As Several Mossad Agents Exposed, Has the Spy Agency Lost Its Luster?

Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer

Professor Michael Bar-Zohar is Israel's leading writer on espionage. He has been writing textbooks and novels about the operations carried out by Israeli intelligence, especially the Mossad, for the past 50 years.

Alleged Mossad agent known as Uri Brodsky, center, being escorted by armed Polish anti-terrorist police officers to court in Warsaw, July 7, 2010.Credit: AFP

Among other things, he has written about the clandestine military relations between Israel and France, about the vengeance against Palestinian arch-terrorists in the 1970s, and a biography of former Mossad chief Isser Harel. His latest book, "Hamossad - Hamivtsa'im Hagedolim" (literally "The Mossad - The Major Operations"), written with Nissim Mishal, will be published shortly, and addresses some of the operations that have made headlines in the past few years.

Michael Bar-Zohar, in the wake of what appears to be the exposure of Mossad agents photographed during the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, and the arrest of the man known as Uri Brodsky in Poland [who was released by Germany], has the organization not lost some of its luster?

"The arrest of Brodsky indeed seems like a classic Israeli failure; that is the kind of thing that repeatedly reoccurs in the Mossad's failures. On the one hand, this is certainly the most successful organization of its kind in the world, with extraordinary achievements and capabilities, but on the other hand, it displays classic Israeli arrogance and confidence.

"The feeling is that we are the best in the world, and therefore a sense of Israeli amateurishness sometimes creeps into the system. This means they send people who are not as seasoned as they should be and they trust that they will not be caught and identified.

"In the [Khaled] Meshal affair [in Jordan], they provided Canadian passports for the operation and the moment the [agents] were arrested, the police called the Canadian consul and it took five minutes to figure out they weren't Canadians."

And the very fact that the faces and passports of agents were exposed during the assassination in Dubai - doesn't that seem like a mistake?

"There is a thesis, of course, that they were caught with their pants down, but there is also an opposing thesis. Since they knew Dubai had cameras everywhere - the rumors say Israelis were even partners in setting them up - they decided to flood Dubai with agents. If you take a look at the pictures, you'll see they went in and out, and 90 percent of their entrances are pointless. Perhaps that was intentional - to confuse the cameras.

"It is a fact that they did not manage to photograph an agent entering the room where al-Mabhouh was staying, it is possible they were barking up the wrong tree and this was all planned in advance. In the long run, it may turn out that no one can identify these agents anywhere in the world because of how they were made up and dressed up."

But the diplomatic crisis caused by using friendly nations' passports was authentic.

"When the Mossad operates in a European country, they can use forged passports. It's not so terrible if they catch you. But in an Arab country, if you are caught with a forged passport, then you are really in deep water. If you come with an authentic passport and they call the consul and he checks and sees it's an authentic passport, that's your protection.

"You can't take a chance like that in a hostile country, it's a matter of life and death. The furor that followed this, in my opinion, was not justified."

Next month, Meir Dagan enters his ninth year as Mossad head. Do you think the time has come to find him a replacement?

"I do not support replacing him now if there is no outstanding candidate. I have never met him, but the question that has to be asked is what is the Mossad's role now? Clearly, it now has one major role and that is the Iranian issue. Everything else pales in comparison, even the assassinations of arch-terrorists.

"On the Iranian front, he has been extraordinarily successful. He succeeded in postponing the completion of an Iranian nuclear bomb by several years, so if it's not broken, don't fix it. It's clear that [the Mossad head] must be replaced every few years, but when we are dealing with something so deep, is this the time to do so? We have a Mossad chief suited to what the Mossad needs at this time."

You wrote the biography of Isser Harel, who headed the Mossad for 11 years. There were also differences of opinion about when he should step down.

"Harel tripped up because he lost his mind. He became obsessive about the German issue when he thought that all the German scientists working in Egypt were emissaries of the German government. In effect, it later became clear that that the missiles they built did not have guidance systems at all, but because of Harel's self-assurance, because of his over confidence, we didn't catch [Nazi war criminal Adolf] Eichmann for years.

"We almost lost Eichmann because he was so arrogant. After all, they found Eichmann because of a girl who dated his son, who told her his name was Eichmann. Her father was a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp; an old, blind Jew was the person who identified Eichmann.

"Harel didn't investigate this and didn't rely on it and for a year and a half they ignored the information, until the German attorney general contacted his peer in Israel and wanted to know why they weren't acting on the information. It was sheer luck that later, even though he had moved, they found him based on this information."

Writing books and articles about the Mossad relies a great deal on foreign media sources, partial information, and what the censor allows to be published. Can you write in a serious fashion with all these limitations?

"When we don't know something, and that is what happens with secret activities, our criticism or our amazement are exaggerated. After all, until Imad Mugheniyeh was assassinated, there was incessant criticism of Dagan in the Israeli media, and journalists were surprised that [Ariel] Sharon or [Ehud] Olmert could address him positively at all. Then suddenly a mere day after Mugheniyeh was killed, there were headlines about the man who brought back Israel's honor.

"But I don't have complaints about the media, since we don't know most things. We react according to the little information we have, and we have to write. However, one must differentiate between articles about Mossad operations where they don't know everything, where they write and make legitimate mistakes, and internal gossip - that A. from this division leaped ahead of D. from that division.

The public understands nothing about that and it is meant for a circle of 30 or 40 people who are letting off steam because they are frustrated."