Those who have access to the classified files of intelligence agencies worldwide are familiar with the kinds of mistakes and follies that can be prompted by blindness on the intelligence front. However, they also know that at times, even excellent intelligence and the ability to use it operationally make no difference.
At times, the tactical victory changes nothing on the strategic level.
Israel’s intelligence community has been learning this grim lesson in the last few years. Israeli intelligence agencies view the “radical front” comprising Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas as their main challenge. As it turns out, despite the willingness of various prime ministers to approve highly risky operations based on intelligence information, and despite the success stories, the overall image remains bleak.
The appointment of Meir Dagan as Mossad Chief and Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash’s appointment as head of Military Intelligence in 2002 completely changed the intelligence community. Dagan created a new Mossad, with a more compact task list and with greater openness to cooperation with foreign spy agencies.
Meanwhile, other Israeli intelligence units achieved unprecedented accomplishments. Elsewhere, the Shin Bet in cooperation with the IDF intelligence branch made their own breakthroughs in understanding Palestinian guerilla groups; this led to hundreds of assassinations of members of these groups.
The list of success stories attributed to Israel’s intelligence community by our rivals is rather impressive. This included the series of mishaps in the Iranian nuclear program attributed to Mossad by the Iranians – malfunctioning equipment, disappearing or exploding scientists, burned down labs, and crashed airplanes.
Other examples include the uncovering of the secret enrichment facility in Qom, which greatly embarrassed Iran; the elimination of most of Hezbollah’s long-range missiles, even though they were stored in warehouses deep underground; the mysterious mishap at a joint Iranian-Syrian plant producing scud missiles with chemical warheads; the uncovering of the information that prompted the strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007; the assassination of various figures who did everything in order to hurt Israel and Israelis, topped by Imad Mugniyah and Syria’s General Suleiman.
Another example was the military success (but questionable political success) in Operation Cast Lead, where Hamas sustained a huge surprise when most of its arms depots and the traps it laid for Israeli forces were lost in the accurate Israeli bombardment in the operation’s first days. In addition, we saw the elimination of several arms shipments from Iran to Hamas and Hezbollah in Sudan and the seizure of ships that led such shipments. If we believe the foreign media, the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a central figure in coordinating shipments from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to Gaza, is another success story, even if partial, in this war.
All of the above are outstanding achievements. Yet did they change reality? In most cases the answer is no. The exception here is the Syrian reactor, whose bombardment truly shattered President Assad’s aspirations to acquire doomsday weapons, at least in the foreseeable future. Yet undermining the Syrian regime’s sovereignty and Assad’s humiliation did not convince him to end his support for Hamas and Hezbollah or shut down the headquarters of other groups.
The second great enemy on the north, Hezbollah, despite sustaining a military blow in the 2006 war and an operational and moral blow with Mugniyah’s assassination, remained the leading and deciding political force in Lebanon.
Hamas too, despite its military failure, remains the leading political force in the Palestinian camp.
What’s worse, the attempts to delay the Iranian nuclear project have been exhausted. Iran is six months away from producing enough enriched uranium to build a bomb, and about a year away from a first nuclear device.
The bottom line: Excellent intelligence and operational capabilities can only go so far. At the end of the day, there is no substitute for dialogue and for a diplomatic process that always ends with some kind of compromise.