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Ehud Barak Recalls Striking Like Lightning

The former Israeli Prime Minister — one of several key figures in the new hit Netflix docuseries “Spy Ops” — spoke to the Journal about one of his most dangerous missions.
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September 28, 2023
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

It was the worst kind of fake news.

After the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took 11 members of the Israeli Olympic delegation hostage in Munich on the morning of September 5, 1972, the standoff was later said to have ended with the Israelis being freed. Instead, as Jim McKay said on the ABC broadcast, they were all “gone.”

At that time, Ehud Barak, Israel’s Prime Minister from 1999 to 2001, was an elite commando and commander, and is among several key figures who discuss the Olympic tragedy and “Operation Wrath of God,” Israel’s response, on “Spy Ops,” now streaming on Netflix.

Barak told the Journal he believes if he and fellow soldiers had been allowed to plan and execute a rescue operation, at a minimum, some of the hostages would have been saved. The Germans would only allow Mossad head Zvi Zamir to serve in a strictly observational role. Barak said he wanted to be there too, even if only to watch, thinking that option, while not ideal, was better than nothing.

“I was really frustrated at why the hell I couldn’t go and make sure the Germans would not make a stupid mistake. They refused.” At the time he was very angry. But in retrospect, he said,  “I fully understand it was correct. The risk was, if I was there, I wouldn’t withstand the temptation to tell them what to do. They were totally unprepared for this kind of operation. They would fail because they were not professionals. Then they could say, ‘look what do you want from us? We followed your recommendations.’”

On the show, former German police officer Heinz Hohensinn explained that the German force, The Storm Commandos, were on the roof of the building disguised as athletes, and were prepared to go in until some “smart” TV journalists filmed it. The terrorists saw it on TV and warned the police, one of the reasons the rescue attempt was aborted.

The terrorists demanded a plane to take the hostages to an Arab country. The plan was that helicopters would take them to Fürstenfeldbruck airport. While two terrorists examined the plane, German police, dressed as airline workers, would disable or kill them and sharpshooters would kill the other terrorists. But the officers bailed and two terrorists, seeing an empty plane, realized they’d been tricked. A shootout ensued. German forces were not adequately trained, and did not have the proper weapons, lighting, or communications. Terrorists threw grenades into the helicopters, killing the Israelis. Five terrorists were killed, while Adnan Al-Gashey, his uncle, Jamal Al-Gashey and Mohammed Safady survived and were arrested. When other members of Black September hijacked Lufthansa Flight 615 one of their demands was the release of the Al-Gasheys and Safady.

In response, Prime Minister Golda Meir gave the green light for “Operation Wrath of God.”

“Golda was a strong woman,” Barak said. “The idea was not revenge but to prevent such attacks. She was very focused on our security. I don’t think there was hesitation on her side. She did it quickly and decisively.”

Two Mossad agents would kill Abdel Wael Zwaiter, a cousin of Yasir Arafat who was connected with Black September. Mahmoud Hamshari, who Israel believed attempted to assassinate David Ben-Gurion, is seen in an interview he gave to French TV. Asked if he is afraid, he says: “For me, no, but I might not want to tempt fate.” Mossad agents killed him by placing a bomb in his phone.

IDF special forces and a few Mossad agents were enlisted for a daring mission and Barak was tasked with coming up with a plan to kill Black September operational leaders Muhammad Youssef al-Najjar and Kamal Adwan as well as PLO spokesman Kamal Nasser. The plan involved taking missile boats to the shore of Beirut, and then being driven to two buildings on Verdun Street. As it would look suspicious for about 15 men walking together, another soldier suggested some of the slighter men dress up as women so as not to arouse suspicion.

“Spy Ops” shows how a handful of people often planned extremely dangerous missions. Screenshot Courtesy of Netflix

Barak, with a brunette wig, shot a guard who came at him brandishing a gun, which alerted the terrorists.

Others went into the apartment and set off explosive charges, shot the three men and took some documents. The raid in Beirut was a success and took only about seven minutes and the soldiers were back in the boats in 30 minutes.

Barak, said it was “probably” the first time Israeli forces dressed as females for an operation.

Asked if he was afraid, Barak said a mentality develops with experience.

“I was a commander of a special forces unit for 10 years,” Barak said. “It was not the first time I was under fire. Before any operation, there is a certain tension in the air, but the moment it begins, you are a professional, you are prepared and trained for it, so you have to do it and that’s it.”

In his autobiography “My Country, My Life: Fighting For Israel, Searching For Peace,” Barak recounts that while he ditched the wig, he returned home to his wife, Nava, and when he woke up, he was still wearing makeup.

The series also shows the painful irony of Bouchikhi, a founder of The Gipsy Kings, who explains how when he had a new band, he was called to play for Israeli leader Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1994. In July, 1973, the Mossad killed his brother, Ahmed, mistakenly thinking he was Ali Hassan Salameh, one of Arafat’s top men, dubbed “The Red Prince” due to the blood he spilled. Ahmed Bouchikhi had a similar appearance to Salameh and Mossad only had a grainy photograph of him. To compound the problem of killing the wrong man, a Mossad agent was caught in Norway. According to the series, he quickly gave up the location of other agents. One of the Mossad’s founders, Michael Harari, had a great reputation for planning missions so it was a uncommon error in this case. Zamir offered his resignation, but Meir refused to accept it, we are told.

In 1979, Salameh, who married Lebanese model and Miss Universe Georgina Rizk, was finally killed by Mossad agents via a car bomb.

Ido Aharoni Aronoff said, “Operation Wrath of God” showed Israel will take the necessary measures for its security.

The series also includes Ido Aharoni Aronoff, who was a commander in the First Lebanon War, and served as Israel’s Consul General in New York from 2010-2016 after previously serving as Israel’s Consul for Communications and Public Affairs in Los Angeles.

He was 10 when he learned of the Israeli athletes and coaches killed in Munich.

“I remember the shock,” Aronoff told the Journal. “It was a collective trauma in Israel. Today we’re 10 million people, back then we were a small country with 3.2 million. The trauma was huge.”

An expert in branding, Aronoff said Israel was forced into new territory.

“Israel excelled in country-to-country confrontation but had to develop expertise with non-state actors,” he said. “Israel is one of the first countries who had to rewrite the book on how you fight terrorism. The threats we faced were unique and terrorist organizations became more daring. Growing up in Israel, the attacks are etched in the memory of the nation. Our brand is resilience, protection and deterrence.”

He also said that Meir deserves credit and is often viewed too harshly for not being prepared for the Yom Kippur War.

“What happened to Golda is really a tragedy,” he said. “She is remembered for what happened in the Yom Kippur War. What happened in the war was horrible and traumatic to all Israelis. People can’t take away what she brought to the table. She was a gifted leader, the number one fundraiser of the Zionist movement, she was a brilliant foreign minister who introduced the idea of international aid to the tiny state of Israel in the 1960s, and she orchestrated the building of the bridge between American Jews and Israel. As a prime minister, she made very important decisions. I hope some day people will see the whole picture.”

While the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie “Munich” depicts the attack in Lebanon known as “Operation Spring of Youth”  as well as other attacks, it focuses on four male Mossad agents. “Spy Ops” shows female Mossad agents were also involved, including Erika Chambers, who was instrumental in the killing of Salameh; Sylvia Raphael, who assisted in several operations and was incarcerated for her role in the Lillehammer Affair, but was released after15 months.

“The terror attack at the Munich Olympics was just one of many examples where if you put feelings and optics ahead of actual security, you shouldn’t be surprised if your enemy isn’t dissuaded,” “Spy Ops” executive producer Jon Loew told the Journal.  “What you want to feel and want you want to believe doesn’t impact your adversary’s actions.” He described the raid in Beirut as “one of the most audacious in history.”

“Spy Ops,” he said, shows that certain spy agencies “will not stop until they bring you to justice no matter how far they have to travel, no matter how long they have to wait, no matter how hard they have to work.

One thing that sets the show apart from other true espionage stories is that the spy agencies participation.“We’ve got CIA, MI6, Mossad and a lot of these agencies are willing to provide more visibility into their activities so citizens of their countries can be proud of the work and enemies will know what will happen if they attack them again.”

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