Talking with Former Head of Israeli Spy Agency
Danny Yatom Will Headline Santa Barbara Forum on Sunday
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the United States next month, he will address AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), the most influential pro-Israel lobby in D.C. It is a reality of American politics that any national official who claims an affinity for Israel must pay respects to AIPAC. For the past few years, however, the upstart lobby, J Street (named for a nonexistent street in D.C. that would ostensibly sit parallel to K Street, home to many of the nation’s largest lobbying firms) has been attempting to provide a counterweight to the worldview supported by AIPAC, making the case that pro-Israel does not mean blindly condoning all of Israel’s policies, especially those concerning Palestinians.
One of the allies J Street has enlisted to spread that message and to advocate for a peace plan is Danny Yatom, who, in his 33 years in the Israeli Defense Forces, served in the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, fought in wars, and rose to the rank of major general before taking leadership of Mossad, Israel’s version of the CIA. Following his military career, he would become a member of Knesset, Israel’s legislative house. On Sunday, Yatom will speak at a town-hall forum in Santa Barbara with Rep. Lois Capps, and in advance of his visit, he agreed to chat with The Santa Barbara Independent about Iran, John Kerry’s “framework for peace,” and Israel’s political climate.
Why are you hanging out with J Street? After so many years of serving in the security apparatus and in the military and experiencing too many wars and numerous actions against terror, I came to the conclusion that the only way to stabilize Israel and to stabilize the Middle East and to make sure that Israel will continue to prosper and flourish is to strike a deal with the Palestinians. … In order to preserve [Israel as both] Jewish and democratic, we need to have a vast majority of Jewish people in the area under our sovereignty.
That brings us to the fact that John Kerry is trying to put together a “framework for peace” right now. There have been many failed attempts to form a two-state solution. Are the conditions any better or worse this time around? We were close to striking a deal with the Palestinians twice in the last 20 years of negotiation. One, when [Yitzhak] Rabin was Prime Minister of Israel, and I believe deeply that if Rabin hadn’t been assassinated, we would have had a peace treaty with the Palestinians because he knew how to negotiate with them. And everybody respected him, including all the leaders of the Arab and Muslim countries. I can tell you from my own experience being in those meetings. The second time was when Arafat rejected the plan that was orally delivered to the Palestinians and Israelis by President Clinton in late 2000.
Today, it is almost the same because the geography has not changed, and matters to solve, like refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, borders, settlements, remain the same. The situation for the negotiation is maybe a little better because when the Palestinians look to the north and south, they see what the so-called Arab Spring brought with it. And for them, it should be a signal to what could happen. It is better for them as for Israel to separate.
However, the parties hold very tough positions. For instance, Abu Mazen [Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas] is not ready to abandon the dream of the right of return of the refugees to the state of Israel. We rightly will not be ready whatsoever to accept even one Palestinian on the basis of this demand. We might accept 10,000, for example, on the basis of family reunification. But we think we are not responsible for the tragedy of the Palestinians. They are responsible for it, as are the six Arab nations that invaded in May 1947 [after the United Nations decided to split Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state].
On the other end, the Israeli government today is a hawkish government with some ultra-hawkish elements which are not ready to make even slight concessions on behalf of the Israelis. If we will not be ready to make concessions, and if the Palestinians will not be ready to make concessions regarding the main topics like borders and Jerusalem and refugees, then I am not optimistic.
Therefore, I do not see the situation today as better or worse. An element that might change my pessimism is the devotion and persistence of Secretary Kerry. Without the deep interference of the United States, there will be no deal.
Where is the public on the issue? According to the polls, when you present to the public a package where there are concessions on both sides — for instance the Palestinians conceding the right of return for refugees and the Israeli’s conceding to allow the Palestinian capital to be based in the quarters of Jerusalem that are Arab today — then the majority of Israelis will accept it.
You were a legislator as a member of the left-wing Labor Party, and you made news in Israel when you resigned your post about five years ago. Can you explain why you made that decision? I came into politics after many years of positions where after a decision was made, there was a deed. I felt as a doer, when I was in politics, that we speak too much, and we do not do enough in order to serve the interest of the state. Therefore, I resigned after two terms.
You had a long career in the military. It seems to me a lot of Israel’s leaders have been hardened by fighting wars against their Arab neighbors. There are more retired high-ranking officials from the military and intelligence apparatuses who are pro-peace than those against it. Rabin was the chief of staff of the armed forces, and he conducted talks with the Palestinians. [Ehud] Barak was the chief of staff of the armed forces, and he conducted talks with the Palestinians and was even ready to divide Jerusalem. Haim Bar-Lev was the chief of staff of the armed forces, and he was a Labor Party member.
At least until recently, most of the career officers that achieved very high ranks, if they went to politics, more of them went to the Labor Party than to any other party. It is true today that in the Knesset there are only two veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces in the Labor Party that achieved the rank of colonel. Both of them are pro-peace. And there are others like Minister of Defense [Moshe] Ya’alon that have hardened their positions. So you find examples on both sides, but the majority of generals, including those that did not enter politics, understand the misery of war and know that even when we win, we bury our casualties and the number of bereaved families grows dramatically. We understand that war will not bring an end to the conflict.
In the United States, everybody is talking about the leaks regarding NSA surveillance. As the head of an intelligence agency, did you struggle with questions about balancing civil liberties with the interest of security? First and foremost, we must make sure we deal with live humans, not dead humans. We have to tackle terror with all means, even if here and there, it hounds human rights.
Regarding Edward Snowden, I think the United States [overreached] in using its technology. The U.S. should not listen to or monitor friendly leaders. They should concentrate first and foremost on how to beat the bad guys — rogue countries like North Korea, like Syria, like Iran.
Speaking of Iran, there’s been some tension between the U.S. and Israel on Iran. Let me tell you: My position is that Iran should not become nuclear. Now, if this negotiation between the U.S. and the Europeans and Iran will push backward the Iranian nuclear program so that Iran will not be able in the near future — five years, something like that — to build a bomb, then it will be an achievement that we should encourage. But I’m highly concerned because I look at the details of the interim agreement, and if it is a message about how the permanent agreement will look, then it is a very bad one. According to the agreement achieved in Geneva a few months ago, the Iranians do not lose any of their capabilities. They are not asked to dismantle centrifuges. They are only asked to shut it down, meaning that in five minutes they will be able to turn it on and to continue with their program.