Among those benefiting from Ariel Sharon's ascendancy to power was the intelligence community, which in Ehud Barak's term was shoved to the sidelines of the political process. Barak had reservations about Military Intelligence's assessments, which warned of Yasser Arafat's hardening line, and he refused to bring the intelligence officers to Camp David. Instead, he relied on Yossi Ginossar's private assessments. Sharon took the opposite route, embracing the intelligence chiefs and showering them with missions and honors. He had a good reason to do so: their negative assessments of Arafat fit his political line, and justified his refusal to talk with the Palestinian leader.
Relations between the intelligence community and the government are sensitive in any country, because of the government's desire to exploit the intelligence community's prestige for political purposes, and became of the temptation faced by the intelligence chiefs to custom-tailor their assessments to fit the needs of the political echelon, which determines their standing and promotions. To guarantee the professionalism and credibility of the intelligence community's assessments, an appropriate distance must be maintained between the intelligence assessors and politics.
Under Sharon, the lines have been blurred. Intelligence chiefs were given missions overseas to prepare the prime minister's trips and to explain his positions. A personal and political friend was appointed head of the Mossad. But the worst of all was turning Military Intelligence into a propaganda arm for the government, breaking a long-standing tradition that separated intelligence from public relations.
At the start of the intifada, Israel suffered from a credibility problem in the international media. Information bodies, starting with the Foreign Ministry, asked for "cleansed" intelligence material that they could use to back up the Israeli argument. After the capture of the Karine A Palestinian weapons ship and Operation Defensive Shield, Military Intelligence acceded to those requests and began translating captured Palestinian documents, and material from Shin Bet interrogations.
The head of research in Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, took to the new mission enthusiastically. He drafted Col. (res.) Reuven Erlich, a former Military Intelligence officer, as head of the "Information Team," which began wholesale production of propaganda brochures bearing the symbol of the Research Division, as if the material was professional intelligence assessments. The graphics are primitive, the arguments simplistic, and the language would please Tzachi Hanegbi and Avigdor Lieberman. Terms like Palestinian Authority, the territories, and the settlements always appear in quotation marks.
Military Intelligence's brochures claim that Arafat and his authority are terror supporters, corrupt and oppose reforms. They are influenced by the Hamas and harass Christians in Bethlehem. Mohammed Dahlan is accused of "improper management"! The Saudis aid and abet Hamas and terror. A month ago, the list of targets was lengthened and now the brochures are aimed against Syria, "a member of the axis of evil," without revealing any new information. Of course, all the documents depict the Arabs as bad and enemies, ignoring positive steps they have taken, such as the Saudi Arabian initiative.
The new policy caused a bitter dispute inside Military Intelligence. The opponents rightfully warned that it would damage the trust in Israel's intelligence community by foreign services, with which cooperation is critical. It is difficult to believe in the credibility of an organization that also deals in propaganda. When Military Intelligence Commander Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi publicly presents his brochure against Syria, what does he intend? Is it a professional assessment or justification for Sharon's policy against any withdrawal from the Golan? And what will happen if negotiations resume between Israel and Syria? Maybe they'll print a new brochure, praising Bashar Assad.
Military Intelligence says in response that its people have nothing to do with the public relations campaign, but provide professional intelligence documents, which are used by other agencies for information purposes, just as Colin Powell uses CIA material to present his claims against Iraq. The "Information Team" operates separately from the other units in the Research Division, and all its products are professionally monitored, with command approval before they are disseminated. Nearly all the material is based on documents taken from the Palestinians, and the brochure about Syria was a non-classified abstract of a similar document presented to the cabinet.
Military Intelligence carries a heavy responsibility. It must provide the political echelon with the best assessments it can, according to its professional judgment. It must not pollute intelligence reports with propaganda, meant to advance political interests. Enemy documents can and should be translated to strengthen Israel's position. But the marketing should be left to public relations arms designated for the purpose. Military Intelligence should not be a propaganda machine.
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