‘Erdogan feels weak,’ says ex-Mossad chief

Israel’s General Danny Yatom explains the dynamic behind current regional challenges and the importance of knowing the players

‘Erdogan feels weak,’ says ex-Mossad chief

With 42 years’ worth of experience in the armed forces and intelligence, General Danny Yatom is a living legend in Israel.

The end of a successful career that includes serving as lieutenant commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal (Israel’s special forces), as well as director of the Mossad for eight terms before entering politics, finds him in his new occupation as a founding executive of CIY Global, a company with a central role in political campaigning, voter psychology and behavioral science.

In this exclusive interview with Kathimerini, General Yatom offers an insightful assessment of current tensions in both the Ukrainian War case and in Greek-Turkish relations.

erdogan-feels-weak-says-ex-mossad-chief0A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the end of the unipolar world. How close are we to a new Cold War?

Very close. As a matter of fact, maybe we are already in a new Cold War due to the fact that there is a Russian invasion of Ukraine and NATO stands firm on the other side. Until now, there are no clashes. But in the Cold War there were also almost no clashes between America and the Soviet Union. There was a deterrence between those two sides. In this case, I think it is even more than close to Cold War.

Right now, it is a war in Ukraine with the involvement mainly of the Russians that invaded, but also with the involvement of the West that sent the weapon systems and money and some other stocks to Ukraine without employing any natural soldiers in Ukraine, because it might ignite to something globally. I understand that the leaders refrain from pushing it to be bigger than it is, but they do not know Putin’s thoughts.

It looks to me that Putin might not even stop if he conquers the entire Ukraine because his main idea is to bring back the Russian Empire. All the previous borders and part of those borders are in the middle of Europe. So I think that relations between Russia and the United States and the West will not be the same as they were after the Cold War. We could say that we are in a situation that is even more threatening than the Cold War.

Turkey is also raising the stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Through your experience, what are President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aims and expectations?

It is difficult to read Erdogan’s thoughts but I think that his dream since he was a young student or politician was to bring back the Ottoman Empire, and that the Western countries do not treat Turkey in the way they should treat it because he thinks that Turkey is one of the big powers in the world. And, of course, during the last years, everybody saw the quarrels with almost everybody: the Egyptians, the Syrians, the PKK [Kurdish separatists], the Iranians, Israel.

I think Erdogan feels weak. I think that he is worried that he will not be elected again as president [in 2023] and he wants to change the policy in order to gain more political power. So it is his initiative to come closer to Israel. For the first time in 15 years, the minister of foreign affairs of Turkey visited Israel and our president visited Turkey. Relations are becoming warmer. And this is mainly in order to achieve to become friends. I think that the character of Turkey amongst the free world will become much more positive. The minister of foreign affairs of Iran will visit Turkey, but there is tension in relations between Turkey and Iran. So the bottom line, the end game for Erdogan is to revive the Ottoman Empire.

Many analysts claim that we may be looking at the prelude to total war. Do you see the potential for such a major, global escalation?

‘Relations between Russia and the United States and the West will not be the same as they were after the Cold War’

Nobody can tell. Generally speaking, I think that the leaders will be smart enough to deter each other and avoid a global escalation because global escalation today might bring the use of nuclear weapons, which might totally destroy major parts of the world that we are living in.

So, I cannot exclude it, but my feeling is that it will not deteriorate into a full-scale global war, like the First or Second world war, even though there are experts, like some Americans, who think that we are already in the Third World War.

What, in your extensive experience, is the most important lesson in the world of intelligence?

Avoid the situation of meaningless perceptions. To hear as many people as possible, encourage your subordinates to speak up if they think that something is wrong. Maybe the primary assessment is not as accurate as it should be and has to be avoided due to the chief of military intelligence’s attitude, because people are afraid to tell him the opposite of what he thinks.

In intelligence, it is highly important to encourage people to say what they think. In many cases it is crucial that the officers, not necessarily the generals, but the officers who are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week on a certain issue are called to the office of the general to participate in the discussion.

It is highly important, for example, to examine what happened during the Yom Kippur War. This is a lesson that the intelligence did not read rightly. Therefore, we failed in getting an early warning about the war. And it might probably have been avoided if the chief of military intelligence encouraged his people to speak, and to say what they thought even if it was the opposite of their superiors.

Your book “The Labyrinth of Power” talks about the psychological nature of different political personalities. How important is the intelligence assessment of foreign high-ranking officials, especially when we are analyzing theocratic regimes like the case of Iran?

Many things are very important in intelligence. The way you collect information, the way you analyze it, the way you assess it, the way you disperse it to the clients, and you should, as an intelligence officer, analyze many issues like the economic situation, the situation of the public. Is the public angry or not? What is the meaning of those demonstrations in the streets of Iran today against the fact that the economy is deteriorating and so on.

In addition, there are the leaders. It is important to try and to find out their real characteristics, and it is more important in the case of Iran, where there is it is a regime that is very rigid and, in the end, there is only one man that decides and this is Khomeini. So it is very important to try and analyze what runs in his head, but it is also very difficult to succeed. And you might fail in portraying the character of a leader. It should not be the most important piece of information that you submit to the clients, but it is a complimentary issue to see the entire picture.

As a former Mossad director, how did you know when a situation was critical?

The Mossad worked and collected information before me being the head of it and continues to do so after I completed my role as director of Mossad. So it is a machine that continues to work in order to collect information and analyze it. We know that there are problematic sources of information, especially the humans.

So to those that are problematic and are not fully reliable, you should refer in one way and you must find the most reliable sources in order to build your intelligence picture upon their information. In addition, we cross-check between different sources.

When we spoke a few years ago you expressed concern about Israel’s existence. What were the main points of that statement?

Yes, I was very worried. And I am still worried because of the situation in Israeli society. What I said then is that if the situation with the interim governments – four of them followed each other in the last two years – continues, it weakens the state of Israel. It cracks the solidarity of the people in Israel and the Israelis are our main secret of how we win each and every war. It is because of our people, not because of airplanes or tanks or something. It is because of motivation.

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