Sparing the Mossad at the Expense of Military Intelligence

New documents shed light on the decision-making during the vital chapter of the first Lebanon war − in particular the slaughter at the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in September 1982.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

In the story of the relations between Military Intelligence and the Mossad, the chapter on the first Lebanon war has been pushed to the sidelines. The tense relations between the two powerful intelligence arms is rooted in rivalries that developed in the 1950s and ‘60s, when competition reigned between the MI chiefs − Binyamin Gibli, Yehoshafat Harkabi and Meir Amit − and Mossad head Isser Harel.

In 1973, there were rivalries during the Yom Kippur War between Mossad chief Zvi Zamir and MI head Eli Zeira. Now we may gain clearer insight into decision-making during the vital chapter on the first Lebanon war − in particular the slaughter at the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in September 1982.

Thursday morning, one week after the State Archives published part of the minutes from a February 1983 cabinet meeting on Sabra and Chatila, the censor let additional parts of the discussion be made public. The minutes documented the government’s deliberations following the publication of findings by the Kahan Commission. That commission was set up to investigate the Sabra and Chatila massacre by Lebanese Christian Phalangist militias, which entered the refugee camps in Beirut while Israeli troops were standing nearby.

The military censor let additional parts of that discussion be made public after Haaretz protested the censorship.

The new revelations expose the depth of the tension between MI and the Mossad over the Lebanon war, the relations with the Phalangist militias − which Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan pushed and the Mossad implemented − and the Sabra and Chatila massacre. The cabinet discussions dealt with implementing the Kahan Commission’s findings, which included removing Sharon, Eitan, MI head Yehoshua Saguy and division commander Amos Yaron. Saguy replaced Shlomo Gazit, who had replaced Zeira.

In less than a decade, two state commissions − Agranat after the Yom Kippur War and Kahan after Sabra and Chatila − had recommended replacing two MI heads, Zeira and Saguy. Both commissions spared the Mossad chiefs − Zamir in 1973 and Nahum Admoni in 1983. The second time MI was doubly frustrated − the Mossad kept the management of the Phalangists for itself and strengthened its research and evaluation arm. The Mossad was not damaged by its failures.

Politically, there was more to MI’s desire to receive equal treatment with the Mossad. Saguy was subordinate to Eitan and Sharon. If the military chain of command Sharon-Eitan-Saguy was taken to task and Admoni, who was subordinate to Prime Minister Menachem Begin, was let off the hook completely like Begin, then it was fair to demand that the burden be shared equally ‏(which would not have happened because Begin would not have resigned‏) or that no one be taken to task.

The Kahan Commission justified letting Admoni off the hook because he was new to the job. His predecessor, Yitzhak Hofi, retired on September 1, 1982, only two weeks before the assassination of President-elect Bashir Gemayal and the ensuing massacres. Hofi’s planned successor, Maj. Gen. Yekutiel Adam, was killed during the war in June. Admoni may have been Hofi’s deputy, but he was given responsibility just before the events involved.

None of this stopped Sharon. He noted that the Mossad was an institution not a person, and that one of its senior officials, Menachem Navot, witnessed the events as they happened, no less than the IDF officers. Sharon even told the cabinet that Navot, who was head of the Mossad’s foreign relations division, translated for the Phalangist leaders what Sharon and Eitan said.

Navot, who did not attend the cabinet session, did not know about Sharon’s claims. When he was told, he laughed because there was no need for a translation. Sharon and Eitan spoke with the Phalangist leaders in English, and Navot’s French wasn’t good enough to translate, he said. Also, the IDF controlled the areas involved and the Mossad and Shin Bet security service were subordinate to the army there, even though they officially belong to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Eitan, the only man to serve as IDF chief of staff for five years, took the opportunity to criticize his predecessor Motta Gur. He said the IDF performed so much better than during Operation Litani in March 1978 − and MI deserved much of the credit for that.

Two women inspect the bodies of Sabra and Chatila massacre victims in this file photo taken on September 18,1982.Credit: Reuters

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