[This article was written by Yossi Melman, co-author of Spies Against Armageddon — a fresh history of Israeli intelligence from 1948 to the present day — for the website of the 24-hour TV news service that’s broadcast from Israel: i24news.TV.]
Recent new appointments at the top echelon of the Mossad have coincided with Tamir Pardo’s third anniversary at the helm of Israel’s foreign espionage agency. The names and identities of those who were promoted cannot be published because of security considerations, government policy and censorship.
The appointments are rather routine and certainly don’t signal any major shift in the Mossad’s policy. But three years in office means that Pardo has completed half his term. Now is the right time for a midterm report of his successes and failures.
Pardo, a 61-year-old chain smoker, walks more or less in the footsteps of his predecessor — Meir Dagan. If there is a difference between the two, it’s a matter of style and personality. Unlike the charismatic, smiling and controversial Dagan,Pardo is more, much more, reserved. He looks like a gray bureaucrat who has a businesslike attitude. He is not a man of small talk. But his looks are misleading
He is a professional intelligence officer and skillful operative who served nearly 30 years in the operational departments of the Mossad.
The Mossad – the lethal, feared, respected, almost mythological intelligence agency – is going through tough times, trying to cope with an unprecedented set of challenges for Israel at a time when the Mideast is in turmoil.
The year 2013 was not brilliant for the Mossad. It suffered an unprecedented blow when it was revealed that for the first time in its history, an operative had betrayed the organization and caused severe damage to its operations, morale, and omnipotent image.
The alleged traitor was Ben Zygier, an Australian-born Jew who immigrated to Israel and was recruited by the Mossad in 2005 to work, according to foreign reports, in operations against Iran. After being arrested in 2010, he was known in prison only as Prisoner X, his identity kept secret by Israeli censorship and judicial gag orders. Zygier’s story was unveiled only after he hanged himself in his cell.
Pardo’s unsuccessful damage control showed poor judgment and a misunderstanding of 21st century media. Follwoing the Prisoner X revelations, reports came out that another prisoner, nicknamed X2, was being held behind bars in secret, and his case was described as having “similar characteristics.” No details have ever come out about the second X.
The most important development for Pardo’s Mossad’s agenda was Iran. The Islamic Republic, with its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon and Syria, remained at the top the Mossad’s action options. Yet these options were sharply reduced in 2013. Hezbollah amassed a threatening arsenal of 100,000 rockets and missiles, able to target every strategic site as well Israel’s urban centers.
Perhaps above all, 2013 witnessed the end of the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists — a 4-year campaign attributed (in our book) to the Mossad. The four-year campaign of assassinations ended in 2012 after the killings of five nuclear scientists in Iran. Four were assassinated during Dagan’s tenure and one under Pardo.
It became too dangerous. Iran’s counter-intelligence units were conducting an intensive manhunt, and the Mossad could not risk seeing its best combatants — Israel’s term for its most talented and experienced spies and assassins — arrested and executed. In addition, the Obama Administration signaled to Israel that it did not want acts of violence to continue inside Iran when negotiations with world powers were starting on the Iranian nuclear program.
For the time being, the “Pardo boys” (and some females, of course) are turning their intel gathering and operational capabilities to detecting whether — and how — Iran is cheating on its agreements with the United States and other Western countries Israel intends to learn what Iran is really up to and could be expected to expose Iranian nuclear work.
The Israeli aim is to show that Iran, now ruled by the seemingly moderate President Hasan Rouhani, is — in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — “a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” tirelessly trying to deceive the international community about the true nature of its nuclear program.
If need be, Pardo will not hesitate to resort to the old, violent ways. Like his predecessors, he is a true gatekeeper of Israel’s national interests.