Over the past few years, reams of paper and barrels of ink have been expended to describe the failure of U.S. intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war: how Dick Cheney, the neocons, and their allies in the intelligence agencies and defense department exaggerated or lied their way to a conclusion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, was allied with al Qaeda, and posed an imminent threat to the safety and security of the region, if not the world. Which is why the operative statement by the Democratic presidential primary candidates who voted for the war was: “If I’d known then what I know now…”
Akiva Eldar, in a penetrating analysis, has done the same for Israeli military intelligence going back to the failure of Camp David and the beginning of the second intifada in 2000. With the help of key inside players, the Haaretz reporter has revealed the fundamental flaws at the heart of Israeli military and political policy regarding the Palestinians and the disastrous consequences they’ve had for Israel.
Essentially, Eldar’s thesis is that there is a bifurcation between “cooked” oral briefings provided for the political echelon and “objective” written analyses maintained for archival purposes, posterity, and commissions of inquiry. The oral briefings are tailored, much as U.S. intelligence estimates were, to the needs and political interests of political leaders.
If Barak and Sharon needed a narrative that blamed Arafat for the failure of Camp David and the preparation and execution of the intifada, then military intelligence was only too willing to oblige in briefings before the cabinet and Knesset committees.
But if you examine the written reports on the same subjects and in the same period, they differ markedly and in some cases diametrically oppose each other. Eldar quotes MI senior officer, Efraim Lavie:
…Lavie described the “two voices” syndrome in a November 2003 letter…”Failures in the Work of Intelligence Regarding the Palestinian Issue.” The “oral doctrine” is documented in the minutes of General Staff and cabinet meetings where senior MI officers gave briefings. In these closed forums (though much of the content finds its way into the media) MI officers provide assessments that are close to the leaders’ views but often deviate from internal written assessments.
“This situation leaves the researchers with the very unpleasant feeling that the written assessments lack all influence and are meant mainly for [possible future] commissions of inquiry. The result is that the expensive work of collecting material and the professional analyses by dozens of officers and noncoms go down the tubes,” Lavie wrote.
Anyone who wonders why Israeli policy seems based on a myriad of questionable assumptions, if not outright delusions, need only review Eldar’s piece to understand where the failure originates.
A case in point was the period after Camp David failed and leading up to the onset of the second intifada. Received wisdom declares that Arafat intended for the negotiations to fail all along. That he and his Fatah cohort pre-planned the intifada in order to extract their pound of flesh from Israel and better their negotiating position. Internal military intelligence documents reveal this political line as a total fraud. Here Eldar relates Sharon’s 2005 unilateral policy in Gaza to Camp David:
According to Lavie, the conception that left room solely for unilateral moves and a policy of brute force did not originate with Sharon. Since the failure of the Camp David summit in July 2000, when Ehud Barak adopted the “no partner” theory, the research unit, then under Amos Gilad, supported describing Israel’s response to the intifada as a “war of no choice,” a war preplanned by Arafat for ideological reasons.
…The 2008 internal investigation contradicts this view. On August 29, 2000, shortly after the Camp David summit, the research unit stated in its situation appraisal that Arafat continued to prefer the negotiations as the way to advance his strategic goals, and he was convinced that violence would not help his cause at that stage. On August 30 the unit advised that Arafat was restraining the crisis and continued to adhere to the Oslo process. In an unprecedented step he also issued instructions to prepare public opinion to accept an agreement that would include compromises…
MI also warned against the severe provocation posed by Sharon’s walk on the Temple Mount which many mark as the tipping point in initiating the intifada:
On September 27, 2000, when Prime Minister Barak allowed Sharon to visit the Temple Mount, the research unit urgently submitted an “intelligence compendium” in which it warned that in light of the religious and political sensitivity of the site, “violent confrontations are liable to develop with our forces.” Three days later the intelligence researchers stated: “Arafat is not interested in an all-out confrontation, which is liable to pull the ground from under him.” A 2004 investigation…conducted by MI’s Palestinian desk, found unequivocally that the second intifada erupted as a “popular protest” because people wanted to let off steam and vent the anger that accumulated due to the failure of negotiations and the inability to extract political achievements from Israel. Arafat encouraged the popular activity in order to extricate himself from his plight after he rejected the Israeli offers at Camp David…
Ami Ayalon, who headed the Shin Bet until April 2000, confirms there was no intelligence document asserting that Arafat planned the intifada. “On the contrary,” Ayalon says, “I know that documents that were seized in Operation Defensive Shield [showing] that the intifada took even senior Fatah leaders by surprise…
Ayalon[‘s]…successors at the Shin Bet…Avi Dichter and Yuval Diskin have [also] stated that the intifada was a grass-roots uprising and was not planned from above…
In a November 2003 document, Lavie wrote: “In General Staff think-team discussions, headed by the chief of the strategic division and with senior representatives of General Staff bodies, it was understood that defining Arafat and the PA as ‘terrorist elements’ was the directive of the political echelon, even if it did not declare this explicitly and did dictate this to the army.”
If you consider how completely the charade developed by Barak and later Sharon was absorbed into the national consciousness and reinforced when parroted by U.S. participants like Dennis Ross and Clinton himself, it is almost criminal. Such “cooking of the books” causes future national policy to be based on equally faulty premises leading to developments like the current disaster in Gaza.
The same intelligence “double voice” was operative around the Gaza disengagement. Some analysts argued at the time that a unilateral disengagement would not work. It would in fact strengthen Hamas and weaken Fatah. It would embolden the most extreme and confirm their impression that acts of violent resistance worked in bringing Israel to its knees. Instead, they argued that a bilateral agreement was critical to ensure a favorable outcome for the withdrawal.
This wasn’t what Sharon wanted to hear. So either through direct pressure or understanding what his masters wanted without being told, senior military intelligence officials came around to Sharon’s view in their public asessments. But if you examine the written record, the warnings of failure are there.
Some of the naysayers have had crises of conscience and revealed their doubts to Eldar. One of them was Lavie, who wrote to his boss (one of those who provided the “cooked” briefings), about the erroneous Sharon claim that Israel had to unilaterally disengage because there was no legitimate partner:
In a…letter to Ze’evi-Farkash, Lavie wrote: “The conception underneath the ‘no partner’ approach became a model with grave national implications. Its consequences are manifested in the unilateral disengagement plan for Gaza and in the construction of the separation fence in Judea and Samaria.” Lavie added that he had discovered, from conversations with former Shin Bet and Mossad espionage agency personnel, that their organizations had also seen the same disparity between oral and written doctrine, which had helped deepen the mistaken conception.
In this way, one initial assumption based on quicksand gives rise to a concatenating series of mistaken judgments. Each judgment leads to one of greater import and severity. Before long, you have an entire national policy based on a tissue of lies.
Lavie notes that Israel’s initial “no partner” argument not only justified a pre-conceived policy the political leaders wished to adopt—it actually created precisely the climate of chaos in the Territories that the original theory propounded:
..Lavie wrote that the assessment that “there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk about” was mistaken. The [support] for that assessment, he found, was [in] the Palestinians’ rejection of the Israeli approach to negotiations. When Israel resorted to force due to this assessment, Lavie says, it annulled every distinction between Hamas and Fatah and created a governmental void that ultimately corroborated the assessment. Instead of presenting and evaluating the adversary’s capabilities and intentions…in order to provide the policymakers with optimal tools to make decisions, the MI research unit became an instrument in the politicians’ propaganda campaign.
Lavie maintains that MI did not analyze the implications of how the IDF suppressed the intifada. It did not warn against turning the PA into an empty vessel, or against creating a governmental vacuum that could be filled by terrorist elements and foreign parties such as Iran and Hezbollah. Nor did it warn about the population’s support for continuing the struggle.
Moreover, the reality that took shape in the territories due to the mistaken evaluation and the military policy [on which it was predicated] ostensibly justified the evaluation, thus paving the way for more of the same policy, which ultimately caused immense strategic damage.
According to Lavie, intelligence’s main failure in this regard is that since Camp David, MI has ignored the connection between Israel’s acts and their implications for the Palestinian arena…The fact that no distinction was made between terrorist elements and the general population, the destruction of the Palestinians’ center of government…and the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza – all these developments contributed directly to strengthening Hamas, to its election victory and takeover of the Gaza Strip, and the fading opportunity for two states for two peoples.
Perhaps it is a bit Pollyannish to talk about ethics in the context of intelligence, but Eldar’s report is a perfect example of the use of political lies and cooked intelligence. Basing policy on such deceitful premises leads a nation to grief. It happened to us in Iraq. It is happening as I write this in Gaza.
Here in the U.S., we were able to elect a president who many hope will restore some credibility to our intelligence services. In Israel, politicians are not rewarded for being the kind of reformer Barack Obama seeks to be. Politicians are rewarded for telling the populace what they want to hear. And MI is an all too willing accomplice.
Intelligence should convey to political leaders brutally honest, realistic, and candid assessments of both its own military capabilities and those of the enemy. The quality of the decisions politicians and generals make is directly tied to the quality of the information they are provided.