חשיפה: המקור הישראלי העיקרי שלי עד 2014 היה בנימין (“פואד”) בן-אליעזר ז”ל
NOTE: This is a longer version of an article published in Middle East Eye last week.
How America’s leading newspaper published a story claiming a three-year, secret Israeli war against Islamist insurgents in the Sinai in order to prop up that country’s military junta. The problem is it wasn’t secret at all, has lasted longer than three years, and had been widely reported in the media.
Last week, the New York Times’ former Cairo bureau chief, David Kirkpatrick, published a purported expose of a hitherto secret Israeli campaign against Islamist insurgents in the northern Sinai. The militants, who were an amalgam of disgruntled Bedouin and ISIS operatives, had launched attacks both against targets in southern Israel and against Egyptian military targets in northern Sinai.
The report used provocative language like “covert alliance” and “secret alliance,” as if the Israeli operations supporting the Egyptian regime were being reported for the first time. It purported to offer “dramatic evidence” of the details of the attacks by Israel.
David Kirkpatrick notes the great pains taken by both the Egyptians and Israelis to conceal their joint efforts. He asserts in two places in the report that Israeli media could not report most of the attacks because of military censorship.
He notes one Israeli drone strike in 2013 which killed five Islamist militants, as if this was the first of the joint attacks in Sinai. But it wasn’t. The first such drone assault which killed a Sinai Islamist was in 2012 (more to follow).
Then he adds:
It was…in late 2015, that Israel began its wave of airstrikes, the American officials said, which they credit with killing a long roster of militant leaders.
This too is imprecise, at best. Though the details of the actual Israeli operations portrayed and the underlying reasons for the Israel-Egypt alliance are accurate, almost everything else about the NY Times report is wrong.
Israel’s Worst Kept Secret
If the Israeli intervention was secret, it was one of the worst kept secrets as far as Israel is concerned. No less a figure than Bibi Netanyahu himself in 2016, bragged at a Likud Party meeting about the daring steps Israel was taking to protect itself from the Sinai terrorists. Though it’s true the military censor suppressed reporting about the prime minister’s speech, by then it had appeared on the TV news and was featured on YouTube.
Israel did not commence operations in the Sinai in 2015 or even 2013, as Kirkpatrick claims. In fact, it began the attacks in 2012 (more on this later), while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was still in power (he would be overthrown by a military junta in 2013).
This complicates the narrative that Kirkpatrick presents of a bilateral alliance formed, as far as Israel was concerned, to prop up a tottering Egyptian military regime. While it is true that the Israelis prefer strongmen generals running the show to former Islamist militants like Morsi, the fact is that Israel saw these Islamists as a threat before al-Sisi came to power, and had at least tacit approval from Morsi to go after them.
Kirkpatrick also claims:
It is unclear if any Israeli troops or special forces have set foot inside Egyptian borders, which would increase the risk of exposure.
This too is false. In 2011, in one of the most daring attacks originating from the Sinai, militants crossed the border into Israel and raked heavy fire on a southern highway near Eilat. A bus and several civilian vehicles came up attack and six Israeli civilians and a soldier were killed. Afterward, the attackers slipped back across the Egyptian border pursued by Israeli military and Border Police. Meanwhile, Egyptian security forces were hunting down the militants as well. When the two forces met, the Israelis opened fire on the Egyptian police, killing five.
The incident became a cause célèbre and eventually led to protesters assaulting and burning down the Israeli embassy in Cairo. Then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, issued an apology and everything eventually returned to normal.
Alex Fishman reported Israel’s violation of Egyptian sovereignty in the major daily, Yediot Achronot. Israeli blogger Idan Landau publishing a hard-hitting series of exposes as well. I published a number of blog posts on the subject as well beginning in 2011 (more later). It would not have been terribly difficult for the Times’ Kirkpatrick to dig up this reporting. Instead, he rather lazily relied on his U.S. sources and their incomplete narrative.
There were other Israeli incursions into Egypt. The Mossad kidnapped a Palestinian, Wael Abdul Riin da in the Sinai and imprisoned him in Israel. Though Egyptian intelligence cooperated with the apprehension, Israeli agents were inside Egyptian territory and facilitated the operation there.
I also reported in 2012 that Israeli soldi were crossing the Egyptian frontier in order to stem the flow of African refugees entering Israel via the Sinai.
Fuad and Me
How do I know all this? Because until 2014, a retired Israeli general and defense minister was my most trusted source in reporting stories about Israeli national security affairs. I could not reveal his identity until, just before his death in 2016, he permitted me to do so. I am doing so here for the first time. He was Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, also known as Fuad.
Ben Eliezer had come to Israel as a young boy from Iraq, making him an unusual phenomenon in the Ashkenazi-dominated politics and military echelon of the 1950s. The ruling Labor Party, which he eventually joined, was well-known for discriminating against Arab Jewish refugees who fled their homelands. It sent them to the poorest development towns. It kidnapped their babies and performed ill-fated medical experiments on their children. It refused to accept them as members of the Ashkenazi-dominated kibbutz movement, which then provided the future generals and prime ministers and labor leaders, the nation’s elite.
Ben Eliezer rose to one of the highest ranks in the IDF, Brigadier General. Along the way, controversy dogged him as his forces were accused of massacring 250 Egyptian POWs during the 1967 War. Though he was by no means the only Israeli officer charged with permitting such war crimes.
After he retired, he entered political life in the Labor Party and rose to the highest ranks, becoming defense minister under Ariel Sharon in 2001. He was especially close politically to Barak, but after the latter lost the 2000 election to Sharon’s Likud, Labor began a slow decline. It was facilitated in large part by questionable political alliances and national unity governments orchestrated by Barak.
Ben Eliezer later drifted away from Barak’s orbit and left politics altogether in 2014. By then, he had developed kidney failure and faced corruption charges filed by Israeli police.
But in the four years preceding, he offered me scores of scoops on major stories which could not be published in Israel due to judicial gag orders or military censorship. In some instances, he offered me stories only he and a few other well-placed individuals in Israel knew.
I wasn’t the only outlet he had. Fuad was an extraordinarily loquacious man. He loved to schmooze with everyone, especially reporters. He served as a source for many Israeli journalists. But I was the one who could publish the stories he knew couldn’t be told in Israel.
Among the major stories I broke through his information were Mossad and Mojahedin-e Khalq responsibility for Iranian nuclear scientist assassinations; a Mossad operation causing a massive explosion at an IRG missile base which destroyed much of its rocket program (also triggered by an MeK collaboration); a joint Mossad-Ukrainian security services extraordinary rendition of Gaza civil engineer, Dirar Abusisi, in Ukraine in 2011.
It was Fuad who came to me with the story of the first Israeli drone attack in Sinai in 2012. He also revealed to me the lies both Egypt and Israel were proffering the media about the terror attack in southern Israel mentioned above. These lies were necessitated by the fact that Israel was embarrassed by the ease with which the Sinai militants penetrated its defenses; and Egypt was embarrassed that Israeli troops penetrated its territory and killed five of its own security personnel.
Here is a recounting of some of the stories related to Israel’s campaign in the Sinai and burgeoning relationship with Egypt published before 2015, the year Kirkpatrick claims the Israeli campaign first began:
Israel’s first Sinai drone strike killed a Bedouin militant (2012)
Israel Encouraged Egyptian Military Coup and urged generals not to negotiate away their power in its aftermath (2013)
Returning to my relationship with Fuad, though he was very much a member of the Israeli élite, he also considered himself somewhat of an outsider as a Mizrahi from the “periphery.” He never achieved the ‘golden ring.’ Never became leader of the Labor Party (except for a brief transitional stint) or prime minister.
But he was a true liberal. He believed that secrets could be toxic, and used the means he had to expose the ones that shouldn’t be secret. He was not a whistleblower or dissident in the classic sense. He was an Israeli patriot. Many of the stories he told me were meant to buttress Israeli security interests and tout the skills and successes of its forces.
His interests sometimes diverged from mine, and I always noted when I disagreed with his perspective on why a story was important. Despite our different interests as journalist and source, Fuad understood and accepted the difference. Unlike some Israeli sources, he did not quarrel if I criticized the motives for some of the Israeli security operations he revealed to me.
Kirkpatrick Used Mainly U.S. Intelligence Sources
Returning to Kirkpatrick’s story, it’s important to note that his sources were solely in the U.S. and UK intelligence community. He did not find any Israeli sources who would comment on the story. And that is its undoing. Clearly, his sources didn’t follow the entire history of Israeli involvement in the Sinai. They knew part of the story, and weaved those facts together to create a narrative to advance their interests.
What were U.S. interests? You will find that Kirkpatrick emphasizes the budding alliance between Egypt’s military rulers and Israel in the context of increasingly close relationship between Israel and the Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia. The NY Times journalist amplifies the value of the Egypt-Israel joint military operations, claiming Israeli anti-terror operations have stemmed the tide of Islamist violence which might have otherwise toppled the junta.
There are points in which Kirkpatrick takes this argument too far. Israel has not stopped or even significantly impeded the Islamist insurgency, as he claims. If anything, it has only put a dent in it, and a fairly small one at that. ISIS wages almost daily attacks there against both military and civilian targets.
As this Haaretz report notes, the brutal and corrupt nature of the regime is not something an Israeli missile or jet can fix. Israel cannot singlehandedly maintain al-Sisi in power. Eventually, he will go the way of Mubarak before him, with or without Israeli support. If a truly democratic or populist figure ever comes to power in Egypt, both he and the Egyptian people will remember it was Israel who helped the thieves and murderers maintain their hold on power.
Similarly, when the House of Saud is someday overthrown, whoever replaces it will remember the corrupt alliance forged between a corrupt, kleptocratic monarchy and its Israeli allies.
New York Times and U.S. Intelligence: a Convenient Relationship
The New York Times became a willing partner in selling this questionable narrative offered by U.S. intelligence sources. Contrary to what these sources would have us believe, it is not a good thing that Israel is forging alliances with al-Sisi and the most corrupt, repressive elements of the Arab world. If it helps Israeli interests at all, it will only be in the short-run. Dictatorships and military strongmen have a relatively short shelf life in that part of the world. Once they are toppled, those who follow will not view Israel so favorably.
Now let’s consider why Kirkpatrick got this story wrong: first, he relied on a limited number of sources. Second, he either knew of the prior media outlets who’d reported on Israel’s Sinai attacks and ignored them, or he didn’t know of them and should have. Third and perhaps most important, the mainstream media exists in a bubble, an echo chamber of its own making. They use sources deemed credible (by them) and discount sources which fall outside of narrow journalistic consensus. This may work for them in the majority of stories they cover. But in stories like this, involving tremendous amounts of dissembling, obfuscation, and opacity by politicians and intelligence officials, it doesn’t work. Reporters and their editors must recognize that in closed societies like Egypt and Israel (yes, for all you liberal folk out there, even Israel), critical information comes from non-conventional sources that should be treated with the same respect reserved for sources the MSM considers kosher.
Not to mention, that if you look at some of the sources NY Times regularly quotes on Israel-related stories, like MEMRI and Washington Institute for Near East Policy, they are decidedly biased and should be approached skeptically by serious journalists.
The truth is that the source for my coverage of this issue was equally credible to any source Kirkpatrick used for his story. The difference between our sources is that mine could go to jail if he revealed his identity, and so could not reveal himself as traditional sources are expected to do (I note that even Kirkpatrick’s U.S. sources were anonymous). In a society like Israel, which imposes criminal sanctions on whistleblowers and other forms of dissent from the security consensus, journalistic standards must take this into account. In this case, they didn’t. As a result, they got the story wrong.
I sent a tweet and direct messages via Twitter to Kirkpatrick and several NY Times editors seeking a response and none replied.