As readers worldwide receive their copies of Spies Against Armageddon, the new history of Israel’s intelligence services by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, reviews are beginning to appear. The first one at Amazon.com, unsolicited by and unbeknownst to the authors, is written by a former Reuters correspondent who was based in Israel for a long time, Alan Elsner.
This detailed and exciting account of the history of the Israeli secret services, including the Mossad, the Shin Beth and others less well-known to the public, should be required reading for anyone interested in the history and politics of the Middle East. It is even more relevant because its opening chapter deals with the ongoing Iranian nuclear crisis and Israel’s clandestine efforts to derail and delay the Iranian nuclear program.
The book clearly benefited from detailed interviews the authors conducted with leading players, some now deceased. The authors themselves are a winning team of a well-known Israeli reporter and a veteran American correspondent (full disclosure, I was a reporter in Israel for several years in the 1980s and knew one of the authors quite well.)
Starting with the founding of Israel in 1948, the book runs through some well-known episodes such as the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina to stand trial in Jerusalem. But there are many other vignettes that were unknown to me — and I consider myself something of a professional student on Middle Eastern history. There is a comprehensive account of how Israel built its own nuclear program with help from France and others. The story of how Israel managed to persuade an Egyptian Air Force pilot to defect, bringing with him his top secret Soviet plane, could be the subject of a fantastic movie all by itself. Thus, Israel became the first Western nation to acquire a Soviet MiG-21 and it was a treasure trove for U.S. intelligence.
In another chapter, the authors describe Israel’s success in protecting its civilian aircraft from hijackers and bombers — and America’s refusal to imitate some of the Israeli techniques despite repeated warnings. Had our leaders listened, we may have averted 9/11.
The authors show that contrary to popular opinion, the Mossad has generally been reluctant to kill its adversaries. It preferred to threaten and deter them if possible, with assassination a last resort. But they state unequivocally that Israel has been behind the murders of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent years.
There is also a vivid and full account of the decision to destroy a Syrian nuclear plant in 2007. I had no idea before reading this account how close the Syrians were to developing a weapon. Their graphite reactor would have gone operational and started to produce plutonium within weeks had the Israelis not taken it out in September 2007.
The Mossad and especially the Shin Beth are not perfect. They have made major blunders — such as failing to anticipate the start of the Yom Kippur War. The Shin Beth fell victim to excessive brutality against Palestinians in the territories and mishandled the two Intifadahs. Israel has made strategic decisions, such as invading Lebanon in 1982, that produced short-term success and longer-term disaster.
But what comes across to me most vividly in this book is the resourcefulness, courage and sheer inventiveness the men and women of these services have so often displayed. Israel is still at war, surrounded by enemies who wish to destroy it. These secret services are on the front lines. Often, what they do averts greater threats through their ingenuity.
Since its early days, Israel has developed a doctrine of not relying on others for the defense of the nation. This doctrine comes out of the painful lessons learned during the Holocaust. But the Iranian crisis is testing many long-held beliefs and assumptions, confronting policy-makers and especially the Prime Minister, with one of the most agonizing decisions any Israeli leader has ever faced.
This book will make readers more aware of the stakes, the opportunities and the dangers. (photo of Alan Elsner, now with The Israel Project in Washington DC)