What Secrets Exactly Does Israel Know? : Books: "Every Spy a Prince" plots the development of Israeli secret services. Its authors set out to tell a more human, less idealized, account.

Did Israeli intelligence know Iraq would invade Kuwait weeks before Saddam Hussein launched his blitz? Of course, it knew. It even shared that information with its U.S. allies, who were in a position to substantiate the warnings with a river of data culled from American satellites, National Security Agency listening posts and AWAC overflights.

But the State Department had other ideas. The Israelis, it was widely believed by in-house Arabists, were trying to shift attention away from their dispute with the Palestinians. That, anyway, was a scenario painted by CBS News London correspondent Dan Raviv, co-author, with Israeli journalist Yossi Melman, of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."

Another book about Israel's secret services? A warts-and-all account yet?

Yes, for good reason, Raviv says. In Los Angeles recently to promote his latest book, he explains that the authors wrote "Every Spy" to provide an antidote to the "cheerleading" literature that had come before.

The Hebrew title of the book, which was published in Israel in June and which--there as in the United States--swiftly rose to best-seller status, translates as "The Imperfect Spies."

"The idea for the book was Yossi's," Raviv says. "It seemed to him that people thought maybe a little too highly of Israeli intelligence. He felt that didn't do Israel any good. The whole world starts to think that intelligence agencies can solve anything, that the Mossad (Israel's foreign intelligence agency) can reach out to any country and take care of any problem. But the world has become more complicated than that."

The English title of the book, Raviv explains, "came from the biblical Book of Numbers. When instructed to choose the first Israeli spies, Moses determined that every one of them should be a prince. He meant not someone born of royal lineage, but, rather, a dignitary--one of the best and brightest. Our book asks whether Israel's modern spies meet up to that test."

Raviv and Melman's conclusion seems to be, more often than not, that they do.

But in the last decade, the book says, Israel's famed intelligence agencies have, perhaps uncharacteristically, involved themselves in a devastating spate of debacles:

* The Jonathan Pollard spy scandal put a kink in hitherto affable American-Israeli relations.

* Nuclear technician Mordecai Vanunu's impromptu give-away of Israel's atomic secrets revealed amateurish lapses in the country's internal security.

* The recent Shin-Bet (General Security Service) cover-up of the gratuitous murder of two apprehended Palestinian bus hijackers revealed an ethical malaise that had reached the highest level of the security apparatus.

But it would be wrong, Raviv says, to dwell on the debit side of the Israeli secret services--as wrong as it has been to shroud them with the mantle of myth and legend. If Israel's intelligence community deserves scrutiny, it is because of the uncanny way in which it tends to embody events and trends within Israeli society at large.

"Our bottom line," said Melman, a diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Davar and a former Israel Radio correspondent who spent three years working on the book with Raviv, "was the belief that an intelligence community is the best reflection of any society. Nowhere is this more true than in Israel."

In the early years of Israel's existence, explains Raviv, Israel's spies were imbued with the idealistic, pioneering spirit that characterized the Zionist movement.

As Israel matured, its secret services were as prone to falter as were other elements of Israeli society. The last 15 years especially saw the decline of Israel's pioneer spirit and the emergence of a new materialism, cynicism and chauvinism. This could not help but be reflected in the Mossad, the Shin-Bet--most of whose activities centered in the West Bank and Gaza--and in Aman ( Agaf Ha' Modi'in ), the military intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces.

But it would be a mistake, Raviv says, to conclude that these groups have lost their edges.

According to Melman, who recently returned to Tel Aviv after a year's sojourn at Harvard as a Nieman Fellow, what set Israeli intelligence apart from every other intelligence organization was its central and enduring role assisting Jewish emigration to the Jewish state. By coming to the aid of Jewish communities in danger--partly out of national self-interest, because Israel needs the safety numbers can provide, and partly because of a basic loyalty to Jews in distress--Israeli intelligence became, in essence, Jewish intelligence.

But Raviv and Melman believed the Israeli intelligence community should be subjected to a more human, and consequently less idealized, scrutiny.

In 1980, Raviv, now 35, a Harvard graduate and the son of Israeli emigres to the United States, had completed a two-year stint as the CBS News correspondent in Jerusalem.

But he met Melman for the first time in London, where the Israeli was working for the respected Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. They linked up at a joint news conference held by Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand.

"I remember asking a question in my thick and obvious Hebrew accent," Melman recounted. "Afterward, this American came up to me, in perfect Hebrew, and asked how I was doing."

They and their families became fast friends, and, eventually, the two journalists became collaborators as well, writing about Middle Eastern and defense-related affairs for the Times of London, the Observer, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers and magazines.

Even as recently as three years ago, Israelis might have legitimately asked whether a critical look at their country's intelligence services was in anyone's interest. This question was important, not because Raviv felt any special loyalty to Israel--his commitment to the country begins and ends in a belief that it must continue to exist--but because his sources might not have been forthcoming had they felt such a book would be harmful.

"We attacked the subject at just the right time," Raviv said. "Israel, at age 42, had become mature enough to discuss this topic. As 1990 approached, it became clear that there had been more and more about Israeli intelligence in the press, and that people were willing to debate the issues this raised."

Another element working to their advantage was what Melman calls "the Intelligence Syndrome."

"While they are in active service," Melman says of the operatives he interviewed, "they keep their mouths shut. They are, after all, sworn to secrecy. When they leave the service, however, they have the urge to talk. They often feel that if they don't tell their stories, if people don't ever learn what they did, maybe their lives weren't worth living.

"We did not need a lot of persuasion to get them to talk."

But not everyone succumbed to their entreaties. Raviv says Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir, formerly a chief of Mossad, declined to be interviewed under any circumstances: "He's a very secretive person and kept to his old habits."

Melman and Raviv did not, however, depend entirely upon the testimony of the 150 or so Israeli operatives they interviewed, Melman says. In his travels through Europe, the United States and the Middle East, Raviv interviewed several non-Israeli intelligence operatives and officials, including high-ranking members of the CIA and Britain's MI5.

Once completed, the chapters written by Melman were submitted, according to Israeli law, to the Israeli censor. Neither Melman nor Raviv were particularly distraught by this necessity, realizing that there may be operational details divulged in the book that served no great good by being disclosed.

"It's tribute to Israel," Raviv added, "that hardly anything was cut. You could argue and quibble with the censor, which you can't do in other countries."

There is always, as commentator Paul Harvey said, "the rest of the story." Melman is convinced the rest of this story would make for a far more fascinating companion volume. What are the chances of it being written?

"Not likely."

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