In January 2002, when his name was mentioned as one of the candidates for army chief of staff, Moshe Ya'alon was interviewed by the Intelligence Heritage Center journal. As early as summer 1995, he said, when he became director of Military Intelligence (Ya'alon started in June 1995), he "suspected" that the Palestinians did not intend to stop terror attacks, despite the Oslo accords. He told the interviewer that he warned then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, saying that Yasser Arafat ought to be given an ultimatum that would force him to act against Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"The intelligence picture at the time," Ya'alon related in the interview, "held that the Palestinian Authority was aware of terror's potential, was acquainted with the players, including Yihye Ayash [known in Israel as `the engineer'] and Mohammed Deif [a commander of Hamas' military wing], and knew where weapons were stored - and yet did nothing to act against the terrorists."
These comments in the interview suggest that Military Intelligence, including its research branch, and (in particular) its head at the time, Major General Ya'alon, held to a solid assessment of developments in the PA. It analyzed matters correctly, presented accurate, penetrating surveys, and warned the policy makers. If there was a problem reading the writing on the wall, it was the political leadership which was short-sighted. The prime minister and his cabinet did not heed intelligence estimates forwarded by the professionals.
But to what extent was intelligence information gathering and assessment of trends in the PA during the first years after the Oslo accords really accurate and reliable?
In March 1997, after the terror attack at Cafe Apropos in Tel Aviv, IDF intelligence concluded that Arafat had given a "green light" to limited terror attacks which would serve its political ends. Army intelligence clearly analyzed the PA chairman's moves, and the fact that he had not completely forsworn the use of terror (in particular, attacks perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad), and had not abandoned the demand for a right of refugee return (up to the year 2000, Shin Bet security service officials insisted that Arafat would give up on the right of return).
This article has no intention of discussing political issues and the question of whether the Oslo accord was warranted or not. Nor will it tackle the question of whether the Oslo agreements were cooked up behind the back of the intelligence community, without its knowledge (it's true, top IDF intelligence officers say, we didn't know about the first stages of the formulation of the accord - but if we were surprised about anything, it was the fact that Israel's government accepted it).
The cardinal question is whether the intelligence community did its duty, or was blinded by pressures and false expectations. Did it miss the mark with its analyses, as happened in the past on several occasions, particularly on the eve of historic events of war and peace? Twenty years after the tragic intelligence mishap in the Yom Kippur War, did the intelligence community drop the ball once again? If so, how did it happen?
The terror option
Did intelligence officials insist that the PLO and Arafat (who was weakened by his support of Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the hegemonic ascendance of the U.S.) had taken the road of peace, and abandoned the use of violence (the "armed struggle," in Palestinian liberation rhetoric, "terror" in Israel's idiom)? Did intelligence experts believe that the PLO had lost the terror option due to its precarious position in the early 1990s?
Ya'alon's interview did not stir much public response or media attention, apparently because it was published in a relatively obscure periodical. Yet the article did raise a few eyebrows among seasoned journal staff members and intelligence community readers; and this small, but influential group included persons who, in the mid-'90s, were members of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and heard briefings given by officials from the intelligence community. As they remember it, Ya'alon and others whistled a rather different tune in the summer of `95.
In June `95, Arafat preached hellfire and jihad in the Gaza Strip. "We all seek a martyr's death, on the road of truth and righteousness, the road to Jerusalem, capital of Palestine," he declared. "We will continue with this long, hard jihad struggle, the path of sacrifices..."
An assessment survey entitled "Arafat's statements in front of Palestinian audiences - their meanings," which was drafted in August `95 by IDF Military Intelligence's research division, pronounced: "In its broad sense, the concept of jihad signifies the investment of resources and special means (various instruments of struggle - political, economic, psychological, emotional, and more) on behalf of some specified goal; it does not [in this sense] specify an intention of violent war. In the context in which these statements are made, it is reasonable to conclude that Arafat evoked the term in this general sense; yet it is clear that he is aware of the dual significance of his statements." The survey concluded: "An examination of aspects of his activity and declarations (public and non-public ones) does not furnish support for the contention that Arafat is not displaying commitment to the Oslo accord, and to the peace process with Israel."
If Arafat indeed demonstrated commitment to the Oslo agreement and the peace process with Israel, as the IDF's intelligence branch wrote in its survey, how could Ya'alon claim in January 2002 that intelligence concluded years before that "in actual fact, nothing was done against the terror infrastructure?" Is there not a contradiction at play here? How can the gap between IDF Intelligence's 1995 survey, in which Arafat was said to "demonstrate commitment to the Oslo agreement and peace process," and Ya'alon's statement that "in actual fact, nothing was done against the terror infrastructure," be explained? For the cessation of terror (the "armed struggle") and the campaign against the terror infrastructure represented the cornerstones of the Oslo accords, and the peace process engineered by those agreements.
Ya'alon did not respond to queries about this apparent contradiction which were posed to him via the IDF Spokesman. The IDF Spokesman also rejected repeated requests to interview officers from the research division of the IDF Intelligence Branch.
No indicating signs
The Intelligence Heritage Center journal's interview with Ya'alon also featured a new disclosure. "The emergence of the Palestinian Authority on the ground in May 1994," Ya'alon stated, "and the ascendance of acts of terror in the years 1994-1996 forced intelligence to furnish answers about terror. Military Intelligence analyzed at the time signs which pointed to such an eruption [of terror]; among other things, these included incitement in the Palestinian media."
Implied in Ya'alon's words are two apparent disclosures. First, for more than two years after the signing of the Oslo agreements, IDF Intelligence did not build a construct of "Indicating Signs" - the intelligence term that refers to a series of possible future events red-flagged by intelligence officials in advance; should one such development, or a number of them, or all of them together, be identified on the enemy's side and occur, then the sequence will augur real danger. In such a case, it is the intelligence community's duty to alert the political leadership that real danger is afoot.
This concept of intelligence indicators took shape as a lesson drawn in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War disaster. Since then, IDF Intelligence defines indicating signs on every front, and with regard to each enemy.
The second implication is that Ya'alon formulated his words with the aim of deflecting responsibility for the absence of a model of warning signs toward his predecessor, Major General Uri Saguy.
In response, Saguy says: "I'm afraid of people who always know the truth, who invent everything. After I left my post in June 1995, I heard things from IDF Intelligence which are the opposite of what Ya'alon said in the interview ... The question of whether Military Intelligence warned about the problematic aspect of the Oslo accords merits discussion. And the answer is yes, we warned about it. It is not the intelligence community's job to tell the government what is good and bad to do, as intelligence heads have done in recent years."
Yet the question remains: why wasn't a model of warning signs constructed? Does the failure to build such a model mean that IDF Intelligence officers reasoned throughout the first two years after the signing of the Oslo accords that no such construct was needed? Did they conclude that the PA and the PLO would want to go back to the path of terror; or did they believe that the Palestinians would be unable to do so?
"In fact, IDF Intelligence did not build an indicating signs model for the PLO, as it would do for a foreign army," confirms Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman.
Lerman, today the American Jewish Committee's Middle East office director, served for several years in IDF Intelligence; in his last post, he was a deputy (in charge of assessment) to the head of MI's research division, Brigadier General Amos Gilad. Prior to that, he held a number of posts in the research division.
Threat to PA authority
As early as March 1995, Saguy indeed raised the possibility that a "division of labor" with respect to terror had taken shape among the Palestinians. As he says, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and Islamic Jihad undertook contacts designed to attain a modus vivendi whereby terror would continue, but the PA would not serve as an address responsible for acts of terror to be perpetrated.
But despite information compiled about the Palestinians and terror, the fact that no model of indicating signs was constructed regarding the PA might convey a hint that Israeli intelligence, particularly Military Intelligence, and also the Shin Bet, fell victim to a misbegotten "conception" (reminiscent of unwarranted assumptions which preceded the 1973 war).
Such a conception held that the Palestinian Authority had abandoned the use of terror because it wanted to promote the peace process, and because it had no viable military capability. For these reasons, the PA would not allow armed militias such as Hamas, which would try to initiate actions, to grow stronger - after all, such strengthened militias would erode the PA's authority. MI and the Shin Bet reasoned that the PA had an interest in effectively combating such armed organizations, and combating terror.
A clear majority of IDF Intelligence estimates and surveys from the mid-'90s period reflected this perception. Indeed, MI did not conclude until 1996 that Arafat was preserving the terror infrastructure intact, in order to use it for his own purposes; and until September of that year, IDF Intelligence did not believe that Arafat would use his soldiers to shoot at IDF soldiers (as happened in the Western Wall tunnel incident). Furthermore, IDF Intelligence believed in this period that the PLO was likely to abandon the demand that refugees return to their homes, and that it would be willing to annul or revise the Palestinian covenant.
Array of dangers
A top officer in IDF Intelligence from that period, Colonel (res.) Dr. Shmuel Even, who served as deputy to the head of the research division during the years 1992-1994, insists that intelligence findings were genuinely precise. "The level of accuracy was so high that in retrospect we have been surprised by the precision of these estimates," he says. As Even sees it, "we emphasized the terror threat posed by Arafat during all stages of the Oslo process. After the Oslo signing, in 1994, we released an intelligence document and circulated it relatively widely; recipients included the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In the document we described possible dangers, including risks of terror and assistance tendered to the Palestinians by hostile states such as Iraq and Iran. True, we didn't delve into definitions of the probability of the dangers, and when they were likely to transpire; but we definitely described the array of dangers. We described the terror threat posed by the PA as a clear, immediate danger which had a high probability of coming to the fore during all stages of the Oslo process."
IDF Intelligence estimates during the first 30 months of the Oslo process were formulated in a hesitant, meandering style which some would liken to the half full part of the glass; critics would call it the empty half. Intelligence officers call it the schleikas [suspenders] culture - like suspenders on trousers, MI estimates were formulated to ensure that officials' forecasts could never be proven wrong. The important thing was for the intelligence gang to keep its pants up, so that it would not be exposed and left naked by future events.
Criticism of the intelligence community's estimates is shared by Benny Begin, MK Yossi Sarid and Minister Dan Meridor, who served as members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and cabinet ministers. Briefings and surveys provided by Israel's intelligence community, particularly the IDF's MI, were "very watery," as one government minister puts it. "MI's estimates at the time," he adds, "didn't grasp the enormous gap yawning between Israel's maximum and the Palestinian minimum. MI did issue a warning, but in a very faint voice."
Division of labor
Under a division of labor which was arranged after the 1967 Six-Day War, the three branches of Israel's intelligence services, the Shin Bet, the IDF Intelligence Branch and the Mossad, provided information about the Palestinians.
The Shin Bet had clearly defined responsibility for thwarting terror. It carried out this task mainly by collecting information from human sources. As a result of lessons learned during the first intifada, a research branch was formed in the Shin Bet; its job was to supply information useful to anti-terror operations, and not for analysis of political-strategic trends. Nonetheless, during the Oslo process period, the Shin Bet carried out a central role in devising intelligence estimates; this was because its directors, Ya'akov Perry, Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon, were involved in contacts with PA officials, and coordination with the PA security apparatus.
Under the division of labor, the IDF's Military Intelligence (Aman is the Hebrew acronym) was responsible for collecting information about the Palestinians that did not necessarily pertain to thwarting terror attacks - terror prevention was not its main objective. It relied largely on electronic surveillance. It also deployed a team of agents, the 504 unit, that sometimes worked in the territories; but the brunt of its missions were carried out beyond Israel's borders.
MI's main role with respect to the Oslo process was to carry out research. Its research division was the major instrument available to political leaders for the analysis of processes and developments in the Palestinian camp.
The third branch, the Mossad, is less relevant in this context. It was responsible for activity outside Israel's borders; so its contribution toward the understanding of developments in the Oslo process was limited. (Y.M.)
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now