Spies and secret agents may appear to lead adventurous and extraordinary lives, but they are just like everybody else in at least one way: they have a deep desire to discuss their accomplishments and to share some form of common understanding. This is at least one of my conclusions after watching Inside the Mossad, Duki Dror’s fascinating yet troubling film about Mossad – the National Intelligence Agency of Israel – responsible for clandestine operations overseas, including assassinations.
Mossad first fell under the international spotlight in 1960 when an agency team led by politician and former intelligence officer Rafi Eitan successfully kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust which saw the extermination of six million Jews. Eiten ensured he was brought back to Israel and to be put on trial. That daring feat was significant not only because of its operational success but also because few questioned its moral justification as Eichmann was given a chance to defend himself in a court of law. But in the subsequent years,Mossad has carried out several operations in which terrorists and individuals considered as posing a lethal threat to the nation-state have simply been killed. Eitan, in the film, describes one such instance, in which an Israeli army officer who was discovered selling military secrets to an enemy Arab country, was kidnapped in Europe, and his body disposed of by being dropped from a plane into the Mediterranean Sea.
Mossad agents tell their stories
Eitan, 91 – along with one other retired Mossad director, 93-year-old Zvi Zamir – seems to relish the opportunity to talk about everything he had been forced to remain silent about during the course of several years. Both may have been disheartened by all the attention received by their rivals in widely-acclaimed 2012 film, The Gatekeepers, in which the former heads of Israel’s internal secret services, known as the Shin Bet (think the FBI to Mossad’s CIA), candidly discussed their successes and failures. In Inside the Mossad, filmmaker Duki Dror also seems to have shrewdly anticipated that elderly veterans like Eitan and Zamir would have little to hide and a few axes to grind.
«Particularly disturbing is the account of one Mossad agent who recruited a Bedouin shepherd in Lebanon to work as a double agent.»
Zamir seems particularly eager to vindicate blame for failing to alert the Israeli government about Egyptian and Syrian plans to attack Israel in 1973. Zamir asserts unequivocally that he provided the Israeli cabinet with a compelling intelligence report detailing the imminent Egyptian-Syrian attack well in advance of the war. According to Zamir, his reports were ignored. The subsequent surprise attack caught the army off-guard and led to the death of more than 5000 Israelis.
Many of the dozen or so former Mossad agents who participated in the film seem to shrug off the notion that some of their activities may have had dubious moral justification. Particularly disturbing is the account of one Mossad agent who recruited a Bedouin shepherd in Lebanon to work as a double agent. The shepherd alerted his Mossad handler that a Lebanese terrorist gang was planning to cross the border for an attack inside Israel. But when the double agent was suddenly forced by the terror gang to join them in the attack, the Mossad agent failed to take the steps necessary to save the shepherd’s life.
People only ‘pawns in the game’
One dramatic episode that calls to mind John le Carre’s famous novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is told by Tamar – a female Mossad agent who worked in Egypt along with a fellow male agent apparently under a cover story of the two being a wealthy French couple. As le Carre foretells in his novel, working together in such a close way under great tension for such a long period of time eventually leads to a real romance. Yet when the couple return to Israel, despite Tamar’s objections, their commander insists that they discontinue their relationship. As another Mossad agent puts it, in the world that they live in, people are often just pawns in the game.
«Imperfect Spies – an apt twist on le Carre’s novel A Perfect Spy – does indeed tell the story of what life is like for people working in an unusual and deeply flawed profession.»
Despite the unseemly picture the film presents of Mossad activity, several of the agents suggest – fairly convincingly – that the alternative to some of their extrajudicial executions would be nothing less than a war in which far more people would be killed. And contrary to the notion that security experts who are trained in the use of force might be inclined to favour use of that capability, as was shown in The Gatekeepers, they often recommend restraint rather than action.
This is one case in an incident described by Inside the Mossad. It was actually Mossad officials that prevented Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from taking military action against Iran.
According to one Mossad official in the film, when he became concerned that Netanyahu would go ahead with an attack on Iran’s nuclear-bomb-producing facilities, he met with his American counterpart in the CIA, and encouraged the CIA to push US President Obama’s initiative to sign a nuclear agreement with Iran. Signing that agreement removed – at least temporarily — the possibility of Israeli military activity.
A deeply flawed profession
The film’s title, Inside the Mossad, an apt twist on le Carre’s novel A Perfect Spy, does indeed tell the story of what life is like for people working in an unusual and deeply flawed profession in general – and in Israel in particular. In the film’s explicit descriptions of moral dilemmas, even staunch defenders of the right of a small country imperiled by a large number of enemies to defend itself, will find Inside the Mossad a bitter pill to swallow.
Unable to rely on other countries to ensure its existence, Israel is likely to continue to use Mossad as a key player in its defense arsenal. And now that the lid seems to have lifted via the telling of insider spy stories – some of them even about recent incidents – one may expect to see more in this genre, but not necessarily just from Israel.