Jan 13, 2009
the suffering in Gaza - indeed, all of the suffering endured by
Palestinians under Israeli occupation for the last eight years - could
have been avoided if Israel negotiated a peace agreement with Yasser
Arafat when it had the chance, in 2001.
What chance? The official Israeli position is that there was no
chance, "no partner for peace." That's what Israeli leaders heard from
their Military Intelligence (MI) service in 2000 after the failure of
Israeli-Palestinian negotiations at Camp David. Arafat scuttled those
talks, MI told the leaders, because he was planning to set off a new
round of violence, a second intifada.
Now former top officials of MI say the whole story, painting Arafat
as a terrorist out to destroy Israel, was an intentional fiction.
That's the most explosive finding in an investigative report just published in Israel's top newspaper, Ha'aretz, by one of its finest journalists, Akiva Eldar.
Tale of Two Tales
Much like our own CIA, Eldar's sources say, Israeli military
intelligence has two versions of every story. MI analysts give their
findings to government policymakers in oral reports that simply tell
the political leaders what they want to hear. Meanwhile, the analysts
keep the truth secret, filed away in written documents, waiting to be
pulled out to cover MI's posterior if the government's policies turned
out to be failures.
Much of the information in the Ha'aretz report comes from
Ephraim Lavie, an honors graduate of Israel's National Security College
who rose through the ranks in MI's research section and eventually
became head of MI's Palestinian research unit during the era of the
Camp David talks. "Defining Arafat and the PA as 'terrorist elements'
was the directive of the political echelon," said Lavie. "The unit's
written analyses were presenting completely different assessments,
based on reliable intelligence material."
The idea that "there is no one to talk to and nothing to talk
about," simply because Arafat rejected the Israeli offer at Camp David,
just wasn't true. But it was what the politicians wanted to hear.
Journalist Eldar found others who had worked inside MI to
corroborate Lavie's story. General Gadi Zohar, who once headed the MI
terrorism desk, agrees the heads of the MI research unit "developed and
advanced the 'no partner' theory and [the notion] that 'Arafat planned
and initiated the intifada' even though it was clear at that time that
this was not the researchers' reasoned professional opinion."
In fact, these intelligence veterans say, MI concluded after Camp
David that Arafat was willing to follow the Oslo process and abide by
interim agreements. He wanted to keep the negotiating process alive,
and even told his staff to prepare public opinion to accept an
agreement that would include compromises. He thought violence would not
help his cause. In late September what year?, when violence did erupt
in a second intifada, it was purely a popular protest, MI found. Arafat
and his advisors never expected it, much less planned it.
They did let the violence go on, to put pressure on the Israelis in
future negotiations. But Israeli leaders had already made it clear they
would make no more compromises. That's exactly why MI invented the
story of Arafat's intransigence and commitment to violence; MI was
giving the political leaders oral briefings that supported policies the
politicians had already agreed on. As Lavie puts it, the MI research
unit was an instrument in the politicians' propaganda campaign.
"The conception underneath the 'no partner' approach became a model
with grave national implications," Zohar points out. The most serious
result, says Lavie, is that Israeli leaders have "ignored the
connection between Israel's acts and their implications for the
Palestinian arena." Instead, they repeated the old story that Israel is
an innocent victim of the Palestinians, who are bent on unprovoked
MI told Israel's leaders the violence was all Arafat's fault, hiding
what it knew about broad popular support for acts of resistance. By
undermining the power of Arafat, Fatah, and the Palestinian Authority,
Israeli leaders created a governmental vacuum. They then turned around
and said, "See, we have no one to negotiate with, no partner for
peace." Instead, Israel responded to the intifada with heightened
violence of its own, which of course provoked even more Palestinian
popular resistance and even more Israeli suppression. So the vicious
cycle of violence kept spiraling ever downward.
Rise of Hamas
The combination of Palestinian political vacuum and Israeli violence
also boosted the fortunes of Hamas, another development that MI kept
hidden from Israel's political leadership, according to this report. To
reinforce the "no partner for peace" story, MI treated Arafat as the
only significant political force on the Palestinian side. So it ignored
the growing power of Hamas. The MI unit predicted a tie between Hamas
and Fatah in the January 2006 Palestinian election, or at most a tiny
advantage for Hamas. Hamas, of course, won a major victory in an
election outside observers found free and fair.
All of this, say Eldar and his sources, is crucial background for
the tragic Israeli relationship with Gaza. The MI oral briefings (to
repeat Lavie's crucial words) "ignored the connection between Israel's
acts and their implications for the Palestinian arena." So they
encouraged Israel's leaders to believe they could separate their own
nation from the neighbors they continued to control. In the West Bank
they began building a physical wall. In Gaza they withdrew their
occupation troops, hoping to leave Gaza to live or die on its own. The
leadership simply ignored the possibility that Hamas might be strong
enough to gain popular control in Gaza.
The evacuation from Gaza was tied up with a larger strategy, again
spurred by telling leaders what they wanted to hear. When the Bush
administration endorsed the so-called Road Map for Middle East peace,
MI told the Israeli government not to take it seriously; it was just an
American public relations gesture to mollify the Arab states. Israeli
leaders were unprepared when it turned out that Washington expected
Israel to take the road map seriously.
The Israeli prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, then announced
his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza. He hoped to
avoid pressure from Bush to continue negotiations. Sharon's senior
advisor, Dov Weissglas, famously said
that "the disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It
supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there
will not be a political process with the Palestinians...This whole
package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our
But the message to Hamas was that Israel would act unilaterally,
refusing to negotiate with the ascendant Palestinian party. Instead,
the Israelis would rely on brute force. Tragically, as the events of
the past two weeks have shown, the level of force just goes on
escalating. Hamas, like any political party, has both moderate and
intransigent wings. Israel's policies have consistently undermined the
moderates, who would want to pursue negotiations if they saw any
chance. Israel has denied them that chance, leaving violence or
surrender as the only options. And Israel's underestimation of the
power of Hamas power is still proving a fatal mistake.
But if these new revelations are true, the policy of unilateralism
and brute force didn't originate with Sharon and his right-wing Likud
Party. It goes back to 2000, when the Labor Party, headed by Ehud
Barak, refused to agree with Yasser Arafat that the path of negotiation
- as difficult and tedious as it was - should be pursued to a
successful end. The one attempt to revive the negotiations, at Taaba in
early 2001, collapsed when Barak withdrew.
Today Barak, as the Defense Minister in charge of the Gaza attack,
sees his once-fading political fortunes rapidly rising again. Most of
the Israeli public still believes what MI tells the political leaders
in briefings often leaked to the press: Israel is a helpless victim of
Palestinian violence, violence that Israeli policies did nothing to
provoke. But now it looks like analysts in Israel's own Military
Intelligence service have long known how false this story is, according
to former top MI officials.
When the story appeared in Ha'aretz in early January, it drew a quick rebuttal from
General Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the MI research unit: "MI
never adjusted its assessment to what the leadership wanted." Of course
if the charges are true, that's just what would be expected: an
official public story at odds with the privately known truth.
On the other hand, it's possible that Eldar has uncovered the trail
of an old internal dispute within MI. Speaking of the time when the
Camp David talks collapsed and the second intifada began,
Kuperwasser says: "I assume that all the assessments about Arafat's
behavior in August and September 2000 were written by Lavie. In Central
Command, where I was then serving as the intelligence officer, our
assessment was that the Palestinians were bent on a confrontation." In
other words, the experts in the Palestinian section of MI, headed by
Lavie, saw Arafat as a potential partner for peace but their superiors
reversed the assessment.
But even if only some key Israeli intelligence officers believed
negotiations could yield a positive outcome, that news should be a
shocking revelation. Yet in a Google News search a few days after the
article appeared, found not a single mention of it anywhere in the
world's news media, and certainly not in the United States, where it
matters most. It matters most here because Israel can't continue its
military action without at least a tacit green light from Washington.
Washington can give that green light only as long as the American
public raises no serious objection. The public here isn't likely to
object as long as the basic plotline of Middle East news coverage
remains the same; namely, that Israel attacked Gaza in self-defense.
Though U.S. news coverage isn't as wholly sympathetic to Israel as
it once was, the Israelis still managed to make their version of the
story central to mainstream media coverage. Millions of Americans who
know nothing else about the still ongoing conflict believe that the
Israelis are "retaliating against Hamas rockets." What if those
millions also knew the Israeli government ignores its own intelligence
experts when they say Palestinian leaders are willing to make peace?
That might change the entire picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict - and
push Americans to push their government to push Israel to negotiate in
good faith a peace deal with the Palestinians.
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