NEW YORK — It’s not often that Middle East events surprise Efraim Halevy, who served in the Mossad for 28 years (including four as director) and who also was head of the National Security Council and adviser to and confidante of four Israeli prime ministers.
But Halevy, 78, the London-born intelligence expert who made aliya in 1948, acknowledges that elements of last week’s national elections surprised and pleased him, underscoring that “the winds of change” that have swept the Arab world in the last two years have come to Israel “in our own particular way.” Namely, domestic issues dealing with the daily concerns of the majority of Israelis — including housing, making ends meet, religious-secular tensions and creating a more equitable society — had a major impact on the election results, moving the government more toward the center.
As precise and low-key in his manner of speech as he is bold in his pronouncements, Halevy, who was in New York recently on behalf of American Friends of Hebrew University (his alma mater), maintained that “we are in the midst of the Third World War” with radical Islam, one that it will take 25 years to win; that while Iran is “a formidable enemy,” it does not represent “an existential threat” to Israel; and that “the growing haredi radicalization” in Israeli society “poses a greater threat than [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.”
During an interview at Jewish Week, he asserted it was “irrelevant” to view Israeli politics as a struggle between left and right, but more helpful to perceive of a population keen on restoring a sense of societal balance as well as safeguarding its security.
He kept coming back to a campaign slogan of Yair Lapid, the surprise centrist candidate in the Israeli elections who now appears to be the political linchpin to the next government coalition: “share the burden.”
Halevy believes the issue goes well beyond the immediate target for Lapid of having haredi yeshiva students serve in the Israeli Defense Forces rather than receiving exemptions for Torah study.
Comparing it to “the unraveling of a ball of wool,” Halevy said the concept of sharing the burden is profound and touches on many “interconnected” aspects of Israeli society, like “the economy, the demand for gainful employment, the role of women in society, rules of conduct in the public domain” and how to resolve the Jewish status crisis for hundreds of thousands of Russian immigrants who live in Israel but are not Jewish according to halacha, or religious law.
He said “it is no longer possible to put off” issues affecting so many citizens living in limbo in terms of their Jewishness, and that Jerusalem, however reluctant to deal with these delicate religious and political matters, must make “courageous decisions.”
It is not tolerable, he said, for Russian-speaking IDF soldiers to be denied burial in military cemeteries in Israel or for would-be converts to be prevented from joining the Jewish people because of the increasingly stringent standards of the Chief Rabbinate.
Halevy, who grew up in Bnei Akiva, the Modern Orthodox youth movement and attended co-ed Orthodox schools in Israel, noted with dismay how Orthodoxy has moved strongly to the right, speculating that with the continued growth of non-Zionist haredi communities, Zionists “could become a minority in Israel even without the Arabs.”
He said it will take “a titanic effort” to bring about a sense of cohesion and fairness in Israeli society, but implied that a new government where Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party plays a significant and moderating role would be a positive step.
He also welcomed the candidacy of Rabbi David Stav, a leader of the Tzohar rabbinical group, which calls for a gentler, more open brand of Orthodoxy, in this year’s election for the Chief Rabbinate, and predicted a close race against haredi candidates.
On security issues such as Iran and the Palestinians, Halevy remains a pragmatist, calling for incremental steps based on negotiations and the need to “understand one’s enemy.”
He believes the Palestinian leadership must reach some consensus on dealing with the reality of Israel, and that Israel needs to change its electoral system in ways that empower its leaders to make vital decisions.
Appearing on PBS’ “The Charlie Rose Show” the night before our meeting, Halevy called for building a gradual understanding between the Palestinians and Israelis rather than seeking an end to the conflict at this point. He also cited the need for more transparency in policy decisions, noting that “no one really knows” the details of the agreement brokered by Egypt to end the recent fighting between Hamas and Israel.
“We have to climb down from our ideologies” and find means for coexistence with the Palestinians, he said of Israeli political leaders, asserting, for example, that Israel does not need the Palestinians to “recognize our rights to exist.”
Halevy said Iran represents “a very
serious threat” to Israel, but “it is wrong to tell your enemy he has the power to destroy you. Don’t test him,” he said, pointing out that Israel has “an enormous array of capabilities — offensive and defensive — to counter” Iran’s military might and “steps should be taken to de-fang” Tehran.
While acknowledging that Israel “might have to resort to force,” he said there is a need to “exhaust all avenues first,” namely negotiations conducted by the United States. Dialogue can be “very unpleasant, fraught with pitfalls and dangerous,” but necessary, he believes. Since the “ultimate task is to change the mind of your enemies,” one has to convince them there is an alternative to warfare, though the threat of a military strike must remain possibility.
Halevy said the economic sanctions against Iran are having a powerful impact on its leaders, and he sees Syria as “an Achilles heel” for Iran’s mullahs, who are fearful of the outcome of the civil war being waged.
He believes negotiations between Tehran and Washington should be encouraged and that there is a chance Iran will “stop short if faced by a united front on the nuclear issue.”
He said that “it is a big mistake for Israel to personalize” the situation, and was emphatic in asserting that “the U.S. will never sell Israel out.”
In a parting political shot, Halevy said that last week’s vote in Israel underscored the society’s desire for a sense of “normalcy,” adding “the prime minister has paid a heavy price” for his steady drumbeat of accentuating the external threats to the Jewish state.
Whether or not a new government will take the initiatives to “share the burden” at home and focus on renewing talks with the Palestinians and finding alternatives to a military confrontation with Iran remains to be seen. But it’s clear Halevy believes these tough decisions can no longer be delayed.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)