The Policymaking Power of the IDF Intelligence Chief

This book of interviews with a former MI head would be important even if it included no more than one key insight.

Eikh Neida? Modi'in, Mivtza'im, Mediniyut (How Will We Know?: Intelligence, Operations and Politics in Israel ), by Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash and Dov Tamari. Sifrei Aliyat Hagag and Yedioth Books (Hebrew ), 335 pages, NIS 118

One important insight arises from the book of conversations between Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash and Dov Tamari that is in itself enough to justify its publication. It is not the revelations of unknown intelligence stories or well-kept secrets, but rather the explanation of the tremendous influence of the head of IDF Military Intelligence on the policy of the Israeli government. He is the person responsible for providing the prime minister and his cabinet with a "situation assessment," and through it he can, in effect, lead the policy makers to adopt the policy that he himself wants to promote. The problem is serious in every country, but it is far more acute in Israel, where the decision makers are almost totally dependent on the intelligence provided to them by the army.

Palestinian children

This insight, I believe, regarding the "supreme importance" of the person who heads MI, as Tamari asserts, is insufficiently understood not only by the public, but also by some of our elected officials. It accompanies the entire book and assumes validity because the person who keeps noting it, Maj. Gen. (res. ) Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash is the man who himself filled the position for four years (2001-2006 ).

The book is written as a series of questions from Brig. Gen. (res. ) Dov Tamari, the IDF's former chief intelligence officer (deputy to the MI head ), with Ze'evi-Farkash's replies. Tamari not only asks questions, but also presents his own viewpoints and analyses on issues that come up during the discussions and conversations held by the two over a period of two years.

Both of course are cautious about saying outright that the head of MI is involved in politics, but all the examples they offer only reinforce this assertion. The position-holder, Tamari and Ze'evi-Farkash agree, cannot make do with presenting the intelligence picture, but is expected to recommend to the decision makers a course of action that he believes they should follow. And herein lies the sting, since through his recommendation, MI's head leads the policy makers in the direction that he considers right. In that way and to his detriment, the head of MI becomes a player in the political system, or in the words of Ze'evi-Farkash, he is forced into "involvement in political thought and action, because there is no possibility of separating 'political' from 'military.'"

Ze'evi-Farkash says that he first realized that the head of MI was expected to actually recommend a course of action to the policy makers during his first meeting on the job with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2001. "When I had finished presenting the intelligence picture," says Ze'evi-Farkash, "the prime minister asked me: 'So what do you recommend that we do?' Apparently the expression on my face couldn't conceal my surprise at the question." Very soon Ze'evi-Farkash learned what was expected of him, and as he attests, "That was the first and last meeting to which I came unprepared for the question: 'What do you recommend that we do?'"

Lacking tools and knowledge

The importance and influence of the MI head are especially great in Israeli policymaking, due to the absence of professional advisory bodies for the prime minister and his cabinet, and to the inefficiency of those that do exist, such as the National Security Council. The result is that decision makers in Israel lack the tools and knowledge that are supposed to serve them as a basis for making those decisions. Here MI enters the picture, and for lack of other sources, it is the body that provides them with all the knowledge and assessments on which they base their decisions.

This is how Ze'evi-Farkash describes it: "One of the roles of MI is to balance the objective situation of the politicians who are mired in the political swamp, preoccupied with ongoing and urgent events, and therefore don't find the time to develop the knowledge necessary for analyzing developing processes, some of which develop slowly and usually beneath the surface." The MI head is also capable of directing the policy makers' deliberations simply by way of his decision as to which topics he will present to them. "More than once," explains Ze'evi-Farkash, "I had to decide what not to bring to the knowledge of the prime minister and the cabinet, what not to bring up for discussion."

And so, toward the end of the discussion in the book, Tamari raises this critical issue clearly, although he adds a question mark to it: "Is the head of Military Intelligence a functionary who joins the decision makers when he offers them definite intelligence knowledge, or is he capable of creating an environment, a discourse that charts directions? In other words, can the head of MI initiate discussions? I ask that because you explained a political viewpoint at length [on the Palestinian issue]. Did you try to delineate a path with political implications to the prime minister, the defense minister or the entire cabinet?"

Ze'evi-Farkash does not answer Tamari's question directly, but from his words we can understand that that is in fact the situation. The head of MI delineates paths with political consequences. And in his opinion, this is justified because "there are subjects regarding which the head of MI has a clear advantage over the others when it comes to knowledge and understanding."

Arafat's intentions

As you read the book, Ze'evi-Farkash's position on the Palestinian issue becomes very clear. As we recall, during his tenure (2001-2006 ) there was a professional debate between the Shin Bet security services and MI as to the intentions and policy of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. This debate became public after the outbreak of the second intifada. While the Shin Bet claimed that Arafat had not planned the violent events, MI claimed that he had planned the intifada far in advance and had never had any intention of implementing the Oslo Accords. In the end, the viewpoint of MI was accepted and Arafat was marked as the bad guy - the ultimate enemy. Of course Israel's policy and its attitude toward the events in the territories were an outcome of this viewpoint.

Now it turns out that the head of MI, who assumed the position shortly after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa intifada, didn't believe in the Oslo Accords at all, and in his opinion they had no chance of succeeding. This viewpoint is legitimate, of course, and is shared by many in the military and political establishments. But Ze'evi-Farkash goes much further. He believes that there is no Palestinian entity at all. "I claim," he states, "that Arafat tried to build an entity in an artificial manner." And because there is no such entity, there is no chance that the "two states for two nations" solution will succeed. "I claim that the entire 'state in the making' constructed by Arafat is a mirage."

But probably Ze'evi-Farkash's gravest statement in this connection is that "the concept 'Palestinian' was created in 1967." That is a strange assertion, coming from someone who was supposed to be an expert on the history of the Palestinian national movement. In light of all these things, there should be a study to examine how the heads of MI take on the Palestinian issue influenced the policy of the Israeli government during his tenure. Incidentally, the solution to the Palestinian problem, in the opinion of Ze'evi-Farkash, should be in the context of a confederation of the Palestinians with the Kingdom of Jordan. "A confederation containing two independent territorial entities ... This solution comes from familiarity with the situation. I don't see in the near future a national leadership that would be capable of unifying the Palestinians."

Ze'evi-Farkash is also very pessimistic about the possibility of reaching agreements and arrangements that will lead to quiet in either Gaza or in Lebanon. He estimates that the next rounds of battles on these two fronts are inevitable.

But beyond the critical discussion of the significance, status and influence of MI head Ze'evi-Farkash on the process of policy-making and worldviews on the Palestinian issue, the book raises another long series of interesting issues in the areas of intelligence. For example, Tamari and Ze'evi-Farkash repeatedly mention the fact that the training for officers in intelligence units "is very weak in the IDF." They also discuss the problems that stem from the fact that "there is no clear definition of the tasks or roles of the head of MI" and "no clear and sharp division of powers and inter-organizational institutional responsibility among MI, the Mossad and the Shin Bet."

Another interesting chapter deals with the question of whether it is also MI's job to present information pointing to the possibility of peace and diplomatic agreements, and not only to warn about war. The two agree that the job of MI director also includes bringing policy makers the assessment that it is possible to advance to peace and agreements, if indeed he discovers signs attesting to that. Ze'evi-Farkash says that he insisted, for example, on bringing Prime Minister Sharon the assessments that Saudi Arabia wanted to promote rapprochement with Israel and that at a certain point Syrian President Bashar Assad really was seriously considering reaching an agreement with Israel. Incidentally, Ze'evi-Farkash believes that in the absence of a treaty - "war with Syria is a certainty."

Additional chapters in the book discuss the connections between Israeli intelligence and foreign intelligence bodies, early warning, deterrence, the Winograd Committee report, special forces, intelligence and communications, and more. This is a good book, recommended not only to intelligence officers but to policy makers as well, who are not always aware of the way in which the heads of MI influence their decisions.

Reuven Pedatzur is the academic director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Strategic Dialogue, at Netanya Academic College.