Just a short while after the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israeli intelligence has once again been caught with its pants down. Fortunately, this time around, the issue was a peace initiative and not a war; but Israel was surprised nonetheless.
Jerusalem was caught off guard by Syrian President Bashar Assad's proposal to revive the diplomatic process. Inquiries among intelligence consumers confirmed that no intelligence agency had given word about the shift in the Syrian approach. "We learned about it through the interview with Assad in The New York Times," says one security source. "No one expected anything like this," say insiders at the Prime Minister's Office.
The seriousness of the surprise disclosure should not be taken lightly, even if Assad is only planning to weave a media spin, and does not truly aspire to see Israelis in Damascus. A correct assessment of Syrian moves in the aftermath of the Iraqi war might have triggered a suitable state of readiness by decision-makers in Jerusalem. Instead of wasting weeks on confused, confounded responses, coupled with internal wrangling over Assad's true intentions, Israel would have been better positioned for the diplomatic duel, at the right time and in an advantageous position. But that opportunity has been missed. Sharon has been portrayed as the refusenik, and the Syrians sowed chaos in the Israeli corridors of power.
The screw-up is particularly riling when one recalls the last Syrian about-face, after the Gulf War in 1991. At that time, the head of Military Intelligence, Uri Saguy, warned the powers-that-be about the more moderate stance of Assad Sr. - a stance that in turn led to the Madrid Conference. This time around, there is no such castigator. The current MI chief, Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, came to his senses and recognized the importance of the change, but only retroactively, and the same holds true for Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon. This triumvirate heads the "Syrian lobby" in the Sharon government.
Were there any missed signs? Syria expert Professor Eyal Zisser says there were none in the open media, and that the innovation was not in the position presented by Assad, but rather in the timing and his choice of the respectable stage of The New York Times. But the intelligence agencies, which are capable of listening to Assad's phone calls and procuring his urine samples, could make the extra effort and analyze any possible courses of action the Syrians might take. Israel knew, after all, that Syria is under intense American pressure and is looking for a way out. Why didn't they think that the diplomatic door might be opening?
It isn't all that difficult to find the reason for the botched intelligence assessment. As in 1973, the intelligence establishment and the diplomatic echelons fell victim to "a conception" of deprecation of the opponent. The Israeli attitude toward Bashar Assad focused on his young age, immaturity and anti-Semitic remarks. Ariel Sharon described him as a Hassan Nasrallah groupie and as the puppet of the old men of the Ba'ath regime. Ephraim Halevy, the former head of the Mossad, spoke about "a serious personality problem" and spread the story about Assad's addiction to Sony Playstation. Strategist Eival Giladi threatened to throw out the Syrian regime in the next war. MI was busy spreading propaganda intended to convince the Americans to place Syria on their "Axis of Evil" list.
Intelligence is supposed to sound a warning about intentions and chances for peace, not only risks of war. MI and the Mossad invest much effort in gathering the most minor details, and know where Assad sleeps at night, so as to direct the air force's fright flights overhead. That isn't enough. In his book about the Yom Kippur War surprise, investigator Uri Bar-Yosef suggested putting less emphasis on the "Eyes of Israel" on Mount Hermon, and paying a lot more attention to intelligence gathering and assessment, in an attempt to understand what is happening on the other side. Bashar Assad's "December surprise" reinforces this conclusion.
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