The officer who saw behind the top-secret curtain
From supporting Yemeni Royalists to a proposal for the assassination Iran's Khomenei, former military intelligence officer Yossi Alpher had a behind-the-scenes look at some of the IDF's most classified operations; now he explains the covert strategies that guided Israeli intelligence for decades.
In the mid-1960s, Lieutenant Yossi Alpher served as a junior officer in one of the Israel Defense Forces' most classified units – the Military Intelligence unit responsible for liaising with Israel's other intelligence bodies, the Shin Bet security service and the Mossad.
He was entrusted with a secret task: "I had to go under the cover of darkness to the Israel Air Forces' Tel-Nof base," he recalls during an interview, "and meticulously check through huge piles of military equipment, and weapons and ammunition in particular, to ensure they bore no distinguishing Israeli marks – no IDF symbol, no Hebrew letters, nothing that would be able to link the equipment to us even if someone were to go through it with a fine-tooth comb."
On completing his inspection, Alpher signed off on a document to confirm that everything was in order, and the equipment and weapons were then loaded onto an IAF cargo aircraft and flown to a destination that only very few in Israel knew of. Even the name of the operation, Rotev (Hebrew for gravy) was top secret.
In those days, as is the case now too, Yemen was embroiled in a fierce civil war – between the Royalists (the Shia Zaidis, the Houthis of today) and the so-called Republican rebels, who were being supported by Egypt and the Soviets. Back then in the mid-1960s, however, the Royalists had the backing in fact of Saudi Arabia.
"The Saudis didn't care that they were Shia, whose descendants are the ones supporting Iran today," Alpher says. "It was important for them to preserve their influence in Yemen and oppose the Soviet-Egyptian intervention."
The Saudis turned for help to Britain, where former members of the Special Air Service (SAS) – the elite British army unit- were recruited for the mission. Operating out of their headquarters in London and bases in Aden, Yemen, the SAS veterans sought help in turn from Israel, the strongest power in the region and Egypt's main enemy.
At the same time, a representative of Imam al-Badr, leader of the Royalists in Yemen, made direct contact with Mossad operatives in Europe and was even brought to Israel for a visit. The operation was conducted over a period of slightly more than two years, during which an IAF Stratocruiser cargo aircraft made 14 dangerous nighttime sorties from Tel-Nof to Yemen – a 14-hour round trip. From an altitude of some 3,600 meters, Egyptian weapons seized during the 1956 Sinai Campaign were accurately parachuted into wadis surrounded by high mountains controlled by the Royalists.
Alpher says that in order to carry out the initial parachute drops in the proper fashion, and to ensure that the equipment ended up in the right place and right hands, two members of Caesarea, the Mossad's special-operations division, were sent to Yemen in coordination with the British intelligence services. One of the Caesarea operatives fell ill on the way and was forced to pull out. The second made it to the drop site and guided the aircraft in for the initial deliveries.
Once everything was running smoothly, the Mossad stepped back and the logistics of the remaining drops were handled by the British. Even now, years later, it's easy to grasp the intensity of the drama, the risk, the secrecy and the significance of the Israeli-British-Saudi-Yemeni operation of that time.
The operation was coordinated in Israel by Nahum Admoni, who went on to become Mossad chief from 1982 to 1989; the British, for their part, sent two senior SAS members to Israel, one by the name of the Gene and the other Tony – and hence the unofficial codename for the operation, “Gin and Tonic”.
Alpher: "Presumably, only a very few in Saudi Arabia knew of Israel's involvement. The Yemenis didn't know who was parachuting equipment to them, but it had a big impact on the war there and the damage caused to the rebels and the Egyptian forces."
What was the objective of the operation from Israel's perspective?
"The main objective was to pin down and wear out Egyptian forces. We're talking about the period between the Sinai Campaign and the Six-Day War. We knew there was another war coming. We also knew that the Egyptians were using mustard gas in Yemen. That frightened us a great deal. We were concerned that we would struggle to cope with such an army and such a weapon in the next military campaign.
"And lo and behold, we were presented with the opportunity to strike at them and wear them down in a place where they least expected us to appear. In addition, we ended up with some intelligence from the Mossad's activities in Yemen and better relations with the British and the Saudis. Not bad, right? Moreover, we didn't invest all that much; the weapons were Egyptian spoils-of-war that fell into our hands in the 1956 war."
The operation was going ahead so successfully that at one stage the IAF considered carrying out an attack on Egyptian aircraft stationed at their bases in Yemen, as an act of deterrence that would damage the reputation of then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The plan was eventually scrapped.
"And good that it was," Alpher says, "because it allowed us to notch up a complete surprise later on, when the IAF carried out strikes on the Egyptian aircraft at their bases in Egypt on the morning of June 5, 1967."
That said, Alpher believes that the operation can be crowned a big success, as it pinned down Egyptian forces in Yemen and severely undermined the fighting spirit of the Egyptian Army ahead of the Six-Day War. "We learned from prisoners we captured in the Sinai," he says, "just how much the events in Yemen negatively impacted the mood and readiness of the Egyptian Army."
The full extent of Operation Rotev, from the mouths of Israeli sources, has been released for publication and appears for the first time in Alpher's book, Periphery: Israel's Search for Middle East Allies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015; the Hebrew edition has a slightly different title).
A long-serving Mossad official who went on to head the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Alpher has written a comprehensive study, in part as an active player with firsthand knowledge, and in part based on interviews he conducted and documents he collected about the "Periphery doctrine" – Israel's covert strategy in the region, with the Mossad operations at its center.
The general strategy of the "Periphery doctrine" was devised by Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Its implementation was entrusted initially to the Mossad's founder and first director, Reuven Shiloah, and then the Mossad chiefs to follow.
What is the so-called Periphery doctrine?
"It was the Israeli attempt to breach the hostile Arab ring surrounding us and to forge ties further afield, with the purpose of creating deterrence, acquiring intelligence assets, and counterbalancing the Arab hostility.
"Nasser spoke regularly of his desire to throw the Jews into the sea. The Mossad looked for allies to offset this desire and be able to say: We're not alone. At the same time, we took advantage of these ties to gather intelligence about Arab states, in places where they least expected us to show up, to pin down and wear down Arab forces there, and to use our ties with countries in the region as an asset to present to the Americans."
With this strategy in mind, the Mossad sought to forge intimate intelligence ties with countries bordering on Israel's close-quarter enemies, even if the said countries publicly toed the line with the Arab states and condemned Israel in the international arena. Israelis gathered and obtained intelligence on Arab countries in the outlying countries with which secret ties were established; and in return, Israel provided training services, information, arms and sophisticated electronic equipment.
Alpher divides the periphery, from the Mossad's perspective, into three categories. Included in the first were the non-Arab and/or non-Muslim states that bordered on the Arab conflict states – Iran, Ethiopia, Turkey, Eritrea, and Kenya and Uganda at the rear.
The second comprised non-Arab and non-Muslim ethnic groups and peoples living in the Arab conflict states – the Christians in southern Sudan and in Lebanon, and the Kurds in Iraq. And the third category was made up of Arab countries on the margins of the Middle East that felt that militant Arab nationalism was a threat to them or wanted ties with Israel in light of local or regional circumstances – Morocco, some of the Gulf States, and, for a short time, Yemen.
Alpher also talks of the ideological element that drove the system. "There were certainly instances, particularly when it came to providing help to minorities suffering at the hands of the Arabs, in which there was also an ideological component," he says. "I remember my colleagues and I at the Mossad seeing ourselves, the Jews, as the only ethnic minority in the Middle East that has achieved self-determination and that needs to help other ethnic minorities that are up against imperialistic and extremely cruel Arab hostility. We felt a moral obligation to help them.
"When (Mossad official) David Kimche, for example, went to meet Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani in Iraq in 1965, what did he see? What did he encounter? Dave saw an extremely downtrodden people who were suffering terribly under shocking Arab oppression. You cannot help but identify with them."
Israel's covert military and intelligence activities throughout the entire Middle East region were carried out for the most part by small forces and on a shoestring budget, in keeping with the country's limited resources, and the jury is still out when it comes to the quality of the intelligence gathered; but as Alpher views things, these issues are dwarfed by the manner in which the Mossad's activities were perceived by the other side. In the eyes of the enemy, the Arab states, the Mossad's influence and capabilities increased beyond measure.
"In talks years later with Arab officials," Alpher says, "I got an understanding of how the other side had viewed the whole issue. They saw our presence in those countries as an extremely powerful and direct threat to themselves. Thus, for example, they viewed our presence in southern Sudan and Ethiopia as a direct threat to the source of the Nile River.
"Israel never considered tampering with the Nile, and it's impossible to do so from an engineering perspective too; but the Egyptians didn't see it like that, and they interpreted the fact that the IDF and Mossad were so close to their lifeline very differently – as an Israeli attempt to say to them that we are breathing down their necks. And thus it contributed to peace: They understood that they wouldn't be able to defeat us by means of an armed conflict."
The Trident alliance
The highpoint of the "Periphery doctrine" was the tripartite intelligence pact involving Israel, Turkey and Iran – known in the Mossad as C’lil but termed Trident among the partners. The Turkish-Israeli part of the pact was sealed during a secret agreement in Ankara on August 20, 1958, between Ben-Gurion and the Turkish prime minister at the time, Adnan Menderes.
The catalyst for the Turks occurred a month earlier: In July, a coup d'etat led by Abd al-Karim Qasim toppled the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq and brought about Iraq's withdrawal from the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) – a secret pro-Western alliance formed in 1955 between the United Kingdom, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq – and its inclusion in the pro-Soviet radical camp.
"At the first trilateral meeting between the sides that took place in Turkey in late September and early October of 1958," Alpher reveals, "the participants – all heads of their respective countries' spy agencies – decided on a series of joint intelligence operations that included subversive activities directed against Nasser's influence and the influence of the Soviets. They divided the region into realms of responsibility for each of the parties. The Iranian intelligence service, for example, was entrusted with the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Morocco."
The American dimension was critical too. "As soon as we completed the establishment of Trident, we ran to tell the Americans about it," Alpher says. "We bragged; look, we've put together a NATO pact of our own. To begin with, Ben-Gurion marketed Trident to the Eisenhower administration in Washington as an asset for the West.
"He portrayed the alliance as an effective means to thwart Soviet infiltration into the Middle East, and also as a counterbalance against the radical Arab states, especially after Iraq's withdrawal from the Baghdad Pact."
The Central Intelligence Agency didn't remain indifferent. On a deserted hill north of Tel Aviv, the US agency financed the construction of a two-story building intended to serve as Trident headquarters. "The ground floor included a 'Blue Wing' for the use of the Iranians and a 'Yellow Wing' for the Turks, with the conference rooms on the second floor," Alpher recalls.
Later came accommodation facilities, a fully equipped kitchen, a swimming pool, a plush movie theater and a gym – all for the purpose of secretly hosting high-ranking foreign officials in style, in keeping at least with what Israel could offer and afford at the time. "Bobby, an excellent chef, served non-kosher Hungarian food and the guests were very satisfied," Alpher notes.
From the late 1950s and through to the Khomeini revolution in 1979, the meetings between the heads of the three intelligence services were held in a different country every time. Alpher attended some of the sessions. "Every meeting would begin with a festive reception that was followed by a ceremonial meeting in the presence of the heads of the services themselves," Alpher recounts.
"I remember the excitement that gripped me when I arrived for my first meeting and was introduced to General Nassiri, the awe-inspiring commander of the SAVAK, the shah's intelligence agency. He showed up in uniform, surrounded by an aura of fear and mystery.
"At the initial meetings, the heads (of the intelligence agencies) would first present their notes and papers that included matters of principle, and then the participants would break away into discussion groups in which intelligence and ideas were exchanged. It was a huge achievement for Israel, less so because of the quality of the intelligence presented – our capabilities were usually a lot higher – and more so due to the very existence of such an alliance under Israeli auspices."
At the same time, in 1959, Israeli and Turkish military leaders – with Israel represented by then-chief of staff Haim Laskov – met in Istanbul to plan a joint military campaign against Syria. The joint operation didn't materialize, but cooperation between the parties grew ever stronger.
Over and above the trilateral meetings that took place twice a year, the alliance also involved the exchange of intelligence on an almost-daily basis. "As a Military Intelligence officer, I remember we used to receive daily reports on the passage of Soviet vessels through the Dardanelles Strait," Alpher says. "This was of dual importance – firstly, it was information about Soviet supplies to the Arab states; and secondly, it was information we could share with the CIA."
The Iran-Israel cooperation was even more active: Jews who had fled Iraq for Iran via the Kurdish region in northern Iraq went on from there to Israel; IDF officers trained Iranian forces and Israel sold arms to Iran; in 1958, Iranian weapons were supplied via Israel to conservative Shia groups in southern Lebanon; and on behalf of the Iranians, Israeli intelligence officials set up a body that was responsible for recruiting and handling agents, with its efforts focused on Iraq and also countering Nasser's subversive activities among the Arabs of the Khuzestan Province in southwest Iran.
Since the Trident building on the hilltop north of Tel Aviv remained vacant most days of the year, then-Mossad director Meir Amit decided to turn it into a training college named after Mossad agent Eli Cohen, who was executed in Damascus.
On several occasions over the years, the Mossad requested approval to refurbish the building or even demolish it completely, but the Tel Aviv Municipality declared it a heritage site due to its unique architecture – and thus it remained standing. Those Yellow and Blue rooms, painted many times since in different colors, would go on to serve as the location for some of the most dramatic meetings in Israel's history, both with foreign officials and among Israeli leaders.
In 2010, the building hosted the series of lengthy and controversial discussions convened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak on the option of carrying out a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. And that's just one example.
The intelligence cooperation with Iran fitted in well with Israel's support of the Kurds in Iraq, one of the goals of which was to cause as much significant damage as possible to the hostile Iraqi Army.
The CIA financed a large portion of the Mossad's activities with the Kurds; and later, as a Mossad official, Alpher, who was born in the United States and is fluent in English, was instructed to prepare the Israeli agency's request for additional funding from its American counterpart. "We ceremoniously presented them with all the intelligence reports the Kurds had provided, along with information on the extent of the assistance they had received, the extent of the damage they had caused to the Iraqi forces, and so on," Alpher recalls.
One of the tasks assigned to Alpher with respect to the Kurds left him feeling uncomfortable; he was asked to review a Kurdish request to plan the demolition of two dams in northern Iraq. "Implementation of such a plan would have led to catastrophic strategic and legal implications," Alpher says, noting that Israeli experts he met with at the time had told that blowing up the dams would flood Baghdad entirely and cause the death of numerous people. "In the end," he says, "we informed Barzani, via the Mossad team in Kurdistan, that we were opposed to the operation for humanitarian reasons."
A second task was more straightforward, from a moral standpoint at least. "I approached Colonel David Laskov (commander at the time of the Engineering Corps' research and development unit) and asked him to build Katyusha rocket launchers that could be carried by mules," Alpher recounts.
"A week later, Laskov invited me to a firing range in the Negev. On arrival, I found a mule with a sled-like metal frame of sorts on its back, the size of a full briefcase; and in it were Katyushas of the kind that we were about to send to the Kurds. Laskov demonstrated how to tie the 'saddle' to the mule, to dismantle it, to position it on the ground, to aim and to launch the rocket."
A month later, the Kurds deployed the launchers and rockets in Kirkuk, causing extensive damage to the Iraqi oil facilities there.
Another major operation carried out by the Mossad during the same period, in the late 1960s, involved assistance in the form of the weapons, food, equipment and training for the Anyanya, the Christian underground in southern Sudan. Under the leadership of Mossad operative David Ben Uziel, a series of three-man Israeli delegations were sent to southern Sudan to train the separatist army, coordinate the delivery of weapons and equipment (with the support of IAF cargo aircraft), and oversee a humanitarian mission that involved the establishment of a field hospital at which an Israeli medical team treated the sick and wounded and vaccinated thousands of children in the area against smallpox and yellow fever.
Alpher: "The operation was a resounding success. Sudanese President Nimeiri, frustrated by his army's defeats, offered the South autonomy in 1972. A guerilla war, orchestrated by a junior commander from a minority tribe who operated with the help of Israel, laid the foundations for a new African country (from 2011) free of the Arab threat. At one point in 1970, we did the math and found that the total cost of the Israeli operation in southern Sudan was less than the price of a single Mirage III fighter plane – the French aircraft used at that time by the Israel Air Force against Egypt and Sudan on the Suez Canal front."
Rabin in a blonde wig
Israel's relations with Morocco are another layer in the Periphery alliance. Israel helped the Moroccan intelligence agency to set up its bodyguards unit and others, including a sophisticated technologically division. And in return, the Moroccans provided Israel with first-grade intelligence, including intimate access to the deliberations of the Arab Summit Conference in Casablanca in September 1965.
Another important element in the ties with Morocco came some 12 years later, when the North African state served as the stage for arranging then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem, with Morocco's King Hassan as the mediator.
Alpher: "A meeting between the king and Mossad chief Yitzhak Hofi led to another royal meeting, this time with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who arrived in Morocco incognito and wearing a blonde wig. Rabin left Hassan with a series of questions for Egyptian President Anwar Sadat with regard to the possibility of a breakthrough towards peace.
At the next meeting, Hofi held talks with Hassan Tuhami, Sadat's deputy, and this paved the way for a meeting between Tuhami and Moshe Dayan, foreign minister in (Menachem) Begin's government. For his secret trip to Morocco, Dayan removed his eye patch and wore a fedora hat. Mossad officials who saw his passport photo couldn't believe it was Dayan."
Following the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, one of Alpher's assignments in the Mossad's research division involved efforts to identify "signs of peace" among other Arab entities – a lesson learned after portions of the intelligence community were caught by surprise by Sadat's daring initiative.
Alpher didn't really find any signs of peace to speak of; but he did discover Israeli blindness in another region under his purview – Iran. "We were so obsessed about trying to preserve our ties with the Iranian shah, who blew hot and cold in his attitude towards us," Alpher says, "and we so wanted to woo and appease him that we didn't think about or try to understand what was really happening in Iran – whether the opposition movement stands a chance, or whether we could link up with them not at the expense of our relations with the shah. It was a terrible mistake. We should have known much more about our allies in the periphery, especially when it came to dictatorships."
With the fires of the revolution growing ever-more intense in Tehran and elsewhere in the country, Alpher was put in charge of the Iranian file in the Mossad’s research unit. "And that's when I discover the terrible ignorance," he says. "Despite the fact that we were invested up to our necks in that country, with 1,500 Israelis working and living there, we knew almost nothing about the opposition – a long line of high-ranking Israeli officials who had served in Iran and were sure they knew it like the back of their hand and that Iran would always remain friendly towards us."
In mid-January, Alpher was summoned urgently to the office of Mossad chief Hofi. "They told me to come immediately – right now, drop everything and go up to Hofi," he recalls.
With several of the intelligence agency's top brass in attendance, Hofi briefly laid out the reason for the meeting. A little while earlier, the director said, the secular prime minister appointed by the shah to govern Iran in his stead, Shapour Bakhtiar, had approached the head of the Mossad's Tehran branch, Eliezer Tsafrir, with a plain and simple request – for the Mossad to assassinate Khomeini.
At the time, the radical Islamic leader was somewhere near Paris, following his deportation to France from Iraq, to which he was exiled from Iran in the 1960s. Iraq had suggested killing Khomeini, but the shah rejected the idea at the time. Saddam Hussein subsequently deported him, and Khomeini found refuge in a town near Paris from where he successfully orchestrated the revolution by phone and telex machine.
Tsafrir passed on Bakhtiar's request to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, where the heads of the agency convened to discuss the matter.
"Mossad chief Hofi declared at the start of the meeting that because he was opposed in principle to the use of assassination against political leaders, he was inclined to reject the request; but he asked for the thoughts of those in attendance," Alpher recounts. "Hofi looked at me quizzically. I was frustrated due to the dearth of information that I had about Khomeini. In a split second, I ran through all we knew about him in my mind.
"But before I get a chance to respond, one division dead butts in and says: 'Let Khomeini return to Tehran. He won't last. The army and the SAVAK will deal with him and the clergy who are demonstrating in the streets. He represents Iran's past, not its future.'
"Hofi looked at me again. I thought about the positions of Washington and Moscow, about the implications of the success of such an operation for the Middle East, and the consequences of its failure vis-à-vis our relations with France and the Muslim world. I took a deep breath and said: We don't have enough information about Khomeini's viewpoints and his chances to realize them, so I cannot accurately assess whether the risk is justified."
And indeed, the Mossad rejected the request to assassinate Khomeini. Alpher says he "deeply regrets" not supporting the Iranian prime minister's request and the fact that the Mossad chose not to kill the Islamic leader. "Just two months after that meeting, I realized who we were dealing with, and already then I regretted not supporting Bakhtiar's request," Alpher says.
Bakhtiar ended up in exile in Paris, where he was assassinated a decade later by Iranian intelligence agents.
Taken for a ride
The Periphery strategy has also known its fair share of setbacks and disappointments; but above all, according to Alpher's book, hovers the shadow of the terrible failure in connection with the Christian Maronites in Lebanon.
"They took the Mossad and all of Israel for a ride with deceit and terrible lies," Alpher says. “They knew exactly how to take advantage of us, of our desire to support persecuted minorities; and they led very senior officials in the security establishment and Mossad to believe that they would side with us in the event of a military invasion of Lebanon.
"I was less enamored with them at the time, perhaps because I was born in the United States and I was familiar with traditional Catholic anti-Semitism, into which they too were born. The heavy blow Israel suffered in the Lebanon War and its aftermath led to a pullback, perhaps excessive, in our desire to support persecuted minorities in the years to follow."
Alpher warns against undertaking to intervene militarily on behalf of a different minority because of the existence of a lobby within Israel itself. Israel's Druze citizens are an important minority with a very strong parliamentary and government lobby, Alpher says, adding: "I am concerned by the statement of former chief of staff Benny Gantz, who for some reason made a commitment to the Druze dignitaries that the State of Israel would act to safeguard their fellow Druze across the border during the civil war in Syria.
"This could push us into a very hazardous adventure. We need to think things over very carefully based on our past experience. What are the risks? What is the extent of our moral obligation towards another minority in the region that runs into trouble with radical Islam?"
The successes and failures aside, what about the moral issue? After all, as part of the Periphery strategy, the Mossad forged tied with a series of dark regimes, terrible dictatorships, actively supporting them and sometimes tipping the scales in their favor.
"And to all of that you can add the fact that we knew that the issue of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion plays a very important role for them. To a certain degree even, we played that card, so they'd think we have immense influence over the world, and could manipulate US policy in their favor in particular. The Moroccans, the Iranians, the Turks, Idi Amin – they were all sure that one word from us would change Washington's position towards them.
"What did we say to ourselves? A. It allows us to survive; B. It allows us to deter Arab aggression; C. It gives us the money, in the case of Iran for example, to launch arms development programs we couldn't otherwise afford. Without it, you have no military industry and you cannot survive."
"We knew we were dealing with unpleasant, oppressive, anti-Semitic regimes – call them what you want. Of course we knew. But was there an alternative? In other words, the alternative was to remain an isolated state, to wallow in our solitude in the face of a ring of Arab hostility.
"Now, even if you accept Professor Shimon Shamir's thesis (presented in the book and highly critical of the Mossad's Periphery strategy) that with a little more effort we could actually have made peace with our close neighbors, were those regimes any better than the ones of Idi Amin and the shah? This is the environment. This is the neighborhood in which we live. It demands tough decisions sometimes.”