The Military Intelligence Oracle

It is very difficult to predict the way Arab countries will behave, especially terrorist organizations.

Shimon Peres overstated the issue: Israeli intelligence did not fail in its predictions regarding the Arabs, as the president argued (when he was foreign minister) in one of his attacks on the army. The record of the intelligence community in this area - and Peres meant mainly in peace negotiations - is a mixed one. It has enjoyed some successes, and has also sometimes been proven wrong. But it is certainly surprising that the security establishment often depends, almost blindly, on intelligence personnel who claim to "know what the Arabs are thinking."

A striking example of this occurred last Wednesday, when a Katyusha struck an Ashkelon mall. The attack, which resulted in numerous injuries, was not preceded by a Color Red alert, although the city has been connected to the warning system for months now. In response to complaints of Ashkelon residents and media inquiries, the Israel Defense Forces explained that the system was sometimes disconnected out of fear of false alarms.

The system has difficulty distinguishing between a rocket launched at Ashkelon and one launched at the Zikim area south of the city. After the city's 120,000 residents were put several times on high alert (and high anxiety) following rockets strikes that hit south of Ashkelon, the army decided to be more selective. Colonel David Simchi, head of the Home Front Command's southern district, told Army Radio that on Wednesday the system had been turned off, based on intelligence assessments.

Intelligence predicted there would be no rocket launches, he explained, so we turned it off.

Dr. Hanan Schwartz (Shai) a reserves colonel and a lecture on military studies at Bar-Ilan University, was shocked when he heard the interview with Simchi. Not because intelligence, if Simchi's description was correct, erred. This, as noted, does happen from time to time, although a similar prediction the press was given Tuesday night raised a few eyebrows: Why would Hamas not fire rockets precisely on the Palestinian Nakba (May 14), also a day President George W. Bush was visiting Israel?

Schwartz was angered by the description of the way the army makes decisions. An assessment, he explains, is a thinking process that goes on in the presence of uncertainty: "In light of the adversary's capability, what must I do with the means at my disposal, to create a reality that will allow me to avoid intolerable results from my perspective."

Intelligence is responsible for describing the capability of the enemy and its possible actions. The commander determines the means of defense or attack undertaken. Here, Schwartz says, things have become confused. Intelligence can describe facts: Hamas has such-and-such numbers of rockets, or an intelligence warning of a rocket attack has come in today. But where does the assessment that rockets won't be launched today come from?

"We are trying to force our logic on the logic of the adversary. What is the intelligence assessment based on, if there is no solid information? From the commander's point of view, the assessment is about as relevant as a horoscope."

It is difficult to understand why a commander or a captain of policy (the IDF said the system was turned off with the Defense Ministry's approval) would accept this as the gospel truth, especially when there are precedents of other failures stemming from such predictions.

Another expression of this problematic phenomenon can be discerned in Ari Shavit's comprehensive interview in Haaretz Magazine (May 15) with MI chief Major General Amos Yadlin. Yadlin maintained a cautious tone and avoided claiming he knew everything that was going on in neighboring countries. And yet, it is difficult not to be slightly chilled by the interview's opening statement: "The assessment of MI is that there is a low probability, even a very low probability, that the enemy will initiate a war against Israel in 2008."

This is a worrisome statement, not only because Yadlin is one of the few generals on the present General Staff who remembers, from personal experience, the failure of the intelligence assessments in 1973. (He was then a young pilot.) It is worrisome because such a statement claims to predict developments that are far beyond our control.

It is very difficult to predict the way Arab countries will behave, especially terrorist organizations; it is even harder to predict the cause and effect chain, which is also connected to Israel's actions. The only thing both sides agreed on in the Second Lebanon War is that they did not expect and did not intend for a war to break out.

When former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld said "we don't know that we don't know," he sparked endless parodies. Yet perhaps he was right. The job of MI chief is hugely important, even if we do not treat his predictions as if they were an oracle emanating from the General Staff base.