November 17, 2018

Episode 87 – Mossad: Kill or be Killed

Photo by Ziv Koren.

A little over a week ago, in the early morning of April 21st, Fadi Al-Batsh was walking down a road in Gombak, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was on his way to the local mosque for dawn prayers. Suddenly, two men on a motorcycle drove up, drew their pistols and gunned down Al batsh with no less than 14 bullets before driving off.

Seven years prior to his assassination, Fadi Al-Batsh had moved to Malaysia from Gaza to research and acquire weapon systems and drones for Hamas, the ruling power in the strip. This, ostensibly, made him a target for Israel’s international spy agency, the Mossad.

Of course, this is not the first such mission undertaken by the clandestine organization. The Mossad, along with the other branches of Israel’s intelligence apparatus, has a long, dark and often contentious history of targeted assassinations dating back to the very founding of the state.

If we listed the qualifications and accomplishments of Dr. Ronen Bergman, we’d have no time left to talk about his incredible new book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. Suffice it to say that Dr. Bergman is a senior political and military analyst for Yedioth Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, he’s been a guest lecturer at countless universities including Princeton, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge (where he received his PhD in history), he’s written for numerous international newspapers including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Times and finally, he deserves a special congratulations for recently becoming a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine.

We are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Ronen Bergman to talk about his new book and Israel’s history of covert killings.

Dr. Bergman’s books on Amazon, his Facebook and Twitter

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Charlottesville put focus on alt-right, but watch out for the anti-Semitic left

Protesters and counterprotesters clashing at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

What can the hunt for Josef Mengele teach us about the challenges facing Jews today? With a debate stirring about whether left-wing or right-wing Jew-haters pose the greater threat, a new account of the decisions made by Israel’s leaders regarding the evil doctor of Auschwitz should give us some food for thought.

Author Ronen Bergman has written a new book about Israeli intelligence and contributed an op-ed in The New York Times concerning an enduring mystery of the Mossad: Why wasn’t Mengele brought to justice like Adolf Eichmann?

Israel made the capture of Eichmann — the man responsible for organizing the Nazi industrialization of murder — a priority mission for its intelligence operatives. After he was run to ground in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial and eventual execution, Mengele was the logical next target. Yet he evaded capture and died a free man in Sao Paulo in 1979.

Was he just too clever or lucky? No. As Bergman reports, Mengele was spotted in Sao Paulo in 1962 by a Mossad team. Had their commanders and their political masters ordered an operation to snatch him, he would have gotten the same just deserts Eichmann received. But they didn’t, and their reason provides an insight both into Israeli history and the choices that are often posed to the Jewish people.

As Bergman explains, the same day that the news about Mengele’s spotting arrived on Mossad chief Isser Harel’s desk, he learned Egypt was recruiting German scientists to build missiles. Harel oversaw the operation to get Eichmann but thought the threat from Egypt was more important than justice for Mengele. Had Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime — which was then using chemical weapons in its military adventure in Yemen — acquired missile technology, that would have raised the prospect of Jews being gassed the next time Egypt attacked Israel.

With limited personnel at his disposal, Harel ordered the Mossad to stand down in Brazil and to concentrate on a campaign of intimidation and murder of Germans helping Egypt. Harel’s successor, Meir Amit, went further. He ordered his agents, “Stop chasing after ghosts from the past and devote all our manpower and resources to threats against the security of the state.” In other words, forget about old Nazis and concentrate on those Arabs and their allies trying to murder Jews now. Every Israeli prime minister concurred with Amit until Menachem Begin was elected in 1977. But Mengele died long before the Mossad was able to track him down again.

Yet the question lingers as to whether the Mossad’s decision to de-prioritize the hunt for Nazis was correct. Perhaps it might have been possible to do both, but it is not unreasonable to argue that a choice had to be made. Getting Mengele would have been just and emotionally satisfying, yet assigning its scarce resources to the more potent threat was probably the rational option.

Today, Jews face another portentous choice.

Because of what happened in Charlottesville, Va., last month, neo-Nazis are much on our minds. The imagery of a torchlight march of American racists chanting anti-Semitic slogans evoked the tragic past in a way that few events have done. With a small but noisy alt-right movement spreading Jew-hatred on the internet and social media, it’s also no longer possible to claim the anti-Semitic right is dead, as many of us had thought.

Yet, while Charlottesville has refocused us on neo-Nazis, the growing forces of the anti-Semitic left may be a far more potent contemporary threat. President Donald Trump’s inconsistent statements about Charlottesville were outrageous and have encouraged hate groups, but although we are right to worry about the alt-right, the ability of left-wing Israel-haters and their Islamist allies to mobilize far larger numbers of supporters in Europe and on American college campuses is a more serious problem. They can also influence popular culture and mainstream politics via the anti-Trump “resistance.” That presents a clear and present danger to Jewish communities and students that the marginal figures who assembled in Virginia do not.

Jews are capable of opposing both threats. Yet if, due to the antipathy Trump generates among many Jews, we ignore the left-wing anti-Semites in order to concentrate on the less dangerous right-wing haters, that would be a mistake. The Jews have more than one enemy, but the one that is still actively plotting the destruction of the Jewish state and the murder of Jews should remain the default priority. The lesson of Jewish history is not just “never again.” Meir Amit’s warning about chasing ghosts should also not be forgotten.

JONATHAN S. TOBIN is opinion editor of and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathans_tobin.

The Israeli kidnapping dilemma: How to respond beyond the search

On Oct. 10, 1994, not long after midnight, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) office got a call from the brother of a soldier, Nachshon Wachsman: The soldier was supposed to come home but never made it. The brother was somewhat concerned. Six hours later, the mother also called. Wachsman was still missing. It took the military five more hours or so, until, at 11:35 a.m., it activated the procedure for locating missing soldiers. A friend was quickly located. He had dropped Wachsman off around 5 p.m. the previous day. The next day, a demand was made by a Palestinian group that Israel release Palestinian prisoners, or else. The demand, in blunt language, was addressed to the “dog Rabin” — then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  

Ronen Bergman’s “By Any Means Necessary: Israel’s Covert War for its POWs and MIAs” tells the Wachsman story in great detail. It began much like the kidnapping of three young Israelis this week, and ended in heartbreak. The military was successful in locating the place where Wachsman was being held. It was less successful in getting him released — both Wachsman and an IDF special unit officer, Nir Poraz, were killed. No Palestinian prisoner was released. No demand was met. 

Three groups of IDF soldiers participated in the break-in to the house where Wachsman was being held. Poraz was heading one of them, his friend, Yair Lotan, a second force, and the third force commander was Nitzan Alon — now an IDF general and commander of Israel’s Central Command, the man in charge of the forces now searching for 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach and 16-year-olds Naftali Frenkel and Gilad Shaar. 

[Related: Israelis send prayers and messages of hope — and share their anger]

Just three weeks ago, an Israeli cabinet meeting became tense over the issue that has suddenly became relevant in the last couple of days: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, backed by the attorney general, decided to postpone a vote on legislation he had committed himself to passing. The law — which was approved by the government a couple of days later — would enable the courts to sentence murderers for life in a way that would prevent their future release for any reason. The authors of the new legislation, members of the right-wing Habayit Hayehudi Party aim to prevent Israel from ever again releasing prisoners in exchange for peace talks, as it did last year. The legislation would also prevent the government from exchanging prisoners for abducted Israelis.

Writing for Slate two weeks ago, I explained that Israel’s “need of such legislation is testimony to the slippery slope that the releasing of terrorists can become.” The list of such releases is long, and the story of Wachsman is the exception, not the rule. Three years ago, Israel got the abducted soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas captivity in exchange for releasing 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. In 1985, Israel released 1,150 prisoners to get three soldiers back. Israel, as I reminded Slate readers, “has repeatedly paid heavily for information, for bodies of dead soldiers, for a drug-dealing Israeli colonel kidnapped by Hezbollah. It got used to paying.” Bergman, in his book, claims that the “trauma of the failed attempt to release Wachsman remained a scar in Israel’s collective memory.” He even seems to believe that it contributed somewhat to Israel’s reluctance to initiate a similar military operation in an attempt to release Shalit — a more complicated case, as Shalit was being held in the Hamas-controlled territory of the Gaza Strip.

As I am writing this article, the fate of the abducted youngsters is not yet known. It is interesting to note, though, that in Israel the public seems to have toughened its position regarding possible deals with the kidnappers. The pendulum that tilted toward more accommodation following the Wachsman tragedy, might be edging back toward a less compromising stance following the heavy price paid in the Shalit deal.

On June 15, two Knesset members demanded to quickly adopt the recommendations of a committee to set an uncompromising criteria for exchange deals. In 2008, a committee headed by former High Court Chief Justice Meir Shamgar was appointed by then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, following a heavily criticized deal in which Israel let murderers go in exchange for body bags. The committee pushed to limit the price Israel pays in prisoner swaps, but Israeli governments were reluctant to fully adopt the recommendations, fearing that such a move would tie their hands in future situations that they could not foresee. 

Tying the hands of the government is exactly what the above-mentioned Knesset members now intend to do. One of them, Ayelet Shaked of Habayit Hayehudi, was also behind the legislative initiative that enables the courts to sentence murderers to life without release, no matter the circumstances. The other, who publically called on the government to adopt the Shamgar recommendations and apply them to the current case of abduction, is Elazar Stern of the Hatnua Party. Curiously, Shaked is a member of a party that gets most of its votes from the community of settlers and settler supporters to which the abducted teens also belong. Stern, more of a political pariah, is also a member of the Zionist-religious community. So their call for restraint is clearly based on strong belief, and not rooted in lack of care for the families and the kidnapped teens.    

A lot of ink was spilled during the week on this question of care and carelessness. Following days of fruitless searching, and lacking in information of ability to assist, Israelis turned to self-reflection: Are we being too patriotic? Too cynical? Too hateful? Too polarized? Do we hate the settlers, do we love them, do we care enough about the three boys? A right-wing writer was furious to discover that the Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade on June 13 had not been canceled because of the abduction. When, in synagogues, one nation of Israelis gathered to say prayers for the missing teens, he wrote, the “other nation ended its gay parade in a hangover.”  

So, Israelis wondered: Is this a good time to talk about the occupation, or the worst time to talk about it? Are the residents of the “state of Tel Aviv” disengaged from the sorrow of the rest of the country? Is it OK to keep broadcasting reality shows and the World Cup on TV? 

The answer to all of the above is — yes and no. The need for all of the above was the need of the powerless. There was nothing Israelis could do throughout these four days, except to pray, to go on with their daily lives, or to bicker (or all of the above). A vocal minority chose bickering. The media, which needs to fill hours and hours of broadcasts with something, turned to this minority to see some action.

The bickering comes from all sides:

From the left: It is about the settlers, about the irresponsible habit of hitchhiking, about the inevitability of violence because of the collapse of the peace talks.

From the right: It is about the settler-hating left, about how the left excuses terrorism, about the cruelty of Hamas — an ultimate proof that no peace process has any future.

From the center: It is about Israeli society’s lost ability to show solidarity, about the vile conversation, about the Facebook-made radicalization of Israeli culture.

Most of these complaints are overstated, or false.

In the “state of Tel Aviv,” where I live, I could hardly find neighbors who are unsympathetic or uncaring about the abducted boys. If there are such Tel Avivians, they are a small minority. Ignoring them would be the better policy. 

And I also refuse to be shocked by people who wonder if the culture of hitchhiking should not be seriously discussed. Wondering about hitchhiking doesn’t necessarily amount to a “blame the victim” mentality. In fact, the opposite is true: Those who agree that the enemy is heartless and cruel are also those who might want to be pragmatic about making life more complicated for kidnapers and murderers. Is the right to hitchhike so sacred that we should stand up for it at any cost? Telling teenage girls not to hitchhike because of the fear of sexual predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to predators, and telling teenage settlers not to hitchhike because of the fear of terrorist predators doesn’t amount to surrendering to terrorism. It’s a pragmatist stance that’s worth hearing out.

A very frustrating feature of the abduction is that Israelis have to deal with its meaninglessness. Its sheer, meaningless cruelty. The abduction is not going to prove to anyone that Palestinian terrorism is merciless and abhorrent — we know that already. We’ve seen buses blow up; we’ve seen families slaughtered in their sleep; we’ve seen heads smashed, youth murdered. It is also not going to teach us a lesson about the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian situation — we know it’s complex, and we suspect it will remain complex for many years to come. And it is not going to convince Israel that the occupation isn’t viable — continuing the occupation is problematic, but Israel isn’t yet certain there is currently a better alternative.

That there is a debate within Israel about these questions is understandable and healthy. That such debates become more fierce and emotional when the country is searching for three lost boys is to be expected. And yes, it is also natural for many Israelis to miss the long-lost days of unity and harmony. Thirty years ago, it was easier to be unified. The country was much smaller, 3 million strong, not 8 million. The issues were less controversial; the occupation still young; the hope for a coming peace still alive. The press was less garish. The culture was more naïve.

And yet — and yet — if this horrid crime of abduction is a test for Israeli society, I see no reason for great worry. The debate, the anger, the nonstop bickering, the fiery exchanges on social media, are all a sign of strength. Israelis truly care; Israelis are highly engaged; Israelis feel the need to say something, to do something. Yes, at some moments this has an aftertaste of a superfluous quarrel — but is that not the case with almost all family feuds?

On June 17, the three families of the abducted youngsters gathered together for the first time. They, too, could do very little as the search continued. Their short TV and radio appearances were admirable. Content and subdued, they demanded little and asked mainly for other Israelis to keep praying for their sons. Other Israelis were not always as restrained in their response. As usual, the mix of emotion, drama and politics bequeath radical suggestions and objectionable comments.

As Israel was searching for the missing boys, it was also acting with greater means than usual against Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank. The new Palestinian government provided Hamas with an opportunity to better its position in this Fatah-dominated area, a process that Israel was following with great concern. Alas, up until the abduction, the calls from Israel for the international community to take action against the new government and refrain from working with it fell on deaf ears — not even the United States was willing to put its relations with the Abbas administration on hold because of the formation of the Hamas-backed government. The kidnapping gave some Israeli officials a hope that its concerns can be communicated more clearly now, and will provide more legitimacy in taking action against Hamas.

The latter conclusion has proved right, at least in the days following the abduction. Israel was operating in areas of the West Bank into which it doesn’t usually enter with massive forces, and the world seemed to accept the necessity of taking such action when the lives of three civilians are hanging in the balance. As for the other hope — that the world will suddenly rediscover its distaste for Hamas as a result of the kidnapping — the result was mixed. Soon after the abduction, Israelis started to notice and complain that this highly dramatic story failed to make huge headlines abroad. The world, they were forced to realize, is currently interested in the much bigger story of Iraq, and the much more positive story of the World Cup. The world is also not going to base its policies on the sporadic tragedies that befall Israelis (and Palestinians) from time to time.

On Iranian nuclear issue, mixed signals proliferate

Israel, the United States and Iran have all gone deep into mixed-signals territory.

Conversations with Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left one prominent journalist convinced that Israel will strike Iran by year’s end. Yet two weeks ago, Barak had said that any possible Israeli attack on Iran is “far off.”

Leon Panetta, the U.S. defense secretary, said in December that any military strike would only set Iran’s nuclear program back a couple years—a remark that some Israelis read as conveying a sense of resignation to the idea that if Iran really wants a nuclear weapon, eventually it will be able to get one. But in a television interview broadcast Sunday, he vowed that the U.S. would take “whatever steps are necessary” to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Iran is responding to international sanctions with a mix of threats to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and efforts to placate Western concerns about its nuclear program by allowing in inspectors and calling for new talks.

Two questions remain the focus of considerable speculation: Will Israel strike Iran? And will the sanctions cause Iran to bend?

The first question was the subject of a much-discussed Sunday New York Times Magazine cover story by Ronen Bergman, one of Israel’s best-connected security journalists. It featured rare and extensive on-the-record interviews with top Israeli officials, most prominently Barak.

Recent moves by the Iranians have underscored the significance of the second question.

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was ready to sit down for talks to discuss its nuclear program. On Sunday, a team of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations nuclear watchdog, arrived in Tehran.

The team, according to the Associated Press, includes two weapons experts and will visit an Iranian nuclear facility near the religious city of Qom. President Obama’s revelation in 2009 of the until-then secret underground facility helped the U.S. make the case to the world community for intensified sanctions, leading to the recent international squeeze on Iran’s economy and energy sector.

The inspectors’ visit is the first since an IAEA report in November concluded that Iran was engaged in activities—particularly in the area of enhanced uranium enrichment capabilities—that could have no other discernible purpose but weaponization.

Iran continues to insist that its nuclear program has strictly civilian purposes. Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s foreign minister, was quoted by various media on Monday as saying that he was “optimistic” about the results of the inspectors’ three-day visit, and that it could be extended “if necessary.”

“One shouldn’t get too carried away, but I assume they have something to offer or they would not agree to schedule this visit,” said Barbara Slavin, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has written a book on U.S.-Iran relations titled “Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies.”

But Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, noted that the Iranians resisted setting a formal agenda for the inspectors’ visit, which suggested a lack of seriousness by the Iranians.

“Iran has a history of offering to talk when it is under pressure, and then stalling so that the talks delay punitive measures against it,” Adler said.

Iran is also sending mixed messages to the United States in the region. In addition to its threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz in response to mounting sanctions, Iran’s army chief warned a U.S. aircraft carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf. But other Iranian officials later seemed to backtrack, calling the entry of another U.S. carrier into the gulf a routine event. Also this month, Iran test-fired cruise missiles that could be used against U.S. ships.

Israel’s plans, meanwhile, also have been the subject of speculation.

Bergman in his New York Times Magazine article concluded that an Israeli strike before year’s end was all but inevitable.

“I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012,” he wrote. “Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that.”

A number of Iran experts questioned his conclusions, noting that his article included a wealth of Israelis warning against such a strike—and even referred to Barak’s Jan. 18 statement that any decision to strike was “very far off.”

“It was a very odd article considering all the people he quoted who said that a strike was a bad idea,” Slavin said.

In part, Bergman argues, the feeling that Israel will need to strike Iran stems from what he suggests is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s belief that the U.S. will not attack in its stead should Iran be on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.

U.S. officials, including Panetta, have tried in recent weeks to emphasize their commitment to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In an interview broadcast Sunday, Panetta told the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes” that the United States would take “whatever steps are necessary” to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, calling it a “red line” for both Israelis and the United States.

Asked about the possibility of military action, Panetta responded that “there are no options that are off the table.”

Panetta also stressed the urgency of the situation, suggesting that Iran would be able to develop a nuclear weapon in approximately a year.

“The consensus is that if they decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce a bomb and then possibly another one to two years in order to put it on a deliverable vehicle of some sort in order to deliver that weapon,” Panetta said.

In articulating the notion that Iran could be able to develop a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, Panetta seems to be on the same page as Israeli officials.

In a statement Monday after returning from the annual economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, Barak again sounded a note of concern.

“Over the course of the various meetings” with other leaders at the forum, Barak said, “we repeatedly emphasized our stance that we must urgently intensify and broaden the sanctions against Iran. The determination of world leaders is critical in order to prevent the Iranians from advancing their military nuclear program.

“We must not waste time on this matter; the Iranians continue to advance [toward nuclear weapons], identifying every crack and squeezing through. Time is urgently running out.”