Former Israeli intelligence chief: Netanyahu and Barak dangerously stoking flames of war
Maj. Gen. (res.) Uri Saguy, who was head of the IDF's Operations Directorate during the first Lebanon war and MI chief from 1991 to 1995, decided this week to make his voice heard over what he calls 'the purposely timed hysteria.'
Between 2007 and 2010, while the Israel Defense Forces was retraining in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, and while it was performing complicated intelligence missions, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Uri Saguy shared his thoughts about those latter operations with then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin. He was pleased with the basic execution, the process and the results, and whenever he had comments or advice, he voiced them behind closed doors, keeping them "inside the system."
Today, he's not as quiet about his criticism. Saguy, who was head of the IDF's Operations Directorate during the first Lebanon war and MI chief from 1991 to 1995, decided this week - in light of what he calls "orchestrated and purposely timed hysteria that puts the country into a state of anxiety, artificial or not," regarding the Iranian nuclear issue - that he had to make his voice heard in public.
The framework of the "council of General Staff sages" headed by Amnon Lipkin-Shahak - of which Saguy was a member - was founded by Ashkenazi soon after his appointment as chief of staff, with the blessing of then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Other members included Maj. Gens. David Ivry and Amos Yaron and, after the spring of 2008 and his retirement from the command of the air force, also Eliezer Shkedi, perhaps the most bellicose of all. The group was broken up in the fall of 2010 by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who attributed to Lipkin-Shahak and Saguy excessive closeness to Ashkenazi.
"I am outraged by the zero degree of responsibility shown by the person who is interviewed or who leaks information," says Saguy, "although I can't say I am surprised by this. Analyses are one thing. Someone who analyzes something in one way today could be voicing the total opposite opinion a month and half from now, with the same self-confidence and persuasive ability. Responsibility is another thing.
"When something goes wrong, the blame will be laid on someone else. However, we must understand that it does not have to be this way. Up until a year and a half ago, I was in the reserves and I took part in important but confidential discussions that I cannot talk about. I could have described the quality of the decisions made first-hand. It would be a mistake if Israel uses force, certainly now, in order to thwart the Iranian nuclear potential."
The essence of Saguy's message: Israel's citizens cannot trust Defense Minister Ehud Barak or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Saguy does not trust the latter because he has not seen him make, in either of his two terms as prime minister, even one single important decision. He does not trust Barak because he's seen the results of many important decisions the minister has made, as chief of staff, prime minister and defense minister.
In fact, Saguy can barely mention Barak's name. He snorts upon hearing the warnings and analyses attributed to "that man, who appears morning, noon and night in the media and is known to me personally as someone who hasn't succeeded in most of the strategic tests he's been subjected to. When I listen to him, I hear echoes of people who lost their parents in mysterious circumstances and then shout about being orphans."
Saguy does not speak much about Netanyahu, because "I have never had the opportunity to work with him in moments of pressure and crisis."
Last week a civilian who is close to Netanyahu and entrusted by him to figure out what the home front can expect in the event of a war, offered some additional details concerning the number - cited by Barak - of possible casualties that be expected at home in the wake of an Iranian response to an attack on its soil. The source did not dispute Barak's figure of 500 civilian deaths, but added the number of wounded, to arrive at a total of 4,000 dead and wounded - "at least."
At the end of our conversation, Saguy expresses concern that his rational observations may have been "diluted" by an overly emotional tone.
"Why do you think that?" I asked.
"I have the feeling that someone is lighting a fire, then yelling that it has to be put out ... I have doubts as to the judgment. I have been eagerly following the brilliant intellectual analyses of experts on the issue, and of those responsible for our security," says Saguy. "They insist they are right and they abandon the basic strategy, learned from experience, of a proven Israeli security doctrine: Depicting two extremes, either-or, is blatantly unreasonable.
"I don't take the Iranian threat lightly," Saguy assures me. "An Iranian nuclear bomb will be a danger. Not the use of it, incidentally, but rather the possession of it. But I am outraged by the cheapness of the use of the term 'existential threat.' Isn't it enough to say 'serious' and 'grave?' All the historical comparisons to the Holocaust derive from an ideological school of thought.
"It is necessary to be rational. This is an international and regional problem and Israel is trying to pull the chestnuts out of the fire by itself. The proof of the pudding is that this won't work: The use of military force cannot thwart Iran's intentions and capability. Even according to the disciples of military force in the government, maybe it will delay the Iranian nuclear program and maybe it won't. This is the domino theory, or the house of cards: One touch and it all comes tumbling down on itself.
"[An attack] is not possible without coordination with the Americans and their agreement. They, tactically and out of scheduling considerations, cannot address this issue in the very near future. The push for an operation before the elections there is irritating the public and the government. We need to expunge from the lexicon the sentence, 'Do I agree that Iran should have a bomb?' No, I don't personally agree, but it doesn't depend only on me and therefore not only will an attack not advance the achievement of the goal, it also entails long-term dangers."
Another point is often ignored in the discourse about Iran, according to Saguy. "The ambiguity we enjoy with regard to our long-term strategic capability is liable to crack. It has been achieved with a lot of hard work, thanks to the founding fathers, and those who followed in their footsteps. If we do certain things without America, we will jeopardize it."
Saguy was commander of the ground forces during Dan Shomron's stint as chief of staff in the late 1980s. He was appointed head of MI toward the end of the 1991 Iraq War, and worked mainly under Barak when he was chief of staff and Yitzhak Rabin, when he became prime minister and defense minister.
Saguy: "Rabin strove to achieve agreements with our neighbors before the Iranians got a bomb. If we had peace accords today with the Arab countries and with the Palestinians, what exactly would the Iranians' conflict with us be about? True, they don't love us. The Shi'ites also don't love the Sunnis. But when [former Syrian President] Hafez Assad wanted to make peace with Barak, in 1999-2000, the Iranians announced they didn't oppose the move; and there were another two such occasions as well.
"Hats off to whoever is saying that the person who thwarted peace with Syria in 2000 did us a favor. Such prophetic powers. Whenever Israel is able to, and I hope also wants to, come to agreements with its neighbors, this is a diplomatic and moral obligation. The reluctance to make peace with Syria was a crudely missed opportunity. Syria would also have committed itself to renouncing any other alliance that would come into conflict with peace with Israel."
There cannot be a situation in which Israel relies solely on its military might to respond to threats, Saguy cautions. An attack on Iran will inevitably be condemned by the countries of the Arab world, "even if deep in their hearts they will rejoice." And the current timing makes this prospect particularly dangerous. It comes, he continues, "precisely at a time when the Shi'ite world and the Sunnis are on a collision course, Turkey is wrestling with Iran for hegemony - and instead of exploiting this struggle we are digging ourselves deeper into a crisis with Turkey."
'Hallucinatory and embarrassing'
Barak was deputy chief of staff (and chief of staff-designate ) during the 1991 Gulf War. As IDF chief, he came up with Operation Bramble Bush, Israel's plan to assassinate then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The training exercises for that unrealized plot culminated in the Tze'elim 2 disaster, during which five elite unit soldiers were killed when a live missile was accidentally fired upon them.
That was one of several significant Barak-related events "characterized by embarrassing failure," Saguy says. "The [unrealized] initiative to deploy hundreds of Israeli soldiers in an operation in search of Iraqi missile launchers was in preposterous defiance of the American position, and contrary to the opinion of Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir and Chief of Staff Shomron. [Barak] was an avid advocate of a plan with no foundation and contrary to Israel's interest, as the chief of staff also understood it. I don't know if he really believed in it; maybe it was a manipulation.
"Operation Bramble Bush was a hallucinatory and crazy idea even without any connection to Tze'elim 2. It's not from the accident that one must reach conclusions about whether or not Israel should act as the neighborhood warden, the town sheriff, and decide to thwart or kill a legitimate head of state, even if he's not a lover of Zion. Even the United States, afterward, put [Saddam] on trial in his country, and only subsequently was he executed ... I do not suffer from excess delicacy. This [proposed operation] was against Israel's interest and against the rules. These are things that are not done."
Saguy recalls that Iran's nuclear development accelerated after Saddam Hussein was weakened following the Gulf War, and in the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Thus, he says, "it is imperative not to come out against the American position, to embark on a large operation, a war, without getting the cooperation we will need in the future. This will endanger our vital interests with the wave of a hand. With all due respect to music and watch repair, there are people for whom anything concerning strategic significance does not come out well. This is disturbing to the point of having to shout about it."
In 1982, when you were head of the Operations Directorate, Barak, as Planning Directorate chief, wrote secretly to Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to suggest, as an alternative to the forthcoming war with Lebanon, "an initiated operation for a surprise strike against Syria." Did you know that?
"I was not a witness to that discussion. And my hearing isn't all that great. It's a bad idea, I wouldn't have supported it and it would have been contrary to the war aims determined by Prime Minister [Menachem] Begin, insofar as it was possible to avoid hostilities with Syria. It's a stupid idea that embodies an outlook that is completely opposite to that of the government level.
"But if we're already talking about Lebanon, there is another example, in Operation Accountability [a week-long Israeli effort against Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon, in July 1993]. The important thing was to maintain proportionality. I thought at the time, in my position as head of MI, that we had come dangerously close to the capital, where there was a Syrian presence to which the Lebanese had agreed. I assessed that an attack on Beirut would cause irreversible damage to Israel's policy. Rabin made a decision and ordered Barak to stop the attack, something that in no small way contributed to the success of the operation . This sophisticated thinking that one thing will lead to another, even when the chance of bringing about a certain result is absolute, is mistaken. It doesn't take into account the dimension of time and when time is short, and the success is not complete, the cost-benefit calculation gets overturned. Good judgment is necessary."
You also had reservations about then-Chief of Staff Barak's position with regard to the deportation of 415 Hamas and Islamic Jihad members to Lebanon, which the U.S. opposed and which strengthened the Palestinian organizations' ideological and operational ties with Hezbollah. Barak defended the High Court of Justice ruling [to allow the move], though he had not been a partner to it.
"In that affair I have no complaints about Barak. That was a decision made at the government level, without consulting the chief of staff and the professional intelligence organizations, MI and the Shin Bet security service. I don't understand why the government echelon is now finding it necessary to reiterate that it has more authority to make decisions than the military level. This goes without saying. The question is not whether the army will implement those decisions, but rather the obligation of the professional levels to express their opinion prior to the decision. After that, anyone who feels that carrying out the decision would be immoral can quit."
A soldier in the Golani Brigade who finds himself in a similar situation cannot simply announce that he is quitting.
"To go up on Mount Hermon at night and attack the Syrian army - it's against human nature. For that, extraordinary leadership power is needed: to get the soldier to understand he does not have the ability to refuse to carry it out, to get him to be willing to take part in an operation from which he might not return. And then they don't inform you that 150 soldiers aren't going to return. Here, they're saying only 500 will die. I live in a high-risk area. That's not how you talk. And I don't like it when they are talking to me from the pinnacle of authority. They should be talking with us, not at us. And they should stop painting everything in black or white, to be or not to be. There are shades. We are a strong country that knows when not to use military force. The important thing is not to be hysterical. I hope that there are no extraneous considerations."
Why did they stop asking your advice?
"They don't need us. We are a group of old men, who are slow to attack. When I was asked, I helped Ashkenazi and Yadlin and anyone who wanted. Not as a commander. They are good people who managed fine without me ... They never told me I got in the way. The process I saw at that time, in the IDF and in the intelligence community, was flawless."
Why is it different now?
"I worked under Chief of Staff Ashkenazi. A bit before the end of his term in office he told [former Chief of Staff] Lipkin-Shahak and me that he had received an order from Barak to stop consulting with us on strategic issues."
Did current Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and MI head Aviv Kochavi take the hint and not consult with you?
"Kochavi is an excellent man. Full disclosure: He grew up next door to me, I know his family. Before he took up the position I met with him, at his request, and I shared with him everything he wanted to know. My accumulated knowledge is not my private property; it belongs to the IDF and to the state. Having taken up the position, he is a big boy and he doesn't need me. Benny Gantz - I really love him as a person. In the IDF we never worked together closely. I see him from time to time and we talk, but I am not a partner to his discussions."
Do you trust your nephew, Home Front Command chief Eyal Eisenberg?
"I'm not going to say anything at all. My brother's son - you won't hear me say a single word about him."
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