Military History Death of a Secret Agent

Uri Bar-Joseph believes Ashraf Marwan was the best spy who ever worked for Israel, and blames former MI chief Eli Zeira for exposing him, and the Egyptians for his mysterious death; as for the intelligence information Marwan supplied, it seems that Israel did not always know, or want to know, how to properly assess its meaning.

Yigal Kipnis
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Yigal Kipnis


("The Angel: Ashraf Marwan, the Mossad and the Surprise of the Yom Kippur War"), by Uri Bar-Joseph. Zmora-Bitan Press (Hebrew ), 430 pages, NIS 94

The hero of Uri Bar-Joseph's book is Ashraf Marwan, a son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser who offered his services as a spy to the Mossad beginning some three years before the Yom Kippur War. He became a close confidant of Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, and continued to supply Israel with highly classified information, most significantly during the critical year leading up to war. For the Mossad, Marwan embodied what Bar-Joseph calls "the dream of every spy service in the world."

In 2002, many years after he had stopped spying, his name and the details of his work were exposed; five years later, he was found dead in London under circumstances that remain unresolved to this day. The book's final dramatic scene, tragic for the hero, shows that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Marwan's value as a spy may be gleaned just from the bare facts of what he told Israel, and attempts to enhance the drama serve only to detract from it. For example, the book attempts to glorify the Egyptian agent's importance by devoting the prologue to a description of the fighting on the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War, and the claim that Marwan's warning kept the Syrians from winning it back - an assertion that cannot be proven. It is precisely the timing of the warning - a mere day before Egypt and Syria carried out a coordinated attack on Israel in October 1973 - that detracts from Marwan's reputation and raises the question of why such a highly placed spy had not warned Israel earlier.

In his preface, the author points out that "During the course of work on the book, I had to bridge the deep divide between the subject and the writer's access to material." Despite this challenge, the book succeeds in presenting Marwan's story in an enjoyable way.

It is less successful in assessing the implications of Marwan's actions for the events leading up to the Yom Kippur War, and the influence they had on what the book terms "Israel's greatest disaster." This is because the book only looks at the intelligence and military ramifications, not the equally important political ones, as will be seen in remarks by Henry Kissinger cited below.

Bar-Joseph's fascinating and important book has to be approached on two separate levels. One is the story of Ashraf Marwan and the vital information he passed on to Israel, especially the intelligence he provided during the buildup to the war. The second level is the events of 1973 itself, the part played by Marwan and the information he provided, and the behavior of Israeli decision makers in that year.

Bar-Joseph weaves a narrative that will appeal not simply to fans of spy stories; one that is all the more powerful because it really took place. He offers a rare glimpse into the mysteries of the Mossad and its secret methods. He provides a plethora of details, and even if those in the know disagree with the decision to expose them, or identify some inaccuracies among them, the curious are likely to be satisfied by the book.

The author also supplies the necessary background details in a clear fashion, and in the right proportion to the new contributions he makes; the context is just enough to help readers unfamiliar with the details of the war understand what's going on, without bogging down more knowledgeable readers.

In the matter of Eli Zeira

Being personally blamed for events occurring during the Yom Kippur War is a heavy load for any individual to bear. This is what brought down and what some say may have contributed to the fatal heart attack of David Elazar, who was chief of staff during the war. Eli Zeira, head of Military Intelligence at the time, continued to live under the weight of the blame, and the book describes in great detail how he tried to share it with others, ultimately leading to the exposure of Marwan (whom Zeira and others maintained was a double agent ) three decades later, as well as damage to the Mossad and Marwan's death.

Bar-Joseph, a professor of international relations at the University of Haifa and author of the 2005 book "The Watchman Fell Asleep: The Surprise of Yom Kippur and Its Sources" (SUNY Press ), has a lot to say about the fact that Marwan "did not know until the afternoon of October 5 that the war would start the next day, and learned of this only by accident." Here a question must be asked about the political leadership's judgment, as the agent and his handlers cannot be blamed for not having had the information earlier. The consumers of intelligence, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who knew what their sources were, had to take into account this possibility and not place all their hopes on a warning it was doubtful that a particular agent could give.

As for Zeira's double agent theory, the author includes - as well he should - a special discussion considering the various arguments supporting it, and rejects them all. He also carefully addresses the question of whether Marwan committed suicide or was murdered and, if the latter, by whom? Were Egyptians, Israelis or agents of other secret services responsible, or was he killed for a reason unconnected to his espionage background? Bar-Joseph conducts a broad survey of the circumstances of his death, in a fall from the balcony of his London apartment in 2007, leading readers to the "unavoidable conclusion that responsibility for Marwan's death lies with the Egyptians," although there are other logical explanations that undermine this claim. This sense of ambiguity seems well suited to the entire story, granting it a nimbus of intrigue, and imparting the thought that, despite the author's certainty about the cause of Marwan's death, the mystery remains unsolved. Until all the facts are in, at least, readers will enjoy the fascinating case of the "best spy who ever worked for Israel."

Just don't reach an agreement

As it must, the book deals with the events of 1973 in detail. The question arises: How could Israel - with its well-equipped and highly trained army perched on the Suez Canal and at a strategic point on the Golan Heights, with the diplomatic and military support it was getting from Washington, with a rare and vital intelligence source such as Marwan, have encountered a situation as difficult as the Yom Kippur War, and how could it have had such a hard time controlling events?

Bar-Joseph places most of the blame on the intelligence apparatus, calling this "the intelligence failure that brought about Israel's greatest disaster." But such a claim rests on earlier history written on the topic (including by the author, in his previous book on the subject ), which is partial by its very nature. Up-to-date research, broadened into other areas, will no doubt focus on the full significance of political action (or inaction ) at the time. Newer sources not dealt with by the book will probably lead to the conclusion that responsibility for the disaster rests mainly at the door of a small coterie of political leaders. Not because of "ministerial responsibility," but due to their personal failure, to the methods and considerations of the decision makers. Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, who resigned from the government elected immediately after the war, knew more about their failure than the public knows today.

Another subject worthy of a deeper look is socio-cultural: the various aspects of the euphoric period in Israel between the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War a mere six years later, during which blind arrogance and the worship of power were deemed preferable to wisdom and judgment. Without considering this element, it is impossible to understand the events of 1973 and the war, which - despite the myth surrounding it - was the most predictable one in Israel's history. When these areas are investigated, it will be seen that while there certainly was a failure of intelligence, its part will turn out to be much smaller than is currently thought.

For example, transcripts received after the war by Matti Golan, then a political correspondent for Haaretz, show that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Meir that the Yom Kippur War could have been prevented through diplomacy. He was talking about Washington's support for Israel's efforts to preserve diplomatic paralysis in response to a peace plan proposed by Sadat, which called for an agreement with Israel provided it return the Egyptian territory captured in 1967. The following excerpt of Hebrew notes refers to Kissinger's meetings with Sadat's adviser Hafez Ismail:

"I don't want to blame anyone, but during 1973 it was possible to prevent the war. Do you remember when I reported on my meetings with Hafez Ismail? What did I do in those meetings? I spoke with him about the weather and every other topic in the world, just so we didn't touch on the main subject of an agreement ... I attempted to gain time and postpone the serious stage another month, another year ... To what extent did we really desire talks? I would say that the effort we made was very small. In effect we waved these talks around to calm Sadat, to give him a reason to sit back quietly" (translation by Haaretz).

In February 1973, Ismail presented Kissinger with a new political initiative; this is a matter of public knowledge. Its proposals, one of which was a schedule for political talks that would end by September 1973, are less well known. After the war, reaching an Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement required all of the talent, standing, will and energy that a statesman like Kissinger could muster, but the outcome looked a lot like what Sadat had sought before the war.

The research and the writing of political history may be carried out only at a distance of decades, for many reasons. Until then, the space is filled with writing that relies on knowledge that is partial or incomplete, slanted or incorrect. Its sources are memoir and oral history, narratives that overtake the historical story and are, to a large extent, influenced by parties with an interest in shaping it.

With respect to 1973, more comprehensive analyses are still in the early stages of preparation. Despite the fact that interest in it has never flagged, the political history of that year has not yet been revealed to the public. A discussion that focuses solely on the army and intelligence will be partial and is likely to be misleading. It's a common error to think that Justice Shimon Agranat, whose commission investigated the intelligence failure that preceded the war, was in a position to provide answers: he did not have (and could not have had ) all the information. And so the Agranat Commission could not properly investigate and reach conclusions about the behavior of politicians or the apportionment of responsibility between them and the army.

The breadth of documentation required for such research is wide. Much of it is already available, but located in archives outside Israel and largely inaccessible online. Its collection, cataloging and, most important, a serious consideration of all the factors, even the apparently less important ones, requires a lot of time.

What Golda didn't understand

According to the book, the information Marwan was asked to supply dealt mainly with military matters like war plans and weapons, and so it was an officer from MI who met with him. And when Marwan did supply political information, Israel failed to understand it. For example, based on information from the Mossad, Israel discussed Sadat's initiative with Kissinger the night of his meeting with Ismail. One of the Egyptian plan's main points dealt with the need to detach Egyptian-Israeli talks from the Syrian-Israeli and Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian tracks, which Sadat viewed as factors that would only delay progress. The Israeli leadership, which was suspicious, erred in interpreting Sadat's path-breaking offer as a ploy and told Kissinger that the Egyptians wanted Sinai and then to continue the struggle against Israel, and that they planned to use the Palestinians as the grounds for this. This was the central argument behind Israel's demand that the United States reject the initiative.

This important political process and any information that Marwan supplied (or did not ) are not discussed in the book. Warnings about an imminent war had been repeated several times in the months prior. Sadat issued such warnings publicly, often speaking about war as an option if political efforts failed. While the book does expand on these warnings, it examines them from a military standpoint rather than a political one; if they had been perceived as a form of diplomacy, it would have become clear that there was a complete correlation between events like the Kissinger-Ismail and Nixon-Brezhnev meetings and the threats of war, which Sadat employed as part of an effort to move a peace process forward.

An examination of U.S.-Israeli ties shows that an earlier warning of a possible attack might still not have been enough to move Israel to act preemptively. Since Washington wanted to avoid war in the Middle East - seeing it as against the U.S. interest in thawing relations with the Soviet Union and reducing Soviet influence in the Mideast - America's agreement to stave off Sadat's peace efforts and equip Israel with deterrent weapons came with a price.

Though facing the threat of a war with Egypt, Israel was obligated not to carry out a preemptive attack or escalate tensions by calling up a large number of reservists. Bar-Joseph does add the following details in this vein: Even when it was certain that war would break out, Meir announced that she could not allow the air force to carry out a preemptive attack and would not authorize a general call-up. Dayan, for his part, "acted slowly" and didn't prioritize planning for a possible attack.

The writer emphasizes that the prime minister gave the impression, in her testimony before Agranat, that she would have acted the same way even if there had been an earlier warning about the start of the war.

Israel's obligations to the United States in return for the diplomatic freeze it demanded, and received, is in large part responsible for its lack of preparedness in the face of the Egyptian and Syrian threat. It appears that the failure of politics bears no less blame for the Yom Kippur War than the failure of intelligence.

The dramatic developments of recent days in Egypt only add further urgency to the need to understand the political story of 1973 - the one that the book doesn't deal with. Regardless of what sort of regime emerges in Egypt, both it and Israel, and the international community in general, have an interest in preventing a situation that would allow a repeal of the events of that fateful year.

Dr. Yigal Kipnis is the author of "The Mountain That Was As a Monster: The Golan Between Syria and Israel" (Magnes Press ) to be published in English later this year.



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