Israel's Military Intelligence Aims for Transparency With Startling Revelations on Turkey, Egypt

When Erdogan accused Israel of meddling in Egypt’s affairs this week, it wasn’t a total fabrication. Something similar happened 55 years ago, and Turkey was involved too, a new book reveals.

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President Shimon Peres this week visited the headquarters of the Mossad, north of Tel Aviv. He was driven along a road that was named for Maj. Gen. Meir Amit, who in the 1960s was head of the espionage agency and director of Military Intelligence before that. Peres entered, met with whomever he met with and then had a private meeting with the Mossad’s director, Tamir Pardo. There are some meetings in which the president’s military secretary, intelligence officer Brig. Gen. Hasson Hasson, who has high security clearance, does not participate.

In the past, in the course of struggles over the policies of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the Mossad was the internal rival of the group in which Peres was a central figure, along with Moshe Dayan. The director of the Mossad for most of the Ben-Gurion era, Isser Harel, was an ally of the politicians ‏(Moshe Sharett, Golda Meir‏) and officers ‏(Haim Laskov‏) who were suspicious and resentful of Dayan and Peres.

In the ensuing years, friction sometimes arose between Peres, particularly as foreign minister, and the Mossad as the agency responsible for maintaining secret ties with countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, from Jordan ‏(before the peace treaty‏) to North Korea. But after attaining the presidency and enlisting in the sacred cause of blocking Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak in their military charge on Iran, Peres saw close ties forged between himself and the director of the Mossad in the previous decade, Maj. Gen. ‏(ret.‏) Meir Dagan.

Soon, three years after the end of his tenure in the agency, Dagan will be able to enter politics. So far he has made do with being Yair Lapid’s secret adviser, but he might also maneuver into a more forward position as a Knesset candidate in a new party or as Yesh Atid’s candidate for defense minister. One way or the other, the implication for Prime Minister Netanyahu is that he has to take into account Dagan’s influence on Lapid’s vote in critical decisions about Iran.

Despite their differences of background and temperament, Pardo has continued to support the approach taken by Dagan on the Iran issue. Like the entire defense and policy-making hierarchy, including Peres, they are united in their goal of thwarting Iran’s nuclearization, but object to the bellicose means that were on the table in the dangerous years of the Netanyahu-Barak era.

Pardo, who was a conscript soldier during the Yom Kippur War and an officer in the following years, represents a new generation in the top ranks of the Mossad, consisting of those born in the 1950s and ‘60s. He is more open than his predecessors − or at least freer than they from the old-timers’ reverence for public opinion − to forging ties with elements in Israeli society whose approach is important to the functioning of the Mossad, including the press. It is an openness of a certain kind, however. Too little and too late.

Pardo’s deputy until recently, Yossi Cohen, whose appointment as head of the National Security Council was announced by Netanyahu on Wednesday, is considered a top professional in the Mossad but also an internal threat to Pardo, who has higher regard for his new deputy, N. The departure of a deputy for an external post until the appointment of the next Mossad director is not unusual, nor are the bitter residues that accompany such relations. The test of Cohen’s solidity, in coming so close to reaching the directorship of the Mossad − an appointment which depends on the prime minister − will be in the position he takes regarding Iran. Netanyahu will want to draw on his aid as an advocate with an impressive record in the agency, in order to offset − first among the ministers and later among the public − Pardo’s opposition.

The Shin Bet security service has undergone an opposite process to that of the Mossad in the past two years. There is a Cohen there, too − Yoram Cohen, whose appointment as its director Netanyahu wanted for various reasons. Cohen is setting the Shin Bet back 20 years, maybe even to the 1980s. He closed the vents of the Shin Bet, which were opened and aired out gradually and successfully began with the tenures of Carmi Gillon and Ami Ayalon.

Halo of mystery

Military Intelligence, as part of a large, open army, was always more open than the Mossad and the Shin Bet. The latter two drape themselves in a halo of mystery, even when it’s not necessary, but many of the predecessors of the present director of MI, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, minimized their contacts with the public and with its intermediary for covering intelligence appraisals given either by the MI director or by MI’s research division.

Kochavi is daring to use a wider brush, which includes the information-gathering systems. He understands that it is better to distribute whatever is possible, in as controlled a manner as possible, than to hoard treasures without receiving public interest on them.

This week, at Kochavi’s encouragement, the Defense Ministry’s publishing house, Maarakhot, together with MI’s institute for intelligence research at Glilot, published “MI Comes to Light: The First Decade of the IDF’s Intelligence Branch,” by David Siman-Tov and Shay Hershkovitz. The book is a declassified version of a study that was based on intelligence documents that until now were inaccessible to researchers. The authors gained access to them because their study was carried out under the auspices of MI and was afterward vetted.

“The book opens a window on the world of secrets,” Kochavi writes in the introduction. It discusses the “formative years, in which MI’s areas of occupation and responsibility were articulated, and its relations with the political decision-makers, the General Staff and the intelligence community were shaped. [Then, as now, MI’s task is] to put together an intelligence picture in the face of a rapidly changing reality and to deal simultaneously with many fields and at varying levels of intelligence − national, strategic, operative − and to address moral dilemmas.”

It’s obvious that the book will be translated, with copyright ignored, into Arabic and Persian, English and Russian, because it talks about issues and orientations that haven’t changed despite tremendous transformations in technology, the economy and in the relations of the local regimes with their constituent populations. For example, the internal balances between the political and the military, intelligence and operations, collection and research − and within the realm of collection, electronics and computers, and aerial and space photography, as contrasted with traditional espionage, including the planting of agents and use of local sources.

For the benefit of our loyal reader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it would be useful for his head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan − who, according to the Turkish press, hosted Mossad director Pardo in Ankara two months ago − to commission a translation of the new book into Turkish, too. When Erdogan this week accused Israel of meddling in Egypt’s affairs, it wasn’t a total fabrication. Something similar happened 55 years ago, and Turkey, too, was involved in it.

The “Alliance of the Periphery” that Ben-Gurion sought to forge between the non-Arab countries of the region, and particularly between Jerusalem-Tehran-Ankara, during the period of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ascent in the Middle East, is not something previously unknown. Its intelligence-operational element, “Trident,” was revealed in the American documents that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran did not manage to shred, before the building fell to Khomeini’s supporters in 1979.

What is new in the book by Siman-Tov and Hershkovitz are the quotes it contains from MI documents concerning an “Israeli-Turkish meeting in June 1958,” “Guidelines for your meeting with the Turks,” “Report on meeting of the heads of the [secret] services of Persia, Israel and Turkey, 31.9 − 5.10.58,” and “Operational cooperation with the Turkish service.”

According to these documents, as of September and early October 1958, Isser Harel led a delegation from the Mossad, MI ‏(heads of the intelligence-gathering and research units‏) and the Shin Bet in a series of meetings with the heads of Turkey’s military intelligence and secret service, along with the head of the Iranian SAVAK ‏(the combined secret police, domestic security and intelligence service‏), Gen. Teymur Bakhtiar.

“In the meetings of the heads of the delegations,” we read in the preface to the new book, the threats to the three countries were mapped, and the participants decided to act in order to cope with the Soviet subversive activity and to take steps at the clandestine level to stop Nasser’s expansionist intentions. To that end, the three parties decided to develop collaboration between their intelligence services in the spheres of offensive and preventive intelligence and in special operations, and to act together to establish intelligence services or strengthen existing services in the countries of the Middle East and Africa, which are liable to be a target for Egypt’s subversive activities.

“They also decided to make use of their intelligence services in subversive actions to conduct economic and psychological warfare, utilizing minority groups in the Arab states. Iranian intelligence was assigned responsibility for the Persian Gulf principalities, [and] Morocco and Iraq, in partnership with the Turkish [service]. Turkish intelligence was assigned responsibility for Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon, in partnership with Israel. Israeli intelligence was assigned responsibility for Ethiopia, Sudan, the countries of black Africa and Yemen, with the aid of Ethiopian intelligence. All three were given joint responsibility for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, with Israel bearing primary responsibility. A council of the three directors of services will be formed, to be headed by one of the directors in rotation, and will hold trimonthly meetings in Ankara or in one of the other countries.”

Erdogan will be delighted to discover that Israeli MI displayed particularly great involvement in meetings with the working groups of the Turks, and demonstrated high intelligence-gathering capability, while also providing assessments from sensitive sources: “The MI representatives showed their Turkish counterparts capabilities, means and working methods in the realms of [electronic and human] intelligence, technological development and open intelligence.” At the same time, these abilities were conveyed gradually and mutually, “so that we would not strip naked all at once.”

The Turks, according to reports by the MI representatives, “are moving toward us not only by order from above, but also based on personal recognition that their interests and our interests in the Middle East are identical and that cooperation can contribute to both sides.”

What the Turks didn’t know is that their relations with the various branches of Israeli intelligence were better than the relations between the Mossad under Harel and MI under the four directors he worked with: Binyamin Gibli, Yehoshafat Harkabi, Chaim Herzog and Amit. Now, in the Kochavi-Pardo era, the working relations in the intelligence community are almost as good as they were in their glory years, on the eve of the Six-Day War, when Amit headed the Mossad and Maj. Gen. Aharon Yariv was the MI chief. Only two missions remain: to curb the regression of the Shin Bet and to rehabilitate relations with Turkey and Iran.

Mossad head Tamir Pardo, center, with then-President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO