[This article is a vindication of our work, during the years 1994-1996. d.b.]

During a cabinet meeting in 1994, then head of Military Intelligence Major General Uri Saguy, presented a “personal memorandum.” The Israel Defense Forces MI chief has the right to present such a document, which expresses his personal opinion, as opposed to a formal paper obligating Military Intelligence as a whole.

“The personal memorandum,” recalls Saguy, “discussed the Lebanonization of the Gaza Strip. This was in the aftermath of the first attempted suicide strikes; the first was a horrendous explosion at the Netzarim junction. I felt that cabinet ministers weren’t thrilled about [my] statements. They didn’t want to hear an evaluation holding that it [Netzarim] was a suicide attack. I had the feeling that it was as though they were saying `you’re ruining our peace process.’ I explained to them that my job was to paint a picture of the situation. They wanted to shatter the mirror, to shoot the messenger – me. My job wasn’t prophesy; it was to understand what happened, and predict what could occur. In this respect, the analysis was precise. True, we didn’t hazard a guess about the scope of the violent eruption and its date; but we pointed to the process.”

The fact that the Military Intelligence chief had to formulate his evaluation as his own personal opinion is telling. At the time, the research division under his command submitted other, sometimes contradictory, views. In other words, it is clear that it was not only Israel’s political leadership that was held hostage by the chimerical conception that an era of peace with the Palestinian Authority had begun: MI and the Shin Bet security service had trouble liberating themselves from the same feeling. The intelligence officials were not always willing to let facts disturb a rosy perception of reality.

In an interview with the Intelligence Heritage Center journal in January 2002, at a time when he was in the running for IDF chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon indicated that after 1996, Military Intelligence kept tabs on incitement and terror in the PA as a way of monitoring the stability of the peace process. Ya’alon, who replaced Saguy and became chief in 1995, said that after 1996 an “indicating sign” used by MI to monitor the level of Arafat’s commitment to the Oslo process, and of his disavowal of terror, was “incitement in the Palestinian media.”

But some Knesset members and government ministers who asked MI officials in 1994-95 to assess Arafat’s frequently militant appearances and his hellfire declarations calling for violence and Jihad, were told that the PA leader’s incendiary rhetoric had to be understood in a relatively harmless context. Arafat, the MKs and ministers were told, appeared in forums comprised of veteran PLO members, and liked to reminisce with them about the past. Thus, no conclusions should be drawn about his public appearances – they were mostly rhetoric. An analysis composed by the MI research division in the summer of 1995 concluded: “No firm evidence can be found to demonstrate that Arafat is not showing a commitment to the [Oslo] agreement and the peace process with Israel.”

This IDF Military Intelligence analysis drove then MK Benny Begin to write a critical letter in August 1995 to the new MI head, Ya’alon. “The author’s statements are so groundless,” Begin wrote, “that they lead to a regrettable conclusion: The author’s interpretation is seriously misguided by his [political] outlook. I want to alert you about the gravity of the encroachment of such a trend in MI’s research division. I am, of course, conscious that it could be claimed that this letter is misguided on account of my own outlook, and that it is a blatant effort to stifle free expression among MI researchers. Nonetheless, I will venture the comment that no reasonable person can accept the lamentable analysis presented in this [MI] document.”

Ya’alon’s response to Begin had a tone of censure: “Your comments constitute political intervention in work undertaken by MI officers,” he wrote.

Begin’s model

Begin didn’t give up. A month later, the MK wrote another memorandum, this time to the head of the MI research division, Brigadier General Ya’akov Amidror. Begin wrote: “Your hypothesis that Arafat’s declarations are a kind of harmless reminiscence [of the kind] indulged in by Palmach [elite commando] veterans is now contradicted by four events that have occurred in a short period of time – these are clear incendiary statements advocating violence against Israel; and in the case of the final incident they were delivered to a young audience… [Arafat’s] statements are systematic and consistent; and, given the proliferation of such declarations, the research division would be wise to develop an alternative model. In MI idiom, this model would say: `It cannot be ruled out, and there is a certain probability, that two years after signing the Oslo I accord, Arafat is a sworn enemy of Israel.’ (This is sensitive material, not for quotation, and based on public information which has fortuitously reached MI.)”

Using biting irony and sarcastic parenthetical asides, Begin hinted at a writing style that can be found in MI research division reports. Division officers, who want their superiors to read their reports and want to deliver warning messages, tend to use parentheses and asterisks to emphasize that their analyses are founded on classified materials – hoping to pique curiosity.

In order to substantiate his contentions about faulty MI and Shin Bet assessments of Arafat’s speeches and media statements made by top PA officials, Begin relied partly on recordings furnished to him in 1994-96 by Brigadier General (res.) Yigal Carmon and the journalist, David Bedein.

Carmon, today president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, embarked at the time on a private crusade, closely monitoring reports that circulated in Palestinian and Arab media. A former senior officer of MI’s 504 unit, who subsequently served as an anti-terror adviser to prime ministers, Carmon operated as a one-man intelligence force, and relentlessly tracked down recordings. He handled a network of informants in PA areas, and paid each dozens, or hundreds, of shekels for a single tape.

Taking exception to the MI evaluation, Begin and Carmon argued that public declarations made by Arafat and his associates contradicted the spirit of the Oslo accords and reflected their genuine intentions. One of the most revealing recordings, whose contents were made public, preserved a speech delivered by Arafat in Johannesburg in May 1994. The tape recording documented a militant address formulated in Arafat’s old, incendiary style. At one stage, Arafat likened the Oslo accord to the prophet Mohammed’s Hudaybiya truce accord with the Quraysh tribe – Mohammed, the PA leader reminded his audience, signed the agreement with the intention of violating it once his power consolidated. The Johannesburg tape recording surfaced in Israel without the help of Israeli security officials.

“It’s true, we didn’t have the Johannesburg speech,” admits Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman, today director of the American Jewish Committee’s Middle East office, and then the deputy (in charge of assessment) to the head of Military Intelligence’s research division.

For the first time since September 1993, evidence flattened the euphoria that had gripped the nation’s political leadership, intelligence community and public. Tape recorded evidence undermined the assumption that a new dawn had broken in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Military Intelligence’s lack of diligence in obtaining information about Arafat’s public appearances, compared to Carmon’s relentless activity, angered then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. At a meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Rabin asked MI delegates: Why can’t you obtain such material? Why didn’t Military Intelligence manage to get its hands on the tape recordings, instead of learning about them from MK Begin, or the media?

In interviews with Ha’aretz, members of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, along with politicians who served as ministers under the Barak and Rabin governments, explain that intelligence officials were lax about attaining such tape recordings because MI and the Shin Bet went along with the prevailing theory of the time: They believed that Arafat had chosen peace, and given up on terror.

But former MI officials furnish a different explanation. They claim that any materials that could be obtained outside the cloak-and-dagger realm of classified information simply weren’t considered important. “It’s true,” Lerman says. “MI followed an approach whereby material culled from public sources was regarded as unimportant.”

Agreement at Cairo

Whatever its reasons, Military Intelligence drew peculiar conclusions regarding another of Arafat’s militant public appearances. In September 1995, about three months after Arafat issued a call for jihad and sacrifice in a speech in the Gaza Strip, MI decided that “Arafat is not inciting murder; his statements do not suggest that Jews should be killed now.”

At the time, autumn 1995, Israel’s government and its intelligence community (represented by the Shin Bet) were mediating secret contacts between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Shin Bet officials, lead by Yisrael Hasson, the head of the security service’s Jerusalem and West Bank desk, met in prison with Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

“I knew about these meetings,” recalls then public security minister Moshe Shahal. “In my capacity as the official responsible for the Prisons Service, I sent my assistant Moshe Sasson to attend the meetings. As far as I know, the Shin Bet was involved at the government’s request, in an effort to help them [the PA and Hamas] formulate an agreement.”

Yet no report of the Shin Bet’s involvement in this mediation effort was ever supplied to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. Ha’aretz’s questions to the Shin Bet regarding the security service’s participation in the Oslo process efforts, and its analyses of the peace process, drew no response.

In December 1995, about a month after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, PA officials met with Hamas delegates in Cairo to work out an agreement. The meeting was preceded by pressure imposed by Israel and senior PA officials following lethal terror attacks perpetrated by Hamas and Islamic Jihad during the year. The Cairo meeting concluded with a joint PA-Hamas statement; among other things, it announced that “Hamas does not pursue a goal of embarrassing the PA.”

Carmon supplied information about the Cairo meeting to Begin and other right-wing politicians. In his analysis, sides at the meeting forged an agreement whereby Hamas operatives would refrain from terror activity on PA territory, yet would carry out strikes everywhere else, with the tacit consent of the Palestinian Authority. This interpretation was based on drafts of the agreement that in 1995 were relayed at Arafat’s initiative by the PA to Hamas, and which were published openly in Arabic-language newspapers. Also, Carmon and Begin relied on an interpretation by Salim al-Zanun, Palestinian National Council president, and Arafat’s delegate to the talks with Hamas.

The PA’s draft agreements from October 1995 basically included only one reservation about terror activity against Israel: No public declaration was to be made about such activity. Hamas and Islamic Jihad could continue terror attacks on condition that they could not claim responsibility for them. In other words, there was at the time reason to suspect that a division of labor had been outlined under the Cairo agreement. The PLO and the PA would engage in diplomatic negotiations with Israel and promote the peace process on the Oslo track; concurrently, Hamas and Islamic Jihad would continue to use militant, violent means.

If this interpretation of the Cairo understanding is correct, its implication is that the PLO had not desisted from the “dual track approach” it had followed since 1974, despite its promises and obligations under the Oslo accords. It would simultaneously use diplomatic means and the “armed struggle” in order to liberate the homeland.

Despite assertions made to the contrary by Ya’alon in his interview with the Intelligence Heritage Center journal, Israel’s intelligence community hesitated and equivocated. At first, it was not even willing to confirm the assumption that an agreement had been forged in Cairo. “That’s a question of interpretation,” said then Shin Bet head Carmi Gillon, who appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in January 1996. Some two months later, in March 1996, Arafat himself confirmed at a press conference attended by Meretz ministers Yossi Sarid and Yair Tzaban: “It’s true, we reached an agreement. There was a dialogue in Cairo, and it was acceptable to Prime Minister Rabin.” The PA chairman was proud of the agreement, and claimed “it was agreed that they will end their terror activity, and support the peace process and the Oslo accord.”

The intelligence community was hard-pressed to present a cogent analysis of the contents of the Cairo agreement. Its reports were characterized by vague, inconclusive formulations. In early 1996, MI chief Ya’alon said ambiguously that it could be inferred from the PLO-Hamas talks in Cairo that Hamas will not perpetrate terror attacks, but other interpretations could also be made.

Finally, with the benefit of hindsight, following a brutal series of Hamas terror attacks in February-March 1996 on buses in Jerusalem and at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, Amidror mustered the courage needed to issue clear, forthright statements to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “The understanding reached by PLO representatives with Hamas delegates in December 1995 did not become an official agreement, but it is what has effectively guided the Palestinian Authority’s and Hamas’ subsequent behavior. Under this framework, Hamas implicitly promised not to launch attacks against Israel and Israelis from territories under PA control… Arafat has subsequently done almost nothing to crack down on Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s operational infrastructure.”

Clouds of confusion

For all its clarity, Amidror’s interpretation did not become definitive. In April 1996, then IDF chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak sent a letter to Labor MK Nissim Zvili which scrambled interpretations anew. Shahak (whose view reflected Military Intelligence’s conclusions, IDF sources say) determined that it was Hamas which proposed a draft agreement which implicitly condoned terror operations conducted by it on lands not controlled by the Palestinian Authority. “But Palestinian Authority delegates did not accept this proposal,” Shahak wrote.

This new interpretation of the Cairo meeting reflects the confusion that clouded Israel’s intelligence and security community. Despite the fact that the Shin Bet and MI had information about contacts and draft agreements between the PA and Hamas, Israel’s intelligence community failed to deliver a consistent, perceptible warning about the dangers posed by the formula “no terror on, or launched from, PA territory.” Intelligence officials did not alert Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres to the gravity of the situation – that Israel would have to prepare for the possibility that extremist Palestinian organizations would continue to carry out acts of terror, so long as their operatives did not depart from lands under PA control. Instead of delivering this warning, intelligence officials hemmed and hawed. Even in surveys presented to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in May 1996, Mossad and Shin Bet officials stammered out obscure conclusions, finding it hard to say clearly what had happened at the Cairo meeting.

Dr. Shmuel Even, who served as assessment advisor to the head of MI’s research division, objects to attributing too much significance to analyses of the Cairo meeting. “We didn’t view the agreement as a departure from Arafat’s behavior pattern, whose essence we pointed to all along. The [Cairo] agreement accorded with what we had always believed: Arafat had no intention of disarming [Hamas], either because he viewed the organization as part of the Palestinian people and wanted to avoid civil war, or because he wanted to use it as a whip to be unleashed against Israel, in order to promote strategic goals.”

Other MI experts, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that the intelligence community found it hard to absorb the possibility that the Cairo agreement symbolized the beginning of the end of the logic of Oslo, of the assumption that Arafat had abandoned the use of terror.

Unanswered letters

The bitter experience of trying to mediate an internal Palestinian agreement did not stop Israel’s intelligence community from trying again. During the first few months of 1996, Israeli intelligence officials, this time from MI, once again found themselves dabbling in internal Palestinian matters. This time around, the goal was to secure changes in the Palestinian covenant, which had been promised by the PLO. Once again, the Israeli effort fell short. The Palestinian National Council met in April 1996, and failed to adopt the formulas which had been worked out with Israel’s government; the covenant was not amended. Neither MI nor the Shin Bet warned about the possibility that Arafat and his associates would dupe Israel’s government, and not incorporate revisions in the covenant as promised.

Alarmed by this sequence of events, Begin fired off letters in June 1996 to the heads of MI, the Shin Bet and the Mossad. He wrote: “As in the case of the Palestinian covenant which was not annulled or revised, the Cairo agreement also expresses deep, long-term intentions harbored by Arafat and the PLO.” Begin’s letters were never answered.

Begin, who has refused to give interviews since he left the Knesset in 1999, wrote in the preface to his book “Sad Story” (published in 2000): “This is a sad story. Those who appear in it did not know, or did not want to know, or knew but didn’t understand, or refused to understand, or understood and refused to say.” Begin’s criticism is aimed not only at political leaders like Yossi Beilin, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, who initiated and guided the Oslo peace process. The barbs are also directed against Israel’s intelligence community.

MK Yossi Sarid also believes that MI tends to slant its assessments in line with prevailing political perceptions. The Oslo period is no exception, he believes: Intelligence has been slanted with respect to virtually every major, transformative event in Israel’s history.

“Generally, the intelligence community and MI, in particular, have fallen in line with stands taken by the government,” Sarid observes. “My thesis is that since 1967, the intelligence community has been mistaken each time it has tried to formulate a strategic estimate. Regrettably, Israel’s intelligence services have been increasingly politicized. I didn’t hear statements such as `you can’t do business with Arafat,’ or `he’s not built for peace agreements,’ from the intelligence community.”

“We did not operate to placate the government,” says Saguy. “Military Intelligence reached suppositions about what might possibly occur; it could not know what would occur. We said that terror would grow stronger as the [peace] process advanced. That perception went against the grain of the consensus.”

The crucial question is whether MI grasped the dangers at the start of the peace process. Did it perceive that Arafat might not have abandoned the use of terror; and if so, did MI issue warnings?

“Yes,” says Saguy. “Our view was correct. We said that Arafat represented the pragmatic stream in the Palestinian camp, as opposed to Hamas – but should Arafat share interests with Hamas, he would support the organization. We consistently emphasized that should Arafat not attain his goals, the militant Palestinian stream would come to the fore.”

In March 1997, following a terror attack at Cafe Apropos in Tel Aviv, MI identified what was called at the time a “green light” to terror. “We identified information,” says Even, “which linked Arafat to the terror attack. Arafat gave the green light. Before then, there were terror attacks that did not advance his interests, and which he did not initiate. Apropos was the first time we saw clearly that Arafat was encouraging and initiating lethal attacks inside Israel to promote his political goals. Negotiations with the Netanyahu government for a third-phase withdrawal were stuck, and Arafat hoped to improve his position via the use of terror.”

This statement suggests that before March 1997, MI operated in a cloud, and could not believe that there were links between Arafat and terror attacks.

Military Intelligence has yet to carry out an in-house investigation of its early Oslo estimates, like probes of misbegotten intelligence analyses that were conducted after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

This piece ran in Ha’aretz on 16 August, 2002