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Mossad Man

A memoir filled with sharply drawn portraits of Arab and Israeli leaders, and absorbing accounts of hitherto undisclosed diplomatic missions.

By 8.15.06

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This review appeared in the June 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.

Man in the Shadows:
Inside the Middle East Crisis With a Man Who Led the Mossad

by Efraim Halevy
(St. Martin's Press, 292 pages, $24.95)

READERS EAGER FOR SENSATIONAL tales of espionage and intrigue will be sorely disappointed by Efraim Halevy's Man in the Shadows. Though he served in Israel's formidable intelligence agency, the Mossad, for 40 years, headed that organization for four-and-a-half years, and -- among other high honors -- received the CIA's Director's Award, "in recognition of his unswerving commitment and dedication to the relationship between Israel and the United States of America," Halevy has precious little to say about the Mossad's covert operations. Instead, his book is filled with sharply drawn portraits of Arab and Israeli leaders, absorbing accounts of hitherto undisclosed diplomatic missions in which Halevy played a leading role, and astute observations on the war on terror. All this makes Halevy's book a solid, informative, but (alas!) totally unsensational overview of recent Middle East history.

Efraim Halevy was born in London in 1934. In 1948 he and his parents moved to Israel. In his early twenties he was president of the National Union of Israeli Students, and participated in numerous international gatherings around the world. Halevy joined the Mossad in 1961, served in several "senior postings," including Washington and Paris, and rose to become deputy chief in 1990. In 1995 he left the Mossad for an uneventful tour of duty in Brussels as Israel's ambassador to the European Union, but was recalled to Israel by prime minister Netanyahu in 1998 to lead the Mossad. In 2002 he was asked by Prime Minister Sharon to head up Israel's National Security Council, but he left after a year's service, deeply disturbed by Sharon's decision to endorse the so-called "Road Map" -- a plan for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, sponsored by the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations, that Halevy fears will culminate in an unfavorable settlement being imposed on Israel. Today, Halevy heads a foreign-policy think tank at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

In the course of his long career in the Mossad, Halevy developed an extraordinarily close personal relationship with King Hussein of Jordan (how this came about is not revealed) and some of the most interesting vignettes in Man in the Shadows deal with Halevy's role first in initiating, and then in salvaging, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. Of course, Israel and Jordan had enjoyed relatively friendly covert relations long before 1994, based on the fact that the two countries shared a host of common adversaries -- including Syria, the PLO, and the Muslim Brotherhood. But since the majority of Jordanians (some estimates run as high as 80 percent) are Palestinian in origin, and since their feelings toward Israel are anything but cordial, it seemed highly unlikely that Hussein would ever take the plunge and sign a formal peace treaty with Israel.

By 1994, however, two things had happened to alter the king's calculus. First, his benign attitude toward Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War had gotten him into hot water with the Americans, who stopped supplying Jordan's armed forces. Second, Hussein was afraid that in the aftermath of the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the PLO, the Palestinians would supplant Jordan as the principal guardians of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. To block the Palestinians and appease the Americans, King Hussein decided to bite the bullet and make peace with Israel.

EFRAIM HALEVY WAS the intermediary between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein in their initial efforts to define the broad contours of a peace treaty. Indeed, Halevy was the person who actually drafted the agreement on common principles that was unveiled in a ceremony on the White House lawn in July 1994, and came to be known as the Washington Declaration. In most countries, drafting a document of this importance would be the task of the Foreign Office; in Israel, however, Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres were bitter rivals, so naturally Rabin ordered Halevy to keep Peres totally in the dark about the Jordanian negotiations.

Thus it came about that the Israeli foreign minister never learned the actual wording of the Washington declaration until President Clinton read it out during the White House ceremony. When Clinton was done, Peres turned to Halevy and informed him that the declaration was "a very big mistake," because it contradicted promises that Peres had made to PLO leader Yassir Arafat regarding Jerusalem. (Of course, Peres had not bothered to inform Rabin of these promises.) When Halevy asked how the Washington Declaration contradicted Peres's promises, "I received no reply, and was kept wondering, to this very day, what it was that the Palestinians had been promised on the most delicate of subjects, that of Jerusalem, that the Washington Declaration appeared to contradict."

It took three months before Israeli and Jordanian negotiators succeeded in translating the Washington Declaration into a formal peace treaty. One of the most serious sticking points concerned a swath of land south of the Dead Sea that Israel had occupied as a result of the Six-Day War and that Jordan demanded back. The problem was that Israel had established thriving villages in that area, and that uprooting those villages would be traumatic. Jordanian and Israeli negotiators finally agreed that while Jordan would regain sovereignty over the entire area, Israelis would temporarily be allowed to cultivate the land. But how long would this temporary arrangement last? Once again, Rabin dispatched Halevy to Jordan to work out an arrangement with King Hussein.

The two men met in Amman in the guest house of Crown Prince Hassan, the king's brother. Also present was the head of the Royal Court, Aun Hassauna. As Halevy tells it, after a leisurely lunch, the negotiations began:

The king turned to me and asked whether I thought that five years was reasonable. I shook my head from left to right, so he offered ten; this time I responded verbally, saying that this was too short a time to allow people on the ground to accustom themselves to a condition that would resemble the relations between Belgium and the Netherlands. The King went up to fifteen and as I shook my head once again he said twenty. By this time Aun Hassauna was beginning to show signs of growing agitation and as I indicated that we had not yet reached the right number, His Majesty said, "Twenty-five," whereupon Hassauna veritably exploded, urging His Majesty to go back rather than forward. I immediately realized that we could go no further and concentrated my effort on securing the twenty-five-year limit. At a given moment, His Majesty said that it would be twenty-five and that was it. Thus did we secure a quarter of a century of continued exploitation of the land in the south together with the use of the water obtained from the wells in exchange for additional water that Israel would allot to Jordan in the north.

Halevy's final contribution to Israeli-Jordanian relations came after he had retired from the Mossad and became ambassador to the EU. (Rabin had wanted to appoint Halevy ambassador to Jordan, but Peres blocked the appointment.) One day, Ambassador Halevy received an urgent summons to Jerusalem to deal with a major crisis. A Mossad hit team operating in Jordan had tried to assassinate a prominent leader of the terrorist organization Hamas, but the attack failed, two of the six Mossad agents were captured by Jordanian authorities and the remaining four had taken shelter in the Israeli embassy in Amman. A furious King Hussein was demanding that Israel hand the four agents over to Jordan, and had ordered a crack Jordanian military unit to storm the embassy if his demand was refused. Such an attack, of course, might well scuttle the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty.

Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, looked to Halevy to come up with a solution -- and Halevy did not disappoint. He suggested that the Israelis release the jailed founder of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and hand him over to King Hussein, who would thus gain credit with his people for securing the beloved sheikh's freedom; in return, Hussein would allow the six Mossad agents to return to Israel. Netanyahu reluctantly agreed, and everything went as planned: King Hussein became a Palestinian hero, the Israelis were allowed to go home, and Jordan transferred Sheikh Yassin to Gaza, where he instructed Palestinian suicide bombers on the heavenly delights awaiting them until he himself was dispatched to the next world by an Israeli bomb in 2003.

Halevy obviously had a unique bond of friendship with the late King Hussein, but the political constellation in Jordan -- a straightforward acceptance of Israel among the ruling elite, coupled with a vicious rejection of Israel among the masses -- also exists, to one degree or another, in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, and Qatar. As Halevy explains, "Whereas at the senior and top levels of government in the Arab world there has been a steadily growing acceptance of Israel as a reality -- and, by some, even as a vital partner in the fight against violence and hate -- these very same regimes have nurtured and in some cases even encouraged popular activities that have run contrary to their so-called strategic policies and interests."

Given this curious state of affairs, I would guess that Israeli leaders have ambivalent feelings about President Bush's Democracy Initiative. On the one hand, they must surely welcome any American action that encourages Arab governments to confront their dire social problems directly, instead of blaming all their ills on "Zionist conspiracies." On the other hand, they probably fear that popular inroads into the prerogatives of relatively friendly Arab leaders will only serve to unwind the fragile web of understandings that currently exists between Israel and some of her Arab neighbors. After all, it is inconceivable that King Hussein would so readily have agreed to allow Israelis to cultivate Jordanian land if he had to answer for his decision to a genuinely representative Jordanian parliament.

IF KING HUSSEIN WAS THE ARAB LEADER Halevy most admired, Yassir Arafat was the leader Halevy least understood. He provides numerous examples of the wild, outrageously crude lies that Arafat peddled both in his public pronouncements and in private meetings with heads of state -- such as telling President Clinton, during the Camp David peace talks, that Jews had no connection to Jerusalem, or informing European leaders that Mossad agents, rather than Palestinian terrorists, had murdered a prominent Israeli cabinet minister. When Halevy told his Arab interlocutors about Arafat's lies, their invariable response was, "Are you telling me about Arafat's lying and prevarications? This is nothing compared to what I have to tell you!" Halevy was never able to decide whether Arafat actually believed his own falsehoods -- in which case he was seriously divorced from reality -- or whether he was simply a cynical, compulsive liar. Either way, Arafat clearly was not a credible peace partner for Israel.

And yet, in the 1993 Oslo Agreement Prime Minister Rabin had accepted Arafat as Israel's partner in the search for peace. How did Rabin, a prudent strategic thinker "known to be a stickler when it came to Israel's security interests," ever come to embrace the likes of Arafat? In Halevy's view, Rabin was forced into the Oslo Agreement by his arch-rival (and Halevy's least favorite Israeli leader), Shimon Peres. As Halevy tells it, when Rabin came into office he was focused on achieving a peace agreement with Syria, not the PLO. He knew that Peres and his acolytes were pursuing covert negotiations in Norway with Arafat, but didn't think anything would come of the "Oslo track." Rabin "was himself taken aback by the outcome, but was politically unable to extricate himself from the web that had been woven by the nonprofessionals who had championed and produced what Rabin himself would later come to describe as a piece of Swiss cheese, where the holes outnumber the actual morsels of cheese." The irony of Rabin's career is that his name will always be associated with a Palestinian-Israeli agreement that he privately regarded as deeply flawed; the tragedy of Rabin's life is that he was cut down by an Israeli zealot before he was able to fill the Oslo Agreement's many holes.

Of course, the Arab leader on most American minds today is the head of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. Halevy believes that al Qaeda seeks to bring about "an Islamic empire that will encompass the entire planet." To achieve its goal, al Qaeda is fully prepared to use weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations, and it is the proliferation of these weapons throughout the Middle East, and the growing risk that al Qaeda will obtain some of them, that makes the current crisis -- Halevy calls it World War III -- so dangerous. Like President Bush, Halevy believes that there is only one way to deal with al Qaeda: "Given the character and methods employed by the Islamic terrorists, only their destruction will produce the ultimate solution."

In the meantime, Halevy urges Americans to create a "fully-fledged security service." He thinks the FBI is not up to the job, since its principal task is to prosecute crimes after they are committed, while the main job of a security service is to prevent a terrorist act from occurring in the first place. Halevy acknowledges that many Americans would oppose, on libertarian grounds, the creation of the kind of agency he advocates, but he is adamant: "As long as there is no security service in the United States, there shall remain a yawning gap in the defenses of that great nation.O That could well be one of the reasons for the success of any future attack on American territory."

But if Halevy does not hesitate to offer Americans advice on how best to protect themselves against their enemies, he is silent on other matters of great topical interest, such as Saddam's alleged possession of WMD, or the extent of the ties between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda. Since Halevy was at the helm of the Mossad in the run-up to the Second Gulf War, he is uniquely qualified to address these issues, and his failure to do so is disappointing. (Other prominent Israelis have not been so reticent. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, Israel's former military chief-of-staff, recently stated that Saddam did possess WMD, which he transferred to Syria on the eve of the war.)

Still, Man in the Shadows is an important book. Efraim Halevy sat at the right hand of power in Israel during one of the most fateful and significant periods in Middle East history, and if he does not reveal all that he knows, what he does choose to tell us about his own exploits, and about the organization he once headed, is enough to remind us that today, as in the past, brains and courage are still the decisive forces of human history.

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About the Author

Joseph Shattan is the author of Architects of Victory: Six Heroes of the Cold War.