Friday, September 24, 2010

Israel's Mossad

Israel's successful deployment last week of its fourth orbiting spy satellite, Ofek 9, is being lauded by the country's intelligence community for delivering better than expected surveillance images of "areas of interest." At the same time, Israel's human intelligence apparatus, as essential as ever to the Jewish state's survival, has come under mounting criticism for the blow-back of two of its recent missions: the presumed liquidation of senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai, and the Israel navy's unpreparedness in the interdiction of the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla. Meantime, Lebanon continues to sweep-up reputed Israeli assets spying on Hezbollah. Over the weekend, came reports that the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was looking to replace Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad foreign intelligence agency, rather than extend his term after eight years.

David Ben-Gurion established the Israel Secret Intelligence Service (its current name) in 1951 and made it directly accountable to the Prime Minister's Office. The Mossad solidified its international reputation for spycraft when in 1956 it obtained Khrushchev's Secret Speech signaling a repudiation of Stalinism. In 1961 the Mossad alerted French president Charles de Gaulle of a plot against his life thereby crucially strengthening Franco-Israeli relations.

Until recently admiration for Dagan, in the afterglow of the elimination of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh and the purported stalling of Iran's dash for nuclear weapons, outweighed disapproval over his management style. In any event, Dagan is hardly the first Mossad chief to face criticism.

The Mossad has, in fact, historically been a lightning rod for condemnation. Even the decisions of the legendary Isser Harel, the Mossad's longest serving chief, drew -- comparatively mild by today's standards -- UN condemnation after the agency abducted Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires to face justice in Jerusalem. Or take Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, undoubtedly facilitated by Mossad intelligence, which was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. The Mossad's capture in London of the Israeli renegade nuclear worker Mordechai Vanunu in 1986 likely provoked a General Assembly resolution denouncing Israel's purported nuclear capacity. The 1988 assassination of Fatah co-founder Khalil Wazir (Abu Jihad) in Tunis as he was laying the groundwork for the first intifada generated a strong denunciation from the UN Security Council. And in 1997, after a spate of suicide bombings in Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, serving his first term as premier, ordered the Mossad to retaliate against Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal then based in Amman. But the mission to poison Mashaal ended in ignominious failure when two members of the Mossad team were captured. Under intense US pressure Israel was forced to provide Jordan with the antidote and release Hamas prisoners.

Invariably, when the Mossad becomes involved the stakes are already high. Its primary mission today is to block Iran's quest for nuclear weapons and to conduct counter-terror operations. Because of the nature of its work, its successes tend to remain hidden while its failures are often magnified. Speaking at a gathering for current and former Mossad operatives this week, Dagan was still standing and full of praise for his operatives as was President Shimon Peres who remarked that the Mossad’s reputation in the global intelligence community was undiminished.

John Le Carre, for all his moral relativism, may have been on to something when he had the anti-hero of his espionage classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy remark that you can tell the soul of a nation from its intelligence service. What can one discern about Israel's soul from the operations of the Mossad? That the Jewish state lives on a practically constant war-footing facing existential danger is obvious. What stands out is that Israel's quest for security is inextricably linked with a yearning to create conditions conducive for a secure peace. It is not incidental that the Mossad's logo contains – not a hawk or eagle – but a dove.

-- June 2010

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