Ronen Bergman has expanded on his article for Yediot of a few weeks ago in a long essay for GQ, which is one of the most comprehensive profiles I’ve read of the Mossad hit on Mahmoud al-Mabouh. Until now, I don’t believe anyone knew that the Mossad had actually made a prior failed attempt on al-Mabouh’s life also in Dubai. Further, while many believed the assassination of a Syrian general and confidant of Bashar Assad was the work of the Mossad, Bergman confirms this and reveals that the victim ran the country’s nuclear program. If true, this offers a hitherto unknown and potent motive for the Mossad to assassinate him.
One of the values of the article is that Bergman describes, in al-Mabouh’s words, one of the operations he carried out in which he and an accomplice killed an IDF soldier. The Hamas operative describes in cold-blooded detail and with great pride how his partner shot the young boy in the back seat of the car they’d used to pick him up on the highway. Until now, few people got a real sense of who al-Mabouh was, and he wasn’t a nice guy. But, when you come right down to it, was al-Mabouh that much different than Dagan himself? Weren’t they both warriors on behalf of their people? And aren’t all such warriors fundamentally flawed?
Bergman retells the story of the famous photo hanging in his office, a story which has always troubled me:
Several Mossad operatives who have attended meetings in Dagan’s office describe a ritual that he goes through when preparing a team for a dangerous mission. During the meeting, Dagan points to a large photograph hanging on his office wall of a bearded Jew wrapped in a prayer shawl, kneeling on the ground with his arms in the air. The man’s fists are clenched, and his piercing eyes look straight ahead. Next to him stand two German SS officers, one holding a club and the other a pistol. “This man,” Dagan says, “was my grandfather, Dov Ehrlich.” He then explains that shortly after the photo was taken, on October 5, 1942, his grandfather was murdered by the Nazis along with his family and thousands of other Jews in the small Polish town of Lukow.
“Look at this photograph,” Dagan tells the Caesarea fighters. “This is what must guide us and lead us to act on behalf of the State of Israel. I look at the picture and vow that I will do everything I can to ensure that something like this will never happen again.”
First, I have wondered how the grandchild of a Holocaust victim could ever find a photo of his relative at the precise moment of his execution. While it is possible, the odds of it happening seem almost infinitesimal. Rather, the entire enterprise smacks of an actor’s prop, a coach’s pep talk before a big game in which he uses a particularly heart-wrenching story to evoke the emotional response his players will need to succeed in their hour of execution.
I was also troubled, even if the picture was genuine, that the child of a victim would display it in such a public way and exploit the memory of his grandfather in such a way. If it were me, such trauma would be a deeply personal matter. I would discuss it, perhaps even use it to motivate others. But displaying one’s own grandfather the moment before he died? There is something cold and brutal about it. Yes, I understand that for Dagan there is nothing more sacred than the mission to safeguard his people; so that exploiting his grandfather’s memory would be the means justifying the end. But still it’s too much for me to comprehend. I’d prefer my sorrow to be private, and not ostentatiously displayed to an entire nation as Dagan’s has.
Much of the rest of the article’s content is pretty inside stuff and more interesting to those truly interested in cloak and dagger and how such covert operations are executed.
But towards the end of the piece is where Bergman steps back and analyzes the repercussions of the assassination for the Mossad and Israel. In contrast to Israeli intelligence analysts when they speak to the domestic audience and sing Meir Dagan‘s praises as Haaretz’s Ari Shavit did on Mabat yesterday, calling him the “greatest James Bond in the world,” Bergman takes a much more measured approach. And this is where he shines. He describes the hubris of the Mossad in its planning and execution of the operation:
…The more fundamental errors committed by the team had less to do with cloak-and-dagger disguises than with a kind of arrogance that seems to have pervaded the planning and execution of the mission.
Despite the fact that Dubai is a hostile environment—a distant Arab state with ties to Iran—many details of the mission suggest the Mossad treated it as if they were operating inside a base [friendly] country.
…One of the most serious mistakes made by the planners of the operation—certainly the one that caused the greatest embarrassment to the Mossad and to Israel—involved the use of forged foreign identities…Whenever the Mossad is found out, as has happened from time to time, a major diplomatic scandal erupts.
…What the blown identities of the operatives illustrate more than anything is the now seemingly insurmountable problem posed by twenty-first-century counterespionage systems. False identities and cover stories are no longer any match for well-placed security cameras, effective passport control, and computer software that can almost instantly track communications and financial transactions.
Here is the money passage in the entire piece, which gets at the fundamental flaw underlying not only the Dubai “job,” as Bergman calls it, but the entire premise of the Mossad. There is also a bombshell below which I don’t believe has been previously exposed:
Why did the Mossad permit things to go so wrong in Dubai? In a word, the answer is leadership. Because Dagan refashioned the Mossad in his own image, and because he drove out anyone who was willing to question his decisions, there was no one in the agency to tell him that the Dubai operation was badly conceived and badly planned. They simply did not believe that a minnow in the world of intelligence services such as Dubai would be any match for Israel’s Caesarea [the name of the top-secret unit from which the assassins emerged] fighters.
As one very senior German intelligence expert told me: “The Israelis’ problem has always been that they underestimate everyone—the Arabs, the Iranians, Hamas. They are always the smartest and think they can hoodwink everyone all the time. A little more respect for the other side—even if you think he is a dumb Arab or a German without imagination—and a little more modesty would have saved us all from this embarrassing entanglement.”
The Dubai fiasco caused a great deal of damage to Israel, to the Mossad, and to its relations with other Western intelligence organizations. It led to unprecedented revelations of Mossad personnel and methods, far more than any previous bungled operation. A number of states who believe that their passports were forged or otherwise misused by the agency have expelled Mossad representatives. The British response in particular was furious. And Israel’s long-standing security-and-intelligence cooperation with Germany has also been dealt a hugely damaging blow.
In early June, the head of the Caesarea unit in the Mossad—who had been considered the leading contender to eventually replace Dagan—offered his resignation. As for Dagan’s future, before Dubai he had hoped that the liquidation of Al-Mabhouh would ensure yet another extension of his tenure as director of the agency. But that has not come to pass…And so the Mossad “with a knife between its teeth” [the term Ariel Sharon used when appointing Dagan to his job] likely is entering another period of confusion and self-doubt.
“There is no doubt Dagan received an organization on the verge of coma and brought it back to its feet,” one Mossad veteran of many years told me…”The problem is that multiplying its volume of activity many times over came with the price of compromising on security protocols. And along with success came hubris. Together, they brought the Dubai debacle. And now, in some areas, his successor will find a Mossad even worse off than Dagan found in 2002.”
When Bergman published a Hebrew version of this story he did not include the information that the director the Caesarea unit had offered his resignation. But this an important indication that, despite popular opinion within Israel, the operation was a failure as Bergman states. While Israel was crowing over the success and its apologists around the world and here in the comment threads were trumpeting the fact that Israel had rid the world of a bad guy, within the political leadership another stock taking was occurring. Someone seems to have heard the massive outcry from Israel’s outraged allies whose citizens were compromised and endangered.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.