Tel Aviv — Not surprisingly, many intelligence officers consider the Israelis, man for man -- and woman for woman -- to be the best spies in the world. Israel's foreign intelligence organization is the Mossad. It is now headed by Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, a former paratroop commander who foresaw the 1973 attack on his sector and called in time for reinforcements. That is the sort of thing that intelligence at its purest is supposed to be all about.
But the men and women of the Mossad are also credited with doing some things that go beyond intelligence in its purest form. One of their most recent purported exploits was to blow up, on April 6, 1979, two French-made nuclear reactors being shipped to Iraq. The Israelis -- one presumes it was the Israelis -- destroyed the reactors even before the French manufacturers got them out of the warehouse.
The Israeli secret service is believed to have assassinated a number of members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Western Europe and elsewhere. But Iser Harel, the man who built the Mossad, said in an interview that during his stewardship no one was "liquidated."
According to Meir Amit, another former head of the secret service, the Mossad sometimes serves as a kind of "quiet foreign ministry," with "quiet ambassadors" being sent under cover to countries where the leadership cannot afford to admit having had contact with the Israelis.
Another source suggested that Israel had made some of its contact with Morocco in this way and, on a more limited scale, with the Sultanate of Oman, a country that overlooks the currently much-publicized and strategic Strait of Hormuz. The same source said the Israelis would like to have made such quiet contact with Saudi Arabia but failed.
American sources said that the Israelis have in the past cooperated with other intelligence agencies in feeding information to Egypt's President Anwar Sadat and even ex-President Gamal Abdul Nasser warning of assassination plots. It is not clear, however, whether the Israelis alone could have been responsible for thwarting such a plot.
The big intelligence failure was just prior to the 1973 war, when, according to Meir Amit, the Israelis suffered from "a kind of national overconfidence" and paid for it.
"We're encircled by enemies, and we're outnumbered," said Mr. Amit, who is now a member of the Israeli Knesset or parliament. "This has forced us to push our intelligence forward. . . . Our intelligence serves us as a long arm on the other side of the border and helps us to improve on two or our most dangerous disadvantages: a lack of time and space.
"You must not be too sure of yourself and constantly repeat to yourself, 'Don't be overconfident.' You must not be slaves to a concept."
"If you know where the head of the nail is, you might know precisely where to hit. . . . Information is not enough. It has to be the right information, at the right time, given to the right people, in the right way.
"I don't read spy stories, I don't have the patience. It's boring for me because reality is much more interesting." Israelis reject the James Bond image
Iser Harel, former chief of the Israeli secret services and the man who captured Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, sat in the corner of the Apropo cafe in Tel Aviv. He hardly looked like a spy.
The man who led the Israeli intelligence services for more than a decade wanted to make clear that he had nothing to do with the spies of fiction. Those spies and his spies lived in different worlds.
Nowadays, Harel writes and gardens. He says it was not hard to give up secret service work, because "it never became an obsession with me."
It was the diminutive Iser Harel who built the Mossad, or "the institution," as the agency is called. But he doesn't make it sound like that much of an achievement.
Everything about the man is restrained and self-effacing. But this trim and soft-spoken man looks as though he could be tough when he wanted to be.
He was born in Russia and says he will never forget, as a child, seeing people being lined up against a wall and shot.
Harel wanted to do physical labor when he got to Israel, and he worked so hard on a poor kibbutz that he gained recognition as a Stakhanovite worker.
When he became head of the secret services, he maintained the simplicity of his life on the kibbutz, but was persuaded to wear a necktie on trips abroad. One story has it that he didn't know how to knot a tie and in the beginning his friends had to knot it for him.
As he began to build the secret service, he searched the files of the Army and civil service for potential recruits.
"I used to look for people who were different from the accepted standard," he says. "Some of them never dreamed about being part of the secret service.
"I rejected those whose motivations were romantic or adventuresome.
"The best people were completely contrary to the image in the novels. . . .No guns, no daggers. . . . Almost unknown, shy people sometimes."
Iser Harel advises all spies:
"Don't draw attention to yourself."
If a James Bond type with his jaw straight and firm, his eyes wide and level, were to walk in on Iser Harel looking for a job, Harel would turn him down flat.
Harel offers advice to the Americans:
"Don't carry out an operation if you are going to be ashamed of it later. We could have been caught in Argentina on the Eichmann case. . . . But nobody in Israel would have accused us of doing wrong. . . .
"Don't do anything which if exposed your own people won't accept.
"Even if you believe it's the best motivation for your own country. . . . even if you believe the CIA should work inside the country [the US]. . . . If you want to do something like that, you should do everything first to change the law."
Harel's comments on Soviet intelligence operatives:
"It doesn't matter even if they're much more efficient. . . . And in fact, it's not always true that they [the Soviets] are efficient. . . . I would never be willing to live under the system they live under just to be efficient.
"They are considered efficient for three reasons: first, they have tremendous means. Second, they are ruthless; and third, there is still some ideological motivation.
"But they have weaknesses:
"At times, the ideological motivation makes them distort or exaggerate their view of things.
"They sometimes waste a tremendous amount of effort trying to get information , because they don't trust what's right there in the open -- in the newspapers, for instance.
"If the news says we're building a new road, or a new factory, they won't trust the news. They'll launch a clandestine operation to find out. . . .
"Another problem is the brutality they show toward some of their own men.
"They had a good agent [an Israeli] here once, but they kept wanting more. . . . They kept pushing him to get closer to me. . . . I began to see the fingerprints of a Russian operative all over the place. . . . They push people like that, without consideration for their psychology or their way of life.
"A second example: they had a man at the Weizmann Institute in a technical position, and they wanted scientific data. He was unable to get it. But when he kept trying, it gave him away. . . .
"When the Russians had an embassy here, all of them were secret agents. . . . They invented many ways to avoid our surveillance. . . . They used to meet their agents for a couple of minutes in cinemas. We provided our men with special cinema passes so that they didn't have to stand in lines. Every time they [the Russians] went to the cinema, we followed right behind."
Interview in Jerusalem with Gen. Yehoshafat Harkabi, onetime chief of Israeli Army Intelligence and Hebrew University specialist in philosophy and Arab literature.m
Q. Tell me why the Israelis are good at intelligence work.
A. First they are not global. . . . Take the chief of the CIA. . . . One day he has to worry about Vietnam, another day about Berlin. . . . It's beyond human capacity to speak intelligently on so many subjects. . . . Israel is able to concentrate on the Middle East.
Second, threat can produce paranoic tendencies, but it can also produce great sensitivity.
Q. What was the mistake in 1973?
A. In 1973 what they [the Israelis] didn't think of was the possibility of a small war, and that that small war could change the entire climate of opinion in the world. They thought in terms of a big war.
Q. Americans are not good at intelligence?
A. Not true. Look at the improvisation of the OSS [Office of Strategic Services].
Q. How do you judge today's CIA?
A. It's a problem for the whole world that the US intelligence community is in such a mess.
Q. Tell me about General Hofi [the current head of the Mossad].
A. He's nice, straightforward, a good administrator.
Q. Is there inevitably tension between those who use intelligence and those who provide it?
A. There is latent hostility between the intelligence consumer and the producer. The consumer always feels that the producer supplies him with everything but what he needs rather than with everything which is relevant. The producers, on the other hand, feel that their material is not being used.
Q. Why do Israelis constantly talk about instability in Saudi Arabia? Could it be wishful thinking or what?
A. It's such an anachronistic regime. I don't see how it can last long, a country that doesn't stand on its own two feet. They need all kinds of foreigners. These foreigners have all kinds of disabilities. It must create tensions.
Q. Well, there certainly does seem to be a consistent Israeli line of thinking on this.
A. Well, when all people think in a certain line, you can be sure it will turn out to be different. Hegel spoke of this. . . .