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Man in the shadows: an interview with Efraim Halevy

About the authors
Efraim Halevy was head of Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, from 1998 to 2002. Since 2003 he has been head of the Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Jane Kinninmont is senior research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House. Her work has been published in The World Today, the Economist, Foreign Affairs, and other publications. She is the author of a collection of poems, Seven League Stilettos (Ragged Raven Press, 2004)
"I believe there is a chance that Hamas, the devils of yesterday, could be reasonable people today. Rather than being a problem, we should strive to make them part of the solution."

Surprising words on the militant Islamist organisation – now the majority party of the Palestinian Authority Legislative Council – from a man who ran the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service, when the second Palestinian intifada erupted in 2000 with a wave of suicide attacks.

Efraim Halevy is no dove. Having worked as the secret envoy of five Israeli prime ministers, he speaks particularly positively of the hawks Yitzhak Shamir and Benjamin Netanyahu. He has little time for human rights activists in a global "war on terror'" that he sees as "World War Three". Indeed, he recommends that governments push counterterrorism legislation through their legislatures in the two to three months following any terrorist attack, when the public will be more "attuned" to it.

As head of the Mossad from 1998 to 2002, Halevy helped devise Israel's policy of "targeted assassinations" – extrajudicial executions of militant leaders – and supported the virtual imprisonment of Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian president, within his Ramallah compound for nearly three years preceding his death in November 2004. Under the targeted-assassinations policy, Israeli aircraft bombed and killed Hamas' spiritual leader, the aged and wheelchair-bound Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, in March 2004 – and then his successor, Abdul-Aziz al-Rantisi, the following month. After Rantisi's death, Hamas did not announce the name of his successor.

In this context, it is all the more interesting that Halevy now argues for a pragmatic attitude towards Hamas. Among the key lessons he has learned in his professional life – where every day he opened up secrets that most people will never know – is that "the devils of yesterday become the angels of today". And vice versa. Witness Saddam Hussein and the Taliban.

Halevy also has an intimate knowledge of the complexity and diversity of political Islam, and sees Hamas not only as distinct from al-Qaida, but as a force that might counter the more radical Islamist revolutionaries and ultimately contribute to their defeat. This has less to do with absolutes like "angels" and "devils" than with the realist's adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Jane Kinninmont is a political analyst and a poet. She is Middle East and Africa Managing Editor at Business Monitor International in London and freelances for newspapers around the world. Jane's first collection of poetry, Seven League Stilettos, is available from Ragged Raven Press. Her openDemocracy articles include:

"Life after Sharon: Palestinian prospects" (January 2006)

"Guantánamo and back: an interview with Moazzam Begg"
(March 2006)

"Syriana" (March 2006)

"Paradise Now" (April 2006)

We meet in late March, in London, where Halevy is promoting his first book, Man in the Shadows. In a quietly classy, old-fashioned hotel, he insists on ordering his own herbal tea and I wonder, briefly, if people from Mossad tend not to accept tea from strangers.

Now an academic – head of Hebrew University's Centre for Strategic and Policy Studies – Halevy looks unassuming, a George Smiley rather than a James Bond. He is very polite, sometimes self-deprecating, and incredibly apologetic about being a few minutes late. All the same, he looks away from me for most of our conversation.

Hope for Hamas?

Halevy has many stories to tell, and many more that he won't ever tell. Only five of the eighteen chapters in his book deal with his time as head of Mossad. The rest tell of his time working for the prime ministers, especially in negotiating Israel's 1994 peace with Jordan, and of his ideas for dealing with "international Muslim fundamentalist terror".

This last chapter is tantalisingly short. What does he think the prospects are for engaging with Hamas?

"I don't think Hamas needs to declare that it recognises Israel, and I disagree with the government on this. Actually, the shoe is on the other foot. Hamas needs to obtain recognition for itself. But to do this, it needs to observe the rules of the game. You cannot sit at the table if you have no table manners."

What does Hamas need to do? "They should be judged by their actions rather than their words. Hamas has observed a unilateral ceasefire, but now [that] they are in government, it is more complicated. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs [Brigades] and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP] are all carrying out attacks. Now [that] Hamas is the government, it needs to prevent this. This is the responsibility of a sovereign government, and if they do not shoulder this, their sovereignty need not be respected."

Halevy describes Hamas' maintenance of its ceasefire during Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza as "remarkable and wise". Announced in early 2005, the agreement to stop fighting is strictly unilateral. An Israeli agreement with Hamas would have been tantamount to recognising the organisation. In practice, however, Israel has reciprocated: while it has resumed targeted assassinations of militants, including PFLP leaders, it has not struck Hamas since the ceasefire was declared.

So, might Israel still bomb Hamas leaders? "Israeli policy is to target Hamas if it is planning hostile activities. So at the moment, there is no incentive to act against them." (Indeed, before the election, Israel's then-acting-prime minister Ehud Olmert told the Yediot Aharanot newspaper that Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, was not a target because there was no evidence he was "involved in terror".)

Having said this, Halevy believes that if Hamas does not work to stop attacks by the other Palestinian militias, "Israel will respond in kind. Hamas would be unable to exercise authority as a government and the Palestinian Authority could collapse. Certainly, Palestinians would understand that Hamas was responsible for that."

It's not clear what timeframe he envisages for Hamas to rein in other militias. But to understand his point of view, it's perhaps worth bearing in mind that the night before we spoke, a PFLP militant, disguised as an Orthodox Jewish hitchhiker, killed himself and four Israelis in the West Bank. According to Israeli officials, the man had been arrested by Palestinian police on suspicion of planning an attack some weeks previously – but was not detained.

Evaluating Hamas' attitude to other militias will take time. Right now, Halevy says, "neither the west nor Israel favours severing all aid; however, Hamas cannot expect the rest of the world to support it if it does not recognise world order."

Hamas vs al-Qaida

But does Hamas really refuse to recognise world order, or does it just refuse to recognise Israel, while wanting to become part of the international system of sovereign states? While Halevy believes that joining this system requires recognising Israel – in practice if not in rhetorical terms – he views Hamas as a "territorial organisation, wedded to territory", which seeks to join the club of states rather than to overthrow it.

"Hamas and al-Qaida have some things in common, such as their opposition to the United States", he continues, "but Hamas will not target the US. Hamas wants to destroy the state of Israel but does not aim to destabilise countries and societies around the world. Al-Qaida is not wedded to territory at all. Its aims are international. There is a lot of room for manoeuvre between the two."

The big difference, as Halevy sees it, is that a truce with Hamas is at least conceivable, while "the west has no possibility of any truce with al-Qaida". He argues that power may change Hamas because Hamas has something to lose. As well as its wider aim of statehood, it has already achieved local goals that it will not want to endanger: political programmes, education and healthcare that Halevy describes as "second to none in the Palestinian world".

Moreover, Hamas has a broader role to play within the Muslim world. The group originated as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian-born movement that has spread internationally, though its branches focus on a nationalist agenda in contrast to the pan-Islamic revolutionary aims of al-Qaida-style organisations. "Hamas is the Muslim Brotherhood's younger brother, yet the first of its offshoots to come to power in the Arab world," says Halevy. "Its failure would be the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole."

Essentially, Hamas has a strong interest in its own survival, and there is a possibility that power will strengthen the pragmatists within the movement.

In contrast, Halevy sees al-Qaida as a group entirely bent on destruction and chaos. Where al-Qaida is concerned, "the only solution is total destruction", he believes. "This is a long haul for the west and will require a lot of creativity in forging new strategies, as normal combat strategies will not succeed ... But ultimately the problem of al-Qaida will need to be fought within the Islamic world."

Hamas could be a potential competitor to al-Qaida. "Hamas will not wish to be taken over by al-Qaida in an Iraq-style scenario. Hamas could actually be a very effective force opposing al-Qaida." This view echoes some of the distinctions and arguments made by European analysts, including former British M15 agent Alastair Crooke and the International Crisis Group.

And a few days after I interviewed Halevy, a senior Israeli official told me, off the record: "I don't think Hamas is inherently unchangeable. The door is not closed to them, but there are preconditions."

Breaking Taboos

Might elected officials speak in the same way, publicly, about the potential for engaging with Hamas? "That may be premature", says Halevy. "It will take them a little time. But things change. In 2003, I said to [then-prime minister Ariel] Sharon that we should leave Gaza. He said 'absolutely not'."

Sharon then became the driving force behind withdrawing from Gaza, to the rage of the settler movement that he'd spent much of his life encouraging. In doing so, he tore his Likud party apart, forming the new Kadima party that has just broken Israel's two-party mould.

"Sharon broke taboos", acknowledges Halevy (who has seen a few policy reversals in his Mossad days), but he is clearly very critical of the ailing former prime minister. He was shocked by the government's acceptance of the "road map" plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict peace – presented by the US, Russia, the European Union, the United Nations – because, by his account, Israel assumed that the US did not take the plan seriously and that it would never be enforced.

Israel's Domestic Challenges

Despite Halevy's support for withdrawing from Gaza, he opposes unilateralism, contending that "in the eyes of the Palestinians, the Gaza withdrawal was a direct result of armed struggle and a victory for Hamas."

The pullout, he believes, involved too much confrontation within Israeli society. "The disengagement might have been a success on the ground, but has opened much more serious wounds than we admit. The settlers were not there on their own, but were encouraged by the government." Some of the biggest problems, Halevy says, were created by former prime minister Shimon Peres, "who now appears as a dove".

"I remember in the mid-1970s, Peres was always twisting Rabin's arm to get him to support more settlements," he says. "It is not ethical and not practical to simply change one's mind without taking any responsibility. Instead of pouring scorn upon the settlers, those people who encouraged them should go to the settlements and hold dialogues."

Halevy supports the calls by a minority of West Bank settlers for government subsidies to those who choose to move back within the Green Line, the pre-1967 borders. These settlers argue that they'd rather move in their own time than face eventual evacuation – but they can't afford to do so since West Bank house prices are not exactly booming.

"We now need more attention to building a domestic consensus, not confrontation," says Halevy. "The election results were sobering, and with the challenges Israel faces, it needs a strong consensus." The reports of early wrangling between the two main coalition partners, Labour and Likud, suggest this may be elusive.

But as Halevy says, it's always worth thinking the unthinkable, "for it is usually the unthinkable that ends up happening".