by Amir Rapaport
An exclusive, fascinating interview with Ram Ben-Barak, Director General of the Ministry for Intelligence Affairs, about the implications of the agreement with Iran, the Sunni-Shi'ite war and the difficulties encountered by Hezbollah and his own aspirations to become the next Director of the Mossad
Photo: Meir Azulay
"I think it is quite possible that the next objective of the Islamic State organization will be the Shi'ite community in southern Lebanon, namely Hezbollah. They are already fighting against one another in Syria, and if ISIS wins over there, they will advance into Lebanon," says Ram Ben-Barak, Director General of the Israel Ministry for Intelligence Affairs.
This statement reflects one of the Intelligence Ministry's objectives – to think of intelligence affairs in an "outside-the-box" way. It is made by the Ministry's Director General, Ram Ben-Barak, in his first-ever media interview. This could well be his last public interview for a while, as the race for the position of the next Director of the Mossad, in place of Tamir Pardo who's about to step down, has entered the last stretch. If Ben-Barak wins this race he will be unable to grant interviews until the end of his term in office.
Ram Ben-Barak is one of three primary candidates for the position of the next Director of the Mossad, along with Yossi Cohen, who currently serves as the Head of the National Security Council, and N., who currently serves as Deputy Director of the Mossad. The next director will enter office in January 2016. Ram Ben-Barak was one of the major speakers at the Intelligence and Special Units Conference initiated by the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC) and Israel Defense, held under the auspices of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israel Ministry for Intelligence Affairs. Ram Ben-Barak became the Director General of the Ministry for Intelligence Affairs in 2014, when it was still attached to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, just before the recent elections to the Knesset. Following the establishment of the new government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to appoint Yisrael Katz, who also serves as Transportation Minister, as the Minister for Intelligence Affairs, while Gilad Erdan was appointed as Minister for Strategic Affairs. Both ministries are regarded as an inseparable part of the Prime Minister's Office, and reside in the Office's building in Jerusalem. It was further decided that Minister Yuval Steinitz, who served as Minister for Intelligence and Strategic Affairs in the previous government, will remain in charge of the dialogue with the USA and with other western countries on the issue of the agreement being consolidated with Iran regarding Iran's nuclear program, while serving in his new role as Minister for National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources.
In this interview, Ram Ben-Barak presented his views which have been shaped by decades of defense/security service. He is 57, born at Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley and is a veteran of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF elite unit. He served in numerous operational positions within the Mossad, and in the 1990' his photograph was published when he was arrested with other Mossad operatives while breaking into a public facility in a European country. The Mossad managed to get him released quickly back to Israel, after he had been tried and sentenced to a fine only. Among his more recent positions within the Mossad, he served as head of the operations division and as Deputy Director.
"I deeply regret the separation between intelligence and strategy. In my opinion, intelligence and strategy are closely interlinked," says Ben-Barak sincerely.
What is, in fact, the function of the Ministry for Intelligence Affairs in its new-old format?
"The Ministry for Intelligence Affairs has several functions," says Ram Ben-Barak. "In principle, the Minister for Intelligence Affairs is a member of the Israeli cabinet, and raises his hand in voting over essential issues, like war and peace. That is why the best thing for him is to be well-versed in the current status picture, to know as many things as possible, and the Ministry sees to it. It is good to have in the cabinet people who are thoroughly prepped and briefed prior to important discussions. This is a service we provide to all of the ministers.
"Intelligence is a part of the day-to-day activity. Practically, the Minister for Intelligence Affairs is the Prime Minister's ears and eyes. Agencies like ISA and Mossad are subordinated directly to the Prime Minister, who is the busiest person in the State of Israel. He cannot see everything up close. Once you have a Minister operating on the Prime Minister's behalf, everything is presented to him on an ongoing basis. We perform budget audits on findings and on the force build-up process, which enables the Prime Minister to get a better picture of whatever is going on. The Minister does not tell the agencies what to do, but they know that any remark he makes will be heard by the Prime Minister, so his remarks are heeded. His importance is in the ministerial ability to supervise and ensure that the needs and directives issued by the Prime Minister are executed on the ground."
Is there any difference between the intelligence information delivered to the Ministry for Intelligence Affairs and the information available to the Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of the IDF but not of ISA and Mossad?
"The Ministry concentrates all of the intelligence available to the State of Israel. We are an organized state. There is no difference between the Ministry for Intelligence Affairs and the Ministry of Defense as far as information is concerned. Everything works very efficiently. Numerous lessons were learned from past events, where the intelligence had been stopped at various places and was never delivered to those who needed it. The Ministry sees to it that the Minister reviews and analyzes the intelligence. We deliberate and ponder the intelligence received and attempt to consolidate an independent position of our own. There is nothing smart or intelligent about receiving it all from other sources."
Is Iran really the top intelligence priority of the State of Israel?
"The Iranian issue is one of the most important issues we deal with," said Ben-Barak during the interview that was held close to the date when the interim agreement on the nuclear issue between Iran and the P5+1 was about to expire.
"The Iranian issue has substantial influence, far beyond the fact that a nuclear Iran is intolerable in Israeli eyes. The agreement which is about to be signed will enable the Iranians to decide for themselves when they would like to become nuclear, and that is the most problematic aspect. It leaves Iran in possession of almost all of her capabilities. If it is concluded in a manner where it would not be possible to supervise Iran's military facilities, and at the same time they receive massive amounts of money within a very short period of time, their economy will experience a massive growth and this would enable them to gain more influence in the Middle East, much more than they have at present.
"The greatest danger is that Iran is advancing toward a situation where no one will be able to threaten it anymore, a situation that would enable it to gain dominance in any region it chooses.
"Look at the situation even today – there is hardly any area in the Middle East where Iran is not involved: Iraq (at present, Iran's interests in Iraq are consistent with the interests of the USA), Lebanon (Hezbollah is, in fact, an Iranian armed force) and Yemen (which is currently dominated by the Houthis, who receive their arms and advisors from Iran). Now, imagine what would happen if billions of dollars were to drop on Iran in the coming years. Iran would be under no restrictions whatsoever.
"I think that if the Americans had insisted and pressed a little harder, it would have been possible to reach a much better agreement. No one contests the fact that an agreement is a better option than war. This is fully understood by everyone – from the Prime Minister to the last civilian in the street, but a bad agreement can have very grave implications."
Are the Americans sharing information on the process with us, or are we not really fully informed as the permanent agreement is being finalized?
"We are involved in the process with some degree of openness – sometimes more, sometimes less. Minister Dr. Yuval Steinitz is intensively involved in the process. He will remain in charge of this activity until August 2015 at the very least. At the moment, Iran is the most pressing issue, but there are other issues."
There has been some talk about the process with Iran leading to an arms race by Middle Eastern countries regarded as more moderate, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia, as a counterweight to the nuclear arming of Iran. Do you share those concerns?
"Absolutely. This process will almost certainly take place. The Saudis and the countries of the Persian Gulf are just as apprehensive as we are of an Iranian domination of the region. Eventually, there are massive natural resources in that area and in the past we witnessed an attempt by the Iraqis to capture Kuwait for its massive oil reserves.
"Consider the Shi'ite-Sunni confrontation that is currently dividing the Muslim world, and you will reach the inevitable conclusion that those countries are under pressure. There is no shortage of money in the Gulf States, they can buy anything they want. Once they realize that the Iranians are walking through a corridor that would lead them to a nuclear capability, they will enter that corridor too, and the entire region would be thrown into a new arms race."
What can be said about the relations we have or do not have with countries regarded as more moderate, including countries in the Persian Gulf?
"There is an opportunity here. I would not like to go into details. I assume these things are being considered and that interests are shared. You can see the interests we currently share with Egypt. I assume other things are happening as well."
A Sunni-Shi'ite War
"In the struggle between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims, the Sunni Muslims face a dual problem," adds Ram Ben-Barak. "On the one hand, they are threatened by the Shi'ite axis that aspires to gain influence and dominate. On the other hand, they face radical Sunni Islamists, who regard their states as heretical.
"For example, the Sunni Muslims are fighting against the Assad regime in Syria, but they should already think about the day following his collapse. The Islamic State organization, ISIS, is already confronting the moderate Sunni Muslims in Syria. This reality is highly problematic. As the situation in Syria currently appears, it would not be far-fetched to predict that very soon, these organizations will be deployed along the border with Israel on the Golan Heights."
Is Assad's situation really that bad? Is he approaching the end of his reign?
"That's what it looks like on the ground at the moment, but we must not exaggerate it. The successes of ISIS and the other rebel groups were achieved in Sunni-dominated areas. Generally, they have not been very successful in non-Sunni areas. They succeeded against the Kurds in Iraq, but the Kurds managed to reinstate their domination. Assad's military is practically shattered at this time, and it seems that Syria is advancing toward a situation of an Alawite-dominated area (the president's religious affiliation), an ISIS-dominated area and an area dominated by other rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra. It will be very interesting to see what eventually happens. We need to look forward and consider the possibility of ISIS moving on to their next objective, in southern Lebanon."
Hezbollah is intensively involved in the fighting in Syria. Do you think they will lose their war over there?
"I believe so. They are not doing very well. There are Shi'ite militia groups that the Iranians dispatched and quite a few Hezbollah warfighters, but they are unable to stop the rebels. In his recent TV appearance, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah called for an all-out mobilization. At the same time, you can see the pressure he is under with regard to the possibility that Israel could launch an initiated move against him now, of all times. He understands that this is a viable option.
"The Shi'ite Muslims are currently preoccupied more by radical Islam than they are by the Jews. In 4-5 years from now, there might be something different in southern Lebanon. In the Golan Heights it's already happening. The Syrian Army is no longer there. Reality has changed. Frequent terrorist attacks along the border fence can actually begin tomorrow."
Is there any sort of international move that could bring the war in Syria to an end?
"In my opinion, no. The conflict is stronger than the influence the superpowers can wield. It is a Shi'ite-Sunni conflict. The Russians and the Americans are not a factor. They have some leverage over Assad, but he is only one player among many. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS do not care about the superpowers."
When different enemies of Israel are fighting one another, it is not necessarily a bad thing from an Israeli point of view. Do you agree?
"This is a somewhat childish approach, as wars eventually come to an end and then a new reality emerges. Look, Hezbollah will be crippled without Syria, as it will be difficult for them to take delivery of the arms shipments from Iran, and that is important for us. But it is by no means certain that the alternative will be any better. During the Iran-Iraq war in the last century some people said it was the best thing for the Jews – and look where we are today. Even the war in Syria will stabilize eventually, and then we will once again become the common enemy. We must prepare for that."
Generally, the state Hezbollah is in does not seem to be too good in the summer of 2015…
"Correct. On the one hand, it is not too good. On the other hand, they have thousands of warfighters who are fighting and gaining combat experience, which is less favorable for us."
So some of the processes you refer to are positive while others are very negative. Bottom line, does time play in our favor or against us?
"I think that no existential threat is currently imposed on the State of Israel as was the case in the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. We share the same interests with many other countries, which is another advantage. From an economic point of view, we are a wonder. We live like they do in America. Consequently, I think that in general our situation is much better than it used to be, but we still face some serious challenges with which we have to cope.
"In my opinion, our greatest challenge is not necessarily an external one, but the fact that we have here a fairly large 'middle-class-plus' class, people who live in Israel and really think that we can afford to evade serving in the IDF. These people think that if they travel twice a year to Thailand or to ski somewhere, everything is fine. This is highly problematic, and might change the IDF into something quite different. The economic elite will not be a part of the military game. I think that it is becoming visible. You see it in the amount of youngsters who evade the draft. In my time, the Kibbutz movement provided the manpower for Sayeret Matkal. Today the religious Zionist movement does it. I think it is a problem, not because of the religious Zionist movement, but rather because a major segment of the public does not think that it has to be there."
Is there a Boycott?
Do you anticipate the possibility of a third Palestinian Intifada?
"With regard to the Palestinian issue, we have to aspire to a solution of one kind or another. It is no coincidence that the Palestinians have not launched a third Intifada to this day. They are looking around them, they see what is taking place in Egypt, what is taking place in Syria, and they look at themselves. Overall, despite all of the problems. and there are many problems, their situation is relatively good and they should not worsen it by staging another uprising. On the other hand, a solution must be reached, but that is a political-diplomatic issue so I will not address it."
What are the effects of the international boycott movement on Israel?
"It is undoubtedly an element in our strategic situation. The boycott phenomenon is a cause for concern and should be addressed. It is worrying mainly because it permeates. It has the potential of influencing people who are 20 today. By the time they are 35, the filth they hear today could influence them. It is important to realize that it is not a spontaneous effort by 'bleeding-heart liberals' concerned about human rights. Many people over there are misled by a well-oiled, amply-rewarded machine and a lot of money is being poured into it. Every time you see four Palestinians walk into a supermarket in London and remove Israeli-made products from the shelves – be aware that they are being paid to do it. It is a campaign that we should fight. The State of Israel has a problem fighting it, so pro-Israeli organizations should be encouraged and convinced that it is important to fight against this phenomenon, as Israel should be presented for the positive things it represents. The Palestinians maintain paid activists who conduct a propaganda campaign against Israel in every university campus around the world."
Does the boycott have any implications with regard to the relations between the Israeli intelligence agencies and similar agencies around the world?
"No. It has no effect whatsoever in that regard. It does have an effect on the decisions made by employee committees, student organizations, lecturer organizations and cultural institutions."
Is our relationship with the USA in perfect order?
"The strategic relationship is in perfect order."
And within Israel, are the relations between the various intelligence agencies – the IDF Intelligence Directorate, Mossad and ISA – in perfect order?
"Those relations can always be improved. It is not that we do not have our controversies, but I have never seen, in my entire career, a problem that necessitated cooperation where that cooperation failed to materialize. It is my estimate that there are quite a few arguments even today, but with all due honesty and sincerity, I have never seen a situation where they failed to set aside all of their differences and resolve the problem. The personal relations between the directors of the services themselves are very good. No quarrels, no envy.
"There is no other place anywhere in the world where the inter-organizational relations are as good as they are over here. We have the entire information disseminated by every agency to the others. No one conceals information – this notion never even enters anyone's mind."
What about the controversy between the agencies as to who should be responsible for the developments in the Gaza Strip, which in the past was the exclusive intelligence responsibility of the ISA, when the IDF controlled the Gaza Strip?
"This is, indeed, a complex issue. Should the Gaza Strip be regarded as a separate country, another state, and therefore be the responsibility of the Mossad? For years, the people of ISA have said that they are still operating over there. I should imagine they think about how to handle it pursuant to the changing circumstances. They will probably reach some sort of arrangement regarding this issue, too. While the arguments are ongoing, I am still confident that the agencies will not sabotage the operations of one another."
The Battle over the Mossad
According to Ram Ben-Barak, "Our next war will be fought against organizations, not against armed forces – and that is a completely different story with regard to the resources to be acquired and our ability to dominate a space and engage individual warfighters. It is a different kind of warfare, not necessarily fought using tanks. These organizations are defeating armed forces all around us. We possess the technology and have to invest money and resources in it and get this technology into the actual fighting, on the land battlefield. It is not a simple undertaking fighting in the alleys of Gaza with a terrorist popping up from every sewage manhole. You should reach a situation where you dominate Gaza without actually conquering it. It is possible if you can create a situation where you can imagine hitting every armed person popping up from the subterranean medium."
Do you think that the massive investment in intelligence in the context of the strategic force build-up process of the State of Israel is justified?
"Yes, especially with regard to the new battlefield. You must know what to hit and where the enemy is located. For this you must have good intelligence. The investment in intelligence is super important. I think that we should invest more in other things. Large-scale conventional wars are not very common anymore, anywhere around the world. They do not take place, first and foremost, because the outcome normally turns out to be the opposite of what you wanted originally. There is a high price to pay, in money and in human lives, and it is never beneficial politically. We must develop an alternative to war. We should enhance our covert capabilities – and I am not saying that because I come from the Mossad. That is where the future war will take place."
There is nothing simple about covert warfare. Our enemies are not exactly losers in that field either…
"There is nothing simple about it, to put it mildly. Covert warfare is very challenging. We should invest more in it."
Is the tremendous worldwide reputation of the Mossad justified?
"I am, of course, biased, but the answer is a resounding yes. I love that organization. It is my home, and I truly think it is an exceptional organization which is even better than what people think. The Mossad is a relatively small organization. It can change very fast, identify the threats and invest and apply the appropriate resources. It is an organization with exceptional people who possess excellent capabilities. It is good that the public does not know everything it does, as that means that we are okay. When people know – it normally means that something went wrong."
So do you hope to return to the Mossad next year as Director?
Who, in your opinion, will be selected as the next Director of the Mossad?
"All of the candidates are worthy this time. It is up to the Prime Minister to decide."
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