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Book Review: Rise and Kill First – The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

The book presents interesting information about how and why the targeted assassinations were carried out, and although some readers may find it a tad repetitive and to some extent gruesome, it remains fascinating to the end

Rise and Kill First – The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.

Ronen Bergman.

Random House, 753 pages.

Perhaps it is surprising that this book was published at all.

“A Note on the Sources” explains: “Efforts to persuade the Israeli defence establishment to cooperate… went nowhere. Requests to the intelligence community that it comply with the law by transferring its historical documents to the State Archive and allow publication of material fifty years old now were met with stony silence. A petition to the Supreme Court for an order forcing compliance with the law was dragged out over years, with the complicity of the court, and ended with nothing but an amendment to the law itself.”

Bergman thus had to rely on interviews with previous Mossad agents and other willing informers. Fortunately there were more than enough of them, albeit without governmental approval: “None of the thousands of interviews upon which this book is based – with sources ranging from political leaders and chiefs of intelligence agencies to the operatives themselves – were approved by Israel’s defence establishment.”

These sources gave him access to a large number of documents, which led to him wonder: “So, why did these sources speak with me and supply me with these documents? Each had his own motive, and sometimes the story behind the scenes was only a little less interesting than the content of the interview itself. It was clear that some politicians and intelligence personnel – two professions highly skilled in manipulation and deception – were trying to use me as the conduit for their preferred version of events, or to shape history to suit themselves. I have tried to thwart such attempts by cross-checking with as many written and oral sources as I could.”

In spite of this he was prevented from describing at least one incident and possibly more.

Spies inhabit a dark world where people are only too willing to plant a bomb or knife a colleague in the back – there was even a plot to falsely accuse a prominent member of the Israeli defence force of murder so that the actual murderers, members the Shin Beth, would not be charged.

Israeli has more than one secret service: the Mossad (tasked with threats from outside Israel’s borders); the Shin Beth (internal security); AMAN (military intelligence) and Sayeret Matkal (the armed forces’ reconnaissance service).

The title, taken from a phrase in the Babylonian Talmud, gives a clear indication of the operational policy of the Israeli secret services: kill before you are killed. Most of the assassinated individuals however were people who had already committed terrorism in or against Israel.

Bergman’s history does not discuss the various secret service branches separately, but covers them all in a densely woven tapestry, fascinating stuff, provided that the reader does not tire of a seemingly unending sequence of murders, cleverly executed as they are.

The Entebbe operation is concisely described, and general Suleimani, recently killed by America, takes a brief bow. Well-known politicians such as Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, Netanyahu and others appear and disappear, as well as shadowy commanders of various branches of these services.

Ariel Sharon features prominently towards the end of the book. I never really knew what to think about him, this book has permanently changed my opinion and not positively. He did change his outlook towards the end of his life, but too late to influence the course of events.

Bergman concentrates on Israel’s actions and perceptions, with almost no discussion of Palestinian events or perspectives. Clearly this is not an attempt to paint a balanced picture – that would require a thousand pages or more.

The book presents interesting information about how and why the targeted assassinations were carried out, and although some readers may find it a tad repetitive and to some extent gruesome, it remains fascinating to the end, at least in part because of the resourceful methods employed to end peoples’ lives, whatever one may think about the moral aspects involved - poisoned toothpaste is certainly very original. We also read about the sometimes more than hot-headed behaviour by politicians and secret agents.

The book isn’t a continuous litany of accusations - Bergman takes pains to describe the decision-making processes prior to many assassinations in order to give as clear a picture as possible.

Israel quite understandably saw the threats posed by surrounding countries as an existential danger. From a technical viewpoint the policy of targeted assassinations was successful, but the same cannot be said about political policies. The title of the last chapter sums it up: ““Impressive Tactical Success, Disastrous Strategic Failure.”

That Israel still exists today may or may not be due to the policy of rising first and killing, but it certainly was a double-edged sword: “Throughout the successive histories, the Mossad, AMAN, and the Shin Bet – arguably the best intelligence community in the world – provided Israel’s leaders… with operational responses to every focused problem they were asked to address. But the intelligence community’s very success fostered the illusion among most of the nation’s leaders that covert operations could be a strategic and not just a tactical tool – that they could be used in place of real diplomacy to end the geographic, ethnic, religious and national disputes in which Israel is mired.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication. 




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