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’
During 1981, the same year that Nevo was appointed the Prime Minister's military secretary, the IDF began to prepare for war in Lebanon, which broke out a year later.
"The Lebanon War started because of the justified desire of the Prime Minister and others—a desire which I supported as well—to remove the threat to the northern communities," recalls Nevo.
"The reality of katyusha rocket fire really was unbearable. Begin believed the IDF was going on a limited operation, to get as close to the location from where the longest-range artillery could be launched by terrorists, something like 40 kilometers. The problem was that Defense Minister Sharon probably had a completely different agenda and far bigger goals, and he did not share them all with the Prime Minister and the rest of the government."
The war started "with a great euphoria," recalls Nevo, "but soon we started feeling that something here did not add up. Suddenly, we began seeing more and more casualties among our forces. I realized that little by little, we were sinking deeper and deeper into quicksand.
"The IDF's estimation of casualties before the war was completely wrong. Very soon, I saw that the 40 km plan was dissolving, and the IDF was advancing deeper into Lebanon. At the same time, contrary to the plans and promises, we started fighting the Syrians."
Nevo attributes part of the problem to Begin's admiration for the boys in uniform. "Begin did not believe someone in uniform would tell him something that is not true. I found myself in a terrible place in which I, a young and junior officer, had to tell Begin that he was being lied to. It led to arguments with him; I was trying to report to him but he did not really want to hear."
Nevo stresses that Sharon "in his clever and cunning way," received the go-ahead for each one of his operations." He demanded that a meeting be held every day, and he sat there with his little notebook and wrote down everything. But it soon turned out that these were ongoing actions, which had begun at one point and ended somewhere else entirely.”
According to Nevo, only a few in the government openly opposed Sharon at the time. The best known among them was the communications minister, Mordechai Tzipori, who was a Brigadier General in reserves. Later, Cabinet Secretary, Dan Meridor also helped Nevo in talks with Begin. There were others – one of them, Nevo says, was none other than the Prime Minister’s son, Benny Begin. "The IDF used his help in planning battles because of his expertise on tanks, and because of that he knew the war plans. He also warned his father that Sharon was leading him astray.
"To be fair, it is important to note in this context that the man who was closest to Begin, Yehiel Kadishai (Begin's chief of staff —RB) claimed until his last day that I was wrong and misleading. He said that I did not understand Begin, that he wanted to get to Beirut and kick Fatah out of Lebanon and that Sharon was not deceiving him in at all."
Weren’t you afraid of Sharon? You were a soldier, and he was the Defense Minister.
"No, I was not afraid, and the way I saw my role was that I was nominally subordinate to the IDF, but in fact my loyalty should be, above all, to the Prime Minister. This loyalty, of course, led me to wars. Whenever Uri Dan, one of Sharon's close advisors, would see me or Dan Meridor, he would point at us and ask sarcastically, 'Well, are you done with your slander?' or, 'Have you told Begin your nonsense yet?'"
Dan Meridor said in response, "Azriel is right. At that time, we had a very strong connection, among other things because of the Lebanon War. We thought that both the government and the Prime Minister were not getting complete and accurate reports about the war and its real objectives. Sharon and his close circle marked us as problematic and fought against us. Azriel always spoke the truth and withstood this difficult situation – facing the immense power of Raful and Sharon – with determination and honor."
In contrast, Gilad Sharon, son of the late Prime Minister, outright rejects Nevo’s claims. "If that's what Azriel Nevo thought during the war, he should have called out and loudly warned about it. Otherwise, he himself is a criminal who failed to do his job," says Sharon. "But he chose to remain silent for 30-some years, and only when he thought there would be no one to respond to his fabrications, he published these fairy tales."
The turning point in that period was of course the massacre committed by the Christian Phalangist forces at the refugee camps Sabra and Shatila. Nevo claims that neither he nor Begin could have known what was to follow. "Israel was unjustly accused of direct involvement in the massacre. This is absolutely false. Our problem was that we failed to realize that these people had no problem pulling out a knife and slaughtering anyone they wanted, including us."
The commission of inquiry reprimanded Begin for letting the Phalangists into the camp.
"As I recall, Begin was unaware of the approval granted to the Phalangists to enter the camps. The Sharon and IDF leadership did not go into that detail with him. Begin first heard about what was going on in the camps from BBC broadcasts."
Begin’s resignation: ‘He completely gave up’
"At some point," says Nevo, "I noticed a phenomenon that was getting worse: Begin would arrive at his office in the morning bleary-eyed, even though I made a decision not to wake him up in the middle of the night. When I would start reporting to him what had happened during the night, he would interrupt me in an angry tone and say, 'I've heard about this from the defense minister already.' Arik had been calling him frequently in the middle of the night, robbing him of sleep. Sharon was telling Begin about the number of wounded and dead, the advancement of the forces, bothering him and harassing him. I felt that Sharon was doing this on purpose to exhaust Begin. It happened dozens of times and it began to destroy Begin. I watched him get worse every day."
Of all the horrors of war, it was the reports of the fallen soldiers that weighed most heavily on Begin. "The most important thing for Begin was that 'our boys' return safely. When I gave him reports of the fatalities, his response was very emotional. You could feel just how much it hurt him; it wounded him from the inside. His intentions were good, to go out and protect the communities in the north and then, all of a sudden, he found himself in a war that went totally wrong.
"One day, I told Begin that Police Minister Yosef Burg had suggested removing the demonstrators from under the window of his office and moving them a few blocks away, so he won't have to hear the awful accusations that he and Sharon were 'murderers.' He replied, 'No way. It's their right to protest.'
"But, slowly, I saw Begin wither away, withdrawing into himself. I was a ‘youngster’ at the time, and I looked up to him. Suddenly, he seemed very old to me. Thinking back, Begin was 69 at the time, almost my age today, not very old, but weary and sad. The death of his wife Aliza broke him completely."
So what happened to Begin? It is said he suffered from severe depression.
"I can't make medical diagnoses, but it was evident that it was harder for him every day. He realized that Sharon misled him, that he was stuck in quicksand. He was a very sensitive man, too sensitive. Begin became depressed, did not always communicate and stopped shaving.
"Following the death of his wife and before he became a recluse, he was already in a deep depression. I called it 'the teacup period': Begin would fall asleep in the middle of meetings, including the most sensitive ones, and I started stirring my cup of tea vigorously to wake him up. It was a very dismal time."
At some point, Begin stopped coming into the office and locked himself in the Prime Minister's residence. Nevo made great efforts to hide his absence. "The office secretaries went about their daily routine, and every day they released the Prime Minister’s schedule, but nothing was written on it, because he did not meet with anyone. To hide this, I instructed that the schedule be classified as 'top secret' so that no one could see it."
In fact, at that time, Begin was not even involved in the state’s affairs, and " the state was led by three people, none of them elected officials: Dan Meridor, Yehiel Kadishai, and myself."
How do you examine your actions after the fact?
"With quite a lot of criticism. I think all three of us have sinned. You cannot hide the fact that the Prime Minister was actually not functioning. It's reminiscent of dictatorships."
The last time Nevo saw Begin as the Prime Minister was at the famous meeting where he announced: "I cannot carry on anymore."
"He sent his letter of resignation to the President via a messenger, giving some excuse that there were nicks and cuts on his face that prevented him from shaving, and he didn't want to face the president unshaven. To my surprise, although the ministers were aware of the situation and knew that he hadn't been running the show for some time, they really pressed him to stay. I said, 'Guys, what do you want from him? Let him go. Can't you see he really can't continue!?'"
300 Bus Affair: ‘It's a slippery slope’
Thursday evening, April 12, 1984, at Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's office, reports were starting to come in about a security incident on the Tel Aviv–Ashkelon highway. Four terrorists hijacked an Egged bus. Later, Bus Number 300, also became the name of the affair that shook the nation's top echelons. Nevo himself declares that despite his experiences during the Lebanon War, this affair is when he ‘lost his innocence.’
“Until the 300 Bus Affair, I was very naive in my approach to the IDF and the intelligence community. I believed everyone. And perhaps this is how it should be. The Military Secretary is not an investigating authority that checks if the intelligence chiefs are telling him the truth. If you start lying, it's a slippery slope; a small lie grows to a giant snowball."