A Civilian Takes on the Mossad

Yossi Melman is co-author of "Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community."

For the first time since its founding more than 50 years ago, the Mossad, Israel's foreign espionage agency, has a chief who did not serve in the Israeli armed forces. Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Efraim Halevy, whose heart ailment kept him out of the army in 1952, will run the Mossad. In a society that worships security, in which military service is compulsory and often launches successful careers, to appoint a man who lacks military experience to head the Mossad might foreshadow a new openness at the agency.

Quite the contrary. The super-secretive Mossad is not, unfortunately, on the verge of exposing and reforming itself. Rather, the unprecedented appointment of a civilian chief highlights just how damaged the agency's reputation is after a succession of highly publicized failures in fewer than six months.

In September 1997, Mossad agents failed to assassinate Khaled Meshaal, a leading activist of Hamas, in Jordan. Two Mossad agents, carrying forged Canadian passports, were arrested; four others found a haven at the Israeli embassy in Amman, the Jordanian capital. The shameful operation damaged relations between the two countries.

A month later, an investigation by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz revealed that Yehuda Gil, a legendary Mossad case officer, had lied to his superiors. The story exposed how, for nearly 15 years, Gil had falsified his reports on secret meetings he held with a Syrian agent in Europe. To impress his superior and win promotion, Gil had falsely portrayed the agent as a source of valuable information about Israel's sworn enemy. In truth, the agent fed Gil meaningless data. Gil faces charges of treason.

The latest Mossad fiasco occurred two weeks ago in Bern, Switzerland. Five Mossad agents, carrying Israeli passports, were arrested in the basement of an apartment building while trying to bug the phone line of a Swiss national of Lebanese extraction who supposedly was an activist for the pro-Iranian Hezbollah terrorist group. The police mistakenly released four of them and the fifth agent is awaiting trial in a Swiss jail.

Before Halevy's appointment, a government committee, appointed to investigate the Mossad, concluded that the organization was in a state of "mental fixation." The inquiry's findings paved the way for the resignation of Gen. Danny Yatom and his replacement by Halevy.

While the probe was underway, some Mossad senior members traded ugly recriminations that were subsequently leaked to the press. In an effort at damage control, a former head of Mossad, Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, appealed on TV to his "Mossad colleagues to shut their mouths." The leaks and gossip from an organization that ordinarily is near-invisible reached the point at which they jeopardized its operations. It was necessary to freeze agents and even recall some case officers.

Lacking serious governmental and parliamentary supervision and resting on its laurels, the Mossad has turned into an overconfident, complacent and bureaucratic organization. "There is too much waste and red tape," admits a former senior operative, "and, above all, we have overstretched our capabilities and neglected our basic duties." In part, this stems from rivalry among the Mossad, the military intelligence service and the Shabak, the general security service in charge of domestic security. The functions and activities of the three organizations sometimes overlap. Not surprisingly, the Mossad can no longer count on the Israeli public's unconditional support and trust.

But it is doubtful whether Halevy's experience and skills as a manager are sufficient to solve the problems plaguing the agency. He joined the Mossad in 1961, serving for 35 years, and eventually reaching the rank of deputy head. He was recruited because of his "fluent English and ability to write intelligence papers," according to a former Mossad operative who recommended him.

Halevy is a product of the "Tevel" (universe) and "Bitzur" (fortification) departments of the Mossad. The former undertakes secret diplomacy and liaisons with intelligence agencies around the globe. The latter defends Jewish communities abroad, either through rescuing Jews or smuggling them out of a hostile country. But Halevy has had little experience with the other two departments of the Mossad. The department code-named "Tsomet" (junction) collects information about the military capabilities of Israel's Arab neighbors by recruiting and running agents and bugging phone lines. "Cesaria," the most secret department, handles "special operations": the liquidation of more than 40 Palestinian and Arab terrorists involved in planning or executing the bloodiest attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. Their most recent known target was Dr. Fathi Shikaki, leader of the Islamic Jihad group. He was assassinated in October 1995 in Malta.

Halevy will have to pick up where Yatom left off and ask why the Mossad, essentially an intelligence apparatus, deals with such matters? The usual answer is that since the state of Israel considers itself to be responsible for Jews around the world, so should its espionage agency. But many experts, including some in the Mossad, believe that it is time for a structural change, in which Bitzur would either be scrapped or its duties transferred to a body outside the intelligence community.

Another Mossad mission in need of attention is information collection. Five years ago, Shabtay Shavit, the head of Mossad, proposed that all units of Israel's intelligence-gathering community involved with human agents be put under one roof, the Mossad's. The plan would improve efficiency and avoid duplicity. But the head of military intelligence, Gen. Uri Saguy, rejected it.

Halevy should reconsider Shavit's idea. Ninety percent of Mossad's activities involve discreet intelligence gathering, mostly out of public view. Only a fraction of its activities entail violent and overt operations. Until the Jordanian fiasco, no one questioned the propriety of an intelligence organization plotting assassinations. Now they should.

But before Halevy tackles these structural issues, he needs to get the Mossad out of the headlines. A clandestine organization should not be a media star. The return of some measure of stability and tranquillity to the ranks of the Mossad is his next immediate task. But if Halevy does not introduce structural reforms, cut spending and cut waste, the Mossad may quickly realize that changes at the top are not going to prepare it for the challenges of the next century.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
67°