Yossi Melman, who as recently as a few months ago unceremoniously and rather abruptly departed Haaretz, has come roaring back with a new book, Spies Against Armageddon. During the time when Melman and I were on speaking terms (we’re not any longer), he derided those who published cloak and dagger accounts of the Mossad’s derring-do. Most of them, he said, were cooked up to sell books rather than shed light on the real Mossad.
But I’m afraid that with this book, Melman and his co-author, Newsweek reporter Dan Raviv, have done the fantasists one better: he’s taken an ounce of truth and added a pound of unsubstantiated claims and put it between two covers and offered it to a gullible world hungry to hear the heroic exploits of the Ari Ben Canaans of the Israeli spy service.
The Daily Beast (the same publication that brings us Peter Beinart’s celebrations of liberal Zionism) published the first excerpt, which included highly exaggerated, mostly unsubstantiated claims about the Mossad’s purported exploits inside Iran. At the book’s website, it offers other tantalizing bits of spookery from the dark side, including more unsubstantiated claims about Israel’s role in Arafat’s death.
Since the book is receiving the royal treatment from the Israeli government, including promotion at its DC embassy website and an author reception with Raviv at a prominent DC synagogue on July 10th, it’s worthwhile to explore with a magnifying glass some of the book’s lines of argument and claims.
The only newsworthy aspect of the Daily Beast excerpt was the claim that Israel did not farm out any aspect of the Iranian nuclear scientists assassinations that have taken place over the past four years. This contradicts the version of this that my own Israeli source relayed to me, as well as reports by other respected journalists who wrote that the Mossad collaborated closely in the assassinations with the MEK.
The problem with Melman and Ravid’s version is that he offers nothing more than supposition. He doesn’t even offer an anonymous source in this passage:
The methods, communications, transportation, and even the innovative bombs used in the Tehran killings are too sensitive for the Mossad to share with foreign freelancers.
…For such a sensitive, dangerous, and daring mission as a series of assassinations in Iran’s capital, the Mossad would not depend on hired-gun mercenaries. They would be considered far less trustworthy, and there was hardly any chance that the Mossad would reveal to non-Israelis the unique methods developed by the Kidon unit.
I would feel far more comfortable according this claim credibility if the authors offered anything more than speculation to back it up. As I wrote above, even a claim from an anonymous source might offer a shred of substantiation. As it is, there is none.
In singing the praises of the Mossad and its ability to penetrate its target without leaving a trace, Melman makes this boast concerning the agency’s special ops unit, Kidon (“Javelin”):
Again and again, they have fulfilled their missions without leaving much of a trace.
Do I hear Dubai, anyone? There Kidon used at least 27 agents to kill a single individual leaving a “trace” virtually around the world. Mossad station chiefs were expelled from two friendly nations, harsh diplomatic notes were relayed by many governments whose citizens were endangered by the passport fraud used to help the assassins gain access to Dubai. In Germany, the Mossad exploited a law benefiting Holocaust survivors in order to secure a fraudulent passports for one of its agents.
To give you an idea of the romance which Melman enjoys with Israel’s security service and the shoddy arguments he’s willing to advance on its behalf, he had this to say about the al-Mabouh assassination and its aftermath:
Although the British, Australian, and Irish governments expressed anger at the Mossad for abusing their passports, diplomatic damage to Israel was minimal.
In the Israeli reporter-spook’s fevered imagination, the Mossad is recruiting entire armies of disaffected, unemployed Iranians to topple the ayatollahs:
Economic woes and high unemployment have only become worse in Iran, as U.S.-led sanctions have begun to bite. From the Mossad’s perspective, unhappy and aimless young males in Iran represent an opportunity to recruit sources of information, agents who can be trained, and even mercenary or rebel armies.
There is no doubt that the Mossad has recruited one mercenary army: the MEK. But this is not an army recruited through disaffection with Iran’s economic predicament. This terror group actually seeks the violent overthrow of the regime (and has for decades) and has been trained both by the Mossad and CIA (according to Seymour Hersh) toward that end.
To go off on a tantalizing tangent, in one of his columns in Haaretz, Melman profiled Georgetown University international relations Prof. Raymond Tanter. Tanter is one of DC’s leading neocons and also one of the MEK’s most ardent backers in academia. In fact, only a month ago Tanter penned in the pages of Haaretz yet another screed advocating that the MEK be removed from the U.S. Treasury Department’s terrorism list. He calls the MEK, Iran’s “Opposition,” when it is almost universally despised by Iranians. In his profile, Melman reveals that he was a student of Tanter’s at the Hebrew University in the 1970s. Should that surprise anyone?
Returning to the Mossad: Melman attempts to reassure us that despite its reputation, the Mossad doesn’t spend all its time tracking down and liquidating terrorists. In fact, he claims that there have been “certainly fewer than fifty” such murders since the 1950s, when the agency was founded. The fact that it has only executed 50 so-called enemies of Israel in 60 years is supposed to reassure us.
If in the following passage Melman is truly reflecting the strategic thinking of the Mossad, it’s no wonder that its activities will have such a limited impact on any outcome Israel seeks, whether it’s Iran’s nuclear program or defanging Hamas:
…Any delay in Iran’s nuclear work represents an achievement for Israel. Their strategic thinking…holds that temporary disruptions to an enemy’s dangerous projects are sufficient cause for taking significant risks.
In other words, in return for delaying Iran’s nuclear program by a year or less, it was worth infecting Iran’s nuclear plants with the Stuxnet virus. In return for killing a single Hamas weapons merchant it was worth exposing the identities of 27 agents, the expulsion of two station chiefs, and relations with numerous Israeli allies including France, Britain, Ireland, Australia and Germany. This is what I call nickel-and-dime spookery. It’s not strategic thinking. It’s throwing spaghetti on the wall hoping a few strands will stick.
Perhaps the most outrageous bit of wishful thinking is contained in this section, which describes an Iranian nuclear program riddled with defectors and frightened scientists afraid of their shadow, and eager to turn in their nuclear assignments for cushy civilian jobs that won’t bring them to the attention of Israel’s assassins:
The assassinations have also had a strong psychological objective: sending a loud and clear message to scientists that working for the nuclear program was dangerous. The Mossad was telling them, in effect: Stay in your classrooms. Do your academic work. Get your research published. Enjoy the university life. But do not help Iran go nuclear. Otherwise, your career could be cut short by a bullet or a bomb.
Indeed, Israeli intelligence noticed that the assassination campaign was paying off, with what it called “white defections”: Iranian scientists were scared, many contemplated leaving the program, and some actually did.
With rare exceptions, they did not depart Iran and defect to the Western or Israeli side, but they dissociated themselves from the nuclear program. There were also indications of scientists being reluctant to join the program, despite lucrative terms offered by the Iranian government.
This is like a game of fantasy baseball in which the player gets to make up his team member’s career statistics and embellish their exploits. Is there a shred of credible evidence to bolster this claim? Besides, will killing four scientists in a scientific program in which there are thousands likely active have any impact at all? Even if you aren’t willing to support your claims or offer sources, those unsubstantiated statements have to pass the smell test: Melman’s don’t.
Now, let’s turn to their take on Yasser Arafat’s death in this passage from the book:
…Arafat’s health deteriorated markedly. European peace mediators who visited him…asked the Israelis to permit Arafat to leave, so he could get medical treatment in Europe.
The intelligence chiefs convened a special meeting on the subject…and debated whether to grant a favor to the Palestinian leader. On one hand, it would make Israel look kind and just. But there were objections that he was not so terribly ill, and he would probably recover and then go on a worldwide propaganda tour.
The military suggested that it could forcibly evacuate Arafat: grab him, put him on a stretcher, rush him out of the building and take him to a clinic somewhere. Prime Minister Sharon rejected that, saying the hustle and bustle might kill Arafat – and that would look terrible for Israel.
The prime minister actually sided with the softer faction that leaned toward letting Arafat go. Sharon felt that leaving Arafat – certainly a celebrity and to many in the world a hero – to die in his smashed compound, without medical treatment, would do serious diplomatic damage to Israel.
So, France and Jordan were permitted to organize the Palestinian leader’s exit: on a stretcher, in a helicopter, in a wheelchair, and then onto a French military airplane. Apparently, it was too late to save him.
…Prime Minister Sharon thought that the downside of being accused of killing Arafat was not worth the advantages of being rid of him.
So in this script treatment offered by Melman, not only did Israel not assassinate him, but it actually did him a kindness in letting him go. And boy, that Ariel Sharon, what a sucker for a sad sack like Yasser wasting away in the Muqata. He just couldn’t bear seeing him go like that. I’m surprised Melman didn’t dream up a scene in which Sharon offers to helicopter his own personal physician in to save the guy’s life.
The authors also can’t avoid furthering the disinformation spread by Israeli intelligence and its media enablers that Arafat was gay and died of AIDS:
Israeli intelligence knew of indications that Arafat – who for decades had been “married to the movement” – was not intimately interested in women.
If the Mossad pursues its actual spycraft as badly as it pursues its efforts to promote its narrative in the media, you get the impression that they’re a bunch of Keystone Cops, rather than one of the most capable and feared spy agencies in the world. What does it matter which gender Arafat was interested in? It would only interest the smearmongers in Israeli intelligence. Further, if Arafat were “intimately interested in women” you know the rumors would have him cavorting with showgirls like an Arab Casanova.
Here’s some further lies spread by Melman:
After his death, one fact that added to the rumors that Arafat might have died of AIDS was his wife’s refusal to allow the Palestinian Authority to conduct an autopsy. Was she afraid that her husband’s sexual orientation might be discovered?
And yet more groundless speculation lacking in any credibility:
It certainly is possible that someone, on her behalf or the instructions of others, tainted the belongings with polonium – after reading about the Litvinenko case in London.
Let’s think about that: polonium is one of the rarest man-made materials in existence. A tiny amount is produced by a handful of countries who have nuclear reactors. So for Suha Arafat to have herself contaminated her husband’s artifacts would’ve meant she was collaborating with intelligence agents of a foreign country to secure the materials. Think about how much it would cost to secure polonium unless you had a friend in the KBG or CIA or Mossad. Then she would’ve had to transport the polonium and handle it without contaminating herself. Then she would’ve had to contaminate the artifacts with precisely the right amount of polonium so that scientific testing would find those amounts consistent with the rate of nuclear decay of the material over an eight year period. This simply defies belief, as does much of Spies Against Armageddon.
Our final passage from the book brings us to this common meme offered by Israeli defenders who seek to debunk the Arafat poisoning theory:
Perhaps one of the mysteries of the past decade [since Arafat’s death] can be cleared up; but probably not. In the meantime, the real issues between Israel and the Palestinians – how to restart peace negotiations and work seriously for a compromise peace between the two peoples – are left again in a fog of distraction and disagreement.
In other words, let’s leave well enough alone. Arafat’s death is a distraction from the real issues affecting Israelis and Palestinians. If Israel assassinated Arafat, so what? It’s water under the bridge. Who cares except Palestinians seeking to change the subject from their own failure to secure their freedom and statehood.
The only problem is that if his exhumed body reveals Polonium, the killing will poison the atmosphere, making it even more toxic than it already is. And the only one to blame for that is Israel and its leaders past (Sharon and Dagan, who presumably would’ve ordered the hit) and present.
Returning to Melman’s departure from Haaretz, I’ve heard two different stories neither of which have been reported publicly. The more benign version comes from a fellow Israeli journalist who told me that the paper appointed a new editor to whom Melman reported, and the editor either drove him from the paper or they simply couldn’t get along, which led the intelligence correspondent to leave. A far more interesting conjecture comes from an Israeli academic who studies a specialized field concerning Israeli military capability, and maintains close ties with journalists who cover that beat (like Melman). He heard that Melman had been a paid informant for Stratfor without the knowledge of Haaretz. When his relationship with the security consulting firm was exposed by Wikileaks, Haaretz fired him. I have not been able to corroborate this story with other sources, but it seems credible to me. Here is what I wrote earlier on this subject before I’d spoken with my Israeli source.
If Melman had accepted money from Stratfor, it would impeach his journalistic impartiality, not to mention cause a conflict between his employers at Haaretz and those at Stratfor, with whom he would be sharing stories. There are many countries in the world in which journalists accept money under the table. Israel hasn’t been one of them (at least to my knowledge). I can’t imagine Israel’s leading liberal daily would want to set this sort of precedent.
The fact that Melman had no new position lined up when he left Haaretz would indicate that he left rather suddenly. The fact that a few months later he announced he would begin reporting for Walla, an Israeli internet news portal, was clearly a step down from Haaretz. My judgment is that Melman’s leaving Haaretz can’t have been voluntary. In fairness, I should add that a senior official at the paper dismissed this story in an e-mail to me, though he would offer no further information that would clarify the terms under which Melman left.