Dimona, a scientist from the facility reported — according to Levinson in Ha’aretz.
These are not defects that can develop to the level of large cracks, that would at this stage cause nuclear radiation emission from the reactor and endanger the surrounding population and environment.
The awareness of these flaws — and the likelihood of how they would progress — were known since the inception of the nuclear reactor. In 2004 similar findings were revealed at a symposium at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, where senior officials of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is responsible for the reactor in Dimona, admitted that they were encountering difficulties in upgrading the safety of the reactor.
The reactor in Dimona — which France built for Israel — began to function in 1963. According to the manufacturer’s standards, the lifetime of reactors of this type is forty years.
At that convention 12 years ago, the CEO of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission — Gideon Frank — said that in the United States, techniques were developed that allowed for a 20-year extension of the lifetime of reactors.
However, the reactor core, which is made from metal and wrapped with a thick layer of concrete that defends against the tremendous radiation from within, cannot be replaced, as there is a leaking water heater there that cannot be fixed.
Today, the reactor in Dimona is 53 years old and has repeatedly received “anti-aging treatment.”
Israel used the most advanced techniques in the world, but they will be effective until when? If we rely on the words of Gideon Frank from the convention, then the reactor has another seven years to its life. By then there will be no alternative but to disable the reactor.
The technological problems create a huge dilemma for the longtime Israeli strategy of deterrence. The reactor that Israel acquired from France, had, according to foreign reports, a 24-megawatt capacity and was to be used for research purposes. According to these same sources Israel increased its output to 50 megawatts, possibly even more.
According to foreign reports, since its activation, Israel’s reactor has been manufacturing uranium and plutonium. Those are the fissile materials for the construction of nuclear weapons. These reports said that the proponents of Israeli nuclear development believed that nuclear weapons would serve as a deterrent and secure Israel’s existence for generations.
Concurrently, they also formulated the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity, which neither admitted nor denied the existence of nuclear weapons.
In my opinion, the brilliance and boldness of the Israeli policy of nuclear ambiguity proved and continues to prove itself strategically.
The success of this policy is evident in the fact that no superpower has demanded of Israel to disarm nuclear capacity, which the world claims Israel has.
However the policy of nuclear ambiguity also prevents Israel from signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which bans the production, stockpiling and spread of nuclear weapons.
This is the predicament in which Israel exists today. Israel does not possess the ability and the materials to build a new reactor and is in need of foreign or international assistance. If Israel were to sign the NPT it would be able to receive nuclear reactors for the purpose of research and generation of electricity, but it would also be mandated that Israel disclose everything it has.
The foreign reports indicated that during the years of its reactor’s operation, Israel constructed approximately 200 nuclear bombs of all types and sizes as well as the means to launch them, according to one report. According to another more recent report, Israel is in possession of “only” 80 bombs.
This substantial arsenal could continue to ensure Israel’s deterrence policy, even if the reactor were to close and could not manufacture additional bomb-making materials. But the gleaming dome of the reactor is also a symbol of Israel and its nuclear capability.
Israel will try to extend the lifespan of the reactor as much as possible before its inevitable expiration, when the efficacy of the “anti-aging” remedies will also expire.
May 8, 2016
[This analysis is adapted from an article written by Yossi Melman for The Jerusalem Post. In addition, Dan Raviv‘s 43-minute radio special on the March 22 terrorism in Brussels — and his interviews with pundits and experts on terrorism — can be heard by clicking here.]
TEL AVIV – There are eleven security and inspection points at Ben-Gurion Airport. They spread from a roadblock at the airport entrance, through the security checkpoints that all travelers expect, all the way to the gates where passengers board their flights.
That is a lot to do – involving plenty of personnel and other expense – but Israel considers it a necessary investment. Lives must be saved, and the travel industry must not be destroyed by bloodshed.
The multi-layered security is affordable — not just because Tel Aviv’s international airport is relatively small, but also because of a holistic security doctrine engraved by nearly 50 years of experience marked by blood and tears.
Since some early tragic failures, Israel has improved and upgraded its security measures on land and in the air. For decades, security experts from international airlines, police forces and security agencies have come here to learn Israeli know-how and doctrines.
Unfortunately, the non-Israelis stand up and take notice only after spectacular terrorist attacks — such as the 1988 Pan Am bombing and 9/11.
It took Western democracies a while to reach the conclusion that human life is at least as important as human rights. Most probably it will happen this time, too.
Three Muslim Bombers at Brussels Airport: The Man in the White Jacket Fled
Sure, there is no hermetically sealed security, and terrorists will always take advantage of gaps. But there is no need to be a genius to understand that what happened in Brussels this week was a colossal security and intelligence failure.
Belgian authorities admit that they knew there was a high probability of an “imminent terror attack.” Yet neither the country’s police nor its security forces increased their presence in the streets or by adding checkpoints at the entrances to the airport. No wonder three terrorists managed to enter with suitcases heavily laden with explosives, screws, and bolts. Two blew themselves up, within a minute of each other; and it was lucky that the third man lost his nerve and fled.
The Brussels tragedy – with more than 30 people murdered and almost 300 wounded – was the result of years of negligence.
For decades, Belgium’s police have been afraid to enter rough Muslim neighborhoods such as Molenbeek, in the capital. These areas first became havens for criminal gangs dealing in drugs, protection, and weapons. Then they turned into hotbeds of radical Muslim and anti-Western trends.
In recent decades, such neighborhoods across Europe have become fertile recruiting grounds for young Muslims attracted by the slogans of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or known by the Arabic acronym Da’esh).
Now, radicalized Muslims – hundreds and potentially thousands of them – are returning from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields.
They are ideologically hardened and militarily trained. “For a terrorist,” former CIA deputy director Michael Morell says, “there is no better training than actually fighting in a war.”
To gather intelligence, security agencies need to penetrate terrorist networks, recruit agents, and intercept communications.
It seems that the Belgian police were either afraid or reluctant, or they lacked the determination to take the necessary steps. Perhaps all of these. These years of negligence resulted in a reality for which the Belgian public – and the world – pay the price.
Belgium’s security services lack necessary intelligence. The writing was on the wall for a long time. Since 9/11 – and then atrocities in Madrid, London, Turkey, Bali and more – the international community should have come to realize that it is at war.
Some measures were taken, but the leaders of major countries – and security agencies – were slow, even reluctant, to draw the necessary conclusions.
Islamic State surely puts its highest priority on maintaining and growing its “caliphate” straddling the Iraq-Syria border. But the group also seems determined to strike cities in Western countries. Some say that began only after the West started attacking ISIS. But exporting terrorism – and sending Muslim extremist recruits back to their home countries – was always going to be part of the ISIS playbook.
March 23, 2016
Meir Dagan, the head of Israel’s espionage service Mossad from 2002 through the end of 2010, has died at age 71. He had been battling cancer — the one enemy that he could not outwit and outrun.
Yossi Melman, co-author of Every Spy a Prince and the current history of Israeli intelligence, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, looks back at Dagan’s career — and his role as the key architect of secret sabotage aimed at Iran’s nuclear program.
On Thursday morning, after learning that retired General Meir Dagan had died, the current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen expressed — on behalf of the organization’s employees and its past chiefs — deep sorrow at the news of his death and sent condolences to the Dagan family.
Meir Dagan appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes (with Lesley Stahl) after his retirement
Dagan, the tenth “Ramsad” (Rosh ha-Mossad, meaning Head of the Institution), was appointed by his close friend Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and served atop the organization from 2002 until December 2010.
He is most identified with clandestine operations to prevent and thwart Iran’s nuclear program and its intentions to produce an atomic bomb.
During Dagan’s tenure, he implemented far-reaching structural changes in the Mossad with the aim of making it a more operations-based organization.
While Dagan headed the Mossad, a number of operations were attributed to the organization, including the assassination of five Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage of equipment in Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the implanting of viruses into the computers that operated the centrifuges to enrich uranium at the Natanz facility in Iran. Some of these projects — though not the assassinations — were conducted in cooperation with America’s CIA and NSA.
Another important intelligence feat that is attributed to the Mossad under Dagan was a huge amount of information obtained from a laptop computer used by the chairman of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission. That intelligence was the smoking gun which shaped the decision by then-Prime Minster Ehud Olmert, with the tacit approval of President George W. Bush, to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel has never publicly confirmed destroying that reactor.
Dagan enjoyed the privilege — which was very rare among Mossad chiefs, and other heads of world intelligence agencies — of befriending President Bush, who liked him and his creative mind very much.
Showing the Mossad’s impressive ability to operate in the capital city of the most hostile Arab country, Hezbollah’s military chief — Imad Mugniyeh — was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Well placed sources described the operation as a joint effort by Mossad agents on the scene, with the CIA playing a role.
Dagan was born in the Soviet Union in 1945 to parents who were Holocaust survivors who moved to Israel after the founding of the Jewish state. He lived in Bat Yam and enlisted into the Paratroopers Brigade, becoming the commander of the Rimon reconnaissance unit which operated in the Gaza Strip during the height of a Palestinian terror wave in the early 1970s. Afterward, he was promoted to fill a number of roles in the IDF command, reaching the rank of Major General.
Among other things, Dagan is considered one of the developers of guerrilla warfare doctrine in the IDF, based on fighting — often ambushing — Palestinian terrorists in Gaza and later in south Lebanon. These operations cemented his image as a daring combatant who was ready to sanction any means to achieve his aim or target, including the assassination of terrorists.
During his time in the IDF, and especially during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Dagan was considered a confidant of General Ariel Sharon. After Sharon became prime minister, he appointed Dagan to head the Mossad, despite some discontent expressed among the rank and file of the organization.
Dagan was known to have, at least in his early days, hawkish political views. He even joined the Likud Party.
However, during the course of his work for the Mossad, and after he left the organization, his world view became more moderate. He urged that a peace agreement be reached with the Palestinians. He argued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minster Ehud Barak about various security and diplomatic issues.
While in the Mossad, and even more so afterward, Dagan expressed his opposition to a military strike on Iran.
Dagan last year addressed a political rally of opposition parties that called on the public not to vote for Netanyahu.
In January of last year, Dagan expressed his fears about the future of Israel. “I don’t trust the leadership. I think that the prime minister and [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett are leading Israel to be a bi-national state, which in my eyes is a disaster and the loss of the Zionist dream.”
Dagan warned that Netanyahu was damaging Israel’s relations with the United States and bringing the ties to the brink of disaster. That, the ex-Mossad chief insisted, could be extremely costly for Israel.
Living in the shadow of the Holocaust — even showing visitors a photograph of his grandfather being humiliated by German Nazi soldiers — he was a strong advocate that Israel must have a strong military. Yet he also insisted that Israel needed to nurture its friendship with the United States and make peace with its Arab neighbors.
“I want to live in a Jewish state. I don’t want to be a slave master and have second class citizens,” Dagan said.
“Unfortunately, between the Jordan River and the sea, there are more than six million Palestinians, some of whom are Israeli citizens, and more than six million Jews. The policy that we are employing is very problematic on the Palestinian issue. And on the matter of our behavior toward our greatest ally, the United States. I am very worried,” Dagan added.
“After [the] Yom Kippur [War], I feared for the existence of the state of Israel. If we survived that and managed to make it, I was sure that we could deal with anything. I admit today that I have difficult questions about the directionin which the Israeli leadership is leading us,” the former Mossad chief said.
March 17, 2016
[This article is based on an article written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other books about Israeli security and diplomacy.]
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.
March 14, 2016
Israeli hastiness blew operation to sabotage Iran’s computers, U.S. officials say:
‘Zero Days’, Alex Gibney’s film premiering at the Berlin International Film Festival, explores the joint U.S.-Israeli operation to develop the Stuxnet virus and sabotage Iran’s nuclear program
If Israel were ever to bomb Iran and its nuclear facilities — according to Gen. Michael Hayden, former head of both the CIA and the NSA — Israel’s goal would be to drag the United States into war.
MIchael Hayden, in the film “Zero Days”
Hayden makes the remark in a documentary film premiering this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. The film also quotes other sources in the U.S. intelligence community who accuse Israel of disrupting a joint covert operation to sabotage computers used in Iran’s nuclear program by acting rashly. The sources say Israel did not stick with the agreed-upon plan.
As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars that were invested in the operation went to waste.
The film, Zero Days, was directed by Alex Gibney, whose film Taxi to the Dark Side won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2008.
His new film includes testimony from NSA and CIA operatives who worked together with Israeli colleagues – from the 8200 Military Intelligence Unit and Mossad – to develop several versions of a deadly virus that penetrated computers at the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in Iran. The testimony is delivered anonymously by an actress whose face remains hidden.
Filmmaker Alex Gibney
According to the claims in the film, the hasty Israeli action prevented the carrying out of a number of further planned actions that were intended to sabotage computers at a second, more fortified uranium enrichment facility at Fordow.
The film also reveals another planned cyber unit covert operation code-named NZ (Nitro Zeus).
“We spent millions on this operation to sabotage all of the computers of the Iranian infrastructure in the instance of a war,” a source quoted in the film said. “We penetrated the government, electricity lines, power stations and most of the infrastructure in Iran.”
As seen in “Zero Days”…
The deadly virus that was implanted at Natanz was named “Stuxnet” by computer security experts, but it had a different name among the Israeli and American intelligence communities that was not revealed in the film. The code-name of the entire operation, as was revealed by New York Times journalist David Sanger, was “Olympic Games.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the implanting of the virus marked the first time that a country, or two countries in this case (the U.S. and Israel), engaged in cyber warfare against another country (Iran).
Up until then, the majority of attacks were carried out by individual hackers for their own enjoyment or for political purposes, by criminals for the purposes of fraud and thievery, or by companies engaged in industrial and commercial espionage.
America’s Vice President Joe Biden is quoted in the film as saying in a meeting that the Israelis “changed the code” of the deadly virus’s software. As a result, in contravention of the plan, the virus spread from nuclear program computers to many other computers in Iran, and from there, to computers around the world — even harming the computers of American companies.
LInes of code of Stuxnet, seen in the film
The unplanned spread of the virus led to the exposure of the operation. That enabled the Iranians, with the help of information security experts from Belarus and Russia, to invent a “vaccine” for their computers to better defend the nuclear program.
According to the film, the premature exposure of the operation due to Israel’s actions also caused the virus software, which was among the most classified and most advanced in the world, to leak to Russian and Iranian intelligence.
“Ironically,” it is said in the film, “the secret formula for writing the code for the virus software fell into the hands of Russia and of Iran – the country against which it was developed.”
The development of Stuxnet and the planning of Operation Olympic Games began in 2006, during George W. Bush’s term as president. He fervently wanted to thwart the Iranian nuclear program.
Hayden, with his long experience in both the CIA and the NSA, declares in the film that “President Bush did not want to be left with the choice of ‘to bomb or be bombed.’”
Revealed too much: Ahmadinejad’s Visit to Natanz
According to the film, experts from both countries came up with the idea of trying to sabotage Iran’s nuclear facilities, and in particular their computers. News photographs of then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to the Natanz facility helped the experts obtain needed intelligence on the computers. The computers, their configuration and their rear connections can be seen clearly in the pictures. Eventually, these entry and exit points served as portals to implant the virus.
Iranian nuclear experts accompanied Ahmadinejad on his tour of the facility. One of those photographed at Ahmadinejad’s side was assassinated a few years later, in an operation that was attributed to the Mossad.
On Bush’s orders, exact replicas of the centrifuges were built at the national laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which is also used to produce nuclear weapons, and at Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona. The deadly virus was implanted in the centrifuges and their rotors were damaged and broken.
Intelligence operatives brought the broken rotors to the White House situation room, showed them to President Bush and explained what the sabotage could do. Bush was impressed, saying, “Go and try.”
He ordered a greater investment in offensive, covert cyber warfare and approved the operation.
According to the film, offensive cyber warfare against Iran was increased even more during Barack Obama’s term. A key reason was his concern that Israel — under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak — would take military action against Iran.
Hayden reveals in the film that America’s fear was that “the real goal of an Israeli attack [against the nuclear facilities in Iran], would be to drag us into war,” because Israel’s own attack capabilities were limited.
Hayden continues: “Israel has an excellent air force, but it’s small. The distance is great and the facilities are spread throughout Iran.”
In order to calm Israel down, and to prove that the administration was working diligently to thwart an Iranian nuclear weapon, Obama ordered the intelligence community to increase its efforts and its cooperation with the Mossad and Unit 8200.
He did so despite having some doubts about the operation. Obama expressed concern that “the Chinese and the Russians will do the same thing to us,” and insert viruses into nuclear facilities and other strategic sites in the United States.
However, Obama’s greater fear was of an Israeli attack. “The goal was to gain time,” Hayden added, “in order to force Iran to come to the negotiating table.”
According to the film, British intelligence also secretly took part in the operation through GCHQ, its unit responsible for telephone surveillance, communications interception, code-breaking, and cyber warfare.
“But the main partner was Israel,” the film says. “And in Israel the Mossad ran the show. 8200 provided technical help. Israel was the key to the whole story.”
In the beginning, the virus succeeded at its mission, according to the film.
“As far as we knew, but they weren’t telling us everything,” an NSA source told Alex Gibney’s team. “The virus was implanted in the computers, probably by the Mossad, through its infiltration of two software companies in Taiwan that were working with the Iranians.”
The plan was for the virus to harm the digital and computerized electric boxes made by the German company Siemens, which were hooked up to the computers that operated the centrifuges. About a thousand of the 5,000 centrifuges were damaged without the Iranians discovering the cause of the problem.
“The plan did what it was supposed to do,” an anonymous American intelligence operative said. “The centrifuges blew up without leaving a trace.”
The sabotage operation also had a psychological goal: to instill in the Iranian leadership and in the community of scientists a feeling that they were helpless and did not understand what was happening. An additional goal was to drive a wedge between the scientists on one side — and Iran’s political and military leadership.
It did turn out that Iranian authorities accused their experts of failure and began firing them and threatened them.
According to testimony gathered by the filmmakers, several hundred programmers, mathematicians, and computer engineers worked in Tailored Access Operations (TAO) teams at CIA headquarters and the cyber command in Fort Meade, Maryland. Only these teams were authorized to infiltrate computers outside of the U.S., including those in Iran.
The sources quoted in the film say the U.S. and Israel developed a few different versions of the Stuxnet virus. Each new version was more powerful than its predecessor. The idea was to gradually implant increasingly stronger versions of the virus.
In addition, it was established that each country had the right to act independently, as long as it informed the other of its actions. However, according to the film, as a result of pressure from Netanyahu on the chief of the Mossad to “show results,” it was decided in Israel to use the most deadly version of the virus prematurely.
“We operated at a low profile,” an NSA source said. “The Israelis, on the other hand, constantly pushed to be more aggressive.”
In this way, after the strongest version of the virus was implanted in order to increase the force of the damage to the centrifuges at Natanz, the virus, according to German information security expert Ralph Langer, began to “jump from computer to computer,” until it was out of control and unintentionally spread to thousands of computers, networks and systems, including computers in the United States.
“Our friends from Israel took a weapon that we developed jointly, among other things in order to defend Israel, and did something crazy with it, and actually blew the operation. We were very furious,” an American source said.
The film reveals that the presidential orders of Bush and Obama to activate the cyber weapon were based on their authority to use nuclear weapons.
As a result of this American-Israeli cyber warfare, Iran began to develop and to enhance its own attack tools. A few years ago, in revenge and as a message of deterrence, it attacked 30,000 computers belonging to the Saudi oil company Aramco and computers belonging to American banks.
Against this backdrop, the film also delves into the philosophical-theoretical issue of the world’s need to establish international treaties and rules of what’s legal and illegal in cyber warfare, like the international conventions that govern the laws of conventional warfare.
In addition to Hayden, other U.S. officials are interviewed in the film, including Richard Clarke, an anti-terrorism and cyber warfare consultant in the Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations; John C. Inglis, former deputy NSA chief; Gary Samore, formerly with the Obama National Security Council; and the head of information and computer security branch of the Department of Homeland Security. The New York Times’ Sanger also served as consultant to the film’s director and producers.
On the Israeli side, interviews were conducted with former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, current National Infrastructure, Energy and Water and former Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz, as well as the writer of this article, who also served as a consultant to the filmmakers.
Computer security experts from the American firm Symantec appear in the film, as well as the German expert Ralph Langer and Eugene Kaspersky, who is considered one of the best-known computer security experts in the world. Kaspersky was formerly a Russian intelligence operative and is considered to have close ties to the Kremlin.
February 16, 2016
[This item is based on an article originally written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and the best seller Every Spy a Prince, for The Jerusalem Post.]
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Nadav Argaman on Thursday as the next head of the Shin Bet (the Israel Security Agency).
“Nadav Argaman has a rich track record of commanding and operative experience in the Shin Bet,” Netanyahu said. “I am certain that under his leadership the Shin Bet will continue to strengthen its operational and technological domains and continue to ensure Israel’s security.”
Nadav Argaman (courtesy Israel Security Agency)
Argaman, 55, will become the 13th head of the internal security service, succeeding the outgoing Yoram Cohen (not to be confused with Yossi Cohen, who took the job of Mossad director just last month).
Argaman served in Shin Bet for 33 years and is a product of the agency’s operations department, which increasingly — in recent years — depends on signals intelligence (SIGINT): the use of intercepted communications for operations.
A native of a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley, he joined the agency in 1983, after serving as an officer in the IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit.
At Shin Bet, he rose through the ranks of the operations unit until he became chief of operations in 2003, a position he held for four years. In 2007, he became the organization’s representative in the United States — so he surely knows a lot about America and how to cooperate with the FBI.
Afterward, he was appointed deputy head of the Shin Bet, and three years later, in September 2014, he was loaned to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. (He is likely to have been involved in counterintelligence programs aimed at preventing foreign spies from closely examining Israel’s nuclear potential.)
Outgoing chief Cohen welcomed the prime minister’s decision, saying, “I’m convinced that Nadav’s wealth and range of experience gathered during his years of service in the security services, combined with his personal and professional abilities, will enable him to lead the organization successfully in the face of present and future challenges.”
President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Argaman on his appointment Thursday evening and said he is “standing behind him, right from this very moment.”
“You’re the right man in the right place,” Rivlin continued. “I am confident that your years of experience and your professional capabilities will allow Israeli citizens to continue to live life as normal as possible in these difficult times.”
Argaman has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Haifa, a master’s degree in political science and another master’s degree in security and strategy from the same university, from which he graduated summa cum laude.
His appointment indicates the sea change the agency has been undergoing in the recent years. Since the 1967 Six Day War, the Shin Bet has occupied itself primarily with the struggle against Palestinian terrorism. Accordingly, the three chiefs over the past 16 years have emerged from the field of operations aimed at combating that threat to Israeli security.
While Shin Bet has learned to utilize more electronically intercepted communications, the agency has still remained focused on human intelligence – running agents on the ground.
Argaman has to fine tune the Shin Bet for the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which is characterized by young “lone wolf” kind of perpetrators, with no organizational affiliation or signature. This makes the mission to collect information about their plans almost impossible.
During his term in the next five years, the Palestinian Authority may disintegrate or at least stop its cooperation in the security field with Shin Bet and the IDF. Such a decision may lead the West Bank to complete chaos and anarchy and force the Shin Bet to become an even more repressive security service.
No less challenging is the danger that more Israeli Arabs will join Islamic State. In all these challenges, Argaman’s Shin Bet will have to walk the tightrope of balancing between Israel’s security needs and its democratic values.
Shin Bet also devotes time, energy, and planted agents to detect and undermine Jewish terrorism — including actual cells plotting attacks against Palestinians in order to intimidate them, or in the name of “revenge.”
February 14, 2016
by Yossi Melman [written first for The Jerusalem Report]
Is the glass half empty or is it half full? That is the question one is left asking, after hearing about the contents of Israel’s NIE — the National Intelligence Estimate for 2016. Depending on one’s point of view, or even bias, Israel’s situation can be viewed in different ways. Objective analysis shows there are risks out there, but also opportunities.
The NIE was drafted by the research department of Aman (the large Military Intelligence agency) with input from the research departments of Mossad (the external espionage agency) and the Israel Security Agency (the domestic service – known as Shin Bet). The Estimate is not published, but the major points were described by senior military officers in strictly limited briefings.
Emblem of Aman (Israeli Military Intelligence)
The most important part of the new report is the assessment that the probability of war this year is low. Senior military sources tell The Jerusalem Report that this applies on all fronts: from Gaza in the South to Lebanon and Syria in the North. Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas have plans or any interest to initiate a war against Israel.
Hezbollah is bleeding in the killing fields of Syria. Five years from the outbreak of the civil war there, the Lebanese Shi’ites of Hezbollah become ever more deeply embroiled in the conflict — with a permanent contingent of as many as 7,000 fighters, nearly half its conscripts, fighting alongside Iran to defend the regime of Bashar Assad. The Russian air force has provided significant air support.
These Shi’ites from the neighboring nation also have 15,000 reservists who are called to duty for training or field missions for up to 40 days a year – similar to the IDF reserve system. So far, Hezbollah has lost nearly 1,500 soldiers, killed in action–many of whom belonged to its elite units– and more than 6,000 have been wounded.
Hezbollah’s losses are a heavy blow to its military capabilities and have dented its morale to go to war with Israel. That, of course, is good for Israel.
Furthermore, Hezbollah is suffering from a serious economic crisis. Its annual budget is estimated at around $1 billion, 70 percent of which comes from Iran and the rest from taxes and trade, mainly in drugs and contrabands of cigarettes and electronic appliances. Due to the sanctions imposed on Iran (most soon to be lifted), Tehran in recent years has had difficulties providing much financial aid to its Lebanese proxy.
In the South, Hamas has not yet recovered from the war in the Summer of 2014, which inflicted heavy casualties on its military forces and capabilities and, even more importantly, caused severe damage to the civilian population.
Since the end of that conflict, two dozen rockets have been fired from Gaza into southern Israel. But they all landed in open areas and caused no casualties or damage. None of them was launched by Hamas. All were fired by small renegade groups, either inspired by or identifying with the Islamic State (ISIS), which oppose the Hamas regime and try to provoke Israel into attacking Hamas.
In other words, deterrence is working both vis-à-vis Hezbollah, since the 2006 war in Lebanon, and Hamas, following Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Yet, senior military sources say there is a clear understanding that “deterrence is not forever” and that it is an elusive concept.
Indeed, the NIE takes into account the potential for escalation deriving from a minor incident along the border with either Hamas or Hezbollah that could get out of hand and escalate into a major confrontation.
These scenarios take into consideration,for example, that a rocket fired from Gaza might kill several Israeli citizens. Israel then would retaliate forcefully against Hamas, which it holds responsible for the situation in Gaza. Hamas can’t stand idly by and responds; and the vicious cycle of rockets and Israel Air Force bombings rolls into another major war.
A similar scenario could apply along the northern border if Israel takes advantage of the war in Syria – as it reportedly has done on several occasions – and bombs another convoy of weapons being delivered to Hezbollah or kills another of its commanders near the Golan Heights; and Hezbollah then might retaliate with a salvo of rockets.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah are preparing for these scenarios.
Despite its financial and military troubles, Hezbollah has continued its preparation for a war against Israel, amassing an impressive arsenal of nearly 100,000 rockets and missiles capable of reaching every strategic and military site in the country.
But it’s more the quality — rather than the quantity — that is a major concern for Israel. Hezbollah, with the help of Iranian experts, is working hard to improve the accuracy of its missiles.
Israeli war planners estimate that, if war breaks out, Hezbollah will try, for the first time, to dig tunnels into Israel, to shift the battle to Israeli territory and try to conquer settlements near the border.
Thus, Hezbollah is considered the main military threat against Israel. The organization is therefore the prime target for intelligence efforts to gather information about its capabilities and intentions.
“The next war will be different from the wars we’ve seen in the past 20-30 years. The conflict will be very complex,” a senior military source told The Report. “It may last many, many weeks. Hezbollah has turned the majority of its Shi’ite villages in southern Lebanon into massive strongholds.”
The sources, however, warn that in case of war, Israel will take a different approach and strike, with all its force, against all Hezbollah positions including inside the villages. That, the source said, “will create a huge refugee problem in Lebanon.”
Though Hamas doesn’t want to be dragged into a new round with Israel and is not ready for it, that Gaza-based group also continues with efforts to improve its preparedness. Hamas is manufacturing rockets and prioritizing efforts to increase their range and accuracy. (In Operation Protective Edge, Hamas hit Tel Aviv and fired unsuccessfully in the direction of the northern port city of Haifa).
Though caught between Israeli and Egyptian blockades and close security and intelligence cooperation, Hamas has never given up its efforts to smuggle weapons, explosives, and rockets via tunnels between Sinai and Gaza — though that has become much more difficult. Hamas is also continuing to dig tunnels and the IDF estimates that some– probably more than 10 – are very close to the Israeli border and may penetrate inside Israel.
The NIE also notes, though in very vague words, that the changes and turmoil in the Middle East have improved Israel’s strategic posture.
Though they occasionally mention Israel in propaganda bulletins, the Islamic State movement — even the branch in Egypt’s Sinai — as well as al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Jabhat al Nusra — have no interest or intention to turn their weapons against Israel. They have other priorities and more immediate enemies.
The Middle East is characterized by the growing schism between Shi’ites and Sunnis, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and rifts inside the Sunni world between zealots and terrorists such as Islamic State.
The Iran nuclear deal is also seen by the IDF as an opportunity of sorts, in blatant contrast to the perception and rhetoric of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“There are advantages to the nuclear deal,” an IDF source said. “True, a better deal could’ve been reached, and there’s a bit of frustration because the deal doesn’t take care of the Iranian involvement and efforts to increase its hegemonic aspirations in the region. But the fact is that the amount of enriched uranium has been significantly reduced, as has the number of centrifuges, and Iran’s capability to produce plutonium at its nuclear reactor in Arak has also been dismantled. These are dramatic developments with which you can’t argue.”
The intelligence estimate sees February as a critical time for Iran’s future. Elections for the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, as well as the Assembly of Experts – a small but important body that is in charge of electing or removing the Supreme Leader – will be taking place. Twelve thousand candidates registered, but the election committee disqualified 40 percent of them, eventually leaving just 30 moderate candidates.
The constant rifts and battles between the conservatives and reformists that have taken place in Iran since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, nearly 30 years ago, are reaching a peak. The elections will determine the direction Iran will take in the coming years with serious consequences not only for its own people but also for the rest of the Middle East, Israel included.
“It’s clear,” an Israeli military source said, “that the majority of the Iranian people want more freedom and openness to the West and less religiosity, but will the conservatives in the judiciary, in the religious circles and in the Revolutionary Guards allow it to happen?”
In addition, the IDF estimates that Iran is set to receive tens of billions of dollars from its frozen bank accounts abroad and from the lifting of sanctions. Most of the money will be invested in improving the economy. Some will be used to cover past debts. Nevertheless, oil prices have dramatically dropped from more than$100 per barrel to under $30, endangering Iran’s hopes for quick economic recovery
Yet, Iran hasn’t given up the dream of regional hegemony. It will use some of its bonanza to fund Hamas and attempt to gain a foothold in the West Bank. It is also guiding and paying for terrorist infrastructures in the Syrian Golan Heights.
Military Intelligence and Mossad will continue to monitor Iran to follow its expansionist aspirations and to make sure it doesn’t violate its commitments under the nuclear deal.
Regarding the Palestinians,the NIE is also not fully in sync with the government led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
The estimate talks about a high potential for escalation in the West Bank if the peace process is not resumed. The IDF hopes that the government will at least continue with its current policy of economic incentives by allowing 120,000 Palestinians to work in Israel and in Jewish settlements — and that the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas will continue to permit the cooperation of its security agencies with Shin Bet and the IDF.
Whether all of the above should be seen as cause for optimism or pessimism is a test of one’s worldview.
February 3, 2016
The attacks by Palestinians on Israelis — using knives and cars — since October have embittered both sides, and there is no sign that peace negotiations might start between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Yet the attacks are morphing — most recently including infiltration of Israeli homes in the West Bank, by young men who brutally stab women.
[This analysis was written for The Jerusalem Post by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars and other books.]
There are commentators who rushed to draw broad conclusions about the nature of ongoing Palestinian terrorism after two Palestinian teenagers infiltrated two Jewish settlements in the southern part of the West Bank, not far from the city of Hebron this past week.
One Israeli woman — mother to four children — was stabbed to death, and in the second case a pregnant woman was wounded. One terrorist was captured after two days, and the other was shot on the spot by a Tekoa resident.
[Another attempted stabbing of an Israeli security guard at a West Bank settlement made worldwide headlines on Saturday (Jan. 23), when the attacker — a 13-year-old Palestinian girl — was shot dead by the guard. Israel said she had been in a dispute with her parents and rushed over to the settlement with the intention of ending her life. Her parents said that was not so, and said she was just a little girl.]
Indeed, for the first time during the current wave of Palestinian terrorism – which can be called the “third intifada” – settlements were infiltrated. To that one can add the recent exposure of a terrorist cell in the West Bank that was recruited and sponsored by Juad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah’s secretary-general.
Essentially there is nothing in these events to indicate that Palestinian terrorism is changing its direction or its nature, or that it is rapidly escalating.
The above-mentioned cases are just new variants, additional manifestations of the same phenomenon. It began four months ago and so far has claimed the lives of 29 Israelis and 152 Palestinians. Nearly 350 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinian have been wounded.
It is difficult to characterize the nature of the current wave of attacks, since it changes constantly with new or additional elements.
So far its perpetrators have come from all walks of Palestinian life, though most of them were young. Most of them were single, but some were married with families.
Most were male, but there have also been female terrorists.
Some came from poor families, but others from middle-class and well-off ones. Some decided to resort to terrorism because members of their families were killed or jailed by Israeli security forces.
The terrorists also cannot be geographically defined. They originated from all over the West Bank and east Jerusalem, though 30 percent of the participants were from the Hebron area, which is known to be Hamas turf, or were deeply religious.
Their motives are also a mixed bag. Some were incited via social media. Some were influenced by religious sermons promising they would become martyrs in heaven.
Some were motivated purely by hatred of Jews and Israelis. Others wanted to avenge the death of their family members.
In a few cases, the decision to become a terrorist was made out of desperation over their poverty or even as defiance against parental authority.
Their weapons of choice were not very selective. They used knives, cars, stones, firebombs and, in only a few cases, firearms – in short, any tool that can kill, wound or cause bodily harm.
Israel is powerless in confronting this kind of Palestinian terrorism.
This helplessness was echoed in what Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said this week, when he addressed the annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies.
He recalled the second intifada, which occurred a decade ago when he was commander of the IDF division in charge of the West Bank.
“What helped us then was a preventive anti-terrorist concept, based on intelligence superiority.”
In other words, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) managed then to penetrate terrorist cells, recruit agents among them, and bug and intercept their phone and computer conversations, e-mails and chats.
Thus, important information was gleaned, which led to the disruption of terrorists’ plans and the arrest of culprits.
This was possible because although the second intifada was a popular rebellion, it was initiated and organized by well known elements: the Palestinian Authority led by Yasser Arafat, the PLO-Fatah groups, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Israeli security forces and the IDF had intelligence and military addresses against which to strike back.
Today’s terrorist acts are mainly carried out by individuals who make their own decision to attack. They are neither initiated nor structured nor organized by others.
True, Hamas is trying hard to jump on the terrorism wagon and hijack it to advance its agenda – to inflict casualties on Israel and the settlers in the West Bank; to spread terrorism from the West Bank to Israel; and to provoke the Israeli security forces to turn against the PA, its arch-rival, and thus weaken it. And all this while almost completely maintaining peace with Israel on the Gaza frontier.
Since the last war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, Hamas has not fired a single rocket against Israel. All the rockets from Gaza – some two dozen – were fired by anti-Hamas Salafist and jihadist groups. While Hamas continues to rearm and regroup by manufacturing more accurate, longer-range rockets and to build tunnels leading to Israel, thus preparing for the next round, at the moment it has no interest in confronting Israel in Gaza.
So far, Hamas has failed in its attempts to escalate the violent situation in the West Bank and Israel — with ambitious plans to again use suicide bombers.
Hamas’s failure is due to several reasons. First, because of the efficiency of Shin Bet and the IDF (Israel’s army). Second, because the PA led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) continues to instruct its security services to cooperate with Shin Bet in the struggle against Hamas.
Third and most important, it is because the PA now — unlike in the time of Arafat — does not wish to join the terrorism and violent struggle. It doesn’t shed tears when Israelis are killed, and the West Bank media controlled by the PA have praised the terrorists (though, in the last month, much less vociferously), but it stops short of ordering its own personnel to take part.
Because of all these developments, it is impossible for Israeli security services to have early warnings and disrupt terrorists’ plans. Even the omnipotent Shin Bet cannot read the minds of the Palestinian individuals who decide — sometimes in a matter of hours, sometimes in a split second — to attack Israelis.
This harsh reality is also an outgrowth of what the government is doing or, to be more precise, not doing.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government doesn’t wish to negotiate with the PA. Netanyahu would be willing to do so, only under its own preconditions while continuing to build more settlements and confiscate Palestinian land – 150 hectares (370 acres) this week in the Jordan Valley.
Instead of trying to move with good faith to the negotiating table, all the government does is “maintenance” – maintain the conflict with the hope and self-delusion that it will somehow miraculously succeed in bringing security.
In truth, however, the situation is fragile and slippery. Palestinian terrorism will not stay forever on a low flame. Sooner or later it will escalate and get out of control, either by more Palestinians joining the circle of terrorism or by Hamas taking it over.
This is of great concern to the IDF and Shin Bet, whose chiefs beg the government in closed-door sessions not to stand still.
But so far their advice has fallen on deaf ears in Jerusalem.
January 24, 2016
[This article was written for The Jerusalem Report, a magazine published by The Jerusalem Post, by Yossi Melman, co-author of the best seller Every Spy a Prince and other books, including the current history of the Mossad and Israeli security agencies: Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.]
Yossi Cohen is taking over (on January 6) at Mossad headquarters in Glilot, north of Tel Aviv, as the intelligence organization’s twelfth director. He is replacing Tamir Pardo who retires after 35 year in the agency, five of them as its head.
Yossi Cohen, Israel’s new top spymaster
For the last two and half years Cohen served as national security adviser to the prime minister and as head of the National Security Council. This capacity and proximity to Benjamin Netanyahu gave him the edge over two other senior Mossad officials in the running for the job.
Netanyahu trusts Cohen and assigned him secret and sensitive missions; among them mending relations with Turkey; improving ties with the Obama administration, which he did via his good contacts with his American counterpart Susan Rice; and clandestine meetings with Arab leaders and officials.
Cohen is 54 years old. He is a typical product of the Mossad, where he has served in various operational and managerial capacities since 1983; but he was not a typical recruit. He was born in Jerusalem in 1961 to a right-wing religious family with roots going back eight generations in the city. He graduated from schools affiliated with the National Religious movement, which is today represented by the right-wing Bayit Yehudi party.
When Cohen joined the Mossad as a young cadet it was rare to see a religious candidate wearing a kippa (yarmulka). Cohen, who later stopped wearing a head covering, was the only religious cadet in his class and as a result was the brunt of many jokes.
The Mossad, at the time, was practically off limits to people like him.
As years went by, he was labelled “The Model” by journalists for his dapper suits — with headline writers recently dubbing him “James Bond 007″ — in stark contrast to the typically informal Israeli dress sense.
Cohen was communicative, charming, easygoing, focused and manipulative; all the traits needed to be a good case officer, known in Mossad parlance as “katsa,” the Hebrew acronym for a collection officer. A Mossad case officer is expected to be able to establish contact with potential agents, and if successful in recruiting an agent, running that agent and extracting the required information the agent may possess. The case officer’s main responsibility is in the field known as HUMINT — human intelligence.
Cohen rose through the espionage agency’s rank and file. He began as a low-level case officer running Arab agents in Europe and later became chief of a Mossad station, operating from the Israeli embassy in a major Western European city. After returning to Israel he was appointed by Meir Dagan, then Mossad chief, as head of the Tzomet (Junction) department in charge of case officers and their agents.
Meir Dagan on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” 2012
Cohen was in charge of covert actions against Iran and its nuclear program.
The years 2006-2010 — before Dagan retired and was replaced by Pardo — were the heyday of Mossad operations to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear bomb.
Dagan put Cohen in charge of these efforts. From his Tzomet office he ran a special operations center that coordinated with all the other relevant departments.
During that period at least five key Iranian nuclear scientists were killed – their deaths were attributed by foreign sources to the Mossad – a few more wounded and probably many more warned that they would be well advised to stop working for the secret military project.
The Mossad, together with the U.S. National Security Agency, was also said to have created the Stuxnet computer worm which targeted systems running the centrifuges in the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran: a cyberattack that caused severe damage.
Other operations included preventing shipments from reaching Iran; either by damaging the equipment at the port of departure; or by threatening companies not to do business with Iran, or by asking local security services to intercept the shipments.
Another important operation during these years was the killing in 2008 in Damascus of Imad Mughniyeh , the “Defense Minister” of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite-Lebanese organization. According to American media, the assassination was a joint Mossad-CIA operation but other foreign sources claim that though the CIA was privy to the planning and intention, its operational role was marginal and most of the work was “blue and white” – the colors of the Israeli flag.
Mossad’s official logo
Yet, Cohen’s team was not immune to failure. The most damaging of his failures was the case of Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew who was recruited to work for a European-based front company of the Mossad, which while selling equipment to Iran tried to penetrate its nuclear program. Zygier boasted about his role and exposed the operation. Agents had to be recalled and tens of millions of dollars were wasted. Zygier was jailed, and he committed suicide in an Israeli prison in 2010, causing some fuss when the case was publicized in the media.
It is hard to assess whether the daring Mossad operations, combined with international sanctions, prevented Iran from assembling a nuclear bomb or whether Tehran made a well calculated decision to stop short of an actual weapon. Either way, Iranian scientists and military men have already mastered the know-how and acquired the technology, equipment and materials necessary to build a bomb should they decide to do so.
All these anti-Iran operations were carried out simultaneously and required above all agents in the right places, who needed solid and accurate information. Although the reasons cannot be revealed, in 2011, then president Shimon Peres granted Cohen and his Tzomet team the Israel Security Award, and in the same year he was also promoted to deputy head of the Mossad.
Cohen’s return to the organization where he spent most of his career is being well received. Cohen knows the agency and most of its staff inside out.
The Mossad’s organizational behavior and culture are rooted in years of experience and meticulous care to detail, but the spy agency needs to be responsive and flexible in order to meet the challenges of the new Middle East reality.
This is a region where several states – Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya – are at various stages of collapse; American power and influence are dwindling and Russia is taking full advantage; new actors, such as ISIS and the Kurds are emerging, and the Sunni-Shia rift is widening.
These new realities create opportunities but also risks for Mossad’s new head. Although his years heading the prime minister’s National Security Council helped to upgrade his strategic understanding, Cohen is more of a skillful operative than a thinker and will have his work cut out for him.
Netanyahu decided (government photo)
Cohen wants to make the Mossad more combative and daring than it was under Pardo and return to the “good old days” when Dagan led the organization.
He strongly believes, like Netanyahu, that Iran remains Israel’s enemy number one – that it continues to support terrorism and has never abandoned its goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. One of his major tasks will be to monitor and to verify that Iran is not once again deceiving the international community and violating the July 2015 nuclear deal with the U.S. and other world powers.
Cohen will also continue to carry out — on behalf of Netanyahu, often authorized solely by the prime minister — sensitive missions. These may include delivering messages to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey. Netanyahu hopes to establish an anti-Iranian coalition with those countries, but their leaders are reluctant to go out into the open and be seen in the company of Israel unless there is progress on the Palestinian issue.
The Mossad has no input on the Palestinian issue, perhaps Israel’s most challenging front.
Colleagues who know Cohen from their work in the agency say that from an early stage he dreamed of reaching the top. Now his dream has come true, and his test will be to provide the prime minister who appointed him a true picture of the reality faced by Israel — and not one that is tainted by politics.
January 5, 2016