Former Mossad Chief: An Attack on Iran Likely to Foment a Generations-long War

In contrast to former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, Efraim Halevy speaks not in black-and-white but in shades of gray, writes Ari Shavit.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Efraim Halevy was an integral part of the Israeli security establishment. Between 1990 and 1995 he was deputy head of the Mossad and the architect of the peace treaty with Jordan. From 1998 to 2000 he was head of the Mossad. In 2002-2003 he headed the National Security Council. Nevertheless, in regard to Iran, Halevy’s voice was for years an exception. As early as 2007 he argued that a nuclear Iran would not pose an existential threat to Israel. In 2008, he submitted to the government a contrarian report that suggested an alternative way of coping with the Iranian nuclear threat. In 2010 and in 2011 he was openly and sharply critical of those who advocated attacking Iran. So this week, when I arrived at the modest north Tel Aviv apartment Halevy calls home, I expected to find a determined opposition figure to assail the decision makers who are agitating for an unnecessary war.

However, I was surprised. The London-born spy-diplomat was far more restrained and far more reflective than might be imagined. In contrast to former Mossad and Shin Bet chiefs Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, respectively, he spoke not in black-and-white but in gray. In contrast to Shimon Peres, he did not talk about coming to terms with Iran, but about a struggle of a different kind against a nuclear Iran. He was very careful not to attack the prime minister and t he defense minister directly. Nevertheless, Halevy’s approach is indeed different and anomalous. More than any other interviewee in this series, he displays empathy for the Iranians and tries to understand them. He suggests getting out of the strategic labyrinth in which we find ourselves not by force but by political means.

“What I have to say is complex,” Efraim Halevy tells me. “I do indeed argue that a nuclear Iran does not constitute an existential threat to Israel. If one day we wake up and discover that Iran has nuclear weapons, that does not mean the start of the countdown to the end of Israel’s existence. Israel need not despair. We have deterrent capability and preventive capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to design a true operational response that will be able to cope with that. We will be able to prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv and we will prevent a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv; so we must not talk about a Hiroshima in Tel Aviv, because prophecies like that are self-fulfilling. Nor must we draw baseless analogies with the 1930s.

“The true Churchillian way is not to talk about the possibility of a second Holocaust, but to ensure that there will be no holocaust here. I was a boy in Britain during the Blitz. I remember vividly Churchill’s speeches blaring from the radio. He did not talk about the possibility that Britain might not survive. On the contrary: even in the direst straits he said that Britain would have the upper hand. He promised that whatever happened, come what may, in the end Britain would win. Anyone who purports to be Churchill needs to talk like Churchill and project self-confidence.

“I am absolutely appalled when I hear our leaders talking as though there were no Israel Defense Forces and as though there were no State of Israel and as though Auschwitz is liable to be repeated. As I see it, the message we should be conveying to the Iranians − and to ourselves − is that we will be here in any event and in any scenario for the next two thousand years.

“But we must not become confused,” Halevy continues. “A nuclear Iran is not an existential threat, but a nuclear Iran is a grave matter. Nuclear weapons in Tehran’s hands upset the regional balance and create a very serious strategic situation. Nor can we completely rule out the possibility that if Iran possesses nuclear weapons it will ultimately use them. When the danger is very great, even if the risk that it will be realized is only 10 percent, we need to treat it as a risk of 100 percent. So I am not one of those who are indifferent to the Iranian danger. Under no circumstances am I ready to accept a nuclear Iran. But I maintain that the way to prevent nuclearization is not necessarily by means of force.

“Going to war is an absolute and irreversible act that entails high costs. Accordingly, before using force, we need to exhaust all the other possibilities. To the best of my knowledge and to the best of my assessment, the other possibilities have not yet been fully exhausted. Some of them have not even been tried. The simplistic equation of bomb or bombing led to a mistaken focus on bombing as the only response to the bomb. But the truth is that a situation is possible in which there will be both bombing and a bomb. A situation is also possible in which there will not be a bomb without bombing. I do not say that bombing should not be resorted to in any situation.

“I also think that it is right to create a bombing capability and threaten with a bombing capability. But what I am suggesting is to step out of the box now and stop thinking in binary terms, and recruit our best brains to think of a way to stop the Iranian nuclear project without engaging in an all-out war. Because an attack on Iran is liable to foment a generations-long war with Iran, it is our duty to do all we can to prevent a bomb and prevent bombing and resolve the crisis creatively.”

I am ready to sign off on that immediately, I tell my interlocutor. I imagine that even Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman would sign. But it’s not clear to me which magician will pull from which hat the rabbit you are talking about. After all, the international community tried negotiations and tried sanctions and got nowhere. We waved sticks and lured them with carrots, but the Iranians went their own way. That is why we are now in the situation in which we find ourselves. The soft means have been played out and the alternatives left on the table are the cruel ones.

“What we need to do is to try and understand the Iranians,” the former Mossad head says. “The basic feeling of that ancient nation is one of humiliation. Both religious Iranians and secular Iranians feel that for 200 years the Western powers used them as their playthings. They do not forget for a moment that the British and the Americans intervened in their internal affairs and toppled the regime of Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953. From their perspective, the reason why, to this day, there is no modern rail network and no modern oil refineries in Iran is that the West prevented that. Thus, the deep motive behind the Iranian nuclear project − which was launched by the Shah − is not the confrontation with Israel, but the desire to restore to Iran the greatness of which it was long deprived.

“I believe that if the West could find a way to propose to Iran alternative methods to acquire that sense of greatness, Iran would forsake the nuclear road. If Iran were offered trains and oil refineries and a place of honor in regional trade, it would consider this seriously. You say carrots? The carrots offered to Iran until now were not big enough. Maybe the sticks were not thick enough, either.

“There should have been cooperation with Turkey vis-à-vis Iran. There should have been action against Iran in Syria. The Russians should have been brought into the picture. If Israel had adopted a creative, active policy, and if the international community had held up to the Iranians a far richer package of threats and enticements, I think there would have been a chance to dissuade the Iranians from embarking on the dangerous road they have taken. And I believe it is not too late. The sanctions are very painful. The negotiations have not yet been exhausted. The threat of an American military option can also be more concrete. If instead of focusing on a military solution, Israel were to succeed in mobilizing the international community for complex and sophisticated political-economic action, I believe that the results might be surprising.”

But you yourself apparently do not believe that Israel will adopt the path you are recommending, I say to the experienced and doleful man sitting opposite me. You yourself said that if you were an Iranian you would be very worried in the next few weeks. Are you also worried as an Israeli? Do you feel that Netanyahu and Barak will order the air force to attack during the autumn? Is it your assessment that an attack of that kind could result in a disaster?

In the fading light that fills the room, it is plain that Halevy really does not want to answer that question. He does not want to annoy the national leadership and does not want to infringe on national security. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is very worried. He does not like Netanyahu’s intervention in U.S. politics, and he is apprehensive about the interface that has been created between the Iranian issue and the U.S. elections this November. He thinks that Israel must on no account be perceived as having contributed to the election of one candidate or torpedoed the candidacy of another. His evaluation is that a combination of a Holocaust-influenced frame of mind and the desire to promote the election of the next American president is dangerous. However, Halevy’s remarks for the tape recorder are quite measured.

“We have to take into account the possibility that if we attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, there will no longer be a political horizon in regard to Iran or sanctions against Iran. We have to deploy for the possibility that while the immediate result of the operation will be Israel’s glorification in the Sunni Arab world, the later result will be a sharp anti-Israeli public wave in the spirit of the Arab Spring. We need to understand that after the attack, a deep Israeli complex will develop in Iran, one that crosses parties and opinions and communities, because we will become the symbol of those that humiliated Iran and prevented it from restoring its greatness. We need to remember that we are very much dependent on the United States and not utter boastful slogans that we are sovereign and therefore will take our fate into our hands.

“I was in our embassy in Washington during the Yom Kippur War and I saw how much we needed the airlift and how hard it was to organize an airlift, even when the U.S. administration was extremely sympathetic. I saw what happened when the president threatened Israel toward the end of the war that the United States would lift its protection. I suggest to all of us not to go back to that place and also not to repeat the mistake we made in 1956 when we went into the Sinai Operation without informing the Americans.

“I am not Chamberlain. I am not proposing peace with honor or peace in our time, but a realistic view of the situation. It is true that the present Iranian regime does not want Israel to exist. But that desire is not their top priority, and they themselves know that it cannot be realized. The Iranians are afraid of us no less than we are afraid of them. What they did in the past 20 years is to use the Israeli-Palestinian issue cynically to gain popularity and influence in the Middle East. But what is happening now is that the rhetoric of Israel as a cancer is gradually drawing them into an increasingly acute confrontation with us. We, for our part, are treating them like Hitler and are being drawn into a confrontation with them from which there will be no way back.

“That is a pity. Iran does not have a common border with us and there is no direct conflict of interest between them and us. A full-scale confrontation between us is unnecessary. I am not naive and I am not ready for the Iranians to deceive us. But what I recommend is trying to calm the Iranian-Israeli conflict and not escalate it. It is possible that, in the end, we will have no choice and will be forced to attack. If so, we will all have to stand behind the government that makes the decision and stand together in the campaign. In war, one acts as in war and shows solidarity. But before venturing on such an extreme and dangerous action, I suggest making a supreme effort to avoid it. We must not hem the Iranians in and we must not push them into a corner. We have to try to give them an honorable way out. It’s always worth remembering that the greatest victory in war is the victory that is achieved without firing a shot.”

Efraim Halevy, on the right, with Avi Benayahu, former army spokesman, on left.Credit: Moti Kimche
Winston Churchill, delivering one of his famous speeches.Credit: AP



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