The Angel – The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel
Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
I hadn’t heard of Ashraf Marwan before I read this book. If you haven’t heard of him either, there’s good reason for that: He was undoubtedly the most important spy Israel has ever had, but for years neither Israeli authorities – who were aware of his identity, nor Egyptian authorities, who were also undoubtedly aware of what Marwan had done, wanted to reveal anything about him.
In fact, as it turns out, it was as a result of the embarrassment felt by a former head of Israeli Military intelligence, someone by the name of Eli Zeira, who rejected the intelligence that was being given by Marwan for quite some time that Egypt was going to attack Israel in 1973, that Marwan’s name first emerged – in the Israeli press.
“The Angel” – as the Mossad, for whom he worked as an agent for years, referred to Marwan, was an incredibly complex individual who, to his dying day in 2007, never explained why he decided to become Israel’s most important spy in the history of the state.
In this fascinating book, written by a former senior official in Israeli Military Intelligence, we learn the intricate path that Marwan followed in keeping the Mossad abreast, not only of Egyptian military preparations, but what the thinking was at the very highest levels of Egyptian policy makers, including Anwar Sadat.
Who was Ashraf Marwan? He was born to a well-respected upper-middle class family in Egypt in 1944. His grandfather was chief of the Sharia courts, while his father rose to become a general in the Republican Guard. Marwan’s ascension up the hierarchy of Egyptian officialdom was solidified when he married one of the daughters of the then-Egyptian president, Gamel Abdul Nasser. Although Nasser was not all that keen on the marriage, Marwan was clever enough to be able to insinuate himself into what amounted to Egyptian royalty.
In this book, the author tells the story of Marwan’s life in exquisite detail. Bar Joseph had access to some of the key figures in Israel’s intelligence community and, although the Mossad’s most closely guarded secret documents that would fortify Bar Joseph’s assumptions remain sealed, he builds a convincing case that the intelligence supplied by Marwan saved Israel from complete military disaster during the early days of the Yom Kippur War.
How Marwan came to be the Mossad’s most important asset of all time is a fascinating story. Unlike other agents who spied for Israel, Marwan was not lured into working for the Mossad. Instead, he was the one who approached the Mossad and offered his services! There were so many strokes of luck surrounding the story how the Mossad came to rely upon Marwan, and how close the agency came to missing out on him completely if one phone call hadn’t been properly channeled by a very conscientious employee of the Israeli embassy in London, that it is quite possible Marwan would have never bothered to do what he did.
But, Bar Joseph wonders throughout, why did Marwan choose to place his life on the line and become an absolutely vital conduit of information to the Israelis? He was already a wealthy man when he first made contact with the Mossad in 1969, having used his connections in Egypt to start building what would become an immensely rich business empire. While the Mossad did end up paying Marwan handsomely, apparently he never asked anyone for money. The heads of the Mossad – and the top leadership of the Israeli government, especially Golda Meir, realized that in Marwan they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep abreast of every move that Egyptian military and political planners were making, so they made sure that Marwan was well compensated for his efforts.
Bar Joseph offers other plausible reasons for Marwan’s volunteering to spy for Israel, including the excitement that what he was engaged in gave him. At the same time – and this is quite complicated to understand, Marwan still regarded himself as an Egyptian patriot. In order to fathom that notion, one must realize that Sadat’s plan to launch a surprise attack against Israel was never predicated on the idea that Egypt would win back the entire Sinai peninsula, which had fallen to Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967. Instead Sadat wanted to order a limited operation, which would drive the Israelis off the eastern side of the Suez Canal and lead to a peace agreement between Egypt and Israel.
The fact that Israel was not prepared for the Egyptian strike across the canal on October 6, 1973, as it is fully explained in The Angel, was not as a result of a failure to obtain proper intelligence, it was precisely because the most vital intelligence was ignored that Israel suffered such heavy losses during the first days of the war.
In laying the blame for that failure to properly interpret the intelligence that was being fed by Marwan, and which was also corroborated by other intelligence available to the top leaders of both the IDF and the Israeli government, Bar Joseph points specifically to the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Eli Zeira, also to a slightly lesser extent, Moshe Dayan, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time.
As Bar Joseph explains it, the dominating concept or “kontzeptzia” within Israeli military strategists prior to the Yom Kippur War was that Egypt would not attack Israel unless it had the necessary armaments from the Soviet Union, especially long-range Scud missiles. In fact, some months before October 6, 1973, Sadat had ordered all Soviet military advisers (and their families) out of Egypt. For Eli Zeira and other like-minded Israeli military planners, this was proof that Egypt was not at all ready to launch an attack on Israel. At the same time though, Marwan was warning his handlers in the Mossad that, rather than Sadat abandoning any notion of attacking Israel he was, in fact, preparing just the opposite.
So, one might ask, considering how much Israel was caught by surprise on October 6, 1973, were Marwan’s warnings all for naught? Not at all for, as Bar Joseph explains in great detail, it was Marwan’s warning on October 5 that “war will start tomorrow” that did give Israel enough time to soften the blow dealt by the coordinated Egyptian-Syrian attack the next day that prevented Israel from suffering a complete military collapse. In fact, it was Marwan’s repeated warnings that Syria would attempt to take back the Golan Heights when an attack would be launched that allowed the IDF to send enough units to that area in time to prevent a catastrophic defeat.
What the inability of Israeli military intelligence and individuals such as Dayan to properly heed the warnings that were being given to them led to, however, was the refusal to call up the reserves in time. Bar Joseph provides a strong case in defense of Marwan, who was later accused by Zeira of giving the warning too late, that Marwan was himself only made aware on October 5 of the actual date the attack would be launched.
While the first two-thirds of the book are taken up with the story how Marwan came to be Israel’s most important spy, the final third of the book deals with what happened to Marwan following the Yom Kippur War. Rather than the Egyptians becoming aware that they had a spy at the very highest level of government, Marwan continued to pursue his ambitious career, abetted by his connections throughout Egypt’s political and military hierarchy. Following Sadat’s assassination in 1979, however, Marwan fell out of favour with Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, although he had at one time been a good friend of Mubarak.
Marwan eventually moved to London where he became fabulously wealthy. In 2002, however, when his role as an agent was first publicly divulged by Eli Zeira, and later by other Israeli historians, one might have thought that his life would be in critical danger. Instead of his being regarded as a traitor in Egypt, however, Egyptian authorities promulgated the notion that, rather than Marwan’s having been a spy for Israel, he had, in fact, been a double agent, working to sow misinformation within the Israeli intelligence community. Bar Joseph explains the Egyptians wanting to perpetuate the myth that Marwan was actually a hero in Egypt for the simple reason that it is so terribly embarrassing to admit that Israel had a spy at the very highest levels of the Egyptian government.
In 2007 though, Marwan fell to his death off the balcony of his London apartment. Did he jump, as the Egyptian press suggested or more likely, as Bar Joseph posits, was he pushed by Egyptian agents? We will likely never know the truth and, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Israel was saved from what might have been a total military disaster by an Egyptian spy. The repercussions of Israeli Military Intelligence’s failure to heed Marwan’s warning are still being felt in Israel, as coordination of intelligence gathering and interpretation has been totally revamped to the point where the kinds of rivalries that used to exist between Israeli military intelligence and the Mossad have now been erased – or so we are supposed to believe.
The Angel – The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel is both a spellbinding book as an espionage thriller, also a thorough examination of the failure of Israeli military intelligence leading up to the Yom Kippur War. Even if you aren’t interested in reading the book, you are invited to come down to the next meeting of the People of the Book Club at the Rady JCC on November 29 for a discussion of this book – and a lesson in history.
The Angel – The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel
By Uri Bar Joseph
Published August 2016