Last week, Israel successfully deployed its fourth orbiting spy satellite, hailed by the country's intelligence community as delivering better than expected surveillance of "areas of interest." At the same time, Israel's human-intelligence apparatus, essential as ever to the Jewish state's survival, has come under severe criticism for two of its recent missions: the presumed liquidation of the senior Hamas operative Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai and the ill-prepared interdiction of the Gaza-bound Turkish flotilla. Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities continue to sweep up reputed Israeli agents for spying on Hizballah.
David Ben-Gurion established the Mossad, or Israel Secret Intelligence Service (its current name), in 1951, making it directly accountable to the Prime Minister's office. The agency solidified its reputation for both daring and reliability when in 1956 it obtained Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech signaling a repudiation of Stalinism; in 1961, it alerted the French president, Charles de Gaulle, to a plot against his life, thereby crucially strengthening Franco-Israeli relations. More recently, the elimination of Hizballah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh and the purported (temporary) stalling of Iran's dash for nuclear weapons have helped bolster the standing of Meir Dagan, the agency's current chief, despite domestic Israeli criticism of his management style.
Historically, the Mossad has also been a lightning rod for international condemnation. Even the legendary Isser Harel, its longest serving head, drew official UN displeasure for the abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires to face justice in Jerusalem. Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, an operation undoubtedly facilitated by Mossad intelligence, was unanimously condemned by the UN Security Council. Similar denunciations attended the Mossad's capture in London of the Israeli renegade nuclear worker Mordechai Vanunu and the 1988 assassination in Tunis of Fatah co-founder Khalil Wazir.
Today the Mossad ‘s primary mandates are to block Iran's drive for nuclear weapons and to conduct counter-terror operations. Because of the nature of its work, successes tend to remain hidden while failures are often magnified. An example of the latter was the botched 1997 mission to poison Hamas leader Khalid Mashaal, which ended in Israel's being forced to provide an antidote and release Hamas prisoners.
The novelist John le Carré, for all his moral relativism—and undisguised hostility to Israel—may have been on to something when he had his anti-hero Bill Hayden remark that you can tell the soul of a nation from its intelligence service. From the operations of the Mossad, you can tell that the Jewish state, which lives on a virtually constant war footing, has linked its quest for security with its yearning to create conditions conducive to peace.
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