Ex-spymaster: First Lebanon War Was Mossad Success, Despite Sabra and Chatila

Nachik Navot was responsible at the Mossad for nurturing relations with Lebanon's Christians.

Ari Folman's Oscar-nominated film, "Waltz with Bashir," is a brilliant cinematic work, even if the scenes of the Sabra and Chatila massacre, which have unjustly become the signature images of Operation Peace for the Galilee, the first Lebanon War, are difficult for me. At the time, I was responsible in my capacity at the Mossad for nurturing relations with Lebanon's Christians.

One of the Mossad's most important missions from the day of its inception was Israel's "special relations" with countries that did not recognize it and with minorities like the Christians in Lebanon and the Kurds in Iraq. This was the declared policy of the governments of Israel: Israel will be prepared to come to the aid of any threatened minority that is fighting for its existence - but it will not fight in its stead.

The relationship with the Lebanese Christians warmed up in 1976, when Syria entered Lebanon at the invitation of the Christian president, Suleiman Franjieh. At the time, we warned the U.S. about the danger of a radical Syrian-Palestinian takeover of Lebanon. Iran, under the shah, took an interest in Lebanon and flew in arms to defend the Christians.

At that time, Palestinian terrorist organizations were establishing a foothold in Lebanon, with the encouragement of Arab states that saw in this a solution, albeit temporary, to the Palestinian problem. On the ground, a state within a state was being established, with Lebanon acting as a base and training camp for terrorist operations against Israel.

As the terror operations from the north increased, the Israel Defense Forces carried out defensive operations against Palestinian terrorist forces, which did not stop attacking northern Israel. Such was Operation Litani on March 15, 1978 and other short operations by Israeli forces.

On June 15, 1980, I became the main broker of the Mossad's relations with the Christians. A month later, Bashir Gemayel established the Lebanese Forces as a paramilitary defensive force aimed at defending the Christians of Lebanon from repeated acts of slaughter by the Palestinians. During 1980 and 1981, the IDF engaged in preparations for a more comprehensive offensive. The Mossad's relations with the Christians enabled the senior IDF brass, including the commanders of the forces in the field, to reconnoiter as far as Beirut, and to receive the necessary intelligence.

The IDF's battle plans were also based on the Christians' participation. The head of the Mossad at the time, Yitzhak Hofi, had reservations about an all-out war and the IDF's possible entry into Beirut, where the Palestinian Liberation Organization's political and military center, headed by Yasser Arafat, was located. We expressed concern about a large-scale war and its results. Despite the differences of opinion, the Mossad continued to aid the IDF as needed and insofar as possible. At the same time, we also worked on a diplomatic level, in the context of the Syrian bloodletting of the Christians at Zahla in May of 1981. At that time I went to the Vatican for a meeting with its foreign minister Achille Silvestrini, to ask for help in saving the Christians of Lebanon.

The agreement at the Camp David summit to establish Palestinian autonomy made things very difficult for then prime minister Menachem Begin. In the IDF's initiative toward an all-out war, he saw a chance of eliminating the Palestinian problem in Lebanon. In September 1981, he was also positively disposed to entering Beirut, as the IDF commanders had proposed. During 1981, on the eve of Ariel Sharon's appointment as defense minister in the summer of that year, preparations for an extensive operation known as Operation Pines were completed. This eventually turned into Operation Peace for the Galilee.

In January 1982, at a meeting in Beirut with top Christian leaders - Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, Georges Adwan and Etienne Saqr (Abu Arz) - Sharon set forth the battle plans. Pierre Gemayel made it clear then that we had to remember that Lebanon must maintain its bridges to the Arab world, as Henry Kissinger had advised them to do.

'Strayed from the path'

Then an excuse that would "justify" the action was needed. This happened only in June 1982 with the attempted assassination of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov in London. The Christian leadership in Lebanon, however, was not prepared to jump on the bandwagon of the IDF's operation. Nonetheless, Bashir Gemayel, the commander of the Lebanese Forces, supported all of our plans and enabled the IDF to carry out preparations for any and all actions. We sometimes clashed with him, in part in the context of his relations with other Christian groups in Lebanon. After the National Assembly elected Bashir president of Lebanon he was murdered, apparently by the Syrians, in a car bomb in Beirut. As Pierre Gemayel said of him at his graveside, Bashir had "strayed from the path," contrary to the position of the Christian leadership in Lebanon.

It was not the Mossad that defined the objectives of the war and it was not the Mossad that participated in its preparation. Bashir Gemayel was not alive at the time of the massacre in Sabra and Chatila, which bore an element of revenge for his assassination and for the many pogroms the Palestinians had carried out against Lebanese Christians.

From the Mossad's perspective, the "waltz with Bashir" was a successful intelligence operation, because of the extraordinary capabilities he put at the disposal of the IDF. The Mossad came out "clean" in the Kahan commission investigations of the Sabra and Chatila massacre. It is also important to remember that the 1982 war led to the start of diplomatic relations with the Palestinian movement, as should happen after every military campaign.

It is just a great pity that every such struggle is accompanied by the bloodshed of innocent civilians.

The author was deputy head of the Mossad.