Secrets and Lies

"Hameraglim - Parshot Rigul Bamedinat Yisrael" (The Spies: Israel's Counterespionage Wars") by Yossi Melman and Eitan Haber, Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 414 pages, NIS 88

"Hameraglim - Parshot Rigul Bamedinat Yisrael" (The Spies: Israel's Counterespionage Wars") by Yossi Melman and Eitan Haber, Yedioth Ahronoth Books, 414 pages, NIS 88

Tales of espionage have always fired the imagination. Israeli spies operating behind enemy lines - Eli Cohen, for example - are still the stuff of patriotic stories. Conversely, spies dispatched by our enemies, especially those who are Jewish, are censured beyond reproach. The present book, written [in Hebrew] by journalists Eitan Haber and Yossi Melman, is about spies - Jews and non-Jews - who operated in Israel and passed on their secrets to hostile elements, in most cases to Eastern European and Arab intelligence services.

Espionage operations are made public only after they are found out, and even then, reports on exactly what unfolded are usually incomplete. In the trial that follows the arrest, the public only hears those details in which sensitive or operational secrets are not revealed. At times, certain details are leaked, usually when they serve the needs of the prosecution or the defense.

The complete picture may only become clear years later; in Israel, reporting on what really took place is not at all simple. The authors of this book claim that its publication involved "a Via Dolorosa unlike that experienced by any other book in the history of Israel," and that it took three years of debating with the legal bureaucracy of the security establishment - censors, the Shin Bet or under its full Hebrew name, the general security service, the Ministry of Defense's security unit, the state prosecutor, courts - which tried to prevent publication of all sorts of details.

In the book, Melman and Haber describe dozens of espionage affairs, drawn from the more significant and interesting examples of the hundreds of affairs that the Shin Bet, the body responsible for protecting state secrets - has exposed and foiled since the state was established. Incidentally, all of these stories have been publicized in the past, but to the credit of the authors, it should be said that they carried out a thorough job of gathering information, and succeeded in gleaning new details from a variety of sources, including Shin Bet operatives who played a part in the counterespionage activities. The end result is a book that, in lucid, fluent language, tells the story of the major espionage attempts against Israel, within the political and security context of the era in which they took place, leaving the reader with fewer unanswered questions than he or she may have had prior to reading the book.

Fragile democracy

In the brief prologue, "And these are the annals," the authors survey the development of the counterespionage capabilities of the Shin Bet, which enables the reader to understand how the agency organizes itself in carrying out its missions. In this as well as subsequent chapters, we learn - from reading about a few of the espionage affairs - just how fragile Israeli democracy was in the early years of the state, when the Shin Bet's "No. 1 unit," as the counter espionage department was known then, would gather information about political parties and public figures that were considered to be political rivals of Mapai, the ruling party. The final chapter is a short and useful summary that puts the espionage affairs that took place in Israel in their proper proportions, surveying the various adversaries and their methods of operation, and assessing the damage they caused. In each of the other chapters of the book, the affairs are all described in full.

As they weave the tale of each episode, the authors immerse us in the peculiar vernacular of the counterespionage community. As we read on, we learn about various other organizations associated with the Israeli intelligence establishment. For instance, the story about Operation Angel, which mainly concerns Soviet spymaster Yuri Linov, provides details of the structure and modus operandi of the KGB's first directorate - the body that, until its collapse, was the Soviet version of the American CIA and the Israeli Mossad.

Incidentally, the authors maintain that as opposed to the conventional wisdom, Israel was not a primary target of Eastern espionage agencies. Through their description of Operation Sodom and Gomorrah - the Shabtai Kalmanovich affair - and other counterespionage operations against Jewish spies sent into the field in Israel by the KGB, we learn about the activities of Nativ ("the Immigrant Liaison Bureau"), the organization that maintained contact with the Jews of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and which during various periods, coordinated immigration efforts to Israel. The effort invested in locating KGB spies and collaborators yielded a handsome bonus: Debriefing of immigrants who arrived from behind the Iron Curtain yielded information that contributed to closer ties and cooperation between Israeli and American intelligence.

The title of the book is "The Spies," but it is doubtful if all the incidents described therein are worthy of the title. Mordechai Vanunu, for example, whose story is told here, may have revealed Israel's atomic secrets to the international media, in so doing causing significant damage to state security, but he did not engage in espionage. Yossi Ginossar, then the head of the Shin Bet's counterespionage division, put it this way: "Under what pretext would we bring him to Israel? He hasn't committed any crime of spying." Neither was Nachum Manbar, who was tried and convicted of aiding the enemy, a spy. Yes, he sold Iran knowledge, technology, equipment and banned materiel, but not state secrets.

Mixed bag

The stories of spies operating in Israel, as in most revelations of spies everywhere in the world, are intertwined with failure and success, and the 20 episodes described in the book by Melman and Haber are no exception to the rule: failure in that the Shin Bet did not foil the espionage attempt at its start, and success that it eventually managed to cast its net upon the spy and bring him to justice. One of the successful operations was "Operation Golf Ball," which led to the desertion of the head of the KGB branch in Israel, Aleksander Lomov, and his wife, Anna Aleksei, herself a Soviet agent, who operated from the Russian church in Jerusalem.

Conversely, the operation that caused the Shin Bet its greatest "embarrassment" was Operation "Pigul" (tainted meat). Levi Levi, an employee of the intelligence service's operational wing, provided his operators in the Polish intelligence agency OB with information about Shin Bet activities for seven years until he was discovered.

The Vanunu, Manbar and Marcus Klingberg affairs, all of which did serious damage to Israel's national security, combined elements of success (the capture of the spies) and failure: The spies could have been found out earlier, thereby preventing or significantly reducing the damage they did. The authors relate that the Shin Bet was well aware of the ideological turnaround in Vanunu's world view years before he left Israel with the negatives of the Dimona atomic reactor; they also knew about Manbar's contacts and involvement in the supply to Iran of equipment and components for the production of chemical warfare materials long before it was decided to arrest him. Klingberg was suspected as a spy as early as the 1960s, but the Shin Bet was unable to verify suspicions against him, allowing him to pass on secrets to his KGB operators for the next 18 years.

How much damage did all these spies do to Israel? Aside from Klingberg, a very valuable spy who passed on to his Soviet controllers information about Israel's defensive and offensive biological capabilities, and who caused Israel its most serious damage of all, the remaining agents who were caught seem to have been small fish. Even Yisrael Bar, remembered as a top spy, did not cause any real damage. The head of the local branch, Lomov, did not particularly excel at his job. The Soviets ran Shimon Levinson, a volunteer who had some genuine potential, like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Intelligence agencies of the East made contact with thousands of immigrants headed for Israel, and succeeded in recruiting several hundred. However, most of them cut off contact with the agencies after settling in Israel, and others reported the recruitment attempt to the Shin Bet. The number of immigrants who actually cooperated with the Eastern European and Soviet spy agencies was quite limited.

Similarly, the intelligence agencies of the Arab states, including Egypt and Syria, which were the most active, do not get especially high grades for their activities. Their espionage operations in Israel were amateurish efforts, and were not marked by any real sophistication. They were on the level of "biblical spying," the authors say, quoting Amos Manor, who headed the Shin Bet in 1952-63.

Operation "Yated" (tent pin), one of the most interesting chapters of the book, refers to one of the "wonders of the espionage world": The Israeli and Egyptian intelligence communities are both proud of their work on the same operation. The episode involved an Egyptian spy who infiltrated as an immigrant, and operated in Israel under a Jewish identity. The Shin Bet, which exposed him and succeeded in turning him into a double agent, learned through him about the modus operandi of Egyptian intelligence and fed him misleading information. The Shin Bet still sees this operation as one of its most prominent achievements in the counterespionage arena. A book describing the operation was written by one of his controllers, but due to objections by the official censor, was published as a fictional novel.

As for the Egyptians, they are still convinced that they succeeded in planting a valuable agent in Israel who served them loyally, and proudly published a book as well as a TV series about his exploits, both of which were received very warmly.

Among the 20 spies mentioned in the book are quite a few Jews and Israelis, including native-born Israelis. One nagging question that is not addressed by the book is what makes an Israeli Jew decide to spy against his country. What motivates him to betray his homeland, people, family and friends? There does not seem to be any uniform profile. Every spy is a world unto himself, with his own motives and deviations. As a rule, "our own" spies act for the same motives as those of other nations: money, ideology and revenge on the establishment.

Can citizens of the state sleep easily at night, confident that the Shin Bet is effectively guarding the secrets of the state? To the best of our knowledge, the answer is yes. Most of the spies that operated in Israel were exposed shortly after they began their activities. Yet we mustn't let the successes of exposing these spies go to our head, - as important and successful as they are - because we can never know for certain if enemy agents are active in Israel, and if so, in what capacity.

David Arbel served in the Israeli intelligence community.