There are probably dozens of lessons to be learnt from Efraim Halevy’s life and career but the first is an age-old one: not to judge from appearances.
Because nothing in this man’s refined, quiet manner prepares you for the fact that till a decade ago he commanded one of the most elite intelligence and security forces in the world: the Mossad.
As 9th Director of the Mossad, and subsequently as head of Israel’s National Security Council, he has been at the forefront of Israeli intelligence, politics and international relations for decades. But that’s not all that’s surprising about Halevy; in fact, once you recover from the initial surprise, you stumble on a host of others.
Like the fact that Efraim has served as envoy and confidant to no less than 5 Israeli Prime Ministers including Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin.
Or that he is credited almost single-handedly with orchestrating the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, having developed a close relationship with King Hussein in the crisis period after the Gulf War.
Or the fact that he is a forceful pragmatist when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, known to antagonise both the right and the left and taking a reasoned rather than emotional approach to the conflict, making him a distinct minority in public life in Israel. For all his understated manner, he speaks his mind almost unreservedly – unusual for a man who made his career in the notoriously cagey intelligence and diplomatic corps. In 2007, in an interview published in Portugal, he declared that “we’re in the midst of a third world war with radical Islam,” and predicted that it would take 25 years for a Western victory.
And yet, the hard-talker has taken a far more considered view of Iran and its walk down the nuclear route, bringing his deep knowledge of the region’s history and complexities to bear on a highly fraught equation. Amid growing talk of an Israeli strike on Iran, he’s a restraining voice. “What we need to do is understand the Iranians. The basic feeling of that ancient nation is of humiliation,” he said in an interview to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper recently. “Both religious Iranians and secular Iranians feel that for 200 years the Western powers used them as their playthings. Thus the deep motive behind the Iranian nuclear project – which was launched by the Shah – is not confrontation with Israel but the desire to restore to Iran the greatness of which it was long deprived.” That doesn’t mean he underestimates the risks to Israel, he’s just confident in his country’s ability to deal with them. “We have deterrent capability and preventative capability. If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israel will be able to design a true operational response that will be able to cope with that.”
He’s a man so rooted in contemporary politics and realities that it’s easy to forget, sometimes, that he’s lived through some of the most devastating events of the previous century, events that seem to have shaped his character in definitive ways. Born in London to an Orthodox Jewish family, he lived in the country through World War II and remembers vividly Churchill’s fiery speeches on the radio. A lawyer by training and a former Israeli ambassador to the European Union, he has been more than a little inspired by the Churchillian blend of confidence and realism, evident when he talks of the Hamas, arguably Israel’s greatest enemy. “The Hamas generally keeps its word,” he said in an interview recently. “They’re not very pleasant people but they are very, very credible.”
He documented his years at the Mossad in Man in the Shadows: Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad, a book that serves as part candid memoir and part overview of middle-east history, telling a fascinating insider’s tale of key world events. The real story within its pages, though, is of a man at once daring and cautious, a voice of sanity when rebellion would have been the easier, even expected way.