This month, St. Martin's Press published a paperback edition of Halevy's riveting 2006 memoir of his 35 years in the Mossad, Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad. I interviewed Halevy by phone and email about his career, details of covert channels in his book, and his recent public call for both the Bush administration and Israel to talk with the Palestinian militant group, Hamas.
Mother Jones: Mr. Halevy, in your memoir you make clear your belief that Europe, and to a lesser extent the United States, have not fully come to terms with the national security threats posed by Islamic militancy and terrorism. Yet you've also said it would be a grave mistake for the West to treat all Islamist terrorist groups the same way, and argued that Israel should have some sort of process for talking with Hamas. If the West, led by Washington, continues to shun Hamas as an illegitimate terrorist group, do you see a risk that the group could take on a more nihilistic type of violence, a la al Qaeda?
Efraim Halevy: Hamas is not al Qaeda and, indeed, al Qaeda has condemned them time and time again. Hamas may from time to time have tactical, temporary contact with al Qaeda, but in essence they are deadly adversaries. The same goes for Iran. Hamas receives funds, support, equipment, and training from Iran, but is not subservient to Tehran. A serious effort to dialogue indirectly with them could ultimately drive a wedge between them.
MJ: Why do you think Israel and Washington should talk with Hamas?
EH: Hamas has, unfortunately, demonstrated that they are more credible and effective as a political force inside Palestinian society than Fatah, the movement founded by [former Palestinian Authority president] Yassir Arafat, which is now more than ever discredited as weak, enormously corrupt and politically inept.
[Hamas has] pulled off three "feats" in recent years in conditions of great adversity. They won the general elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006; they preempted a Fatah design to wrest control of Gaza from them in 2007; and they broke out of a virtual siege that Israel imposed upon them in January 2008. In each case, they affected a strategic surprise upon all other players in the region and upon the United States, and in each case, no effective counter strategy mounted by the US and Israel proved effective.
Security in the West Bank is assured not by the fledgling and ineffective security forces of Abu Mazen now undergoing training once again by American-led instructors. It is the nightly incursions of the Israeli Defense Forces into the West Bank, their superior intelligence, together with that of the Israel Security Agency that does the job.
Current strategy in the West Bank to forge a credible Palestinian security capacity is floundering; indeed, several of the deaths of Israelis at the hands of West Bank terrorists were perpetrated by none other than members of the units under the command of Abu Mazen.
It makes sense to approach a possible initial understanding including Hamas—but not exclusively Hamas—at a time when they are still asking for one. No side will gain from a flare up leading to Israel re-entering the Gaza strip in strength to undo the ill-fated unilateral disengagement of 2005.
MJ: Should Hamas be required to recognize Israel's right to exist before Israel would talk with it?
EH: Israel has been successful in inflicting very serious losses upon Hamas in both Gaza and the West Bank and this has certainly had an effect on Hamas, who are now trying to get a "cease fire." But this has not cowed them into submission and into accepting the three-point diktat that the international community has presented to them: to recognize Israel's right to exist; to honor all previous commitments of the Palestinian Authority; and to prevent all acts of violence against Israel and Israelis. The last two conditions are, without doubt, sine qua non. The first demands an a priori renunciation of ideology before contact is made. Such a demand has never been made before either to an Arab state or to the Palestinian Liberation Organization/Fatah. There is logic in the Hamas' position that ideological "conversion" is the endgame and not the first move in a negotiation.
MJ: How should such talks be conducted?
EH: Hamas shuns direct contact and negotiations with Israel and this actually meets Israel's reciprocal attitude to them. The same is true of the United States. But Hamas is eager to "engage" the two indirectly and reach a verifiable cease fire, and understands that could lead to more "down the road."
Such a strategy of indirect proximity engagement, whilst covering our flanks, offers the prospects of lowering the temperature in the region, easing constraints, and opening up real possibilities of social and economic progress. This is a policy that could be tested, and is warranted by the abject failure of the present Palestinian Authority rump leadership in the West Bank led by the aging, tired and sad Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas], and his able prime minister Salaam Fayyad, a great economist and banker but a man who does not pretend to overstay his time.
MJ: Regarding your mention of "indirect proximity talks." Structurally, how does that work? Is it conducted by a third party, like Egypt or Turkey? Who would be a trusted broker?
EH: Proximity talks can sometime be done through third parties who are states or individuals—third party emissaries who are not states. It can be done by personalities acceptable to both sides.
MJ: How do we know this is not already taking place?
EH: I don't know whether it's occurring or not. If it's occurring, I applaud it.
MJ: Do you envisage that new leadership in Washington next year could reject the path taken by Bush of refusing to deal with Hamas and make a big change towards the approach you recommend?
EH: I have no idea. I don't want to second guess, and I don't know who the leadership will be. It would be politically incorrect to start surmising what the new leadership would do a year from now. A year in life of the Middle East is a millennium.
MJ: Again and again, Israel and Washington too have tried to engineer which Palestinians would come to power, to whom they would speak or recognize, etc. Is this itself problematic? Should the West step back from trying to manipulate internal Palestinian politics?
EH: Yes, for two reasons. First, is the sovereign right of Palestinians to decide who their leadership should be. I think that is the basis of democracy. More than that, it is the best possible way in my opinion for a country or society to determine how it wants to be governed and how it wants to be lead. And second, so far it must be admitted that attempts to do this [manipulate internal Palestinian politics] have not succeeded. After all, in the final analysis, it would not be possible to create and fashion a leadership from without.
MJ: It's not just Washington and Israel, but Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas who is asking those countries not to deal with Hamas, but rather strengthen him. So do you think it's more of the same phenomenon if the West then picks Hamas as the more legitimate representation of the Palestinians?
EH: I don't think one or the other are the sole representation. But I think that the way things are at the moment, the two of them have a major role in the leadership of the Palestinian people, and to exclude one and to magnify the other artificially will not lead to a productive outcome.
I don't know whether it is Abu Mazen who is pushing Washington and Israel not to deal with Hamas, or Abu Mazen who is acquiescing to them, or some combination of both. I don't know who the stronger element in this policy is.
There is a triangle of forces: Israel, the Abu Mazen–led group in Ramallah, and the [Bush] administration. They have become mutually interdependent on this policy and one cannot rule without the other two. That's the way it is at the moment.
MJ: You are not optimistic that the current administration will change course?
EH: It appears by all indications that neither Israel nor the United States are prepared to contemplate such a test of alternative strategy. Therefore, what we seem to be in for is a period where Israel will continue to negotiate the details of a permanent settlement to the dispute with a rump Palestinian leadership that has already indicated it will not run for re-election in the upcoming elections in 2009.