Former Mossad chief says Israel’s worst threats come from 'within'

Efraim Halevy says that the country’s policies on conversion to Judaism and immigration pose bigger dangers than Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah


Efraim Halevy, former director of Israeli intelligence service the "Mossad" poses for a photograph in Amsterdam on December 2, 2015. - Halevy is in the Netherlands on the invitation of th Centre of Documentary and Information of Israel (CIDI)for commemorations marking the 20th year since the death of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin. (Photo by Remko de Waal / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by REMKO DE WAAL/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

The biggest challenges facing Israel come from inside the country rather than outside, a former Mossad chief has said.

British-born Efraim Halevy, who ran Israel’s intelligence agency from 1998 to 2002, told the JC in an exclusive interview that the country’s policies on conversion to Judaism and immigration offer greater threats than Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, a view which runs contrary to the beliefs of most defence and intelligence experts.

Hamas and Hezbollah are secondary threats, Halevy says, offering a cautious but rare glimpse of optimism on the Iranian-backed militias.

According to the Law of Return, anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents is eligible for Israeli citizenship. The process, however, is in many cases humiliating and difficult for secular Jews in particular, who sometimes have a hard time gathering religious documents proving their Jewishness.

“We have to change the way we deal with citizenship in Israel,” said Halevy, 87. “That’s the most urgent issue. If a rabbi in London declares someone a Jew, then he’s a Jew. It must not be re-examined anywhere. The fact that people have to bring photos of tombstones of their grandparents to prove they are Jews is despicable.

“We also have to change our attitude to conversion so that we remain a majority in our land. This is not the case at the moment. And that’s because the religious authorities in Israel are the ones determining who is a Jew. It shouldn’t be up to the rabbinate in Israel to decide who the legitimate leaders of Jews outside Israel are.”

Halevy is also critical of Israel’s handling of refugees from Ukraine: “As a result of the war in Ukraine, Israel has adopted a policy similar to the US in World War Two, when Jews tried to leave Germany but were turned away.

"When you see how people are being treated at Ben Gurion airport, undergoing interrogation, and in many cases being turned back to Ukraine, I think this is something that would make Yitzhak Shamir shake in anger and despair,” Halevy said, referring to the former Israeli Prime Minister who pushed for Jews in the Soviet Union to immigrate to Israel after the Cold War.

In the first couple of weeks of the war in Ukraine, Israel adopted a harsh policy towards Ukrainian refugees, asking them to put down a 10,000 NIS (£2,500) deposit to enter the country, while limiting the number of refugees entering the country to a few thousand.

The policy was later reversed, allowing for at least 33,000 Ukrainians to enter.

Nevertheless, the debacle is “a symbol of one of the biggest crises Israel is experiencing. It goes against the fundamentals of Judaism over centuries to close the gates of immigration, rather than opening them,” the former spymaster insisted.

Halevy, who was born in London, was instrumental in the peace negotiations between Israel and Jordan and served as intermediary between Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Sultan of Oman.

It’s therefore no surprise to him that the Abraham Accords were signed, knowing that decades of covert efforts preceded the historic agreement, often with Mossad’s involvement.

Asked whether Saudi Arabia will eventually normalise ties with Israel, Halevy sounded optimistic, yet realistic: “For MBS (Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman), the relationship with Israel is an issue that has to be treated delicately. It will take time, but it’s certainly on its course. The opening of Israeli flights over Saudi skies is a major change.”

While the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme undoubtedly brought Israel and Saudi Arabia closer, Halevy does not engage in the doomsday rhetoric adopted by Israeli leaders in recent years.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned repeatedly that a nuclear-armed Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel. “I’m convinced that Israel is indestructible, whether it be from terrorism or Iranian activities,” said Halevy.

“I do think that Iran is capable of making changes in its policies. As we are approaching the end of the reign of Ayatollah Khamenei, it’s not impossible that his successor will take a different line (with Israel).

“There are indications that people in senior places in Iran might be able to adopt a different policy years from now. We had relations with Iran, so it’s not a delusion. Sometimes there are better means than threats [to achieve foreign policy goals].”

“I don’t think Israel is capable of bringing about regime change in Iran, but I think an outstretched hand could reach the right addresses in Iran once the time comes.”

Halevy struck a similar optimistic tone regarding Hamas. “Hamas would ultimately be willing to accept a temporary solution in which Palestinians would get independence on the 1967 borders alongside Israel,” he said.

“I don’t want to pretend this means that Hamas and Israel are on the verge of an understanding.

"But in cases like this, when you’re dealing with terrorism, you can’t jump over the fence overnight. The idea you can’t negotiate with terrorists has been proven untrue.”

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