POLITICS MARCH 20, 2006
THE AUTHOR SERVED for four and a half years as the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. As a thought experiment, he placed himself inside the mind of a Palestinian spymaster to provide a cold assessment of the challenges faced by the new Hamas-led government. The following is a memo to Ismail Haniyeh, the Palestinian prime minister.
Mr. Prime Minister:
Your rise to power has been meteoric and unprecedented. Less than 20 years after Sheik Ahmed Yassin founded Hamas—and after six years of bloody confrontation with the Israelis, during which many promising leaders perished in action—Hamas has scored a brilliant political triumph. You are now the leader of the Palestinian people, and I am obliged to provide you with an assessment of your prospects.
Let’s begin with the international scene and some of the best news. The immediate steps taken by the Israelis and Americans to isolate Hamas have backfired. President Vladimir Putin of Russia invited your representatives to his capital—and that’s before your government met any of the conditions imposed by the Quartet (the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations). The attempt to cast us as pariahs is disintegrating. We have already received expressions of support from key countries in the region, notably Iran. And even states like Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan, which have reservations about your victory, have gingerly accepted the election results. (Of course, we would wish for a more enthusiastic reception from the Saudis.) Somewhat more surprisingly, the Europeans and even the Americans have evinced great pragmatism in their dealings with us, allowing us the funds needed to sustain the lives of our citizenry. All in all, Hamas has topped 19 years of struggle with internal victory and a string of notable diplomatic successes within the space of a very few weeks.
But, in my capacity as intelligence chief, I am duty-bound to identify the threats to the Palestinian cause and to your leadership. Indeed, just as the prospects have never been so good, the threats have never been greater—they are, to be blunt, existential.
You must now define your basic aims and policies, both internally and externally. How will you govern? Who will you bring into the fold? And who will you leave out in the cold? Every option has a price tag, as you know. If you wish to forge an alliance with Fatah, you will have to give it a much larger piece of the pie. And, if you alienate the outgoing leadership, you must expect that it will not accept its political demise gracefully. This brings me to a far larger concern: the armed groups—Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine— in our midst. Since you are now the government, you must determine their fate. I don’t believe that you can disarm them. That is, I assume that you will not wish to initiate a fitna, a bloody showdown with our Palestinian brethren. But you will still have to find a method of disciplining these groups. You will not wish to allow any further descent into anarchy, the very lawlessness that the Palestinian people sought to reject by voting you into office. And, needless to say, the Israelis would view such chaos as a pretext for moving into Palestine once again.
Then we arrive at the question of corruption. More than any other issue, the promise of clean government propelled you into office. I recommend that you punish at least a few representative figures from the previous Fatah regime, perhaps more. For obvious reasons, I do not wish to mention names. You know them all. And I’m sure that I don’t need to emphasize this point, but the high expectations of the population will prove exceptionally difficult to manage. They don’t just expect you to herald an era free of graft and malfeasance, but also to improve quality of life, maintain internal cohesion, and provide a modicum of domestic tranquility. Women, in particular, expect an enlightened era in which the government squares the spirit of Islam with recognition of some attributes of modernity. You will find that Palestinian women are more assertive than ever.
I’ve already described some good news on the international front. But our foreign relations will require their own delicacy. Your success requires the support of the current regimes in Jordan and Egypt, where the sister movements of the Muslim Brotherhood are gaining encouragement from your political triumph. If the leaders in Cairo and Amman feel that your policies undermine their interests, they will not hesitate to act against you or to leave you twisting in the wind. I must remind you that, at the height of the intifada, in March and April 2002, President Yasir Arafat appealed to Cairo and Amman to suspend diplomatic relations with Israel, which was then driving into every West Bank hamlet sowing death and destruction. Both capitals frostily turned Arafat down because their strategic relationship with Israel transcended their solidarity with Palestine. Even Damascus and Tehran (yes, Tehran), didn’t lift a finger for us in that desperate hour. If Bashar Assad and Ayatollah Khameini had ordered the firing of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, they could have knocked the Israelis seriously off balance. But all we received from these supposedly radical capitals were hot words and stunning operational silence. I would advise we realistically estimate the support that we might obtain in the region—particularly if we maintain Hamas’s guiding principles and policies.
Let me add another caveat about the surprisingly warm reception the new government has received abroad. That is, the Russians and Turks have hardly embraced you for the purest of motives. If I read their statements correctly, they believe that they can domesticate and defang Hamas with their kindness. They may also be driven by a more ephemeral goal: to help promote their own relationship with Tehran. At the same time that your colleague Khaled Mashal and his group visited Moscow, the Russians were engaged in a last-minute effort to strike a deal with the Iranians to curtail their nuclear program. Let me say, if the Russian negotiations with Iran fail, you will find Moscow backing the American position and not the Iranian one. This is a very fundamental Russian instinct that all players in the region have learned in the 15 years since the Soviet Union’s fall. Please do not base any of your strategy solely on reports you might receive from brother Mashal.
The United States, Mr. Prime Minister, has encountered its share of recent difficulties in the Middle East. Its interests in the region are many and complex. They are great friends and allies of Israel, but, on occasion, they have been known to come down very hard on Israeli governments, including that of Ariel Sharon. However, we must understand that the Americans have decided that the destiny of the entire Western world hinges on major changes in the Middle East, including regime change. They have committed their forces to battle in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and they will do this wherever the necessity arises. They will not quit halfway, because they believe the fate of their civilization depends on defeating so-called “international Islamic terrorism.” They will therefore move to crush any obstacle in their path. The United States is well-aware that you are the first national faction of the Muslim Brotherhood in the entire region to reach power. You are a precedent, a first example, and, if you play it wrong—if you act in a way that seriously jeopardizes the allies of Washington—the United States will permit you to go down to a resounding armed and political defeat. Just as you are the first victor, you are the most vulnerable. And, at the end of the day, you will find the whole of Europe, Russia, Japan, India, Pakistan, the United Nations, and—believe me, Mr. Prime Minister—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan confronting you.
NOW, MR. PRIME MINISTER, I’m obliged to turn to a discussion of our enemy. As your intelligence officer, I must give you an honest assessment of the Israelis, however unpleasant some of it might be. In my initial description of events, I highlighted Hamas’s achievements during the last 20-odd years. The Israelis have also not done too badly, despite their withdrawal from Gaza and locales in the northern West Bank. They have the best-trained, best-equipped, and most experienced military machine in the Middle East. They have a thriving economy, a prosperous business and industrial community, and a vibrant culture. The million-odd Arab citizens of Israel enjoy the highest standard of living of any Arab community in the region. They support us in some ways, but they balk at the mere mention of their joining the Palestinian Authority.
I think, as you surely agree, that our resistance to occupation propelled the Israelis to realize the limits of their power. But does Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement prove that we should continue armed struggle? You must accept that a decision to continue resistance will force you to abandon your domestic agenda. The two are incompatible. Hamas’s domestic agenda necessitates a period of calm. To improve the quality of life and develop our social, economic, and political institutions, we need calm and freedom of passage inside and between the West Bank and Gaza. We need the Israelis to remove their endless roadblocks on every artery and at every key junction. Therefore, we cannot even begin to implement our plans for Palestine without Israeli cooperation and understanding.
The Israeli position on the Palestinian issue has evolved over recent years in surprising directions, some inconceivable only a short while ago. As you know from your own time in Israeli jails, the Israelis have often scorned and belittled the Palestinians. Just look at the way they have treated our president, Mahmoud Abbas, in their public pronouncements. Nor did the Israelis take Arafat’s threats to drive the Jews into the sea much more seriously. They do, however, take you and the Hamas movement seriously; they look upon you as a very real threat, and they have been parsing your every statement with a fine comb to understand your intentions.
Right now, the Israelis don’t know how to react to your government. It is, of course, the Israeli campaign season. Every politician has the daily opportunity to make foolish statements. And they have done us a huge favor by demanding that Hamas recognize Israel. Imagine: Israel, with all its economic and military might, in the waiting room, anxiously awaiting word that you have bestowed recognition upon them! Well, you took good rhetorical advantage of this situation by roundly retorting that you would not recognize them. But, as I have argued, a change in the Israeli mindset is coming. After their election, I believe they will realize that they do not need us to recognize them; that we need them to recognize us. They will wake up after their election and realize that they can still control every aspect of life in the Palestinian territories and that they can destroy your domestic agenda without starving the Palestinian population. If they conclude that your government’s ties to the Iranians are meaningful, they will not wait for this alliance to flourish and prosper. They will see your government as the extension of President Ahmadinejad, who has openly stated his aim to destroy Israel. Once they conclude that we have teamed up with such a monumental threat to Israel, they will conclude the worst about your intentions and will move with all their power to remove Hamas from the scene. And they will receive international and regional support for this mission. You can only avoid this, I must conclude, by beginning to come to terms with Israel.
There are three other points that I hope you will keep in mind. After the Oslo accords of 1993, Israel allowed the Palestinian leaders residing in the Diaspora to assume power, leaving the local leadership to play a secondary role. In the final analysis, this did not serve us well. We must avoid repeating this mistake. The likes of Mashal, who spent his exile in Damascus, should not be catapulted into authority. Secondly, pundits and politicians have made so many pronouncements about Hamas’s future plans that everybody, even important players in your government, are confused about your intentions. Please use your authority to stop this unnecessary stream of words. Finally, as your intelligence chief, I must caution you to keep your distance from Al Qaeda and their operatives and policies. If you do not do this, the Palestinians will become the outlaws of the Middle East. This will spell certain disaster for us.
So, Mr. Prime Minister, you have the destiny of the nation in your hands, and you will have to make your choice between options. It is not for me to suggest to you which option to take. So much now depends on you, Mr. Prime Minister. The life and, God forbid, death, of the Palestinian people is now passing into your hands.
Efraim Halevy is currently head of the Center for Strategic and Policy Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He served as head of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002, and he was national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002-2003. His book, Man in the Shadows, Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad will be published in April 2006. This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.