Behind the Knesset plenum is a room that is considered a closed area. The government ministers and Knesset members sit in that room between votes or simply when they need to relax. One can even find the prime minister himself relaxing in an armchair with a cup of coffee in that room, where he can be approached by anyone – provided that he is not in a particularly combative mood. It is a room where you can find anyone in the government – if you are allowed to enter it at all – and where they cannot get away from you once you have cornered them. In that room, I often have an opportunity to sit and share a cup of coffee with Yaakov Peri. “Yankele,” as almost everyone calls him, is always a fascinating conversationalist.
I asked to speak with him this week for two reasons. First, there was the new version of the draft law, which was touted as replacing – and consigning to the dustbin of history – the enlistment law formulated under the previous government by Yesh Atid. Not only is Peri a member of the Knesset on behalf of Yesh Atid, but in the previous government, he actually served as a minister. And not only that, but he was also the chairman of the Peri Committee, where the draft law itself was created. Peri’s comments on the subject were surprising to me, and I have no doubt that they will be surprising to you as well.
The other impetus for our conversation is the fact that Peri was the head of the State of Israel’s intelligence service, the Shabak, for eight years, from 1988 through 1995. For twenty years, he climbed from one position to the next, until the 22-year-old young man who began his career as an apprentice in a government archive had been through virtually the entire gamut of government positions, ending up as the head of the Shabak intelligence service. In that capacity, Peri seems to have outperformed all of his predecessors, and he certainly surpassed his successors. His replacement was Carmi Gilon, whom he recommended to Prime Minister Yitzchok Rabin, and it was under Gilon’s watch that Rabin was assassinated. In Peri’s own words, that was the absolute worst thing that could happen to the head of the Shabak. Today, with the rise of terror in Israel in particular and in the world as a whole, it is a fitting time to hear Peri’s views. On that subject, much of what he said was exactly what I expected – although when it comes from him, it sounds different.
Since his resignation from the Shabak in 1995, Yaakov Peri has been extremely active. Immediately after his departure from the Shabak, Peri became the president of Cellcom, the Israeli cell phone company. Precisely at that time, a malfunction in the company’s network caused its millions of customers to lose service for an entire day. It was widely believed that the outage would spell the end of the company’s business, but Peri did not even blink. He survived the incident and went on to lead the company forward. About ten years later, Peri became the chairman of Bank Mizrachi. During his tenure there, the value of the bank’s shares rose by about 250 percent. And those were only two of the many roles that Peri played over the years, including that of “prime minister’s coordinator for prisoners and missing persons.” As we noted, he served as a government minister in the previous government, and today he is a member of the Knesset.
I began our interview by asking about his background.
I saw that your surname was originally “Pirsoner.” Where does that name come from?
“My father adopted the name ‘Pirsoner’ when he first came to Eretz Yisroel. His original name was Presky, and when he came to Israel from Poland – from an area that is part of Belarus today – he joined Etzel, and for some reason they told him to disguise his former name. Someone suggested the name ‘Prisoner’ because of its meaning in English, and he changed it slightly to ‘Pirsoner.’”
Why would it be necessary to disguise his name?
“I don’t know exactly what happened at the time. In any event, when I was 13 years old, I had to change my name to a Hebrew name, since Ben-Gurion required everyone who left the country with an official delegation to choose a Hebrew name. That is why I changed it to ‘Peri.’”
At the age of 13, you were part of an official Israeli delegation?
“Yes. I was part of the Israeli National Youth Orchestra, and we traveled abroad to play.”
Was your father from a religious family?
What about his father?
“His parents in the shtetel were definitely either religious or traditional.”
Did you ever meet your father’s father?
“I never met any of my grandparents.”
Were they murdered in the Holocaust?
“Yes. My entire family, on both my father’s side and my mother’s side, perished in the war.”
What was your mother’s maiden name?
As in the famous Druyanov?
“Yes. My maternal grandfather was the brother of the famous author. Parenthetically, the author Druyanov made aliyah and lived in Tel Aviv, but I never met him. I met only his wife.”
Were you born in Israel?
“Of course. My parents each came to Israel in the 1930s, years before the Holocaust, and met each other here. Their families remained in Europe. My mother’s family lived in a town called Druya, which is the source of the name ‘Druyanov,’ and my father’s family lived in a town not far from Vilna. All of them – the brothers, sisters, cousins and grandparents – were killed in the Holocaust.
“To my father’s credit, even though he wasn’t religious, he made sure to go to shul on every chag and sometimes even on Shabbos. He often brought me with him, and so I was exposed to Yiddishkeit, but only in the ‘lite’ sense.”
But you were never against chareidim?
“Chas vechalilah. The truth is the exact opposite. As far as I know, I was the first person to open the telecommunications market to the chareidi public. When I became the president of Cellcom, I sat down with the Badatz of the Eidah Hachareidis, and with virtually all the rabbonim of other streams. My goal was to attempt to popularize the cellular phone in chareidi society. The advent of the kosher phone was attributed to me.”
Was that because you cared about chareidim or because you cared about Cellcom?
“It was also because I understood that there is a sector of chareidi Jewry that has trouble adjusting to new things, not only from a technological standpoint but also because they don’t want to accept many of the things that a cell phone offers. In any event, I have always been completely in favor of loving other Jews and the Torah, learning Torah, and so forth. I have never been against chareidim.”
On the subject of Cellcom, I wasn’t planning to talk to you about the business part of your career, but since you mentioned it, perhaps you can explain it. Are you a magician? Do you have a golden touch? When you went to Cellcom, you turned it into the number one cellular company in Israel. When you joined Bank Mizrachi, you propelled the bank to record heights. How do you do it?
“Without trying to boast, I would like to say that serving in intelligence for 30 years helped me develop the skills to deal with unexpected or changing circumstances. Right after I came to Cellcom, the company experienced one of the greatest crises possible in the Israeli economy: Not a single cell phone worked.”
That was an infamous night.
“Absolutely. Most people would lose their equanimity somewhat from that experience, but it didn’t happen to me. Do you know why? Because I had been in much worse situations during my work in intelligence.”
You may have learned to keep calm in the Shabak, but in Bank Mizrachi, aside from maintaining your composure, you also had to play the role of mediator and peacemaker between the parties in a dispute. Did you pick up those skills in the security service as well?
“The main reason I was hired as the chairman of Bank Mizrachi was that the Wertheim and Ofer families, who controlled the bank, weren’t getting along, and I was able to mediate between them. So perhaps that is a natural talent I possess, although 30 years in the security service will teach you how to deal with almost any situation in any area. And there is another thing: I came to Cellcom with almost zero experience in finance, since I was never responsible for the Shabak’s budget. Eight years later, I had amassed plenty of business experience, and I came to Bank Mizrachi with a strong professional and business base. By the time I started working for the bank, I understood the subject much better. I worked at Bank Mizrachi for close to two years in order to reach a point where the families would make peace with each other, which cleared a very comfortable path for the business to take off. We combined Bank Tefachot with Mizrachi, and we developed the mortgage aspect of their business. I brought in Eli Yunis, a former director-general of the Finance Ministry, to be the director-general of the bank. He is a very intelligent man and a brilliant economist, and between us, we knew how to blend our respective strengths to help the bank move forward.”
Speaking of staying calm, let me ask you a question: Did you ever have a gun pointed at you?
“More than once.”
It was a gun?
“Not just a gun, but slightly more than that.”
So how are you still alive? Did the trigger get stuck?
“There were three or four assassination attempts made against me. Once, two grenades were thrown into my car in Shechem. Neither one exploded.”
We would call that a miracle.
“Yes. Another time, I was driving through an Arab village not far from the Jordan valley and shots were fired toward my car. It was the middle of the night. They were trying to hit me, but they accidentally shot two cars that were traveling behind me. They made a mistake, because all the cars were white.”
Was that when you were the commander of the Yerushalayim district?
“No, I was young. I was just a field officer.”
You were in intelligence?
“Yes. I was a Shabak coordinator.”
Then it means that someone who was in contact with you betrayed you?
“There was actually one instance when a source betrayed me and set up an ambush. My family and I received threats all the time. My name was mentioned on Fatah radio. My wife used to go for walks in the park in Netanya with our son when he was small, and she would keep a gun under his blanket.”
Are the names of Shabak agents known to the Arab public?
“Yes. Not their actual names, but their code names. I was known as Abu Amir, after my eldest son.”
Then you risked your life all the time. If an informant betrayed you, he could murder you.
You risked your life for the state?
There can’t be any other reason. It certainly wasn’t the salary.
“It wasn’t the salary or anything else. I didn’t have a life when I was doing this. You work 24-and-a-half hours a day. There is no holiday, no Shabbos, no day and no night. I wasn’t there for any of my children’s births. For many years, I barely managed to spend a single holiday with my family.”
The job of a Shabak coordinator is to establish a network of informants that will provide him with real-time information, so that he can capture terrorists on their way to carry out attacks. Can you say with certainty that you thwarted terror attacks?
“Hundreds of times, if not more. Absolutely.”
And we don’t even know about those episodes.
“And it is better that no one knows. While the head of the Shabak has been a known public figure in recent years, I was the last person to hold that position without his name being made public. But even though people know the identities of the heads of the Shabak, its operations are still clandestine and are kept out of the public view, and it is better that way.”
• • • • •
When Yair Lapid asked Yaakov Peri to join the Yesh Atid party, it was because he was looking for someone with experience in security to join the new list that he led in the elections for the previous Knesset. Peri certainly fit that definition. He was a former head of the Shabak and spoke fluently in interviews on every subject connected to state security and terror. He was a personal friend of all the leading figures in the security establishment and of all the leaders of the country’s economy, and he was a person who had succeeded in everything he had done. It therefore made sense to ask him to share his perspective on the recent series of terror attacks in Israel, as well as the plague of terror throughout the world.
Could the best intelligence service in the world stop a young boy—
“No,” Peri interrupts me, understanding my question: If a young boy, “inspired” by the incitement in the Arab media, decides on his own to attack innocent civilians with a knife, no intelligence agency could possibly predict – or prevent – such an attack.
Then what can be done?
“The Shabak is an intelligence organization. Once it is able to gather intelligence, to penetrate places that are targets for gathering information, it has achieved its goals. That is what the Shabak is capable of doing. If a 13-year-old boy or a 16-year-old girl gets up in the morning and decides to pick up a pair of scissors and attack someone, for any reason in the world – be it because they are angry at their mothers, or they have been influenced by incitement, or they are frustrated by the lack of a peace process…”
Or a 13-year-old boy or an adult decides to use his car to carry out a ramming attack.
“Yes. In any such case, no intelligence agency that operates in an organized, established fashion with specific goals will be capable of predicting it.”
Then, as Moshe Dayan once said, “Will we always be consumed by the sword?”
“I don’t think that it will inevitably go on forever. I think that we need to aspire to a certain type of arrangement and understanding with the Arabs. I won’t call it peace; I don’t delude myself. In fact, I will say more than that: We have a very big problem with all of the ‘peace partners’ around us, both the Arab countries and the Palestinians, but even they have reason to take interest in finding some sort of middle ground, some sort of mutual arrangement, just as we do. That is why we can hope for a solution of some sort, and it is possible to reach one. But if we do not reach an agreement that they will live with what they have and we will retain what we have, then we will truly have to live by the sword forever.”
Even if we reach an agreement with the more moderate factions among the Palestinians, there will always be extremists such as Hamas, and now ISIS, who will remain our enemies and will attempt to carry out terror attacks.
“There are organizations that we can fight more aggressively, and we can thereby reach a minimum number of attacks. Even if there is a signed agreement between us and the Palestinian Authority, there will always be extremist groups on the side who will not accept that agreement and will want to harm us, but we can reduce that to a minimum. Over the past few months, we have been living through a wave of terror. There may be three, four or five attacks in a single day. We have had days with three, four or five fatalities. That is not a simple situation. But we can reduce those numbers. We can get it down to a minimum.”
If you were responsible for security in Europe, do you think you could have prevented the recent attacks?
“I don’t know if I could have prevented them, but it is clear that the Europeans have been completely apathetic. They didn’t even mention the word ‘terror.’ They didn’t call the murderers in Paris ‘terrorists.’ They called them ‘combatants.’ Until Europe understands that terror is raging in its midst, it will not be able to deal with it as it should.”
After September 11, America did learn something…
“True, and they are the proper example. What America did after the September 11 attacks is what Europe should have done – from a political standpoint, from a military standpoint, and from a deterrent standpoint.
“When all is said and done, it is impossible to be completely liberal and democratic and to say, ‘People are attacking me, but I’m just going to let it pass, because I won’t infringe on anyone’s rights.’ Terror doesn’t go away on its own.”
They say that in America, the government listens to every telephone conversation, and that whenever certain words are heard, the conversations are recorded and examined.
“When certain key words are spoken, they listen to the suspicious conversations. They don’t listen in to every phone call.”
It was reported that when Ehud Barak was in an airport in America, the security guards told him to take off his shoes, and he was furious.
“Yes, but that doesn’t have to do with their listening in on conversations; it is simply because they make no compromises. When Shaul Mofaz was the Minister of Defense, he was asked to show his documents at an airport. His passport says that he was born in Iran, so he was taken to the side for further examination. It didn’t help that he was a guest of the Pentagon. They didn’t care that he was the Minister of Defense of Israel and an official guest of America. There are three Pakistani men – or men of some other ethnicity – who sit in the airport and choose passengers for special inspection, and they are not interested in any of those details. All they know is that if a passport says the person is Iranian, they have to subject him to further scrutiny. They do not care if he is a prime minister or defense minister of a different country.”
• • • • •
You have worked with several prime ministers, correct?
“I was originally appointed by Yitzchok Shamir, and then I worked for three years under Yitzchok Rabin.”
You and Rabin were good friends?
Shamir, though, was a cold person. It was difficult to become his friend.
“Shamir was a different type of person, but Rabin and I were friends. Our families were very close.”
Did Shamir’s background in defense, as the former head of the Lechi, help you as the head of the Shabak?
“It helped very much. He understood everything we told him.”
Was it a deficiency that Rabin didn’t have the same underground experience?
“Rabin did have experience in defense. He was the chief of staff of the army. He loved that work. I worked under two prime ministers who adored me.”
Do you have any explanation for the fact that everyone likes you?
“Why do people like me? Because I am a nice person! I think that I demonstrate moderation. I am not an extremist, and I am a person who likes to be friendly to others. I respect other people’s opinions even if I do not accept them. I know how to listen to people and I know how to debate without arguing. There is a difference.”
It is interesting that the head of the Shabak today, Yoram Cohen, wears a yarmulka, and in a few days, his deputy, Roni Alshich, who also wears a yarmulka, will become the commissioner of the police force. Who would have imagined that two positions of such importance would be occupied by religious Jews?
“It is an honor to the Shabak, an honor to the State of Israel, and an honor to the Jewish people. Their kippot make no difference at all in their decisions. Anyone who thinks otherwise may come speak to me. We have an excellent director of the Shabak, and we will have an excellent police commissioner. Who cares that they wear kippot? It doesn’t label them in any way, even if certain people would like to label them for that reason.”
I read an article that insinuated that Alshich is the product of a settlement.
“I say that that does them an injustice.”
Did Roni Alshich work under you in the Shabak?
“Yes, and all of his detractors are merely looking for a fight and an excuse to besmirch his name. They are looking for something to attack, but it is wrong. Alshich is an excellent young man.”
You once worked to retrieve the body of a soldier named Rachamim Alshich from captivity. Was he a relative of Roni Alshich?
“No. But you are truly taking me back to the past. When I served as the coordinator for prisoners and missing persons, we brought back the bodies of Rachamim Alshich Hy”d, combat soldier Itamar Eiliah Hy”d, and several others.”
This is the only point in our interview at which Peri becomes lost in memories of the past, falling silent and nearly coming to tears.
Were you in favor of paying a relatively high price for the release of Gilad Shalit?
“I was in favor of paying for it. But I think that we could have finished the deal, if I may say so, at a much lower cost.”
• • • • •
When Peri asked me in advance how long the interview would take, I suggested that it would be relatively short; I understood that his time was limited. In fact, if I understood him correctly, he was scheduled to fly out of the country shortly after our conversation, and he had several other commitments to attend to beforehand. As we continued conversing, the members of his staff entered the room, one after the other, with papers to show him and questions to ask. I am familiar with this. It is a way of giving the “boss” the opportunity to tell a visitor that his time is up. In order to spare him the unpleasantness of the situation, I quickly asked, “Do we have a few more minutes?”
Yankele Peri, with his constant smile and unfailing politeness, replied, “Certainly!” His subordinates heard his reply and quickly disappeared from the room.
If we have a bit more time remaining, I would like to speak to you about the draft law. I can’t understand the reason for your protests this past week. What makes the current law worse than the law that Yesh Atid and the Peri Committee formulated in the previous government?
“Our issue is the intent. The intention this time is to erode the law. It’s true that the trend, overall, is a positive one. There are more chareidim enlisting in the army and everyone wants there to be a rise in the numbers.”
You mean that there will be more chareidim enlisting now, once the law is no longer so threatening?
“No. I mean that even before the law was changed, when our law was on the books, that was the situation. But if a law doesn’t contain some sort of sanction or punitive measure – whatever you wish to call it – that will apply in the foreseeable future, then it simply won’t be effective.”
Do you mean that the current law doesn’t contain any sanctions, but your law does?
What was in your law that was dropped from the current law?
“Our law contained what the chareidi parties call ‘criminal sanctions.’”
What is that? Please explain it to me.
“Criminal sanctions means punishment for desertion.”
But that has always applied to every citizen of the country.
“True. The chareidi parties wanted to remove the criminal sanctions; it bothered them. In fact, for this reason, this is the first time that the chareidi parties have voted in favor of a draft law.”
And the law has no sanctions today?
How can that be? If a person receives a draft order and doesn’t come to the army, he is considered a deserter and is sanctioned accordingly.
“No. It can be delayed for nine years.”
But if someone gets a draft order and doesn’t bring a deferment, he will be charged with desertion.
“No. The Minister of Defense can postpone it for nine years.”
But whenever it happens, as soon as a yeshiva bochur becomes a deserter, that is what he will be.
“Nine years! You know the way things are in Israeli politics. How many governments will come and go during that time? How many parties will enter and leave the government? The people behind the new law wanted to stretch the meaning of the law and to reduce its effectiveness.”
That may be so, but the criminal sanctions can’t be cancelled altogether. A deserter is a deserter.
“No, that is not true. They took away the entire concept of criminal sanctions. First, they delayed it for nine years, and second, they gave the Minister of Defense the authority to determine when and if the sanctions would be imposed, and what would be done.”
But you are merely saying that they postponed the criminal sanctions to a later time.
“That isn’t all they did. They removed the criminal sanctions altogether, and they made it subject to the authority of the Minister of Defense, who is also the one who decides on the enlistment quotas and on what will be done if those quotas are not met.”
What can he decide other than the number of conscriptions that will be considered meeting the quota?
“He can make decisions based on the political winds that are blowing at any time. If the chareidi parties are in the government, and it is considered desirable for them to remain in the government, then he will be lenient with them. That is not the way to create laws.”
I think I may understand. But today, in hindsight, wasn’t it a mistake for the draft law to be so vicious? You put so much pressure on the chareidim; their backs were against the wall.
“I feel that the law was a sensitive law and a good one. I accept that at that time, it seemed as if Yesh Atid was against the chareidim. That was our mistake as well. We should have been much more sensitive; we should have reached many more understandings and made a much greater effort to explain matters. It was our mistake, and the atmosphere truly became anti-chareidi.”
It wasn’t just with regard to the draft law. Even when it came to budgetary allocations, you—
“I agreed that the entire atmosphere was anti-chareidi.”
It wasn’t just an atmosphere. The things that were being done were against the chareidim.
“Yes. I have been saying that I do agree that we made some mistakes. But ultimately, the draft law itself was a good law and a sensitive one. It was considerate and it was tolerant.”
Do you also feel that it was a mistake to harm the chareidim by taking away so much funding?
“In some cases.”
Would Yair Lapid be angry at you if he heard you say that?
“I think that even he is learning some lessons. In some cases, I think that we came on too strong. We made it appear too much that we were targeting the chareidim. That wasn’t our intent. People didn’t understand us properly. We also made a mistake.”
I don’t really understand what you are saying. You harmed the chareidi community economically, but you are only talking about negative feelings.
“We didn’t harm them. It wasn’t that we decided to hurt the chareidim. We simply thought that a change in priorities was necessary.”
And do you concede now that you went a bit too far in that respect as well?
“I think that the way we went about it was somewhat haughty and inconsiderate. Perhaps we should have done things more gradually, and with much more sympathy and understanding.”