Maclean’s Interview: Efraim Halevy

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy on the prospects for peace with the Palestinians, and Iran, and why Israel is indestructible
Yoni Goldstein

Efraim Halevy is the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, where he worked closely with five Israeli prime ministers—Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon. He is the author of Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis With a Man Who Led the Mossad.

Q: What are the real chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians?
A: I think peace between Israel and the Palestinians hinges on the Palestinians proving the capability of nationhood. I don’t think that nationhood can be thrust upon the Palestinians from without. A nation has to be built from within—and it has to be purely Palestinians who create and build their own nation. The way things are at the moment, the Palestinians are not creating their own nation. The nation is being created from without. The United States is training their military forces; Tony Blair is chaperoning them and helping them build their economic and political institutions; the European Union is helping in other fields. In other words, what is being done is the Palestinian nation is being built with outside help. This, I think, cannot succeed. Whether the Palestinians have it within their capacity to transform what they have into a nation that has an in-built hierarchy, that has an in-built structure of discipline and orderly conduct—this is something that we don’t know yet.

Q: Do you have a sense whether they’ll be able to do it?
A: I don’t know. I think that if it is not the case, then they’re in for a lot of trouble. I think it is in Israel’s interest that there should be a Palestinian state—I think it is in Israel’s interest that there should be a Palestinian people that is capable of sustaining a Palestinian state. But what has been going on in recent years is not very encouraging.

Q: Should Israel negotiate with Hamas?
A: I believe Israel should try to work toward a situation where Hamas would be part of the solution, and not part of the problem. Hamas is not a movement with a religious leadership. It is a secular movement. It will take time, but Hamas has already moved from its original positions. What we should be intent on doing is not to beat Hamas ideologically—they will not beat us and we cannot beat them. If we resort to an ideological confrontation, it will go on forever. What we need to do is to bring Hamas to a point where it will understand that it is in its interest to reach an accommodation with Israel. And I believe that they are on the way. I would remind you that when Gorbachev concluded it was in the interest of the Soviet Union to bring an end to the Cold War, it was in the end the Soviets who took care of the Communist party, and actually sent it into opposition.

Q: What signs do you see that would indicate Hamas is moving from its stated goals?
A: First of all, Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshal, is on the record as saying that he is willing to accept the borders of 1967 as the provisional borders of a Palestinian state. He is not relinquishing the ultimate dream that he will control the whole of Palestine. But he says that, for the moment, he will accept the 1967 borders. This brings him toward the position where he is accepting the reality of Israel. This is the beginning of his understanding, and the understanding of others, that it is not within the capability of Hamas to bring about the extinction of the state of Israel. They understand that Israel is indestructible—they aren’t saying it, but they understand it. And I think this is something we have to encourage and develop.

Q: Is the proposed prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel good news for peace?
A: If there is a prisoner swap, what is clear is that neither side will achieve all its aims. Each side will have to make very painful concessions—Israel is going to certainly make a painful concession if it goes through with the swap, and Hamas will also make painful concessions because it will not get the release of all the people it wants. When you make painful concessions, you begin your march on the road to making an accommodation. Once you make mutual painful concessions, then the parties begin on the path that will bring a degree of conciliation. It will not be a full conciliation at the beginning; the conciliation will take much longer. Maybe more than a generation, maybe two. But the conciliation process will have been launched.

Q: What sort of threat does Iran pose to Israel?
A: Israel and Iran do not have conflicting interests. The conflicting interest is between Israel and the regime in Iran. And the regime in Iran has unfortunately painted itself into a corner. What they have done is, for 30 years or more, they have acted to obtain a direct channel of negotiations with the U.S.—and for decades the U.S. rejected them. When the U.S. changed its policy and decided to engage Iran, Iran announced it had certain demands. It wants to be recognized as a regional power, and it wants to pursue the target of bringing an end to the state of Israel. By its own doing, Iran has created a situation whereby it cannot reach an ultimate accommodation with the U.S. without relinquishing its active pursuit of the destruction of Israel—because the U.S. would never permit this to happen. So, figuratively speaking, by their own doing, the road from Tehran to Washington goes through Jerusalem, which from their point of view, I don’t think is such a wise thing to do.

Q: But what about the nuclear threat?
A It is a serious threat. It is not an existential threat. It is not within the power of Iran to destroy the state of Israel—at best it can cause Israel grievous damage. Israel is indestructible. I believe that Israel has a sufficient capability, both offensive and defensive, to take care of any threat, including the Iranian threat.

Q: Is there a potential diplomatic solution to the conflict?
A: There should be a dialogue between the Iranians and the U.S. Up till now, the dialogue has not produced results—the Iranians are being very obstructive. The U.S. is now launching an effort to bring about a new wave of sanctions against Iran, and the Iranians are retaliating very arrogantly. I believe that the U.S. will pursue these sanctions and will also pursue negotiations at the same time. If the Iranians are foolish enough to reject the outstretched hand of the U.S., and of the entire world, then they will have to pay a very, very severe penalty. There are also elements of last resort, but I don’t want to go into those. My take is that it could well be that the Iranians will make a last-minute decision to not test the last resorts of the other side. The Iranians have changed course before when they felt they were in real peril. I don’t think they feel that way yet.

Q: What is the state of Canada-Israel relations in the wake of Mossad agents being found with stolen Canadian passports?
A: I have more than reason to believe that all the difficulties that were characteristic of the past have been removed. And I believe that there are strong ties and co-operation, at diplomatic and other levels, between Canada and Israel. I think relations have developed in a very substantive manner.

Q: But was there a period of wariness when the passport scandal was revealed?
A: I think we went through a period in which relations were—how should I say?—at bay. But both sides reached the conclusion that it was in their mutual interest to find a solution.

Q: George W. Bush was a strong supporter of Israel. How does Obama compare?
A: In the relationship between Israel and the U.S., we’ve had ups and downs. We had 16 years of Clinton and Bush Jr., which was a sort of golden period. Obama is a different person, with a different style, and I think we have to accommodate those styles. We can’t always believe that there is someone in the White House who is going to be as friendly as some others. But I am sure that President Obama recognizes—and I know that he recognizes—that Israel is a very valuable and important partner in most of the endeavours that the U.S. is involved in globally. And I know for a fact that there are people surrounding him—and I know some of them personally—that would advise him that when it comes to the nitty-gritty the position of Israel as a pivot in the Middle East is of extreme importance to the U.S. Israel is the focal point of the Middle East, at least geographically, and you must assume that being where we are, we perform a very important and unique role. We are a point of sanity, of democracy, of capability, of devotion. We have common values and aims that transcend one kind of an administration or another. And I know Obama respects this.

Q: Do you see another war on the horizon for Israel?
A: I would prefer not to answer the question for two reasons: because Israel has a record of having to go to war in circumstances that have a surprise—the ’67 war was a surprise, the ’73 war was a surprise, the ’96 war was a surprise. The Middle East has this characteristic of suddenly producing a catalytic turn of events. You get up in the morning, you suddenly see shifting sands, and within a very short space of time one thing leads to another and you have a war on your hands. Secondly, in Jewish religion, prophecy is given to fools—and I prefer to not be any more foolish than is absolutely necessary. Having said this, I cannot rule out the possibility of another confrontation. The situation in Lebanon—where Hezbollah is a state within a state, and has amassed an enormous new arsenal of missiles—cannot last for a very long time, and is pregnant with the possibility of a confrontation. And Israel is preparing for it.

Q: You discount the term “occupation” as it references the West Bank and Gaza. Why?
A: In 1947, the UN passed a resolution setting up two states in Palestine. Israel accepted it; the Arab states rejected it. In 1948, there was a war, and at the end of the war Israel occupied a certain part of the territory that was formerly Palestine and the rest was occupied by Jordan and Egypt. In 1967, the Jordanians launched an attack against Israel. We had to move against an attack against us and we took over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But the status of these territories is questionable: if you say we occupy them, then we occupy them from an occupier. There was never a Palestinian independent state, so technically speaking we occupied British-mandated territory. But this is absurd. Legally speaking, we are not an occupying force.

Q: What about the fact that Israel is controlling land on which another people, culture and language are prevalent?
A: Israel is not occupying those areas. It is maintaining them. It has not annexed the territories, or declared them part of Israel. We are administering the territories, because they had to be administered when they fell into our hands as the result of a war we did not initiate. We suddenly found ourselves with two territories. We could have handed them back to the Egyptians and the Jordanians, but we didn’t. We could have handed them back to the occupiers—would that have been better?