CIA Warned in '85: Jewish Extremists May Attack Israeli Leaders to Thwart Peace With Palestinians

U.S. spy agency marked Sharon as the next prime minister, forecast the Palestinian uprising and believed the settlements were reversible

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Sharon rides an armored personnel carrier, near Beirut, Lebanon, in June, 1982.
Sharon rides an armored personnel carrier, near Beirut, Lebanon, in June, 1982.Credit: AP
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The CIA, like almost every Israeli household, has long amused itself with the continual riddle of who will be the next Israeli prime minister. Be it Eshkol or Golda, Begin or Shamir, its agents always collected rumors and gossip, hints and guesses. Ahead of the final evacuation from Sinai and the first Lebanon war, they wrote in March 1982 an intelligence assessment titled “Begin’s Successor.” The Carter administration prematurely eulogized Begin and crowned a successor, Ezer Weizman or Labor Party head Shimon Peres. They gambled this time, too, but hedged their bet. Still, they were mistaken again.

“The health of the 68-year-old Begin is fragile,” the authors wrote, citing his major heart attack in 1977, minor stroke in 1979 and a relatively mild heart attack in 1980, along with a hip fracture suffered in November 1981, from which he was still recuperating. “He complains of weakness, and is beset by the pressure of events of the past few days’ – including the hospitalization of his wife for chronic asthma, the resistance to Israel’s final withdrawal from the Sinai by militant Jewish settlers at Yamit, Egyptian President Mubarak’s refusal to visit Jerusalem, and ongoing tensions in Lebanon.”

The CIA surmised that if Begin were hospitalized again yet was determined to return, he would dictate to his party’s leadership the name of his temporary replacement. And if not, President Yitzhak Navon would appoint a caretaker prime minister. Then, Begin’s Herut party, the largest party in the Likud bloc, would select a successor to form a new government.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem BeginCredit: PMO

“In the event of Prime Minister Begin’s death or permanent incapacitation, Defense Minister [Ariel] Sharon would have an early edge among the contenders to succeed his premiership,” the authors wrote in the section titled “Key Judgments.” “But Sharon could face stiff competition from older Begin protégés in Herut – particularly Foreign Minister (Yitzhak) Shamir and, to a lesser extent, Economic Coordination Minister [Yaacov] Meridor.”

They noted: “No Herut successor would be likely in the near term to significantly moderate Begin’s tough-minded strategy toward the West Bank and other Arab-Israeli issues. The tactics and operating styles of the various contenders, however, would vary. Sharon would be inclined to take the kinds of swift, surprise moves characteristic of Begin.” In contrast, Shamir and Meridor “would favor a less provocative approach and increased efforts to strengthen Israel’s flagging international support,” they added.

The CIA believed Sharon’s advantage stemmed from his being an Ashkenazi sabra with “wide-ranging military experience” and a “hard-charging leadership style.” They wrote: “Sharon’s voter support – particularly among Sephardim – has continue to grow as he has expanded his role on key security issues.” He had become involved in policy-making on all major security and diplomatic issues, “apparently with Begin’s blessing,” they noted. “Sharon’s aggressive nature, however, generates strong opposition among many senior politicians in Herut.”

The CIA put most of its money on Sharon, but the Lebanon War and a commission of inquiry opened the way for Shamir.

Whither the occupation?

Another CIA assessment, in 1985, focused on the topic: “Israel and the West Bank: Where Is the Occupation Heading?” “Approximately 35,000 Israelis now live in West Bank settlements, and the Jewish population there may double by the end of the decade,” the authors began. “Israel’s establishment of Jewish settlements, however, is not an irreversible process. Over half of the Jews on the West Bank live in 13 large settlements; most of the other settlements are relatively small and poorly developed. Removal of the smaller settlements would free large, contiguous areas of Arab land that could form the basis for a Palestinian entity.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres look amused during the Mimouna celebrations, Jerusalem, Israel, March 15, 1988.Credit: Harnik Nati / GPO

These were the days of the Peres-Shamir national unity government. “The Labor Alignment and several left-of-center parties favor a territorial compromise on the West Bank, but Likud and its right-wing allies oppose concessions and call for Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory.” A decade before Yigal Amir, the CIA cautioned: “Any Israeli government will pay a stiff domestic price for agreeing to territorial compromise on the West Bank. Some Jewish extremist groups might even undertake terrorist attacks against Israeli officials to obstruct a negotiated settlement.”

The CIA was also right on the mark about a Palestinian uprising, two years before the first intifada broke out. “Palestinian violence on the West Bank is likely to increase, although it is unlikely to threaten Israeli control of the territory.” They warned: “Violence could pose a more serious security problem for Israel if Islamic fundamentalist groups, which are generating some appeal among Palestinian youth, become more politically active” or “Israel’s experience in Lebanon convinces Palestinians that a more coordinated, violent resistance could drive Jewish settlers from the West Bank.” They also deemed any potential effort by Israel and Jordan “to foster a moderate Palestinian leadership” to “challenge the PLO’s dominance” as “unlikely to succeed.”

The CIA expected Palestinian violence to scare off Israeli settlers with economic motives and also scare off potential new settlers, such that Israel would not reach its goal of 100,000 Jewish residents in the territories. The authors also expected any Israeli government to deal harshly with Palestinian violence, although the Likud would be under more pressure from the far-right to take more extreme measures, including expulsions, annexation and denying Palestinians human rights. They thought a leftist government would resist such measures because imposing a police state on the West Bank would be admitting the failure of the socialist Zionist dream of an exemplary state of the Jews. They thought it logical that a Labor government would pursue a negotiated solution.

The forecast wasn’t bad regarding developments leading to the first intifada, the demonstration-dispersal policy of Defense Minister Rabin, Peres’ exit from the Shamir government, and the Oslo Accords.

Missiles threatening Israel

In February 1983 the Soviets, trying to stem their decline in the region, installed sophisticated SAM-5 batteries in Syria to bolster Hafez Assad’s regime and to chip away at Israel’s air superiority after Israel's air force destroyed batteries on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border months before.

The CIA concluded that if the Israelis wouldn’t attack the missile sites or did and paid a heavy price, the Soviets would win accolades for rehabilitating Syria’s aerial defense and try to leverage their success politically, including by torpedoing the American effort to force Lebanon to sign a peace agreement with Israel.

There were a few points of contention between the CIA and the intelligence agencies of the Defense Department and the U.S. Air Force on the question of whether Soviet pilots would man Syrian air squadrons, just as they had in Egypt during the War of Attrition. Would they also install SAM-10 missiles? Would the missiles be launched against Israeli jets only in Syrian airspace or also in Lebanese airspace? Would the Syrians agree to put command and control of not only the SAM-5s but also its entire air defense system into the hands of the Soviets? The one thing all the agencies agreed on was that without complete Soviet control, the systems would be more vulnerable to Israel’s countermeasures.

The Israeli leadership, the CIA believed, was divided on the question of the need or wisdom of a preemptive strike against the SAM-5s. While certain the Israelis advocated quick action, it seemed the majority of Israeli leaders were deterred from a military confrontation with the Soviets and the Syrians, one that was liable to descend into a war of attrition with the Soviets or a quagmire in Syria.

Besides this assessment, Herbert E. Meyer, vice chairman of the National Intelligence Committee, shared his concerns in a memorandum to the head of the CIA. He raised the possibility that the “Israelis will refrain from action on political grounds,” he wrote. “More precisely, that for the first time in a long while a political judgment will be reached to accept a powerful threat to the country’s security.”

He argued: “The logic behind an Israeli decision to do nothing runs like this: We recognize that the Soviet missiles deny us mastery of the air, and thus leave us much more vulnerable to surprise attack. But the U.S. government and the U.S. public do not recognize this; indeed there is scarcely a word about these missiles in the press. Moreover, after taking out the Iraqi nuclear plant and going into Lebanon – not to mention the massacre at the Palestinian camps [Sabra and Shatila] – we are now perceived as trigger-happy and aggressive.”

Therefore, the Israeli thinking would go, “The U.S. government, under pressure from the Congress and the media, would take severe actions that, over time, would pose a greater threat to our survival than the Soviet missiles.

And because, in the eyes of CIA director Bill Casey, the Israeli army was to the Americans what the Phalange were to Begin and Sharon, the analyst concluded, “This analysis is both plausible and chilling.” He added that “political constraints on Israeli behavior could affect the region’s strategic balance” – not the Israel-Arab but rather the American-Russian.

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