Israel is a country whose modern origins are quite unique. Founded as a homeland for the Jews, who for centuries had experienced persecution around the world, it was at war with its neighbouring countries the day after it declared its independence on May 14, 1948. Faced with potential annihilation, Israelis managed to defeat the combined invading forces of Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. Up against such overwhelming hostility, Israelis knew from even before the creation of their new country that they would need to keep abreast of developments in enemy lands. This was to be aided in no small part by its intelligence service.
The Israeli intelligence system (IIS) is one of the most highly regarded such organization in the world. In 1978 it was ranked one of the top four leading intelligence services in the world by Time magazine, along with the KGB of the Soviet Union, the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, and the British Secret Service. Not only is it highly-respected in other intelligence circles, but it has become something of a legend in popular culture. From the stunningly daring kidnapping and illegal deportation of former Nazi Adolf Eichmann, to the surprise rescue of most of the hostages on Air France Flight 139 in Uganda, the intelligence organizations of the IIS, and its foreign intelligence and covert operations branch, the Mossad, in particular, are a source of fascination and awe in much of the world.
However, as with all intelligence services, there have been a number of highly publicized failures that brought great embarrassment to Israel. Some of these were amateurish mistakes, such as the failed Operation Susannah in Egypt in 1954. Others were the inevitable result of misreading the intentions of their enemy after several false alarms; the Yom Kippur war of 1973 is a classic example of this. Whatever the cause, mistakes are something that Israel can ill-afford, especially when the exposure of their covert operations provoke powerful and unfriendly neighbours. Equally unacceptable is the risk of upsetting relations with allies, as was the case in the Jonathan Pollard affair in 1985. The IIS really does have to be the best, because the alternative is, according to popular wisdom, too terrible to consider.
The IIS evolved from similar organizations, such as the Zionist group Haganah's Shai. IDF In the nearly three decades between the formation of Haganah and the declaration of independence, Shai helped smuggle arms and illegal immigrants into Palestine, spied on adversaries, and even helped protect Jewish resistance organizations in Nazi Germany. There was also Rekhesh, which was in charge of smuggling arms and ammunition to Jewish resistance organizations forming in Palestine. The agents in this group became masters of many skills that would be considered invaluable to spies even today. The most obvious predecessor to any aspect of the IIS was Mossad le Aliyah Bet, the Institute of Illegal Immigration, whose agents were responsible for helping Jews moving to Israel to bypass the strict immigration quotas imposed by the British.
In the very beginning, the three branches were hastily set up at a meeting shortly after independence in what used to be the headquarters of Shai. Aman, Shin Beth and a Political Branch of the Foreign Ministry were what constituted Israeli intelligence until 1951. In the interim, the whole system was inundated with scandal that involved torture, forging evidence, and summary executions. The man put in charge of the service, Isser Be'eri, was charged with murder, found guilty, although he was only sentenced to one day in prison, which was eventually commuted by Chaim Weizmann when he was President.
The restructuring of the system in 1951 was a battle between those who felt that as a group in charge of national security for a state facing such imminent threats, they should be allowed to act outside the law, and those who felt there should be a strong element of moral integrity in all that Israel did. In the end, the moral side, whose more prominent members included David Ben-Gurion, prevailed. Aman and Shin Bet remained much the same, but the Political Branch of the Foreign Ministry became the Mossad and what about morals?
The evolution of the IIS made the service rather unique at the time of its official formation among the world's intelligence services. When the British Secret Service was formed in 1909, it was the only such institute in the world, and as such, had much to learn about intelligence gathering and analysis. Even America's Central Intelligence Agency had to start nearly from scratch, since it had disbanded its wartime intelligence service, the Office of Strategic Services, in October 1945, despite the strenuous objections of its former director. Israeli intelligence on the other hand, had roots going back for at least two decades. In addition, their experience was all applicable to the new challenges they faced.
In spite of this advantage, the IIS has not been exempt from early amateurish mistakes. A classic example of this is Operation Susannah, which was literally blown apart in 1954. Recruitment for this ill-fated scheme began in 1952, when intelligence officer Avraham Dar went to Egypt posing as British businessman John Darling. The idea was to create a network of sleeper agents in Egypt, which was Israel's largest Arab neighbour and therefore of great strategic interest to Israel.
The idea in itself was not a bad one, but it was executed poorly. Most of the recruits Dar picked up for this two networks were friends, which meant if any one was captured and tortured, he could easily betray the rest of the cell. Furthermore, they were completely inexperienced in the ways of espionage, and several who were brought to Europe for training proved to be largely incompetent. In spite of these concerns, the eager volunteers were returned to Egypt and left in the care of their new handler, Avraham Elad, a disgraced member of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) who was being given a chance at redemption.
They remained inactive from 195(2)? until 1954, a period of time that included the overthrow of King Farouk, and the election of Gamal Abdel Nasser as Prime Minister. Upon the fall of the monarchy in Egypt, the United States began to pressure Britain into withdrawing troops from the Suez Canal, a move that Israel strongly opposed. Despite their resentment of the British over their betrayal of the Zionist cause, the troops kept at the Suez Canal were seen as an effective buffer between Israel and Egypt, now led by a man who strongly opposed the existence of Israel.
In light of these disturbing developments, Israeli defence minister, Pinhas Levon, unilaterally instructed the director of Aman, Binyamin Gibli, to use all their resources in Egypt to dissuade the British from their presumed course of action. Gibli ordered Elad to commit minor acts of sabotage, hoping the British would suspect the Egyptians and cancel their evacuation.
Elad used his sleeper agents to commit a number of minor, largely harmless bombings against western targets, including the US cultural centres in Cairo, and the library of the US Information Centre in Alexandria. The plan was to escalate things by planting bombs in movie theatres in both those cities and the Alexandria train station on the second anniversary of the revolution, July 23, 1954. However, it was at this point things went horribly wrong. While waiting in line for a ticket, the bomb of one of the agents, Philip Nathanson, went off prematurely in his pocket. Once they figured out what had happened, Egyptian authorities arrested him, and the entire network unfolded.
This became a matter of huge international embarrassment for Israel. High-ranking officials in Aman were forced to admit that they had recruited non-Israeli Jews to spy in a foreign country, and in addition to the collapse of their amateur spy network, they lost a talented and skilful agent, Max Binnet. Binnet would probably not have been caught had he not been instructed to deliver money to Elad's networ.
The capture of Max Binnet underscores the breaking of fundamental rule by the organizers of Operation Susannah, namely never connect two separate spy networks. Furthermore, the entire operation ran contrary to an operational principle on which the IIS ran. As best they could, Israel avoided recruiting Jews in other countries to do espionage work for them. The concern was that if the agents were caught, the entire Jewish community in that country might fall under suspicion of spying and suffer unnecessary persecution as a result.
Following this embarrassing escapade, Israel had no high-ranking intelligence officers in Egypt, and were therefore greatly surprised in 195- when they found out about an arms deal between Egypt and Czechoslovakia. While trying to prevent the nationalization of the Suez Cana in 1957, they pre-emptively attacked Egyptian-held Sinai, with the secret understanding that Britain and France would issue an ultimatum with which the Egyptians would be unable to comply. This would provide a pretext for British and French troops to enter the region and negotiate a settlement. However, their exceptional ability to keep things secret worked against them, and both the United States and the Soviet Union, who had been kept ignorant of the scheme to reduce Egypt's growing influence in the region, demanded that Israel step down, and it had no choice but to comply.
Now shamed internationally twice in the same decade, Israel's leaders decided they needed a great success to boost national self-esteem. This opportunity came when, in 1957, the Mossad received exciting news: Adolf Eichmann, architect of the Holocaust and second only to Hitler in the ranks of reviled Nazi war criminals, had been spotted alive in Argentina. To capture Eichmann and have him stand trial in Israel, a land whose people he'd done his utmost to destroy, would most certainly serve to boost the nation's battered confidence.
And so, after much careful planning, and no small amount of valuable resources, it was done. On May 11, 1960 Adolf Eichmann was snatched off a street corner by Mossad agents, and secreted away to Israel to face public trial for his terrible crimes. Two years later, on May 31, 1962, he was hanged.
The Eichmann affair was absolutely instrumental in cementing the IIS's international reputation as a top-notch intelligence agency, and that of the Mossad in particular. Not only was it an extremely methodical and professional operation, but parts of it were highly ethical as well. The choice of capturing and trying a known war criminal rather quietly assassinating him was an unusual choice for a secret intelligence agency, especially given the grievances so many of the agencies people had against Eichmann. Furthermore, it was later revealed that should the agents be captured while they had Eichmann in custody, they were under strict orders not to kill him, but rather to handcuff him to one of the agents and take him to the relevant Argentine authorities.
The 1960s were arguably the peak decade for Israeli intelligence. Another daring and ultimately successful operation during this time was Operation Plumbat in November 1968, when Israeli agents managed to covertly steal 200 tons of processed uranium ore from a West German ship, although this may have been aided by the West German government. In 1969, Israel mounted a special mission, called Operation Noah's Ark, to rescue missile boats built for them by the French, which were trapped in French possession after Charles de Gaulle imposed a ban on weapons donation to Israel. This was carried out in typical style, by pretending to have the boats sold to Norway to patrol oil rigs (something the ships were not remotely equipped to do), and then sailing them to Israel instead. This was also marked by a refusal to use violent methods, since outright hijacking was forbidden by coordinators.
One of the most remarkable events of the decade was the Six-Days War against Jordan, Syria and Egypt. It was in some ways a great success, and in others a dismal failure. The success came in the form of the exceptional military signals intelligence provided by Aman that allowed for much of the Egyptian air force to be destroyed within minutes of the war beginning, before it had even left the ground. The fact that the war only lasted six days is, in large part, testament to the great skill of the intelligence agents working at the time. However, Israel was caught largely off-guard by the fact that these countries were even ready for war, a failure on the part of Aman; they had thought that the movement of Egyptian troops in mid-May was just a show of force, not preparations for an actual conflict.
The decisive victory for Israel was seen by many as the beginning of a new era in the Middle East, one where the Jewish homeland ruled over a united Jerusalem and had a safe border. However, the political and military leaders had grossly underestimated the psychological effect this crushing defeat had on both the defeated nations, and those living the newly-captured territories. Even before the war, members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, the military branch of the movement to create a Palestinian homeland, were launching cross-border raids and minor terrorist attacks against Israel. The capture of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and East Jerusalem had severe consequences that continue to resonate to this day.
The 1970s were characterized less by actual wars (with the exception of the Yom Kippur war in 1973), and more by terrorism. The most striking example of this is the kidnap and subsequent murder of the eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics. These brutal and shocking attacks spawned the Mossad's Operation Wrath of God, which was described in the book Vengeance by George Jonas in 1984 and two subsequent movies, Sword of Gideon (1986) and Munich (2005). Another terrorist attack involved the hijacking of Air France flight 139. Following its landing in Entebbe, Uganda, the release of all non-Israeli and non-Jewish hostages, and the demand relayed to Israel to release some convicted Palestinian terrorists, the government decided to mount a rescue mission. After several days of careful planning and some top-notch reconnaissance work done by some of the released hostages, as well as agents from both Aman and the Mossad, a raid took place on the morning of July 4. In the end, all but two hostages were saved, and the raiding party lost one member. It was a great boost in confidence to a nation who had nearly met disaster less than three years before.
In the 1980s, Israel's reputation began to take more hits internationally. Unprepared to deal with the ever-growing Palestinian refugee crisis created by the formation of Israel in 1948 and exacerbated by the Six-Day War in 1967, many of their international operations during this period were tainted by scandal and human rights violations.
On June 6, 1982, the IDF poured across the Israeli-Lebanese border with the intention of finding and routing the PLO, which had been well-established there since its 1964 founding. This was misguided revenge for the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, which was actually perpetrated by the shadowy terrorist organization of Abu Nidal. Regardless, the IDF made it to Beirut and managed to expel Yassar Arafat and 15 000 members of the PLO to various places in the Middle East. In addition, the IIS gained access to cases of documents on the terrorists, enough to keep them busy for years. However trouble was fast approaching.
The first disaster was the assassination of newly-elected Christian President, Bachir Gemayel on September 14 1982. Prior to the invasion, Mossad agents working in Lebanon had hoped that if Gemayel could be elected, Lebanon might be able to gain the upper-hand over the Palestinians. Now these hopes had been crushed and they were facing the outrage and grief of the Lebanese Christian Phalangist community, whose leader had just been slain. Reflexively they moved forcese into Muslim parts of the city to help maintain order, but without consulting their well-informed intelligence officers on possible repercussions of the assassination. Furthermore, they failed to make a clear decision about what to do with the refugee camps in Beirut, until someone made the catastrophic decision to ban Israeli troops from entering the camps.As a result, when Phalangist militia stormed two camps full of Palestinians, Sabra and Chatila, Israeli forces stood by as they killed 1300 Palestinian men, women and children.
The blame for this calamity fell largely on the intelligence directors. They were charged with negligence on the grounds that they should have anticipated the dangers of sending Phalangist units into such a sensitive area so soon after Gemayel's murder. The function of the Philange was sent to guide the IDF in Beirut and to enter areas into which Israelis were denied access. In the subsequent investigations, it was found that serious questions had been raised by Aman as to the reliability of the Philange as allies, especially in the wake of their leader's assassination, but that these had been ignored by Mossad agents.
In the end it was recommended that the leader of Aman, Major General Yehoshua Saguy, be dismissed, despite the fact that it was Aman who had been correct in their assessment of the Phalange. The current leader of the Mossad, Nahum Adnonni, was absolved of responsibility because he had assumed the post only four days before the incident. The recently departed Mossad director, Yitzhak Hofi, was also not a suitable candidate for reprimand, because he was not one to readily accept the opinions or assessments of those who worked for him. In any case, the entire event was a severe blow to Israel's reputation as a beleaguered nation fighting to defend itself from belligerent neighbours and hostile militias.
More incidents of embarrassment during this time include the Bus 300 Affair. This was the hijacking of a bus by four Palestinian terrorists on April 12, 1984. The passengers were eventually freed and it was claimed that the four terrorists had died in the rescue attempt, two of them on the way to the hospital. However, two of the hijackers were photographed alive and relatively uninjured by Israeli journalists, and it was eventually revealed that the two surviving Palestinians, both of them 18 years old, had been taken to a nearby field, interrogated and bludgeoned to death. This resulted in an ugly investigation that involved a significant cover-up effort by Shin Beth, whose officers were accused of the murders. In the end, as is often the case with investigations into scandals involving Israeli national security, political leaders announced that further probing would be contrary to national interest, and the matter rested.
Yet another international scandal occurred when, in 1985, Jonathan Jay Pollard, a Jewish American who worked for the US government, was arrested and accused of spying for Israel. This was a great breach in trust, for the United States had been a staunch ally and support of Israel since its creation nearly forty years earlier. In an attempt to mend fences, Israel disbanded Lekem, the organization for collecting technical and scientific intelligence, but for many years maintained that the Pollard Affair had been an unauthorized breach of America's trust. This was strained their once-close relationship quite severely.
In 1987, the First Intifada began, and this signalled a new era in Israel's troubled history. This was the spontaneous uprising of large parts of the Arab population inside the territories occupied by Israel. The IDF and even the IIS was not quite sure how to deal with this new problem. Dealing with armed hostile forces or even terrorist groups was one thing, having to put down an insurrection started with unarmed and unhappy civilians was quite another. This was a problem to be faced by Israel for the next two decades.
A problem that Israeli intelligence has faced since its very beginning is that of punishing people in their organization for committing illegal acts. Starting with Isser Be'eri's light sentence for a conviction of murder, right up to the Bus 300 perpetrators (?) and beyond, Israel has had a serious problem convicting…
For the better part of forty years, the three branches of Israeli intelligence, Aman, Shin Beth and the Mossad have been up to the task of defending the country's existence and protecting its civilians, both in Israel itself and persecuted Jews abroad. The question now is can these branches, which were forged in a time when enemies were around every corner, survive an era where peace and cohabitation are the goal?