The Spymaster

Eleven questions for Israel's legendary Efraim Halevy.

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.

AM: Is Iran, in your judgment, a rational actor?

EH: I think that yes, the Iranians are rational. I think at this particular point in time they are focused on trying to inflict major damage on Israel. Maybe they believe that they do have it in their power to remove Israel from the face of the Earth. And I think that if they really believe that they could do it and they have the means to do it, one has to assume that they might actually use these means. I don't believe that once they have the means, they will not use it.

AM: I know you're an analyst and not a fortune-teller. But will 2013 in your judgment be a determinative point in this process? Will the issue of the Iranian nuclear weapons program either be joined in war and/or diplomacy, or might we find ourselves at the end of 2013 where we are now?

EH: I think 2013 is a decisive point in history, a point in time. I think that there is time now to energetically engage in efforts to find a solution other than a military one. I think that there's much that can be done and should be done. And I think, of course, that if all other options are exhausted and have been unsuccessful, then yes, 2013 may be the time when Israel and/or the United States takes action.

AM: Why don't we have a conflict-ending agreement between Israelis and Palestinians?

EH: I can give a long dissertation as to why we don't have one, but I'd like to focus on the immediate reasons. And I'd say that at this particular point in time, there is not a viable possibility [for an agreement]. It's not viable because the Palestinians don't have their act together. They're divided both geographically and politically. I think anybody who signed such an agreement would not have a real mandate to sign it. And even if he believes he has, he will not have the capability to implement it, certainly not in the Gaza Strip.

And therefore, an agreement of such a nature will be misleading. It will create the notion that an agreement has been reached and a serious historical event is at hand when in actual fact it's going to be something much worse than just a non-event. It will be an act of hypocrisy of the worst particular kind.

I also think that the present makeup of the Israeli political scene is such that there is no majority in place -- either in government or in the nation -- for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. People enjoy life the way it is and they say "why take the risks, why move to something which is going to be very painful and which is going to have lot of repercussions internally?" There are very, very bitter memories of what happened during the Gaza disengagement, and that was only 10,000 people [who had to be relocated].

AM: And what are the consequences of no agreement?  Do you agree with those who argue that demography and the absence of a solution will undermine the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel?

EH: Yes I do. And I'm very concerned about that, because I think that the no solution means that there's going to be a one state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan Valley in which you'll have two distinct populations. One will be a majority that is gradually decreasing, and the other will be a minority which increasing. And therefore we will have a situation where, between Jordan and the sea, there will be a democratic system for the minority and a non-democratic system for the majority. This is unsustainable and untenable.

AM: Are you concerned about the viability of Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian -Israeli relationships in the face of the political changes sweeping the Arab world?

EH: I think so far the reaction from Egypt has been encouraging. This is not say that I'm happy with many of these statements coming from Cairo, but the most important are repeated statements by the Egyptian president and his representatives and advisors to the public that Egypt will abide by its international obligations.

I think the Egyptians are trying to get their act together. I think they're behaving responsibly. I don't think that they are enamored with Israel -- they don't have to be. And I think that there's room for improvement here.

AM: Does it matter to you whether there are Islamists, democrats, or dictators in power in the Arab world?

EH: I would put it this way: I don't think we have it in our capacity to influence what is going to happen in states other than our own, and if that is the will of the people around us, there is nothing that we can do about it. We have to find ways of living with it.

I think we have to accept realities the way they are. That's why it was very encouraging several hours after [Egyptian] President [Mohamed] Morsy won the elections, my prime minister Netanyahu sent a messaging saying, "I congratulate you on your success and I want to work together with you." I think that was a right thing to do.

I would much prefer that there would not be extreme Islamist regimes in these countries. But again, there's nothing we can do about it. So for us, it's a test to find ways to live with them. And we have to work on it, rather than simply throwing up our hands in despair, closing up the shelters, and praying for supreme godly protection.

AM: Where is Syria is headed?

EH: I think there's a good chance that Syria will implode and disintegrate into small statelets. I don't think the Alawites are going to just give up and go home. But there is also a possibility that once Assad is out of the way, other Alawites will come and find a modus operandi with whatever powers prevail.

What I am very much concerned about is whether the Iranians will be there once Assad is gone. And I believe it's a basic Israeli interest to do everything we can -- and to prevail upon everybody we can -- to ensure that at the end of the day the Iranians are out of Syria.

I don't believe that there will be a religious regime in Syria, similar to the kind that exists in Egypt. I think that because the population is composed of Sunnis, Alawites, Kurds, Christians and others that it's not possible to have an Islamic state in Syria, and it might very well be some kind of secular [government].

AM: Any thoughts on the U.S.-Israel relationship and our upcoming elections?

EH: Israeli-American relations have gone through several bumps. I think that basically they have been very good. On the practical side, the United States has been very supportive of Israel during President Barack Obama's administration -- both financially and strategically, we have received a lot of support.

I think there should be a little less complaining on the part of Israel that the administration has not embraced us warmly. International relations is not a love fest -- it has to be a practical business. And Israel should not always expect to be embraced and hugged. We're grown up and we should act as grownups.

Regarding the election, I think many of the statements made by the Republican candidate are very undesirable as far as Israel is concerned. I remember an article of Governor Romney's in the Washington Post in March where he advocated dispatching American warships to the Eastern Mediterranean. Shooting from the hip on these matters is a very dangerous sport to be engaged in. And I think that drawing Israel into this campaign is detrimental to Israeli interests, and I regret that one of the candidates is doing this.

AM: As a former intelligence officer, what do you think is the most important factor that a policymaker must keep in mind in formulating policy?

EH: I think that before strategic decisions are made, one has to take into account your capability to actually carry out what it is you've decided. And this is something that, at a political level, only a master can do. And as an intelligence officer, you must give the policymaker accurate information or assessments of the situation. But you cannot determine for him what his capabilities are, because capabilities are not just counting the number of troops you have or the number of guns you have. It's also the resilience of the country's people and many other factors. That's number one.

Number two, I think it's very important not to be attached to a single policy option. I think it is imperative to present more than one option to the political decision makers. That doesn't mean to say you don't express your preference for one or the other, but presenting one "take it or leave it" option -- I think that's a mistake.

And the third thing is -- and I learned this from Yitzhak Rabin -- is that whatever you are pursuing, always prepare an alternative. Never be caught without an alternative. Don't be left in a position where, if the initiative you have undertaken fails, you are left empty-handed.

Efraim Halevy

Reality Check

Want Closure? Go Talk to Dr. Phil.

You won't find it on the Iranian nuclear issue.

If you're looking for clarity, change the channel now -- you're on the wrong station. When it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program, we may be living with great uncertainty for some time to come. Regardless of who's elected president in November, 2013 may be no more determinative in deciding the fate of the mullahs' bomb than 2012 was. And here's why.

For some time now, the Obama administration and the Iranian mullahcracy have shared, indirectly, a common objective: preventing an Israeli attack against Iran's nuclear sites.

Even though the mullahs have flaunted the IAEA and much of the international community on the nuclear issue, they've left enough ambiguity about their intentions and demonstrated sufficient interest in negotiations to play for time -- a kind of Tom and Jerry cat-and-mouse game.

And the world's big powers have only been too willing to play along. Nobody wants war when sanctions and the prospects of diplomacy hold out even the slightest hope of changing Iran's course, least of all the United States. In the process of extricating America from two of the longest and most profitless wars in its history, President Barack Obama will go to great lengths to avoid getting America into another one.

Nor, despite some muscular rhetoric on Mitt Romney's part, is there much reason to believe he'd want to quickly green-light an Israeli strike or conduct one of his own. Right now, there's little clarity in the governor's position. Is it Iran's nuclear capacity he seeks to prevent, or the weapon itself?

I suspect that once the Pentagon and CIA go through their horrific ratio-of-risk-to-reward briefings and his political advisors think through the uncertainties that might be triggered in the wake of a U.S. strike, the least of which might be rising oil prices and plunging financial markets, much of Romney's campaign risk readiness will be converted into the more sober risk aversion of governance. Given the domestic challenges that the next American president will face, there's more than a little reason to believe that war with Iran might not be priority No. 1.

Throw in a healthy dose of serious divisions within Israel about the wisdom of an Israeli strike without U.S. approval or the real effectiveness of any military option that doesn't involve America in a major way. Add a pinch of Iranian caginess when it comes to keeping the international community guessing about its nuclear intentions and enrichment levels. And finish it off with a natural American penchant these days for the talking cure instead of a shooting war, and next year may well provide a recipe for diplomacy, not conflict.

The point is: Without an Iran much further along in its quest for nuclear weapons, nobody with the possible exception of Israel -- and again, there's no consensus there, let alone in Washington -- has the inclination, let alone the will, to go to war right now. And while the issue of who's got bigger balls on what to do about Iran has already figured prominently in the campaign and in the debates, caution should be the watchword for now.

If a U.S. president at some point makes a decision that stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon requires military force -- that is to say it is in the highest category of what constitutes America's vital national interest -- he almost certainly will try every conceivable approach before acting, including the possibility of direct secret diplomacy with the mullahs. But I don't think we're there quite yet.

Americans love clarity. But clearly there's not much of it when it comes to so many dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program. Does Iran want an actual weapon? (I think so, but who really knows?) How much highly enriched uranium do the Iranians really possess? How far along is their weapons research? How long would it take Iran to get a few bombs? One to three years? Take your pick. How does military action -- "mowing the grass," as the Israelis put it -- prevent Iran from reconstituting its program?

We've been conditioned to think in terms of binary choices: bomb or accept the bomb. And without a negotiated deal on the enrichment issue or some unilateral capitulation, it may well come down to that, in large part because though there are clearly risks to using military force, there are also risks to inaction. Given the fact that both Obama and Romney have repeatedly committed themselves to preventing Iran from acquiring a weapon, failure to do so would be a huge blow to America's credibility. Keep in mind this is the third administration that has vowed to stop the Iranian nuclear program.

If a military strike on Iran by Israel or the United States is the option that is ultimately contemplated, then there are two issues in the uncertainty department that need to be carefully considered. Both involve the end-state objective; that is, what we're ultimately trying to achieve. First, if in fact Iran's quest for a weapon is a matter of identity driven by profound insecurity and grandiosity, what is to prevent the regime from reconstituting its weapons program -- this time with more legitimacy, more determination, and more resolve? And second, once knowledge is acquired and technical and scientific processes mastered, how do you "bomb" that information and knowledge from a society's collective consciousness and memory? It seems logical that unless you can change the acquisitive character of the mullahs when it comes to nuclear enrichment, an attack, certainly by Israel, would indeed be akin to mowing the grass. The Iranians will simply plant the seeds again and the grass will grow back.

Nothing about this logic chain should rule out consideration of using force. A negotiated settlement is preferable, but even that may not be able to provide the kinds of iron-clad guarantees that will reassure the United States, let alone the Israelis, that Iran has abandoned its nuclear-weapons aspirations. We have to get used to the fact that without a fundamental change in the Iranian regime, it's unlikely that we will ever reach this level of certainty and assurance.

And no one -- not Benjamin Netanyahu, not Barack Obama, not Mitt Romney -- has the capacity and power to produce that. Iran fashions itself a great power profoundly insecure and entitled. Had Ayatollah Khomeini not overthrown the shah in 1979, Iran would have already been a nuclear weapons state. And even if you somehow resolve the nuclear-weapons issue, there are a variety of other matters, from Iran's meddling in its neighbors to its support for terrorism, that divide Iran and the West.

Nukes or no nukes, this situation is likely to guarantee a continuation of a cold war between Iran and the West and the ever-present risk of a hot one. If I had to bet the mortgage, however, I'd say we'll still be in a twilight zone on the Iranian nuclear issue this time next year -- suspended somewhere between a war nobody wants and can afford and negotiations and sanctions that have not been able to stop the mullahs' search for a nuclear weapons capacity. Yet?

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