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A mural in Gaza City in 2012 shows (left)
Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed by Israel in a March 2004 missile strike, and PLO chief Yasser Arafat, who died of a mysterious illness in November of the same year (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
A mural in Gaza City in 2012 shows (left) Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, killed by Israel in a March 2004 missile strike, and PLO chief Yasser Arafat, who died of a mysterious illness in November of the same year (Wissam Nassar/Flash90)
Interview'In many cases, only one person gives authorization: the PM'

How Israel’s leaders use targeted killings to try to ‘stop history’

Ronen Bergman, author of ‘Rise and Kill First,’ a revelatory history of Israeli strikes on individual enemies, dissects his discoveries and their often discomfiting implications

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Main image by Wissam Nassar/Flash90

Ronen Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations” is a chronicle, he writes, “of a long string of impressive tactical successes, but also disastrous strategic failures.”

Tiny Israel, beset by Arab attempts at destruction and the “perpetual menace” of terrorism, developed a highly effective military, arguably the world’s best intelligence agencies, and, in turn, “the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.” And on numerous occasions, it was the targeted killing of potent enemies “that saved Israel from very grave crises.” Israel’s intelligence community and its political masters, indeed, have relied on these attacks, and the further deterrent that they create, to avert wars and major conflicts, or at least to widen the gaps between such wider hostilities.

But at the same time, Bergman said in an interview to coincide with the book’s publication, the very success and potency of what are calculated as over 2,700 assassination operations in Israel’s 70-year modern history has sometimes led Israeli politicians to eschew true leadership and diplomacy. They have felt that they have, at their fingertips, he said, “this tool” with which they can “stop history… They can make sure that they achieve their goals with intelligence and special operations, and not by turning to statesmanship and political discourse.”

The Times of Israel sat with Bergman for over two hours to discuss the revelations and implications of his research — eight years of work, 1,000 interviews, untold crates of previously unpublished documents… and a great more material unacceptably unpublished, from his point of view, as a consequence of heavy-handed military censorship.

Ronen Bergman (Dana Kopel)

A veteran military and intelligence correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, Bergman, the author of several best-sellers, evidently is both an inexhaustible researcher and a journalist with a remarkable capacity to persuade highly secretive individuals to vouchsafe never-before-disclosed nuggets, and sometimes entire episodes.

As both his book — titled from the Talmudic counsel, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first” — and the conversation here will confirm, Bergman is torn by the material that he presents. He is certain that the targeted killing policy so centrally adopted by Israel has been crucial to the country’s defense, but also aware of the moral dilemmas it poses.

In theory, this interview was intended to focus on Bergman, highlighting those parts of his book, of his research, which he is bringing into the public domain for the first time. In practice, it veered, too, into the strengths and weaknesses of many of his protagonists, the fragile balances between Israel’s political and security echelons, and a good deal of agonizing about alternate paths Israeli history might have taken and the murky dilemmas ahead.

The interview flitted between English and Hebrew. The text has been tightened and edited for clarity.

Rise and Kill First, by Ronen Bergman

The Times of Israel: Tell me, in this vast book, what is the most important material that is coming out for the first time? Many of the cases are familiar, but there are differences, elements I’d never heard before, and then there are stories that are completely fresh.

Ronen Bergman: The overall structure of many of the operations described in the book had been published in the past. Take the Spring of Youth operation in 1973 (when undercover IDF special forces attacked PLO targets in Lebanon), for instance. It’s the story most dissected in the history of the commandos. Ehud Barak dressed up as a brunette, and Aviram Levine as a blonde. We know about that.

I had three choices about what to do regarding these kinds of operations. I could have disregarded operations that were known about, but I knew that for some readers, they’d be reading it for the first time. I could have recycled everything that was published, but I figured there were a lot of errors and fake events and I would just be an echo of that recycling. So I decided on the third option, which was to do everything from scratch. And that’s why it took me eight years to finish and 1,000 interviews.

Some of the stories, in the accounts published before, just didn’t make sense — like what we are supposed to believe happened after (the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972 at) Munich. You know, the Spielberg Munich movie? As if Golda Meir called someone from the Mossad and said, Kill them all, and set up a secret court, where you had a judge, as if they were doing due process. Now, none of that happened. It was one hundred percent fake.

Even on Spring of Youth — again, zillions of words written about it — I uncovered much new stuff. First, I found the embarrassing story that they were trying to hide for 40 years — that one of the Mossad warriors became shell-shocked and ran away. That’s quite a story. This guy ran away. I think that nowadays it would be very hard to bury something like that. But back then it was possible.

Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt, addresses a huge crowd gathered in Republic Square, Cairo, Feb. 22, 1958, from a balcony of the National Union building (AP Photo)

We can go story by story. There’s a lot of new information. On the German scientists (developing rockets for Egypt to use against Israel, and targeted by the Mossad in the early 1960s), the whole story didn’t make sense to me. I wanted to have the documents. And now I have the Mossad documents from the affair, which show the extent of hysteria — and the word “hysteria” is used in the (Mossad’s) report. A big internal Mossad report was written about the German scientists in 1981, when everyone was still alive. Why the hysteria? Because the Mossad was caught out, without any pre-knowledge that this was happening. (Egypt’s President) Nasser showed off the missiles at a parade in Cairo, and boasted that they could hit any target south of Beirut. The Voice of Thunder from Cairo (radio station) was more blunt, and said, These are the missiles that we are going to use “to destroy the Zionist entity.” They didn’t say Israel. They said the Zionist Entity. And the Mossad hadn’t known anything about it. They were preoccupied with (Adolf) Eichmann and Yossele Schumacher.

Isser Harel (Wikipedia)

Paradoxically, Isser Harel (the Mossad’s director from 1952-63) was busy chasing Nazis, because he thought they were busy trying to rebuild the Third Reich, which was of course nonsense. But the only people who actually had worked for the Wehrmacht and for the Gestapo, and did pose a real threat to Israel, he didn’t see them.

(Israel’s) response to the revelation was severe: to kill the scientists. And there was one mystery, (concerning the fate of one of the scientists,) Hans Krug, a guy who disappeared from his house. He had worked in Peenemünde, the missile factory, where the Nazis developed the V1 and the V2. Then he was the overall logistic chief of the operation of the German scientists in Egypt. But when all of the scientists went to Egypt, he remained in Munich. And he disappeared. He had gotten a visit from an Egyptian intelligence officer, who said that the general in charge of the project wanted to see him in a hotel in Munich. That was the last time he was seen. And nobody knew what happened to him. The book solves that case. For the first time, it tells the story of what happened to Hans Krug.

I want to say, that from the very beginning of the state, Israeli leaders thought that secret operations and assassinations far beyond enemy lines were a useful tool to change history, or to do something to reality, without resorting to all out war. And they had this perception long before Israeli intelligence had the ability to carry out such operations. The Lavon Affair (a failed covert operation in Egypt in 1954) was a very amateurish attempt to change history with the use of special operations and sabotage and terrorism. They didn’t have the ability but they had the mindset.

That mindset has accompanied Israeli decision-making ever since: that we should have a very strong intelligence community, both so that we do not need to have the entire army, and reserves, fully deployed along the borders all the time, and to give a pre-alert for war.

David Ben-Gurion established the Israeli intelligence community in June of 1948, just three weeks after the establishment of Israel and in the midst of war. He was very confident that the Jews were going to win, when everybody else, including the CIA, said there was no way, that the Arabs are going to slaughter you. But he knew, and he understood that after that war, he would need the strongest intelligence community in order to keep the country functioning, and to have all the reserves go home, and to rebuild the military in preparation for the next conflict.

May 15, 1948: David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, stands with an Israeli official who holds the signed document which proclaims the Establishment of the State of Israel. (AP Photo, File)

By the way, Ben-Gurion changed his views on assassination and targeted killings after the Holocaust. The evidence shows that until the reality of the Holocaust was known, he opposed the use of that (assassination) weapon, which was used by the (pre-state paramilitary groups) Irgun to some extent and Lehi to a larger extent. He thought it was not an effective weapon. But that changed after the Second World War. There was the assassination of the Templars, but there was also an overall plan, that once riots start, once the civil wars start, when Israel is established, the Hagana will go and assassinate and kill the Arab leaders. That was part of his strategy.

I consider targeted assassinations to be part of an overall (Israeli) policy of secret operations used to try to enlarge the gap between wars: Go to war, if I quote (2002-2011 Mossad chief) Meir Dagan, “only when the sword is on our neck.” And the ability to hit pinpoint targets, whether it’s a facility or a person, (is also regarded as an integral part of the strategy) to confront national security threats or even change history.

That for you is really the key revelation of the book, the centrality of this policy?

Yes, this is one (key revelation). The other one relates to the creation of two sets of legal systems. Killing a person is forbidden according to Israeli law. And until 2006, when the Supreme Court ruled that it is permitted to engage in targeted killings, there was no one (in legal authority) who actually permitted it. Therefore, the establishment created two sets of laws: one for the ordinary citizens, all of us, in which murder is the most severe crime possible; and the other one, usually unwritten but very effective, for the intelligence community and the security establishment, that permitted the use of aggressive measures in order to protect the country. Torture, violation of privacy of the worst kinds, targeted assassinations. And that, with a wink and a nod but in most cases with the knowledge of the political echelon, allowed the intelligence community to do a lot of things, in many cases with only one person authorizing this: the prime minister.

Back to the revelations. The German scientist affair is interesting not just because of the operation, not just because it solves a decades-old missing persons case for the Munich police, but also because it puts things in context: to understand that the Mossad is not working in a separate world. The Mossad is part of the nation.

The German scientists had sold Nasser a bluff… Everybody overreacted

And therefore when hysteria afflicted the country, and Israel saw that the German scientists who used to work for Hitler were now working for the new Hitler, Nasser in Egypt, they were forced to react. They reacted very aggressively, without proper planning, and that did not stop the project. An attempt to kill the scientists with letter bombs failed. The affair also underlines the political context: Golda Meir and Menachem Begin and Isser Harel used the fact that German scientists were working in Egypt to prove their point that there was no new Germany, that the past had left a stain that could not go away. This was also part of their fight against the new generation, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan; they were afraid that Ben-Gurion was going to skip them and was going to give the throne to these young people.

And so what was a limited intelligence issue became a political disaster for the country. The threat, as the 1981 Mossad report says, was exaggerated. The German scientists had sold Nasser a bluff. Their missile had very little chance of taking off and hitting Israel.

But (Israel was) under the influence of the Holocaust, and remember the Israel of 1962 was full of Holocaust survivors: They saw that these people who used to work for Hitler were now working for Nasser. This was before the Six Day War and the degree of confidence it gave. Before Israel allegedly had a nuclear weapon. Everybody overreacted. It led to the downfall of Harel, and then of Ben-Gurion himself.

The Ben Barka assassination

Then there’s the Ben Barka affair, Israeli involvement in the (October 1965) assassination of a Moroccan political dissident in France. To my personal sorrow, I learned that someone I liked very much and had spent many hours with, Meir Amit (head of the Mossad from 1963-68), did not completely tell me the truth. Now that I have the documents — (Bergman explains the extraordinary process by which he gained access to thousands of documents on the case, and shows me the only copies of some of them; DH) — we see that Meir Amit did not fully report to prime minister Levi Eshkol on what happened. He got the Mossad entangled in a political assassination. The Mossad didn’t do it, but they helped the Moroccan authorities.

Mehdi Ben Barka (Dutch national archives)

Why did they want to help the Moroccans? Because that September, in Casablanca, there was an Arab League summit.

The Moroccans let us put hearing devices in and listen to everything they were saying to each other. And those tapes were the basis of Israel’s confidence that it would win in the Six Day War, because you could hear them arguing. Amit went to Eshkol and said: Look, you can hear Nasser and Hussein screaming at each other.

Only a month later, the Moroccans came to the Israelis and said: It’s time for you to pay up for what you got, yes?

What really happened after Munich

Then, there are all the things that happened after Munich. We think we know all about it. The Munich Olympics terrorist attack changed a lot, but not what we think. It’s not that Golda Meir gave orders, Let’s find all these people who carried out the Munich (terrorist attack in which 11 Israeli athletes were killed). The people who were killed had no connection to Munich whatsoever. There’s a quote in the book of someone who says something like the only connection one of them had to Munich was that the terrorists flew over him on the way to Munich. What changed with Golda, is that until Munich, she did not let Mossad kill people in Europe. After Munich, she let them do that. This is the change.

So the idea that Israel tracked down all the people responsible for the Munich massacre is a myth?

Just a myth. And it’s the same myth as if Israel was hunting Nazi war criminals. It’s also a myth.

Let’s come to that in a second. So, of the people who were responsible for Munich, many of them died happy, straightforward deaths?

Yes, most of them died straightforward deaths: Amin al-Hindi, Mohammed Oudeh, Adnan Al-Gashey, and many, many others.

The 11 Israeli Munich victims.
The 11 Israeli Munich Olympics victims.

And the second “myth” that you just threw in there? The notion that Israel, that the Mossad, went looking for Nazi war criminals, that’s false?

Yes. This is something, I must say, that I was surprised even had a written form. On July 23, 1962, Rafi Eitan and Zvi Aharoni observed (Auschwitz doctor Josef) Mengele leaving his farm (in Brazil) with some bodyguards. And they thought, ok, here’s the Eichmann operation all over again. They thought they were going to kidnap him – of course they’d need to prepare it, they couldn’t do it on the spot – or to kill him. But that day, Nasser test-fired the missiles, and they were called back to the Middle East, and everything was shut down for the sake of dealing with the German scientists.

Josef Mengele (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Josef Mengele (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

And after that, Harel left, and Meir Amit took a very different position. And that position was maintained from 1963, when he took over the Mossad, until 1977: All Mossad chiefs and all Israeli prime ministers made Nazi war criminals the lowest priority.

There was one exception – Herberts Cukurs — a Latvian war criminal who was killed in Paraguay, but this was an exception for some personal reasons: he had killed members of the family of (IDF military intelligence chief) Aharon Yariv, and Meir Amit was a close friend of Yariv’s. They were sitting in a room, and someone was reading the names of the Nazi war criminals that they are looking for and Cukurs name was read out, and there was a bang: Yariv had fainted and fallen backwards on hearing the name. Cukurs had burned much of his family, so this was sort of, you know, doing something for a friend.

But besides that, they made chasing down Nazi war criminals the lowest priority possible, and that was even written in many, many orders of the Mossad. Not to deal with them.

Herberts Cukurs (Wikipedia / WP:NFCC#4)

They actually called home someone who had traced Mengele again, in 1968, because they were afraid that he was going to carry out a rogue operation. They knew that this someone knew a few of the Mengele twins, and had a personal connection.

That only changed in 1977, when Menachem Begin became prime minister and he saw that the Mossad was extremely reluctant to deal with them. He dictated a secret decision for the Security Cabinet, that the Mossad will hunt at least Martin Bormann (who had been dead since 1945) and Mengele but it was already too late. By the time they regrouped and started to look into that, Mengele was already dead. They were chasing his ghost for another 10 years.

But in the 60s, you’re saying it would have been entirely straightforward for Israel to have replicated what it did with Eichmann, with Mengele?

Yes, they were very close to him. At least two times they were on him, and they chose to leave it.

“They chose to leave it.” Okay, that’s pretty staggering.

And not just because they didn’t want to act. They did, but Meir Amit told me very openly: I prefer to deal with threats of the present than ghosts of the past. And it was clear that these Nazis posed no threat.

However, Mike Harari, the longtime head of Mossad operations, told me: Listen, in retrospect, I think I was an idiot. I could have taken more of them. The security in South America was so light. He was talking in particular about Klaus Barbie; he cancelled an operation to kill Barbie because he wasn’t satisfied with the getaway plan. Generally speaking, Israeli intelligence did not hunt Nazi war criminals.

Let’s move forward to the coastal road massacre (in which 38 Israelis were killed in a Fatah terror attack near Tel Aviv in 1978). The depth and the detail of the intelligence that Israel had on these terrorists; they knew that they were preparing an attack. They sent Shayetet 13 (the naval special forces unit) to kill them, but they didn’t kill them all. They wanted to send them again, but (defense minister Ezer) Weizman was on a visit to the US and they didn’t want to ruin his visit. And then it came – that horrible event.

Having said all that, the achievement of the assassinations after Munich was that (PLO chief Yasser) Arafat and other jihadis decided to leave Europe for the time being, and rebuild their forces in the Middle East.

I describe the Lillehammer affair (in which the Mossad mistakenly killed an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway who they had mistaken for Ali Hassan Salameh, the Black September operations chief) with many details.

Now I understand what happened there, and I think one of the most bizarre aspects was that the Mossad knew that someone had written down the license plate of the car that was used by the assassins. So Harari said to one of the operatives: take the car, put it somewhere else, and dump the keys. And then you and that woman, the other operative, you take a train back to Oslo. But that operative had bought taps for his new house in Israel, and didn’t want to take them on the train. Yes, it all comes down to these kinds of details. He decided: I’ll take the car to Oslo, give it back to the rental company there and fly. What difference does it make?

It made all the difference, because the police were waiting at the rental company. They arrested him. He was claustrophobic, spoke in the investigation, and brought down the entire network. So there were two embarrassing mess-ups: Firstly, they killed the wrong person, which is also a problematic story, and secondly, the botched getaway.

The real world of intelligence operations is not more or less interesting than a James Bond movie, it’s just completely different

That brings me to something I have to say about Mike Harari. Mike built the Caesarea (Mossad operations division) up again after a series of catastrophes — (including) Ben Barka, (and the exposures of) Eli Cohen (in Syria) and Wolfgang Lotz (in Egypt). The way he rebuilt it, the things he stressed, underline that the real world of intelligence operations is not more or less interesting than a James Bond movie, it’s just completely different.

It’s less important to jump off roofs and shoot; what’s most important is the cover story. They built a world of straw companies; there’s cover story infrastructure built by Harari in the 60s that still serves the Mossad today. Mike said, We need zero mistakes. Because every mistake like Eli Cohen is a catastrophe for the whole country.

Meir Dagan put it to me differently. He said: Look, if a soldier is killed in Jenin, it’s a horrible disaster for his family, it’s the end of their life, but it’s not that much of a disaster for the State of Israel. If a Mossad operative is caught in enemy territory, it’s a huge disaster, and falls straight on the prime minister’s head.

There’s a story – I can’t tell you when or where; there are things I can’t share – there was a Mossad agent, in a really hostile country, who got into a car accident, completely by mistake, and ran over someone and killed them. It happens – no conspiracy. The local police investigated, and they arrested this man. You can’t imagine what stress there was in Israel – the prime minister would speak several times a day with the director of the Mossad to find out what was happening, until it was over.

That’s why Dubai — the 2010 assassination of Hamas arms buyer Mahmoud al-Mabhouh — could have ended so much worse. Think what would have happened if Dubai police had analyzed the pictures (of the preparations for the hit and the hit itself) in real time. Everything was (investigated) in retrospect, after the (Mossad operatives) were long gone. But imagine if someone had seen them sitting with their tennis rackets in the hotel lobby for four hours, and doing nothing, and asked: What’s going on here? What are these people doing?

Pictures released by Dubai in 2010 of alleged Mossad suspects in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (photo credit: Youtube screenshot)
Pictures released by Dubai in 2010 of alleged Mossad suspects in the killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (photo credit: Youtube screenshot)

Someone would have seen someone go into a bathroom bald and come out with a wig (because of the lax manner in which the agents operated) and they would have closed the hotel and arrested everyone. If they had arrested them and removed their fingernails, Israel would have had to shut down Caesarea and the entire Mossad for ten years.

The strike on (PFLP terror chief and Entebbe hijack orchestrator) Wadie Haddad (who died in East Germany in 1978): Toothpaste. Here too I can retell only part of the story: The Mossad was able to get very, very, very close to Haddad, and poison his toothpaste, and then not do a lot to deny that the Mossad was behind it, to create the intimidation. The stories of his screams from that Stasi-controlled hospital in Berlin spread all over.

Wadie Haddad

The Stasi sent reports to Iraqi intelligence, telling them, You should look at your scientists, and their toothpaste, because they suspected that the toothpaste had been poisoned. And from that point on, Iraqi intelligence ordered the Iraqi scientists who worked on their bomb, whenever they exited Iraq, to carry their toothpaste and toothbrush in a bag with them. They were carrying their toothpaste everywhere, and still two of them were poisoned.

Poking us in the eye

Let’s move on to the clash with Abu Hassan Salameh, (killed in a 1979) explosion in Beirut. This Mossad operation was an act of revenge, carried out for three reasons. One, because they truly believed that he was connected to Munich. I really don’t think they were right. Abu Daoud (Black September commander Mohammed Oudeh) said that (Salameh) was not connected to it. Abu Daoud did it. Abu Daoud himself says that he did it. The second reason was that they did not succeed in getting him in Lillehammer, which was an embarrassment. And third, and in my opinion most important, that he was the main back channel between Yasser Arafat and the CIA.

It was like (the Americans) were poking us in the eye. Imagine a situation where we, Israel, after 9/11, were to make contact with Osama bin Laden, and invite him on a trip to Israel. He’s not our source, our agent, just an asset, a connection. (That’s what happened with Salameh. They) invited him to Langley. Took him together with (his Lebanese wife) Georgina Rizk, a former Miss Universe, on a trip to Disneyland. What treachery. They (the Mossad) killed him.

The darkest hour

Then we come to the years of Israel’s involvement in Lebanon. The period from 1977, but mostly from the time Raful (Eitan) was chief of staff in 1978, and until the beginning of the work by the Kahan Commission into Sabra and Shatila (in late 1982), constitute the greatest moral eclipse in the history of Israel.

Israel lost its morality?

Some of us lost our morality. It was also a time where heroic officers carried out acts of supreme bravery — not on the battlefield, but in standing up for who we are and what we are, as Jews and as Israelis, on the purity of arms. Because the obsession of (Ariel) Sharon and Raful to get the PLO and to kill Arafat was such that Israel was taken to very problematic places.

This is something that I, as a journalist, was very pleased to have uncovered, and was very saddened by as a human being; there were times when I was writing these chapters that I actually had tears in my eyes, because it was simply terrible. The wild actions they carried out in Lebanon before the war.

Yehoshua Sagi, head of military intelligence, went to Mordechai Zipori, deputy defense minister, and said, this can’t continue – to kill who knows how many innocent people. I don’t know how many young people will understand this, but Ariel Sharon at that time was the most powerful person in Israel. The more Menachem Begin sank into his depression, the more Sharon carried out crimes that I would call revolt against the state of Israel. He in effect seized control over the executive branch.

Prime minister Menachem Begin (right) and defense minister Ariel Sharon on June 7, 1982 at Beaufort Castle, a few hours after Israeli troops captured the Palestinian stronghold in Southern Lebanon. (AP Photo)

There’s an additional amazing thing that I discovered. Begin’s (depressed) situation was known to a few people and they did everything in their power to hide it. Azriel Nevo, his military secretary, told me that Begin was not seeing anyone. He was closed up in his home, and (Nevo said) I had to somehow cover it up. The secretaries continued to type up his daily schedule, and it was empty. (Nevo said) I gave the order that from now on, the prime minister’s schedule would be top secret. No one would see it. The page was empty.

Nahum Admoni, the then-head of the Mossad, told me he would go to Begin to get his okay on operations and he (Begin) would fall asleep. He was on medication or something.

From when to when?

Begin understood that Sharon had lied to him (about the aims and scope of the Lebanon war) in approximately August 1982. Nahum Admoni told me that they would be sitting in cabinet meetings, and Begin would say nothing, and the meeting would end. And then Sharon would call in Raful and Admoni and would say, Okay, this is what was said. Now I will tell you what to do. And it was impossible to argue with him.

Zipori, who was a hero, was the only one in the government to oppose Sharon. He said: You are lying!

Yanush Ben-Gal, who was the head of the Northern Command, told me that they carried out all kinds of utterly forbidden actions there in Lebanon that the government had not authorized, that the army had not authorized, that Begin had not authorized. He told me: Raful and I sorted out the deals, just the two of us would plan the actions, and he would say to me: Just as long as nothing is written.

You ask yourself, how could it have happened like this?, that you have very brave but active people like Yanush and Raful and then you get a result like this.

This continued into the war.

Oded Shamir, Sharon’s military secretary, told me there were two aims in this war: To destroy the PLO bases. To kill Arafat.

This is not in the book, but Ehud Barak told me that when Sharon was appointed minister of defense in September 1981 he assembled the General Staff and said to Raful: Tell me, how is it that Arafat is still alive?

Raful said, There was no order from the political level.

So, Sharon in his cynical, funny but cruel language, said: You know, Raful, when I was your commander, you remember, in the paratroopers, we didn’t wait for the political level to tell us what to do. We presented plans for what we thought needed to be done to defend the State of Israel, and we carried out our plans.

PLO chief Yasser Arafat, in keffiyah, photographed by an Israeli sniper, leaving Beirut in 1982 (Oded Shamir)

And then Ehud Barak, who at the time was head of the IDF Planning Division, intervened and said: Minister (Sharon), 10 years ago I already presented a plan for how to kill Arafat.  And it was not approved.  I was told that he is already a political figure and it can’t be done.

Sharon replied: Well, from now on, I am changing the order and I am returning Arafat to the top of the list of people to be assassinated.

They set up a force called ‘Dag Maluah,’ headed by Rafi Eitan and Meir Dagan, who tried to kill him in the siege of Beirut. They didn’t have the means to enter Beirut to kill him, because he was guarded. The idea was to identify targets for the air force.

Uzi Dayan, another heroic officer, the outgoing commander of the Sayeret Matkal (special forces unit) and the chief tactical officer of Dag Maluah, told me: Suddenly I understood we could endanger the lives of many citizens with our plans. I said to Raful, we cannot bomb the building.

Raful replied: Listen, you cannot decide for me, I decide, it is my responsibility. And they began to argue. Raful said, You will not teach me about military ethics.

Dayan told me: I didn’t know what to do, so I simply said (to myself), okay, what do I get to decide on, as the commander of the force? It’s up to me to determine whether we have enough indications and intelligence, from the Christians etc, (to be able to strike). From an intelligence standpoint, we knew that Rosh Hadag (Arafat) is in a certain place. Whenever we saw civilians, we declared that the target was not viable from an intelligence perspective, (thus subverting the planned bombing).

PLO chief Yasser Arafat, in keffiyah, photographed by an Israeli sniper, leaving Beirut in 1982 (Oded Shamir)

Later, in the next stage, when Arafat was evacuated from Beirut, there was a very dramatic moment. There are two pictures that have never previously been published. One is of Arafat boarding the ship and it’s the Israeli sniper who is photographing him. And these photos were given to (US envoy) Philip Habib to show that Begin kept his promise not to kill Arafat. But he didn’t promise that he wouldn’t do it at a later date.

And then comes the story: They decided, or rather Arik Sharon gave the order, to down a plane. He {Arafat] sometimes flew in private, sometimes commercial flights. It’s a crazy thing. They even drew up a plan to execute it over the Mediterranean Sea, so that they couldn’t salvage the wreckage, couldn’t find the black box, it would be too deep.

I was sitting in a café not far away from here when someone told me this story. He said to me, You can quote me and write about it.

Of course I was very surprised to hear it and of course I really wanted to publish it.

But, he added, only if you go to a second person and he also agrees to tell it to you, on the record.

I thought, regarding this other person, that there was no way in the world that I would manage to get him to speak about it. No way.  I arranged to meet him, and I skirted round the issue at first. When I reached the point, suddenly he changed and looked at me directly and said: You know, I have been waiting 30 something years for someone to come and ask me about this.

He got up, walked to the other side of the room, opened the safe and took out the folder. With the numbers, the relevant material.

The flights that were targeted?

With one of the flights that were targeted.

So he wanted you to report it. He had been carrying this around. But it didn’t happen.

No, it didn’t happen. In the end, it didn’t happen, again, because there was a group of heroic officers who said: ‘We will not let this happen’. David Ivri, Aviem Sella, Amos Gilboa, who said, we will not let it happen, and they disrupted the systems so that it would not happen.

Yasser Arafat, in an Oct. 8, 2003 file photo, and Ariel Sharon, in a Nov. 4, 2004 file photo.(AP Photo/file)

I know the pilot (who would have carried out the attack). He won’t let me name him. The pilot is now a very, very, very prominent personality. Then, he was considered the outstanding pilot of the IAF.

Whose job would have been to take down an airliner.

Afterwards, in the pilot training courses that he taught, he said he would teach this case, and tell the students, the pilot cadets, that he hoped it wouldn’t happen to them, and that he hoped that he could say about himself that he wouldn’t have obeyed orders.

So, the bottom line, several times, five you say, Sharon would have taken down civilian air flights when he thought Arafat was on board?

I would say that they looked at civilian and private flights and that Sharon, from the point of view of Sharon — as far as we are being told, and there is also one exception — he didn’t care whether it was private or civilian. We must say that Oded Shamir, the military secretary of Sharon, insisted that all the planes (potentially targeted) were private.

We have three other people who say that (the planning) did include civilian flights. Again, even if it is a private plane, this would mean not only killing Arafat, but also many other people on the flight. But in any case it didn’t happen, because there were heroes who (prevented it).

Shin Bet blackmail

Fast forward: The Bus 300 Affair (of 1984, in which Shin Bet members killed two Palestinian bus hijackers after they had been captured). Much has been written about it, but in my opinion the most important thing had not been written: Why did prime ministers Shamir, Peres and Rabin make such a huge effort, and go to president Herzog, and convince him to pardon the (Shin Bet chiefs who had tried to cover up what happened)? It was obvious that this would cause a public outcry, so why did they do it? I could never understand it, but now I know why.

Those in the Shin Bet realized that nothing was working for them. They tried to blame Yitzhak Shamir, Moshe Arens, Itzik Mordechai, but it didn’t work. The attorney general had ordered a police investigation against them. So what did they do?

The Shin Bet declared a revolt

They got together in the Grand Beach hotel. They sat and wrote the “Skull Dossier” — detailing all the “black” actions carried out by the Shin Bet since the 70s, some of which were approved by prime ministers. And then they handed it over and said, Hey, if you put us on trial, we won’t have a choice….

One of the most senior ministers of that period told me that they said they would bring this all up at their trial and that he understood: They were blackmailing, extorting us.

What the Shin Bet did in the Bus 300 affair is no less than declaring a revolt. They took the methods of manipulation, disinformation, threats, blackmail, etc. and instead of using them against the enemy, they used these tactics against their own side.

One of those who investigated the affair, and testified to a commission of inquiry, told me he feared that they were going to murder him for testifying.

Now I do not think they would have murdered him, but he thought they might, that this organization was capable of doing such things.

By contrast, today, the Shin Bet has uploaded the pictures taken by Alex Levac, which caused the entire affair to blow up, to its internet site. So, now, the Shin Bet regards this affair as something that really cleared out the rot.

Stopping Saddam

Now we need to talk about all the activities against Iraq’s nuclear project.

There were all these secret operations (to try to stop Saddam attaining the bomb in the late 1970s), involving sabotage, and the assassinations of scientists, including one very brutal killing.

Iraqi president Saddam Hussein smiles as he talks with his son Qusai in this image broadcast on Iraqi television on Sunday, March 23, 2003. (AP Photo/Iraqi TV via APTN)

The more Saddam was attacked, the more determined he was. I have the testimony of an Iraqi-born nuclear scientist who said Saddam said he would enlarge the budget tenfold anytime that something happened. If they killed a scientist, all the other scientists were given their own private cars as a gift, and Saddam made sure that everyone knew that he would take care of the family of that scientist all their lives.

At a certain point, Yitzhak Hofi, the head of the Mossad in this period, comes to Begin — I am telling you this based on Hofi’s testimony — and he says to the PM: I am sorry to tell you, we have done all we can, but we can no longer stop (the nuclear program). Now it is up to you — if you want to embark on a military operation, or leave it alone, but Saddam is intent on obtaining nuclear weapons.

The Osiraq reactor prior to the 1981 Israeli bombing (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only one (major American) newspaper supported Israel’s (subsequent bombing of Saddam’s Osiraq reactor in 1981): The Wall Street Journal. They were right. Begin was right in that something had to be done, because Saddam really was crazy, and could have potentially used nuclear weapons.

What happened afterwards is no less interesting. After Israel destroyed Osiraq, it thought the problem had been solved, and put Iraq down at the bottom of its list of priorities. It didn’t correctly assess Saddam’s determination. But from 1981-1990, Saddam built a nuclear weapons (program), and if he had not made the stupid mistake, on his part, of invading Kuwait, then by the mid-90s, evidence shows, we would have found Iraq armed with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and the ability to launch their own missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia. This was a terrible intelligence failure, the gravity of which led Ehud Barak to recommend an operation to kill Saddam Hussein.

They didn’t kill Saddam, because there was an accident at (the) Tze’elim training base. The book publishes some documents relating to this for the first time.

Abbas Musawi (Wikipedia)

It raises the question of whether it is right to kill leaders. It changes history, but not always in the direction anticipated. We killed (Hezbollah chief Abbas) Musawi, we got (Hassan) Nasrallah — and a complete change in Hezbollah priorities, to focus on Israel. We killed (Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed) Yassin (and Hamas then allied itself with Iran). Let’s come back to that.

But first let’s get back to chronological order. Let’s talk about the mid 90s — the most difficult period for Israel.

(The Israeli security and intelligence community) was not prepared for what they called in military intelligence “the radical front” – Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad – and suicide terrorism. Avi Dichter, the head of the Shin Bet (from 2000 to 2005), acknowledges that they were not able to provide the Israeli population with the protection they deserved. He said this about himself, Israelis do not usually talk like that about themselves.

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Credit for the change, I would give to Ami Ayalon. From 1996-2000 (as Shin Beth head), he overhauled the organization, changed its working methods, introduced a technological approach. A major reason that we have relative calm now is a consequence of what Ami Ayalon did then.

He prepared the Shin Bet for its most difficult challenge.

The second intifada

As much as I am very critical of Ariel Sharon in the first Lebanon war, I think that he was the right person at the right time in the right place as prime minister. He made a series of very significant decisions, not one of which was popular or seemed justified at the time.

One was to order the entire Israeli intelligence community to focus on one issue – tackling suicide terrorism.

It’s called the al-Aqsa intifada, but what caused the most damage was the suicide bombers.

I remember being on (the shop- and restaurant-filled) Shenkin Street (in Tel Aviv) in the dreadful March 2002 — at the peak of killings, including the (Passover Eve suicide bombing at Netanya’s) Park Hotel. I was with an Israeli general. There was no one on the streets. Tel Aviv was a ghost town. I said to him: You have to do something. It wasn’t just a question of victims, death, grief, blood. It paralyzed the country completely. The state was on the brink of bankruptcy. And what saved Israel were Ariel Sharon’s decisions, and the policy of the Israeli intelligence community, which was primarily based on targeted killings.

The Park Hotel on the night of March 27, 2002, after a suicide bombing killed 30 Israelis (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Who to kill? Not the suicide bombers. Hamas boasted that it had more volunteers than suicide belts. (The policy was) to kill the people above the bombers (in the terrorist groups’ hierarchy). And it became apparent that in all the organizations combined – Hamas, Fatah, the Tanzim, and so on – there was a total of something like 700 people. That’s a big number, but not so big. And they reached the conclusion that you don’t need to kill everyone at that level; it was enough to kill or harm 25% to paralyze the organization.

Isaac Ben Israel, (the general who headed IDF weapons development at the time,) explained it to me very nicely: Imagine there is a car and it is moving toward you, and you want to stop it and you have a rifle. If you hit the driver, you have finished the job. If you hit a wheel, he pulls over and changes it. If you hit a second wheel, he doesn’t have a second spare. The point: You don’t need to blow up the whole car.

Sharon accepted the Shin Bet recommendation to begin killing. Remember where we were: this was before the US started using targeted killing after 9/11. It was considered a war crime. No one did it. There was all the international, judicial, moral significance.

Avi Dichter speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel (photo credit: AP/File)
Likud Knesset member Avi Dichter (AP/File)

Avi Dichter relates that Sharon sent him to Washington (to explain the policy) because the Americans were very angry. A big change with Sharon, from the time he was minister of defense to the time he became PM, was in his attitude to the Americans. He told me once that the best advice his children ever gave him was: never, ever argue with the Americans.

Dichter told me that Sharon told him to travel to the States to explain to the heads of American intelligence why we carry out these targeted killings – a term Dichter invented. So Dichter said: I speak excellent Arabic, my Hebrew is okay, my English a bit less. And I had to give a lecture to all the heads of American intelligence. I took the PDF I had prepared for the Israeli cabinet with a list of all those who were assassinated, and I got the Shin Bet bureau to translate it and add headlines in English.

Then-CIA director George Tenet watches from the Emergency Operations Center in the White House as then-president George W. Bush address the nation on September 11, 2001. (photo credit: US National Archives)

How did they translate sikul memukad? (targeted killings), with their excellent English? As “focused preventions,” which sounds like a condom. I got up to lecture and said: This is focused prevention #1, focused prevention #2, and so on, and I could see they had no idea what I was talking about. Then (CIA chief) George Tenet says, aah, I think I got you Dichter, you mean targeted killings.

(Sharon and President George W Bush) managed to reach a secret understanding that Israel would be allowed to continue its super aggressive policy against terror as long as Sharon honored his promise to freeze the settlements. That’s what happened.

All kinds of measures (helped quell the Second Intifada), including (sending troops into West Bank) urban areas in Operation Defensive Shield. But the main factor was the targeted killings, which defeated something which was considered by everybody to be undefeatable: How do you stop a person, who wants to die, from carrying the suicide belt and going to explode himself in a shopping mall or a kindergarten?

You can’t. (But the targeted killings) stopped the suicide bombings. At its peak, they killed Sheikh Yassin (in March 2004) and then (three) weeks later (his successor Abdel Aziz) Rantisi. Hamas came to the conclusion that it was simply not capable of continuing, and through the Egyptians begged for a ceasefire.

Hamas is still around, it is still a problem. But what happened then proves that even a jihadist terrorist organization that seemingly has no limits can be brought to its knees when you attach a significant price tag to its commanders.

And if there is such a thing as victory, this is it. And it was also the victory of Sharon.

There are three things I want to add.

Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah gestures during a rally in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday March 31, 2005, to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, seen on poster at right, founder of terrorist group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza on March 22, 2004. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

First, regarding Sheikh Yassin (the spiritual patriarch of Hamas suicide bombings): As I said earlier, when you kill a leader, you don’t know where it will lead. His death hurt Hamas terribly. Most in Israeli intelligence did not believe it would start a holy war against Israel. And the fact that they killed a crippled old man, who was considered to be a religious leader, indeed, prompted almost no reactions. This infuriated Hamas. It was a very significant short-term achievement for Israel.

But on the other hand, by taking him out, they removed the last barrier between Hamas and direct Iranian influence. Yassin did not want (a connection with) the Iranians. What we saw afterwards was the Iranian entrance to Gaza — the missiles, the Iranian-encouraged Hamas takeover of Gaza (in 2007) — at the end of which Hamas now poses a far greater challenge than it did under Yassin. We now have something worse.

Arafat, again

Second, Sharon never really changed his opinion about Arafat. Sharon told his aides that he wanted to put a video, which he said Israel had, filmed by Romanian intelligence, in which Arafat is seen making love to his bodyguards, on the internet in order to embarrass him. He abandoned that less than wonderful idea because Arafat got himself into mess by lying to President Bush in the Karine A (weapons shipment) affair. Israel proved to Bush that Arafat was a liar, and Bush would not believe him anymore. Bush declared that the Palestinians would have to choose a new leader for themselves.

But Sharon had not finished with Arafat. It was very important to him that the world know who Arafat really was. In 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, our forces entered (Arafat’s) Muqata (headquarters) and seized all the documents. Shortly afterwards, I asked Tawfik Tirawi, who headed PA intelligence in the West Bank, why they hadn’t burned the material. They knew the Israelis were coming, and had enough time to do so. Tirawi said the “idiot officer” whose job it was to burn the paperwork ran away.

Oct. 29, 2004: Yasser Arafat boards a Jordanian Air Force helicopter as he prepares to leave his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.(AP Photo/Enric Marti, File)

The Israelis took a lot of documents that proved just how deeply Arafat was involved in financing terror. That’s who he was. Arafat never abandoned his guerrilla mindset.

I was given exclusive access to most of the material, and I wrote a book about terror, my first book. I worked on an intelligence base not far from here, in Glilot. There were huge crates of material, I went through it all. I had help with translation because my Arabic wasn’t good enough. It was a (Hebrew) best-seller.

Then I got a phone call from one of Sharon’s closest confidantes, who said he was speaking on behalf of Arik: We want to tell you that your book is wonderful. Arik himself wants you to know that the book is great. Can we meet?

We met at Arcaffe in Ramat Aviv mall. He said it was very important that the contents of the book reach a wider audience, ie, abroad. What are the chances that it be published in English? I replied that this was my first book. I am young. No one knows me. I don’t know what the chances are.

I was asked what it would cost to translate the book into English. I guessed $20,000-30,000. Sharon’s aide said that money was not a problem. It was very important that the world knows who this dog really is.

It’s very difficult to refuse such an offer. I really didn’t have money.

But you did.

Of course.

Now (the third thing I want to highlight here): There were some people who thought that Arafat had to be killed.

And word of this reached the White House. In April 2004, George Bush met Arik Sharon in the White House, and asked him to promise that he would not kill Arafat.

Sharon answered: Mr. President, I see your point.

Bush: OK, I want you to promise me that you’re not going to kill him.

Sharon: Mr. President, I really understand what you’re saying.

In the end, he promised Bush.

But shortly afterwards Arafat got this mystery illness, and was flown to Paris where he died.

In the book, you don’t state what exactly happened.

I cannot. But I quote people. I went and asked what happened:

(Then-chief of staff Moshe) Yaalon, in his flowery language, answered that Arafat died of sorrow.

Shimon Peres: I didn’t think he ought to be killed.

(Former chief of staff) Dan Halutz, hesitated a moment and said: Ah, now this is the moment you check my body language?

Meir Dagan said something like, if Jews were murdered and he knew who did it, he couldn’t let it just pass.

Uri Dan (Sharon’s biographer), who was very close to him, said Sharon will go down in history as the person who wiped out Arafat without actually killing him.

So, we can draw our own conclusions from the book.

Iran and ‘White Defection’

Let’s move onto Meir Dagan’s appointment as head of the Mossad by Sharon. Sharon wanted something else for the Mossad. So he replaced Efraim Halevy with Dagan. Sharon told him: Dagan, I want you to do in the Mossad what you did in Gaza in the 1970s. I want a Mossad with a dagger between the teeth.

Sharon said of Dagan: Meir’s special expertise is in separating the terrorist from his head

I met Sharon at that time and said Meir Dagan had a reputation for being a trigger-happy, rogue officer. It’s one thing to lead a unit of assassins in Gaza, but the Mossad is an organization with thousands of employees.

Sharon said, Ronen, I think Dagan is the person to restore the Mossad to its former glory.

I asked why, and expected he’d answer with some macabre joke, as he liked to do. Sharon replied: Meir’s special expertise is in separating the terrorist from his head.

Many people, including myself, criticized Dagan quite a lot in that period, but he really changed the Mossad.

Meir Dagan (left) takes over as Mossad chief from Efraim Halevy, with prime minister Ariel Sharon looking on, December 12, 2002. (Flash90)

He cut the list of essential goals to a minimum. He said that the Mossad would deal with only two things – (countering) weapons of mass destruction projects in enemy countries, mainly Iran and Syria, and these two countries’ support of jihadist terror movements. And that’s it.

When you focus solely on two goals, you get results.

Dagan got personally involved in operations, traveled round the world. In talking to me — and I’ve published only part of our conversations — he bitterly criticized what went on in the Mossad before his time. I have 400 pages of transcripts, most of which I cannot publish.

And, critically, (he focused on) regional cooperation. Today, Bibi talks about this a lot, but it wasn’t self-evident. Dagan thought that there were some countries which, in the public sphere, condemn Israel, vote against it at the UN, and say terrible things about it, but share more or less the same set of interests.

David Meidan, the head of the Mossad’s international relations department (Tevel), who was born in Egypt, worked together with Dagan on this. They would travel around the Middle East in private planes, meeting Arab leaders and heads of organizations, and would cooperate with them. Many of the successes attributed to the Mossad are the result of this cooperation.

On a personal level, there was a special relationship between Dagan and (CIA chief) Michael Hayden. The relationship between Tenet and the Israelis hadn’t been that straightforward. It was cordial, but Tenet always suspected the Israelis were manipulating him.

Michael Hayden during his tenure as CIA head (photo credit CC BY CIA/Wikipedia)
Michael Hayden during his tenure as CIA head (CC BY-CIA/Wikipedia)

Between Hayden and Dagan, it was different. Hayden himself told me: I sat in meetings of the National Security Council and (sometimes) would telephone Meir directly from the meeting and ask him what he thought about issues that came up. This was unprecedented.

This cooperation (was manifested) in a series of actions against Iran.

Dagan and his deputy (and successor Tamir) Pardo essentially said: We have to stop (the Iranians). They had a major meeting in 2004 at Mossad HQ, with all the intelligence chiefs present, at which Pardo presented the plan against Iran.

(The thinking was:) If Iran really wants to achieve nuclear weapons, it will get there in the end. What can we do (to change that)? We can try and bring about a change in the Iranian regime, or get the leaders to understand that it is not worth their while to continue because it will sink them into a deep economic crisis — sanctions, political pressures etc. And meantime, we can cause a significant slowdown in the nuclear program so they won’t reach the stage that they have nuclear weapons.

Dagan built a five- or six-point program: Political pressure; sanctions; prevention of exports of dual-use equipment (to Iran); encouraging the opposition (to the regime); and other secret measures – including (sabotage measures such as) Stuxnet, Olympic Games, cooperation with the Americans, and the whole issue attributed to the Mossad of assassinating (Iranian) nuclear scientists.

I asked Hayden: Of all the different tools and weapons that were activated worldwide against the Iranian nuclear project, which was the most effective?

He replied without hesitation: The one thing that was most effective was that someone was starting to kill the scientists. It was not us, he said. It’s illegal according to American law, and I don’t know who did it.

Of course I smiled.

No, don’t get me wrong, he insisted. The Israelis never told us anything about that.

Because it’s illegal. It’s not targeted killing. The Americans draw a strict legal distinction between targeted killings and assassinations. Targeted killings are killing combatants in a war zone, and (the killing of Iranian scientists) is not such a case.

But what most delayed the (Iranian nuclear program) was the killing of scientists.

File photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in 2008. (photo credit: AP/Iranian President's office, File)
File photo of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in 2008. (photo credit: AP/Iranian President’s office, File)

Hayden told me about one of the first meetings he had with president Obama, at the National Security Council, at which Obama asked Hayden how much enriched uranium there was at Natanz. Hayden replied: Mr. President, I actually know the answer to this question, but first I must tell you that it doesn’t matter, because there is not going to be a single bomb going out of Natanz. What they are doing in Natanz is building knowledge, and there’s only way to destroy knowledge.

What the assassinations of nuclear scientists did, first, was to take out the main people with experience and knowledge. Second, it forced the whole of the Iranian system into a huge effort trying to locate Mossad moles, and screening all their equipment looking for viruses, and putting bodyguards and police guards on the remaining scientists. So that by itself, without the Mossad doing anything, delayed them by years. And third, maybe most important, was what Dagan called White Defection.

White Defection is not like the old time Cold War defections, when you had someone move to the Soviet Union and put them in a safe house in Langley. White Defection is about a nuclear scientist, who is not a trained soldier, who likes working in that facility, getting a lot of money, being part of a national project, but who sees that his colleague in the other room lost a leg, and the colleague in the next room was killed. So he says, it’s not worth it, and he opts to put aside the benefits and quit, and go back to whatever he did before, say, teaching in the Al-Hussein university in Teheran. This caused enormous damage.

But Dagan erred in one (crucial aspect). He gave the message to the politicians that he had managed to stop the entire project. This was not right.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hugs Meir Dagan, outgoing Mossad chief, at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 2, 2011 (AP Photo/Ronen Zvulun, Pool)

In contrast to his image as a kind of bully, he was an effective politician – not in the sense of Left or Right, but in his ability to manipulate people. He told me how he would manipulate Netanyahu. He said that Netanyahu was a coward. Dagan evidently didn’t like him. He told me how he used to deal with Netanyahu (when he wanted the prime minister to authorize an operation): I would bring with me all the operatives and intelligence officers who could explain the operation. I knew Netanyahu would want to (avoid a situation) where 15 people would know he did not authorize (an operation) and come across as a coward.

By the way, (prime minister Ehud) Olmert (gave) Dagan (the okay to) carry out outrageously wild operations. Some of them actually happened. Some did not because there were people who stood in the way. These operations could have caused enormous damage to the State of Israel. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Heaven help us. Dagan had his ideas; he was very creative and also wild. Olmert gave him carte blanche.

To close the circle, this led to (escalating) confrontation between Dagan and Netanyahu, which I describe in the prologue of the book (where Netanyahu orders Dagan to temporarily suspend operations after the Mabhouh killing, where Dagan asserts that assassinations and other “pinpoint measures” could have stopped the Iranian nuclear program, and where Dagan’s term as Mossad chief comes to an end).

Dagan (who died in 2016) said that Netanyahu was going to do something illegal by attacking in Iran and that he prevented it. Netanyahu doesn’t see it like this. Both Netanyahu and Barak say that what they wanted to do was entirely legal; that the fact that they intended to attack in Iran was not illegal. Dagan said they tried to circumvent the proper channels of authorization, they did not intend consulting with the government.

v
CCTV footage released by the Dubai police regarding the Mabhouh assassination. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Netanyahu later roundly criticized Dagan over what happened with Mabhouh. (What went wrong with) Mabhouh was the result of arrogance. I can’t write everything abut it. The bottom line is that Dagan was so sure of himself — they had a new method of working — and said, Let’s find a target and try it out.

It was not successful and it should have been done differently. But even if it had been 100% successful, to put 27 operatives in danger for such a target, unless, as a Mossad operative said to me, he had a nuclear warhead under his bed in his hotel room in Dubai, it simply wasn’t worth putting them in such danger.

Let’s go back to Iran, I want to understand. Are you saying that Netanyahu and Barak were going to strike at Iran, when, in September 2010, as you write, they placed the IDF and Mossad at “0 plus 30” — as in 30 days from a full-scale attack on Iran?

Regarding the “0 plus 30” specifically, (IDF chief of staff Gabi) Ashkenazi said, We’re not ready. (Overall,) it depends who you ask. I asked (then defense minister) Barak. In January 2012, I published a front-page article in the New York Times detailing the attack plans and, for the first time, I quoted Barak, who said we’re going to attack.

As a result, (Senator) Dianne Feinstein called a meeting of the intelligence subcommittee, and asked the heads of the US intelligence community what they thought. She read out to them excerpts from what I wrote in the NY Times and asked what they thought and they said they accepted the premise that Israel would attack in 2012.

This caused real hysteria in the White House, because they thought my article was deliberately planted in the paper by Netanyahu and Barak — this is untrue! — to pressurize them to act on their own.

But what happened was precisely the opposite. In the end, Israel did not act. And Barak says that today, in retrospect, he thinks Netanyahu did not intend to act.  Barak says, for his part, that he thinks we should have attacked.

Barak would have struck Iran?

Yes.

But Netanyahu would not have gone through with it, according to Barak?

According to Barak. He says he didn’t think Bibi really intended to attack.

Barak says: I think that Bibi intended to pressurize the Americans that they should do it, in order not to get tangled up with an Israeli operation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the-then defense minister Ehud Barak attend a press conference at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, November 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

What really happened, by the way, is that the Americans were so panicked. Of course, Obama never even thought of attacking. What apparently happened (unfolds as follows): In March 2012, two months after the article appeared, Tamir Pardo (by now head of the Mossad) visited Washington and was told that Dianne Feinstein wanted to meet him urgently. They took him to some bunker under the Congress, to meet her. Feinstein: Mister head of the Mossad, tell me what training is the 35th brigade (paratroopers) doing now, what exercises?

The head of the Mossad had no idea what (this brigade) was doing and didn’t care; presumably, an unimportant exercise. But the satellites showed it. And the Americans were certain that (Israel) was readying to invade Iran. That is the degree of the (American) hysteria.

Pardo goes back to Netanyahu and says, You don’t understand what’s happening over there. You have to calm things down, because the Americans will act, you don’t know where it will lead, and not necessarily in the direction you want.

(In the book, Bergman writes: Pardo “warned Netanyahu that continued pressure on the United States would lead to a dramatic measure, and likely not the one that Netanyahu hoped for. Pardo himself believed that another two years of economic and political pressure would probably make Iran surrender under favorable conditions and give up its nuclear project entirely. But Netanyahu refused to listen to him, ordering Pardo to continue with the assassinations, and the IDF to continue its preparations for an attack. In December, the Mossad was ready to eliminate another scientist, but just before it went ahead, Obama, fearing Israeli action, agreed to an Iranian proposal to hold secret negotiations… It is reasonable to assume that if the talks had begun two years later, Iran would have come to them in a considerably weaker state…”)

At the end of 2012, the Mossad found out that the Americans, behind Israel’s back, had started secret negotiations with Iran. Because of that, Netanyahu accepted Pardo’s recommendation to stop all aggressive activity against Iran. Pardo thought, and in that sense Netanyahu accepted his view, that Israel could not move aggressively against Iran, even clandestinely, when the Americans had a political discourse.

President Barack Obama, standing with Vice President Joe Biden, delivers remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2015, after an Iran nuclear deal is reached. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

To sum up the whole story, the threats by Netanyahu to attack caused the opposite result. Instead of the Iranians coming to the negotiations, totally crippled, in say 2014, they got to the (talks), half-crippled, in 2012.

This is one of the most important sections of the book. What you’re basically saying in the book is that Pardo says that because Bibi threatened to strike Iran, because the Americans were so worried, they moved more quickly to try to do a deal? And therefore they were negotiating (with Iran) before Iran was terribly weakened (by sanctions). Whereas if Bibi had been calmer, the sanctions would have been in place for longer, and the regime would have fallen?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with outgoing Mossad director Tamir Pardo (right) and incoming director Yossi Cohen, at a ceremony for the newly appointed Mossad head, in Tel Aviv, on January 6, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Or at least been much crippled. Towards the end of 2012, I had a meeting with the head of Tsiltsal, the unit in the Mossad which was responsible among other things for crippling the Iranian economy. (He said:) If the American treasury will approve the steps we propose now, a detailed plan of action — to target this bank, this person, damage their economy thus, stop their SWIFT (bank facilities), etc — if they approve it, we can take down the Iranian economy by mid-2013 and create havoc in Iran. But all this was stopped because the US entered into the negotiations.

You’re not directly quoting Pardo, but you’re saying that Pardo says that the Americans (began negotiating because they) were completely panicked that otherwise Israel was going to attack.

Yes, exactly.

So you’re arguing that Netanyahu, whose whole thing is that we have to stop Iran, essentially saved the regime in Iran from the type of economic pressure that would have caused its collapse.

And led to the nuclear deal — (a deal) that would (otherwise) have been much better from the Israeli point of view.

Because the negotiations would have started later.

Yes, the Iranians would have been in a weaker position. They were weak. They came to the negotiations because of everything that was done in the decade before, but it could have been much, much better.

Also, in spite of Pardo being appointed by and owing his appointment to Netanyahu, he ended his term not on the best of terms with Netanyahu because while the nuclear deal – the JCPOA – was being negotiated, Pardo said that Israel should be part of the negotiations, and not be going publicly against the US, (and should) at least try to improve it. This point was not accepted (by Netanyahu).

Two-state solution

A last point about Dagan and Sharon: In their own time, in the last part of their lives, they both came to the conclusion, as did many others, that there is no other way but adopting some sort of compromise with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution, and that any other approach will bring the end of the Zionist dream and vision.

I truly believe (adviser Dov) Weissglass and all of the other people around him, that Sharon would have evacuated the settlements once he realized that the Americans would never let it go, that whoever is president the settlements are still going to be an obstacle on the way to peace as far as the Americans are concerned. As soon as he understood that the settlements are an obstacle, he had no problem turning his back on the settlers, even though he was one of their founding fathers. Dagan had the same understanding at the end.

Evacuate all of them or just the isolated settlements?

Sharon said to Weissglass, Only my way, maybe, we will manage to keep a bit (of the West Bank settlement enterprise) on our side, otherwise we will have to destroy everything. He didn’t give a detailed plan, but in the end he would have gone with a two-state solution, with some land swaps, retaining some blocs. According to the people who were close to Sharon whom I spoke to, he underwent a radical change, mainly thanks to the cultivation of the Americans. He saw that it was possible to believe in them, to do deals with them — they helped him beat terrorism, a significant achievement — as long as he kept his word. Dagan also underwent change.

Dagan also reached this conclusion. He sought to utilize the extraordinary popularity he had with the Israeli public. And he stood up against Netanyahu, on a number of occasions. First of all, there’s that meeting I describe with him, on his last day in the job. At the end of which the censor stood up and said, What’s been said here, forbidden. So Dagan, who realized he couldn’t get his material out in this way, said it in a lecture six months later at Tel Aviv University where nobody could stop him and where he also knew nobody would punish him. Because, after all, it’s Dagan.

Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan speaks at an anti-Netanyahu election rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015 (screen capture: Channel 10)

And after that, in a series of discussions, including with me, he said very grave things about Netanyahu. And of course, he spoke against Netanyahu at the famous demonstration, before the [2015] elections, and it didn’t work. And as I write at the end of the book, in my final conversation with him, he was extremely disappointed that it didn’t succeed. This doesn’t only reflect Dagan’s disappointment. It reflects a profound change in the Israeli public. The weight of the generals — people like Sharon and Dagan — is not what it was. People are built differently now. And the fact is that the security and intelligence communities, overall, are relatively liberal, dovish, they are the responsible adults! They’re protecting the democracy.

Look at the Elor Azaria case. It’s crazy. A state where the heads of intelligence, of the army, they’re the ones protecting democracy — something’s really out of order. We’re lucky to have [IDF chief of staff Gadi] Eisenkot.

Because otherwise Netanyahu would do what?

It’s not “otherwise.” He’s doing it. The vision of Netanyahu and right-wing people like Ayelet Shaked is of a Jewish, non-democratic state. They want a state with clear discrimination against Arabs. They want a state that will control the territories but will not give [the Palestinians] equal rights. They understand that what they want clashes deeply with democracy. So they’re destroying the democracy. They’re destroying the courts. And they’re targeting the media. And they’re acting against left-wing NGOs. This is part of a wide and dangerous agenda.

When you have people inside (the intelligence and security hierarchies) talking about what the political leadership is doing, how things are run, the lack of focus, the absence of democracy… when the intelligence community and the security establishment says things are not democratic, something is very, very [wrong].

And that leaves you, after this multi-decade examination of the past, worried by what, as you look to the future?

Israel will probably be able to confront any outside threat. Sooner or later I’m quite confident that we will be able to manage with any outside…

Whatever happens with the Iran nuclear deal and Hezbollah and…?

We’re in the best security situation that we’ve been in yet. Just remember what was here before the US invaded Iraq. The nightmare scenario that the chief of the Israeli military had was that the Syrian army and the Iraqi army, which I think together consisted of 54 armed divisions, would just start to march towards Israel together. Crossing Jordan and crossing the border. Well, those two militaries no longer exist.

When you have a hammer, you look for the nail

My fear is of course from internal threats. The rift in Israeli society, the collapse of democratic values, the public’s under-appreciation of the importance of the media. I just saw the movie ‘The Post’. At the end, the Supreme Court supported the New York Times and the Washington Post. Imagine if that had happened here. Would the court have sided with the newspaper? I’m not sure. Look at the Bus 300 affair. They closed down the Hadashot tabloid. I have lots of other examples. We often turn to the courts. Nothing comes of it.

I had a phone call from somebody in the intelligence community after I wrote something. He told me, Don’t write about Netanyahu. Stick to intelligence and security matters. It’s not good for you. And this was from someone who was trying to be helpful to me, not to protect Bibi. People are starting to be indoctrinated, everyone is afraid. The kind of battle that Hadashot waged over Bus 300, I’m not sure who would wage it now. And therefore, if I have concerns, it’s about that.

There’s one other important conclusion from my book. The intelligence community, despite all the critical passages in this book, is really among the best in the world, or the best. And sooner or later it provides a solution to every challenge placed before it. Sometimes it’s later, sometimes people die. There are screw-ups. But ultimately it’s a success story. But it’s also a story of disaster.

You write: tactical victories and strategic failure.

Yes, because the series of magnificent tactical intelligence and special operations successes gave the leaders the feeling, as if they have this powerful tool at their fingertips, that they can activate just by giving an order, way behind enemy lines, and that with this tool they can stop history. They can make sure that they achieve their goals with intelligence and special operations and not by turning to statesmanship and political discourse. The success of Israeli intelligence, and it is a success, is a tactical success that led to strategic failure.

But these people around us, as your book seems to make clear, are not people with whom it has been possible to reach agreements and achieve strategic success.

I don’t know. We made peace with Sadat. I think at the time of Abbas and Salaam Fayyad, there was a good chance to make peace. In this dispute neither side are saints or sinners. There’s blame on both sides. I’m very angry with the Palestinians for what they do. But I think this creation, this Israeli defense establishment, changed Jewish character. When we were in the diaspora, we managed. Low profile. Get by. Don’t draw attention.

Now we have one hell of a hammer in our hands. The strongest. And sometimes when you have a hammer, you look for the nail. The search for the nail sometimes leads to problematic decisions. And to processes, as with (the 1992 assassination of Hezbollah’s) Musawi, for example, where we began a process which wound up with Hezbollah standing one hundred percent against us. It’s a bit of a problem.

So in retrospect, similarly, you wouldn’t have killed Sheikh Yassin, because it opened the door to Iran?

I don’t know. Journalist Dan Margalit was actually asked, in the course of the decision-making process, what he would do, and I think he said he would kill him. But the calculation regarding Yassin was tactical, not strategic. Nobody even asked (about the strategic repercussions). You can’t know where it’s going to lead. But the calculation was, what will the response be in the Arab world to the assassination? (There was no calculation regarding) any of the things that we know happened afterwards.

The book was heavily censored?

Yes.

Important things, that it’s terrible we don’t know about, and that you think were unacceptably censored?

Yes, yes. Nobody disputes that a book such as this should not reveal the names of our agents in Damascus or how we cracked a certain code. It should not endanger lives. But there are three areas of (where censorship is out of line). One, things that went wrong and then embarrass Israel. Two — all kinds of things that are “war crimes.” I understand that it’s not pleasant, but how that is covered by national security (restrictions)? And the third thing, that the censor always makes us write “according to foreign reports.” It’s this treatment, if I write that Israel has nuclear weapons, and I don’t add “according to foreign reports,” it’s as though official Israel has admitted that it has nuclear weapons. Why is that considered an official Israeli declaration? Why is Ronen Bergman writing that, ostensibly construed as official Israel?

We’re the only country in the western world that has military censorship. People say, that can’t be true. There must be others. There aren’t.

A moral reckoning

If we’re talking about assassinations, there are two questions to ask. Is it effective, and is it legally and morally justified? That’s it.

Is it effective? I think yes. If it’s part of a policy and not just one time to show that we’re doing something, to satisfy the Israeli public. As part of other measures being used, yes. It forced the PLO to (rein itself in in Europe) after Munich. It stopped the suicide bombers (in the second intifada). It slowed the Iranian nuclear program. It made a difference.

Is it morally and legally justified? Everyone can decide. The problem is espionage organizations will always do more than you let them. They will always cross that line. The NSA after 9/11 was allowed to spy on people. We saw what happened in the Snowden documents. Members of Congress said, Wow, they didn’t tell us everything they were doing. Because they wanted to succeed.

The Shin Bet is responsible for protecting everyone. The question of the moral cost is very difficult. I don’t have a solution. I don’t know what I would say about Yassin. I do know that if I was part of the decision-making process, and this was a man who gave orders to kill Jews, to kill Israelis, I apparently would say (do it). You want to protect Israelis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen during a toast ceremony for the Jewish New Year on October 02, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)
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