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In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, former Israeli spy chief Efraim Halevy said Israel and the US must engage in a dialogue with Iran to understand how their adversaries think, a position rarely heard from top Israeli officials. He faulted Republican candidate Mitt Romney for making US policy toward Iran an issue in the presidential election.
Born in Britain — Halevy moved to Israel in 1948 at the age of 14 — and wearing a trench coat with a newspaper tucked under his arm on a drizzly morning in Washington on Friday, Oct. 19, Halevy, 78, evoked George Smiley, the protagonist in the John Le Carre British spy novels, who is burdened by the knowledge of state secrets too sensitive and ugly to share. But it is Halevy’s fierce advocacy for dialogue with mortal enemies such as Iran and Hamas, combined with a biography laden with hard political experience, that makes him so iconoclastic, especially in the current Israeli political and national security landscape.
“I was 40 years in the business of dealing with adversaries — some of them very bitter ones, some we fought successive wars with,” Halevy said in an interview with Al-Monitor. “Over the years … I realized that, in order to be effective with one’s enemies, you have to have two essential capabilities: To overcome them by force if necessary … And do everything you can to get into their minds and try to understand how they see things … and where if at all there is room for common ground of one kind or another.”
“I think that what we have had over the years is an abundance of one side, and a dearth of the other,” Halevy said.
Halevy most especially emphasized the need for dialogue with Iran, and to try to understand the Iranians — a position rarely heard from top Israeli officials, even those who have expressed opposition to unilateral Israeli military action on Iran.
“The Iranians, in their heart of hearts, would like to get out of their conundrum,” Halevy told Al-Monitor. “The sanctions have been very effective. They are beginning to really hurt.”
In earlier episodes of his career that he described at length in the interview, Halevy said, “I realized that dialogue with an enemy is essential. There is nothing to lose. Although the claim was, if you talk to them, you legitimize them. But by not talking to them, you don’t de-legitimate them. So this convinced me, that we all have been very superficial in dealing with our enemies.”
“What has happened, in order to meet public opinion, both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands,” Halevy said, referring to prohibitions on US contacts, for instance, with the Palestinian militant group Hamas. “In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.”
“On Iran, you have to go much deeper,” Halevy said. “You have to understand what it is that makes Iran tick.”
[This weekend, both the White House and Iran denied a New York Times report that the United States and Iran have agreed to hold direct talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections. “It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding the US has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.” Meantime, an Iran analyst tells Al-Monitor that it is his understanding there have been back-channel talks between a senior US arms control official and an Iran official through Turkey.]
Striking a deal with Iran will be “extremely difficult,” Halevy said. “It needs a lot of creativity. And courage, political courage.”
“The perception is that Israel is going through the stages of sanctions, etc. not with the idea or conviction that at the end, the other side will yield,” he said. “If the purpose was to exert pressure to bring the other side to the table, the rhetoric should be different.
“Obama does think there is still room for negotiations,” Halevy said. “It’s a very courageous thing to say in this atmosphere. In the end, this is what I think: Making foreign policy on Iran a serious issue in the US elections — what Romney has done, in itself — is a heavy blow to the ultimate interests of the United States and Israel.”
Halevy spoke to Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen over breakfast at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Al-Monitor: In a very interesting interview you gave to Haaretz last month, you said, “What we need to do is to try and understand the Iranians.” That was quite striking — especially coming amid the height of Israeli thinking out loud about possible military action on Iran. Can you elaborate on your comment?
Halevy: Let me begin by point of departure. I was 40 years in the business of dealing with adversaries — some of them very bitter ones. Some we fought successive wars with.
Over the years, both because of personal contact with some key figures on the other side […] I realized, in order to be effective with one’s enemies, you have to have two essential capabilities: To overcome by force if necessary — and/or to withstand their force if necessary. And do everything you can to get into their minds and try to understand how they see things, what their concerns are — their dreams, aspirations, hopes, feelings are. And where if at all there is room for common ground of one kind or another.
I think that what we have had over the years is an abundance of one side, and a dearth of the other. There has been a big emphasis, and rightly so, [on overcoming adversaries by force]. But we have paid little attention [to understanding one’s enemies.] And I have always had the feeling to look for ways and means of creating channels for dialogue. I was involved in channels of dialogue in one way or other, in major and minor roles, as of 1973-1974, when I served here in Washington, D.C., as Mossad station chief.
There have been two, three instances, in which I have had a very massive challenge which shook my self confidence in what we were doing. […]
I tried to understand what happened here. I began to realize, in terms of what we were doing, the colors were not only black and white, but there were all kinds of hues of gray. The picture is much more complex.
[…] in 1997, when I was [Israeli] ambassador to the EU. I was called in hastily because of a problem in Jordan. Mossad had tried to assassinate Khalid Meshal [a Hamas leader], it was a botched operation. This was three years after Israel signed a peace agreement with Amman. Meshal was a Jordanian citizen, and [Mossad] had attempted to assassinate Meshal, a Jordanian citizen, in the capital of Jordan.
And I, in analyzing the situation as I was making my way to Israel, reached the conclusion that to solve the problem, we had to do something very creative and unexpected. I […] said we have to release Sheikh Yassin, the founder of Hamas, from jail. Within 24 hours, [after first rejecting this], then Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted this, and did it. I was then able to travel to Jordan and meet the king, And [Jordanian intelligence chief] Prince Hassan.
I spoke to the king, and he was not a very happy man that day. And he said, “One thing I don’t understand: I did not get any response to the offer [I passed on to your people] 10 days ago.” [Unbeknownst to Halevy, King Hussein had passed to Mossad an offer from Hamas proposing a 10-year or 30-year truce.]
When I got back to Israel, it transpired that [then Mossad chief Danny] Yatom didn’t think to bring [the Hamas truce offer] to the attention of the prime minister. It was still sitting on his desk. At the same time he received it, he was masterminding [what became the botched Meshal assassination plot].
Al Monitor: Why do you think the Hamas long-term truce proposal had sat on a desk?
Halevy: It was so removed from the mainstream of thought, nobody in their right mind at the time would even think this was something serious. Hamas was our implacable enemy.
Al Monitor: Was there any thought to try to salvage the offer?
Halevy: It was too late. You can’t offer negotiations after attempting to kill a senior figure.
Therefore, I realized that dialogue with an enemy is essential. There is nothing to lose. Although the claim was, if you talk to them, you legitimize them But by not talking to them, you don’t de-legitimate them. So this convinced me, that we all have been very superficial in dealing with our enemies. […]
Not everything you try succeeds. But you have to be willing to try. If you fail 10 times, and succeed once, the success outweighs the failures.
What happened: In order to meet public opinion, both Israel and the US governments have tied our own hands. There is a law […] which prohibits US officials from talking to Hamas […] In the end, you create an inherent disadvantage for yourself.
Al-Monitor: You mentioned in a talk this week the need for dialogue with Iran.
Halevy: On Iran, you have to go much deeper. You have to understand what it is that makes Iran tick.
Iran in the past did not have a religious regime. It was a secular regime. The source of power was the shah and he was a secular ruler. Mossadegh in 1953 became prime minister. He tried to nationalize the oil industry. He was overthrown by a coup initiated by the British and CIA.
Mossadegh was not a [radical or fundamentalist]. He was the scion of one of the leading royal families in Iran. [In a recent biography of Mossadegh, it notes that] Mossadegh’s wife was a devout Muslim. He one time joked with her, if you respect God so much, why do you bother him five times a day?
Major sections of Iran society were secular and for many years this is a stain on their history: that two intelligence agencies in 1953 kicked out their elected leader and threw them to the wolves. They treated Iran not even as a partner [against the Soviet Union in the Cold War]. This [resentment] runs very deep [in Iranian psychology].
What happened to the US in 1979, the embassy affair, was an outburst of indignation. Not that I justify it, at all. But to understand it is not to justify […] There’s a difference […] Many prefer not to know, the details confuse you.
[Politicians often prefer to have] a clear sound bite rather than a policy. “Axis of evil.” Three words. Solved the problem. It would be fine if we could go in and overturn the [government, but we can’t]. The US is trapped by the way it treated Iran in the past and […] it is limiting its options.
Al-Monitor: There were periodic efforts by US administrations to try to test openings for thawing relations. During the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright apologized for the US role in the overthrow of Mossadegh […] But they all seemed to run aground.
Halevy: The US President acts within the confines of US law. So, for instance, American officials are not allowed to deal with Hamas. This is the through point.
In 2006, the US, under the George W. Bush administration, decided that it is in the interest of the United States that Hamas participate in the Palestinian elections. It twisted the arm of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, to make it come about […] The outcome was they won, not by the popular vote. […]
Why limit your options. Why limit the capacity of the government to deal with deadly enemies, without accepting their ideology. It inhibits you. […]
Al-Monitor: And you believe that Iran wants to talk to the United States?
Halevy: They have wanted it for years.
What do we want to do: We want to change their mindset. We want to change the rules of the game […] In order to bring that about, you have to have drama. You have to decide in advance, what you are willing to give up. I don’t want to use the term “red lines.” The prize here is something which has to benefit both sides.
My view: Iran has to accept two things. There is an absolute necessity to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear device. And it has to accept the existence of the state of Israel. […]
Al-Monitor: Many observers believe there is a nuclear deal to be had. But it’s very hard to do, to even talk to them. Do you think it’s possible to narrow the huge gulf between the two sides?
Halevy: It is extremely difficult. It needs a lot of creativity. And courage, political courage.
I remember for many years we [Israeli officials] used to come to Washington, and used to say [to American officials], “You must help us strengthen our strategic capabilities. We must always have ‘the edge,’ we called it.” For two things. To protect ourselves, and we need to show, out of a feeling of confidence and safety, that we are negotiating out of strength and not out of weakness.
Israel did negotiate […] two peace treaties, with Egypt and Jordan, and we went part of the way with the Syrians and the Palestinians. We needed to be strong in order to negotiate, in order to get that.
But we have forgotten the last part. Yes, we had to negotiate, or appear to be negotiating, in order to strike [a deal] in the end. We have to prove in the end [we tried everything else].
In Israel, [it has taken hold that] the Iran nuclear issue will not be resolved except with a major confrontation. Here is the difference I see currently between the Israeli position and that of the United States. It’s not that we don’t have a common intelligence picture. The question is, what is the end game?
The perception is that Israel is going through the stages of sanctions, etc., not with the idea or conviction that at the end, the other side will yield. If the purpose was to exert pressure to bring the other side to the table, the rhetoric should be different. […]
Obama has placed emphasis on negotiations. In this current election for the US presidency, his hands are tied. He cannot proceed, because he cannot appear soft on Israel’s security.
Negotiating with Iran is perceived as a sign of beginning to forsake Israel. That is where I think the basic difference is between Romney and Obama. What Romney is doing is mortally destroying any chance of a resolution without war. Therefore when [he recently] said, he doesn’t think there should be a war with Iran, this does not ring true. It is not consistent with other things he has said. […]
Obama does think there is still room for negotiations. It’s a very courageous thing to say in this atmosphere.
In the end, this is what I think: Making foreign policy on Iran a serious issue in the US elections — what Romney has done, in itself — is a heavy blow to the ultimate interests of the United States and Israel.
It is not as if, if he wins the election, and gets into the White House, he can back up. The Iranians are listening attentively to what he says. When he says, he would arm the opposition in Iran. They understand.
Al-Monitor: Obama has also seen the limits of force in places like Afghanistan. The surge didn’t work.
Halevy: The late Richard Holbrooke spent infinite days talking to Taliban figures […] Holbrooke was one of the most brilliant diplomats in the past half century of US diplomacy. He was a great figure. He understood, that, in the end, in order to outgun the enemy, just brute force, is not enough, it doesn’t work. […]
Al-Monitor: Several former senior Israeli national security chiefs, like yourself, have expressed opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. But you are one of the few […]
Halevy: It is not a question of opposing a strike on Iran. I don’t oppose a strike. I said, a strike should be the last resort, and we should mean it. We have not reached a point where there is no other way to resolve this. We have not behaved, or gone through the other steps.
The Iranians, in their heart of hearts, would like to get out of their conundrum. The sanctions have been very effective. They are beginning to really hurt.
Al-Monitor: Are the Iranians paranoid the US policy is regime change, even as I don’t think for the Obama administration it is true?
Halevy: They are certainly convinced the policy [is regime change]. And that is not the only regime the US has problems with in the field of values. The regimes in Beijing, North Korea, Moscow […]
Romney has been very costly on Russia […] If you want to create situation, where the only way to go about things is to go back to the Cold War, that is what is being done here. It’s very dangerous.
I don’t think the US public wants to go to another world war over values in this way. If it persists, it will be a slide down a very slippery slope.
It’s a question of concept. Where are we going in the 21st century? Are we going to try to propagate policies on the battlefields?
Al-Monitor: Beyond the heated US campaign rhetoric, what do you make of the wider perception that, even though Obama has actually used force quite a bit, and successfully oversaw the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, that he is perceived, or misperceived, as not wanting to use force, and the US is seen therefore as weak.
Halevy: I think nobody who has been involved in ordering the use of force can forget the angst, the days and nights of concern, as to what and how it can be done.
Romney has said, Anybody could have decided to finish bin Laden. Even [Jimmy] Carter. This again was a mistaken concept. President Obama didn’t just decide [one day to kill bin Laden]. The operation to end the life of bin Laden necessitated multiple points of decision by him. I know from operations I have been involved with on a smaller scale.
They are very intricate. You don’t just give the order and wait in your office for commanders to come three months later and say it’s done. No. This kind of operation, which is accident prone, hands on operation, one has to make one decision after the other […] It took courage and cool headedness and leadership. Anyone who says it was an easy thing to decide, doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. [Such comments] show a total lack of understanding of what this kind of operation means.
Once I was in charge of an operation and Netanyahu was Prime Minister. One day, because of the intricacy of what we were doing, I talked to him 10 times on the phone […] Ten times. It was a Friday, a day I will not forget.
This kind of operation, every minute, an issue comes up, that sometimes requires a decision on the political level.
The Libya story, the way it’s being used, is a sordid manipulation. […]
Al-Monitor: In a recent dialogue with Iranian officials, I was told the Iranian interlocutors used some formulation which indirectly recognized Israel. They demanded that Israel become a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Since the NPT only admits states, was it a tacit recognition of Israel?
Halevy: Not everything has to be spoken out loud […] It is not naïve or foolish, that there has be a serious beginning of a process of dialogue, which ultimately leads to mutual acceptance of the state of Israel.
I have had opportunities to see Iranians […] All I can tell you is, after the first round of P5+1/Iran nuclear talks in Istanbul in April, the Iranians came out and said they were extremely happy. They were treated with dignity. And they were happy the conversations took place around a round table [which made them feel symbolically an equal party to the talks with the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China].
You can smile and say it’s an insignificant detail. But though insignificant, it is indicative of one aspect of the problem. [The Iranian priority on the issue of dignity.]
There are two issues which have to be resolved in a clear way. Iran cannot gain a nuclear military capability. And the existence of Israel ceases to be an issue.
One thing the Israeli Prime Minister [Netanyahu] has done: He does not induce confidence [in the Israeli public]. He is invoking Auschwitz twice a week. He has created a situation in which he’s “damned if he did, damned if he didn’t’’ bomb Iran, since he created such a buildup.