Former head of Shin Bet discusses Israeli, Mideast security


Carmi Gillon, former director of the Israeli Secret Service (Shin Bet, now called Shabak), discussed the security and other concerns in Israel in the aftermath of last summer’s war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, commented on worldwide intelligence failures about Iraq’s weapons programs before the Iraq War, and warmly endorsed the efforts of the Jewish National Fund in helping to replant forests and help struggling Israeli firefighters who were hard-hit by the Hezbollah attacks in Israel.

Gillon, who served as Shin Bet director from 1994-1995, resigning after the assassination of his longtime friend, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was the featured speaker at an event sponsored by the Jewish National Fund St. Louis Council last week, at the home of Bill and Kim Miller.

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In his remarks and in an exclusive interview with the St. Louis Jewish Light prior to the program, Gillon, who was born in Jerusalem in 1950, and who is a former Israeli ambassador to Denmark as well as an author and TV and radio commentator, discussed a wide range of issues, including the just-published and controversial book, At the Center of the Storm, by George J. Tenet, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Asked how the CIA and Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence agency, along with British and European intelligence agencies and the United Nations could all have been so wrong in their beliefs and assertions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, Gillon said, “Yes, the CIA was not the only agency which was wrong, so was Israeli intelligence. There was a big debate inside Israel on whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, and those who believe he did prevailed.

“Saddam very cleverly wanted to give the impression, especially to his rivals in the Arab world, that he had weapons of mass destruction. He especially wanted Egyptian President (Hosni) Mubarak to think he had such weapons so that he would be feared and taken seriously in the region. He did not count on George W. Bush becoming president and actually going to war to remove him from power,” Gillon told the Jewish Light.

Asked if Israel’s actions in 1981 in bombing the Iraqi nuclear plant in Osirak had actually prevented Saddam from developing nuclear weapons by the time of the first Persian Gulf War in 1981, Gillon said, “For sure, Iraq could have had nuclear weapons by 1991 if the Osirak plant had not been destroyed. There are risks that a leader cannot take, and for (then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem) Begin in 1981, while he was still in the midst of peace negotiations with Egypt, felt he had to act against Iraq. Sometimes also a leader feels he must act while he has the opportunity to act. In fact, this helped Begin in the peace talks with Egypt, since this confirmed Begin’s status as a strong and decisivie leader.”

Gillon remains convinced that the risks for peace taken by Begin and Rabin, which involved a combination of firmness and resolve, are stil the best options for going forward. “Rabin said we should pursue peace as if there were no terrorism, and pursue terrorists as if there were no peace process.” He told the nearly 100 who attended the JNF St. Louis event, “I can recall being on the lawn of the White House on Sept. 13, 1993, when Rabin made himself shake hands with Yasser Arafat in the hopes there could be peace.”

Gillon contrasted Arafat’s betrayal of his commitment to make peace with Israel to the “honorable” course taken by the late Egptian President Anwar Sadat and the late Jordanian King Hussein. “King Hussein, who was on very friendly terms with Rabin and other Israeli leaders, personally saw to it that the peace treaty between Jordan and Israel moved forward to completion. At the signing ceremony, President Bill Clinton sat on one side of the Jordanian-Israeli border, and Rabin and Hussein on the other.”

Though neither the 1979 Egypt-Israel or 1995 Jordan-Israel treaties have resulted in a truly “warm peace,” Gillon is convinced of their lasting value to the region. “While there are not many Israeli, Egyptian or Jordanian tourists going back and forth for visits, both Egypt and Jordan have kept thieir end of the agreements, and this can only benefit Israel and the region.”

Gillon expressed support for the idea of Israel attempting to work with the moderate Arab regimes, such as Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, who “may now regard Iran as a greater threat to the region than they had previously regarded Israel. For the first time, the moderate Arab states in the region have a common regional concern, the regime in Iran.”

Gillon stressed, “Iran is not North Korea, nor is it Iraq, but they possess tremendous oil reserves, and because of its location, its long-range rockets can reach every country in Europe.” Gillon added that while we cannot be sure how long it will be before Iran might develop nuclear weapons of its own, the radical Islamist regime there, which also supports Hamas and Hezbollah, “must be taken very seriously,” and that Israel should work with the United States in pursuing regional stability with moderate Arab states.

The program also featured remarks by Rachel Kaplan, of Cleveland, a Washington University senior, who described her visit to Israeli areas hit by Hezbollah rockets, to join her twin sister during the height of the Israeli-Hezbollah War in Lebanon. “The bomb shelters were damp, cold and sometimes ankle deep in water,” she said. “Some of the children’s art work showed rockets going off, along with drawings of skulls and death. The American student and other volunteers who went there were truly amazed at the tremendous gratitude expressed by the Israelis for our efforts to help the many who had been forced to leave their homes in the north because of the rocket attacks. We helped plant trees and clear forests, just as the JNF has been doing even before there was an Israel. At Kibbutz Malkia and other locations, we were met with awe and appreciation that we American students would take an Alternatived Spring Break in Israel at such a time.” Kaplan’s remarks were received with a sustained standing ovation.

At the program, an official farewell and appreciation was expressed to outgoing St. Louis JNF Board Co-Presidents Judy Levin and Lynne Palan, who were succeeded by Ellen Stein and Carolyn Amacher.