What is a spy to do when the world around him has changed?
It’s time to re-invent intelligence work
Los Angeles Times, 10-12-1997, pp M-1.
TEL AVIV–Gen. Danny Yatom’s days as head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign-espionage agency, are numbered. His boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rejected his first offer to resign following the botched assassination of a Hamas leader in Amman, Jordan. The next time, Netanyahu may have no choice but to let him go.
Yatom, upon his nomination, was regarded by some, including Netanyahu, as too cautious, too unimaginative to run the Mossad. Ironically, he may have approved the operation against the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, to show that he could be as daring and imaginative as any of his predecessors. Yatom, in short, wanted to be more Mossad than the Mossad itself.
But the Mossad is no longer the agency of legend. Terrorism, and the fear and sudden death associated with it, have created the impression that the Mossad is merely a kind of hit team that tracks, hunts down and executes Palestinian terrorists. Its intelligence-gathering skills have accordingly suffered. The question is whether today’s Israel needs to reinvent the Mossad or reclaim its original mission.
Israel, on the eve of its 50th anniversary as an independent state, is a totally different society from what it was as recently as two decades ago, when the Mossad was more intelligence gatherer than terrorist hunter. Israelis walk a thin line between secularism and a religious orthodoxy that seeks to thrust them back in time and history. They are a strange mixture of liberalism and fierce narrow-mindedness. The effort to maintain democratic values is increasingly difficult when continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and counterterrorism require security measures that restrict personal freedom and contradict the rule of law.
That conflict has affected the Mossad, whose Hebrew name helps reveal the nature of the problem: Institute for Intelligence and Special Roles.
The Mossad has two assignments, then: to collect information on the military, economic and political capabilities of Israel’s enemies and their preparedness for war, and to carry out, on occasion, special missions, including kidnapping and assassinations.
…With the rise of Palestinian political aspirations on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Mossad’s assignments have shifted toward fighting the war against Palestinian guerrillas and terrorism. The results have been painful and traumatic. The intelligence community, for example, failed to anticipate the surprise attack, in October 1973, by Syria and Egypt. Since the late 1970s, moreover, the agency has been slow to grasp the significant accumulation of weapons of mass destructions by Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Instead, the Mossad, reflecting the prevailing mood of Israeli governments and society, has become obsessive about the war against terrorism. Its special units and its departments of operation, code-named Caesaris and Kidon (bayonet), which handles assassinations, have been correspondingly strengthened at the expense of the collection (code-named Tsomet) and research departments.
This shift of emphasis is not the result of any fundamental change in Israel’s security situation. Rather, it has more to do with psychology.
Israelis are impatient and hedonistic. They look for short-cuts, quick satisfaction and immediate results; they desire almost magical solutions to complex political and military problems. The Mossad’s assassination attempt in Jordan was, in part, a response to these societal dynamics.
Yet, by pursuing terrorists, the Mossad has magnified the importance of terrorism–and further whetted Israelis’ desire for easy and fast answers.
Within Mossad, the trend toward special operations has not gone unchallenged. Some Mossad operatives opposed the hunt, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, for the terrorists who murdered 11 Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic games. "Eliminations and assassinations have nothing to do with intelligence work," the dissenters contended. "If these methods are needed in order to create a balance of terror between us and them, to spread fear, to take revenge and obstruct terrorist structures, let’s have the army’s special forces do the job, not the Mossad."
These officials were muffled, and embarrassing consequences soon followed. In July 1973, in Lillehammer, Norway, six Mossad agents, under various non-Israeli covers, were arrested in connection with the slaying of Ahmed Bouchikhi, a Moroccan waiter mistakenly identified as a master terrorist of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The fiasco was one reason why the Mossad’s pursuit of Palestinian terrorists came to a halt.
But in 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the Mossad back on the terrorist track.
Since then, successive Israeli governments, right and left, have reflexively reacted to terrorist attacks by condoning, if not ordering, the liquidation of terrorist leaders and activists. But Palestinian terrorist organizations have remained undeterred. Only rarely, when the target was a "one-man organization," did assassination benefit Israel.
The most recent example of this involved Dr. Fathi Shikaki, the leader of a small Islamic Jihad organization believed responsible for several suicidal attacks against Israeli citizens between 1994-96. He was killed by Mossad agents in October 1995, on orders from Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin.
Israel is the only democratic nation to accept the legitimacy of assassination as a tactic to deal with terrorists. The nearly instinctive Israeli proclivity to retaliate to terrorist attacks is the main reason behind the blunder in Jordan, the worst failure in the history of the Mossad. The lack of judgment and sensibility displayed by both Netanyahu and the Mossad in carrying out the attack have exposed the weakness of Israel’s most celebrated agency. Far graver is the possibility that the Mossad, by using poison in its attempt to kill the Hamas leader, has let the world know that Israel is involved in the research and production of biological and chemical weapons at a time when most nations are trying to eliminate them.
The failed assassination attempt also says something about how Israelis have changed. They are different from the Zionist founding fathers and their followers, with their pioneering spirit, idealism, sacrifices and asceticism. The Mossad has always epitomized the prevailing spirit of Israeli society. It still does today: tired, clumsy, less motivated, self-righteousness and complacent.
The surest–and quickest–way to rehabilitate the Mossad is to restore its mission as an intelligence-gathering agency. Chasing terrorists around Europe and the Middle East with exotic means of extermination will not make Israel more secure, nor prepare it for real military threats posed by Syria and Iran.