Popular Misconceptions

Is Yasser Arafat really aiming for the destruction of Israel, rather than a solution to the conflict? This perception has been turned into conventional wisdom in Israel - but many in the intelligence community just don't believe it.

On Sunday, while Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, a supporter of the disengagement plan, was perspiring at the cabinet meeting, the head of the Defense Ministry's diplomatic- security unit looked calm and serene. Amos Gilad - who headed the research division of Military Intelligence (MI) between 1996 and 2001, and was coordinator of activities in the territories from 2001-03 - has gilt-edged shares in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision to turn to unilateral measures. It was he who provided Sharon's predecessor, Ehud Barak, the professional backing for the "no Palestinian partner" theory. The basis of this theory: Barak made a generous offer to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, and when the latter refused to accept it, his real face was exposed: that of a terrorist who aims at the destruction of Israel.

This theory - which has earned the well-known epithet konseptzia ("conception" - harking back to mistaken assessments prior to the Yom Kippur War) in the intelligence community - is believed by most Israelis today and has also won many fans abroad. It was readily absorbed in ground soaked with the blood of intifada victims. Mofaz, first as chief of staff and then as defense minister, and Moshe Ya'alon, first as Mofaz's deputy on the General Staff and later as his successor, adopted the so-called konseptzia and spread it. Politicians from both right and left agree with it, as does the director of MI, Major General Aharon Ze'evi (Farkash).

Distinctions like those presented by Gilad on Sunday, at his office in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, were welcomed by the Prime Minister's Bureau. "Arafat is aiming to have Oslo lead to the fulfillment of his strategy that Israel has no right to exist," said the man who headed the research division at Military Intelligence during the period when the Oslo agreement was gasping for breath and dying. "Arafat is a terrible danger. Nothing will shake him as long as he lives. If he isn't dealt with in the right way, he will also bequeath us a heritage that no one will dare to change."

Thanks to the position in which he served and his powers of persuasion, Gilad's konseptzia penetrated every home in Israel. But behind the doors of a few homes, among them those of senior people in the intelligence branches, different and even opposite assessments have been whispered throughout. Amos Malka, who was head of MI from mid-1998 to the end of 2001, and was Gilad's direct superior, is one of them, and his version is the opposite of Gilad's. He is joined in this by Major General (res.) Ami Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet security service up until a few months before the intifada; in the approach taken by Arab affairs specialist Mati Steinberg, who until a year ago was a special advisor on Palestinian affairs to the head of the Shin Bet; and by Colonel (res.) Ephraim Lavie, the research division official responsible for the Palestinian arena at that time and Gilad's immediate subordinate.

Violence - catalyst or weapon?

Malka details the assessment of the situation he presented during his days as "national assessor" to the General Staff and to the government. From time to time he peers at his papers and stresses that every word he utters is anchored in situation assessments by the research division and discussions with its professional echelons.

Malka: "The assumption was that Arafat prefers a diplomatic process, that he will do all he can to see it through, and that only when he comes to a dead end in the process will he turn to a path of violence. But this violence is aimed at getting him out of a dead end, to set international pressure in motion and to get the extra mile. This was the assumption I found when I took up the position. Along the way, I was able to confirm it myself and bring it to the [attention of the] leaders. The classical example is the tunnel incidents - an initiated move of violence that was aimed, from Arafat's perspective, at instilling a sense of urgency. If you look into what happened after each of his violent moves, you will find that in nearly every instance, he to some extent achieved something.

"We received the best proof that Arafat supports a diplomatic move," says Malka, "in May 1999. Prior to this date [the original target date for a permanent status agreement - A.E.], the whole country was caught up in the huge crisis event that was about to occur - the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. We at MI assessed that nothing would happen in May 1999, and that Arafat would wait for the elections in Israel, for the formation of a new government and for the formulation of a policy."

Malka read from his notes from March 2000: "Should Arafat believe that the channel of diplomatic talks is unable to advance him toward that goal (a Palestinian state) in 2000, Arafat might well take unilateral measures. If he realizes that progress is not in the realm of the possible, the crisis could develop into following the path of armed struggle. Conclusion: Without movement in the diplomatic process, which would give Arafat a sense of real progress, there is a high likelihood of hostilities."

What "real progress" would have prevented hostilities? Gilad insists that Arafat has never let go of the vision of the right of return, in order to shorten the way to demographic victory over Israel. The current head of MI, Ze'evi, and former Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, share this assessment: Arafat has not come to terms with the existence of a Jewish state and has not given up the struggle to eliminate it.

Malka insists that their version has no backing in any research document. "We assumed that it is possible to reach an agreement with Arafat under the following conditions: a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital and sovereignty on the Temple Mount; 97 percent of the West Bank plus exchanges of territory in the ratio of 1:1 with respect to the remaining territory; some kind of formula that includes the acknowledgement of Israel's responsibility for the refugee problem and a willingness to accept 20,000-30,000 refugees. All along the way ... it was MI's assessment that he had to get some kind of statement that would not depict him as having relinquished this, but would be prepared for a very limited implementation."

Right of return crisis

The possibility of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state in September 2000, and the danger of a decline into violent conflict were at the center of a discussion held in May 2000, in Barak's "Peace Administration." The discussion was held in the shadow of Barak's public threat that Israel's response would be severe, to the extent of occupying territories. Participating in the discussion were the head of the Administration, Dr. Oded Eran; the coordinator of activities in the territories, Major General Yaakov (Mendy) Orr; Colonel Shaul Arieli, Mati Steinberg and representatives of MI research. Orr and Steinberg expected that the crisis would degenerate into a violent reaction on the part of the Palestinian street. Steinberg added that an Israeli incursion into the territories could also sweep along the Arabs of Israel. It was in fact the MI people, Gilad's representatives, who expressed reservations about this chilling thesis and suggested that the reaction would be restricted to the level of propaganda, law and diplomacy. According to the testimony of three of the participants in the discussion, none of the MI people argued that Arafat was planning to blow up the diplomatic process and return to the military option.

Several weeks later, on June 15, prior to his departure for Camp David, Barak summoned a conference with a group of military people and advisors. "This was one of the most exciting and most important discussions in which I have ever had occasion to participate," recalls Gilad, adding: "I warned Barak that Arafat will not give up on the realization of his vision through the right of return." According to some of the participants in the discussion, all the speakers agreed that if Arafat did not get what he expected to achieve, he would turn to limited violence. No one remembers that Arafat was said to be aiming for the destruction of Israel through demography. There was also no mention of the possibility that the Palestinians would abandon the peace process in favor of a comprehensive armed struggle. No one, including Gilad himself, argued that Arafat's expectations included Israeli agreement to take in 300,000 to 400,000 refugees in the framework of the right of return.

Confirmation that MI research did not believe that Arafat expected a massive return of refugees can be found in a document of the information team of the research division, which was headed by Gilad. The document analyzes a position paper that was written in June, 1999, by Dr. Assad Abed al-Rahman, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization steering committee and the one in charge of the portfolio on refugees and the uprooted. "In his discussion of the possible solutions to the refugee problem, Abed al-Rahman presents a comprehensive and rigid position, which even the Palestinian leadership has already understood is no longer realistic," the document says. "Even those who hold an `extreme' position on the issue, among them Arafat, have adopted the position that if Israel recognizes the right of return in principle, its implementation can be partial and limited."

In a lecture at Princeton University in March, 2002, the contents of which have not been published until now, Steinberg argued that the Camp David summit failed because of the dispute over the Temple Mount - not over the issue of the right of return, which was barely discussed at that summit and was born retrospectively in Israel in order to create the internal consensus.

His remarks are congruent with the claim of Yossi Ginnosar, who participated in the summit: In an interview with the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth before his death, he said that the idea that the summit had failed because of the right of return was aimed at justifying the failure and was "a duplicitous campaign that contributed to sowing despair in Israeli society and caused damage to the process that was conducted afterward."

At a conference under the auspices of the Peres Center for Peace that was held in the spring of last year, Ephraim Lavie, who closely accompanied the negotiations for a permanent status agreement, analyzed the reasons for the summit's failure. He said that there is not and there never was any basis for assuming that Arafat or any other Palestinian leader would deviate from the resolution passed by the Palestinian National Council in Algiers in 1988: the establishment of a Palestinian state in the June, 1967 borders, with its capital in Jerusalem, and a solution to the refugee problem.

However, Lavie stressed that since Oslo, the Palestinian leadership has been aware that there is no chance that Israel will accept the element of the right of return and implement it. The leadership is thus making do with a recognition in principle of the right of return and of the historical injustice, and is willing to accept a limited implementation, to which Israel will agree.

Lavie, who was the intelligence officer in Barak's peace administration , argues that "at Camp David, there was some sort of a solution in sight to the refugee problem by means of compensation and a small number of refugees who would return to Israel, under one definition or another ... Israel saw Camp David as a crucial summit, and urged Arafat to concede explicitly the right of return - something that the PLO institutions have never approved. Arafat rejected this and dug in to his position that every refugee must be given the right to decide whether to return to the territories of 1949 or to accept a substitute and compensation, and that the conflict will end only with the implementation of the agreement. Israel interpreted this position as stemming from his unwillingness to make the historic decision to concede the right of return, and depicted this as evidence of his intention to demolish Israel's existence."

A few weeks before Camp David, Malka reviewed Arafat's positions for the cabinet. "I said there was no chance that he would compromise on 90 percent of the territories or even on 93 percent. He is not a real-estate trader, and he is not going to stop midway. Barak said to me: `You are telling me that if I offer him 90 percent, he isn't going to take it? I don't accept your assessment.' I said to him that indeed, there is no chance that he would accept it.

"Haim Ramon said: `Are you trying to tell me that if we offer him 77 percent and make a 20-year commitment to him for another 10 percent, and another 20 percent, and in the end we stop at 90 percent - he won't agree to this?' I told them that the difference between me and them is that they are speaking from hope and I am trying to neutralize my hope and give a professional assessment. But Barak saw himself as able to make his assessments without assessments from MI, because he is his own intelligence, and he thought he was smarter. Afterward, it was convenient for him to explain his failure by a distorted description of the reality."

Why the terror began

In his new book, "Hazit lelo oref" ("A Front Without a Rearguard: Voyage to the Boundaries of the Peace Process"), Shlomo Ben Ami - who was foreign minister and headed the team that negotiated with the Palestinians in Barak's government - wrote that immediately after the summit, "intelligence sources" picked up sounds from Ramallah that encouraged "renewing the process for the complete fulfillment of the chances for an agreement." According to his testimony, Barak himself was partner then to the efforts to achieve a breakthrough. How does this concord with the version that at Camp David "Arafat's true face was revealed?" Why did the prime minister and the foreign minister continue to waste their time on negotiations?

Malka insists that even after the peace talks gave way to hostilities, MI did not revise its assessments. Neither did the research units at the Shin Bet, the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the office of the coordinator of activities in the territories adopt the thesis that the Camp David summit had revealed "the Oslo plot."

The official working assumption at MI then stuck to the approach that Arafat was continuing to see terror as a strategic weapon that could reduce the gap between the Palestinians and Israel. But present MI head Ze'evi, Defense Minister Mofaz and Chief of Staff Ya'alon adopted the approach that there is no connection between the state of the peace process and terror. According to Gilad, "Arafat is faithful to his [perception] that terror can break us and will not allow the security mechanism to deal with terror as long as his policy view (greater Palestine) does not prevail."

Ami Ayalon, however, believes that when there is progress in sight in the diplomatic field, the Palestinian Authority silences Hamas. Steinberg, who was his advisor, backs this up. "The Palestinian leadership's willingness to confront its internal opposition was dependent on a single factor: progress in the implementation of interim agreements or, at the very least, a political expectation of progress," he said at Princeton.

Steinberg explained that although the intifada was not preceded by Palestinian planning and preparation, neither at the highest level nor at the local level, "From the moment it erupted, Arafat and the majority of Palestinians had an interest in exacerbating the crisis, on the assumption that it would bear political fruit." Malka adds that with the outbreak of hostilities, Arafat thought he was "going for something far more limited, that would cause a shock ... After two or three days Arafat was not able to go against the street."

Both of them share the argument that the top Israeli security echelon contributed to fanning the flames. Malka relates that about a month after the intifada began, was he was on his way to the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem, he asked Yossi Kuperwasser, at the time the intelligence officer of the Central Command (and today head of the research division), how many 5.56 bullets the command had fired that month. "Kuperwasser got back to me with number 850,000 bullets. My figure was 1.3 million bullets in the West Bank and Gaza. This is a strategic figure that says that our soldiers are shooting and shooting and shooting. I asked: `Is this what you intended in your preparations?' and he replied in the negative. I said: `Then the significance is that we are determining the height of the flames.' I brought the issue up at Central Command discussions, but Mofaz went with the militant bit from the very first day and all along the way."

Malka is convinced that today too, if Israel offers Arafat a state in 97 percent of the territories, with Jerusalem as the capital, exchanges of territory and the return of 20,000-30,000 refugees - he will sign the agreement and an order to lay down arms.

Malka: Gilad rewrote the analyses

While the issue of intelligence analyses submitted on the eve of the war in Iraq was the subject of a comprehensive parliamentary investigation - which found they were not based on reliable information, but rather on assessments and assumptions - the gaps in analysis of the Palestinian arena have never been examined.

The former head of Military Intelligence (MI), Amos Malka, has a disturbing answer when asked where he was when his subordinate, Amos Gilad, spread his triumphant version of events: "I did everything I could. I went several times to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and submitted reports to the chief of staff. Nowhere did I say that I accepted the conspiracy theory that Oslo was a plot to eliminate Israel. To my regret, [current Defense Minister and then chief of staff Shaul] Mofaz and Bogey [Moshe Ya'alon, now Chief of Staff] as his deputy ignored what I said. What Gilad said suited them better, and therefore they adopted it."

Malka notes that Gilad was "a very significant factor who influenced many people. Thanks to his rhetoric - and in a situation in which no one in the cabinet reads intelligence material, apart from the defense minister and the foreign minister, a little - the ministers are carried away by professional lecturers, who put the word `I' into 50 percent of their text."

Malka challenges Gilad's professional integrity: "I say, with full responsibility, that during my entire period as head of Military Intelligence, there was not a single research department document that expressed the assessment that Gilad claims to have presented to the prime minister. As obligatory under the work regulations, no document can leave the research department without getting the approval of the head of the division. Therefore it is not possible that Gilad's written opinion was the opposite of those dealing with the Palestinian arena. If there was a difference between the assessments, there is no other definition of this but conspiracy. But because Gilad is endowed with a great awareness of history, it cannot also be assumed that the conception he transmitted orally was different from the one that the division formulated in writing. Therefore I argue that only after the Taba talks were broken off, on the eve of the 2001 elections, Gilad began retroactively rewriting MI's assessments."

Lavie refuses to relate to the disagreement between the two schools of thought and confines himself to a brief response: "My detailed position on the Palestinian issue is well known to the past and present heads of MI. I believe that it is impossible to ignore Malka's claims, and it is essential to examine the validity of the existing conception in their light."

Gilad - whose good relations with Malka cooled following the professional disagreement - is not impressed by the versions put forth by Malka and Lavie. "I would have no problem if 1,000 people thought differently than I. That still doesn't mean that they're right. It's a lie that I didn't voice different assessments. I made sure to bring the head of the department [dealing with the Palestinians] and the head of the branch to discussions with the head of MI. I insist that I have always said what I'm saying now and have been saying all along."

In the background, there is also a disagreement between Gilad and Arab affairs specialist Mati Steinberg, whose view concurs with that of Malka and Lavie. In the past, Gilad spread a crude letter against Steinberg following a disagreement over Palestinian textbooks, and even complained that Barak had ignored it and preferred to meet alone with Steinberg numerous times. Steinberg, for his part, asserts that he has never met with Barak one-on-one.

Gilad was also prepared to comment on the doubts that have surfaced recently with respect to the influence of the state of his health on the quality of his assessments, after he sued the Defense Ministry to obtain a high disability rating because of phenomena resulting from psychological pressure.

Gilad relates that during the Lebanon War, as a major in MI, he warned GOC Northern Command Amir Drori not to let the Phalangist forces enter the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps. After he heard about the slaughter over the operational radio, he hastened to report the incident to the MI control center. Several days later, he was reprimanded for having used the intelligence network for operational reporting that was not within his area of authority. According to Gilad, the heavy pressure he was under affected him badly and a short time thereafter he came down with diabetes. The doctors told him that psychological pressure can cause diabetes, and upon his demobilization from the Israel Defense Forces they advised him to see to medical coverage from the Defense Ministry - and he did so, as has been reported recently.

Even after his demobilization, Gilad continues to sit close to the junctures of security and diplomatic decision-making and to influence the leadership with the same decisiveness and conviction, although today too his views are not supported by the professional echelon of MI.