The following article was written by Yossi Melman (co-author of Spies Against Armageddon) for The Jerusalem Report — a twice-a-month magazine published by The Jerusalem Post.
The international and Israeli media’s unflagging interest in the case of Ben Zygier – the Australian-born Jew turned Mossad operative, who committed suicide in his Israeli prison cell in December 2010 – has brought to light the intriguing question of how Israel’s espionage agency searches for, approaches and recruits its manpower.
But first an update on the unfolding story: The German magazine, Der Spiegel, first reported in March that Zygier, who wanted to impress his superiors, betrayed a few Lebanese agents who worked for the Mossad. And then in May, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which earlier in February exposed Zygier’s identity (known until then as Prisoner X), went an extra mile, claiming that the Australian-Israeli, 34 at his death, compromised an operation to discover the remains of three Israeli MIAs who died in a battle in Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon during the 1982 war.
The ABC report was based on an interview with one of the “betrayed” Lebanese. Ziad el Homsi, a former Palestine Liberation Organization officer turned local politician, claimed that he was asked to dig up the graves of the Israeli MIAs, but actually he was a double agent working for Lebanese military intelligence.
Israeli sources dismissed both the German and Australian stories and described them as “nonsense.”
Yet they do admit that it was wrong to recruit Zygier in the first place. “He slipped through our usually rigorous recruiting net,” said an intelligence source.
Zygier was born in 1976 in Melbourne to a family very active in the Jewish community. He went to a Jewish school, joined a Zionist youth movement (Hashomer Hatza’ir) and in 1994 moved to Israel, aged 18. He adopted a Hebrew surname, Alon, and served in the Israel Defense Forces. Soon he was spotted as a potential recruit for intelligence work. Among other attributes, he had a genuine foreign passport that could help a covert operative establish a cover story.
Ben Zygier (from Australia’s ABC)
The sources say Zygier/Alon was approached by the Mossad, went through the standard laborious psychological and aptitude tests, and joined the secret agency in 2003. After more than a year of training, he was assigned to one of the Mossad’s top operational and clandestine units. His assignments tended to involve efforts to penetrate Iran.
Noticing flaws in his personality that made him unsuitable for intelligence field work, the Mossad sent him to study for an MBA at a university in Melbourne before the termination of his contract. There, sources say, he became depressed and edgy and was excessively talkative. Rubbing shoulders with fellow students from many nations, including Lebanese and Iranians, he openly spoke of his Mossad career. At a certain point, he befriended a local contact who had ties with Iran. He was so talkative that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization heard about him and opened its own investigation.
The Mossad also became aware of his loose tongue. Examining who was having conversations with Zygier, the Mossad concluded that some of its operations and operatives were put at risk by his revelations. On his next visit to Israel, he was arrested and indicted on charges of espionage, bordering on treason.
On its website, the Mossad refers to itself as the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (ISIS). It defines its mission as “collecting information, analyzing intelligence and performing special covert operations beyond Israel’s borders.” The website encourages members of the public, locally and internationally, to apply for a job in a range of professions such as graphic design, logistics, computers and programming. Multi-language skills are desired, with an emphasis on Farsi and Arabic. An excellent job candidate would excel at “special” assignments, intelligence and security – areas that are at the core of the agency.
Mossad’s official logo
It is clear from the Zygier affair, as well as previous known and unknown cases, that the number-one priority of the recruiting process is to properly screen potential candidates. The screening is aimed at finding out whether they are suitable for their designated missions — above all, so that they will neither bungle their work nor cause embarrassing damage to Israel’s national interests. The ultimate goal is to make sure that the select few will be loyal to the organization and avoid actions that might eventually lead to divulging sensitive information and exposing operations, thus causing the arrest and death of agents.
The jobs are described in superlatives. “The job which will change your life,” and “Your job dream.” Despite lack of precise descriptions of the jobs required, from the skills needed, one can reach the conclusion what it is all about. Here is one example for a job in the field of “special assignments.” The candidate, it says, “has an opportunity to create a reality in which he/she plays the central role.” It sounds like a sentence from The Little Drummer Girl, one of John Le Carre’s novels in which he likens intelligence to the art of the theater, though intelligence is “theater of the real.”
In reality, what the Mossad is talking about is the job description of a katsa, a Hebrew acronym for a “collection officer.” In other intelligence services, such a person and role is referred to as a “case officer” or “handler of agents.”
Despite its worldwide image and reputation as an organization that is mainly involved in liquidating its enemies, the Mossad is not “Murder Inc.” In its more than 60 years of existence, the Mossad has been involved in no more than 40 assassination cases in which terrorists, nuclear scientists and Nazi war criminals were killed. The Mossad is basically an intelligence agency specializing in collecting and analyzing information, which is then provided to the Prime Minister and his cabinet to aid in making decisions.
The katsa plays an essential role in the Mossad. He or she is indispensable. This officer is the spearhead of the agency in the field. With the help of specialists at headquarters level, the katsa is responsible for spotting, approaching, recruiting, running, defending and babysitting the agent who is supposed to provide the information. These officers belong to a department known as Tsomet (Junction).
A second operational department is Keshet (Bow), which is in charge of the surveillance of targets as well as break-ins into places of interest to the agency. And a third department is Caesarea, which encompasses the Mossad’s most cherished persons: the field agents. These are the operatives who infiltrate enemy countries such as Syria, Lebanon and, the most dangerous one, Iran. One of the units within the department is Kidon (Bayonet), whose agents carry out the very select operations in which violence is necessary.
One of the main functions of the Mossad’s website is to broaden the net of potential candidates for the Mossad. Before the website was launched 15 years ago, the main recruiting method was based on the “old-boys network” – searching for candidates in the military and the other branches of the intelligence community based on personal recommendations.
Since then, searching, screening and recruiting have tremendously improved and are more systematic and scientific. Yet, today, as then, the number-one problem of the Human Resources department remains how to make sure that the recruit does not have a hidden personality disorder and latent suicidal tendencies.
The objective is to screen out problematic candidates — without rejecting the suitable, potentially great ones. In the annals of the Mossad and other intelligence agencies, there have been hundreds of cases of rejecting good candidates. But, luckily enough for the Mossad, very few cases of recruits with personality disorders have been discovered.
There are at least four famous cases. One was Avri Elad, a major in the IDF. In 1954, he was sent to Egypt under the identity of a Nazi SS officer to run a network of Jewish students trained to destabilize the regime. Eventually, he betrayed them. Elad denied the charges yet was imprisoned for 10 years for espionage.
Another one involved Mordechai Kedar, a bank robber suspected of murder. He was recruited in 1956, trained and sent to establish his cover in Argentina before being sent to Egypt. While in Buenos Aires, he murdered his local Jewish helper and stole his money. Kedar was found guilty by a military tribunal court and was imprisoned for 20 years.
Three decades later, the case of Mossad cadet Victor Ostrovsky came to light. Possessing a Canadian passport and the traits of a professional charmer, he was recruited as a candidate despite what Mossad sources call personality flaws. They say Ostrovsky became involved in financial frauds. Eventually, after 18 months of training, his handlers discovered that he was cheating his classmates.
After being fired, Ostrovsky took his revenge by writing a book about Mossad operations, and named many of its operatives. Prior to the publication of his book, which contains a lot of lies, the Mossad tried to dissuade him from publishing, but he refused. It turned out that the Mossad’s efforts, which included failed appeals to Canadian and American courts, served as Ostrovsky’s best marketing vehicle. His book became a lucrative bestseller.
And then there was the case of Yehuda Gil. A legendary katsa who posed as an Italian businessman, in the mid-1970s Gil befriended a Syrian general and tried to recruit him. The general refused to betray his country. Fearing he would be seen as a failure, Gil kept up a 20-year charade in which the general was supposedly feeding him valid information. Meanwhile, Gil hid the money he was supposed to pay the source under mattresses at his home in Tel Aviv and fabricated reports.
In the mid-1990s, one of the reports Gil submitted nearly triggered a war between Israel and Syria. Eventually, Gil was put under the surveillance of his Keshet buddies and was caught red-handed. He was sentenced to five years in jail.
Psychologists who worked for the Mossad have told me that individuals with borderline personalities are characterized by sudden and dramatic changes in their behavior and unstable relations with other people. “In many cases,” one psychologist said, “these people tend to see their close colleagues in a dichotomy – either as an enemy or a loved one.”
“People with borderline personalities are the greatest risk to any intelligence organization,” another psychologist noted, “because it is an elusive trait that is difficult to be noticed and screened.”
Maximum efforts of any clandestine service are devoted to block entry to such personalities. However, a built-in contradiction threatens the process. Often such people are gifted and blessed with traits that the organization is seeking: creativity, the ability to change identities, to lie without blinking, to be daring, and to deal with changing and challenging circumstances. No wonder that sometimes the agency does not resist the temptation and hires these characters.
Indeed the cases mentioned above, as well as the Zygier affair, prove this point. Nevertheless, a few dozen failed cases out of the thousands of people who have been recruited to work in the Mossad and for the Mossad over the six decades of its existence are not a bad ratio at all.
The recruiting process cannot be perfect. As of now, no one has invented a vaccine that can neutralize the flaws in human nature.
[This Jerusalem Report article by Yossi Melman was slightly edited for IsraelSpy.com.]
May 23, 2013
Click here for full details of how (and where) to buy Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, the new history of the Mossad and Israel’s other security and espionage agencies.
The authors are Dan Raviv (of CBS News) and Yossi Melman (the longtime Haaretz expert on intelligence, who now is a defense, strategy, and espionage analyst for the Israeli news website Walla). This is their fifth book together. Their best seller (in 1990-91) about Israel’s intelligence community was Every Spy a Prince. They also wrote a character-filled history of U.S.-Israel relations, Friends In Deed.
To glance at readers’ reviews posted at Amazon.com, please click here. For example:
“Despite the book being over 350 pages, it goes by very quickly (I read it in a weekend). ” –daniel michael | 17 reviewers made a similar statement
“Highly recommended read for those interested in Middle East events. ” –zedillo99 | 15 reviewers made a similar statement
“Raviv and Melman have written a wonderful history of Mossad. It reads like a thriller, but conveys a thorough history of the Israeli intelligence agency.” –Kai Bird, Pulitzer Prize winner
SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON is a powerful, vivid history of Israel’s intelligence community – led by the famous and feared Mossad – from the country’s independence in 1948 right up to the crises of today. Israel’s battle plan, aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program, may drag the United States into war and soaring oil prices. The plan is based on deception, sabotage, assassination, and intimidation. The book tells the story, never told before, of Kidon – the super-secret unit that is like a Mossad within the Mossad. Kidon carries out special operations, including assassinations and sabotage. Kidon had a daring role in destroying Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.
Israel’s methods and motivations can be fully understood only when seeing how they developed over the decades. Bold spies have penetrated enemy capitals, and secret agencies felt a historic responsibility to protect Jews worldwide. The authors chronicle major changes in Israeli intelligence agencies’ priorities – away from Palestinian peace prospects, shifting to Iran as the main focus. The book also exposes some episodes of which Israeli spies are ashamed; scandals they would prefer remain buried. Still, in the age of the internet and spy satellites, Israel is the most innovative nation in the use of espionage as an alternative to war.
Among the burning questions addressed and answered in SPIES AGAINST ARMAGEDDON are these: Who planted a powerful computer worm in Iran’s uranium enrichment centrifuges? Who has been motorcycling boldly through the streets of Tehran, assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists? Are Israeli spies regularly inside Iran and other enemy countries? Did the Mossad make a huge mistake when two dozen of its operatives were seen by hotel security cameras in Dubai, or was it a successful murder mission? Do the assassins, as portrayed in the movie “Munich,” really feel pangs of conscience? Have Israel’s enemies ever managed to plant agents in the Israeli government? Does the United States really trust Israeli intelligence, or is the relationship limited by mutual mistrust? Why do U.S. security agencies believe their close ally is spying on America? Is Israel trying to maneuver the U.S. into attacking Iran?
This book contains new information about the Mossad director from 2002 to 2010, Meir Dagan, and how he put “the dagger back between the teeth” of the spy agency. When he publicly declares that he opposes an Israeli military strike on Iran, what does he favor instead? The authors of this book have spoken with all the major players, and a multitude of minor players as well, to gain a balanced and deep understanding of Israeli actions at times of crisis – and Israel almost always feels it is in a crisis. Click here for reviews and more information on Spies Against Armageddon.
May 23, 2013
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited China, and then Russia, this month. Did he accomplish anything? In Sochi, the Russian resort city that will host the Winter Olympic Games next year, the Israeli made it clear that he was trying to persuade Vladimir Putin to cancel planned arms deliveries to Syria.
In an exclusive article for TheTower.org, where he is a Contributing Editor, Yossi Melman reveals that Netanyahu failed. Here is a small excerpt:
Israeli diplomatic sources are expressing disappointment at the outcome of Tuesday’s meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu, who initiated the meeting, …was accompanied by Chief of Military Intelligence Major-General Aviv Kochavi and Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin, who served as a translator. Netanyahu hoped to persuade Russia not to honor its contract to supply surface-air S-300 missiles to the Syrian army. But Israeli sources told The Tower that Putin was evasive and refused to commit himself on the issue.
During the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu also clarified Israel’s position versus Syria. He explained that Israel would continue to obstruct by all means available — including continued air attacks — Syria’s efforts to ship long-range missiles to Hezbollah.
The Russian president, on the other hand, made clear that his country objects to any foreign intervention in Syria and advised Israel to restrain itself, arguing that further attacks may escalate the situation.
Click here for the full article at TheTower.org, published by The Israel Project in Washington: http://www.thetower.org/exclusive-netanyahu-putin-meeting-a-bust-as-russia-refuses-to-back-off-s-300-sale-to-syria/
May 16, 2013
[This is edited from an article by Yossi Melman, a new contributing editor at TheTower.org (which is published by The Israel Project in Washington). The full article is here: http://www.thetower.org/analysis-israeli-brinksmanship-aimed-at-preventing-regional-deterioration/.]
CNN video showed smoke and fire from apparent Israeli Air Force strikes inside Syria (used in TheTower.org coverage)
By striking military targets inside Syria three times this year, Israel is engaging in what former Secretary of State John Foster Dulles would have described as a strategy of “brinksmanship.”
It is not in Israel’s national interest to intervene in the bloody Syrian civil war – a sad, violent, and regionally destabilizing conflict with no end in sight. And it is not Israel’s intention to do so.
Though the Israeli government has mostly maintained official silence – neither confirming nor denying – there are sufficient hints to conclude that three aerial attacks this year, on sensitive military facilities and on Hezbollah and Iranian assets in Syria, were carried out by the Israeli Air Force.
The first, in January, destroyed a convoy loaded with Russian made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The targets struck in early May included depots of medium-range surface-to-surface missiles also prepared for transfer to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Another target was Jamraya, Syria’s most secretive military R&D center. It is situated in northwest Damascus, the Syrian capital. Israeli intelligence sources tell The Tower that the facility housed sensitive Syrian research on chemical weapons as well as long-range guided missiles.
All three attacks illustrate a pattern. They certainly suggest that Israel has excellent, precise intelligence. It must have been gathered over months and even years of painstaking work from agents on the ground, communications intercepts, aerial reconnaissance, and satellite imagery.
Politically and diplomatically, the attacks also highlight the determination of the Israeli government not to repeat past mistakes. Since 1996, Israel ignored the systematic, ongoing transfer of Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah via Syria.
As a result of this choice – and even after a U.N. Security Council resolution demanded the disarmament of Hezbollah and an end to the smuggling of weapons into Lebanon – Assad’s terrorist allies amassed more than 40,000 rockets and missiles of all types and ranges. Their arsenal included long-range missiles capable of hitting almost every target in Israel: cities, military bases, power stations, and perhaps even the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
The previous government, still in power during the January air strike, and the new coalition (still headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) decided that enough is enough.
Israel is determined to stop shipments of weaponry systems it calls “game changing.” They include Russian made anti-aircraft missiles, Russian made surface-to-sea missiles, and the Iranian made Fateh-110 (Victory) and M-600 surface missiles. Those can carry both conventional and chemical warheads.
Israel’s decision to carry out air strikes, albeit without making a public announcement, is based on a calculated risk. It assumes that the Assad regime is too weak to respond, and that neither Iran nor Hezbollah has the desire to escalate the situation.
There is the risk that repeatedly hitting a weakened President Bashar al-Assad will goad him to retaliate for the sake of his personal honor and national pride. But if he fires rockets into Israel or gives the “green light” to Palestinian proxies or Hezbollah terrorists to strike Israelis, Assad and his backers in Tehran know that Israel would respond forcefully.
There is much talk, lately, of “red lines” in the Syria crisis. Israel, in effect, must guess what are Assad’s limits of tolerance. Israeli officials are adamant that their country is not aiming at destabilizing the Syrian regime. But Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has hinted that further actions remain possible.
While it is unclear if the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis understands that years of impunity regarding arms shipments have come to an end, there are also lessons from the Israeli Air Force attacks that can affect Israel’s relations with the United States.
The region assumes that raids by the IAD were coordinated with the Obama Administration — in part to dispel criticism that President Obama has done nothing to punish Assad, even though the Obama “red line” was violated when chemical weapons were used against rebels and civilians in Syria.
Still, the gambit is highly risky. Israel’s successful air operations, after all, undermine Administration arguments regarding the sophistication of Syrian air defenses. U.S. officials repeatedly say, “Syria wouldn’t be as easy as Libya was,” hinting at their concern that U.S. or NATO planes trying to carry out missions in Syrian air space might be shot down.
If Israel’s pilots could penetrate into Syria, surely the United States Air Force or NATO would be capable of enforcing a non-fly zone. Grounding Assad’s warplanes and helicopter would, at least, reduce the bloodshed inside his suffering country.
May 11, 2013
Israel’s former Mossad chief is now practically confirming a significant piece of Middle East “nuclear conflict” history that we revealed on this blog — and at Al-Monitor.com last November 7. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had the idea of provoking a possible attack by Iran, as an excuse for Israel to strike hard at nuclear facilities in Iran.
Meir Dagan, who ended eight years as head of Israel’s secretive foreign intelligence agency at the end of 2010, was speaking (April 29) on Israeli television’s Channel 2 in an interview by Ilana Dayan on her “Uvda” (Fact) show.
Dagan, the former spymaster who last year had a medical emergency but then successful surgery in the former Soviet Union, is again actively speaking out — with the intention of restraining Prime Minister Netanyahu from ordering Israel’s military to attack Iran.
Last year, Dagan told the CBS News broadcast “60 Minutes” that the likely retaliation that would follow such an attack by Israel would ruin daily life in the Jewish state. In short, Dagan does not believe it would be worth it to attack Iran.
Now he has told Dayan on her TV show (in Hebrew) that there was a situation — when he was still the Mossad director — in which the political leaders of the country favored a military conflict, while those who would have to execute such orders were firmly against.
Meir Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012
Dagan was undoubtedly referring to the opposition expressed to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, by Dagan, the top military officer (Chief of the General Staff) Gabi Ashkenazi, and the head of domestic security (the agency known as Shin Bet), Yuval Diskin.
As Yossi Melman reported over 4 months ago:
“Netanyahu turned to the chief of staff, General Ashkenazi, and told him to ‘set the systems for P-plus,’ a term meaning to swiftly increase the preparedness of the military in case of a war with Iran. The measures to be taken in such a situation could include moving military units, strengthening intelligence capabilities and preparing the home front for a war. …
“The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.
“At that meeting and on other occasions, General Ashkenazi warned Netanyahu and Barak that such an order could ‘create uncontrollable facts on the ground’ which could ignite an undesired regional war. ‘If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music’ was the picturesque description from the chief of staff, who retired more than a year ago.”
Now, on Israeli TV, Meir Dagan has gone public with his account of how his country’s top political leaders — meaning Netanyahu and Barak — wanted to ready the “military and the entire systems, and then you may have a situation where you are on alert — and the other side sees it — and everybody is ready and preparing for war. A war which maybe nobody wants.”
While hinting that he saw the danger of an unwanted war at that time, Dagan has not publicly said what he advocates. It seems obvious that he would like robust covert action — including sabotage coordinated with the United States — to continue.
Dagan did repeat this week that he pledged, while leading the Mossad, that Iran would not create or acquire a nuclear weapons during his time as head of the spy agency. And Iran has not developed nuclear bombs. Dagan says publicly that Iran cannot make a nuclear weapon before 2014, meaning that there still is time to slow down the Iranians — or for American military action to destroy Iranian facilities far more thoroughly than could Israel.
May 1, 2013
[The following is Yossi Melman's personal opinion, as he watched Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies in Israel on Sunday evening and Monday.]
My true feelings on the eve of our Holocaust Remembrance Day are of shame. Israeli governments and some corporations (such as Bank Leumi, which for many years withheld the funds of people who perished and refused to release the money to their relatives) are so hypocritical. They praise the bravery of the World War Two Partisans and the Warsaw Ghetto fighters — now saluting the 70th anniversary of the uprising in Poland against Nazi occupiers — and promise never to forget. The phrase, “Never again!” repeatedly rings in our ears.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, seen on Israel’s Channel 2, at Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) ceremony at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
The Chief of the General Staff — himself a son of Holocaust survivors — is leading the March of the Living in Poland, with its show of mass defiance at the gates of Auschwitz.
But there are still 180,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel. One-third of them live in poverty. Thousands of them are in despicable conditions. The bureaucratic machinery is doing everything to deny them the very little to which they are entitled: financial support, housing subsidies, medication, discounts on their utilities, and so on.
Israeli governments, leftist and rightist, consistently promised in the last two decades — promised? swore! — to improve the situation of the Holocaust survivors and to reform a system which essentially was wicked. But it turned out that very little was done.
April 6, 2013
It’s likely that the Mossad told ASIO — the Australian Security Intelligence Organization — what Ben Zygier allegedly did to endanger Israeli security. Zygier committed suicide in a high-security Israeli prison cell in December 2010. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he moved to Israel and reportedly became an undercover Mossad operative.
In this interview with Australia’s ABC Television (the Lateline program today), Yossi Melman — co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and previous books including the best-seller Every Spy a Prince — said Israeli intelligence may have been in a mood to share more information with ASIO than usual, because in early 2010 there was uproar in Australia over the revelation that Mossad operatives on an assassination mission in Dubai had used Australian passports, among others.
March 6, 2013
By YOSSI MELMAN in Tel Aviv
On a sunny, humid afternoon in June 2010, I sat on the plaintiff’s bench in Judge Hila Gerstel’s court in Petach Tikva, a town about eight miles east of this bustling city.
Opposite my lawyer and me were representatives and legal advisors of Israel’s security establishment. My goal, on behalf of the newspaper I then worked for, Haaretz, was to persuade Judge Gerstel to lift a gag order.
We lost the case. Judge Gerstel refused to consider even a compromise – to allow us to reprint news items published abroad about a mysterious Prisoner X. Because of the judicial gag, the episode was not included in the book which I later co-authored.
Twenty months later, I wonder what would have happened had the judge given her consent? Would that have prevented Ben Zygier from committing suicide? He was the Australian who moved to Israel and, as Ben Alon, reportedly worked for the Mossad until he did something that enraged the Israeli foreign espionage agency. Perhaps a glimmer of media attention would have offered some hope to a man in solitary confinement whose very existence was a state secret.
The 6 Former Shin Bet Chiefs (from Dror Moreh’s Oscar-nominated film “The Gatekeepers”)
He was arrested in February 2010, almost certainly by officers of Shin Bet – the domestic security agency spotlighted now in the Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Gatekeepers.” Zygier/Alon was interrogated, was represented by four lawyers, appeared before judges, was visited by his wife and other family members, and was eventually indicted. In December 2010 he was found dead in his high-security cell, originally constructed to house Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin. Authorities decreed that the prisoner somehow hanged himself. Every move and stage of this case was conducted in secrecy.
We still don’t know the nature of his alleged crime. Did he betray fellow Mossad operatives – known as “combatants” — and compromise ongoing operations? Was he recruited by a foreign agency, perhaps an Arab entity or other enemy of Israel? Or, as Australian media now suggest, did he spill the beans to a basically friendly security service such as ASIO, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization?
Senior Israeli government officials, including current and former heads of the intelligence community, are saying: “Trust us. We don’t make any of our citizens simply disappear. The civil rights of suspects and prisoners are respected. But telling you anything about them would do severe harm to the security of the Jewish State.”
Yet the secrecy culture is clearly exaggerated and habitual, tarnishing my country’s image as a society based on freedom – boasting proudly that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East.
The deafening silence of the authorities about Zygier and his death for nearly two years, until they were forced by an Australian TV documentary to open the information portal slightly, made Israel look like a dark nation whose citizens can simply vanish from the face of the earth, as happens under tyrannical regimes. And we are not one of those.
In 2006, Amos Manor, who headed Shin Bet for 11 years beginning in 1953, told me that since the War of Independence in 1948, no Israeli prisoner suspected of security offenses had been executed in Israel. None, he said, had even been detained for long without trial.
Yet since the 1950′s Israel did operate an X Files system. When members of the Mossad or other security agencies and institutions were suspected of betraying Israel, they were typically held in solitary confinement under assumed names and isolated from the outside world. The media were banned from reporting about the arrests, word of which generally leaked to journalists in this small and intimately talkative land.
The prisoners’ interrogators threatened them that if they failed to follow these guidelines, they would be deprived of various rights, such as family visits.
The last known case of this disturbing practice was that of Professor Marcus Klingberg, the deputy scientific director of the top-secret Israel Institute for Biological Research. He was arrested in 1983 and convicted of spying for the Soviet Union. He had to play along with using a false name in prison and was known to his jailers as Greenberg.
Gossip about some of these cases naturally reached foreign correspondents, and the result was that readers around the world knew about some occurrences in Israel – often drawn in harshly negative tones – even while gag orders prevented Israelis from reading or hearing reports that were freely available abroad.
The age of the internet has made a mockery of the practice, as Israelis can click and read foreign websites. Yet judges and security agencies here cling to the old days when they thought they could control everything.
The ties that bind the intelligence community, the defense establishment, and law-enforcement authorities including the courts are too tight and too cozy. Espionage agencies that are rated among the world’s finest show only a Neanderthal knowledge of how information reaches the public in a high-tech era.
The Mossad and its sophisticated combatants display daring and courage behind enemy lines, and they know how to gather information. In the pre- and post-internet age, they have been very good at waging psychological warfare involving the dissemination of disinformation and rumors.
Yet the Mossad is less capable of handling crises involving the mass media. Attempting to conceal facts only serves to stimulate interest and draw even more attention. By treating every bit of information as a national secret, the Mossad and the other state security institutions have caused the number of secrets to multiply. And trying to protect all of these secrets has made it difficult for any secret to remain intact, including ones that really deserve to be.
Here is one example to prove the point. Victor Ostrovsky, a Mossad cadet who was ousted, wrote a book aggrandizing his own role and supposedly revealing Mossad secrets. He should never have been recruited by the secretive agency in the first place, since he had been a known swindler who was caught in a fraud scam. The Israeli government foolishly tried to block publication of Ostrovsky’s book in the United States, which naturally resulted in its becoming a global best seller in 1990.
The Mossad’s handling of the Zygier/Alon affair is reminiscent of what was said about French royalists more than two centuries ago: They forget nothing, yet they learn nothing.
As effective as Israel’s covert combatants have been, their chiefs repeatedly display a we-know-best attitude that crosses the border into harmful arrogance. The Mossad’s shiny image has been tarnished by this episode – with the agency seen to be desperately scurrying to close the barn door after the horse has bolted, perhaps because there are other embarrassing steeds and stories still tightly held.
Damage may also have been to ongoing operations. Iran and other enemies of Israel surely now are double- and triple-checking any contacts they had with Australian-accented men who resemble the published photographs of Zygier/Alon.
February 24, 2013
There’s a hunger strike declared by thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons, partially prompted by the death of one prisoner in suspicious circumstances. Coupling that with an upsurge in protests in many parts of the West Bank, it appears that Palestinian activists want some attention from Barack Obama.
America’s leader will be making his first visit to Israel as President, around March 22. Officials say the subjects will be how best to confront Iran’s nuclear program and how to re-start peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Obama does plan a visit to the PA’s headquarters in Ramallah, which is in the West Bank just a few minutes’ drive north of Jerusalem.
Obama will be accompanied by his new Secretary of State, former senator John Kerry. Will they make a major push for Israeli talks with Palestinians? Will that be, in part, a response to unrest in Egypt and other Arab countries and — worst of all — a civil war in Syria which is said to have killed 70,000 people?
Below is an op-ed article we wrote for The New York Times last November, and we see the possibility that the wider strategic goals for the Obama Administration can still be pursued.
FOUR years ago, when Israel invaded Gaza and around 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed — the very model of a pointless war — Washington did nothing to offer a creative or positive path to the combatants. George W. Bush was the lamest of lame ducks, and although Barack Obama, after he was inaugurated, vowed to push for Middle East peace, he was too distracted by America’s domestic problems.
Now, strengthened by his re-election, Mr. Obama should work intensively to create a pro-peace, pro-stability coalition in the region.
He needs to put three key leaders to the test: President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
Egypt and Turkey have been trying, with Qatar, to fashion a halt to the bloodshed between Hamas and Israel. Yet a cease-fire in Gaza is only a first step.
America must now demand more of Mr. Morsi. In recognition of the billions of dollars America gives to a country now starved of tourism income, the Egyptian leader must be required to help the United States achieve its interests in the Middle East. Mr. Obama should be prepared to threaten a sharp reduction in foreign aid, unless Mr. Morsi uses his Muslim Brotherhood credentials in a positive way. The United States should not watch passively if Mr. Morsi positions himself as a great friend of the rocket-launching regime in Gaza.
That is what he did in the first days of the crisis, apparently considering it necessary to mouth stale rhetoric by condemning Israeli aggression and encouraging dreams of liberating Palestinians from Jewish control. Those are not the most helpful of words, but the test for Mr. Morsi is what he actually does during and after this crisis. He should be compelled to talk some sense into Hamas, so that the rockets stop and civilians on both sides can enjoy quiet and safety — and not only for a few months.
If Egypt truly wants to retain its role as the leading nation in the Arab world, Mr. Morsi will have to earn it. He has to honor his country’s peace treaty with Israel and crack down on terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula. He also should act strongly to stop the smuggling of weapons into Gaza, including Iranian missiles that are shipped to Sudan and then trucked through Egypt and Sinai.
Fortunately, Egypt’s army would welcome a diplomatic, rather than bellicose, course. The military, which has a huge role in the country’s economy and ultimately guarantees a government’s ability to stay in power, wants to avoid a return to the pre-1978 days of hostility and frequent wars with Israel. Mr. Morsi, already walking a tightrope between volatile factions, would do well to please the generals and avoid fanning flames that could erupt into regional conflict.
If Mr. Morsi exerts himself, he can help bring Palestinians to the negotiating table with Israel — at least the Fatah faction led by Mahmoud Abbas, with Hamas perhaps opting for only a tacit role.
This is Egypt’s chance to impress the United States. Mr. Morsi does not need to govern his country the way the American-sponsored Hosni Mubarak used to. But working with Washington should be stressed as the only certain path to regional leadership for Egypt. The United States should insist that Mr. Morsi become the core of an active and creative coalition that promotes peace.
Turkey should also be part of that, and President Obama can easily let Mr. Erdogan claim the leading role he obviously wants in the region.
America can stand firmly behind any Turkish initiative to promote moderation and nonviolence. One obstacle is Mr. Erdogan’s decision to distance his country from Israel — most recently calling it a “terrorist state” — after a long period of warm military and political ties. Now Mr. Obama should strongly encourage Turkey to mend relations with Israel, so that the two countries can covertly and overtly help each other keep wary eyes on Iran, Syria and other shared concerns.
A coalition promoting stability that includes Egypt and Turkey would also be a potent way to dent Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. The United States and Israel share that aim, and so do the oil-exporting kingdoms of the Persian Gulf. They are all concerned that Iran’s uranium enrichment will lead to a nuclear weapon.
That is the key to winning Mr. Netanyahu’s cooperation with a new pro-peace coalition. He will not easily agree to concessions like a new freeze on building Jewish housing in the West Bank, and there is hardly any chance of his displaying flexibility until after his expected re-election on Jan. 22.
Yet very soon after Israelis vote, Mr. Obama — having demonstrated his support during the Gaza crisis — should begin a major effort to bring Israel on board for peace negotiations.
Iran could be the trump card. The president must convince Mr. Netanyahu that the best way to ensure American support for Israel in slowing, sabotaging or destroying Iran’s nuclear program is to genuinely take part in a broad American-sponsored effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent in Washington, and Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, are the authors of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.
February 24, 2013
On Wednesday morning, Israeli authorities eased — but did not entirely lift — their ban on any discussion in the Israeli news media of a Mossad secret operative who hanged himself in an Israeli prison.
Ben Zygier/Allon (from Australia’s ABC)
On Wednesday night, the Ministry of Justice in Jerusalem issued a statement confirming that an Israeli-Australian dual citizen had been imprisoned and in 2010 was found dead in his cell. It said the man’s family had been informed after he was arrested. Only recently officials (without any public announcement) reached a conclusion that he committed suicide by hanging, but investigations continue into any failures, abuse, or wrongdoing by prison officials.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Foreign Correspondent” series had a half-hour report this week on the mysterious life and death of the man, born as Ben Zygier to a prominent Jewish family in Melbourne, Australia, who was known in Israel as Ben Alon.
On Wednesday morning, Israel Radio’s Keren Neubach phoned Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, seeking his analysis. Melman explained that two years ago, when he was working for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he and the paper tried to publish an item — giving some partial details about a “Prisoner X” held secretly in an Israeli prison — based entirely on something that had appeared in a British newspaper.
Usually Israel’s military censor permits repetition of claims and information that have appeared in foreign publications, but — citing a gag order issued by an Israeli judge — the authorities did not allow Melman or the newspaper to say anything about Prisoner X.
Melman said on the radio that in the age of the internet and social networking — when any Israeli can go on the Web and read or watch what Australian TV revealed about Prisoner X and his suicide in 2010 — there is no point in banning any word of it in the Israeli news media.
Melman added, however, that the State of Israel does not “disappear” people. If someone is charged with a crime, however serious, that person is brought before a judge, a state prosecutor draws up charges, the person’s family is informed, and a legal verdict is reached by a court. In many cases touching upon the security and intelligence agencies, every step is however “behind closed doors.”
The Associated Press notes that the most recent case of a person vanishing — apparently through the action of Israel’s espionage agency Mossad and/or security agency Shin Bet — was that of an Arab who was last seen on a train in Ukraine. Dirar Abu Sisi was later confirmed to be in custody in Israel, where he faces charges of being the director of Hamas’s rocket attacks against Israel.
February 13, 2013
At CBSnews.com Dan Raviv — one of the authors of Spies Against Armageddon and host of the CBS News Weekend Roundup on national radio — considers Middle East options for President Obama. Here is an excerpt:
Confronted with this set of new facts — and a host of older facts, such as Iran’s nuclear program, which Mr. Obama has warned must not produce nuclear weapons — the American president could choose to be highly active, or to stand back for a while and let the Middle East simmer.
The problem is that the Mideast, left practically unwatched to simmer, tends to boil over.
So far, because the United States is so pleased that Morsi mediated successfully between Israel and Hamas, Washington is giving Morsi a fairly easy time. In the first Obama Administration comment on the apparent power grab in Cairo, the State Department meekly said that it raises “concerns” because “the revolution” was supposed to mean that no one man will ever again wield too much authority in Egypt.
But, beyond that, the U.S. only urged that everyone keep calm — and perhaps move toward writing a constitution that would protect the civil rights of Egyptians.
President Obama may decide to be more ambitious in the Middle East, but at the least he will probably wait until after the Israeli election on January 22 before launching any major initiative. He had a special envoy for peace in the Middle East for a few years, former Sen. George Mitchell, but Mitchell quit after finding that he could not make much headway in keeping Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table.
In the Gaza talks, however, Mr. Obama demonstrated the unique role of the U.S. by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to push the talk forward in Jerusalem, Ramallah (in the West Bank), and Cairo. She was able to preside over the announcement of a cease-fire on Wednesday in the Egyptian capital, where she spoke of a need “to consolidate the progress” and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
As well as trying to help Israeli and Palestinians negotiate — defying strong skepticism on all sides — Mr. Obama could pursue a wider goal of creating a pro-peace, pro-stability coalition in the Middle East.
For the rest of the article, see: http://cbsn.ws/V4OymG or click here.
November 23, 2012
Even as shots are fired between Israel and its neighbors on two fronts, there is also buzz about Yossi Melman’s report that an order issued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have led to escalation — even war — with Iran.
Melman (see below), co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, explained what it was that practically disgusted the military chief of staff and the head of the Mossad, at the time that the order was given in 2010 to raise the level of readiness for imminent war.
Paul Pillar, at http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/netanyahus-game-the-two-gulfs-7721 , discusses the issue based on Melman’s revelations.
Israel’s intelligence agencies and military are now monitoring events in Syria, not far from Israeli towns and positions on the Golan Heights. Israel launched a missile into Syria, as a warning shot after reporting that a Syrian army shell — probably aimed at rebels — exploded on the Israeli side. In Gaza, some groups — though not necessarily the Hamas-led government there — fired rockets into Israel; and Israeli retaliation was severe, killing and wounding Palestinians.
With the Israeli election set for January 22, the background environment is anything but calm.
November 12, 2012
While global media picked up on an intriguing element of a TV documentary in Israel — the apparent refusal of the military and intelligence chiefs to carry out a mobilization in 2010 that appeared to mean preparation for attacking Iran — a subtle but important feature of those events remained buried.
Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon, reveals what the true intention was — at least as seen by the military and Mossad leaders who said “no” and, frankly, were shocked. Here is Melman’s article, appearing at the Middle East news and analysis website Al-Monitor.com.
TEL AVIV — Sometime in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with their top five cabinet ministers for a routine yet secret meeting to discuss pressing security and foreign-policy issues. The group, which has no legal status and does not have the authority to make decisions, is known as the “Secret Seven,” inspired by the “Secret Seven” series of adventure novels for children by the British author Enid Blyton.
Also present at that meeting (the date of which Israeli censors do not allow to be specified) were Israel’s security chiefs, including then-Mossad director Meir Dagan, Chief of the General Staff Major-General Gabi Ashkenazi and a few others.
Minutes before that meeting ended, Netanyahu turned to the chief of staff, General Ashkenazi, and told him to “set the systems for P-plus,” a term meaning to swiftly increase the preparedness of the military in case of a war with Iran. The measures to be taken in such a situation could include moving military units, strengthening intelligence capabilities and preparing the home front for a war.
The 2010 incident was reported earlier this week in the opening of a new season of “Uvda” (“fact” in Hebrew), a flagship program of Channel 2, Israel’s largest commercial and privately owned TV station.
The story hit Israeli headlines and reverberated in major Middle Eastern and Western media outlets. The prime minister’s words two years ago are now interpreted by the Israeli and international media as an order for the military to begin the countdown to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But the truth of what happened, which went farther than that particular meeting involving Netanyahu, Barak and their top military and security echelon, is much more complex and intriguing than the way it was broadcast and understood.
The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.
At that meeting and on other occasions, General Ashkenazi warned Netanyahu and Barak that such an order could “create uncontrollable facts on the ground” which could ignite an undesired regional war. ”If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music” was the picturesque description from the chief of staff, who retired more than a year ago.
Ashkenazi’s concerns were echoed at the time by Mossad director Dagan, who at present is fighting for his life at an Israeli hospital after a liver transplant four weeks ago.
Before his illness, Dagan, who retired from his office nearly two years ago, talked in private on numerous occasionns about Netanyahu and Barak’s intentions against Iran. He revealed that he witnessed several incidents in which Netanyahu, who became prime minister in 2009 and is seeking reelection in January 2013, conspired with Barak to take measures which could have led to miscalculations by Iran.
One such scary scenario was the possibility that Iranian intelligence could have noticed the Israeli military preparations and decided to stage a pre-emptive strike against Israel or US targets in the region. Israel, in such a situation, would have claimed that it was a victim of Iranian aggression and retaliated. America, too, could have found itself caught up in an unpredictable circle of violence.
Sources who were privy to the secret deliberations told me that Ashkenazi and Dagan eventually managed to convince the security cabinet and then the full cabinet, which are the only authorized bodies to decide on war and other vital issues, that Netanyahu and Barak were playing with fire and may not only ignite a regional war in the Middle East, but also ruin decades of close, intimate strategic cooperation with the US.
Since then, bad blood has overtaken the relations between Netanyahu and Barak on one hand and Ashkenazi, Dagan and Yuval Diskin, the former chief of the domestic security service Shin Bet, on the other. A few months ago, Diskin described Netanyahu and Barak as being “motivated” by a “messianic” drive. Barak in return accused his critics of attempting a military “putsch” — the disobedience of generals of legitimate elected officials — and hinted that they deliberately did not prepare the military for the mission.
For the time being, the danger of war with Iran has diminished. Israel is preoccupied with its national election on January 22. The Iranian issue is no longer high on the Israeli political agenda. Opinion polls indicate that Barak, who is leading a small party, may not be reelected. Netanyahu himself, in his speech last September in the UN General Assembly, set spring, or at the latest, summer 2013, as a new deadline to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.
The results of the US elections will also have a tremendous effect on the future Israeli deliberations and decision regarding Iran.
If Netanyahu is reelected — and he has a fairly good chance, though it’s premature to predict — he will get right back to beating the war drums. He is obsessed with Iran’s nuclear program. He has time and again likened Iran’s policies to German Nazi hatred of the Jews. He seems to feel certain that if Iran produces nuclear weapons, they will be used to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.
Netanyahu reiterated this week in interviews that if he is re-elected, he will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. He refused to be more specific about how he would achieve that. But with the re-election of President Obama, and the likely re-election of Netanyahu, what to do about Iran, and the consequences of such action, will be at the very top of the national-security agendas of both Israel and the United States in 2013.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli commentator on security and intelligence affairs and the co-author with CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.
Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/israel-secret-seven.html#ixzz2BZ78P0AZ
November 7, 2012
by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman
One of the most important debates on the world scene has gone silent. For more than a year, commentators and politicians worldwide had been discussing: How can Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program be stopped, and should Israel be stopped from bombing Iran?
The power of election scheduling is hugely impressive. In both the United States and Israel, political considerations have dwarfed what seemed until recently the most urgent, pressing strategic questions on Earth.
With Americans voting November 6, and Israelis having their national election on January 22, the debate is mute.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in recent years has been an enthusiastic saber-rattler, does not see any advantage in thundering about Iran’s nuclear program right now. His most recent big statement came at the United Nations in New York in late September, when he held a cartoonish diagram of Iran’s bomb-making progress but truly illustrated a time line that seems to delay any military action until mid-2013.
However, if Netanyahu finds that his opponents start bashing him over failures – or harsh realities – in the providing the social and economic needs of Israelis, the prime minister may well wish to change the subject. To portray himself as the only true tough guy in town, he would probably start beating the war drums again. That could occur anytime before January 22.
The defense minister in his lame duck cabinet, Ehud Barak, is leading his own small political party and has changed his tone on Iran. Barak is more obvious now in his reluctance to see Israeli warplanes and missiles strike Iran, but in truth Barak will say almost anything for political advantage — so one does not know what he would do, in the remotely possible scenario that he might return to the post of defense minister.
One man who might have kept the Iran debate alive is Meir Dagan. After serving as Mossad director from 2002 to 2010 and re-directing the priorities of Israel’s foreign espionage agency – featuring secret, daring sabotage and assassination missions inside Iran — Dagan became surprisingly vocal on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program.
In December 2010, just before his departure from the Mossad, Dagan invited Yossi Melman and a few other Israeli journalists for an unprecedented briefing at the agency’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv. The spy chief claimed credit for delaying the Iranians’ work on uranium enrichment and bomb development. And Dagan clearly spoke out against the military option, quite specifically against plans being laid by Netanyahu and Barak.
Within months, Dagan was speaking more frequently about how “stupid” it would be for Israel to launch air force sorties and missiles at Iran. In 2012, he was interviewed in English on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and warned that Iranian retaliation would make daily life unbearable in Israel. Dagan said Iran’s leaders are “rational,” in a way, suggesting that they could be persuaded to halt their nuclear work.
The implicit message also was that more covert action could continue to be effective: anything from assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists (actions which our book Spies Against Armageddon clearly ascribes to the Mossad) to cyberwarfare such as the Stuxnet worm which damaged computer-controlled uranium centrifuges in Iran. (Our book reported that the cyberwarfare, probably including more computer viruses, was and is a joint U.S.-Israel project.)
Dagan, as luck would have it, has been diagnosed with liver cancer. According to people close to him, he sought diagnosis and possible treatment at the Sloane Kettering cancer center in New York City. Apparently a liver transplant was recommended, but no donor was available. He found the same dead end in Germany and in India.
In Israel, where naturally a former chief of the Mossad would have some VIP priority (as much as anyone might), no donor was available. Medical policies in Israel discourage liver transplants for any patient older than 65, because senior citizens are not generally likely to benefit — or survive — for long after a transplant. Dagan is 67 years old.
An appropriate donor (meaning a “match” who had very recently died) was located in Belarus. Dagan flew to that former Soviet republic, without any public announcement, for the liver transplant. For some reason, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko, considered to be Europe’s last dictator, decided last month to reveal that the former Mossad chief was in that country recovering from a transplant.
Sources in Israel said Dagan was “struggling for his life,” and indeed liver cancer is almost always extremely serious and recovery from a liver transplant uncertain. Dagan has returned to Israel and is hospitalized in a medical center with guards and almost no publicity.
People close to him continue to be very worried. Four weeks after the surgery, they say he is not showing good signs of recovery. They describe his condition as “stable” but add that he still battling to survive.
He might have been a powerful voice, during an Israeli election campaign when fateful decisions demand to be discussed. Although not running for parliament, he would have spoken out against the notion of Israel bombing Iran, Meir Dagan is, however, unavailable.
Behind the scenes, Israel’s military and intelligence agencies are surely preparing for all possibilities — for any orders that any Israeli prime minister might issue to them.
We know this is a perennial statement, but here goes: Something big has to happen in 2013, in one direction or another. Either Iran will give in to the sanctions and military threats and suspend its uranium enrichment, or the United States – whether under Barack Obama or Mitt Romney – will exercise its military might.
Those are the two possibilities most mentioned by Israelis, but they know that Israel may conclude in 2013 that it has to go it alone and do what it can to damage Iran’s nuclear program.
November 4, 2012
Netanyahu Needs His Own Etch-a-Sketch – by Dan Raviv
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given in to the temptation he has felt all this year — to shatter the gridlock in his sprawling, multi-party cabinet by calling an early election for Jan. 22. If he can win a bigger majority in the Knesset, he can handpick more of his own ministers.
That election date comes about four months before Netanyahu’s deadline for a fateful decision on how to stop Iran’s steadily advancing uranium enrichment — the “red line” he drew with a magic marker at the United Nations in New York two weeks ago.
The prime minister is hoping that voters in his country will give him a renewed and stronger mandate to deal with Iran and to deal with the United States: forcefully with the former, and perhaps using more genteel diplomacy with the latter.
Israelis increasingly realize that they need the support, and perhaps even the participation, of the American military to make any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities truly effective. The timeline unveiled by Netanyahu at the UN suggested that by the spring or summer of 2013, Iran will reach a key stage, enriching enough uranium to make a quick and secretive dash toward building nuclear bombs.
The prime minister, who is strongly favored to win a fresh mandate, needs to be ready to engineer American support in the Iran crisis — whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the White House starting Jan. 20.
If it is Romney who wins, Israeli politicians are fairly confident that they will have an avowed friend in the Oval Office: someone who suggests that whatever Israel decides to do to defend itself is fine with him. Strategists in Israel have cautioned, however, that a new president often is unable in his first year to get the immense military and bureaucracy of the United States to do anything hugely dramatic. As some of them put it: Romney is very friendly, but he might not come through.
If Obama is re-elected, Netanyahu faces a subtler task. He plainly does not get along well with Obama on a personal basis, but what really counts is their political friction. That is what makes many Israelis nervous. They have been highly attuned, since the start of a tight strategic relationship with the United States in the early 1970s, to the level of support they feel from Washington. Israeli politicians who let hostility with Washington fester do so at their own political peril.
The Israeli leader, especially if he and Obama both win new four-year terms, will need what a Romney aide once called an Etch-a-Sketch: a device that he can shake and thus forget about all that was said and done beforehand. Netanyahu needs to erase the battle lines with the White House, starkly drawn since 2009 by both him and Obama — even as their official spokespeople almost always deny the dissonance.
At the start of their feud four years ago, the new American president was visiting Cairo and reaching out to offer talks with Tehran. That was Obama’s way of pushing for a new approach to the Middle East, one that did not seem so heavily tilted toward Israeli government policies as George W. Bush’s had been. The Nobel Prize committee plainly loved the change, and Obama won the world’s most prominent peace prize.
Netanyahu, however, felt that he had to protect his view of Israel’s security. He was reluctant to freeze housing construction for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and was adamantly opposed to any restrictions in east Jerusalem.
The prime minister practically lectured the president in public, as they sat side by side in the Oval Office. Netanyahu was out to impress Israeli voters and his somewhat fragile coalition back home. He seemed less concerned about the ill will growing in parts of the Obama administration. The Israeli leader was certainly encouraged by standing ovations when he addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington.
For the sake of U.S.-Israel relations, he should find a way to shake things up in a positive way. He might find gestures that he can make to the Palestinian Authority, giving American diplomacy an opening to try to restart peace negotiations that have withered to nothingness. There are many reasons for any occupant of the White House to want to appear as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
Netanyahu may instead choose to return to saber rattling toward Iran, trying to reap some of the benefits he believes he achieved in the past year or so of threatening war. He did indeed have a hand in persuading the United States and Europe to make economic sanctions against Iran even harsher. Israel, in the past decade, has succeeded in focusing much of the world’s attention on the dangers of Iran developing nuclear weapons. This is one of the accomplishments likely to help him win votes in January.
Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, is co-author (with Yossi Melman) of “Every Spy a Prince” and a new history of Israeli espionage and security, “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” He blogs at IsraelSpy.com
October 24, 2012
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu announced that he will call early elections – “as quickly as possible” – way ahead of the scheduled end of the current parliamentary term in October 2013. Israeli political commentators believe that the parliament, the Knesset, will dissolve itself as elections are set for sometime in January.
On TV and radio, the official reason given by Netanyahu was the failure of his coalition to agree on a national budget. Our recent article in Newsday (the daily newspaper based on Long Island, New York) suggested that he wants to solidify his majority – so that he can claim the mandate to make fateful decisions, such as perhaps attacking Iran to disrupt or stop its nuclear program.
The URL for the article, which appeared in Sunday’s newspaper, is: http://www.newsday.com/opinion/oped/opinion-is-israel-still-bluffing-about-attacking-iran-1.4078992
Here is the text of the article:
Opinion: Is Israel still bluffing about attacking Iran?
By YOSSI MELMAN AND DAN RAVIV
When Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used a red marker to draw a line at the United Nations in New York recently, the world thought it was seeing a warning of possible war against Iran — if that country enriches uranium beyond that red level to weapons-grade.
Now that the prime minister has returned home, it turns out that his message was also part of Israel’s domestic politics. Netanyahu is almost certainly going to reap the dividends of his carefully worded, expertly delivered speech by calling early parliamentary elections. Political sources expect that this coming February, he will consolidate his ruling coalition and win a fresh four-year mandate — just in time for fateful decisions concerning Iran and relations with the United States.
In some ways, his UN speech and his controversial use of a cartoon bomb to represent Iran’s nuclear program can be seen as a white flag of surrender. His new timetable suggests Iran will amass enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb by spring or summer of 2013, and that is a tacit confirmation that he has been bluffing.
The leader, nicknamed Bibi, and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, were thundering for years that they might have to attack Iran at any moment — because soon it would be too late. Many world leaders believed them and prepared for the worst-case scenario. The French embassy in Tel Aviv, for example, prepared a contingency plan to evacuate tens of thousands of French-Israeli citizens this past summer in case of a war. We found ourselves among a very small group of analysts who tried to explain that the B&B duo — Bibi and Barak — were bluffing and had no intention of ordering the Israeli air force to bomb Iran; certainly not this year.
Netanyahu’s new timetable is a tacit surrender to the Obama administration’s view that no military strike is necessary right now. B&B thus revealed that they were merely rattling sabers, with no intention of using them against Iran.
They might feel compelled to engage in some more bluffing in 2013, but the expected election campaign in Israel has already injected a measure of discord between Netanyahu and Barak, who leads his own small political party. Barak clings to the slim chance of winning a substantial number of seats in the Knesset.
Yet the big winner in the voting is far more likely to be Netanyahu, leader of the Likud Party. His warnings of war have frightened many Israelis, but one result is that more of them will vote for an apparently strong leader at a time of unprecedented insecurity.
As for delaying any likelihood of a military strike against Iran for another two or three seasons, some of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers are highlighting their optimistic view that “Tahrir Square-type” protests are starting to break out in Iranian cities. Perhaps there is some validity in their hope that Iran’s government will feel extremely hard-pressed to have damaging sanctions lifted, so it will make a deal to freeze or reverse its nuclear work.
Israel’s “red line,” where the risk of triggering a regional war might be deemed necessary, was clarified by the prime minister’s speech. Saying that he was relying on published reports by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Netanyahu said that if the Iranians continue with their steady pace of uranium enrichment, then within six to eight months they will have 250 kilograms of 20 percent, or “medium-enriched,” uranium. If this amount is further strengthened to 93 percent, it will yield enough highly enriched material for one nuclear bomb.
At least it is clear, now, that Israel is insisting that Iran be stopped before it produces 250 kilograms of the medium-enriched uranium. Netanyahu noted the American position that intelligence agencies would be able to detect a quick rush by Iran to high enrichment and assembling a bomb. Yet the Israeli leader suggested it would be too dangerous to rely on spies to give sufficient warning.
Friction with the Obama administration thus persists. The American president has devoted as much energy to restraining Israel as he has to stopping the Iranians. Relations with Washington may also suffer because of the widespread perception that Netanyahu would prefer that his old friend Mitt Romney win the White House.
Yet as long as Obama is determined that Iran not become a nuclear power, he and Netanyahu will probably find that they can get more done by working together. The United States and Israel have already cooperated — more than ever, according to officials on both sides — in covert projects aimed at slowing Iran’s nuclear progress. Sources told us that the Stuxnet computer virus, which caused havoc in one Iranian enrichment facility, was a product of such secret cooperation.
The Israeli prime minister can point to even broader benefits from his saber rattling. The world is paying far more attention to Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran may again be attempted, and Netanyahu will be pleased if harsh sanctions hurting the Iranian economy are further tightened.
In 2013, we expect that Netanyahu will deploy his Cicero-like rhetorical talents to keep suggesting that war is inevitable — a sequel to the B&B bluff. He appears to hope that the United States and other countries will be convinced that if Israel is about to attack Iran, they might as well join in to make a more effective job of it.
If Netanyahu does win the election he is now expected to call this winter, there are more impacts for the Middle East. Barack Obama, if he is re-elected, may be tempted to relaunch American efforts aimed at Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mitt Romney indicated, elsewhere in the surreptitiously recorded “47 percent” talk, that he feels little or no hope for progress on that front. Either way, a politically strengthened Netanyahu would be in no mood to bow to American pleas for concessions. He would continue to point to Iran as the top priority; and, along with the dangerous unknowns of pro-democracy upheavals in the Arab world, he would reject taking risks by rushing toward a rickety agreement with the Palestinians.
What’s the true Netanyahu plan for dealing with Iran? Sabotage and covert action apparently continue. Sanctions may trigger unrest inside Iran. And, it is and has always been Israel’s hope that the United States will be the one to lead a military strike, if necessary, to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program.
Yossi Melman, a Tel Aviv-based journalist and analyst specializing in intelligence, and Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent in Washington, are co-authors of “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” They blog at IsraelSpy.com.
October 9, 2012
Spies Against Armageddon details a highly unusual and complicated plot by Israel to enter Iraq
Saddam Hussein, later overthrown by the Americans and hanged
and assassinate Iraq’s then-president Saddam Hussein. He was considered a dangerous foe, and he had attacked the Jewish state with missiles that terrified Israelis — at the same time that an American-led coalition was pushing Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991.
Here is an excerpt from our Chapter 22, “Assassins,” which also has a lot of information about assassination missions conducted by Kidon (Bayonet), the ultra-special operations unit within the Mossad:
As the Gulf War was raging in early 1991, Saddam Hussein showered the Jewish state with 39 Scud missiles. Israeli leaders refrained from retaliating, because of restrictions imposed by the George H.W. Bush administration, and they felt humiliated. They believed that they somehow had to strike back – not simply for the sake of face-saving but to restore deterrence, always a key part of Israeli defense.
IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, a lover of special operations, concocted yet another plan that was truly unprecedented: a plot to assassinate the leader of a foreign country. The target would be Saddam, and the plan would involve Israeli soldiers penetrating deep into Iraq. Barak brought the idea to Defense Minister Moshe Arens. They were both very frustrated by America’s handcuffing of Israel. Arens okayed the preparations.
Israel, except for one case, had never before considered killing the leader of a country. The exception was Egypt’s Nasser.
As a general rule, Israel’s own leaders concluded long ago that if they started down the path of targeting the leaders of states, it would change the rules of the game. The Middle East conflict would be even uglier, and the tactic could backfire.
Therefore, heads of state were out of bounds – even during the heyday of extreme hatred and state-sponsored terrorism.
This deviation, trying to eliminate Iraq’s dictator, was justified by the notion that he had violated two taboos: His missile strikes tried to hit Dimona; and he had targeted the largest of civilian targets, Tel Aviv, the icon of modern Israel.
Still, there was a great deal of hesitation on the Israeli side. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had replaced Shamir and now also held the defense ministry portfolio, was reluctant.
Rabin found support in his skepticism from the Mossad chief, Shabtai Shavit, who succeeded Nahum Admoni in 1989. Rabin and Shavit concluded that it would be nearly impossible to get close to Saddam for a short-range hit by Kidon teams. They also knew that the Iraqi dictator rarely went out in public and often sent out body doubles instead.
Rabin gave Barak a green light only to practice the plan being developed, but without promising an okay for its final execution.
The plan, codenamed “Bramble Bush,” called for finding a day that President Saddam would be making a public appearance outdoors. Mossad and Aman collection units – which had the use of Israel’s first reconnaissance satellite – worked hard to keep track of Saddam’s schedule and movements.
Iraqi agents working for the Mossad provided the information that he would be attending a ceremony to inaugurate a new bridge over the Tigris River. The agents found a hotel that, while quite distant, would have a clear shot at the ceremony site.
A few Sayeret Matkal commandos were selected to be flown secretly into Iraq by helicopter, and agents would pick them up and drive them to that hotel. On a pre-chosen balcony, they would have a newly developed shoulder-fired missile dubbed “Beyond the Horizon.” Plans were made for alternate locations, as well.
On November 5, 1992, a year and a half after the Gulf War ended, the chosen commandos gathered at a large army training base in the Negev Desert for a dress rehearsal. In the audience sat the top brass of the Israeli military, including Barak, Aman chief Uri Saguy, and many intelligence officers.
Almost incredibly, considering their long track record of stunning successes, a fatal mix-up occurred. A missile that was supposed to be a harmless dummy, for what trainers called “a dry run,” was mistakenly the “wet run” missile. It exploded within a group of Sayeret Matkal soldiers, killing five of them.
The tragedy for Israel’s secretive commandos put an end to the plan titled Bramble Bush. Details started to leak out, as this accident was so major that censorship could not keep a lid on it. Non-Israeli newspapers reported that commandos died while planning to kill Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon. Within a few months, it became known that the intended target was Iraq’s Saddam.
Prime Minister Rabin had never given the green light for the assassination mission, and the idea was dropped. Israel, since then, has not gone after national leaders — not even Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who publicly advocated wiping Israel off the map.
October 2, 2012
This article by Yossi Melman (co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars) appeared first at the Al-Monitor website, that specializes in Middle East news and commentary that aims for an enlightening middle path.
Original URL: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/may-consider-to-initiate-a-preem.html
by Yossi Melman (in Tel Aviv)
A few days ago General Amir Ali Hajizadeh
, commander of the Air Force and Space wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, said in a TV interview that his country “would not open a war” but may consider initiating a “pre-emptive strike” if it is certain that the “enemy” plans to attack Iran.
Israeli officials and commentators rush to interpret the statement by concluding that it reflects another Iranian “threat” against the Jewish state and new “tension and escalation.”
But to my ears, the Iranian general’s words sound rational and reasonable. Any country has the right to self-defense, which is acknowledged by international law and the UN charter. This right justifies the country’s decision to pre-empt if it believes that its enemy is going to attack it. This is exactly what Israel did in June 1967, when it felt that the Egyptian army was preparing to invade it.
There are two truths in this war of words between Israel and Iran. One, unpleasant as it might be, has to be stated. It is Israel which is threatening Iran with a military strike. Israeli leaders and officials talk about it publicly, hint about it, leak it and brief journalists. Since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s prime minister, not a single week has passed without rough talk by him or his “Siamese twin” Defense Minister Ehud Barak or other Israeli cabinet ministers.
It is more plausible to assume that the Israeli statements have been part of psychological warfare rather a real military intention. They aim to create the impression that Israel will attack Iran in order to sow fear of war and motivate the international community, above all the US, to put in place more crippling sanctions against Iran to avoid a war.
There is also the possibility that the Israeli warmongering is intended to provoke Iran and make its leaders lose their nerve and pre-empt themselves. If such a scenario materializes, it will play into the hands of the Netanyahu-Barak thinking. They would be able to argue that Israel is the victim and Iran the aggressor, hoping that the United States will rush to help its ally.
No wonder Iran feels threatened. The Iranian sense of insecurity derives not only from the Israeli declarations, but is also fueled by deeds. Its scientists have been killed. Mysterious explosions damage its nuclear and missile sites. Equipment purchased abroad by its secret networks turn out to be flawed. Lethal viruses hit its computer systems. In Israel and the West, these actions are called “cyber warfare” or “the shadow war.” But in the Iranian vocabulary, these are acts of a real war conducted by Israel and the US.
There is also another truth. Iranian leaders use inflammatory language and do not conceal their desire to see Israel “wiped off” the world. When such statements come from religious zealots (accompanied sometimes by messianic hallucinations) seeking to obtain nuclear weapons, there is indeed room for concern. No wonder that for Israel, Iran is considered — and rightly so — a bitter enemy. But one should not sound hysterical because of the Iranian bravado and spread panic, as Premier Netanyahu has been doing.
Iran has to be judged and measured by its record, rather than only by words. And the Iranian record shows that its leaders behave so far rationally and know their rhetorical limitations. They hope and pray for the destruction of Israel, but stop short of saying in so many words that they would hasten that. And one should not forget that with all due respect to Iranian technological achievements in the military and nuclear fields, as well as the past glory of the Persian Empire, nowadays Iran is still a third-world, impoverished and corrupt society with a high degree of illiteracy. Such a society faces difficulties to produce an efficient and professional military. Iran is no match for either Israeli military power or, certainly, the US war machine.
The statements by Iranian leaders and military commanders are expressions of fear rather than self-confidence. Maybe for the first time in its 33 years in power since the creation of the theocracy, the Ayatollahs led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei perceive a direct threat to its very survival. They feel that the ring of siege around them is being tightened. Israeli leaders threaten them with a military strike. The US president says that “all options are on the table” and that he would neither accept nor tolerate Iran with nuclear weapons. The international community imposes tough sanctions, which are pushing the Iranian economy into the abyss. The Iranian public suffers and feels the heat.
While Israeli and US leaders are contemplating the difficult choice of to attack or not, the Iranian leadership faces a much harsher choice: whether to pursue its nuclear program and thus endanger the very existence of the regime itself and Iran as an Islamic republic, or to swallow its pride, to bend to international pressure and the new emerging reality and suspend, at least partially, its uranium enrichment.
September 27, 2012
by Yossi Melman
The month of October is already on the horizon. And it’s usually characterized by difficult weather conditions, especially for an attack. Thus there’s the explanation that if there’s a decision to attack Iran, it’ll be done within less than 3 months. Will Benjamin Netanyahu act?
The French novelist Jules Verne, in the nineteenth century, wrote Around the World in 80 Days
, which was thought of as science fiction. That is, more or less, the time frame that Israel has to work with — at one of the decisive moments in its history. The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November. After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack. The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary. Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.” They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview. They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.
But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.” He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological. That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.
Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble. That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.
There’s no doubt — not in Israel and not between Israel and the United States — of the need to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. President Barack Obama declared that he won’t tolerate Iran having a nuclear arsenal.
The former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan — though famously opposed to an Israeli air strike on Iran — has said that it’s a strong American interest not to let Iran get nuclear weapons. Even the left wing in Israeli politics believes that the radical Islamic regime in Teheran must not go nuclear. The question is how to stop it. Who should take action, and when?
For Netanyahu there seems to be no doubt that Israel should do it — and before the clouds close Iran’s airspace. The body which needs to decide is the Security Cabinet, which has 14 government ministers: about half of the full cabinet. Netanyahu has a narrow group of eight ministers, often referred to as “the Octet,” who generally are first to be consulted on very important issues. But the Octet has no official standing or decision-making authority; and so the decision must be made by the Security Cabinet.
In addition, Netanyahu feels that his chance of getting a majority among the 14 in the Security Cabinet — in favor of an attack on Iran — is higher than among the Octet. Only three ministers among the 14 are clearly opposed to an air strike: Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and a former foreign minister, Silvan Shalom. They believe it would be a mistake to act in defiance of U.S. wishes. They favor letting tighter economic sanctions have an impact on Iran.
A fourth minister, former military chief of staff Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, also has been opposed to an attack at this time; but Netanyahu has been making obvious efforts to bring Yaalon closer to him — including him, for instance, in events such as the official talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was in Israel recently.
The defense minister, Ehud Barak, will likely be a decisive figure in this process. Lately he is showing some independence from Netanyahu’s views, and the center-left in Israel sees Barak as “the last great white hope” to steer Israeli politics away from Netanyahu. Yet opinion polls suggest that Barak and his party might win only 2 seats in the Knesset — out of a total of 120.
That is an improvement from the zero that was indicated in prior polls, but still Barak may well feel that his greatest chance of regaining political legitimacy — as a former prime minister — would be to vote in favor of an attack on Iran. If it goes very well, he’d be hailed as an Israeli hero. If the attack goes wrong, Barak would not be losing much politically. At age 70, his political career seems to have run its course, anyway.
Ministers will certainly heed advice from the military chief of staff, General Benny Gantz, who is quite new at that post; and from the air force commander, General Amir Eshel. Netanyahu also listens to his national security advisor — Yaakov Amidror — who has a record of being very hawkish on almost all issues.
If the prime minister decides to strike Iran, he will win a majority in the Security Cabinet. Barak will go along with him. But, except for perhaps Netanyahu himself, no one knows whether the prime minister will bring that issue to those 14 government ministers.
The key question, in other words, is whether Netanyahu sees the threat of Iran building a nuclear bomb as so severe that he is willing to risk severe friction with the United States, a severe blow to the Israeli economy, the possibility of a bloody regional war, and a hail of missiles from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and perhaps Syria hitting Israel. Is that a set of risks that he believes Israel can stand?
August 10, 2012
By Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv
(published by The Guardian on Aug. 10, 2012)
Benjamin Netanyahu, usually an exemplar of self-restraint, lost his temper last week. In a closed-door meeting discussing the military and intelligence chiefs who oppose an air strike against Iran, the Israeli prime minister snapped, “I’m responsible, and if there’s a commission of inquiry later it’s on me,” according to well-orchestrated leaks by his aides.
Netanyahu seems to feel a historic – almost messianic – calling to stop Iran’s nuclear programme. Even if retaliation by Iran and its allies in Hamas and Hezbollah takes the form of a lethal rain of rockets on Israel, he is adamant that a nuclear-armed Iran would be far worse.
His latest set of outgoing signals seemed to suggest that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be likely before America’s presidential election in November. It is unclear if that is a coincidence, because of assessments that Iranian progress in uranium enrichment and bomb design will have reached a highly dangerous point by then; or maybe it is based on Netanyahu’s calculation that President Barack Obama will be more supportive of Israel prior to election day – and perhaps not at all after he wins or loses on 6 November.
Some of Israel’s security chiefs, who do not hide their opposition to bombing Iran, say privately that they cannot discern if their PM is bluffing. Netanyahu may be creating the impression that an attack is imminent so as to goad the US into a firm promise to obliterate Iran’s nuclear plants. He is certainly sincere in his concern about Iran’s radical Islamists, who time and again call for the liquidation of the Jewish state. In this sense Netanyahu walks in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, prime minister from 1977 to 1983, who had a doctrine named after him: the absolute Israeli determination that no other nation in the Middle East will have nuclear weapons.
The Begin doctrine was successfully implemented twice: by Begin himself in June 1981, when Israel’s air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor; and in September 2007, when PM Ehud Olmert sent Israeli warplanes to flatten a Syrian nuclear reactor. Olmert’s decision was even bolder than Begin’s: President George Bush had refused to order an American air raid, but Israel went ahead anyway. And, unlike Iraq, Syria is an immediate neighbour and had thousands of missiles that could hit every conceivable installation in Israel.
Netanyahu may well be encouraged by the world’s reaction. In 1981, even the pro-Israel president Ronald Reagan denounced the bombing of the Baghdad reactor; but a decade later, during Desert Storm, the US was thanking Israel for having ensured Saddam had no nuclear arms.
In 2007 the initial reaction was less harsh, because the air raid on Syria was never acknowledged by the attackers in Jerusalem. But Israeli leaders justifiably feel that the international community might now be grateful to them again. There is concern in the US and Israel that Syria’s chemical weapons might fall into the hands of al-Qaida or Hezbollah. Just imagine if the danger now involved what proliferation experts call “loose nukes”.
The unspoken motivation of both attacks was to preserve Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East. While the Israeli arsenal is not confirmed officially, it is taken as a regional fact of life, even as Israel cannot countenance other nations in the region having the same weapons. For reasons both overt and covert, then, it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu may be feeling that a third time – in Iran – could be another attractive option. Hopefully it is not too late to prescribe an important dose of caution. Netanyahu and his few cabinet supporters – with defence minister Ehud Barak lately swinging back and forth between anti- and pro-attack positions – ought to know that the situation is different from 1981 or 2007.
Iran is not Iraq or Syria. The Iranians have drawn lessons from those two events. They dispersed their nuclear facilities and buried them underground, making them more difficult to reach and destroy. Success is thus less assured. Instead of a quick, surgical strike, Israel will likely find itself in a long war of attrition against Iran and Shia Muslims everywhere. In the name of national pride and defending its Islamic revolution, Iran was willing to lose millions of people in a long war against Iraq through the 80s.
Above all, perhaps, Israeli leaders must consider that striking Iran could drag the US into a war against its wishes. This would be bad for one of Israel’s core survival strategies: the defence and intelligence alliance with America. It would be far wiser for Netanyahu and Barak – Israel’s two prime decision makers – to focus their efforts on helping the international community – with America in the lead – do everything possible to eliminate the Iranian threat. They have to guard against talking themselves into a simple but bloody bilateral conflict that Israelis could well come to regret.
Netanyahu has already achieved a lot with his innovative campaign to garner global attention. He can be satisfied his sabre-rattling has persuaded the world that Iran cannot be allowed to procure nuclear weapons. One can understand his fears that the world will let down Israel, a nation that prides itself on taking care of its own defence. Yet the wiser course now would be to tighten the alliance with the US and stand together against a common enemy.
Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv are co-authors of the new history of Israeli espionage, Spies Against Armageddon.
August 10, 2012