Modern espionage literature is rife with authors who once plied the spy trade. Ian Fleming invented James Bond after his World War II service as a British naval intelligence officer. David Cornwell, better known as John Le Carré, was still working for MI6 when he penned his first espionage thriller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. And former CIA operations officer Jason Matthew’s experience dodging Russian KGB surveillance teams in Moscow deeply informs his Red Sparrow trilogy.
Then there is the veteran Israeli espionage journalist Ronen Bergman, who has taken a slightly different angle into the shadow world of spies, counterspies and assassinations. Drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1990, Bergman spent three years recruiting and handling informants for the army’s criminal investigative division, where he burrowed into military corruption, drug trafficking, arms dealing and other crimes. The skills he learned there have served him well as Israel’s premier chronicler of the country’s principal spy services—the Mossad (Israel’s CIA), Shin Bet its (internal security organ) and Aman (military intelligence).
“I think that the training and experience with the recruitment and running of live agents, whoever they are…gives you [insights into] their situations…and their mindset,” he said during an interview to promote his latest and much anticipated book, Rise Up and Kill: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations.
Like most Israeli men, Bergman, 45, still serves in the army reserves and is obligated by law to do so until he reaches the age of 51. But there’s no cross-pollination between his military service and his reporting on Israeli intelligence, he says: “I do not report about things that I do, and I’m not involved in anything that is connected to what I am reporting about. There’s a total separation of these two worlds.”
Nevertheless, his intelligence credentials have no doubt helped him gain the trust of Israel’s spymasters and operatives. As the senior political and military analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-circulation daily, his columns and books (nine now) have regularly exposed internal debates of the nation’s intelligence agencies, making him a must-read for national security geeks the world over. For Rise Up, he interviewed “over a thousand” current and former officials, plus others, he said.
The book catalogues Israel’s six-decade history of “negative treatment” (the Hebrew euphemism for targeted killing operations) against its enemies, which, over time, ranged from fugitive German war criminals and rocket scientists to front-line Arab leaders to Iraqi nuclear officials (under Saddam Hussein) and then scientists in Iran’s nuclear program. And always, of course, there were the Palestinian leaders, and later Iran-backed Hezbollah militants, to be “liquidated.”
One reviewer said Rise Up (taken from the Talmudic instruction, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first”) begins to read like “an endless police blotter [of] Israel’s greatest hits.” But over some 750 heavily footnoted pages, many top Israeli officials confess to moral qualms, foul-ups and mistakes—killing the wrong person or innocent bystanders, or murdering a Palestinian leader who might have made a good partner in peace negotiations.
I asked Bergman if he came across anything really surprising in his research. Yes, he said quickly. “One day I was sitting in a north Tel Aviv café, not far away from where I live, with someone from the Air Force, and we were discussing all sorts of different topics. And he said, ‘I have something I need to relieve myself of, that I kept for so long.’” It turned out to be the extraordinary story of how, in 1982, on orders from then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Israeli pilots nearly shot down a civilian plane because of a Mossad team’s mistaken belief that Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat was aboard it. Only a last-second correction by Mossad operatives saved the lives of the passengers, which included Arafat’s look-alike younger brother, Fathi, a pediatrician and founder of the Red Crescent, and 30 wounded Palestinian children he was taking to Cairo for medical treatment. The incident was recounted in a January 23 excerpt in The New York Times. In the book, Bergman hints that Sharon, who was long obsessed with killing Arafat, might have authorized his fatal poisoning in 2004. But even if he knew it to be true, he writes, “the military censor in Israel forbids me from discussing the subject.”