‘Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal’

Avi Shlaim

  • Israel’s Secret Wars: The Untold History of Israeli Intelligence by Ian Black and Benny Morris
    Hamish Hamilton, 603 pp, £20.00, February 1991, ISBN 0 241 12702 5

In March 1954 Isser Harel made his first official visit to the United States as head of Mossad. Warmly received by Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, he presented his American opposite number with an ancient dagger inscribed with the words from the Psalms: ‘The Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.’ Like the celestial guardian, Mossad was expected to uphold a high standard of morality, to show integrity and commitment in the service of a noble cause. The contrast between Mossad and the secret services of other states was deliberately emphasised, just as the Israeli Army was designated Israel Defence Force to suggest that its role was purely defensive. With the passage of time a popular image developed of Mossad, based partly on fact and partly on fantasy, as the best intelligence service in the world – an image reinforced by novels like John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl and Agents of Innocence by the American writer David Ignatius. In recent years, however, a number of scandals have badly tarnished the reputation of Israel’s security services and stimulated calls for greater public accountability. One of the most damaging blows was struck by Victor Ostrovsky – like the author of Spycatcher, a disgruntled former insider – in a book which the Israeli Government unsuccessfully tried to suppress, By Way of Deception: The Making and Unmaking of a Mossad Officer.[*] Interestingly, the title of Ostrovsky’s book was inspired by another Biblical injunction, which Mossad adopted as its motto: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt do war.’

Israel’s Secret Wars is a long, lively and comprehensive account of Israeli intelligence. It deals in some detail with the pre-state period when Palestine was under the British mandate and covers all three branches of the Israeli intelligence community: the Shin Bet, in charge of internal security and counter-espionage; Aman, the corps within the IDF charged with the assessment of enemy capabilities and intentions; and Mossad whose brief is espionage and special operations abroad. It is something of an exaggeration to claim that the book tells an ‘untold’ story: the story of Israeli intelligence has been told many times before.

Where Israel’s Secret Wars does differ from most of its forerunners in this crowded field is that it is based on thorough research: the material is handled in an intelligent and responsible manner, and the judgments are for the most part sober. The book’s authors are both trained historians and close observers of the Israeli political scene who share a special interest in Israeli-Arab relations. Ian Black is the Guardian correspondent in Jerusalem and the author of Zionism and the Arabs. Benny Morris worked for the Jerusalem Post before it lurched to the right and is the author of the highly-acclaimed The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. He is a leading member of the group of ‘new’ or revisionist Israeli historians who, by challenging the conventional Zionist version of how the state of Israel came into existence, have sparked a debate which shows no sign of subsiding.

The performance of the pre-state intelligence services during what Israelis like to call then War of Independence turns out to have been little short of abysmal. The Shai, the intelligence branch of the Haganah, was a part-time and essentially amateur service which retained a political rather than a military focus. It persistently misread the intentions of the British Government during the twilight of British rule in Palestine and kept feeding the policy-makers with false reports about British plots against the Jewish community long after the British had resigned themselves to the emergence of a Jewish state. The Shai’s information about Arab plans to invade Palestine when the Mandate expired was both too vague and at least in part inaccurate: broadly speaking, the intelligence community of the Yishuv failed to meet its first critical challenge. Despite this intelligence failure, the Armed Forces of the newly-born state went on to win a major victory on the battlefield against the regular armies of the neighbouring Arab countries. In this respect 1948 set a pattern which was to be repeated in Israel’s subsequent wars.

The history of Israeli intelligence since 1948 has oscillated between spectacular successes and terrible failures. It is one of the paradoxes of intelligence, and to its practitioners one of the disappointing aspects of their profession, that its greatest successes are never disclosed to the outside world or are only disclosed involuntarily when disaster strikes. An example of this is Eli Cohen, ‘our man in Damascus’, the legendary spy who gained acceptance in the highest echelons of the Syrian Government, and was consequently able to supply his bosses in Tel Aviv with priceless information – until, that is, he was caught and hanged.

Even without making allowance for the secrets that will for ever remain secret, Israel’s intelligence services can boast of some astonishing successes. The list of world-class coups includes the acquisition of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation speech, the abduction of Adolf Eichmann, procuring the defection of an Iraqi pilot with his Mig, the raid to rescue the hostages at Entebbe, and the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. For sheer chutzpah, the theft of the Mirage production plans and the stealing of five missile boats from Cherbourg harbour following the suspension of French arms supplies to Israel takes some beating. In addition, there have been the covert airlifts to bring to Israel the Jews of Iraq, Morocco, Ethiopia and, most recently, the entire Jewish population of Albania.

The list of failures is also long, however; and when it has come to reading the political and strategic map of the Middle East, and providing the policy-makers with advance warning of enemy intentions and capabilities, very costly. In the mid-Sixties, for example, the prevailing assessment was that Egypt would not be ready for war at least until the end of 1970. During the crisis of May 1967, the intelligence chiefs completely misread the meaning of the Egyptian and Jordanian moves. The draft of the 1967 annual intelligence evaluation, prepared in May, explicitly stated that there was no chance that war would break out in the coming years. On the other hand, immaculate intelligence preparation at the tactical level paved the way for the pre-emptive air strike which within hours determined the outcome of what the Arabs had long been hailing as the imminent battle of destiny. As so often in Israel’s history, tactical virtuosity went hand in hand with strategic blindness.

A much more serious failure occurred six years later when Egypt and Syria launched their surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. This time it was the IDF which was caught with its pants down. On 5 October 1973, a day before the onslaught, the intelligence estimate remained that war was ‘highly improbable’. This assessment was not the result of inadequate information. The IDF had first-class information at its disposal, including a report from a secret agent which predicted almost exactly when the attack would begin. Rarely in the annals of war did the intelligence chiefs of one army know more about the plans and preparations of their enemies than the Israelis did on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. The root cause of the surprise was not inadequate or inaccurate information but faulty evaluation. It was a remarkable instance of the stupidity of intelligence.

This time heads rolled. A commission of inquiry was appointed which recommended the removal of some senior officers from their posts and far-reaching reforms of the intelligence system. The Agranat Commission traced the mistake in evaluation to a set of interlocking assumptions which held that the Arabs were not prepared to go to war. All incoming signals were filtered through and distorted by these assumptions which were themselves the product of a general contempt for the Arabs and a mood of complacency that spread from top to bottom of Israeli society in the aftermath of victory in the Six-Day War. Whether it was the self-assurance of the military which infected the politicians, or the politicians’ commitment to the status quo which subtly influenced the outlook of the military, is not easy to determine. What is clear is that when the country was about to confront a challenge of supreme magnitude, the guardians of Israel, both political and military, were fast asleep.

If the primary function of the intelligence experts is to provide advance warning of attack, they also have the function of anticipating major political and strategic changes. Of special significance in this context is the ability to detect subtle changes of attitude on the other side, small cracks in the wall of Arab hostility surrounding Israel which might provide an opening for accommodation and peace. As Yehoshafat Harkabi, the outspokenly dovish former head of military intelligence, observed, ‘knowing your enemy’ must include the ability to know when the enemy is in the process of becoming less intransigent.

In this respect, too, the performance of Israel’s terrestrial guardians has not been distinguished by alertness or perspicacity. Only four years after the disaster of 1973, they failed to foresee President Sadat’s peace initiative which resulted, in 1978, in the signing of the Camp David accords and, in 1979, in the signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty. Israel’s basic conception of the attitude of the Arabs towards her more or less ruled out the possibility of reconciliation and any move in that direction from the Arab side was liable to be dismissed as a purely tactical ploy. When Sadat announced his readiness to come and address the Knesset in Jerusalem, the head of military intelligence told the Chief of Staff: ‘This is the deception of the century.’ When Sadat was addressing the Knesset, Defence Minister Ezer Weizman sent the Chief of Staff a note saying: ‘Start preparing for war.’ The failure of the entire Israeli intelligence community to predict the Sadat peace initiative called into question, not for the first time, its capacity to look beneath the surface and detect the underlying political and strategic trends in the Middle East.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, preposterously named ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’, revealed the same limitations in reading the Middle East political map and inevitably ended in egregious failure. The authors trace in fascinating detail the process by which Israel sank deeper and deeper or rather pushed herself into the Lebanese quagmire. It is Mossad which emerges as the chief advocate of a full alliance with the Phalange, the main party of the Maronite Christian Right. Aman, by contrast, was unenthusiastic from the start about the Christian connection and regularly pointed out the shortcomings of the Phalange. The fateful alliance received its most powerful boost, however, when Ariel Sharon, the fiercely aggressive advocate of Greater Israel, succeeded Ezer Weizman as Defence Minister in Menachem Begin’s second Likud government and vowed to ‘solve the problem of Lebanon once and for all’. Banking on the Christians in his ill-conceived plan to destroy Palestinian and Muslim power in Lebanon, he brushed aside Aman’s warnings that the Christians were a broken reed. He even pushed Mossad to the sidelines in his usual pig-headed way. ‘Mossad’s involvement lost importance as soon as the Christians found their way directly to Sharon’s ranch,’ one senior executive said bitterly.

An attempt on the life of the Israeli ambassador to London was seized upon by Sharon and the militants to obtain the sanction of a wavering Cabinet for a war against the PLO in Lebanon. The assassination attempt had been carried out by the breakaway group led by Abu Nidal which was opposed to Yasser Arafat’s ‘capitulationist’ leadership of the PLO, and was probably designed to provoke an Israeli attack on Arafat’s stronghold in southern Lebanon. The experts tried to explain these factional rivalries to the Cabinet, but Begin cut them short, saying: ‘They are all PLO.’ ‘Abu Nidal, Abu Shmidal,’ said another senior official. ‘We have to strike at the PLO.’

After Israel got bogged down in the Lebanon and the Christians were exposed as weak and unreliable, some Israeli officers tried to forge a new alliance with the Shiite Amal militia. Aman maintained that Amal could not be trusted because of the presence within its ranks of radical, fundamentalist and pro-Iranian elements. Israel therefore encouraged Major Sa’ad Haddad to recruit Shiite soldiers into his predominantly Christian militia. Traditional divide-and-rule tactics were used, supplemented by psychological warfare, in an attempt to exploit factional, religious and communal rivalries to Israel’s advantage. But it was all to no avail.

Black and Morris see the invasion of Lebanon as ‘Israel’s greatest intelligence failure’. It was unquestionably a failure, but the failure was primarily one of policy rather than of intelligence. Politics and intelligence do not always make comfortable bedfellows but it is the elected politicians and not the intelligence professionals who must bear the ultimate responsibility for national policy. It is all the more unfair to blame the experts when their advice was ignored and sometimes deliberately suppressed because it did not fit in with the Defence Minister’s wild designs. It is true that some of the intelligence on Lebanon was faulty but it is also true, as the authors themselves make abundantly clear, that the intelligence facts were selectively marshalled by hawkish politicians in order to push the country into a savage, unnecessary and unwinnable war.

One of the merits of this volume is that it covers not only Israel’s wars against the Arab states but also the secret war it has conducted against the Palestinians, especially following the occupation of the West Bank and Sinai in 1967. It shows how Aman, the Shin Bet and Mossad, while maintaining their prewar functions, greatly expanded their regular activities to meet the security requirements of Greater Israel. Aman retained its overall responsibility for national intelligence, the Shin Bet was given control over operational intelligence in the occupied territories, and Mossad was ordered to step up its targeting and penetration of Palestinian organisations abroad.

The authors recognise that there have been mistakes and excesses and that the massive expansion in the size of the security services involved some dilution in quality, but the balance sheet that they draw is overwhelmingly positive. The Shin Bet, they write, was ‘deployed quickly and imaginatively to crush the fedayeen before they had a chance to strike roots and acquire operational experience’. It was ‘relentless, last and ruthless, sowing uncertainty by its massive use of informers and giving no quarter in the struggle’. We are told that the Israelis constructed a security system based on the ‘carrot’ of inducements combined with severe punishments and that it was a system which worked surprisingly well. But even if the system worked well, which is questionable, it was hardly imaginative. The carrot and stick are as old as the Judean hills.

The IDF’s attacks on PLO bases and refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon are described as ‘preventative and retaliatory’, but at least it is admitted that they encouraged a response which did nothing but perpetuate and deepen the conflict. The other two services get much higher marks for the part they played in the war to crush Palestinian resistance. ‘The Shin Bet and the Mossad,’ the authors conclude, ‘could ... be justly proud of their achievements in making the status quo tenable – for their own countrymen at least.’ But the whole point about the post-1967 status quo is that it was unacceptable to the Arabs and therefore untenable. That is why they went to war in 1973. The most that can be said for the security services is that it is not they but Golda Meir and her ministers who were primarily to blame for the rigid and unimaginative policy pursued by Israel in the inter-war period.

On the ill-treatment and torture of Palestinians and other human rights abuses by the Shin Bet, Black and Morris have surprisingly little to say and the little they do say is presented in an exceedingly coy fashion. Thus they mention that in June 1977 the Sunday Times published ‘a lengthy and well-documented report about the alleged torture of Palestinian detainees’ but they tell us nothing about its substance. Nor do they report the mounting body of evidence from former prisoners as well as organisations like Amnesty International and the Red Cross which proves conclusively that human rights abuses are routine under Israeli occupation.

The only report Black and Morris choose to quote is that of the Landau Commission appointed in 1987 to investigate the Shin Bet’s techniques in dealing with cases of ‘hostile terrorist activities’. The commission found that for 16 years Shin Bet agents had regularly fabricated evidence and lied to the country’s courts about confessions obtained under physical pressure from Palestinian suspects, but the practice of giving false evidence to the courts seemed to worry them more than the actual torture and ill-treatment of detainees. In its final report the Commission set down detailed guidelines on the use of force – ‘limited and clearly delineated psychological and physical pressures’ – and recommended that these be reviewed annually. A wide range of reactions to these findings and recommendations are recorded, but not Black and Morris’s own reactions.

Another subject on which the authors barely scratch the surface is that of the intelligence relationship between Israel and the United States and the secret wars which these unequal partners have fought together. Black and Morris do touch on this relationship at various points in their story, but their approach is largely anecdotal and unsystematic. What is missing is any serious analysis of the nature and significance of the relationship. There are also some glaring omissions which cast doubt on the authors’ objectivity. The most serious of these is the failure even to mention Israel’s bombing of the American intelligence ship, the USS Liberty, during the war of June 1967, ostensibly because it was known to be monitoring Israeli radio communications. This episode is treated in a number of books – among them, Anthony Pearson’s Conspiracy of Silence: The Attack on the USS ‘Liberty’ (1978) and Stephen Green’s Taking sides: America’s Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (1984). It is easy to see why the Israeli authorities would be anxious to avoid any further exposure of this episode but it is not easy to see why the authors would want to run the risk of being regarded as accomplices in a conspiracy of silence.

From the very beginning Israel saw herself as part of the West and not of the Middle East and set about making herself useful to the United States in order to gain American patronage. And one of the principal ways in which Israel tried to turn herself into a strategic asset to the US was by acting as a clandestine channel of information about other countries. The first US-Israel agreement on intelligence co-operation was signed in I951. By building up such extensive and expert intelligence services, the Israelis hoped not only to meet then unique security needs but also to hold up their end of what slowly developed into a fully-fledged strategic partnership with the US. The text of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinisation speech, for example, was of little interest to Israel but of considerable value to the US – and one good turn deserves another.

In addition to intelligence co-operation, Israel has acted as a proxy for the United States in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America (while at the same time furthering her own interests). Among the services provided by Israel are the subversion of anti-Western regimes in the Third World and the supply of arms and military support and training to regimes and other groups which the US Administration is unable or unwilling to help directly. The Iran-Contra affair is only one of the more intriguing instances of Israel’s versatility and global reach as a proxy. These shadowy activities around the world are not, strictly speaking, part of the job description of the guardian of Israel. But in what purports to be a serious study of Israel’s secret wars, they deserve much closer attention than they receive here.

Black and Morris’s outlook and the unspoken assumptions which colour their narrative are not basically at odds with the outlook and assumptions of the Israeli defence establishment. Thus the secret wars between Israel and the Arabs are presented here not as a continuous chain of action and reaction but usually as Israeli responses to Arab threats and Arab provocations. On the other hand, the book is entirely free of the hyperbole, sensation-mongering and sheer fantasy that one has come to expect from books on Israeli intelligence in general and Mossad in particular. The non-expert will find this book interesting, instructive, up-to-date and highly readable: the expert in search of a revisionist history of Israeli intelligence and covert operations is likely to be disappointed.

[*] By Way of Deception will be reviewed in a later issue by R. W. Johnson.