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, the CIA, 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 1960 kidnapping of former Nazi Adolf Eichmann, to the 1976 rescue of hostages on Air France Flight 139 in Uganda, the intelligence organizations of the IIS, and, in particular, its foreign intelligence and covert operations branch, the Mossad,are a source of fascination and awe to many people.
However, no organization is perfect, and over the years there have been a number of intelligence failures that brought great embarrassment to Israel. Some were the result of amateurish mistakes, such as the failed Operation Susannah in Egypt in 1954. Others came from misreading the intentions of their enemies as demonstrated during the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Whatever the cause, such mistakes are something Israel feels it can ill-afford, especially in the current environment, where they are increasingly perceived as the dominant aggressor state in the Middle East, with an oppressed and increasingly restive native minority - the Palestinians.
The challenges and negative publicity of recent years represent significant changes in the military, political and social environment in which Israel's intelligence services must now operate. In the past, the enemies of Israel were mostly outside the country - Arab neighbours, militant Islamic states and foreign operatives. In recent years, the main threat to Israel's security, and stability in the region in general, has been the increasing internal unrest and agitation of the Palestinian population , whose demands for an independent homeland are perceived by many as being at least as legitimate as those of the Zionists after World War I. This decentralized, internal threat continues to present Israeli intelligence with a completely different set of challenges to those which they addressed with such skill and flair during the first fifty years of their existence.
The IIS evolved from several earlier intelligence groups within the Zionist movement, particularly Haganah's Shai. In the three decades between the formation of Haganah, a paramililtary group that became the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and independence, Shai performed many functions. Some included smuggling arms and illegal immigrants into Palestine, spying on adversaries, and helping 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. These agencies allowed their members to become masters of the many skills considered invaluable to spies. The most obvious predecessor of the IIS was Mossad le Aliyah Bet, the Institute of Illegal Immigration. Its agents were responsible for helping Jews moving to Israel to bypass the strict immigration quotas imposed by the British.
The IIS's three branches were hastily set up shortly after independence. Aman, Shin Beth and a Political Branch of the Foreign Ministry were what constituted Israeli intelligence until 1951. During that time, the system was plagued by scandal involving torture, forged evidence, and summary executions.
In 1951, the system was restructured after a struggle between those who felt that national security intelligence agency 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, led by David Ben-Gurion, prevailed. Aman and Shin Bet remained unchanged, but the Political Branch of the Foreign Ministry became the Mossad, and subsequent missions were guided by a strict moral code. With roots going back at least two decades, the new Israeli intelligence service had experience that was completely relevant to the challenges the new state faced.
In spite of this advantage, the IIS was not exempt from early amateurish mistakes. A classic example of this is Operation Susannah, which was literally blown apart in 1954. In 1952, Avraham Dar, an intelligence officer, went to Egypt posing as British businessman John Darling. The plan was to create a network of sleeper agents in Egypt, Israel's largest Arab neighbour.
The idea in itself was not a bad one, but it was poorly executed; the agents involved were unprofessional and inexperienced. In 1954, an effort was made to have the British rethink their plan to withdraw from the Suez Canal, which was viewed as a buffer zone between Israel and Egypt. The agents committed a number of small, largely harmless bombings against western targets in Egypt, and planned to escalate things by planting bombs in some movie theatres and a train station. At this point things went horribly wrong. On spy's bomb went off prematurely in his pocket, and Egyptian security forces quickly realized what had happened. The agent was arrested, and the entire network collapsed.
This was a huge international embarrassment for Israel and following this escapade, Israel had no high-ranking intelligence officers in Egypt. They were therefore surprised in 1955 when an arms deal was concluded between Egypt and Czechoslovakia. They also failed to halt the nationalization of the Suez Canal
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 news that the notorious war criminal Adolf Eichmann, 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, would do much to boost the nation's battered confidence. The Mossad was in its element, slipping agents into the country and keeping their presence a complete secret from Argentinean authorities.
After much planning, 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 instrumental in cementing the reputation of the IIS, and of the Mossad in particular, as a top-notch intelligence agency. Not only was it an extremely methodical and professional operation, but it was performed in a relatively ethical manner. The choice of capturing and trying a known war criminal rather than quietly assassinating him was an unusual one for a secret intelligence agency, especially given the grievances so many of the agency's people had against Eichmann. Furthermore, it was later revealed that the agents were under strict orders not to kill him,even if they were under threat of capture.
The 1960s were arguably the peak decade for Israeli intelligence. Agents and directors were in their element planning and carrying out missions against tangible targets, with clearly definable goals, a far cry from what they navigate now.
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. In 1969, Israel mounted a special mission, Operation Noah's Ark, to rescue missile boats built for them by the French. These were trapped in French possession after Charles de Gaulle imposed a ban on weapons donation to Israel. This was carried out with typical panache, 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.
One of the most remarkable events of the decade was the Six-Day War against Jordan, Syria and Egypt. It was in some ways a great success, and in others a dismal failure. The success came from 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 even leaving 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.
This decisive victory 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 in 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, which spawned the retaliatory Operation Wrath of God. Another terrorist attack involved the hijacking of Air France flight 139. Following its landing in Entebbe, Uganda, all non-Israeli and non-Jewish hostages were released, and a demand was relayed to Israel to release convicted Palestinian terrorists. The government decided to mount a rescue mission. After careful planning and some top-notch reconnaissance work, a raid took place on the morning of July 4. In the end, all but two hostages were saved, and the raiding party lost only one member. It was a great boost in confidence to a nation who had nearly met disaster less than three years before, in the massive intelligence failure of the Yom Kippur War.
In the 1980s, Israel's reputation began to take more hits internationally. It was 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. As a result, many of their international operations during this period were tainted by scandal and human rights violations.
The 1982, invasion of Lebanon, a misguided revenge for the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, Israel's ambassador to the United Kingdom, highlighted the difficulties of managing intelligence operations in a conflict marked by terrorist and guerrilla tactics. 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 thought Gemayel and his Phalangist followers could be allies if he were to elected. These hopes had been crushed and they were facing the outrage and grief of a community whose leader had just been slain. Without consulting the well-informed intelligence officers on possible repercussions of the assassination, 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, and unfairly, on the military intelligence director, Major General Yehoshua Saguy. It was recommended that he be fired on the grounds that he should have anticipated the dangers of sending Phalangist units into such a sensitive area so soon after Gemayel's murder. 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. 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.
This incident was one of many that demonstrated the difficulties of fighting a terrorist group the same way one would fight a more organized war. The full-scale invasion of a country in search of a single terrorist element was a bad decision since it garnered international criticism and only served to scatter the individuals for whom they were searching.
More incidents of embarrassment during this time include the Bus 300 Affair. This was the hijacking of a bus by four Palestinians 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, an Israeli journalist photographed two hijackers alive and relatively uninjured shortly after being captured. 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 supporter of Israel since its creation. In an attempt to mend fences, Israel disbanded Lekem, the organization for collecting technical and scientific intelligence who had handled Pollard, but for many years maintained that the affair had been an unauthorized scheme which it was not. This strained their close relationship quite severely.
In 1987, the First Intifada began, and this signalled a new era in Israel's troubled history. It was the spontaneous uprising of large parts of the Arab population inside the territories occupied by Israel. The IDF and even the IIS struggled with how to cope 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.
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 abroad. As long as the hostile forces were external and easily identified, such as an unfriendly neighbour, the IIS served its purpose admirably. However, now that the enemy is both internal and shadowy, these services are facing great difficulties. Israel must find a way to negotiate with the people they are occupying, or they will never be at peace. The intelligence services will no doubt continue to play a pivotal role in the future efforts of Israel to assure their security. However, the splashy exploits of the last century will most likely be replaced by a more muted approach to data gathering and covert operations in an effort to find more lasting peace.