TEL AVIV — As a special Knesset investigative committee began drafting its report this week on Israeli intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, Israel’s defense establishment found itself caught up in an unexpected debate over whether Israel had overstated the Iraqi threat, and why.
The Knesset probe, headed by Likud lawmaker Yuval Steinitz, has been hearing from senior security officials for four months. Most of the findings will remain classified, but intelligence officials and others familiar with the proceedings said the report would point to serious shortcomings in Israel’s intelligence-gathering, particularly in nations like Iraq that lie beyond Israel’s immediate periphery. With the nature of regional threats changing rapidly, such alleged flaws are setting off alarm bells.
The review parallels similar probes launched in recent weeks by President Bush and Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair. All three nations favored military action against Saddam Hussein, based on assumptions about Iraqi capabilities that now appear greatly overstated. All three governments are now reviewing, as one source put it, “what we knew and when we knew it.”
Israel’s probe differs from the American and British investigations in several key respects, however. U.S. and British intelligence agencies were asked for information to justify going to war, while the Israeli agencies were called on to supply defensive information. Since Israel had no military role in the U.S.-led coalition, the army’s main task was to help the government decide how best to defend the home front against the long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction Iraq was presumed to possess.
Far more sensitive are the probes’ differing political ramifications. While Bush and Blair face anger from political rivals and voters over the political context of their intelligence failures, Israel’s government faces few domestic political repercussions. Israel’s potential fallout is, if anything, mainly diplomatic: the accusation, already voiced in some European and other countries, that Israel exaggerated the Iraqi threat in order to rid itself of a troublesome neighbor.
The pitfalls became apparent this week when a former U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, charged in an Israeli press interview that Israeli intelligence had deliberately overstated what it knew to be a minimal threat from Iraq because it hoped to encourage America and Britain to launch a war — a war that admittedly would benefit Israel.
“As far back as 1995, Israel knew that Saddam Hussein had no capability to hit it with long range missiles,” Ritter said in an interview with the Israeli Web site Ynet, operated by the daily Yediot Aharonot.
Steinitz, the chair of the Israeli investigation who also heads the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, flatly rejected Ritter’s charge this week. “This is absolutely false,” he said.
Ritter’s accusations found virtually no endorsement in any corner of Israel’s famously divided political spectrum. Security officials interviewed by the Forward insisted that no branch of the military could or would deliberately skew the findings in that way.
If Ritter’s charges resonated nonetheless, it is partly because they come uncomfortably close to another truth widely acknowledged here: that Israeli intelligence tended to exaggerate threats because it was operating under flawed assumptions.
The most immediate results of the exaggerations were domestic. Military intelligence reported last year that Saddam had only “remainder capability” — somewhere between zero and 14 missiles and an unknown quantity of chemical or biological weapons to arm them, according to army sources. The government nonetheless ordered citizens to carry gas masks with them at all times.
The gas masks had been handed out in 1991, before the first Gulf war. In that war Saddam actually fired 39 Scud missiles on Israel, but none were armed with a chemical or biological warhead. In 2003, hardened by the prior false alarm, Israelis showed widespread skepticism toward the government’s orders.
The skepticism was compounded by highly public debates that erupted recently over the work of the intelligence agencies, particularly the military intelligence. The service is widely seen as laboring in the shadow of a 30-year-old trauma: its failure, due to rigid preconceptions and despite considerable evidence, to predict the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973.
That war, analysts agree, left the military with a permanent fear of underestimating foreign threats, creating a tendency to err on the side of alarmism. This left the military unable this time around to declare the Iraqi threat nonexistent, regardless of the quality of evidence. Compounding the army’s nervousness, politicians felt too weak to take calculated risks and instead preferred to hide behind the military.
Partly because these tendencies were no secret, few Israelis bothered to take their gas masks off the shelves. A famous 2003 news photo showed Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz carrying his kit at a social event — the only one in the room to do so. After the war ended, while American teams in Iraq were searching unsuccessfully for evidence of forbidden weapons, Israel’s government and army came under mounting criticism for acting out of panic and causing expenses estimated at more than $100 million — the cost of renewing perishable items like gas mask filters.
When the parliamentary panel was formed last fall, Steinitz said it would not point fingers, but would instead deal with the intelligence agencies’ future budgetary and other needs. The military, however, was suspicious from the start. Senior commanders, ordinarily subjected to minimal and ineffectual parliamentary oversight, appeared to take Steinitz’s initiative as a threat. It took some arm-twisting to get senior command officers to testify.
Last week charges surfaced that some commission members had been approached by security officials and asked to express dissatisfaction with the still-uncompleted report. These allegations, true or not, again brought to the fore the oft-discussed issue of civilian and parliamentary control over Israel’s military.
Senior intelligence officers told the Forward last week that the Steinitz commission had revealed a disturbing picture: Although Iraq had been one of the main targets of Israeli intelligence-gathering during the past decade, the level of information obtained was very poor. The shortfalls were repeatedly aired in annual reviews, but little was done to change things.
Moreover, the sources said, the lack of information was apparent not only regarding Iraq, but other remote fronts as well. “Everybody talks about Iraq, but the real story is Libya,” a security source told the Forward. “A poor Arab country managed to get very close to obtaining a nuclear bomb, with long-range missiles to carry it all the way to Israel — and we knew nothing about it.”
This statement points to a sore spot in the intelligence-gathering of Israel and other Western nations: namely, the need to change the way things are done in a world where old threats, mainly large conventional armies, are diminishing, and the real dangers lie in remote countries with WMD or terrorist organizations. Numerous knowledgeable sources claim that the existing agencies will have to undergo major changes in order to deal with this new situation.
It is unclear whether the Knesset, a much weaker link in the system than the American Congress, can trigger the necessary changes on its own. It is more likely that the Steinitz panel’s recommendations will end up where the work of past investigative panels lies. Officials point to the record of the Agranat commission, created in 1974 to examine the intelligence failure preceding the Yom Kippur War. It concluded its work with a recommendation that a new post be created of intelligence adviser to the prime minister. Thirty years later, the post still doesn’t exist.
This story "Israeli Intelligence Probe Asks: What Did We Know and When?" was written by Ofer Shelah.