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Shutaf Sod: Misayeret Matkal V'ad Hamosad (The Confidant: From the General Staff's Special Operations Force to the Mossad ), by Danny YatomYedioth Ahronoth Books, 462 pages. NIS 98

"The tall baroness whispered into the ear of the tourist basking at the hotel poolside." A rather ordinary, though somewhat enticing, sort of a first sentence for a fictional spy story. In this case, however, it's the beginning of a true story, possibly the saddest and most embarrassing in the history of Israel's fabled espionage network, the Mossad.

What the lanky baroness was whispering to the sunbathing tourist was the news of one of the biggest calamities ever to befall the highly esteemed organization. The Mossad team sent to Amman in September 1997 to assassinate Khaled Meshal, the head of the Hamas political wing, had been exposed after administering a dose of a deadly poison to their quarry on a street in the Jordanian capital. To avert a breach in Israel's friendly relations with King Hussein of Jordan, Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term as prime minister, ordered that the antidote to the poison be rushed immediately to the hospital, to save Meshal's life.

Danny Yatom, then serving as director of the Mossad, describes how he sat for hours in the royal palace in Amman, "hoping for the recovery of the man who only hours before I had sent people to kill." Yatom recalls the dictum of the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, that the magic of literature is the ability to kill people off and bring them to life again. "I thought that sometimes reality can outdo any literary fantasy," writes our tragic hero, scratching at the still open wound and finding no relief.

Why does a man choose to begin his autobiography with a detailed documentation of a resounding failure that occurred on his watch? Why didn't he pick a tale of bravery from his days in Sayeret Matkal, the Israel Defense Forces' top commando unit, such as the rescue of the passengers on a hijacked Sabena plane at Lod Airport in 1972? What would have been wrong with telling of his dramatic disclosure of the document describing the negotiations conducted by the Jewish American billionaire Ronald Lauder in the 1990s with Syrian President Hafez Assad, on behalf of Netanyahu? It is clear that the trauma of the abortive attempt to kill Meshal -- who is still giving Israel grief from his base in Damascus -- does not give Yatom rest, and he wanted to get the load off his chest before going on to anything else. And he does so angrily, settling accounts with everyone because, in his eyes, everyone is guilty.

For one, Netanyahu is guilty -- first, for ordering the operation despite warnings that it would jeopardize relations with Jordan, and second, for giving in to pressure and appointing a committee to investigate the failure. Also guilty are former defense minister Yitzhak Mordecai, former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon and former Military Intelligence chief Moshe Ya'alon, all of whom knew about and approved of the plan, but left Yatom to take all of the responsibility. Another guilty party was his predecessor as Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, who was called in to manage the crisis and proceeded to leave Yatom out of the loop. And finally, he accuses Rafi Peled, a member of the inquiry committee, of manipulating the media to aim their guns against him.

The bombshell

Nonetheless, Yatom confesses that, "despite the complications of carrying out the operation on Jordanian soil, I did not object to the idea." But then comes the bombshell that makes this opening chapter not only the book's main pillar, but also compulsory reading in any course on risk management and decision making: "Simultaneously, an assessment formed that even if the operation went wrong, it would be possible to iron out the difficulties, because of the importance of the relationship between Israel and Jordan, and the king's nature," Yatom writes. "This evaluation ultimately passed the test of reality."

Relations with Jordan did indeed withstand the test, and the difficulties were in fact ironed out. But would that evaluation have withstood the antidote's late arrival, obliging the king to attend Meshal's funeral? Hussein, Yatom relates, had warned that if Meshal died, he would first order the execution of the two Mossad agents who were being held by the police, and thereafter a forcible break-in to the Israeli Embassy, to arrest the other members of the team who had taken refuge there. Moreover, Hussein said, he would close down the Jordanian Embassy in Tel Aviv and cease diplomatic, security and economic cooperation between the two countries.

But the antidote did arrive in time, saving Meshal's life. So what was the price that Israel paid to straighten things out with Jordan? Did the evaluation that withstood the test of reality take into account that in order to extricate the Mossad operatives from Jordanian prison, Israel would have to release the head of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, and 20 prisoners with Jordanian citizenship? And what about the scars that the affair left on the Jordanian government and population? Yatom mentions that Hussein told the newspaper Al Hayat at the time that he felt as if the Israelis had spit in his face, and he likened himself to someone who had opened his home to a stranger who raped his wife or daughter as soon as the host turned his back.

And now a personal remark about another evaluation of Yatom's that fails to pass the test of reality: Yatom devotes a long passage to wondering who leaked to me the draft peace agreement between Israel and Syria that Clinton put before prime minister Ehud Barak and Syrian foreign minister Farouk Shara during the negotiations at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and which appeared in Haaretz on January 13, 2000. Yatom surmises that the mysterious leaker wanted to sabotage the peace deal with Syria in order to focus diplomatic activity on the Palestinian track. This evaluation is farfetched. Take my word, as one confidant to another.

There are not many people who have had the opportunity to observe four different prime ministers at such close quarters and who have been witness to so many decisive events as Yatom. He served as military secretary to both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, as the director of the Mossad under Netanyahu, and as chief of Barak's diplomatic-security staff. It's reasonable to expect his first memoir to offer the reader a broad view and significant, long-term conclusions. Instead, the chapters on politics and foreign affairs suffer from an overload of trees and lack a critical view of the forest as a whole. This fault is particularly evident when it comes to his documentation of the settlements issue, which weighs on us to this day.

"The Palestinians continued complaining about ongoing construction in the settlements and Barak promised to check the building activity of the Netanyahu administration and to take down illegal structures," Yatom writes of the period after Barak became premier, in 1999. "Barak said, 'I don't need [Yasser] Arafat to pressure me on anything to do with Israeli law. I'll take down illegal structures when I see fit and not because of his complaints.'" Four lines down, writing 10 years and tens of thousands of settlers later, Yatom reports that Barak conveyed a message to U.S. president Bill Clinton to the effect that not everything Arafat said should be taken at face value, since he had a tendency "not to be accurate." He does not write a single word about the 24 well-established, additional illegal outposts or Defense Minister Barak's systematic evasion today of his commitment to remove them.

In presenting Yatom's perspective on the events of the last several decades, what this book reveals is the prototype of a military man who has freed himself of the illusion that Israel can solve its dispute with its neighbors by use of force alone. But, like many of his colleagues who have ostensibly joined the peace camp, the former Labor MK prefers to keep one foot on either side of the fence. On the one hand, he recommends adopting the Arab League peace initiative, which offers Israel normalization with the Arabs in exchange for its ending the occupation. On the other hand, he claims that there isn't any single Palestinian entity that represents the entire population, and says that as long as Hamas rules in Gaza, there's no chance for reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. In the hackneyed phrase, "There's no partner."

From the final chapter, "Looking Ahead," we learn that even traumas like the Meshal affair don't always manage to open the eyes peering out from under a combat helmet. Yatom doubts the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran and says that if the world doesn't take military action to stop that country's nuclear project, "Israel will not be able to sit idly by." We can only hope that in his next book, Yatom won't have to tell us that the evaluation that it will be possible to straighten things out -- even if there's an unfortunate mishap in the attack on Iran -- has withstood the test of reality.

Akiva Eldar is a senior political columnist for Haaretz.

Haaretz Books, December 2009, haaretzbooks@gmail.com