The Spy Who Wants Israel to Talk

By David Ignatius

Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, titled his memoirs “Man in the Shadows.” But now that he’s out in the sunlight, the 72-year-old retired spy chief has some surprisingly contrarian things to say about Iran and Syria. The gist of his message is that rather than constantly ratcheting up the rhetoric of confrontation, the United States and Israel should be looking for ways to establish a creative dialogue with these adversaries.

Halevy is a legendary figure in Israel because of his nearly 40 years of service as an intelligence officer, culminating in his years as Mossad’s director from 1998 to 2003. He managed Israel’s secret relationship with Jordan for more than a decade, and he became so close to King Hussein that the two personally negotiated the 1994 agreement paving the way for a peace treaty. So when Halevy talks about the utility of secret diplomacy, he knows whereof he speaks.

Of course, Halevy looks like the fictional master spy George Smiley — thinning hair, wise but weary eyes, the rumpled manner of someone who might have been a professor in another life. And Halevy has the gift of anonymity: You would look right past him in a crowded room, never imagining that he was the man who had conducted daring secret missions. After he appeared here with former CIA director George Tenet at a conference sponsored by the Brookings Institution‘s Saban Center, Halevy agreed to sit down for an interview.

Halevy suggests that Israel should stop its jeremiads that Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. The rhetoric is wrong, he contends, and it gets in the way of finding a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear problem.

“I believe that Israel is indestructible,” he insists. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may boast that he wants to wipe Israel off the map, but Iran’s ability to consummate this threat is “minimal,” he says. “Israel has a whole arsenal of capabilities to make sure the Iranians don’t achieve their result.” Even if the Iranians did obtain a nuclear weapon, says Halevy, “they are deterrable,” because for the mullahs, survival and perpetuation of the regime is a holy obligation.

“We must be much more sophisticated and nuanced in our policies toward Iran,” Halevy contends. He argues for a combination of increased economic pressure and a diplomatic opening that attempts to speak to Iran’s “national aspirations” and its shared interests with America and the West — and even Israel.

“Iranians, including those in government, know that acceptance of Israel is not just something they have to accept but something that might bring their deliverance,” Halevy maintains.

The former spy chief also argues that Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric masks a deep split within Iran over the country’s future. “I believe that behind their bombastic statements there is a desperate fear that they are going down a path that would have dire consequences,” he says. “They don’t know how to extricate themselves. We have to find creative ways to help them escape from their rhetoric.”

Halevy, who made many secret visits to Iran during the days of the shah, argues that rather than rattling sabers the West should be looking for dialogue with Tehran. “A creative and constructive approach to Iran’s concerns — not the dreams of their fanatic president to effect the demise of Israel — might move them to see that their self-interest would be better served by taking alternative paths.”

Halevy takes a similarly contrarian view about Syria. “Damascus is now ripe for peace negotiation,” he says. He argues that the Syrians are signaling their interest in such a negotiation and that the details of an agreement were worked out during extensive talks in the 1990s. The Syrian track might be a breakthrough, he argues, because an accommodation with Damascus might bring along the rest of the Arab world, lead to a settlement in Lebanon and undermine Syria’s current alliance with Iran.

If the Syrians are serious about a dialogue with Israel, they should send a clear signal, Halevy advises. They should urge Hezbollah to release the Israeli prisoners it is holding or limit the activities of Hamas offices in Damascus. “Do a little,” he urges the Syrians. “Start the ball rolling.”

Halevy has battled for decades for Israel’s security, launching hundreds of secret missions over the years to defend the Jewish state. So he has earned the right to offer iconoclastic advice about his country’s strategic interests. At this delicate moment, he suggests, war talk about Iran is a mistake. “Sensible Iranians are not in short supply,” he confides. The challenge is to find them and to begin a serious conversation.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address