‘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.

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