Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Every Spy a Prince (Houghton Mifflin, 1990).

Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy, By Way of Deception (St. Martin’s Press, 1990).

Promoting their book around the US last fall, Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv touted it as the first critical study of Israel’s intelligence establishment — an antidote to the “cheerleading” books about Israeli intelligence that typify the genre. That is precisely what makes Every Spy a Prince so insidious. Its critical demeanor gives the book an aura of intellectual depth and honesty, beguiling the reader to accept the bold claim of its subtitle: The Complete History of Israel’s Intelligence Community.

Melman and Raviv apparently had no idea that in Canada Victor Ostrovsky was secretly preparing to publish a memoir of his two years with Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency. While Ostrovsky’s volume was hardly a model of scholarship, its exposure of a number of Mossad activities not included in Every Spy undermined Melman’s and Raviv’s claim to integrity.

Every Spy a Prince was vetted by the Israeli military censor, while the Israeli government tried to enjoin Ostrovsky’s Canadian and US publishers from distributing Deception and is now suing the authors and publishers. Did the Israeli censor permit Melman and Raviv to publish what the Israeli government wanted known? For all his reckless ahistoricity, could there not be some devastating quotient of truth in what Ostrovsky has written?

The censors allowed Melman and Raviv to clear up a persistent point of confusion: Is it the Mossad or is it the Israeli military that pulls off such exploits as the 1976 raid on Entebbe? In Every Spy we learn that it is often the elite commando force, Sayeret Matkal, under the command of the chief of staff, which acts as a “subcontractor” for the Israeli military and Shinbet, the domestic intelligence force, as well as for the Mossad.

Such permitted disclosures do contribute to the historical record — the more so for what they reveal of Israeli officials and of the authors. Two cases in point are Melman’s and Raviv’s descriptions of actions for which Israel has claimed responsibility through hints and leaks.

Melman and Raviv reveal that Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir approved the mining in Cyprus in 1988 of a ship which was to sail a group of Palestinian exiles and their supporters to Israel. At the same time he approved the assassination of Muhammad Basim Sultan Tamimi, a PLO official. In Limassol, the day before it mined the ship, the Mossad planted a powerful bomb in the car of a second PLO official, Marwan Kayyali. The authors write that the Mossad hit men hesitated when they saw a third man in the car with Tamimi and Kayyali, but on determining it was PLO official Muhammad Hassan Buhays, “[O]ne of the Israelis pressed the button.”

Melman and Raviv name the Israeli officials who directed the murder in Tunis of Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad) — then the PLO’s second-in-command — from an airborne command center (a converted Boeing 707). They were Gen. Ehud Barak, the deputy chief of staff, and Gen. Amnon Shahak, the head of military intelligence. The authors also note that then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin requested the execution. They cap off their narration with a discussion of an internal Israeli debate over the utility of killing PLO officials regarded as moderates.

What Israel does not want credited to its account, Melman and Raviv deftly avoid. Ostrovsky claims that Mossad set up a super-secret unit called “AI” to keep track of the Carter administration’s efforts to start Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. Melman and Raviv improve a bit on the standard Israeli line: “Israeli covert activities in the United States were, indeed, widespread, but not nearly so structured or ominous as FBI officials and other xenophobes might have supposed.”

They tangentially corroborate Ostrovsky’s description of “AI,” but they claim that intelligence collection in the US was mostly a matter of visiting Israelis keeping their eyes open. They do not mention Andrew Young, whose firing as Carter’s ambassador to the UN was, according to Ostrovsky, engineered by “AI.”

Even more telling is the disparity between the Melman-Raviv claim that the Mossad seldom uses American Jews (as in the case of Jonathan Jay Pollard) and Ostrovsky’s detailed description of the sayanim, Jewish “helpers,” that Mossad uses to augment its small staff of 1,200. “One thing you know for sure is that even if a Jewish person knows it is the Mossad, he might not agree to work with you — but he won’t turn you in,” writes Ostrovsky of the diaspora Jews Mossad recruits for such tasks as renting cars and apartments, running telephone answering services and temporary front companies.

Also missing from the Melman-Raviv compendium is any discussion of the armed Jewish defense groups which Ostrovsky says Mossad sets up around the world. With the access to former Israeli intelligence officers which Melman and Raviv say they had, they might have answered some key questions: Is there a connection between the “frames” and the arms training given for years by the Jewish Defense League — or between the frames and the current Israeli practice of recruiting North American and European Jews to volunteer with the Israeli military?

Some of the most glaring holes in Every Spy correspond to incidents that Israel has been able to keep more or less under wraps. In their discussion of Israel’s illegal export of krytrons (nuclear weapons fuses), Melman and Raviv do not even name Arnon Milchan, whose company handled the deal. Shabtai Kalmanowitch, who for years handled some of Israel’s sanctions-busting business with South Africa and acted as its representative in Sierra Leone, is given short shrift as a convicted Soviet agent. Every Spy makes no mention of his South African connection.

Melman and Raviv gloss over the doings of other notorious Israeli operatives — among them Mike Harari, Gen. Noriega’s right-hand man, who organized a drug-linked contra supply network, and Yair Klein, who organized weapons and training for a Medellin cartel hit squad. Ostrovsky claims Israel “loaned” Harari to Chile for training the hit team that assassinated former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in Washington in 1976.

Melman and Raviv attribute many of the recent scandals that have plagued Israeli intelligence to “[a] host of former intelligence operatives [who] transformed themselves into self-employed security advisers and arms merchants willing to engage in commerce with the highest bidder.” It is these “formers,” many of whom “were not on the official payroll and thus would not follow orders even if any were given,” that are “giving Israel a bad name,” they write.

In reality, Israel has deliberately structured its covert activities a broad as private operations (as have many other nations) to make them “deniable” in the event of exposure. Frequently, Israel’s “cutouts,” or “fronts,” are businessmen, an arrangement that compensates nicely for the paltry civil service pensions drawn by Mossad retirees and enables them to finance arms deals and the like. Melman and Raviv themselves talk of Mossad “carv[ing] up the world into fiefdoms for its favorite ‘formers.’”

Melman and Raviv conclude that “by dwelling excessively on grand design and inflated ambitions, the secret agencies have betrayed their own true nature.” This critique will appeal to liberal readers in the US. In the end, the reader is left with the same comforting conclusion produced by the congressional Iran-contra investigation: Although besmirched by some bad actors, the intrinsic nature of the state is good.

How to cite this article:

Jane Hunter "Mossad Books," Middle East Report 171 (July/August 1991).

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