Mossad: The Great Operations, By Michael Bar-Zohar & Nissim Mishal

Have the spy missions of its fabled agents done Israel's cause more harm than good?

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The Independent Culture

At a time of so much tension and controversy in the Middle East - over Gaza, Iran's nuclear programme, the UN status of Palestine and the fate of Yasser Arafat - this study of Mossad, Israel's foreign intelligence agency, is published at a particularly timely moment.

As a narrow spy story or adventure book, it works well. The authors write with verve and pace, and engagingly sprinkle their text with imaginative dialogue, colourful character descriptions and exotic settings.

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Most of their stories are familiar ones - such as the kidnapping of Holocaust organiser Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and the undercover work of master-spy Elie Cohen - but they add more recent episodes, such as Israel's bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor and the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. Nor do the authors shy from pointing out a few of Mossad's many failures, such as the bungled attempt to execute the Hamas leader Khaled Mash'al in Amman.

It is a shame that some of the more familiar tales have not been replaced with more pertinent ones. In the 1970s, for example, Mossad worked closely with the Shah's Iran, helping train its security forces. After the Islamic Revolution, Israel secretly colluded with the ayatollahs, arming a "terrorist" regime that paid, and still pays, lip service to the destruction of the Jewish state. Even the Irangate scandal of the 1980s - to which Mossad was pivotal - gets only a brief mention.

But the real difficulty with this book lies elsewhere. It has been said that Mossad is "good on terrorism but bad on politics", and it is this wider perspective that is so sorely missing. The lack of political context is glaring. Very little is said about the formation of the Jewish state in 1948, or about the far-reaching geopolitical outcome of the Six Day War in 1967. Without this context, the reader is left guessing about who "the Palestinians" are. Of these people, their story and struggle, we learn nothing except that many seem to be "terrorists".

It would also have been interesting to have learned something of Mossad's early assessments of the aftermath of the 1967 war (astute observers like the politician Zalman Aran warned that the acquisition of vast new territories would "choke" Israel) as well as of the Arab Spring. Equally, the authors ignore the wider picture into which Mossad's activities fit. For example, the perceived benefits of an assassination operation have to be weighed against the political cost. In each case, the authors could have asked if such costs were worth paying and left the reader to decide.

At what point, for example, do such operations put Israel at risk of becoming a "terrorist state"? The recent attack on Gaza prompted the Turkish prime minister to charge Israel with blatant "terrorism", and the authors underplay the damage Mossad operations have sometimes done to Israel's relations with its closest allies. In the days of the British Mandate over Palestine, such a ruthless approach also stained the Jewish cause: Winston Churchill described one assassination by militia as "banditry worthy of the Nazi Germans".

Such operations are also apt to provoke retaliation, creating the vicious circle of tit-for-tat reprisals into which the Middle East has long descended, as Israel's recent assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jabari in Gaza illustrated. But only rarely do the authors illustrate just how readily this happens.

These are heavy prices to pay for operations that have not always proffered rewards. So Mossad's assassination of the PLO leader Abu Jihad in 1988 was strongly criticised in Israel, where some regarded him as a conciliatory figure. "We are trying to find Palestinians to talk to us," bemoaned Ezer Wiezman, "and liquidating individuals will not advance the peace process."

The authors are also curiously blind to the wider dimensions surrounding Mossad's actions. They quote the old adage that "if someone comes to kill you - rise up and kill him first". But the dangers of a "preventive war", in which blood is shed before it is absolutely necessary, were obvious long before the 2003 Iraq invasion. For example, Operation Damocles, the assassination of German scientists in the early 1960s, was unnecessary: the scientists were years, perhaps decades, from building effective Egyptian missiles. And when they describe assassinations in Gaza in the 1970s that were "contrary to democratic behaviour", the image of lawless Mossad violence, supposedly to suppress "terror", is a chilling one.

There are a few value judgements. The torture and murder of suspected Arab spies in 1948 - the Be'eri affair - is described as "a stain on the moral and humane principles on which Israel had been founded". But no more is heard of these "legal and moral principles that would guarantee the rights of individuals". The reader is left alone to ponder the paradox of a country that has no death penalty but executes perceived enemies in the streets.

The root cause of these failings is the authors' blinkered vision. They admire the "courageous heroes" of Mossad, whose spies are typically "daring" and "brave", while Palestinian "terrorists" are "cruel and unrestrained". The innocent victims of Israeli violence are described with complete detachment. The authors overlook the fate of Israel's nuclear traitor, Mordechai Vanunu, who spent many years in solitary confinement. Israel is always victim but never aggressor, although they do state that Hezbollah was formed as a response to Israel's unnecessary invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and that Egypt developed a missile programme only because Israel was already developing nuclear warheads.

Such a blinkered vision not only helps explain what lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute but also makes this book - at best - superficial, lightweight and uncomfortable reading for anyone who, in the current geopolitical climate, wants more than just a collection of spy stories.

Roger Howard's 'Operation Damocles: Israel Versus Hitler's Scientists' is published in April