On the desk of former Mossad director Efraim Halevy in his Tel Aviv home is a copy of the Arabic translation of his autobiography, “Man in the Shadows.” Its subtitle, displayed prominently on the cover, reads, “Know thy enemy.” Halevy is amused by the backhanded compliment.
At the age of 81, the man who was Israel’s top spook is a whirlwind of activity. After a decades-long career in a range of positions in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign-intelligence agency, including four-and-a-half years as chief, Halevy still starts his day at 4:30 A.M. Among other tasks, he serves as the head of the administrative council of the Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, gives lectures and writes articles, takes part in conferences, gives interviews on issues such as Iran and Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is chairman of Shorashim (Roots), an organization that helps Jews from the former Soviet Union establish their Jewish credentials for presentation to Israel’s rabbinical establishment.
It’s been 55 years since David Kimche, the deputy head of the Mossad at the time, brought 27-year-old London-born Halevy – who had a degree in law from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but was then editing a monthly magazine for Israel Defense Forces officers – to Mossad’s research department, which needed people whose mother tongue was English. He began his career in Tevel, the agency’s liaison unit, which maintains ties with foreign intelligence services. This was a period when Israel had ties with such countries as Ethiopia, Sudan, Iran and others. In 1970, he was posted to Washington as Tevel’s representative, and forged ties with the American administration and intelligence branches. A solid friendship developed between Halevy and Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time, Yitzhak Rabin.
In 1994, Prime Minister Rabin took Halevy, then the Mossad’s deputy director, with him to the ceremony marking the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian declaration of principles that preceded the signing of a formal peace treaty between the countries. Halevy describes his relations with King Hussein in his autobiography (published in English in 2008). His access to the Jordanian leadership helped settle the crisis with Amman following the Mossad’s failed attempt to assassinate Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Jordanian soil in September 1997. The following year, Halevy, then 63, was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the espionage agency’s ninth director.
Upright and light on his feet despite his age, Halevy is cordial and affable, a gentleman and an intellectual. He must have low blood pressure, given the equanimity he displays when we talk about his views on a range of fraught, not to say controversial issues.
What irritates you these days?
“We are experiencing the greatest crisis since the state came into being. I don’t recall a period in which we were so bereft of meaningful leadership backbone. When I look at the political landscape in Israel, let’s say at 15 [senior] people, some in government and some in the opposition – I don’t see a reservoir of individuals who are sustaining the state. The way parties spring up around one person who decides everything, is problematic. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who wields the most power, doesn’t control his party the way Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett or Moshe Kahlon control their parties. I look at them and try to get a sense of their worth, but I can’t. And I find it difficult to understand a system in which, time after time, a former chief of staff must be recruited as a savior.”
In 2009, you expressed support for negotiations with Hamas, and in 2012 you advocated negotiations with Iran and also were in favor of the agreement reached between the powers and Iran on the nuclear issue. What’s right for Israel in the present situation? Whom should Israel talk to? Whom would you start with?
“Israel cannot choose. In the past, attempts were made to intervene in the Palestinian situation and crown leaders there – because the senior leadership of the Palestinian Authority is dependent on Israel, which has the ability to promote and demote people, both in terms of their public status and also in economic and security terms, etc. But past attempts to determine the partner for talks failed. Some say that [former Fatah leader] Mohammed Dahlan is the partner – that we can engineer the situation, and that he’s someone it will be possible to talk with. In my opinion, we need to talk to figures whom we do not know inside-out from their security roles.”
“An Israeli who served as head of Shin Bet [security service] and had thick folders on his desk about some Palestinian politician or military leader who was tried and sentenced to imprisonment in an Israeli facility, will not be able to talk to that Palestinian leader from a position of equality. The appropriate Palestinians for a dialogue with Israel are people who were not involved in combat and terrorist activity, and whom the Israelis have not seen in their underwear [in interrogation rooms]. It’s also not desirable for the Palestinian candidate for dialogue to have sat opposite Shin Bet representatives who dealt with him around the clock.”
Is Marwan Barghouti a partner?
If Netanyahu’s point of departure is that under no circumstances must the other side declare victory, then we have a problem.
“If the Palestinian leader Barghouti – who was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences and another 40 years for planning terrorist operations – is the person the Palestinians choose, we have to talk to him. If Israel sets conditions for the appointment of the Palestinian chosen as leader, it won’t work. Nelson Mandela, the statesman, former president of South Africa and Nobel laureate, was a terrorist, too, and negotiations were held with him while he was in prison. The ties with him began to be cultivated years before the incarcerated leader was exposed to the public. A few months ago, I met someone who was involved in top-secret talks that were held in England in the 1980s with Mandela’s representatives, and that have not been fully revealed to this day. If you want to reach a settlement, some sort of coexistence, the only people to speak to are those who hold the reins on the other side.”
What about Hamas leaders, such as Ismail Haniyeh?
“We have to talk with him and also with the head of Hamas’ political bureau, Khaled Meshal, and his deputy, Dr. Moussa Abu Marzuk. Things are a lot more complicated regarding [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah. Nasrallah is also Iran, but if the government of Israel thinks it wants to reach a settlement with Lebanon, and Hezbollah is a component of the Lebanese government, we need to speak with them, too. Otherwise we will get into another war.”
‘We have a problem’
After U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly this month, in which he said that Israel cannot occupy and settle the territories for all time, Netanyahu repeated the mantra: “The world must support our battle against terrorism.” In your opinion, is the use of rhetoric to the effect that Hamas is a merciless terrorist organization and that peace will come only when the Palestinians confront their extremists, meant to sanctify the status quo?
“I do not have the tools required to conduct an authentic psychological analysis of the speaker in order to determine that his conclusions serve as an excuse. If Netanyahu’s point of departure is that under no circumstances must there be a situation in which the other side can say that it’s had a victory, then we have a problem. When Operation Protective Edge ended, in August 2014, Netanyahu termed the operation ‘a great military and political achievement Hamas asked for a great deal,’ he said then. He elaborated: They asked for a seaport, an airport, the freeing of the prisoners who had been candidates for release in the Shalit deal [i.e., the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for the captive Israeli soldier], for Qatari or Turkish mediation, and more. And he declared proudly: ‘The achievement of Operation Protective Edge is that they received nothing.’ Is that an achievement for Israel – that they received nothing?”
According to Netanyahu, the issue of the territories is a plot devised by those opposed to the expansion of the settlements. He also used the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” What’s your reaction to that?
“After the Six-Day War, a meeting was held between the high command and [Defense Minister] Moshe Dayan. One of the officers asked, ‘What are the guidelines regarding the territories, and what is our task?’ ‘Your task,’ Dayan said, ‘is to see to it that we maintain an orderly, and as far as possible comfortable life for the local residents and to ensure that a security problem does not develop. Maintain the territories so that the government of Israel will have freedom of action to decide on the political issue.’ That held fast until the 1990s.
No policy is being developed on the Palestinian issue, other than the decision to hold onto the territories and ensure that things do not boil over.
“After the talks between Ehud Barak and the Palestinians broke down, and two years after the second intifada erupted, in 2000, Israel reoccupied the [West Bank] territories in Operation Defensive Shield, with the exception of Area A, where the Palestinians retained security control. In 2002, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that what holds for [the Gaza Strip settlement] Netzarim holds for Tel Aviv, too [that is, if Israel were to withdraw from Netzarim, it would only increase the threat to Tel Aviv]. How wrong he is, I thought at the time. Avi Dichter, then head of the Shin Bet, stated at the Herzliya Conference that we are not capable of providing the citizens of Israel with the security package they are entitled to. We don’t have the ability.”
Is that the ultimate contradiction of Dayan’s guideline?
“The military was no longer capable of maintaining a situation in which the political echelon would be free. The result was the disengagement from Gaza – overwhelming proof that Dayan’s conception did not prove sustainable. And we are very close to the same thing happening again.”
What is it that will happen again?
“No policy is being developed on the Palestinian issue, other than the decision to hold onto the territories and ensure that things do not boil over, that there are no incidents and no knives, that quiet will prevail and the world won’t talk about it. Some politicians think that Israel can rule all the territories. Either the Palestinians will be expelled or they will evaporate. One thing is clear: Israel does not have a comprehensive plan. Maybe [Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali] Bennett has one. Netanyahu wants a Greater Israel, but he isn’t capable of holding onto the territories. When there’s an outburst of rage and knives, as in the past few weeks, he reacts like someone whose underpants were pulled down. He doesn’t know what to do. Our ability to maintain the situation, from a security point of view, is being eroded. The Elor Azaria episode [a reference to the soldier who killed an incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron in March] is another link in a chain of small links, random and intractable. It’s not a situation in which you say, ‘Because I have power, I will set policy and start to implement it.’ No policy is being implemented. Nothing is being done. It’s all maintenance; maintenance is not policy.”
What are your thoughts about the Elor Azaria trial?
“This affair is only the beginning. Whatever the verdict, the controversy over the incident will not fade. If the court finds Azaria guilty, many will join a form of rebellion on the hilltops. And what will [Avigdor] Lieberman say, after he identified with [Azaria] before he was appointed defense minister, and then added, two weeks ago, ‘We will stand by the soldier, even if he made a mistake We are obliged to back him and give him all the [necessary] help’? And what will Netanyahu say, after maintaining at first that Aazria does not represent the values of the IDF, and afterward speaking with his father on the phone? That’s how things look when there is no policy.
“In the case of Azaria, then, a mistake was made, both by the chief of staff and by the defense minister, both of whom rushed to make public declarations instead of saying that before anything, a judicial process was required and it is our duty to let it take its course, because we don’t want to contaminate the process. From the moment the mistake was made, it could not be accommodated. I don’t know what the military court is going to decide. Whatever the outcome, it will be very bad. If Azaria is acquitted, [Chief of Staff Gadi] Eisenkot will have to resign. I know Eisenkot well. He is the last dam before the army starts to move in Lieberman’s direction.”
Troubled by such issues as conversion to Judaism, marriage, burial, operation of the train and other public transport, as well as coffee shops and restaurants on Shabbat, a sense of obligation impelled Halevy to offer his services to Shorashim, an organization involved in the question of "who is a Jew," established by the modern-Orthodox rabbinical group Tzohar. Shorashim assists Israelis who emigrated from the former Soviet Union to establish their Jewish credentials.
"The State of Israel tells olim: 'Come to Israel, we recognize you as Jews, which is why we have enacted the Law of Return.' But when they come to Israel, they are told: 'Sorry, there's been a mistake, you're not Jews. You want to enlist in the army, fight and God forbid die for your country? You should know that you will be buried outside the walls [of the Jewish cemetery].' It's unbearable," Halevy says.
"There are scores of young people who don't even know they aren't considered Jews. They came here without having to convert to Judaism. Only when they fall in love and come to register in the Chief Rabbinate, they are asked to provide proof they are Jews. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such personal tragedies.
"... I believe that the issue constitutes a real stain on Israeli statecraft. Not on the Rabbinate – I don't expect anything from the official rabbinical establishment. It's a national matter in terms of the government. If the current process carries on, the Jews will turn into a minority in their own land. It will be the end of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, because we can't say that this is the state of the Jewish people if it has first-class and second-class Jews."
Is this the state of the Jews or a Jewish state? We seem to have two concepts here that people confuse, no?
"We are not a Jewish state, even though we talk about being 'Jewish and democratic.' We are the state of the Jewish people, but the question is, what is the Jewish people. If Judaism is determined according to one's religious observance or ultra-Orthodoxy [standards], and the people who make those determinations are the authorities, because personal status is so significant here – we will be finished."
Imagine that Hamas does disperse its military units and they lay down their arms. What incentive will we have to negotiate with them if they are no longer a threat to us?
Are you pessimistic?
"Actually, I'm optimistic. I hope that the public will revolt. There are already signs of this. The intervention of Netanyahu's bureau in the question of Israel Railways doing work on Shabbat under the pressure of the religious and Haredi parties, is part of the process. The problem is comprised of two parts: the problem itself and the perception of it. After all, it's been years already that the railroad has employed thousands of people to work on Shabbat. From this arises the halakhic question: If as a result of the Haredi parties preventing the rail infrastructure work on the Sabbath, the Defense Ministry employed more than 100 people who had to organize alternate means of transportation. Is that not desecration of the Sabbath? Was there a religious waiver, or was this considered a matter of pikuah nefesh ['life-saving' work]? For years, the Haredim have known about this arrangement, and have lived with it. There's something called a 'legal fiction' – a fiction that is intended to express things about which it is known that they are not factually true."
You started working with Yitzhak Rabin when he was ambassador to Washington and you were the Mossad’s representative there. When Rabin was prime minister, you were a special adviser. Rabin said that you were the one who forged the secret ties with King Hussein and the Jordanian royal house that led to the peace treaty. How do you think things would have developed if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated?
“The book ‘Killing a King,’ by Dan Ephron, who was Newsweek’s correspondent in Israel and did a thorough job of research, has not been translated into Hebrew. There’s no demand for the book in Israel. Israel’s citizens don’t want to know. I have no doubt that a halakhic [religious legal] authority legitimized [Rabin’s assassin] Yigal Amir. It disturbs me that beyond that, I don’t know how he, on his own, succeeded in assassinating the prime minister. I don’t want to be here when Amir gets out of jail – and he will get out of jail, one way or another, even though he was sentenced to life imprisonment.”
In his recent UN speech, Netanyahu invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to visit the Knesset. Do you think there’s any chance of that happening, of his speaking before the Knesset, as Egyptian President Sadat did at the time, and of Netanyahu visiting Abbas in Ramallah?
“When the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians understand that the chance of achieving a state of their own has been lost, and that negotiations with Israel are nothing more than a bluff, that the talks are actually pointless because there is no chance of anything coming out of them – only one way will remain: the way of Hamas. Hamas’ situation is not firm today, though not because of the Israel Air Force’s 1,500 sorties. Hamas has been weakened by the blows it has sustained from Egypt, for the Egyptians’ own reasons. Its relations with Iran are frozen. Their base in Damascus was eliminated. Nevertheless, Hamas is holding on, and Israel will have to a difficult time contending with the next Palestinian uprising without arriving at a settlement with Hamas, [something that will require] the Israeli leadership to be willing to make concessions that it is not ready to make at present.”
What about the binational state that’s the vision of right-wing representatives?
“That idea is a farce. After all, there will not be a binational state as per the correct definition of the term. Israel is not offering the Palestinians the right to vote and [other forms of] equality. There will soon be a long period of chaos here. Israel will take action and destroy the Palestinian Authority and assume responsibility for the Palestinians’ bread and water. The Israeli leadership will seek the support of the international community, but it will not be given, because they have more than enough troubles with the crisis of the migrants and the asylum seekers in Europe. In the Mossad, they use the term ‘Yeltzam’ – [the Hebrew acronym for ‘yesh li tzarot mesheli,’ meaning] ‘I’ve got my own troubles’ – and that will also be the world’s reaction: ‘Yeltzam.’ It’s already started, on the margins.”
What do you think of Avigdor Lieberman’s statements since he became defense minister? For example, his formula of “rehabilitation in return for demilitarization” for the Gaza Strip?
“Rehabilitation means that Hamas would get a seaport or an airport and all kinds of civilian things. It’s a fantastical formula. Imagine that Hamas does disperse its military units and they lay down their arms. What will Israel do if it doesn’t kill them? What incentive will we have to negotiate with them if they are no longer a threat to us? Does demilitarization up to a certain level of arms mean that there won’t be a single pistol in the Gaza Strip? There is no such thing as a society that is in a state of combat with another country accepting demilitarization in return for something that is untenable. The army in Ireland laid down its arms in return for independence; the Irish received a large measure of self-government in the north.”
Analyzing the PM
You’ve spent quite a bit of time in the company of Prime Minister Netanyahu, who appointed you Mossad director. Can you provide an analysis of him that will shed light on his complex character?
“Netanyahu is a very intelligent person. Within just a few minutes, he is capable of integrating all the considerations relating to a given subject from all aspects – domestic policy, foreign policy and various implications. He has an ability to synthesize all the elements and to arrive at a decision very quickly. Sometimes that’s very impressive. Sometimes it’s too fast, and he has to be told, ‘Sorry, fast is impossible.’ When I was appointed Mossad director, Arik Sharon, who was then foreign minister, invited me for a conversation and said in his cynical way, ‘If Prime Minister Netanyahu surprises you with some suggestion, never accept it. Tell him you have to think about it. If by the time of your next meeting, he’s already forgotten about it, you should do the same; if he mentions the suggestion during that second occasion, tell him you will examine it.’
Netanyahu is living on borrowed time. He doesn’t feel it, but everything that is happening around him attests to it.
“Netanyahu is quick with suggesting answers and solutions, and everything has to be very dramatic. He is a person who likes to create drama. That has certain advantages. For example, after the hitch that occurred in the assassination of Khaled Meshal, in 1997, Netanyahu immediately issued an unequivocal order to save his life. That attests to a high level of understanding of the consequences that could stem from an event of that kind. But it doesn’t always work. For example, in the recent case of the work on the railway lines, his decision, made minutes before the advent of Shabbat, to order a total work stoppage for 72 hours, shows that he thought he could freeze a situation for three days, control everything happening and somehow engineer things afterward. That was a mistake that stemmed from the dizzying speed of drawing conclusions.”
When Netanyahu speaks at the UN or with media representatives, he reveals his self-confident, brilliant charmer side. But at other times the victimizer side instantly emerges, in which the Israelis are presented as victims of the Holocaust, the Iranian nuclear scheme and Islamic terror. Why does he persist with that?
“Intimidation is a political weapon for him. But Netanyahu is not a magician, and he’s not Iron Man. Something bad happened to him. Over the years, he’s allowed himself to be convinced by the public that he is the only person capable of leading [the country]. He may have succeeded in that, but his assessments are wrong. His assessment was that Mitt Romney would win in the primaries and he hosted him in Israel together with Sheldon Adelson, and he was wrong. He tells all his guests from the United States, ‘Don’t tell me about the United States, I know the United States better than you do.’ But he doesn’t. He was wrong to bypass the administration and go to Congress [on the matter of Iran]. He thought he would succeed, and he did not, but no one took him to task, because there’s no alternative to him. What are the options – the anchor from Channel 2 news? He isn’t deep. He’s shallow water. The nice guy from the Zionist home hasn’t yet attained leadership level.”
Would it be accurate to say that you have high regard for Netanyahu, but at the same time don’t have much respect for him?
“Netanyahu is living on borrowed time. He doesn’t feel it, but everything that is happening around him attests to it. I was in the United States and was interviewed by Al Jazeera on the day that he announced Lieberman’s appointment as defense minister. When Netanyahu was asked about the appointment, he said, ‘I’m the one who makes the important decisions, so there is no reason to be concerned.’ What was he saying? First of all, that the man he’d appointed isn’t good at making important decisions. Second, Netanyahu announced that he makes the important decisions. Can he manage the defense establishment behind Lieberman’s back? No. When Lieberman spoke against Obama and likened the agreement with Iran to the Munich Agreement, Netanyahu let him stew in his own juices – and then Lieberman retracted, and said it was like this and not like that.
“By the way, the Munich Agreement is not the essential agreement. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is the important one, and it consisted of two parts: a public part, which was a nonaggression pact between Russia and Germany; and a secret part, according to which the two countries would divide all the territories conquered between them. And within a few days, when the German army invaded Poland, the Russian army entered Poland from the east, and together they vanquished the Poles and held a joint parade. Poland ceased to exist as a political entity. Three independent countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – became part of the Soviet Union. One of the results of the agreement was that the Russians supplied the German army with the fuel that allowed it to invade the whole of Western Europe and reach the English Channel. Afterward, the Germans turned against the Russians, and for the last two-thirds of World War II they [the Russians] were part of the alignment against them. Two years ago, a change occurred in the narrative regarding the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: In the view of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin today, the pact was good, because it served Russia’s strategic interests.”
What can Netanyahu conclude from his meetings with Putin?
“It was claimed at the time that a series of attacks using chemical weapons took place in the civil war in Syria, and that the Syrian government was responsible for them. Three years ago, Putin published an article in The New York Times claiming that the Syrian regime does not possess chemical weapons, that such weapons were available to the rebels fighting [President Bashar] Assad and that it was not out of the question that they would use them against Israel in the near future. Three days later, when the Americans started preparations for a possible attack on the chemical weapons depots, and Obama sent a naval force to the Mediterranean, Putin suggested to Washington a joint operation to remove the chemical weapons from the Syrian regime – three days after he claimed they didn’t have chemical weapons.”
Why is that relevant?
“Putin is a master in the use and dissemination of information, and in raising suspicions or fears, or with the aim of threatening the Ukrainians and then launching a war. It’s part of his toolbox. You assert something that is not correct and at that same moment, you have achieved your goal. It’s a means of rule.”
[The prime minister has said:] “The rule of the right wing is in danger. Arabs are flocking in huge droves to the polling stations. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in busloads... ” Is Putin Netanyahu’s model?
“Nothing succeeds like success. ‘I said it, because in order to win the election, it’s worth sowing fear, after which you can say, I’m sorry, I was misunderstood, I am inviting the leaders of the Arab public [to work with me], etc.’
“In a certain sense, Putin is Netanyahu’s model. After an agreement was reached between Iran and the powers on Iran’s nuclear project, Netanyahu reiterated that it was a historic mistake for the entire world. After all, Netanyahu spoke against the agreement in the American Congress, and Obama obtained a majority for the agreement. Afterward, Netanyahu spoke against the lifting of the embargo and about the fear that the Iranians would received billions of dollars and weapons And Obama is to blame for it all.
“But we need to ask: Where do Iran’s arms come from? The Russians, who are signatories to the nuclear agreement, are selling them arms, but Netanyahu doesn’t say a word about that, and I know that a directive has been issued not to talk about it. Not one journalist or politician has asked Netanyahu whether, in his four meetings with Putin this year, he raised the question of why Putin is supplying Iran with arms. After all, the Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war is accompanied by ground activity of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Perhaps Netanyahu is ‘activating’ Putin to restrain the Iranians, and we don’t know about the existence of some grand design at the end of which a secret agreement will be signed in which Netanyahu together with Putin will neutralize the Iranian threat.
“Just one year ago, Israel’s eight million citizens were told that they faced an existential threat, but now it’s Russia that is nourishing the existential threat, because the Russians are giving Iran all the arms, and no one is asking anything. Here they just got angry at the Americans for not giving $45 billion in security aid over a decade, but only $38 billion. And the current leadership had signaled to the Americans that Israel would not sign just any agreement. Between Act I and Act II at the Bolshoi, does Netanyahu whisper to Putin, ‘Not at any price’? I am talking from the perspective of the citizen in Israel who shouldn’t know all the secrets, or about the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov agreements. Who will make do with something from which some understanding can be gleaned.”
State before family
Even in the memento-packed den in Halevy’s north Tel Aviv apartment, it’s hard to miss the framed photographs of Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein, with personal dedications to the former Mossad chief. There’s also a special CIA citation for his contribution to promoting Israel-U.S. relations, and the Jordanian government’s Istiklal award. One’s eye is caught by a framed poster highlighting 150 dates from 1998, when Halevy was appointed Mossad director, until his retirement at the end of 2002. It includes a list of operations carried out by one of the Mossad’s units and a dedication to Halevy: “The courage to authorize is greater than the courage to execute. For the faith, the trust and the boundless backing.”
Halevy is the only son of Orthodox parents. He’s related to the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and the vast library he inherited from his father includes some rare family documents. The family immigrated to Israel in 1948. At the age of 23 he married Hadassah Margalit, a religiously observant woman who served in the Israel Defense Forces, and who was his first girlfriend. “I was stunned that she found me of interest,” Halevy observes. The couple recently celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary. About three months ago, Hadassah was injured while attending an event held by the board of governors of the Hebrew University, and Halevy slowed down his pace of work and reduced his traveling.
“As Mossad director, I sometimes worked 24/7,” he says. “There was no way to sleep at night – sometimes because of sheer worry. And there were nights when the phone never stopped ringing. In the morning I would sit up in bed and remember nothing. Hadassah always knew: Such-and-such phoned, he said this and this, and you replied that and that. It turned out that at the end of every call, she asked me who it was and what he wanted, and I would answer her and then fall asleep. She was the one who kept me alive on those nights.”
What do you regret? Who in the family paid the price of that way of life?
“I regret not having been at my daughter’s bat mitzvah. I don’t remember why, but I couldn’t make it.
“In November 1971, when I was Mossad’s representative at the Israeli embassy in Washington, my parents came for a visit and on the way back to Israel, they stopped in London, where my mother died. I flew to London immediately, made all the arrangements for her body to be flown to Israel, and the funeral was held the next day on a stormy, rainy day in Jerusalem. At the funeral, then-Mossad director Zvika Zamir came up to me and said, ‘Listen, there’s something I have to talk to you about.’ I told him, not now, that he should come to my house in Jerusalem. He came and said, ‘You have to go to the United States tonight.’ I told him that my father was alone and that I was an only child and sitting shivah [observing the seven-day mourning period]. ‘There’s an urgent mission, you have to go to the United States,’ he said.
Yitzhak Rabin was the ambassador – what was so urgent?
“It was something of tremendous strategic importance that you would not be able to publish. I explained the situation to my father. ‘The state comes before everything,’ he said. I went and he sat shivah alone. I don’t want to say I’m ashamed of that. The culture then was that the Mossad was carrying the world on its shoulders. A mission took precedence over everything. As the anthem of Lehi [pre-state paramilitary organization] says, ‘Only death releases us from our duty.’”
Did you go to synagogue to pray and ask for forgiveness from your mother?
“No. My eldest grandchild, who’s 16, was asked if he’s religious. He replied, ‘Every person has a communications system with God.’ My contract with God is such that I uphold what I see fit.”