Israel's Worry on Its Spies: Are They up to Snuff?

Latest mistake fuels debate over ethics - and a need to draw the line at assassination.

The Mossad, Israel's secret overseas spy agency, gained a reputation in its youth for pulling off stealthy stunts before anyone could mutter a peep of dissent.

But lately, the Mossad seems to be going through a midlife crisis, as bungled missions have damaged its image at home and abroad.

Yet despite a botched assassination attempt in Jordan in September and a foul-up in a routine wiretapping assignment in Switzerland last month, few in Israel question the agency's preemptive and sometimes retaliatory tactics.

Some here, however, have begun to ask whether Israel should avoid engaging in assassination on ethical grounds - and to avoid looking like a rogue state. Such rethinking pokes at many of the same issues members of Congress are grappling with as the debate continues over whether the US should try to take out Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

For some Israelis, the controversy is about performance, not policy. In a nation that views itself as needing a strong edge in intelligence to make up for its small size and vulnerability to terrorism, the Mossad is still seen as indispensable.

Where international critics question whether the missions were justified, Israelis ask only who messed up or who leaked the embarrassing details.

"We need the Mossad to show us how to fight terrorism all around the world," says Gideon Ezra, a member of parliament who is the former deputy head of Israel's domestic intelligence service. "We have enemies from Lebanon to Iran to Iraq. If we have to deal with all these things without a good Mossad, we won't be able to do it."

At the top of the Mossad pyramid sat Danny Yatom. He resigned last week after papers were splashed with a story that Mossad agents had been arrested in Switzerland while trying to bug a suburban home.

The residence reportedly belongs to an operative of the Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed guerrilla movement battling Israel in southern Lebanon.

The incident upset Israeli relations with Swiss officials. It also marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Yatom's career. The blame for the failed attempt to assassinate a Jordan-based leader of Hamas - the Palestinian Muslim militant group - had only recently been laid on Yatom's shoulders.

Just a week earlier, a commission of inquiry said Yatom's move to kill Hamas's Khaled Meshal by injecting poison in his ear on an Amman street did not sufficiently take into account the political ramifications of attempting such a move in Jordan - Israel's best new friend in the Arab world.

But the report never questioned the propriety of Israel engaging in assassination as state policy - something that many Western nations including the US have forsworn, at least publicly.

Similarly, the main concern with the latest fiasco was not whether Israeli agents should have been messing around with the phone lines in a basement outside the Swiss capital, but why a quiet mistake was spilled to the press.

Not a 'gentlemen's game'

Swiss officials say they were willing to deal with the matter through diplomatic channels.

But sources either within the Mossad or the Israeli government itself apparently leaked the story - the work of what some describe as opportunists who wanted to push Yatom out.

"We have real enemies and they are aggressively attacking us," says Joseph Alpher, a Mossad official from 1969 to 1981, defending the agency's actions. "Reports that the house belonged to a Hizbullah operative, a proxy of Iran, remind us that there is a coalition of forces in the Middle East today that is actively making war on Israel."

Dr. Alpher says the gains made in Arab-Israeli reconciliation since the start of the Oslo peace process did not translate into the Mossad scaling back its activities.

"This is not some gentlemen's game and this is not an anachronistic activity," says Alpher. "We have to use every means available. It's a free country and everything is debatable, but Israelis by and large accept that these activities are necessary...."

Founded in 1951, the Mossad name literally means the "institution." You never need to call it by its full name, the Institution for Intelligence and Special Tasks, for anyone to know which particular "institution" you mean.

It built that one-name fame early. When the Mossad was barely 10 years old, its agents kidnapped Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and whisked him off to Israel, where he was tried and sentenced to death. When 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Olympics in Munich some 10 years later, the Mossad took revenge on virtually all of the killers. For years, it kept tabs on and assassinated Palestine Liberation Organization leaders in Tunis, Tunisia, then the PLO headquarters.

But there have been changes. Most recently, Yatom became the first Mossad leader to have his identity known, turning what used to a faceless top strategist into an accountable public figure.

Other shifts toward transparency have taken place in the Mossad and in the internal secret services, especially since the lapse in security that allowed the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Unlike in the past, at least the agencies now have an address for inquiries. Someone who feels wronged or is rejected for a job at the Mossad has a right to complain or appeal to a committee.

And with the leaps in information technology and satellite intelligence-gathering, experts here say that reliance on traditional spying is on the wane.

But high-tech surveillance doesn't always help against organizations like Hamas and Hizbullah.

Different standard

"The policy of how to fight terror ... we are taking for granted," says Ze'ev Schiff, a top Israeli commentator on strategic and military affairs.

"The questions asked were over the venue of the Meshal assassination, but this is mainly because of the special relations between Israel and Jordan," he says.

Mr. Schiff, a columnist for the left-wing Haaretz paper and a frequent critic of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says the tactics themselves were not yet the subject of an American-style ethics debate, nor should they be.

"This is a general policy, which has gone on for many years, that no matter where they are, we shall be after them," Schiff says. "The Americans can allow themselves to play nice. I hope someday we can get to that point, but not yet."

Even outside its secret services, Israel has not shied away from using what it deems preemptive strikes, such as when it bombed an Iraqi nuclear-reactor project in 1981.

To most Israelis, the work of the Mossad takes care of such threats on an everyday basis. And even the harshest critics of the recent mishaps say that the Mossad probably foils many attacks that no one ever hears about.

But not everyone accepts the idea that all foes are fair game, especially after the assassination attempt left Israel looking as if it was trying to antagonize its foes - and doing a poor job of it.

Yaron Ezrahi, of Jerusalem's Israel Democracy Institute, says it prompted some reexamination. "We have to ask ourselves whether it is in our national interest to be identified as a state that acts in this way," he says.

But he also blames the Mossad bloopers on Mr. Netanyahu's government, which has left many doubting the premier's direction and his sincerity about implementing peace accords.

"No amount of information will help a policymaker who doesn't have a vision of what he wants," says Mr. Ezrahi. "This country has a much more serious problem of leadership at the top than it does in intelligence-gathering operations."

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