Books: A star (mole) is born

Incredible inside information reaches Israel – but is it heeded?

Mourners march in the funeral procession of Ashraf Marwan in Cairo on July 1, 2007 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mourners march in the funeral procession of Ashraf Marwan in Cairo on July 1, 2007
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Why was Israel caught unaware by Egypt’s attack on October 6, 1973? Though the IDF eventually overcame the Egyptian and Syrian onslaught on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, lack of adequate preparation resulted in thousands of Israeli casualties and costly loss of equipment.
The Angel
, written by Uri Bar-Joseph and translated by David Hazony, argues cogently that the problem wasn’t a lack of credible intelligence, but rather a failure to act on it.
The spy who tried to warn Israel had astounding credentials: Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and a close adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat, was Israel’s star mole for 27 years.
Marwan stepped into a red phone booth and dialed the Israeli Embassy in London in the summer of 1970 out of a need to feed his wallet, his ego and his penchant for gambling, the author surmises. Another factor was his antagonistic relationship with Nasser, who by then had died but had left Marwan feeling powerless and inadequate.
“The act of betrayal itself,” writes Bar-Joseph, “gave Marwan a sense of adventure that his stormy psyche desperately needed.”
The Israelis, for their part, desperately needed the high-level intelligence Marwan was able and willing to provide.
“Material like this, from a source like this – it’s something that happens only once in a thousand years,” Bar-Joseph quotes head of Mossad operations in Europe Shmuel Goren as saying.
“Today, the documents that Marwan gave Israel take up four very large binders in the Mossad archives,” Bar-Joseph writes. “They include not only the documents and their Hebrew translations, but also the transcripts of his own orally given impressions... All these allowed the very small number of Israeli intelligence officers who read them to have an unmediated sense of life in the upper echelons of Egyptian society.”
Marwan’s code name, “The Angel,” was chosen by a Mossad officer as a hat-tip to the 1960s TV series The Saint, which was sold in Israel under the title The Angel.
In the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, Marwan confirmed that although Sadat was eager to retake territory lost to Israel in the Six Day War, he wouldn’t attempt it without enough long-range fighter- bombers to challenge the superior Israeli Air Force.
However, by late 1972, Sadat was thinking of forging ahead without the planes.
In July 1973, Marwan informed his Mossad handler that Egypt’s generals no longer regarded such aircraft necessary for launching war.
“Although the Israelis were aware of the shift, they failed to grasp what it meant,” Bar-Joseph writes. Key military intelligence chiefs clung to the belief that Sadat wouldn’t dare strike without the planes.
“This, and only this, led to Israel’s failure to be ready when war struck.”
To be fair, there was a certain element of “the boy who cries wolf” in this dismissal of Marwan’s warnings. Because of Sadat’s mercurial tendencies, several dates Marwan reported as likely for an initial attack came and went.
Marwan’s warnings did convince chief of staff Lt.-Gen. David Elazar to fight successfully against a proposed reduction in active-duty troops, to order a partial callup of air-force reserves and to make other preparations that would prove critical later on, though the defense minister and the head of military intelligence did not agree they were necessary.
If Marwan was not able to rouse the Israelis to be better prepared for October 6, he was more successful in warning the Mossad of a Libyan plot to shoot an Israeli airliner out of the sky over Rome in September.
The plan was coordinated with Egypt, and the man appointed by Sadat to handle that coordination was none other than Marwan.
Ironically, Sadat wanted Marwan to thwart the plot so as not to focus Israeli attention on Egypt so close to his surprise war. Thus, by tipping off Italian authorities ahead of time, Marwan served the interests of both the Egyptians and the Israelis.
Aside from his payments from Israeli taxpayers, Marwan accrued a fortune from shady business deals and moved to a tony part of London, where in 2007 he fell (or was pushed) to his death from his apartment’s balcony. Scotland Yard never solved the case. Bar-Joseph – a professor of political science at the University of Haifa and author of six previous books – has a compelling theory about who was responsible.
The book was published originally in Hebrew in 2010. Translator David Hazony is to be commended for crafting a smoothly reading English version, and designer Milan Bozic is to be commended for an excellent front cover.
It is understandable why The New York Times Book Review included The Angel on its list of “9 Thrillers (One True) that Times Editors Think You Should Read This Summer.”