Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel
By Shabtai Shavit
University of Notre Dame Press
434 pp., $29
When you start reading a memoir by a former spy, you always hope for descriptions of bloody assassinations, break-ins into banks and embassies, and heart-pounding high-speed chases. Shabtai Shavit, at age 81, might have been tempted to satisfy our appetite for action, but he has chosen instead to focus his memoir on the Mossad’s analytical musculature. Shavit served in Israel’s justifiably famed and feared espionage agency for 32 years, rising to be its director from 1989 to 1996. In the 1960s, he and his wife Yael spent more than two years as Israeli agents in then-friendly Iran, and in the 1970s—a highly active decade for Israel’s war against Palestinian terrorists—he was head of the Mossad’s operations branch.
Shavit knows, literally, where all the bodies are buried; yet he offers only a few spicy hints of violence and leaves most of them for his book’s final pages. The Mossad, he writes, “produced generations of daring fighters” on “exhilarating” missions that protected the Jewish state. He gives a nod to the operations unit then known as Caesarea, staffed by “combatants” who “dwelled alone,” keeping their identities and travels secret even from Mossad colleagues.
The former spymaster seems certain that their efforts did a lot of good, through “ingenious operations with outstanding results…to thwart terrorism and the buildup of non-conventional weapons” in Iraq and Iran. He says dangerous plots by enemies were foiled, but even the best intelligence could not bring Israel the peace it seeks with its nearest neighbors, the Palestinians. Sad to say, Shavit analyzes the concessions that would have to be made by both sides and declares that a full peace agreement is unlikely anytime soon.
His discussion of regional and global trends is like a political science course, even as he says that he is “from the world of practice and not from the world of thought.” There are long discussions of the Palestinian refugee issue, quoting from other books when looking at events of 1948, and also an hour-by-hour look at Israel’s failure to see the Yom Kippur War coming in 1973, including its refusal to believe intelligence that clearly warned of an attack by Egypt and Syria.
A large part of Shavit’s book considers significant changes leading to “a new Middle East.” Writing in Hebrew in 2018, he was willing to predict that Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would end their official hostility toward Israel. The recent declarations by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan that are normalizing relations with the Jewish state must be hugely satisfying to Shavit, and it is no secret that his beloved Mossad had a key role in the breakthrough. The book tells of many times when he and other Mossad emissaries forged connections with foreigners who refused to talk publicly to Israel, and he even shares photographs showing himself in Indonesia, in Morocco and in Jordan before that country signed a peace treaty. With a dash of color here and there, he defends the notion that delicate diplomacy must begin with clandestine contacts.
Staying silent is naturally in the DNA of a man who spent three decades in the Mossad. In fact, back in his day, Israeli law forbade revealing the name of any agent or leader of the agency; Shavit recalls his horror at being photographed when on foreign trips with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He insists that governments must have the right to censor security-related information—in part because of what he calls the “arrogance” and “recklessness” of journalists.
As for relations with the United States, he describes valuable sharing of intelligence with “the CIA, our big sister,” but mentions that the Americans were “stingy” when it came to data on countries friendly to the U.S. but unfriendly toward Israel.
Can Israel rely on America? It depends largely on leadership, he says, and here is what Shavit thought of Donald Trump’s first year in office: “The United States is being run with no direction, no staff work, no orderly decision-making process, many scandals, and a president who uses Twitter as his primary tool.”
When the longtime Mossad chief looks at Iran, he does not predict that the ayatollahs’ regime will fall. Worse, when it comes to their nuclear ambitions, he says the Iranians “will exhaust the Americans and their allies” and will “squeeze more and more concessions,” likely achieving their goal of obtaining nuclear weapons. Then, Shavit wonders, “Will a nuclear Iran act as a pragmatic state or as a messianic state?” He sides with the pessimists who say that we cannot rely on the Middle East having a stable balance, as in the Cold War, that prevents anyone from using their nuclear bombs. Not usually one to choose colorful language, Shavit concludes: “The bottom line is that the thought of a fanatical Shiite ayatollah with his finger on the nuclear trigger is terrifying.”
The pages before that troubling declaration are filled with a point-by-point list of options for Israel and the United States. As elsewhere in this book, with its far from ideal editing, the discussion is inconclusive. Shavit leaves it to the reader to conclude whether either Israel or the United States, or both, would go to war to stop Iran.
Dan Raviv, formerly with CBS News and i24, is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon and other nonfiction books.
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