In December 1998, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sent me to Israel and the West Bank to monitor the first phase of the recently concluded Wye River Memorandum, a soon-to-be-forgotten agreement President Bill Clinton had brokered between then Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While in Jerusalem, I gave a public talk on the state of the negotiations. Having worked on this near-hopeless accord for over a year, I was on some sort of negotiator's high. And in one of the most naïve statements of the century, I told the audience that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process had achieved a measure of irreversible progress, and that there was no going back.
Within a month, the Wye River accord was dead.
Four months later, I received a letter from a man I'd never met -- Efraim Halevy, then deputy director of Israel's Mossad. In it, Halevy gently reminded me of the broader forces and currents at work in his turbulent region and wondered about the positive forces of change I'd identified. What if these rivers of change left most of the proverbial fish -- in this case the Israelis and Palestinians -- behind?
Halevy foresaw confrontation. And he was right. I've been learning from him ever since.
Halevy, now 78 years old, reminds me of a cross between an Oxford don and a character out of a John le Carré novel. He speaks carefully and precisely -- rarely forcefully -- and has little problem attracting an eager audience. Born in London, his British inflection -- not greatly tempered since immigrating to Israel in 1948 -- only adds to the sense that you're speaking to a highly intelligent and acutely erudite man.
Halevy is a man of the Mossad serving there for 40 years -- 33 of them in the Directorate, the initial designation for Mossad's intelligence collection unit. He headed Mossad under three prime ministers -- Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon -- and served as deputy director under two more, Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin. He ran a variety of secret missions for Rabin, most notably as key negotiator and confidante of King Hussein during the period leading up to the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.
The Israeli spymaster has recently made headlines by calling for dialogue with Iran -- thereby joining the burgeoning ranks of former Israeli intelligence officials, notably former Mossad director Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, critical of the Netanyahu government's approach toward the Islamic Republic. He was in Washington last week speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. I put 11 questions to him on the vital political issues of the day before he returned to Jerusalem. What follows are his answers:
Aaron Miller: Is a nuclear-armed Iran an existential threat to Israel?
Efraim Halevy: I object to the use of term [existential] for several reasons. First of all I'm convinced that Israel is here to stay. We're going to stay here for the next couple of thousand years at least, and after that we can meet and talk. It's not just a question of semi-religious or mythological belief -- I believe that Israel is a strong country. I think we have sufficient capabilities to deal with any threat of any kind.
Now, I also object to the use of the term because I believe it is a fatal mistake to say publicly that there is existential threat. It means that if the Iranians by one way or another obtain such a capability, you begin to countdown to the end of the state of Israel, and I think that is unconscionable.
And the third point is I think it is a terrible mistake to tell your enemy that it is in his power to destroy you. It is wrong tactically, it's wrong strategically, and it's wrong professionally. To come publicly to the Iranians and say, "Look, you are existential threat to me" only pushes them into trying to prove that what you say about yourself is true. So from every point, I think it's a terrible mistake to use this.
AM: If good-faith negotiations and sanctions do not deter the Iranians from continuing their quest for a nuclear bomb, are there any circumstances under which you would be willing to consider military action?
EH: Yes, if we had followed all the other avenues to try to persuade the Iranians from doing what obviously they're still trying to do, then I believe it is not only acceptable -- it's also logical that one should use military means in order to get this capability removed. I say removed because I don't believe that it will be destroyed. I mean it will be delayed. And I think that delay is important, because time is of the essence -- time sometimes gives you the breathing space to develop other possibilities, which would negate the capability now in front of you.
Now, I believe that if we are looking for the best way of doing it, I think that the United States' capabilities are far beyond Israel's in terms of causing such damage to Iran as to prolong this period. That's why I believe the major priority should be to get the United States to agree to take this this task upon itself.