Analysis: Will the real Mossad please stand up?

Imagine the PR nightmare of an organization which appears in the headlines only when it screws up.

mossad crest 88 (photo credit: )
mossad crest 88
(photo credit: )
In the classic joke, two Berlin Jews are sitting side by side on a park bench in the mid-1930s. One is reading a Jewish newspaper with growing concern, the other is chortling over a Nazi Party newspaper. The first one scolds him, "It's bad enough you're reading that anti-Semitic rag, but you're laughing also?" His friend answers, "If I read your paper, all I get is here a Jew was killed, there a synagogue was torched, in this city Jewish shops were plundered. Instead I read this paper in which the Jews have all the money and rule the world." This joke comes to mind after reading the various reports on the Institute for Intelligence and Special Roles, more commonly known as the Mossad. From American publications we learned that the Mossad had bumped off a senior Iranian nuclear physicist, apparently right within a uranium plant in Isfahan. In Cairo, an Egyptian student was arrested for working for the Mossad over the last five and a half years in Turkey and Canada, together with a whole ring of agents. And here back home, Israel's largest newspaper ran a magazine feature over the weekend portraying the Mossad as an organization in decline, that hasn't delivered the goods for the last 18 years, its hierarchy split through petty rivalry and its head exercising an almost Faustian control over the prime minister. So who are they really? Is it the elusive all-pervasive, band of blue-and-white pimpernels that the Western media love to portray, the cruel and cunning ubiquitous heirs of the Elders of Zion as they are described in the Arab media or that bumbling quarrelsome lot as Ronen Bergman, Yediot's espionage expert, would have us believe? It's a good thing the Mossad has no official spokesperson. Just think what a nightmare it would be to do PR for an organization that cannot divulge its success stories for at least a couple of decades and appears in the headlines only when its members screw up and get arrested on the other side of the world with false passports, wiretapping a Syrian grocery. As an Israeli I sincerely hope that the Mossad has the capability to off Iranian scientists inside their labs and that its operatives run hundreds of Egyptian students, but even if I knew that to be the case, I couldn't tell. So it's much easier to make a list of the organization's failings, as Bergman does in one of his "in the corridors of the Mossad" features, just without all the piles of workplace gossip that prove that he really isn't in the know. The Mossad had a major part in the failure of Western intelligence agencies to locate the weapons of mass destruction that were the major justification for the invasion of Iraq. The organization had no idea how advanced the Libyan nuclear program was nor of the deal reached among George Bush, Tony Blair and Moammar Gadaffi to dismantle the program. Its efforts to locate Hassan Nasrallah's hiding place and Hizbullah's main headquarters during the Lebanon war were unsuccessful and the information on the Iranian nuclear locations is too patchy to mount an effective strike. But this is only a small part of the picture, not only because it doesn't take into account the credit column, bur also because some of the failures should be seen in perspective. After the mistakes made during the run-up to the Iraq war, the organization went through a serious period of reassessment and as a result changed some of its most fundamental precepts. According to a source on the Knesset oversight committee, the Mossad has learned and implemented the lessons from that episode. As regards Hizbullah, the government wasn't always clear exactly what it expected from the organization. Espionage has its costs and the Mossad wasn't ordered to call in all its favors and use up every possible asset to find Nasrallah from the beginning of the war. Its officers are convinced that given a few more days, they would have acquired the crucial piece of intelligence enabling them to place a bomb on the right target. On Iran, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan has been holding full responsibility for marshalling Israel's effort for three and a half years already. Though some believe that it is unrealistic to expect Dagan to take care of both the financial and diplomatic aspects of the confrontation, enough intelligence has already been collected on the physical and fiscal framework of the nuclear program to cause it considerable damage. Lack of real information and strict censorship laws are not the only reasons that it's next to impossible for a journalist to make a serious assessment of the Mossad's performance. It's also due to the sensationalism that is part and parcel of any treatment of the subject and obscures the real questions that ought to be asked. In the latest case, for example, whether or not the Mossad is capable of assassinating Iran's top scientists is less important than has the inner cabinet actually given an order to do so? And on Iranian soil? If it has, the war with Iran has already begun.