Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
How many of us get a vicarious thrill when we hear about yet another daring Israeli exploit that leaves people everywhere wondering: “What will they do next?”
Yet, as often as we may have heard stories of one or another of Israel’s security agencies, especially the Mossad, accomplishing some incredibly daring feat, whatever it is that may be in the news at a particular period has always been accompanied by the following qualifying statement: “Israel would neither admit nor deny that it had anything to do with….”.
The mystery surrounding Israel’s intelligence and counter intelligence operations only lends a greater aura of supreme capability to Israel. One wonders, therefore, whether pulling back the curtains on Israeli intelligence operations through the seven decades of her existence is at all damaging to that country’s reputation.
Yet, that is precisely what Israeli military censors have feared ever since the state was established. In this comprehensive and lengthy tell-all, author Ronen Bergman has managed to thoroughly pierce the veil of secrecy that has enveloped Israel’s spy networks. In doing so, however, he has apparently infuriated those in Israel who are tasked with keeping a tight lid on those secrets.
At the end of his book, Bergman notes that he did not receive cooperation from any of the branches of Israel’s security services in writing his history of targeted assassinations conducted over the years by the Mossad, Shin Bet, and Israel Defense Forces, although he did conduct over 1,000 interviews in advance of writing this book. Here is how the historian for one very secretive division of the Mossad, known as “Caesarea” responded to Bergman’s request for an interview:
“Even if I were the last person in the intelligence establishment who has not yet made the pilgrimage to you, I would by no means cooperate with you. I despise whoever it was that gave you my phone number, just as I despise you.”
Notwithstanding the admonition not to talk to Bergman, hundreds of individuals associated with one or another branch of Israel’s security apparatus did just that. Some of them were old men who figured that there would be no harm in divulging details of secret operations with which they were involved – at this late stage in their lives. Others were individuals who bore grudges against certain individuals who, they alleged, had actually harmed Israel’s interests through their recklessness or, in some cases, timidity.
Then there were those individuals who had been at the forefront of defending Israel through the years, and who were deeply critical of two aspects of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies which, they have argued, are detrimental to Israel’s long term security: His disregard for the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians, and his undermining of the accord that was reached with Iran that saw Iran retreat from its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
One name shines through in this book as a true hero though, and that is former Mossad chieftain Meir Dagan. Interestingly, Rise and Kill First is the third book I have now read in the past six months that lionizes Dagan. The first was Harpoon, which told of Israel’s success in attacking the financial sources of terrorism; and the second was Bibi, the most recent biography of Binyamin Netanyahu.
In all three books Dagan’s brilliance as a commando, strategist, organizer, analyst, and finally, as a top-level bureaucrat who was not afraid to challenge the prime minister of the day, whoever it was, should ensure his place near the very top of the list of individuals who have been key to safeguarding Israel from all conceivable threats.
It would be impossible to summarize the content of Rise and Kill First in a short book review, since it is a painstaking examination, not only of the hundreds of targeted assassinations in which Israeli security forces have been involved over the years, it is also a meticulous detailing of many of the methods Israel has employed in order to infiltrate all levels of so many of her enemies’ security apparatuses.
Is Bergman betraying any secrets, therefore, in writing this book? For anyone who has had any sort of fascination with the lethal reputation of the Mossad, for instance, Bergman is simply recounting stories that have been bandied about for years. What he does, however, is obtain first hand confirmations from the very men who were involved in so many of those exploits, many of which are legendary. He never puts anyone still active in espionage at risk by revealing their names. Instead he uses code names to refer to certain agents.
It hasn’t been all glory though for Israeli undercover operations against her enemies. Many were botched, others proved to be quite useless. What Bergman explains quite thoroughly though, is the level of planning involved in most intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. In addition, despite the oft-hurled accusation that Israel targets civilians or is indifferent to civilian casualties Bergman shows that to be a largely unfair criticism in Rise and Kill First. So many operations that might have removed dangerous foes in the enemy camp were scotched at the last minute when civilians were found to be in the area of the targeted killing.
As I noted though in the last issue of this paper – before I had finished reading this book, one individual in particular, Ariel Sharon, came in for some fiery criticism from Bergman over his indifference to sacrificing civilian lives in Lebanon when he orchestrated Israel’s totally unnecessary war in that country in 1982. Later in life, however, Sharon seemed to admit to the error of his ways when he held back from ordering a full-scale assault on Palestinian areas during the second Intifadeh (which began in 2000 when Ehud Barak was Prime Minister.)
In addition to missions that went awry, Bergman also discusses targeted killings that may have accomplished their purposes, but whose consequences ultimately proved to be more harmful to Israel’s security interests, particularly when it came to targeting certain leaders of Palestinian groups. This is not to say that the overall policy of targeted killings has proven unsuccessful; just the opposite: Not only has it put fear into the hearts of Israel’s enemies everywhere, from a tactical perspective removing individuals who were responsible for planning and implementing terrorist acts has been and remains an indispensable component of Israel’s war against terrorism.
What Bergman demonstrates though is that, in certain cases, elimination of someone who might have been considered relatively moderate only led to that person’s replacement by someone who proved to be far more militant – and dangerous to Israel, in the long term. Because Rise and Kill First is so very long – and detailed, Bergman takes the time to make the case for prudence in planning targeted assassinations by explaining why certain operations that might have seemed ostensibly successful were, in actual fact, counter productive.
The book is written in chronological order of events, so it is possible to see the growth and increasing sophistication of Israel’s targeted assassinations through the years. As Meir Dagan noted to Bergman in an interview he gave him following his forced retirement from the Mossad in 2010 (when he simply could not abide Netanyahu’s obsession with attacking Iranian nuclear installations – something Dagan feared would result in a terrible cost to Israel in both military and civilian deaths), the Mossad had grown so adept at taking out individuals – even in Tehran, for instance, that whereas previously a mission might take months to plan and implement, during the time Dagan was head of the Mossad (from 2000-2010), the agency grew capable of carrying out as many as four or five targeted killings a day.
Rise and Kill First is both a history and a guide to undercover operations. I’m sure that, by now, it has been made required reading in every intelligence agency in the world – even in countries like Iran. If you weren’t in awe of Israeli brilliance in carrying out the most dangerous operations imaginable before, after reading this book you will have no doubt that Israel is capable of just about anything when it comes to taking out her enemies. We should be grateful though, that for the most part, the men responsible for leading the agencies responsible for carrying out those lethal operations have been quiet, cool thinkers and not egomaniacal politicians.
Ri and Kill First – The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
By Ronseen Bergman