Just a Tool in the War Machine

Spurred by a screening of 'Waltz with Bashir,' Nachik Navot - one of the architects of the first Lebanon War - sat down with Haaretz to explain exactly what his and the Mossad's roles were in the campaign that changed Israel forever

Veteran reporters Ze'ev Schiff and Ehud Ya'ari dubbed the first Lebanon War, in the summer of 1982, the "war of deception," a term that would become the title in Hebrew of a book they co-authored about the campaign. According to them, Operation Peace for the Galilee was a superfluous war whose real aims were concealed from the public, a war that claimed the lives of over 600 Israel Defense Forces soldiers and led to the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila.

Nachik Navot- Alon Ron
Alon Ron

It was a war that left Israel mired in the Lebanese quagmire for 18 years, during which it saw its international standing deteriorate. The triumvirate of Ariel Sharon, Nachik Navot and the Mossad are traditionally seen as the architects of the campaign.

"Many people think that I'm to blame for the war," said Navot, a former Mossad deputy head who at the time played a crucial role in maintaining the clandestine ties with the Christian armed forces in Lebanon.

"When people talk about the Lebanon War, unfortunately they automatically are reminded of me. This is a perception that has stuck to me and to the Mossad."

Ari Folman's film "Waltz with Bashir," which depicts the war from the point of view of a young soldier in Lebanon in 1982, was recently screened before a large group of Mossad employees. Navot was invited to give a talk about the film and to place the director's experiences in a wider historical context.

Navot was so moved by the film that for a few minutes he was unable to speak. He recently agreed to grant Haaretz a wide-ranging interview. In it he revealed new information, in an effort to correct what he feels are people's misconceptions.

"I'm not asking for the public to exonerate me for a sin I didn't commit," he said. "I only wish to present the truth as I know it, which in my view is the factual truth. The Mossad is simply an instrument. Our job was to provide intelligence and to create contacts with the Christians in Lebanon. These contacts began as far back as the 1950s and 60s, as part of an all-encompassing policy conceived by David Ben-Gurion."

If so, then who do you think bears responsibility for the war?

Navot: "Responsibility lies first and foremost with the then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, and with the entire government, as well as the top military brass at that time," he said.

Though he didn't name names, Navot was almost certainly referring to the IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan, then-GOC Northern Command Avigdor Ben-Gal, and other officers in the General Staff.

You didn't mention the defense minister at the time, Ariel Sharon.

"When Arik was named defense minister, the plans for the war had already been prepared," he said. "They were prepared by the General Staff. In short, everything was ready and we were just waiting for an excuse to put it in motion."

Where was the body?

The interview with Navot, which took place at his home in Ramat Hasharon, also posed an opportunity to try and ascertain, once and for all, what was said in a conversation that took place on September 15, 1982, at the home of the Gemayel family in the Christian Lebanese village of Bikfaya, not far from Beirut.

According to numerous reports by journalists , it was this conversation that led to the understanding that would ultimately result in the Sabra and Chatila massacre.

Navot was a participant in that conversation. As a representative of the Mossad, he accompanied Sharon and his close friend, journalist Uri Dan, who served at the time as Sharon's press officer, on their trip to the Gemayel summer home to express Israel's condolences over the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, otherwise known as the Christian Phalange. Navot says taking revenge for Gemayel's assassination was never discussed.

Bashir Gemayel was killed on September 14, 1982, just over three months after the IDF invaded Lebanon and three weeks after his election as president of the war-torn country.

He was assassinated when a powerful bomb exploded in the Phalange headquarters in Beirut. A Christian member of a pro-Syrian Lebanese party was fingered for the crime, but his handlers were apparently Syrian intelligence agents aiming to prevent Gemayel from being sworn in.

Two days after the assassination, IDF troops, who had taken control of the eastern part of Beirut, moved into the western neighborhoods. IDF officers had assigned the Phalange - which was founded in the 1930s by Pierre Gemayel, Bashir's father, and was modeled after the Fascist militias of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini - the task of purging the refugee camps of Palestinian fighters.

Phalange gunmen entered Sabra and Chatila in the evening hours of September 16 and left, on the orders of the IDF, on the morning of September 18. Only then did it become apparent that the Phalange had indiscriminately massacred the refugees inside the camps. The exact number of dead is unknown, though estimates place the number killed between 700 and 800.

Following the massacre, hundreds of thousands of Israelis staged a demonstration at Malchei Yisrael Square (now Rabin Square ) in Tel Aviv. The rally would later be dubbed "the demonstration of the 400,000."

Public sentiment and international pressure soon forced the Begin government to appoint a state commission to investigate the massacre.

In February 1983, the commission, headed by Supreme Court president Yitzhak Kahan, determined that there was no direct involvement by the IDF in the massacre. Nonetheless, it ruled that Sharon was responsible for ignoring the danger that the Phalangists would seek to avenge Gemayel's murder.

This finding led the panel to recommend that Sharon be dismissed as defense minister.

Navot says he was in Beirut the day Bashir Gemayel was killed.

"One of my people told me that there were reports that Bashir was murdered. I drove to the building where the explosion occurred," he said. "People were searching for Bashir, but they couldn't find his body. There I met Zahi Boustani, Bashir's adviser, who told me that they did not locate the body. He asked me in all seriousness: 'Could it be that [the Israelis] stole his body?' Then I went with [Gemayel's] wife to the hospital. It was there that we identified the body. In the hospital stairway, I tripped and lightly hurt myself. The next day, Arik and his people arrived, including his journalist."

Navot says he accompanied Sharon and Uri Dan to a meeting with the Phalange leaders at one of their camps in the east Beirut neighborhood of Karantina.

"During the meeting, as far as I can recall, Arik talked to them about the gravity of the situation and the need to act, and that we were ready to continue to help them," Navot said.

And you didn't hear him utter a call for revenge or hint at the need for revenge?

"No, absolutely, unequivocally no. After the meeting there, we drove to Bikfaya for a meeting with the Gemayel family. As far as I can remember, there was the father, Pierre; Bashir's sister, who was a nun; and a few other relatives, friends, and aides. Arik, his reporter, and I went in to meet with Pierre. This was a normal condolence call. The things that were said there are the usual things heard when paying respects to someone in mourning. Obviously the atmosphere was quite difficult, there was a sense that something awful had happened. Arik spoke, I was quiet, and the reporter took notes. At one point, I grew angry and I told him that he should quit taking notes. He continued to do as he pleased. Later on he would badmouth me for what I said to him. Arik also talked about what needed to be done now. The question of who would take over the reins of power was brought up. He spoke about how we would continue to help them."

And you didn't hear one word about revenge?

"No. After the meeting, Arik returned to Israel and I stayed in Beirut. The next day was the funeral, which I attended. I stood next to Pierre during the funeral."

Military Intelligence head Yehoshua Saguy has reservations about the efforts of Navot to minimize the role of the Mossad in formulating the events in Lebanon, but he did back up Navot's claims with his own recollection of the meeting, which he also attended.

"Such an issue never came up in discussions," he said, adding that he did not remember Pierre being present. "But at the same time, they did not need our encouragement. They were murdering the whole time. People like Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika, and 'Cobra' [Robert Hatem, the head of the Phalange bodyguard unit] knew how to murder Palestinians and others without somebody having to tell them to do so."

If so, then who allowed them to enter Sabra and Chatila?

"That's the $64,000 question," Saguy said. "The initial order from the IDF was that the IDF would enter the camps. Instead, they entered. I don't know who altered the order. I was asked about it by the Kahan Commission, and I didn't have an answer. The commission asked why I didn't have intelligence about the change and I replied that as the head of Military Intelligence, my job was to obtain information about enemies, not about our forces."

After the publication of the Kahan Commission report, parts of which remain classified to this day, Time magazine published an article partially based on information obtained by its then-correspondent in Israel, David Halevy. One paragraph in the piece reported that in the secret appendix of the Kahan report was a reference to Sharon having discussed avenging the death of Bashir Gemayel in Bikfaya, before the IDF let the Phalangists into the camps.

Sharon filed a libel suit against the magazine. Court proceedings dragged on for two years in New York and ended with a ruling that the report was indeed libelous.

The jury also determined that the libel was particularly grave since the article mentioned that the contents of the conversation with the Gemayel family appear in the classified appendix to the Kahan Commission report, which Time's lawyers acknowledged they had not actually seen.

Nonetheless, the jury found that Time did not act maliciously in publishing the report and that it had no reason at the time to believe that the information was incorrect. Ultimately the court found that Sharon was not entitled to damages.

Waiting for war

Mordechai "Nachik" Navot was born to a family of farmers in Herzliya in 1931. At age 13, he enlisted in Shai, the intelligence and counter-espionage arm of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish underground. He was tasked with tracking movements and locating the hideouts of the leaders of the rival Lehi militia.

At the outbreak of the War of Independence, when he was 16, he was recruited into the IDF. Within a short span of time, he was placed in an intelligence operational unit which would later become the Shin Bet security service.

There, too, he was tasked with locating and arresting members of the Lehi and Etzel militias, following the assassination of United Nations mediator Count Folke Bernadotte and the attempted smuggling of arms by the Etzel aboard the Altalena ship, which was sunk off the coast of Tel Aviv.

In 1952, following the violent demonstrations staged by the right-wing opposition Herut and its leader, Menachem Begin, who tried to storm the Knesset in protest of the reparations agreement with Germany, Navot was named the first person to be assigned with the task of physical protection of then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

In 1955, Navot left the Shin Bet and joined the Mossad, where he carried out a number of tasks in the agency's Tzomet department, which was in charge of recruiting and handling agents based in Europe. He later became the secretary of a committee of the intelligence chiefs. Navot would also become a personal assistant to Meir Amit, when he was head of the Mossad.

Most of his years in Mossad were spent in Tevel, the department responsible for covert political activity and liaison with intelligence organizations around the globe. Tevel also oversees contacts with Arab and Muslim states that have no official diplomatic ties with Israel.

Navot was the chief Mossad representative in Iran during the rule of the shah, and was also involved in the 1972 operation that secretly smuggled hundreds of Iraqi Jews to Israel via Iran.

Between 1974 and 1977, he was Mossad station chief in Washington. Later he was appointed to head the agency's administration and human resources branch. In 1980, then-Mossad head Yitzhak Hofi appointed Navot head of Tevel, replacing David Kimche, who was forced out due to differences of opinion with Hofi regarding Lebanon. In 1983, he was promoted to deputy head of the spy agency.

"This will certainly surprise many people, but the Mossad did not push for war in Lebanon," Navot told Haaretz. "It did not initiate the war, and it even opposed the war. It's true that Dave Kimche thought differently, but Hofi was against relying on the Christians as the basis for war.

"Whoever calls the Lebanon War 'a war of deception' is committing a horrible injustice, particularly against the families of those who fell. You have to understand the processes. Everything was ready for war, and they just waited for a reason to head out to war. One must not forget that ultimately the war resulted in the [Palestine Liberation Organization] being ousted from Lebanon and sent to Tunisia. As a result, it agreed to embark on the path of political negotiations and to sign the Oslo Accords."

Navot says prime minister Menachem Begin was ready and waiting for the war. "Begin led the way to war because he was in great distress after Camp David," he said. "He understood that an autonomy agreement [as called for in Israel's 1979 peace treaty with Egypt] would lead to a Palestinian state. So he wanted to go to war in order to strike a blow at the PLO and to liquidate the state-within-a-state that the Palestinians carved out for themselves in Lebanon, in the hope that this would project onto the territories and that the concept of [Palestinian] autonomy would not be realized."

Did the Mossad have no role in making the decisions that led to war?

"The Mossad obviously had a role in Lebanon. We were responsible for the contacts with the Christians. This relationship sprang from Ben-Gurion, who spoke of a Maronite state in south Lebanon. From here, the idea also took hold that we needed to help the Christians maintain their existence."

Navot says that while the war was started to advance political and security interests, the Mossad did not influence the operation.

"The Mossad was a tool," Navot said. "It does not decide on the diplomatic moves and it is not tasked with changing policy. I remember when we first learned of the assassination of the Israeli ambassador in London, Shlomo Argov [in June 1982, an attack that served as the catalyst for Israel to embark on the war]. I sat in the Mossad headquarters with Hofi and his chief of staff. We immediately said, 'Oh my, we're going to war.'"

Untrustworthy Christians

Before the war began, Navot says, officials were concerned over how much they could lean on the Christian Phalange.

"We knew that it was not possible to trust the Christians," he said. "We always took care to note this in our reports and intelligence estimates that we submitted to the government. We emphasized the fact that the Christians wanted us to conquer all of Lebanon and that their view was that if we did not do this, it would be a disaster. Our view was that the Christians were not a military factor on which we could rely. I also remember after the first week of battles, when the IDF reached the outskirts of Beirut, [Rafael Eitan] looked at me scornfully and said, 'Look at the Christians, those that Hofi said were not up to the task, look at how nicely they are working.'"

From your statements, one might get the impression that you are absolving yourself and the Mossad of responsibility for what happened in Lebanon.

"I'm not absolving anyone of any responsibility. One should understand that the Mossad did all it could to assist the IDF in carrying out its plans. That was its job: to provide intelligence and to maintain ties with the Christians. But, as I said, the Mossad is not an autonomous body and it operates according to the government's guidelines, with the aim of advancing its policy."

Navot denies that he was overly cozy with the Christians, something that could have skewed his reports: "Neither Hofi nor I fell in love with them. Do I need to be sorry about the fact that I was a good friend to the Christians and that I worked with them as a friend? Well this is exactly the role of an intelligence man - to create ties and earn the trust of the other side.

"The truth is that my relationship with Bashir was very bad. He grew angry with things I said to him and to his aides, angry that we did not see eye to eye with them. On one occasion, I accompanied the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Moshe Arens, to Lebanon. Bashir refused to see me. He blamed me personally for all of the misunderstandings."

Navot has a letter that he sent to Shmuel Avitar, Tevel's representative in Lebanon, on May 18, 1981. As a field agent, Avitar was in close contact with the Christian militias. The letter was written in May 1981, after Christian forces attacked Syrian positions in the area of Zahle. The attack prompted harsh reprisals from Syria.

The Christians protested loudly, claiming that the Syrians were massacring and butchering them. Navot was sent to Rome for a meeting with the Vatican's foreign minister, with the purpose of enlisting support for the Maronites in Lebanon.

"Israel alerted the Vatican and world public opinion, but much to the chagrin of the Christians, it did not intervene militarily," Navot explained. "In that same vein, I traveled to Bikfaya and I said to Bashir and the Christian leaders, including the most senior clergymen: 'The principle that guides us is that we are ready to defend those who are ready to defend themselves.' Our policy was to help them with training and supply arms so that they could defend themselves."

Navot says his response to Avitar was that the Mossad, or at least Navot himself, had no influence over critical issues, and the Christians were not telling the truth in any case.

"They have their wars, and we have our wars, and these wars are not always being waged along congruent lines," he said. "I also wrote to him, and I quote: 'We do not need to embark on a collision course with the Syrians, because in any event we will emerge the losers. We cannot allow ourselves as a nation to become ensnarled in a situation in which soldiers, officers and civilians wonder what it is we are fighting for. This is a tragedy that must not materialize."

What do you say to those who would claim you wrote the letter a year before the war but in actuality acted differently?

"What could I have done? We wrote, we explained, we warned, we did our job as best we could. What did people expect me to do? Jump out the window of my office in the Mossad headquarters and commit suicide in order to prevent the war?"

What about Ariel Sharon and his responsibility for the war?

"Arik approved plans that were already in place, plans that were prepared by [Eitan] and [Avigdor Ben-Gal] and the IDF at the time when Begin served as both prime minister and defense minister. Having said that, it is also true that Arik thought that if we were going to embark on a war of this scale rather than a limited, short operation, then we should also advance the wider political interest. Arik's contribution was that he injected a deep diplomatic dimension to the war. He wanted, and he said this to Pierre Gemayel, to install a pro-Israeli government in Lebanon. But I also remember that Pierre told Sharon during his first visit to Lebanon as defense minister, in January 1982, 'Mr. Minister, don't forget that we must be a bridge to the Arab world.'"

Did Sharon understand what he was saying?

"I don't know. Meir Amit told me once that Arik is a genius in war, but inexperienced in policy. I recalled Amit's observation when I heard what Pierre had to say to Arik."

Some have claimed Sharon pushed for the war not only to bring about a pro-Israeli regime in Lebanon, but also to cause the Palestinians to be expelled from Lebanon and forced to wander through Syria to Jordan, where eventually a Palestinian state would be established as a home for Palestinians from the West Bank. But Navot says he never heard Sharon make statements to that effect.

"It may well be that this is what he thought, but I can't read his mind," Navot said. "It's true that Arik and Begin thought that the solution to the Palestinian problem lay in Jordan. Arik said this publicly - that Jordan is Palestine - and Begin did not comment on the matter. As the head of Tevel, I received messages that were sent by King Hussein. He had met with every Israeli leader and he also sought a meeting with Begin in order to get an answer to this question, which had obviously disturbed him greatly. Begin refused to meet with him and he refused to answer his question about what his views were regarding the 'Jordan is Palestine' idea. When somebody at the Mossad offered Begin a formulation that would serve as a reply, Begin ignored him."

Navot said it was Begin's integrity that kept him from replying to Hussein.

"I greatly admired Begin as a leader," he said. "In recent years I've become preoccupied with the issue of leadership and its influence over events. As it does in intelligence, I believe that the human factor plays a very important role in shaping policy. Begin ignored the overtures from the Mossad and King Hussein because he was an honest man with integrity. He did not want to lie to King Hussein."

What lesson have you drawn from all this?

"That Lebanon will continue to be a problem for Israel and that the reality in the Middle East is dictated by changing interests rather than sentiments."