The Al-Aqsa Intifada erupted on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 11 years ago, on September 28, 2000. The negotiations conducted by Prime Minister Ehud Barak with Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority staggered on for another four months before dying at the end of January 2001, following the failure of the Taba talks.
When the unrest in the West Bank and Gaza started, Israeli policy makers lost no time in declaring that this was definitive proof that Arafat was adhering to the vision of "Greater Palestine," extending from the sea to the desert.
The Oslo peace process, Israeli officials said, was a ploy to advance the goal of eradicating Israel as a Jewish state. Arafat, they added, had initiated and planned the intifada after arriving at the conclusion that it was preferable to gain a Palestinian state through a "war of independence" than through negotiations.
From there it was a short hop to proving the "no partner" thesis with which Ehud Barak returned from Camp David in July 2000, two months before the start of the intifada, "exposing Arafat's true face."
Army brass, led by Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and his deputy, Moshe Ya'alon, quickly adopted this approach, and Mofaz later termed the confrontation a "war for our home."
And to win that war, the chief of staff declared, it was necessary to exact a steep price from the Palestinians in order "to shape reality."
Ya'alon, who would become chief of staff in July 2002, explained to Haaretz's Ari Shavit that August what he meant by victory: "The very deep internalization by the Palestinians that terrorism and violence will not defeat us, will not make us fold. If that deep internalization does not exist at the end of the confrontation, we will have a strategic problem with an existential threat to Israel. If that [lesson] is not burned into the Palestinian and Arab consciousness, there will be no end to their demands of us. Despite our military might, the region will perceive us as being even weaker. ... That's why this confrontation is so important. There has not been a more important confrontation since the War of Independence."
A check carried out by the army at the request of the director of Military Intelligence revealed that within the intifada's first two weeks, Israel Defense Forces soldiers fired 1.2 million rounds, almost 100,000 a day. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the first months of the unrest, with relatively few Israeli casualties.
Arafat and the PA were classified as "terrorist elements," thus justifying anti-terrorist military operations against them. The public backed the massive military response, which buried talks with the Palestinians and led to a brutal cycle of bloodshed.
Yet, in June 2004, Maj. Gen. Amos Malka, who had been director of Military Intelligence at the start of the intifada, stated that his subordinate, Brig. Gen. Amos Gilad, who was then head of the research department of MI (today, he is a major general in the reserves and director of policy and political-military affairs in the Defense Ministry ), had misled the policy makers and distorted his unit's intelligence appraisals.
According to Malka, Gilad had persuaded the political leadership to accept the mistaken conception that there was "no partner" on the Palestinian side.
"In all the time that I served as head of MI, the research division did not produce so much as a single document expressing the assessment that Gilad claims to have presented to the prime minister [Ehud Barak]. I assert that only after the Taba talks were halted, on the eve of the 2001 election, did Gilad begin to retroactively rewrite MI's assessments," Malka told Haaretz.
Amos Gilad termed Malka's remarks "baseless." "Obviously the assessments drew severe criticism at the time," Gilad retorted. "They refuted those who thought that we were going to make peace with the Palestinians. Amos Malka came into Intelligence for only a short period. I have decades of experience with Yasser Arafat, I know him from every angle, I have been following him for decades. It is not only information but also deep familiarity. I devoted thousands of hours to understanding that person. Unfortunately, that intelligence assessment proved correct."
This crucial dispute between two senior intelligence officers has remained unresolved in the seven years since Malka leveled his accusations.
If Gilad, however, did cook MI's assessments, the decisions made by the policy makers, based on what he told them, may have prolonged the confrontation with the Palestinians and perhaps even delayed or killed off the possibility of reaching an agreement.
Documents that have reached Haaretz give a fresh look as to how MI's assessments were formed.
Arafat wanted to contain the violence
We will start from the end. Never was it stated in the assessments of MI's research department that Arafat did not intend to reach an agreement and that his true intention was to eradicate the State of Israel. On the contrary: documents drawn up in the research department state that Arafat actually intended to see the diplomatic process through to the end. After the start of the intifada, the department's assessment was that Arafat had not initiated it and that he had even tried to contain the violence a number of times.
Accordingly, if Amos Gilad presented a different assessment to the prime minister and the senior members of the inner cabinet, it was his own analysis (an "oral doctrine" - as one of Gilad's subordinates in the research department put it ) and was not backed up by documents or based on authoritative information.
'Path to breakdown'
In September 1999, a year before the start of the intifada, the research department drew up an assessment ahead of the continuation of the talks on the Framework Agreement, which were to begin on the 13th of that month.
The document indicates that Arafat intended to advance the talks on an agreement and that he even has "possible areas of flexibility" in regard to borders ("border adjustments in the settlement blocs and in the Etzion Bloc, in an attempt to obtain a quid pro quo of territorial swaps with Israel" ), the settlements (agreement to the blocs principle ), security arrangements (agreement to accept a series of security restrictions ), the refugees ("They will apparently agree to 'refined' formulations on the subject of 'Israel's historic responsibility' and to confine the right of return to the territories of the Palestinian state only, while insisting on a symbolic return to inside the Green Line" ), and even Jerusalem ("Agreement to a united capital possessing two sovereignties; formulation of unique municipal solutions, or a Palestinian hold in part of East Jerusalem" ).
Despite these assessments, Mofaz asserted that a confrontation with the Palestinians was unavoidable. Summing up a discussion held in his office in May 2000, he said, "My evaluation is that we are on a path to breakdown, and that is our working assumption."
In other words, while politicians were holding talks and trying to reach an agreement, the military chief of staff decided that the political process had no chance of succeeding.
On June 13, 2000, Col. Ephraim Lavie, head of MI's central division, briefed Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Gilad Sher, Prime Minister Barak's bureau chief. The two were lead negotiators in talks with the Palestinians.
"Arafat would like to pursue the negotiations to the end in order to reach a full settlement on all the issues, in accordance with his conceptions," Lavie told them on the basis of the research department's assessment. "Off the record, the members of the Palestinian delegation opposite you - Abu Ala [Ahmed Qureia], [Mohammed] Dahlan and [Hassan] Asfour - say that the negotiations with you are serious and substantive."
A short time later, MI's central sector formulated its assessment of Arafat's intentions, ahead of the Palestinian leader's meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton on June 15.
Titled "Arafat on the brink of decision: Between settlement and crisis," the document stated, in part, that, "Arafat is approaching a crossroads of decision, but is sticking to his basic positions ... Failure of the negotiations need not necessarily lead to a violent confrontation. Diverse considerations may induce Arafat to agree to 'temporary arrangements' which will allow the declaration of a state (with Israeli-American agreement ), in addition to receiving a significant chunk of territory and an Israeli commitment to continue the negotiations for a specified time on the basis of [UN Security Council] Resolution 242."
When he was shown the document, Amos Gilad rejected the analysis, saying the assessment was incorrect. "Are you putting in this 'temporary arrangements' thing again? I don't accept that. In my opinion, Arafat is not prepared for that, and neither is the prime minister, Ehud - he wants an agreement that will put an end to the conflict. I am taking that out."
Gilad's move to replace intelligence information with an analysis based on his perceived viewpoint of a political leader calls into serious question his role as a reliable evaluator.
On June 15, a meeting was held in the bureau of the defense minister, a position Barak also held.
"This is one of the more important discussions of the recent past," the prime minister said, opening the meeting. Amos Gilad emphasized that everything revolves around Arafat's personality. "He is a figure who sees himself in historical perspective. In previous historic tests he was ready to pay the whole price ... If Arafat is called upon to make a historic decision of 'to be or not to be,' in the face of forgoing his basic concepts, my assessment ... is that he will be ready to pay the whole price, if only to go down in history as a leader who did not give up."
Gilad went on to say that Arafat and his people are bent on confrontation.
"What they will likely look for is a specific time, one that will accumulate around itself emotions and residues of a kind that can lead to an eruption ... I think that this is where the gap between us and him lies. It's not like a case of real estate brokers in which he gets some profitable deal. If he is fated to leave the stage of history in fire and smoke but committed to the Palestinian national cause, he will prefer that to a solution of 'betrayal' that will show him negatively in history."
The position of the Shin Bet security service was presented at the meeting by Matti Steinberg, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism who was an adviser to the head of the Shin Bet.
"Arafat possesses a certain area of flexibility in the territorial sphere, more so than Amos said," he noted.
Mossad chief Efraim Halevy also presented an assessment that differed from Gilad's. "We discern a powerful desire by Arafat to avoid an all-out confrontation between us and him. There is, after all is said and done, an element of strength on our part, in that Arafat does not want this to end in national suicide and as one who effectively led his nation to blood and smoke. He very much does not want to reach a situation in which as a result of a deterioration, as a result of violent operations, a situation will emerge in which the IDF's might will truly come into play on a massive scale ... And he will have been the one who led the Palestinians into a confrontation with Israel, a violent confrontation from which he emerged broken, with his power broken - that is something he wants very much to avoid. We have discerned that all along."
In a cabinet meeting of top ministers on June 18, Gilad again underlined Arafat's readiness for a prolonged confrontation that would go on for generations.
Committed to talks
Ahead of Barak's departure for Camp David for talks in July, MI drew up an assessment paper for him. Substantially, the paper said that Arafat "was being dragged to Camp David" and that he had "lost his trust in Barak, who was evading the implementation of the 'third stage' of the Oslo Accords and also not freeing prisoners."
Nevertheless, under certain conditions Arafat was willing to discuss temporary arrangements, and did not see Camp David as the be-all and end-all. "In the Palestinians' perception, additional summit meetings are possible," the paper said.
Even after the failure of the Camp David talks, the research department's appraisal continued to be that the PA had no interest in violence. "[The PA] is interested in the continuation of the political negotiations, views them as a central channel and is concerned that deterioration will do even more damage to its image in the international arena," the analysis read.
Mofaz, summing up a discussion in his bureau, stated that "at this stage, the Palestinians have no interest in a confrontation."
On August 24, in a discussion held by the research department of the Shin Bet, Barak Ben-Zur, the unit's head, noted that "Amos [Gilad], with whom I have just now spoken, thinks that the confrontation is almost deterministic [sic], and that it is just a matter of time."
"We disagree with him," a member of the unit said.
On September 6, Barak and Arafat met with Clinton in New York. The meeting was unproductive. Between September 11 and September 17, talks were held in Washington: an Israeli delegation and a Palestinian delegation met separately with the Americans. They focused on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. The Israelis said that Israel would be ready to make do with sovereignty in the area below the Temple Mount.
On September 25, Arafat and Barak met in the prime minister's home in Kochav Ya'ir, a day before the scheduled resumption of the Washington talks, in the course of which the Israelis had agreed to a formula under which 93 percent of the area in dispute would revert to the Palestinians and that they would also receive an additional 2 percent of land on the other side of the Green Line.
During the meal at Barak's home, Arafat requested that the prime minister prevent an expected visit of MK Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. He explained that there was concern that such a visit could spark unrest and clashes like those in 1996, when a tunnel near the Western Wall was opened.
On September 27, the day before Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount, the research department of MI again put forward the assessment that the PA wanted to see the political negotiations continue.
"[Saeb] Erekat and Dahlan are returning from Washington in good spirits. They believe that they have enough to continue," the department concluded.
However, there was concern that Sharon's visit was liable to result in clashes. The research department produced a paper that contained a warning: "In light of the religious and political sensitivity (against the background of the negotiations ) of the Temple Mount, violent confrontations with our forces are liable to develop at the site."
On September 30, Central Command intelligence officer Yossi Kuperwasser, who shortly afterward would succeed Amos Gilad as head of the research department, issued an intelligence report stating, "It is probable that the Palestinians do not intend to bring about a major and continuing escalation, so as not to adversely affect the political process."
At midday on September 30, Amos Gilad issued a "bureau chiefs' compilation" that still presented the assessment that "Arafat is exploiting the events of the Temple Mount to generate controlled confrontations as the backdrop for advancing his positions in the negotiation process ... He is not interested in a deterioration to a comprehensive confrontation that is liable to pull the ground from under him."
In other words, at this stage, Gilad had not yet committed to written form the thesis he presented orally to the policy makers: that Arafat planned the eruption of the riots.
In a discussion held that day in the office of Ya'alon, Ben-Zur stated, "There is 'hard' intelligence material according to which Arafat ordered the events to be stopped and even to shoot at the demonstrators."
Also that day, Lavie emphasized, "Arafat was surprised at what happened. It was not planned." In the following days, the chief of staff ordered the security forces to show restraint in an effort to calm the situation. "The policy of the IDF is response and not initiative."
In the meantime, a debate was underway about Arafat's control of things at the grassroots level. The Shin Bet maintained that he was unable to control the activists in the field or operations of the Tanzim militia; Amos Gilad, though, told the chief of staff that not only did Arafat control everything, he was also its "central axis."
The change in the chief of staff's policy occurred on October 5, eight days after the eruption of the violence.
Mofaz said: "If we are not embarking on a course of quiet ... we have to move from a situation of a policy of response to a situation of a policy of initiating."
The next day, Mofaz issued a directive: "If the events on the ground continue, we need to move from a policy of response to a policy of initiating, gradually and without a public declaration."
The Shin Bet, in the meantime, stuck to its assessment that "Arafat does not have full control of the Tanzim and cannot force total quiet on them."
Probably the decisive discussion, in the wake of which the IDF launched its massive offensive, took place on October 7.
This time Amos Gilad departed from the "written doctrine" of the research department and stated, "Arafat is going for a planned struggle. It is not true that it is an outbreak, not true that it is disorder, not true that it is chaos."
The chief of staff summed up that plans on the ground should be initiated, including economic sanctions on senior PA officials. Restraint came to an end. The policy of burning the message into Palestinians' consciousness began to be implemented.
Amos Malka was wrong when he said that it was only after the failure of the Taba talks that "Gilad started to retroactively rewrite the MI assessments." That occurred long before, as the documents show.
Given that the prime minister himself, upon returning from Camp David in July 2000, stated firmly that Arafat could not be viewed as a partner for talks, Gilad's assessment fell on ready ears. The results can still be seen today.