Decision-makers in Jerusalem have always compensated for Israel’s numerical disadvantage vis a vis its enemies by creating an excellent intelligence service. Many individual spies have entered Zionist folklore; and Israel’s secret service is feared and respected the world over.
Israel’s intelligence services originated in old Palestinian Yishuv (Jewish settlement) institutions like Shai, the intelligence branch of the Haganah defence group. The first organisation called ‘Mossad’ (‘the Institute’) helped with the Aliyah Bet, (the ‘illegal’ smuggling in of Holocaust survivors after 1945).
The better-known Mossad is Israel’s foreign espionage service. Its duties are analogous to the United States’ CIA. Founded by Reuven Shiloah in 1951, Mossad won renown for bringing Jews to Israel from Iran, Iraq, Syria and later Ethiopia. Meanwhile its Political Action and Liaison Department forged links with governments who otherwise lacked official ties with Israel.
Many politicians cut their teeth working as spies during the 1948 War of Independence and its aftermath. Yitzhak Navon, later a state president, intercepted telephone lines and passed on enemy plans to the new Israel Defence Force. Yitzhak Shamir, just released from the Stern Gang and later a prime minister, worked for Mossad in the 1950s.
The Shin Bet (a Hebrew acronym for General Security Services) is Israel’s counter-espionage and internal intelligence service. Its first boss was Isser Harel. After 1967 it also oversaw intelligence in the occupied territories (West Bank, Gaza Strip). Isser Harel is credited with unmasking Lt Col Israel Be’eri, official historian of the 1948 war, as a KGB agent. Shin Bet was also involved in kidnapping the Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in Argentina and taking him to Israel.
The third main component of Israel’s secret services is military intelligence, or Aman. Many Aman operatives have gone on to work for Mossad. One Aman operative was Wolfgang Lotz, the half-Jewish, half-gentile ‘Champagne Spy’. Lotz was born in Germany and posed as a former Nazi in Cairo. He relayed to Israel vital information on Egyptian missile sites and German military scientists working for Nasser. He was caught and imprisoned, but released in the 1970s.
Another Aman-Mossad agent was the Egyptian-born Jew, Eli Cohen. Inveigled into Syria during the 1960s, he posed as an Arab military expert and gained access to top secret Syrian military plans. His data proved indispensable during the 1967 Six Day War. Yet he too was unmasked, and was subsequently publicly executed in Damascus.
In the 1970s Aharon Yariv ran special undercover units, which targeted Palestinian terrorists. Global spying expertise helped Israel plan the raid on Entebbe in 1976 and the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981.
Israeli spies have often made errors. In the 1950s Egyptian based operatives overplayed their hand, leading to the Lavon Affair. Aman was blamed for not alerting Jerusalem sufficiently to the dangers of war in 1973; Shin Bet was accused of brutality in the territories, and for failing to quell the intifada (Palestinian uprising). In the 1990s even the venerated Mossad botched an assassination attempt on the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, in Amman, Jordan.
Much of Israel’s early espionage success is ascribed to human intelligence. But increasingly Mossad and Aman rely on technology. In 1995 Israel launched its first spy satellite, Ofek; some saw this as the death-knell for the lone operative.