‘Rise and Kill First’

‘Rise and Kill First’

Imad Mughniyeh, left, and Yasser Arafat
Imad Mughniyeh, left, and Yasser Arafat

There exists within Israel’s extraordinary assassination establishment (let’s call it what it is) a tipping point for each targeted kill.

It can come following weeks, sometimes months, or even years after choosing the subject, plotting a takedown, fabricating cover stories, equipping the team with documents, weapons, explosives, wigs, and poisons as needed, and mapping an exit strategy.

The sum and substance of this tradecraft is distilled into what is called, appropriately enough, a Red Page, which is circulated to the chiefs of Israel’s main intelligence/security/counterterrorism services, Mossad, Shin Bet, and AMAN, a directorate of the Israel Defense Forces. This triad of agencies, augmented with specialists culled from the army, navy, and air force, forms the tightly integrated (now, not always), extrajudicial response mechanism deployed against the nation’s threats short of full-throated war. Its highly screened, remarkably skilled agents function as the tip of the spear in Israel’s relentless battle to exist and flourish.

The Red Page then goes to the prime minister for greenlighting. Over decades, hundreds have landed on the desks of Labor and Likud chiefs, with the overwhelming majority receiving approval. Yitzhak Shamir, perhaps conditioned from his guerrilla days in the Irgun, rarely reflected before signing off. Yitzhak Rabin, a chief of staff and defense minister, proved more meticulous in vetting a hit. Golda Meir would invite her favorite operative, Mike Harari, over for tea and ask if there weren’t an alternative. Then she would usually sigh and sign.

In theory, that’s how the process was supposed to work. In fact, Ariel Sharon often dispensed with procedural niceties painstakingly put in place by military and government experts. He simply ordered renditions done off the books, and allowed operational euphemisms for cover stories and mission workarounds. For this he had an enthusiastic and complicit partner in the legendary (critics might say reckless and bloodthirsty) Meir Dagan, tasked by Sharon with revitalizing the Mossad after it had been caught flatfooted during the First Intifada, having devolved into more of an archival service than the superb action agency it had been in earlier iterations.

Dagan’s priority: systematic assassination of scientists working on Iran’s nuclear capabilities (until Israel learned the Obama administration was secretly negotiating with Tehran and folded the initiative). This would not be the first time Mossad agents drew a bead on a specific class of experts. Fifty years earlier, the agency’s pioneering chief, Isser Harel, ordered letter bombs mailed to German rocket specialists helping Egypt’s Nasser develop missiles. Maimings resulted but the program pressed on. As distasteful as it seemed, the deus ex machina came after Israeli agents struck a Faustian bargain with one of Hitler’s favorite generals, the notorious Otto Skorzeny, to influence the scientists in exchange for “immunity.” The rocket initiative quickly foundered.

In the following decades, constraints governing targeted assassinations and black ops loosened roughly in proportion to the brazen barbarity of Israel’s neighbors and guerrilla foes. Until Ronen Bergman’s intensively researched, profoundly unsettling (or deeply satisfying, depending on one’s point of view), and utterly compelling “Rise and Kill First: “The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassination,” what was known about the breadth and depth of these missions seemed sketchy and lacked context and continuity. Israelis often learned of their own antiterrorism exploits through the Arab press.

Bergman’s persistence in penetrating the many veils, lockboxes, censorship laws, and triple-entry bookkeeping of his nation’s liquidation community, and his rare access to its leaders, is remarkable, given Israel’s penchant for opaqueness as the world’s most robust practitioner of targeted assassinations since World War II (about 2,000 and counting). A lawyer by training, Bergman kept tabs on the country’s extrajudicial feats as a senior correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth and wrote five best-selling nonfiction works in Hebrew. His title hearkens back to the talmudic injunction: “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.” One caustic reviewer proposed that the book be recast as “Israel’s Greatest Hits.”

Consider just two of the operations:

• After a manhunt spanning 30 years, Israel finally took out Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in 2008 by planting a bomb in the duplicated spare tire of his car. Agents hemmed in the vehicle while Mughniyeh visited Syrian intelligence headquarters. When he emerged and sat in the driver’s seat, the blast detonated, with brutal multiplier effect. Mughniyeh’s bloody signatures included the massive Beirut explosions claiming scores of U.S. Marines and CIA operatives, many plane hijackings, the high-toll Buenos Aires bombing of a Jewish center, and the nimble masterminding of Hezbollah forces against Israel in the Lebanon war. Mossad killed his brother in an unsuccessful attempt to lure him to the funeral. And Prime Minister Ehud Olmert canceled an assassination mission at the last moment when collateral damage appeared likely, something he had promised president George W. Bush would not happen.

• Probably no target in Israel’s pantheon of enemies had higher value or evoked more hatred than Yasser Arafat. And Arafat, quite literally, kept dodging bullets. From 1968 until his death in 2004 — which was attributed to a mysterious disease — the head of the PLO was “protected” by the two prime ministers who loathed him the most, Menachem Begin and Sharon. Begin made good on a promise to the United States to let Arafat and his entourage evacuate safely from Lebanon. To prove it, he sent Washington a photo taken by an Israeli sniper team showing Arafat in the crosshairs, an easy shot if it had been ordered. And Sharon, vexed for years by the cunning and corrupt PLO leader, pledged to George W. Bush a hands-off policy and allowed Arafat to fly to Paris for medical treatment before he died. But Bergman strongly hints through Sharon’s aides that he backed off the Bush pledge and might actually have ordered Arafat poisoned.

So infuriating was the bearded, fatigue-clad leader’s ability to escape traps that IDF chief of staff Rafael Eitan violated all protocol during Lebanon operations by commandeering a Phantom jet and personally dropping bombs on a building where Arafat was supposed to be (he actually showed up moments after the blast). And Sharon and Eitan continued their obsessive pursuit following his Beirut exit. They pressed for a shootdown of a plane thought to be carrying Arafat from Athens to Cairo. Despite double identification by Mossad agents, air force chief David Ivri felt that something was off and stalled. Fortunately, operatives radioed in last-minute doubts and the mission was aborted. Turns out the plane was ferrying Arafat’s younger look-alike brother and 30 wounded Palestinian children.

“Rise and Kill” blends the intrigue of a Daniel Silva thriller with the fact-based imperatives of a young nation asserting itself. The book’s cumulative intensity, as another critic suggested, might plunge readers into overload similar to one induced by scanning an unabridged police blotter. Additionally, it poses an enigmatic and uncomfortable question for Jews, either Israeli-born or diaspora bred: As a people who place outsized emphasis on ethics, values, and the rule of law, what degree of satisfaction, smugness, or schadenfreude should those who have been the historically hunted and are now the efficient, ruthless hunters allow themselves, no matter how seemingly justified the reprisal?

Mindset and morality do matter, especially when threats to nationhood are both existential and Manichean. Israel at 70 most assuredly is not the Israel of 1948. To many younger citizens, it may be hip, high-tech, and start-up, but it still is in the thrall of Orthodox inegalitarianism, settlement ferment, and right-wing ascendancy. Despite significant political, religious, and lifestyle fault lines, however, one traumatic, unifying constant remains: The Holocaust, serving as the rallying (or shaming) point across generational and ideological divides.

Bergman’s Israel lives in a constant, never-again crouch, coiled and ready to unleash its armed forces in the macro moments of national peril (wars of 1948, 1967, 1973) and its intelligence services in the more micro, nuanced, ongoing battles against terrorism. The operative empiricism still obtains: Nobody has ever come to help the Jews, and nobody ever will. But now they have the considerable means to help themselves and others.

The United States, according to Bergman, went to school on Israeli techniques after 9/11, when Shin Bet ground down and virtually ended the wave of suicide terror bombings in the early 2000s through a combination of assassinations, the introduction of a high-tech Joint War Room, and the deployment of a new generation of drones. The CIA developed a degree of cooperation with Israeli counterparts that survives today.

While all of this proved tactically brilliant, the larger issue of covert ops’ long-term strategic effectiveness remains open. Bergman’s intent seems not to impugn the morality of such exercises as much as to question their efficacy. Despite astonishing achievements, did Israel sanctify their use at the expense of diplomacy or other avenues of resolution? Unfortunately, this isn’t quantifiable, or perhaps it is as the nation’s continuing existence provides testimony.

Meir Dagan believed targeted killings were “a lot more moral” than all-out war. Bad actors continue to stalk Israel’s immediate street (the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon strip), the immediate neighborhood (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Egypt) and the far beyond (Europe, South America, Africa, the Mediterranean). The situation is becoming even more asymmetrical as Iran attempts to connect a new Hezbollah “land bridge” from Tehran to Beirut while Hamas stokes deadly demonstrations in  Gaza and Syria remains a combustible wild card.

Israel is forced to play the eternal long game. It never has caught a breather, nor will it anytime soon. And targeted assassination continues to provide a significant weapon in its arsenal. Ronan Bergman’s sprawling examination helps us appreciate not only how much, but also the men and women who live as the nation’s ultimate risk-takers.

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