Syrian Spy Story Finds Its Heroes

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The Forward, December 12, 1997

WASHINGTON — Major General Moshe Ya’alon, the chief of the military intelligence branch of the Israel Defense Forces, paid last week a hushed-up visit to the Virginia side of the Potomac River. There, he shared with his friends at the Pentagon and CIA the rather distressing news that much of the inside intelligence on Syria that Israel had supplied to the Americans over the past several years has been — how to put this diplomatically? — rendered inoperative by recent events.

General Ya’alon was in America on a damage-control mission, but the damage was not of his own making. The damage was done by the Mossad, the Institute for Intelligence and Special Tasks, whose special task, it has recently seemed, is to endanger the State of Israel.

A few weeks after a Mossad assassination team bungled the job of killing a Hamas operative in Jordan — I recently learned that the on-site commander of the hit squad ordered the operation aborted minutes before it was to take place, but the two agents defied the order, allowing disaster to ensue — the institute is again the subject of much derision in Israel, and in world intelligence circles, because of the deeply bizarre hijinks of one Yehuda Gil. Mr. Gil is a master of deception and agent recruitment, who recruited an imaginary and imaginative Syrian agent and deceived his government about Syria’s war intentions. Because Israel did not go to war with Syria over falsified intelligence reports, it is safe to say now that the Gil affair says more about Israel’s relationship with its own intelligence community than it does about Israel’s relationship with Syria.

General Ya’alon, an analytical genius, is the hero of this story, along with his predecessor, Major General Uri Saguy. Of the three organizations that make up the shadow world of Israeli intelligence — military intelligence, or Aman; the general security service, or Shabak; and the Mossad — only Aman these days is worth any investment of faith. While the Mossad is a flat-out disaster, Shabak does have its redeeming features. It was Shabak that removed the engineer from the bomb-making business with the aid of an exploding cellular telephone (in an only-in-Israel twist, a former head of Shabak, Ya’acov Peri, now runs a cellular telephone company). It is important to keep in mind, however, that Shabak was charged with protecting Yitzhak Rabin; it is Shabak that has let its network of informers go to pieces in the territory controlled by Chairman Arafat’s Preventive Security services.

Aman’s recent record, however, is laudatory. It was Aman, under the command of General Saguy, that argued down Mossad reports -reports we now know were manufactured by Mr. Gil for various nefarious reasons — that Hafez A1-Assad was preparing to make war on Israel last year. It is not a coincidence that Mossad deception; not so badly that the relationship between Israeli and American intelligence is forever damaged, but burned enough.

The Gil affair has forced me to ask myself a terrible question: Was Victor Ostrovsky right? The answer remains, resoundingly, no. Ostrovsky is the ex-Mossad trainee and Israeli traitor whose 1991 book, “By Way of Deception,” blames his onetime employer for every known crime against humanity, with the exception of teenage smoking.

But these two recent Mossad disasters have forced me to reread Ostrovsky in a new light. Ostrovsky’s point, clumsily Constructed and anti-Semitic in function (but a point nonetheless), is that the Mossad is an organization. choking on arrogance, staffed by amoral night creatures who function without any sort of proper oversight.

In the Meshal affair — the attempted assassination in Amman of the Hamas terrorist Khaled Meshal — we see the Mossad’s arrogance on display. There is a thin line between genius and disaster (ask yourself what would have happened if the Israeli raiders left just one Ugandan fighter plane intact when they left Entebbe in a hurry that July night in 1976), but luck is born of preparation and a willingness to cancel operations when luck seems nowhere in evidence.

Putting aside the question of whether the prime minister should have ordered the attack on Jordanian soil, the Mossad agents on the ground let their arrogance blind them. Their commander saw that Mr. Meshal was guarded and ordered them to abort, but the agents refused; the by-product is that Mr. Meshal now owns the best life insurance policy in the world, bought and paid for by the Mossad; imagine King Hussein’s reaction if Mr. Meshal were to be hit by a car while crossing a street in Amman. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear one day that an aged and infirm Mr. Meshal finds himself in Hadassah Hospital — in the secret wing where Gulf princes go — for heart surgery. Keeping him alive is, perversely, in the Israeli interest.

Mossad arrogance exhibited itself in another way: The Canadian passports used by the agents belonged to real people, living in Israel. The Mossad borrows passports from naive and idealistic immigrants to Israel, especially passports belonging to naive and idealistic immigrants with non-Jewish sounding names. So the real Shawn Kendall and Barry Beads are two more victims of the Mossad’s arrogance.

As for this week’s Mossad mess, here’s what Ostrovsky wrote about Yehuda Gil’s lecture to his training class (Mr. Gil taught a class rifled “Lying as an Art”): “Gil was a legendary katsa guidance officer..He began by saying there are three major ‘hooks’ for recruiting people: money, emotion, be it revenge or ideology, and sex.”

It is not known what made Yehuda Gil manufacture intelligence; not sex, it is generally agreed, and not necessarily ideology, either, though he was affiliated with the extremist Moledet Party. It might have been greed, since he allegedly kept the money he was supposed to distribute to his imaginary spy. But speculation now centers on the idea that Gil had a sort of psychological breakdown after experiencing a profound crisis of self-esteem — the Mossad meets Oprah, in other words. Which raises the question: Didn’t anyone notice? How is it that the Mossad recruits men like Yehuda Gil, and then lets them stay around forever — for that matter, why did the Mossad psychologists not figure out Ostrovsky sooner?

One answer being whispered loudly in military intelligence circles — circles which proclaim Aman’s early suspicions of Mr. Gil and his spy — is that the Mossad is a hermetically sealed culture that considers all criticism directed from the outside an affront and considers accountability to be a dirty word.

To this day, the Mossad operates without oversight, an unusual way for a democracy’s intelligence service to operate. Partisans of the current set-up say the Mossad is fighting a dirty war against deadly, dastardly foes and needs the freedom that only the shadows provide.

The tragedy of the Meshal and Gil affairs is that an effective Mossad is needed now as much as ever; the target of its last successful (and publicly-known) operation, the Islamic jihad terrorist Fathi Shikaki, who was assassinated on Malta, is all the evidence needed to prove that Israel must still contend with a raft of heartless enemies. The tragedy, too, is that Jews outside Israel need a smart Mossad. It is worth remembering that one of Yehuda Gil’s proudest moments came when he ran the Khartoum end of the 1984 operation that airlifted thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

An intelligent Mossad is a form of Jewish life insurance; a corrupt Mossad is a danger to Jewish health.