Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Ronen Bergman's Rise and Kill First is an astonishing work of research. Through over a thousand interviews, Bergman managed to write a history of Israel's policy of targeted assassinations that bypassed the famous secretiveness of Israel's spy agencies as well as the Israeli censor. (The book itself is proof that the Israeli military censor is very reluctant to actually censor things.)

The nearly 700 page book is not merely a history of targeted killings by Israel but really a history of Israel's legendary spy agencies, the Mossad, Aman and Shin Bet. While the story concentrates on assassinations, and is as complete on that topic as one can imagine, nothing happens in a vacuum - killings are done for a reason, whether it is to discourage future terrorism or to send a message to past terrorists that they will never be safe. (The hunt for the Munich terrorists is an example.)

The agencies' growing pains are documented as Israel learns how to do spycraft. From the early pre-state days through the covert (and sometimes overt) war against the terrorists who intruded into Israel in the 1950s, Israel's spy agencies grew in capabilities. They had to pivot to new methods and tools as the enemies and tactics changed.

The action never stops. Bergman writes that his original manuscript was twice as long; he managed to shorten each episode to a couple of pages without the stories losing their punch.

This drama is not only in the successes but also the failures - and there were a lot of failures, with the inevitable political fallout from the government. The Mossad and Shin Bet are not infallible by a long shot, and there have been botched operations, as well as seemingly unnecessary assassinations.

Especially striking at this time of a worldwide pandemic is that decisions are often made with incomplete information. Acting based on assumptions backed by facts is necessary and moral. The alternative, of doing nothing, can endanger more lives than the action can. Sometimes, the assassinations can help avoid war. These are difficult moral arguments and Bergman objectively looks at both sides.

Some of the mistakes were extraordinarily embarrassing. The botched attempt on Hamas leader Khaled Meshal's life was a major setback. The assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai was successful but was a diplomatic disaster as the agents used international passports. Yet when mistakes were made, the security services improved their methods and procedures to ensure that every mistake is made exactly once.

Bergman's reporting goes well into the 21st century, with details on the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. He also details the assassinations of Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mugniyeh and of Syrian general Muhammad Suleiman in 2008, both of whom worked closely with Iran and the with the more recently departed Qassam Soleimani.

My only quibble is that Bergman sometimes allows his personal opinions to override the facts. He blames the second intifada on Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount even as he knows the evidence that it was pre-planned and Sharon's visit was only an excuse. His antipathy towards Netanyahu also allows one-sided reporting, with the other side of the story buried in footnotes.

But those are minor problems. Rise and Kill First was praised by both pro- and anti-Israel critics because he does such a good job of showing the ambiguity of the policies and of working in the shadows, breaking the normal rules of war, to help save lives.






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