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Interview with Mizrahi, Part 2: Peace

This is part two of my exclusive interview with Ilan Mizrahi, the former deputy chief of the Mossad and former head of the Israeli National Security Council under former PM Ehud Olmert. Mizrahi discussed his advice to Olmert on the urgency of establishing peace with Syria, Olmert’s original intent to order a Gaza-like pullout from the West Bank, the status of abducted IDF soldier Shalit, how imprisoned Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti is a Beitar Jerusalem fan, and radicalism in the Arab world. For Part 1 on Iran, see here.

This part of the interview addressed:

  • whether the IDF likely knows the precise location of Shalit;
  • Shalit’s status and whether Hamas has incentives to execute him;
  • Marwan Barghouti’s radicalization in prison, even though he likes anti-Arab soccer club Beitar Jerusalem;
  • the success of Palestinian PM Fayyad’s institution building program;
  • the urgency of a Syrian peace process;
  • whether returning the Golan Heights would be a strategic blunder;
  • Palestinian prospects of democratization;
  • the impact of Egyptian President Mubarak’s successor on Israel;
  • the spread of Muslim Brotherhood ideals and radicalization in the Arab world;
  • the demographic threat and how high ultra-orthodox birth rates impact Israel; and
  • Olmert’s intent to pull out from the West Bank prior to the 2006 Lebanon War.

(Some parts of the transcript were deleted for clarity and to streamline the interview, but Mizrahi’s comments are direct quotes. Mizrahi was in Washington D.C. with The Israel Project, which organized the interview).

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: What are the prospects of having [abducted IDF soldier Gilad] Shalit returned?

MIZRAHI: I think its such a pity that we have this young boy there captive with Hamas. And look, what a surprise. The international community says nothing. Red cross says nothing. They cannot visit him nothing. If we will dare take a cellular phone from one of Hamas’ prisoners in Israel, the UN will be in storm. So, this is for us, this is another sign which means we need to count only on ourselves. First thing.

Second thing, it shows also the limitations of intelligence. this is, I think, since I’m from the intelligence community, intelligence cannot know everything. And I think here, the Gilad case shows the limitations of intelligence.

The third thing is, how far are you ready to go to have your solider back? What price are you ready to pay? They are demanding several hundreds of prisoner and the Israeli government is saying, ‘he is dear to us, very dear to us. But we should look also for the future.’ If there will a situation in which for every abducted soldier we are going to give hundreds of prisoners, then we are as a matter of fact encouraging abductions of our soldiers. So they are in a real problematic situation.

This government is holding firm. The more the years pass, the more the Hamas will understand that he’s not an asset. So, in the end, in my point of view, either you will be able to have intelligence that will enable military activity to bring him back home, or it will be solved by talking to the Hamas. Talking with the Hamas proved until now to bring no results. They were tough, we were tough. Unfortunate situation.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: But many Israelis thought we knew exactly where Shalit was during Cast Lead — such as under the hospital? And if we didn’t know, could this be one of those failures of intelligence?

MIZRAHI: I do not know that they had information where he is exactly. Even if you will have information where he is exactly, you make your calculation and, in the end, you will make an analysis which says ‘in this operation, we are going to lose this and that number of soldiers.’ You will think again if this is the case to do it. I don’t know that we had the information, exact information, where he is.

And, I didn’t say it is a failure of intelligence. I said intelligence has its limitations. It’s not a failure because I’m not the one to say intelligence can know and should know everything. Then, if this is the case, then Gilad Shalit is a failure. What I’m saying, intelligence has its limits, so it does not mean that the Gilad Shalit case is a failure of intelligence.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: We haven’t heard directly from Shalit in a long time. Is he still alive?

MIZRAHI: Yes. I’m sure that he is. They will gain nothing by executing him. They have only to gain. Today they want 400 [prisoners], then they will say maybe next year 300 [prisoners]. I don’t know, but as far as I know, yes, he’s alive.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Is Marwan Barghouti, who has been mentioned in a prisoner exchange, someone who could unite the Palestinians toward peace with Israel?

MIZRAHI: Around Marwan Barghouti [there is] a lot of talking and mysteries and so on. Marwan Barghouti was before being arrested, I would say one of the leaders of the peace camp, the Palestinian peace camp. He is still, by the way, a sympathizer of [Israeli soccer team] Beitar Jerusalem. This club, which is the most anti-Arab in Israel. Marwan now is in prison. He has a huge popularity in the Arab street, in the Palestinian street. Not only with the Fatah, but also with the Hamas. But, as far as I understood, Marwan in jail developed much ,much more military point of views against Israel. Being in the jail didn’t soften him vis-à-vis Israel. He came much more closer to the Hamas. He’s still Fatah, but much more closer to the Hamas. This is one thing, which means that you have to think, analyze if it will be in the interest of Israel that he will be free from jail.

I don’t believe that [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] will be happy to see Marwan Barghouti out. He’s so popular that he will push him. So, the issue here is at the end, who in which position [are] the interests of Israel being served? Marwan Barghouti inside or out, and there is a debate. There is a debate, there was and still is within Israel, within the community — intelligence and security community — to free him in a way so maybe we’ll have a partner, we’ll have someone.

As far as I understand, he will not be ready to do, to fight his way to a situation in Palestine in which there will be one gun and one leader. He is not Ben Gurion, who was ready to suppress the Irgun, the Etzel in order to have the sovereign state with only one leader and one gun.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Aside from Barghouti, is there anyone else that’s viable?

MIZRAHI: Unless they will be ready to open the dialogue with Hamas and Hamas will agree with the notion of two states for two people, it might be politically done by dialogue or if not the other alternative is to do it by force. They will do it, the Palestinians, they would like us to do it, but we are not going to do it. And the third alternative is that you are talking about those in the West Bank and you have two separate Palestinian entities — one in Gaza and the other one in Ramallah.

Again, you have here three alternatives that you have to debate and to make analysis — what will be the best for Israel?. I think that Abu Mazen (Abbas) really is committed to the political solution. He understood and he declared openly that the intifada was a mistake. He said ‘we were beaten. The Israelis won the war and it was a mistake to open the intifada.’ So I think Abu Mazen is the one really convinced of the concept of two state solutions. The problem is, in my point of view, as far as I understand, that he is not capable of compromising the issue of right of return, which is for us is a red line. OK. This is one thing.

The second thing is he understands he has opposition within Fatah and within the PLO. His relationship with Salam Fayyad are not good. So, he has Salam Fayyad, which is in the Palestinian sense, this is the American. I think Salam Fayyad is doing a wonderful job, in my point of view.

If you ask me, so what we are going to do with vis-à-vis the Palestinians. I tell you  — help Salam Fayyad continue his work because I do not believe that you can make a short cut with the Palestinians and within a year to have a peace agreement. Impossible. It is impossible. You have to do it gradually, so I think the Salam Fayyad alternative is the best one. He is doing a wonderful job militarily, operationally, econimically and politically. And he’s gaining. You know Ramallah today, you have to go to Ramallah. It’s like Tel Aviv. They move freely from Jenin to Ramallah, so even the economic progress is 8 percent GDP per year. So, I think it seems to me that we are going to see for the coming future two entities — one in Gaza, one in the West Bank. In the West Bank, Abu Mazen is the one that is committed but is not capable. I do not see someone else there. I don’t see someone else. He is committed to find a political solution. Marwan Barghouti is not. Marwan Barghouti said we have to keep the resistance weapon on the table. So, it’s complicated, it’s not a clear cut decision. the problem will be even if we strike a deal with Abu Mazen, or Salam Fayyad, what will happen in Gaza? Are we going to have the Hamas-stan land, which is problematic for us? This is, in a way, an Iranian position, threatening not the existence, threatening militarily Egypt and Israel. It’s not only Israel, It’s Egypt too. They are an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the opposition in Egypt. So, I would say, I do not see alternatives now to Abu Mazen. Unfortunately, he is incapable, like our prime minister. I think he is committed, but he is a prisoner of our coalition.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Fayyad declared a year ago that he wants to be ready to unilaterally declare statehood in two years. Is that possible?

MIZRAHI: First of all, I don’t take too seriously declarations. OK, so he declared it a year ago. So he declared. I think that he is really committed to building a state gradually as he is doing now. Are they ready now to have their state and to run it successfully? I think not — not yet. Are we ready to pull out now? I think no because the Hamas is still strong there. The only barrier from making the West Bank Hamas-stan too is our army.

We pulled out completely from Gaza. We expected that the Palestinians would take Gaza and now would do something for the benefit of the population. What we received was a daily bombardment. Israeli public opinion and in Israel we are a democratic country. Plus, almost on the verge of chaos, sometimes too democratic. Public opinion has a huge influence on our decision makers. And what our public opinion is saying to our government is, ‘remember Gaza. We are not ready that you pull out prematurely and Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Hertzeliya will be bombarded everyday.’

Unless you will be sure that what is going on in the West Bank, the Fatah, PLO has complete security control, and the Hamas is very, very weak there, and you will have a leader who is ready to make a compromise as you have also the need to have  an Israeli leader who is ready to make a compromise.

This is my point of view. With the Palestinians it will take time. You have to start, as we already started, with Salam Fayyad, but you cannot make this bypass and short cut to make after 100 and more, I would say 120 years, of conflict between Israelis, Jews and Palestinians. The last intifada, which destroyed our left. Destroyed it completely. [There is] no left today in Israel. The left is some individuals.

So, you have to gain, again, Israeli public opinion. If you ask me what is the biggest loss of the Palestinians, I’ll tell you. They lost the Israeli left and center. This is the biggest, one the biggest losses. So, it should be gradually. And though I was in the Mossad, I am not a hawk. I am  not a dove. I know that we have to make peace with the Arabs, with the Palestinians, with the Syrians as we have with the Egyptians, with the Jordanians. But it should be done cleverly. Not to rush and then to say, ‘well we didn’t expect these results.’

With the Palestinians little by little, with the Syrians quicker.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG:  Why such urgency on the Syrian track?

MIZRAHI: My point of view is not from today. [On] my first day as national security counsel to Ehud Olmert [i recommended] make a deal with Syria. It will change the security situation in the Middle East. And, I still believe it. I think that if we would strike a deal, our key enemy always, Israel’s enemy from the first day of independence, was radicalism in the Middle East. Radicals in the Middle East were our and are our enemies. We had Gamel Abdel Nasser in the 50s, 60s. Now, you have the radical state Iran, which has openly declared their wish that Israel be destroyed. They would rather not say, ‘we would destroy Israel.’ They would say, ‘Israel should be destroyed.’ By whom — you should guess. And Iran has a policy of hegemony in the Middle East. Many, Many Arabs are supporting them. You have few Arab rulers that understand the threat, but some of their intelegencis and allies, and most of their masses, are supporting Iran because they are against Israel and against the United states. So, what I’m saying is that if you want to diminish, to mitigate the influence of Iran, to weaken their position in the Middle East, you have to look for the weakest link in their axis. And the weakest link is Syria because Syria is an Arab country. 75 percent are Sunni Muslims. It’s a secular state. It’s a secular state — it’s not Saudi Arabia or even Egypt. And in my point of view, Bashar al-Asad, doesn’t like the idea that Hezbollah is totally an Iranian instrument. He wouldn’t like to see Lebanon ruled forever by Hezbollah backed by Iran

He wouldn’t like to see Iraq under Iranian influence, which means strategically he has in the south — Israel, west and east — he has the Iranians, and in the north — he has the Turks. So, I think that his father and he sees the Iranian issue as strategic depth that they are lacking vis-à-vis Israel and the United States. I do think, I do believe that his father and he himself already decided that he would like to have agreement with Israel. Not because they want to live in peace with us, because they need the United States.

Also economically. They do not think like the Iranians that the United States is no more a super power. They understand that this is the only super power. Yet still. So, I do believe that they want it. Now, is it a bluff. So let’s call it a bluff. Let’s start negotiations. We had negotiations in the past. We stopped. We did not go to the end. In Shepherdstown, Barak went back. So, I think we should do it. It will weaken Iran. It will weaken the position of Hezbollah and of Hamas.

This is my point of view. First Syria and then Palestinians. Palestinians, little by little, gradually. This is not the time, not in Israel, not in Palestine. It would be premature. and the deeper the disappointment the more chances that there will be another intifada.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Would giving back the Golan prove to be a strategic problem?

Our chief of staff doesn’t think so. Our head of intelligence, military intelligence doesn’t think so.

You know, in the ottoman empire, the sultan sent his Navy to take Cyprus. You know why? For its wine, because the Cyprus wine was very good. Now, we’re not going to keep the Golan because the wine there is wonderful. But, this is a territory to be negotiated, in my point of view. Now, if our military generals come and say the minute you give the Golan there is a direct threat against Israel, you should not do it.  Then I’d have to think several times about it. But the best Israeli generals are saying we can negotiate it, so I believe them. Though, it’s a wonderful piece of land. Wonderful Druze restaurants. So I won’t go to Majid al-Shams. I’ll have my oriental food in Jaffa.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG:  Are the Palestinians ready for democracy?

MIZRAHI: More than others just because they are living next to us. This in my view is the major reason. They live with us. They see what’s going on in Israel. They watch our television. They listen to our radios. They read our newspapers. It’s not only Arab Israelis, but those in the West Bank and Gaza. They know what’s going on in Israel, so the idea of democratization and the idea of we have to demand from the government and they will do for us. It’s not only for them, but they will do for us. It’s there because of living with us. This is one thing.

The second thing is, Palestinians are the Jews of the Arabs. So, I think you might have, you have more chances that it will be there. But it’s far, it’s not tomorrow because they still — when Hamas took Gaza, they throw the Fatah members from the third floor or they shoot him. So democracy is still a vision in the Middle East and remember Islamization.

The Muslim Brotherhood is gaining more sympathy. The Muslim Brotherhood — they want Sharia rule. Sharia and democracy would not go together. It is impossible. This is one thing the ordinary Muslim, the ordinary Arab is confused because he wants Sharia. He’s a Muslim and he wants democracy and it won’t go together. So as long as Islam is a major force in the Middle East or in nationalism, or in Arab nationalism then you have problems facing democracy. This is my point of view. They don’t have [a] heritage of democracy. They don’t have it from the beginning of Islam and remember, unlike us, past is present in the Arab world. Past is present, remember. Every Arab boy or girl … you tell them Khaybar (a battle where Mohammad and his followers killed Jews in 629 AD), they know exactly what is it and they will translate it to present day politics.

So I’m sorry, I’m very pessimistic when we talk about changing moods and perceptions within the Arab world. It might be in the Muslim world — Indonesia. … There you have a very mild Islam. But in the Arab world radicals are having the upper hand. its always like that. Radicals are taking the upper hand. The other day in Israel, there was an interview with an Arab Woman and she was, if I’m not mistaken, an Egyptian and the interviewer asked her, ‘are you happy with the rights of women in the Arab world.’ She said, ‘well, of course, we are advancing.’ So he tells her, ‘but, there is this issue of husbands hitting their wives.’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s not hitting their wives just like that. It’s because she doesn’t listen to him.’ I mean, this was the justification. This was an Egyptian, very modern woman, with a scarf of course, justification for hitting wives. Now in a society in which 50 percent of women are underprivileged, where can you go?

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Is it better for Israel if the Palestinians don’t democratize?

MIZRAHI: My point of view is we have to have stability within our neighboring countries. Stability is very, very much important. If stability will be a, the result of democracy, OK. If stability is the result of King Abdullah or Bashar al-Assad, OK. We want stability because we want peace. We want to advance. We in my point of view are very happy, I’m very proud because although we are fighting already 62 years terror, hatred, we are very prosperous. We have wonderful achievements, technologically and scientifically. This is our answer to terror and hate. We are prosperous. I wish the Arabs would be the same. But I’m sorry I don’t see it. Ff for the Palestinians there will be a democracy or not a democracy — this is their point of view. They have to choose. I would like to see stability. I am not the one to interfere or to anoint kings in the Arab world. We tried to do it in Lebanon. In 1982 it was a huge failure. It’s not for us, maybe it is for big powers but not for us.

I am against interfering in inner issues of the Arab world. They will have to solve it by themselves. They, as I think, the conflict between Fatah and Hamas should be solved by the Palestinians and not by us. This is a Palestinian issue. You cannot reach an agreement. So be it. It’s your fate not our fate.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: As the Muslim Brotherhood gains ground in Egypt, should we be concerned that radical Islam will take over?

MIZRAHI: I don’t think that the Muslim Brotherhood will take power unless you have a senior general that his division will follow him and he will make a coup-de-tat and he will take Cairo as they did in ’52. I don’t think so.

For me, it doesn’t matter if it will be [Mubarak’s son] Gamal, [Defense Minister Mohammad Hussein] Tantawi, or if it will be [intelligence chief] Omar Suleiman because all these three will have the same line. They will keep Mubarak’s legacy, OK — friend of the West, peace with Israel.

When I was [the] head of the National Security Council, Olmert asked me to — the same question you’re asking. And I wrote a paper, one page. Do not write more than one page to decision makers, they will not read it. You have to in one page to put all your ideas in one page. So, I told him no. I think that these three nominates, three candidates share the same ideas Mubarak is issuing. There might be some variance, maybe less enthusiastic about cooperation with Israel, for example. Maybe less radical against the Iranians. Maybe variance. But strategically, I think the one that will succeed him will have the same policy. this is an Egyptian strategical choice. No other choice. They can’t economically, they will not survive without compromising and having the moderate political ideas that they have vis-à-vis the world and the international community. They just cant survive.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: How does the next Egyptian president counteract this radical Islam?

MIZRAHI: First of all, by manipulating elections as they did now. You know that it was a huge manipulation of the elections. This is first of all.

Second thing, counting on the nature of the Egyptian people — good people [with a] sense of humor. Unless you attack their bread, they will stay home.

Third and most important, keep the security forces and the army very, very strong, ready to strike the Muslim Brotherhood. This is what holds them even today. They will do it. No one of them will agree to increase the power of the Muslim Brotherhood. They know what it means. When your administration, the Bush administration, was pushing forward the issue of democracy and they came several times to Mubarak. ‘Democracy, democracy, free elections.’ He pleaded, ‘please don’t do it because they will take it. Egypt will be a Muslim Brotherhood state.’ You have to choose democracy or stability. This is the issue. what do you want in the Middle East — democracy or stability. Democracy, which means no stability. Stability would mean no democracy, not a Western democracy.

So, I think that all of them will take the same steps as Mubarak did and as Gamal Abdul Nasser. Gamal Abdul Nasser was much more radical with the Muslim Brotherhood.

They tried to assassinate him, hanging [Muslim Brotherhood founder] Kutub. He was much more radical. They will not let it, by force, by manipulation, they will not let it.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: But even with Kutub’s hanging, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spread throughout the Middle East.

MIZRAHI: Look at what King Abdullah is doing of Jordan, because they also have their branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. First of all, he’s embracing them, he’s not fighting them.

Second of all, divide and rule within the Muslim Brotherhood movements, as the Egyptians are doing and the Jordanians are doing too.

Third, the mufti of Egypt is someone that is getting paid by the government and the mufti and the head of al-Azhar is a real authority in the Muslim world and in Egypt, so he plays the tune that Mubarak wants to hear. I think they are doing this, and power, oppression, divide and rule, embracing sometimes and preaching with the mufti of Egypt.

All these five instruments are being orchestrated together. They are very shrewd. They are very good. Egypt, when talking about security inside Egypt, they are very good masters about intelligence, of security, not of intelligence. So, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood is spreading because you, as a young Egyptian, you don’t have a free choice to express your political views. You don’t have it. So, when you don’t have it economically, you have a bad situation. You will try to find comfort with religion. you have it everywhere even in Judaism. So, yes, the fact that they have in the Middle East youngsters, and not only youngsters, have no free choice to express their political ideas, there is an oppression. So, the alternative is the religion and they are manipulated by these religious priests, and so on.

They are trying to channel the anger vis-à-vis Israel. Israel is the problem. So, it is till done by several rulers in the Middle East, understanding it’s still better to do that and to preserve stability or my chair than [the] relationship with Israel for example. So, this is what they are doing, is it s a time bomb, not necessarily.

I was a student in Tel Aviv University 40 years ago. When I finished my military service and Shimon Shamir, officer Shimon Shamir, taught us about Egypt, he taught us — look the problems of Egypt are huge problems. This country, it is a matter of time before it collapses. 40 years ago [and] nobody collapsed. So, I think that we are going to face a long time of the Middle East in the present form. Not democracy, no free expression to the young generation.

They are not ready to blame themselves. But they will always say, ‘my situation is so bad because of you and because of you.’ And this will prevent them form advancing as they should advance like all the world is advancing and we’ll still have this instability, these radical ideas. Unfortunately, we have to live with it. I am here pessimistic.

FPA ISRAEL BLOG: Do you believe in the demographic threat? Many people content it’s not an issue because Arab birth rates are declining while Jewish birth rates are rising, in large part because of high ultra-orthodox birth rates.

MIZRAHI: If the Jewish birth rate is increasing because of the orthodox families, then I am against it because we are creating a, how do you say, illiterate society — society of 19th century or 18th century.

Demographically, we have a problem. I want to see a Jewish state and I don’t care if I will be answered a Jewish state is not a Democratic notion. I want a Jewish state. This is why we have Zionism. Zionism was a state for the Jews all over the world, and I think this is the right thing to do. I do not see two societies living together. It’s problematic everywhere in the world. Starting from Belgium, Cyprus or wherever you want. So, I want to have a Jewish state. This is one of the reasons that Arik Sharon pulled out of Gaza and Ehud Olmert and Arik Sharon — when I started my job as national security counsel, Ehud Olmert told me in the first week, ‘prepare a plan because I’m going to continue this plan in the West Bank.’ And then the war in Lebanon and the abduction came. So, strategically, I think this is a major issue.

We want a Jewish state majority population in Israel. That’s why I do not think we have to annex the West bank, not at all. I want to live in a Jewish state, not a religious one.



Ben Moscovitch
Ben Moscovitch

Ben Moscovitch is a Washington D.C.-based political reporter and has covered Congress, homeland security, and health care. He completed an intensive two-year Master's in Middle Eastern History program at Tel Aviv University, where he wrote his thesis on the roots of Palestinian democratic reforms. Ben graduated from Georgetown University with a BA in English Literature. He currently resides in Washington, D.C. Twitter follow: @benmoscovitch

Areas of Focus:
Middle East; Israel-Palestine; Politics