Interview with Michael Bar-Zohar

Revealing secrets

04/25/2013 19:43
‘I spent eight years here in this hotel.”

Michael Bar-Zohar relaxes in a chair in the dimly lit lobby café of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem. In two stints in the Knesset for the Labor Party he had plenty reasons to be at the hotel, which is just down the road from Israel’s parliament.

Born in 1938 in Bulgaria, Bar-Zohar has been a fixture on Israel’s literary and political scene for many years. He spent more than a decade working on a multi-volume official biography of David Ben-Gurion as well as producing biographies of Shimon Peres and Mossad founder Isser Harel.

His most recent publication is a book in Hebrew on Israel’s major military operations, coauthored by Nissim Mishal.

“It looks at the IDF’s 30 greatest operations, such as the Entebbe raid [in 1976], Sabena [the flight 571 hijacking in 1972], up until Pillar of Cloud [last November] which was the last one. There is even a last chapter about the operation that has not been carried out; about the attack on Iran, with a detailed description of how we shall try to do it.”

Bar-Zohar is confident that with the arrival of summer a decision must be made about Iran.

“All the experts, even those who are less extreme, think the summer is the moment of truth.”

The writer is proud of the recent release in English of his book Mossad: The Greatest Missions of the Israeli Secret Service.

Co-writing the book with Mishal allowed Bar-Zohar to focus his talents on the stories he knew best.

“We decided to divide the effort and focus on the greatest operations. We didn’t want to conceal any failures but to tell the truth. In the Hebrew version every chapter was like a capsule, a self-contained story. For the English version they wanted some more continuity with the characters so I had to re-write portions of the book.”

He sees some of Mossad’s top personalities as larger than life figures. Rafi Eitan for instance, he characterizes as the James Bond of Israel. “If James bond had heard about Rafi’s feats of arms he would have blushed.”

A lot of the stories have an appeal that seems more fit to a movie set than real life. One such case is Victor Grayevski.

“How come the Mossad, of this tiny poor country, suddenly became one of the greatest most respected and feared secret services in the world? “It all began with Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’ delivered to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956. The text of the speech was not disclosed.

Yet several months later ‘there arrived in Washington a special agent of the Mossad who was on a secret mission and he brought the entire speech to the CIA.’ They didn’t believe him [at first].”

Bar-Zohar takes a mischievous pleasure in relating that “it all started with a love affair between a Jewish reporter and the secretary of the local head of the Communist Party in Poland.”

Grayevski, the Jewish reporter who was a loyal communist, visited her one day and saw the text of the speech which she allowed him to take home. Later he transferred it to the Israeli Embassy where copies were made.

But Bar-Zohar relates that the story doesn’t end there.

Grayevsky immigrated to Israel and lo and behold one day he is standing in Jerusalem and a man surprises him from behind. “It was the local KGB recruiter in Israel. He [Grayevsky] asked the Mossad what to do and they told him to allow himself to be recruited as a double agent. In 1967 his [KGB] handlers took him to the Tzuba forest and told him that he had won the Order of Lenin… three years ago at Shabak [Shin Bet] headquarters [Yuval Diskin] organized a big event for Grayevski and gave him a medal for what he had done for Israel. In all my years I never saw a double agent who got a medal from both [sides].”

Anyone picking up a book about the Mossad immediately asks what could possibly be new. The old and famous operations, like Israel’s spy in Damascus Eli Cohen, the spiriting out of Argentina of Adolf Eichmann or the capture of nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu seem pretty well known, while the most recent operations are so secret that it is difficult to know truth from fiction. But Bar- Zohar is adamant that he and his co-author have brought new details to light.

“Even in stories like Eichmann or Iran we found many new things. We found out that Iran was a mishap for the Mossad; for 16 years [Israel] didn’t know what the Iranians were doing. We expected Iran would try to become a nuclear power by buying some fissile materials from Russia, through corrupt generals or scientists. All our efforts were centered on what was happening between Iran and Russia.

But in 1987 in a small dusty office in Dubai the Iranians met with the Pakistan’s Dr. [Abdul Qadeer] Khan and there they signed an agreement for the supply of materials and know how… Only in 2002 did an agent discover the Natanz facility.”

When Bar-Zohar looked at the Eichmann case he found that, even though he had written a biography of Mossad director Isser Harel who dispatched a team to catch the Nazi, Eichmann could have been caught a year and a half earlier.

The book is based on exhaustive interviews with participants.

The author recalls sitting with one former agent who had been undercover in Syria. “He said to me ‘the worst thing there was my loneliness.

One day I got a telegram from Meir Amit [director of the Mossad] that my wife had given birth to a daughter. I had no one to celebrate with.’” Today the perception of the Mossad in the world is that it is all-knowing and a sort of octopus with tentacles in every event. Especially in the Muslim world there is a tendency to see a Mossad conspiracy behind everything.

“I remember being in Turkey once and a man asked me, ‘Why did you assassinate our president?’ In one book it says the Mossad assassinated Princess Diana, it becomes ridiculous but it is good, for instance, for Iran to fear the Mossad all the time. When five scientists were assassinated, that was attributed to the Mossad and when a few scientists and generals defected it was said to be Mossad.”

Bar-Zohar also sees a critical media as having a role in misrepresenting recent stories about the organization. In the “Prisoner X” affair, where it was reported that an Australian- born Israeli citizen killed himself in an Israeli prison, the issue was in fact blown out of proportion.

“What happened is that his case was handled at every stage according to the book, he got a lawyer and was arrested and he saw his family. Australian authorities were informed.”

In the case of the Dubai assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Mabhouh where the identities of Mossad agents appeared to have been blown when photos of the assassins were distributed by police, Bar-Zohar notes, “What is the bottom line, the bad guy was killed, not one agent was captured, not one identified or arrested.”

When he looks back at portrayals of Israeli intelligence work, such as John le Carré’s 1983 book The Little Drummer Girl, he thinks people miss something essential about Israel.

“This is not the way we operate. We have a unique character that foreigners don’t understand. We use sophisticated methods to obtain information or get into the vicinity, to get to the terrorist.”

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