‘If you don’t take care of this problem, we’re going to have to’
Book Review

‘If you don’t take care of this problem, we’re going to have to’

That was the Mossad’s message to Europe after the Munich Olympics massacre, say authors Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman in their new book on Israel’s spy operations. Is there a lesson here for Iran?

Spies Against Armageddon, by Raviv and Melman
Spies Against Armageddon, by Raviv and Melman

WASHINGTON – Americans may recognize Dan Raviv as the distinctive voice behind the nationwide news updates at the top of every hour on CBS Radio News. Or they might tune in to Raviv’s weekly hour-long radio program, CBS News Weekend Roundup, which airs coast-to-coast on hundreds of affiliates. But more than a few listeners might be surprised to learn that the veteran CBS newsman is also a Hebrew-speaking bestselling author and expert on the Israeli intelligence community.

CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv (photo credit: Courtesy Dan Raviv)
CBS News correspondent Dan Raviv (photo credit: Courtesy Dan Raviv)

This summer, Raviv reunited with Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, his co-author of the 1990 bestseller, “Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of the Israeli Intelligence Community,” to produce another book that dives deeply into the clandestine world of Israeli spycraft and uncovers a whole host of new revelations.

Raviv and Melman understand the inner workings of Israel’s Mossad better than most Mossad agents

Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars,” called “Milhamot Hatzelalim (Shadow Wars)” in Hebrew, has been hailed as the “gold standard for nonfiction about [Israeli] intelligence” by former CIA director James Woolsey.

Douglas Brinkley, an American historian, calls the book’s research “nothing short of stunning.”

“Raviv and Melman understand the inner workings of Israel’s Mossad better than most Mossad agents,” says Brinkley.

Speaking from his home in Israel, Melman said the time had come to publish a new book on the Israeli intelligence community.

Israeli newspaper reporter and columnist, Yossi Melman (photo credit: Courtesy Yossi Melman)
Israeli newspaper reporter and columnist Yossi Melman (photo credit: Courtesy)

“Dan and I wrote a book 22 years ago that broke a lot of new ground at the time,” he says. “But since then, so many things have changed. Agencies have been dismantled, restructured, and reformed. And lots of new challenges, obviously, are confronting Israel and Middle East.”

Raviv, in an interview at the CBS studios in Washington, DC, notes that “Every Spy a Prince” was written pre-Oslo, before Yasser Arafat had been allowed into the Palestinian territories, and before Israel’s landmark peace treaty with Jordan. He says the biggest change within the Israeli intelligence community in recent years is the pivot towards Iran as its overwhelming focus.

“One of the biggest revelations in this new book is the sea change that took place in the Israeli intelligence community in 2004,” says Raviv. “Until then, the focus was on Palestinian politics and terrorism. But Yossi and I discovered that, eight years ago, the Mossad shifted its focus away from the Palestinians and towards the boiling Iran issue, which they consider a far more urgent matter of life and death.”

Melman agrees, saying, “The Iran question now towers over everything.”

The book’s first chapter, “Stopping Iran,” painstakingly details the Mossad’s efforts to thwart the Iranian nuclear program through such means as “recruiting high-quality agents in Iran’s leadership and inside the nuclear program, sabotaging nuclear facilities, and assassinating key figures in the program.”

The Iran question now towers over everything

Raviv and Melman also go into great detail on another story that, until now, hasn’t been fully told: Israel’s 2007 bombing of the Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor.

“The book describes how Israel tried to get the US to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor,” says Raviv. “We explain how Israel got the intelligence – including from some men on the ground – by taking soil, water, and air samples to test for radioactivity to get a better understanding of what the building was. After concluding that it was of North Korean design, then-prime minister Ehud Olmert brought the evidence to president George W. Bush and asked the Americans to bomb the facility.”

Raviv says Bush opposed attacking the facility and urged the Israeli leader to make the evidence public in order to embarrass the Syrian regime.

“Olmert told Bush that the Israelis totally disagreed with that strategy,” he says. “That was June 2007. Within three months, Israel’s air force erased the building, but did not announce it, and has never confirmed it because they did not want to provoke or embarrass the Syrians into retaliation. And, indeed, there has not been any Syrian retaliation.”

“Spies Against Armageddon” is filled with stories behind the stories. During the Syrian operation, for instance, Raviv and Melman learned that one of the countermeasures used by the attacking Israeli aircraft was a brilliant anti-radar system that, instead of having Syrian operators’ screens go black, kept the screens showing apparently routine developments.

“It was like right out of ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’” says Raviv. “But it really happened. The Syrians thought everything was fine.”

Spies Against Armageddon, by Raviv and Melman
Spies Against Armageddon, by Raviv and Melman

Raviv says he didn’t come to the topic of the Israeli intelligence services out of a lifelong interest in the subject, but that he “simply likes to learn about, and tell, interesting stories with colorful characters.”

As the son of two Israeli emigrants who came to America in 1950, Raviv says he can relate to stories that involve Israelis.

Raviv grew up in Great Neck, Long Island, and attended Harvard University. His first job at CBS was in Boston. His second was in New York, during which time his bosses came looking for someone who knew the language to volunteer to work out of the Tel Aviv bureau. Sadat had just visited Jerusalem, so in 1978, Raviv became the CBS radio guy in Tel Aviv and went on to spend more than 30 years covering the news all around the world for CBS.

Melman covered Israel’s intelligence community for Haaretz for many years, and is the winner of the Sokolov Prize for Journalism (Israel’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize). He has authored a number of books in Hebrew and English, including the acclaimed “The Master Terrorist: The True Story Behind Abu Nidal.”

Asked about other revelations in the book, Melman and Raviv point to their exhaustive exploration of Israel’s super-secret Kidon unit (Bayonet in English), often called “the Mossad within the Mossad,” which is allegedly responsible for assassinations and kidnappings.

“When our first book was published, we knew very little about the unit,” says Raviv. “But now, we know a lot more about it, such as the fact that Kidon was involved in the assassinations of the Iranian scientists and that they were not carried out by hired guns, as many people believed.”

‘It was like right out of ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’ But it really happened. The Syrians thought everything was fine’

Kidon is believed to have been created in the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, in order to carry out the assassination campaign against the Black September terrorist group. But Raviv says he and Melman discovered that the popular conception that Mossad carried out those hits as revenge for the Munich killings is dead wrong.

“There’s a reason that Zvi Zamir, who was Mossad director during that time, is angry at Steven Spielberg for his movie ‘Munich,’” says Raviv. “The film makes it look like Zamir’s hit teams went after the Black September terrorists out of revenge and felt angst and guilt about it and, eventually, the head of the team felt it was all for naught.”

“Zamir said not so. He says his men were soldiers who were totally motivated and constantly supervised. The truth is, the assassination campaign was more of a tactical move by the Israelis, whose main message was to European governments.”

Raviv says, “The message was not to the PLO. It was to European governments that, if you don’t take care of this problem, we’re going to have to. Again and again, European countries arrested Palestinian terrorists but let them go shortly thereafter. In effect, Israel was saying, ‘We’ll take care of them on your soil if you don’t.”

A lesson there regarding Iran, perhaps?

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