Ori Golan talks to journalist and author Dilip Hiro who pieces together for the first time the untold story of Israel's mole in PLO-Tunis and Mossad's role behind the scene of this century's most famous handshake. A glimpse into the murky world of espionage.
The Palestinian General Security claimed recently to have discovered minute bugging devices and video cameras surreptitiously installed in the walls of PLO leader Yasser Arafat's central office in Gaza. This follows an earlier incident involving five bugging devices which were accidentally discovered by Palestinian Authority's Intelligence officers when a small explosion went off in one of its offices in Gaza city, exposing the eaves-dropping devices. The Palestinians Authority accuses Israeli Intelligence and its Internal Security (Shabak) for both acts of espionage. In both cases, Israeli authorities vehemently deny any involvement and flatly reject any responsibility. But, as author and commentator Dilip Hiro reveals in his latest book, Sharing the Promised Land, the relations between Israel's secret services and the PLO go back a long way.
November 2, 1993 will be forever remembered in Israeli Intelligence circles as the day their man in the top ranks of the PLO in Tunis was exposed while transmitting a coded message to his handlers in Paris. Fortunately for the shadowy figures behind his recruitment, these were already post-Oslo days and the accords between Israel and the PA had already been concluded and sealed on the lawns of the White House, to the joy and fan fare of the world. By the time the Palestinian Authority discovered the existence of a fifth columnist in its midst, the accords were an established fact and the Palestinian leadership was left to assess the implications of this unprecedented breach of security on the deal they had just concluded with the Israelis.
In his expository book, Hiro names Adnan Yasin, 44, deputy PLO Ambassador to Tunisia and Head of the PLO's internal security, as our man in PLO-Tunis. Yasin, claims Hiro, worked as Mossad undercover agent between 1990 and 1993. One of the highest figures in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, he was responsible for leaking top level information to his Israelis handlers, and exposing the Palestinian team's negotiating strategies in the months leading up to the conclusion of the Oslo Accords.
Adnan Yasin's story begins in the late days of 1982. These were days of strife and political upheaval. The IDF was in Lebanon and the PLO' was about to be expelled from Beirut. Yasin, who was stationed in the PLO office of Tunis, was put in charge of organising and co-ordinating the organisation's relocation to Tunisia and smoothing the move to their new Headquarters. In this capacity he gained the confidence of the PLO's top brass, as well as access to all and any of the PLO's executive and administrative offices, at all hours of the clock.
In 1990, on one of his many trips to Paris, Yasin was approached by a number of gentlemen posing as businessmen from a European country. The first contact was made. And, as chance would have it, timing was perfect.
An incorrigible drinker and leading a profligate life-style, Yasin's finances were now being spent on medical treatment on his wife who was undergoing cancer. His resources were wearing thin. Only once Yasin had compromised himself beyond repair and could not back away did the "European businessmen" declare their true identity. Mossad agents, he discovered, don't wear badges of identity. They bought and secured his loyalty for a handsome price and soon taught him the tricks of the new trade; espionage.
For Israel's intelligence gathering services, Yasin's recruitment was a spectacular catch and a dramatic achievement. Using Mossad radio transmitters, invisible ink and a secret code, the new recruit supplied his handlers with insider's knowledge of PLO activities and furnished them with highly sensitive information pertaining to the organisation's strategies and agenda. There was now no question of going back.
According to Hiro, Yasin was responsible for planting secret bugging devices in the offices of top ranking PLO officials, possibly even that of PLO President Yasser Arafat, and sending coded messages which were picked up and deciphered by Mossad agents in the Israeli Embassies of Rome and Paris. The information was then relayed to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv who kept tabs on prominent PLO leaders, and monitored any changes or fluxes within the organisation. Mossad became privy to the PLO's financial crisis following the Gulf War and Arafat's ill-judged backing of Sadam Hussein - a move which alienated him from Arab sponsors. It was also aware of the internal crisis of confidence in the organisation's leadership. It was such insight which convinced Prime Minister Rabin, in 1993, that the time was prime for Israel to strike a deal with the Palestinians. Yasin played a pivotal role when "the secret Norway Channel" - the precursor to the Oslo Accords - started gaining momentum. He is said to have supplied his handlers with the most precious tool they could ever hope for; inside information. It is most likely, writes Hiro, that he planted bugging devices to let the Israelis into the counsels of the five most senior PLO leaders who masterminded the negotiations in Tunis, including Mahmoud Abbas who finally signed the document alongside Peres. The Israeli negotiating team was thus briefed in advance on Arafat's tactical manoeuvres and had a blueprint of the Palestinian team's negotiating strategy. Knowledge is a powerful negotiating tool.
"The Israelis had a clear advantage over the Palestinians" says Hiro at his West London home. "More than during time of war, Yasin proved himself useful when talks of peace were in the air. It was as though the two parties were engaged in a game of poker, only the Israelis had placed a mirror behind the other team so they could see their opponents' cards, know the stakes, and then decide which of their own cards to draw."
"This", asserts Hiro who is also the author of six other books on the Middle East, as well as a compendium of other fiction and non-fiction, "highlights Israel's strategic dominance in the negotiations."
"from the offstart", he stresses, "Israel was at a much better bargaining position. The Israeli negotiating team were a lot more at home with the English language [in which the negotiation drafts were written]. They had an experienced lawyer from the Israeli Foreign Ministry [Joel Singer] at their disposal whereas the Palestinians had an Egyptian lawyer who stomped off on reading the drafts. The asymmetry was blatant." But such a striking imbalance, says Hiro, only reflects the general inequality in Israeli- Palestinian balance of power. "On such clear vantage ground", continues Hiro, "the Israeli secret service, Mossad, then infiltrates the PLO's top ranks....of course the outcome would be that which we see in the Oslo Accords.
"The balance is clearly tilted in Israel's favour; eighty - twenty I'd say. The most telling aspect of this imbalance", he notes, "is that even after signing these accords, Israel, after 30 years of occupation, still refuses to acknowledge its occupation. The (indisputably) occupied territories, have become 'disputed territories'. "
Yasin's recruitment would most likely have been ticked off in Mossad files as yet another successful operation completed. Rabin and Arafat would both have been content to let Yasin's story gather dust. Rabin, who was behind Yasin's recruitment, certainly did not want it revealed that he had concluded what appeared to be an honest deal by means of espionage. Arafat, on his part, would no doubt have preferred the whole incident to be cloaked under a veil of secrecy, thus sparing him the humiliation of such serious breach of security inside the PLO's innermost circles being made public. History, however, does not always follow a written script.
On November 2, 1993, less than three months after the Declaration of Principles were sealed and signed, radio transmissions emanating from Adnan Yasin's house were picked up by Tunisian intelligence, who had been tipped off by their counterpart in Paris. Soon after, he was caught transmitting to his handlers in Paris and handed over to the PLO. His arrest was hushed, as was that of a second alleged mole, Mohammed Faisal, a radio reporter at the PLO's telecommunication centre, who was arrested by PLO's internal security chief, Abdul Balawi.
PLO Chairman, Arafat, deeply embarrassed and humiliated by the affair, confiscated the passports of all PLO employees to ensure that none of them fled. A news blackout was imposed on the "internal mole" affair. According to Hiro, Yasin is still in prison, although he could not say exactly where. Yasin's wife died soon after his arrest.
Taking stock of the current situation in the Middle East, in view of Yasin's exposure, Hiro sees the ball as being in Israel's court. "Israel is now in control of the game. The shape of things to come, he concludes, will now be dictated by Israel.
"The only thing, in my opinion, that seems to be out of Israel's control, is the inevitability of a Palestinian state coming into being. The building blocks are there. It is now just a matter of time".¦