.

Learning from the Experiences and Perspectives of Others

It is always interesting to read the memoirs or autobiographies of senior military and intelligence figures. One gains insights, albeit sanitized, into their thinking, the institutions in which they lived and worked, and the challenges they faced while holding their respective positions. When these memoirs “work”, they are a delight to read, thought-provoking, and deeply insightful. Leon Panetta’s Worthy Fights is such an example. It is a book that contains fascinating accounts of his diverse career, but it is especially interesting about his time as Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of Defense.

Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel | Shabtai Shavit | University of Notre Dame Press.

When it doesn’t work, it comes across as one of those office walls where there are endless framed photos of the officeholder with famous people—more self-indulgent than enlightening. Sadly, John Brennan’s Undaunted falls into this category. Reading Mr. Brennan’s book, one wishes for more detail—such as one can offer—about his career in the CIA. It would be great to learn more about the historic events he oversaw, as well as his framework for viewing the world and its security challenges. Sadly Mr. Brennan didn’t take that opportunity to educate the reader.

In America, it is rarer still to get access to the memoirs of the senior counterparts of our English-speaking allies. For some time, there was a cottage industry in the United Kingdom of books from top generals and the Chiefs of the Defense Staff. One suspects that with the reduced operational tempo of Britain’s forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other priorities at the moment, there is less of an appetite for such books.

Head of the Mossad by Mr. Shabtai Shavit—the Director of Israel’s foreign intelligence service from 1989 to 1996—is one of the few accounts from a non-Five Eyes partner that one is likely to encounter, but it is perhaps these accounts that are most needed to help those in Washington, and more broadly, to understand the world.

A Hybrid of Sorts

Head of the Mossad is a book that is not quite sure what it wants to be. It is not quite a memoir of Mr. Shavit’s time as the title’s resident, but it is not quite a fully fleshed-out piece of analysis or commentary on foreign affairs. Those wishing for another account of Israeli intelligence operations will also be disappointed by this book but will find solace in Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First—a spectacular account of Israel’s targeted assassinations.

One wishes he had stuck to a path and followed it through. The makings of either are entirely present. When he dives deeply into a subject such as Iran or the Arab Peace Proposal, he often bullet points his arguments or the conditions for success or failure. Equally, when he describes some of his personal experiences accompanying the Prime Minister to Beijing, Jakarta, and Washington, the reader is left wanting more. Here, the first half of the book is stronger than the second. In the former, his case studies and analyses are much clearer than in the latter portion when he dives into his experiences in supporting diplomacy and the Palestinian situation.

Equally, an editor with a more aggressive red pen would have been welcome in this book. Mr. Shavit flits back and forth within and across the subjects he discusses (from ISIS and Middle East peace to Edward Snowden and the Palestinians), going from a strategic-level discussion to very tactical minutiae. He often fails to provide either the pertinent context necessary to be able to appreciate fully what he is trying to communicate. This is not to say he doesn’t provide background, but the background needs to be better tied to his argument.

He also suffers from a tendency to throw out an assertion or assumption with a failure to develop it or explain why he may hold that position. He blithely asserts that Iranians are all born negotiators having learned, if not created, the craft of haggling in the bazaars. A sweeping statement, but just prior to that he extolled the virtues of the complexity of Iranian society, its diverse terrain, cultures, and people. It is an odd juxtaposition given the complexity and nuance he displays in dissecting the Iranian challenge.

Taken together, the scattershot approach, the inconsistent typecasting, and the rather dry delivery, Head of the Mossad is not an easy read. Indeed, as he writes, it is a “collection of insights, working assumptions, rumors, and most of all, dilemmas and ponderings”—an exceptionally apt description of one section, but equally appropriate for the full book. Had he had a tighter focus and more clearly delineated chapters or case studies, the book would be much stronger.

That said, readers who persevere despite these shortcomings will be rewarded with some fascinating insights into Israeli intelligence, defense, and security policy.

Intelligence and Israel

One of the most fascinating parts of Mr. Shavit’s book is his exploration of the intelligence community of Israel and its evolution, particularly in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Agranat Commission, convened in the wake of the surprise attack, led to considerable reforms within the community, not the least of which was the creation of research and analysis divisions within Mossad and others. Prior to the Commission’s findings, the military intelligence (MI) arm of the Israeli Defense Forces was the only body tasked with analysis; all others responded to the taskings of MI and fed the MI machine.

Mr. Shavit is exceptionally critical of arguments that the attack was a failure of intelligence. Indeed, he spends a great deal of time breaking down the numerous warnings and pieces of information that it was Egypt’s intent to attack, what the objectives of such an attack would be, and when the attack may take place. Rather, Israel’s leaders at the time “failed to understand that the early warning of the Yom Kippur War was a rolling event, which had a complete basis in the intelligence.”

He boldly asserts that Israel’s intelligence and security services have taken the discipline of human intelligence to a “level nearing perfection.” Undoubtedly every service chief takes pride in the capabilities of their people, but given some of the more notable recent failures of Israeli intelligence—including getting caught on a 27-minute video during the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai—one wonders whether Mossad may be resting on its past successes when measuring current capabilities and performance.  

Israel and America

One of the most notable aspects of reading this, especially as an American, is the extent to which America does and does not feature in the Israeli calculus. To be sure, Mr. Shavit notes that America is a key anchor point and partner for Israeli’s long-term strategic stability, but it is but one element of a security posture. According to Mr. Shavit, David Ben-Gurion believes that the national security doctrine of Israel necessitated a strategic ally that is a superpower, regional alliances, military supremacy over its adversaries, strategic military capabilities, economic supremacy, scientific and technological supremacy, and national resilience.

Given the lengths to which American politicians extoll the importance of America in buttressing Israel’s survival and the need for constant U.S. largesse, one would perhaps expect more. Such expectations say much about how Israel plays in American politics, but less about how it plays in Israel’s security calculus.

Mr. Shavit is also somewhat coy about the competition between the United States and Israel in the intelligence arena. He discusses cooperation, noting that America during his tenure was more apt to support Israel’s intelligence objectives against what it viewed as its security threats—so long as it was not also an ally of Washington. He relates one incident when American intelligence provided the key technical assistance at a strategic moment, but did not provide the capability to Israel outright, thus preserving its sources and methods.

Conversely, Mr. Shavit glazes over the Jonathan Pollard incident which took place just prior to his assumption of the top Mossad position. Mr. Pollard, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1987 and received a life sentence. He was later released in 2015 on parole. Throughout the intervening years of Mr. Pollard’s detention, the Israeli government embarked on an aggressive campaign for clemency and release. Mr. Shavit brushes past the incident, noting that he was at Harvard at the time of the arrest and did not experience any blowback from his fellow students or professors.

If there is any truism in intelligence, it is sure that there are no such things as permanent allies, only permanent interests. The exception to this rule is the Five Eyes arrangement (the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and one can assume that Mossad still carries on its intelligence efforts against the United States in one form or another. Indeed, in late 2019 it emerged that Israeli intelligence had placed “StingRay” surveillance devices around the White House.

There is more than one reference in Head of the Mossad to “strategic capabilities,” and while Mr. Shavit caveats this in terms of unconventional weapons on the part of Israel’s adversaries, he is much coyer about what this means for Israel. Many speculate that Israel possesses multiple nuclear weapons, but is not an officially declared nuclear power, but is, perhaps, an assumed nuclear power. Schrödinger’s nuclear power?

Israel and the Region

Mr. Shavit offers up a rather expansive (if briefly explored) vision for remaking the Middle East: a new “Sykes-Picot model,” as he calls it, that would—in his view—work to eliminate the threat of ISIS. He proposes that the U.S. recommit to the region, Iraq become a Shiite state, an independent Kurdistan should be established, Syria falls under Russia’s protection, a “Sunnistan” that assumes the non-Shiite parts of Iraq be established, and a demilitarized Palestinian state be created. Sadly, this vision is not explored further before he turns his attention to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the question of the refugee status of Palestinians¬—about which he has nearly 40 pages to say.

In light of this vision, it would be interesting to see Mr. Shavit’s take on the recent developments related to Israel’s regional relations. This year saw Israel and Abu Dhabi sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between the two countries, and Bahrain sign a similar accord in September. In October, Israel and Sudan—the site of the 1967 Arab League Summit and the declaration of the three “no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no relations with Israel”, and one-time host of Osama bin Laden—also normalized relations in exchange for removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The agreements open up opportunities for trade, tourism, and more, at least for the Gulf States, and undoubtedly include other inducements from the United States for the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. It certainly lessens the strategic regional isolation of Israel and increases the strategic pressure on Iran—the shared bête noir of the Gulf States (save for Qatar) and Israel.  

Israel and a Nuclear Iran

Mr. Shavit’s analysis of Iran is quite interesting, and should he choose to write a book-length feature on Israel and Iran, it would be most welcome, as would greater exploration of what to do regarding Tehran. For this book, however, he limits himself to the question of a nuclear Iran, a potential strike to prevent such an occurrence, and criticism of President Obama’s efforts in preventing a nuclear breakout.

That he is critical of the Obama administration and its pursuit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program is unsurprising. Mr. Shavit believes that foreign policy was a nuisance for Obama, as was Israel, and that the president displayed a tendency to appease the “bad guys”. Moreover, the JCPOA itself and Washington’s urge to secure such an agreement displayed not strength, but weakness. Washington was keen to pull out of Iraq and disentangle from Iran and abandon its traditional allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia in its zeal to get an agreement.

Mr. Shavit believes that “the Iranians will exhaust the Americans and their allies and squeeze more concessions out of them”, ultimately escaping the JCPOA by gradually chipping away sanctions and eventually declaring themselves a nuclear power. At that point, the world will need to determine whether Tehran will act as a pragmatic state or a messianic state, which he notes is a simplistic framework. In the end “a fanatical Shiite ayatollah with his finger on the nuclear trigger is terrifying.”

Viewing the World through a Different Lens

Reflecting on Head of the Mossad, it is a welcome insight into how Israel views the world, its strategic environment, and the global challenges. One wishes there were more books like this—even with the challenges accompanying Mr. Shavit’s book—as they offer unparalleled opportunities to look at the world through a different lens. Now more than ever, such an alternative lens is critical, not only to craft smart policy but to appreciate how complex the world really is once one leaves the Beltway.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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In Pursuit of Israel’s Security

November 7, 2020

Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel | Shabtai Shavit | University of Notre Dame Press.

Learning from the Experiences and Perspectives of Others

It is always interesting to read the memoirs or autobiographies of senior military and intelligence figures. One gains insights, albeit sanitized, into their thinking, the institutions in which they lived and worked, and the challenges they faced while holding their respective positions. When these memoirs “work”, they are a delight to read, thought-provoking, and deeply insightful. Leon Panetta’s Worthy Fights is such an example. It is a book that contains fascinating accounts of his diverse career, but it is especially interesting about his time as Director of Central Intelligence and Secretary of Defense.

Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel | Shabtai Shavit | University of Notre Dame Press.

When it doesn’t work, it comes across as one of those office walls where there are endless framed photos of the officeholder with famous people—more self-indulgent than enlightening. Sadly, John Brennan’s Undaunted falls into this category. Reading Mr. Brennan’s book, one wishes for more detail—such as one can offer—about his career in the CIA. It would be great to learn more about the historic events he oversaw, as well as his framework for viewing the world and its security challenges. Sadly Mr. Brennan didn’t take that opportunity to educate the reader.

In America, it is rarer still to get access to the memoirs of the senior counterparts of our English-speaking allies. For some time, there was a cottage industry in the United Kingdom of books from top generals and the Chiefs of the Defense Staff. One suspects that with the reduced operational tempo of Britain’s forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other priorities at the moment, there is less of an appetite for such books.

Head of the Mossad by Mr. Shabtai Shavit—the Director of Israel’s foreign intelligence service from 1989 to 1996—is one of the few accounts from a non-Five Eyes partner that one is likely to encounter, but it is perhaps these accounts that are most needed to help those in Washington, and more broadly, to understand the world.

A Hybrid of Sorts

Head of the Mossad is a book that is not quite sure what it wants to be. It is not quite a memoir of Mr. Shavit’s time as the title’s resident, but it is not quite a fully fleshed-out piece of analysis or commentary on foreign affairs. Those wishing for another account of Israeli intelligence operations will also be disappointed by this book but will find solace in Ronen Bergman’s Rise and Kill First—a spectacular account of Israel’s targeted assassinations.

One wishes he had stuck to a path and followed it through. The makings of either are entirely present. When he dives deeply into a subject such as Iran or the Arab Peace Proposal, he often bullet points his arguments or the conditions for success or failure. Equally, when he describes some of his personal experiences accompanying the Prime Minister to Beijing, Jakarta, and Washington, the reader is left wanting more. Here, the first half of the book is stronger than the second. In the former, his case studies and analyses are much clearer than in the latter portion when he dives into his experiences in supporting diplomacy and the Palestinian situation.

Equally, an editor with a more aggressive red pen would have been welcome in this book. Mr. Shavit flits back and forth within and across the subjects he discusses (from ISIS and Middle East peace to Edward Snowden and the Palestinians), going from a strategic-level discussion to very tactical minutiae. He often fails to provide either the pertinent context necessary to be able to appreciate fully what he is trying to communicate. This is not to say he doesn’t provide background, but the background needs to be better tied to his argument.

He also suffers from a tendency to throw out an assertion or assumption with a failure to develop it or explain why he may hold that position. He blithely asserts that Iranians are all born negotiators having learned, if not created, the craft of haggling in the bazaars. A sweeping statement, but just prior to that he extolled the virtues of the complexity of Iranian society, its diverse terrain, cultures, and people. It is an odd juxtaposition given the complexity and nuance he displays in dissecting the Iranian challenge.

Taken together, the scattershot approach, the inconsistent typecasting, and the rather dry delivery, Head of the Mossad is not an easy read. Indeed, as he writes, it is a “collection of insights, working assumptions, rumors, and most of all, dilemmas and ponderings”—an exceptionally apt description of one section, but equally appropriate for the full book. Had he had a tighter focus and more clearly delineated chapters or case studies, the book would be much stronger.

That said, readers who persevere despite these shortcomings will be rewarded with some fascinating insights into Israeli intelligence, defense, and security policy.

Intelligence and Israel

One of the most fascinating parts of Mr. Shavit’s book is his exploration of the intelligence community of Israel and its evolution, particularly in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The Agranat Commission, convened in the wake of the surprise attack, led to considerable reforms within the community, not the least of which was the creation of research and analysis divisions within Mossad and others. Prior to the Commission’s findings, the military intelligence (MI) arm of the Israeli Defense Forces was the only body tasked with analysis; all others responded to the taskings of MI and fed the MI machine.

Mr. Shavit is exceptionally critical of arguments that the attack was a failure of intelligence. Indeed, he spends a great deal of time breaking down the numerous warnings and pieces of information that it was Egypt’s intent to attack, what the objectives of such an attack would be, and when the attack may take place. Rather, Israel’s leaders at the time “failed to understand that the early warning of the Yom Kippur War was a rolling event, which had a complete basis in the intelligence.”

He boldly asserts that Israel’s intelligence and security services have taken the discipline of human intelligence to a “level nearing perfection.” Undoubtedly every service chief takes pride in the capabilities of their people, but given some of the more notable recent failures of Israeli intelligence—including getting caught on a 27-minute video during the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai—one wonders whether Mossad may be resting on its past successes when measuring current capabilities and performance.  

Israel and America

One of the most notable aspects of reading this, especially as an American, is the extent to which America does and does not feature in the Israeli calculus. To be sure, Mr. Shavit notes that America is a key anchor point and partner for Israeli’s long-term strategic stability, but it is but one element of a security posture. According to Mr. Shavit, David Ben-Gurion believes that the national security doctrine of Israel necessitated a strategic ally that is a superpower, regional alliances, military supremacy over its adversaries, strategic military capabilities, economic supremacy, scientific and technological supremacy, and national resilience.

Given the lengths to which American politicians extoll the importance of America in buttressing Israel’s survival and the need for constant U.S. largesse, one would perhaps expect more. Such expectations say much about how Israel plays in American politics, but less about how it plays in Israel’s security calculus.

Mr. Shavit is also somewhat coy about the competition between the United States and Israel in the intelligence arena. He discusses cooperation, noting that America during his tenure was more apt to support Israel’s intelligence objectives against what it viewed as its security threats—so long as it was not also an ally of Washington. He relates one incident when American intelligence provided the key technical assistance at a strategic moment, but did not provide the capability to Israel outright, thus preserving its sources and methods.

Conversely, Mr. Shavit glazes over the Jonathan Pollard incident which took place just prior to his assumption of the top Mossad position. Mr. Pollard, an intelligence analyst with the U.S. Navy, pleaded guilty to spying for Israel in 1987 and received a life sentence. He was later released in 2015 on parole. Throughout the intervening years of Mr. Pollard’s detention, the Israeli government embarked on an aggressive campaign for clemency and release. Mr. Shavit brushes past the incident, noting that he was at Harvard at the time of the arrest and did not experience any blowback from his fellow students or professors.

If there is any truism in intelligence, it is sure that there are no such things as permanent allies, only permanent interests. The exception to this rule is the Five Eyes arrangement (the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and one can assume that Mossad still carries on its intelligence efforts against the United States in one form or another. Indeed, in late 2019 it emerged that Israeli intelligence had placed “StingRay” surveillance devices around the White House.

There is more than one reference in Head of the Mossad to “strategic capabilities,” and while Mr. Shavit caveats this in terms of unconventional weapons on the part of Israel’s adversaries, he is much coyer about what this means for Israel. Many speculate that Israel possesses multiple nuclear weapons, but is not an officially declared nuclear power, but is, perhaps, an assumed nuclear power. Schrödinger’s nuclear power?

Israel and the Region

Mr. Shavit offers up a rather expansive (if briefly explored) vision for remaking the Middle East: a new “Sykes-Picot model,” as he calls it, that would—in his view—work to eliminate the threat of ISIS. He proposes that the U.S. recommit to the region, Iraq become a Shiite state, an independent Kurdistan should be established, Syria falls under Russia’s protection, a “Sunnistan” that assumes the non-Shiite parts of Iraq be established, and a demilitarized Palestinian state be created. Sadly, this vision is not explored further before he turns his attention to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the question of the refugee status of Palestinians¬—about which he has nearly 40 pages to say.

In light of this vision, it would be interesting to see Mr. Shavit’s take on the recent developments related to Israel’s regional relations. This year saw Israel and Abu Dhabi sign the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between the two countries, and Bahrain sign a similar accord in September. In October, Israel and Sudan—the site of the 1967 Arab League Summit and the declaration of the three “no’s: no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no relations with Israel”, and one-time host of Osama bin Laden—also normalized relations in exchange for removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The agreements open up opportunities for trade, tourism, and more, at least for the Gulf States, and undoubtedly include other inducements from the United States for the governments of the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan. It certainly lessens the strategic regional isolation of Israel and increases the strategic pressure on Iran—the shared bête noir of the Gulf States (save for Qatar) and Israel.  

Israel and a Nuclear Iran

Mr. Shavit’s analysis of Iran is quite interesting, and should he choose to write a book-length feature on Israel and Iran, it would be most welcome, as would greater exploration of what to do regarding Tehran. For this book, however, he limits himself to the question of a nuclear Iran, a potential strike to prevent such an occurrence, and criticism of President Obama’s efforts in preventing a nuclear breakout.

That he is critical of the Obama administration and its pursuit of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program is unsurprising. Mr. Shavit believes that foreign policy was a nuisance for Obama, as was Israel, and that the president displayed a tendency to appease the “bad guys”. Moreover, the JCPOA itself and Washington’s urge to secure such an agreement displayed not strength, but weakness. Washington was keen to pull out of Iraq and disentangle from Iran and abandon its traditional allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia in its zeal to get an agreement.

Mr. Shavit believes that “the Iranians will exhaust the Americans and their allies and squeeze more concessions out of them”, ultimately escaping the JCPOA by gradually chipping away sanctions and eventually declaring themselves a nuclear power. At that point, the world will need to determine whether Tehran will act as a pragmatic state or a messianic state, which he notes is a simplistic framework. In the end “a fanatical Shiite ayatollah with his finger on the nuclear trigger is terrifying.”

Viewing the World through a Different Lens

Reflecting on Head of the Mossad, it is a welcome insight into how Israel views the world, its strategic environment, and the global challenges. One wishes there were more books like this—even with the challenges accompanying Mr. Shavit’s book—as they offer unparalleled opportunities to look at the world through a different lens. Now more than ever, such an alternative lens is critical, not only to craft smart policy but to appreciate how complex the world really is once one leaves the Beltway.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.