With 20/20 Hindsight

Senior intelligence personnel are showing that it's easy to be right in retrospect. What they're not talking about is all the predictions they got wrong about recent regional events

Since the wave of revolutions in the Arab world began in Tunisia in early January, Israeli intelligence has been subjected to considerable media criticism. It has been accused of failing resoundingly to analyze and predict the events. The emphasis has been on Israeli military analysts' failure, without taking into consideration the fact that all the Western intelligence agencies, academics and the media did just as poorly.

For their part, local intelligence experts retorted that statements they made on the eve of the revolutions were taken out of context. They explained the great difficulty in predicting popular phenomena that take root without leaders and cannot be measured quantitatively. Maj. Gen. Aharon Ze'evi Farkash, who headed the General Staff intelligence branch from 2001 to 2006, told Haaretz that Military Intelligence experts had forecast events accurately. As a whole, they gave the government a "strategic warning" that there would be broad, significant changes in the Middle East, he said.

The former MI director was referring to a series of papers given to the government, the defense minister and the chief of staff seven years ago, as well as at least one public comment he made. In July 2003, a few months after the United States invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, Ze'evi Farkash spoke before the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce. "Frustration at the West's absolute superiority in military, technological and economic terms" was already apparent in the Arab states, he said then, and it was compounded by concern that the Bush administration would use force to advance its values. The asymmetry between the sides was blatant, he argued, and the gap between the Arabs and the West was widening.

Ze'evi Farkash offered his audience a litany of worrying facts, beginning with demographics - 40 percent of the Arab world was under age 14 - and the huge pressure on those countries' labor markets; he noted that a million new people entered Egypt's workforce every year.

In that talk, Ze'evi Farkash also noted the importance of the Arab satellite television stations (long before Facebook and Twitter ), describing them as a means of bypassing the regimes' censorship.

In 2004, the annual MI appraisal, presented to Ariel Sharon's government, stated that the Middle East was a "social, economic and religious time bomb." Hatred of the United States was growing there, the regimes were dysfunctional and there was a complete lack of connection and commitment between rulers and citizens. The region was suffering from a paucity of leaders who could lead.

In retrospect, Ze'evi Farkash says he believes the "Arab spring" actually began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Bush administration's attempt to democratize the region. The 2004 MI appraisal was "a serious warning bell. We provided a strategic advance warning, clearly and sharply. We could not know when it would happen - it is never possible to know. Since then, there were other developments, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's weakening and illness, and the impact of the social networks. Technology created better platforms for popular organization."

All this, of course, is a case of 20/20 hindsight. Most senior intelligence personnel tend to do this: emphasize the success in prognostication but ignore or play down mistakes - and mistakes are not lacking in every professional field that involves prognostication. The question is not only whether the predictions were made, but how often and how emphatically, and how attentive the leaders were to analyses of deep-rooted, ongoing - rather than immediate - phenomena.

The MI assessments were submitted to the political echelon toward the end of the second intifada, when the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service began to gain the upper hand against Palestinian terrorism. Shortly afterward, a different period began: the Gaza disengagement, the Second Lebanon War, the bombing of the Syrian reactor and Operation Cast Lead. The policy makers, like the intelligence personnel, went back to focusing on more urgent issues. Analysis of broader regional developments was undoubtedly relegated on the priority list.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told The Wall Street Journal this week that developments in the Middle East meant Israel would need another $20 billion in U.S. defense aid. Ze'evi-Farkash says he fears Israel is "stuck in a 20-year-old mode of thought, to the effect that all our problems can be solved with more tanks and a strong air force. Many of our present-day problems are different and have to do with our diplomatic isolation, the delegitimization campaign and the government's inaction."

He views the recent regional developments as both worrying and encouraging, but as having little influence on Israel, but when it comes to the Palestinians, "our apathy is particularly disturbing. [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Salam Fayyad is a very serious person who is building a state. He has done much of what he promised to do a year and a half ago. I don't see how we can arrive at a final-status agreement with them in the near future, given the disparities on the cardinal issues - Jerusalem, the borders and the refugees - and the schism between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But there is certainly plenty to talk about. Israel needs to take an initiative on an interim settlement, to the point of giving the PA control of the lion's share of the West Bank. The Palestinians have demonstrated security control on the ground. Currently, an interim agreement seems like the only practical solution that can be reached relatively quickly."

Facebook week

A "day of rage" is being planned on Facebook against the Saudi regime. As of Wednesday, the organizers' page had more than 31,000 fans. Of course, there is a big difference between liking a Facebook page and deciding to take part in illegal demonstrations. Riyadh has already moved large numbers of security forces into the Shi'ite areas in the eastern part of the country, where several demonstrations have demanded the release of people arrested for taking part in Ashura Day events (a day of mourning for Shi'ite Muslims ). Washington, like other capitals, is following the events with particular concern, due to the potential repercussions for oil prices.

On Sunday, March 13, the March 14 Alliance in Lebanon will hold a large event in Beirut's Freedom Square. The alliance will mark the sixth anniversary of its founding, which took place a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. At that time, the movement, which united the opponents of Syria and Hezbollah, forced Syrian forces to leave Lebanon and temporarily reduced Damascus' influence. Hariri's son Saad Hariri and his allies are leading the organization, in part through Facebook. Hariri apparently decided to hold the event on Sunday, the Christian sabbath, to draw the largest number of participants. It's part of his effort to signal both to Hezbollah and the international community that Lebanon's opposition is alive and kicking.

However, since the fall of his government last year, Hariri, like everyone in Lebanon, has witnessed as Hezbollah slowly but surely takes over the country's political institutions. Without firing a shot, without even a demonstrative use of force - the Shi'ite organization has managed to appoint a prime minister, Najib Mikati, while preparing for another round of violence against Israel.

Later this month, the International Court of Justice in The Hague is expected to publish additional parts of its investigation into the Rafik Hariri assassination. Names of suspects are unlikely to be included, but the report may well embarrass Hezbollah. That could be one of the reasons the organization has decided to maintain a lower profile lately - it apparently is not interested in any more friction now. It may make do with appointing technocrats to the Mikati government.

Another event is being planned on Facebook for March 15 - a Palestinian one. For the past few weeks, a group of young people have been planning demonstrations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Their demand: reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. One organizer, Mohammed Yusuf of Gaza, explained that the demonstrators are not out to topple either of the two rival regimes.

"We are simply against the schism," he said. Senior figures in Fatah and Hamas are likely to take part in the rallies. Both sides will undoubtedly express their commitment to Palestinian unity, but that is unlikely to come about very soon.

Evoking Gandhi

Despite the Palestinian plan to declare a state unilaterally this fall, President Mahmoud Abbas and his aides feel they are stuck. They recently lost their most important ally in the Middle East, Hosni Mubarak. Negotiations with Israel are on hold, and Abbas does not believe there will be a breakthrough so long as Israel's current coalition stays in power.

Another supporter, King Abdullah II of Jordan, is mired in troubles with opposition from Islamists and Bedouin tribes. The United States is no longer perceived as trustworthy. It lost status not only vis-a-vis Palestinians, after it vetoed a Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlement project, but for the Arab world as a whole. Many Arab countries interpreted the strongly worded U.S. statements against the departing Mubarak as the betrayal of an important ally.

The combination of the target date, the declaration, the political stalemate and the success of the revolutions in neighboring countries could increase the chances of a Palestinian civil revolt against Israel - a less violent "white intifada." That could happen even before September, of course. For the time being, there has not been a serious conflagration, but it could be spurred by a multi-casualty incident between Palestinians and settlers or religious provocation.

Senior figures in the PA know they will score points in the international community by conducting a nonviolent struggle. And it's hard to believe that Abbas and Fayyad's security authorities will stop nonviolent mass marches toward the settlements, Israeli army outposts or the separation fence.

Mahatma Gandhi's name is being mentioned with increasing frequency in Fatah's internal dialogue. Still, activists admit that its leaders would have trouble keeping such a campaign from sliding into an armed confrontation, as happened a decade ago with the second intifada.

The new crescent

Top Hamas officials in Gaza cannot conceal their satisfaction over the events in Egypt. Not only has their bitter enemy Mubarak left, but he took with him a group of confidants who viewed the Palestinian organization as a danger. Whatever new leadership Egypt winds up with, it is expected to be more friendly toward these Gazans. This will probably be expressed by opening the Rafah crossing to large-scale passage of people and goods.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood perceives Hamas members as experienced advisers when it comes to handling a government. At the same time, ties between the Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt are also improving. Gradually, a fairly extreme "Sunni crescent" is emerging in the region, a few years after the formation of what King Abdullah of Jordan called the "Shi'ite crescent" of Iran, Hezbollah and Shi'ite movements in Iraq. These two axes are not competing.

Since the revolution in Egypt, Iran has been trying to cement relations with the Muslim Brotherhood there. Alongside their influence on the Sunni Hamas movement in Gaza, the Iranians are starting to form the first joint, extreme, Shi'ite-Sunni axis, which is largely succeeding in transcending ethnic rivalries.