Azriel Nevo Interview In "Yediot Achronot" Weekend Magazine
A short while after the start of the First Lebanon War, Azriel Nevo, the military secretary to Prime Minister Begin, began secretly receiving messages from different officials, mainly from the military. The IDF—under the command of Chief of Staff Rafael "Raful" Eitan, and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon—was advancing quickly, deep into Lebanon. But Nevo was hearing more and more claims that a worrying disparity existed between what was being presented to Begin and his government, and what was actually happening on the ground.
"I felt that there was real fear of Raful or Sharon that (prevented officials from) speaking the truth or openly speaking their minds," Nevo recalled about those stormy days. "That's why they secretly passed me all types of information – so I would pass it on to the Prime Minister. Officers began to hint to me that something was wrong."
The reports made Nevo fear that Prime Minister Begin was being duped by his defense minister; that while Begin truly thought that the operation in Lebanon was a limited operation to push terrorist groups away from the northern border—Sharon had a different agenda.
"Under Sharon's orders," Nevo said, "the IDF was cascading into something much wide-reaching than what was approved by the government."
One of the officers who warned Nevo was the head of the Operations Division at the time, Uri Sagi, who went on to become the head of Military Intelligence.
"Sagi invited me to his office in 'the pit' (the command center for the IDF High Command —RB) and said to me, 'Azriel, come look at the maps. Things aren't exactly as they're being presented to you,'" Sagi said.
Sagi remembered those tense times well. "Formally, for the sake of the minutes, Sharon presented everything to the government, but he didn't explain the significance of the actions he was presenting," he recounted. At the time, Sagi said, "I thought the government didn't understand what it was seeing and hearing. For example, one of the objectives of the war—changing the government in Lebanon—was not something feasible for the IDF to do. In addition, Begin decided that the IDF would not fight the Syrian military, but two of the arrows showing how the IDF would advance showed the army moving through territory that the Syrians controlled—something which created the very likely possibility of a confrontation with them. I believed all of these things should be explained to the Prime Minister, and that’s what I told Azriel."
According to Sagi, another painful subject came up during his meetings with Nevo: the estimates of war's casualties. "I told Azriel about a war game called 'Roses,' which was held before the outbreak of the war, which the political leadership didn't attend. In 'Roses,' the estimated casualty numbers were significantly higher than what was presented to the government," Sagi says. "In the war game, we 'made it' all the way to Beirut, a lot farther than what we presented to the government, and the operation was significantly longer than the estimates provided to the."
Nevo found himself in this situation: A relatively young lieutenant colonel—only 34 at the time—worried that his superiors, the minister of defense and the IDF chief of staff, were lying to the Prime Minister, the person for whom Nevo was supposed to serve as link to the military.
In the background, a war was becoming more and more complicated, with many dead and wounded. So now what?
This was the complicated situation that arose during the Lebanon War – and this was definitely not the only dilemma Azriel Nevo had to deal with. Over the eleven and half years that he served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister, he was placed in one of the most sensitive positions in the country. He was positioned at an important juncture through which critical and secret information flowed from the intelligence and military branches to the Prime Minister and, on the other hand, the Prime Minister's instruction and requests were passed to the intelligence and military branches through him as well. Because of this, some say that the Military Secretary to the Prime Minister is exposed to the largest amount of sensitive and secret information of anyone in the country.
Nevo served in his position for longer than any other Military Secretary, and did it under no less than four Prime Ministers who couldn't have been more different from one another: Begin, Shamir, Peres, and Rabin. The fact that these are people who—at least some of them—were embroiled in conflict with each other, is indicative of the high level of confidence that they all had in Nevo.
Nevo has just released a book called "The Military Secretary" (published by Contento Now: www.contentonow.co.il), which is based on a series of long conversations Nevo had with Attorney Haim Mashgav. It is a fascinating read that provides a rare glimpse into several of the most dramatic affairs in Israeli history which took place on Nevo's watch, and remarkable testimonies of those who were there, deep in the decision-making process when: the decision was made to bomb the Iraqi reactor, when the Pollard, 300 Bus and the Iran-Contra affairs blew up, during the Lebanon War and the assassination of Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir, one of the co-founders of Fatah-ed.) and more.
"Everyone I served under had the same title: Prime Minister," Nevo said, "but they were all very different from each other."
Nevo himself grew up in a Betar (Revisionist Zionist youth movement) household and, as a consequence, deeply respected Begin, but says that Shamir was the easiest and most effective to work with. He respected Peres's drive and hard work but thought that some of that work was unnecessary and disapproved of the "men in suits" who surrounded him.
He also respected Yitzhak Rabin, but does not spare him criticism in his book, claiming Rabin didn’t understand, in real time, the significance of the First Intifada when it had just broken out, and rejected an offer regarding the release of Ron Arad.
Even now, at the age of 68, Nevo continues to see his role as that of a soldier: "I was never in the spotlight. My job was to serve the Prime Minister. I don't have policies of my own. I don't decide anything on my own. In my opinion, it was also the secret to my survival in the position for so long. I never used my ties to the Prime Minister with others and I never claimed to the Prime Minister that I knew things I didn't. I think that 'I don't know' and 'I will check' are great answers. Don't ever speak off the cuff.
"I was actually a 'waiter' serving information to the Prime Minister and as such, one of my duties was to distinguish between the important and the unimportant: not to give the Prime Minister too little, so that he knows just enough about what's happening, but also not give too much and bombard him with reports, information, and details, so that he doesn’t collapse."
Due to lack of space, amongst the many affairs and stories that Nevo was involved in, we chose to focus on five events: the strike on the Iraqi reactor, the outbreak of the First Lebanon War, the mystery surrounding Begin's retirement ("I can't go on anymore"), the 300 Bus affair and the Pollard affair. This is what it looks like behind the scenes, in real time.
The Iraqi reactor: 'What conspiracy?'
Nevo came to his position from Aman (the IDF's Intelligence Directorate) and after having served as the Prime Minister's advisor on the war on terror. He was initially appointed as an assistant to Efraim Poran, the Military Secretary that Begin "inherited" from Rabin. Iraq was the focus at the time.
"The monitoring of Saddam Hussein's attempts to obtain a nuclear weapon started during Rabin's first term as Prime Minister. Begin inherited the issue."
It was later claimed that Begin planned the attack on the Iraqi reactor close to the planned elections (which the Likud ended up winning by a small margin). But Nevo rejects these claims out of hand. The operation was originally planned for May 1981, but the plan was leaked to the head of the opposition, Shimon Peres, who then wrote Prime Minister Begin urging him not to go through with the operation. Begin didn't change his mind, but because of the leak, he changed the date of the operation.
"It was decided to postpone the operation and to change all of the code words," Nevo recalled. "This story also shows that the claims made against Begin, saying he planned the timing of the operation to take place close to the elections, have no foundation."
It was claimed that Begin initially accepted the recommendation of Aman not to admit to the attack and leave it to speculation that the Iranians might have committed it, but then changed his mind and proudly claimed responsibility in order to win the elections – this worked well for him.
"This is another legend, just one of many. The bombardment was on the eve of Shavuot. The next day, on the holiday, I got a call from Aman's OSINT unit (the Open Source Intelligence unit, responsible for monitoring foreign media —RB) and was told that there are countless reports that tie us to the attack, including statements by King Hussein, who saw the planes from his yacht in the Gulf of Aqaba.
"I called Begin and briefed him on that. Begin thought for a moment and said, 'If that's the case, then we have to issue an official statement.' That's what happened. Because of my call, which could have not been made at all, a statement was issued. It's not some complex conspiracy by Begin."
With Poran’s resignation, Begin offered the job to Nevo. Nevo was not the candidate the military thought to recommend, but Begin told him, "I trust you; we don't need the generals," and he forced the appointment on the IDF. Thus, a young and relatively junior officer came to be at one of the most sensitive junctures at the top of Israel's leadership.
Lebanon War: ‘Something wasn’t adding up’