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Preemptive Self-Defense?

By: Michael M. Rosen
January 14, 2019

he Book of Proverbs instructs us that “by stratagems you wage war.” Israeli intelligence agencies have taken this ancient wisdom to heart—the Mossad even chose it as a motto.

The Mossad, along with its counterparts in military intelligence (AMAN) and domestic enforcement (the Shin Bet), has attained legendary status for its efforts to eliminate threats to the Jewish state on numerous continents. The record of Israel’s intelligence community is unrivaled among its sister services, yet its success has also come at a significant cost.

This balance between subterfuge, sabotage, bravado, and betrayal, forms the core of Rise and Kill First, a meticulously researched intelligence tell-all by Ronen Bergman, one of Israel’s leading national security journalists.

With stories involving poisoned toothpaste, cleverly-disguised plastiques, abductions, recruitments, and fiascoes, the book reads like a spy thriller—with truth often appearing stranger than fiction. Bergman is a skilled storyteller who subtly weaves narrative and argument into a coherent whole.

Context is crucial, of course. “Because of Israel’s tiny dimensions,” Bergman notes, “the attempts by the Arab states to destroy it even before it was established, their continued threats to do so, and the perpetual menace of Arab terrorism, the country evolved a highly effective military and, arguably, the best intelligence community in the world. They, in turn, have developed the most robust, streamlined assassination machine in history.”

This uneasy message animates the entirety of Rise and Kill First: On the one hand, Israel has used controversial, extrajudicial tactics to target its enemies, tactics that not many Western democracies have adopted. On the other hand, the Jewish state faces a unique, perennial threat of destruction that no country in the West has ever confronted.

But do the ends justify the means? Bergman argues that often they do, but on relatively rare occasions, Israeli leaders have crossed the line. Many of Israel’s greatest military and political heroes, including future Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, came up through the Mossad, Shin Bet, and the Israel Defense Forces units that bolstered the special forces’ operations. They, too, were not immune to certain failures. At the same time, Bergman notes, “[o]ccasional blunders have only enhanced the Mossad’s aggressive and merciless reputation.”

From the get-go, pre-state Israel’s intelligence community operated with substantial independence from its political masters, occupying “a shadow realm, one adjacent to yet separate from the country’s democratic institutions” and “without any effective supervision by Israel’s parliament.” While this operational freedom empowered boldness and creativity, it also nurtured a certain untamed wildness that at times overgrew a more coherent national security policy.

But targeted killings endured as the agencies’ modus operandi. Even in the wake of Israel’s dramatic victory in the Six-Day War, a young Meir Dagan—who would later serve as the Mossad’s legendary director from 2002-11—favored “limited pinpoint engagements” whereby “enemy leaders and important field operatives should be pursued mercilessly, hunted down, and eliminated.”

One key theme permeating the story is the Israel’s on-again, off-again decision to assassinate Yasser Arafat, the key Palestinian military and political figure. Depending on Israel’s leadership, Arafat’s most recent depredations, and the vagaries of world opinion, the Mossad alternately targeted the Palestinian leader for elimination and spared his life. On the former, Bergman recounts numerous failed attempts ranging from poorly-timed car bombs to near-miss airborne bombings, failures that only enhanced Arafat’s heroic status. And on the latter, Bergman relates a harrowing mid-air decision not to down an aircraft supposedly bearing Arafat that was in fact ferrying sick children to a hospital in Tunisia.

The ambivalence regarding Arafat echoed through Israel’s reluctance to target other political leaders. Bergman details how the Mossad drew up plans at critical junctures to assassinate both Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollah Khomeini only to shelve those plans at the last moment.

Israel also forged breakthroughs that have shaped contemporary global intelligence. “The command-and-control systems,” Bergman writes, “the war rooms, the methods of information gathering, and the technology of the pilotless aircraft, or drones, that now serve the Americans and their allies were all in large part developed in Israel.” The Mossad also pioneered unsavory but sometimes necessary practices like rendition, enhanced interrogation, cyberattacks, targeted killing of nuclear scientists, and motorcycle-borne bombs that have become de rigueur among intelligence agencies around the world.

At times, Bergman strays from his core intelligence narrative to engage in a broader history of Israel’s military campaigns and a critique of their conduct, as when he lambastes former Prime Minister (and then-Defense Minister) Ariel Sharon for the controversial invasion of Lebanon he spearheaded in the early 1980s or when he details the rise of Hezbollah. Some of these back-stories are necessary for understanding their intelligence implications, and all of them are well-told, but the historical detail tends to detract from the book’s main thrust while contributing to its considerable heft.

Bergman also falls prey to the dated and dubious conventional wisdom that poverty is the prime motivator of Palestinian resistance to Israel, that Israeli settlements in the West Bank violate international law, and that, when it comes to terrorists, cutting off the head of the snake only allows the snake to regenerate a new head.

Perhaps most strikingly, Rise and Kill First is in certain ways a postmodern masterpiece. Because his work is unauthorized, Bergman candidly acknowledges its potential inaccuracies and the motivating biases of his sources. “It is clear,” he writes, “that some politicians and intelligence personnel—two professions highly skilled in manipulation and deception—were trying to use me as the conduit for their preferred version of events, or to shape history to suit themselves.” While Bergman made efforts to verify those accounts independently, it’s impossible for the reader to know whether any particular story is real, fictional, or embellished.

And perhaps this is a fitting encomium to the type of uncertainty that characterizes intelligence work in general and particularly Israel’s struggle to balance acting morally with fighting effectively. These ambiguities can never be finally resolved, but thanks to efforts like Bergman’s, they can now be thoroughly explored.