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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April/May 1999, pages 122-124

Book Review

Gideon’s* Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad

By Gordon Thomas, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, 354 pp. List: $25.95; AET: $17.95.

Reviewed by Richard H. Curtiss

Binyamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington, DC on Jan. 19, 1998 for what was expected to be a showdown with U.S. President Bill Clinton over the Israeli prime minister’s refusal to implement land-for-peace provisions of the Oslo accords. Netanyahu had vowed to “set Washington on fire.” To emphasize his determination to confront Clinton, he proceeded directly from the airport to a downtown rally with a bitter Clinton foe, American Zionist televangelist Jerry Falwell, who distributes a videotape accusing Clinton of complicity in drug-related murders.

The next morning, Jan. 20, The Washington Post reported that President Clinton was having a romance with a White House intern. Later in the day, when Netanyahu met with Clinton in the White House, nothing much happened. Nor did much happen Jan. 22, when Clinton met with Yasser Arafat, except that nearly all the questions in the press conference that followed dealt only with the White House sex scandal.

One reason the U.S.-Israel confrontation was so abruptly aborted, according to Welsh journalist Gordon Thomas, author of Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad, is that a year earlier two technicians from Mossad, Israel’s external intelligence agency, had traveled from Tel Aviv to Washington to tap the telephone lines of Clinton’s then-23-year-old girlfriend, Monica Lewinsky. Their efforts had produced steamy tape recordings of what Lewinsky called “telephone sex.”

Also, although Thomas, the 66-year-old author of 30 previous nonfiction books and an additional seven works of fiction, doesn’t mention it in his book, if the Mossad bugged the telephone in Lewinsky’s Watergate apartment to record her conversations with the president, it would also have known about Linda Tripp, who spent even more hours talking with Lewinsky than did Clinton, and perhaps other Monica confidants unknown even to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr.

That Clinton soon became aware of the Mossad tapes was made clear, Thomas points out, by Clinton’s March 1997 warning to Lewinsky that “he believed a foreign embassy was taping their conversations.”

In any case, there was no Clinton-Netanyahu confrontation in January 1998 because, only hours before Netanyahu arrived at the White House, Clinton’s dalliance was made public in The Washington Post; by writer Michael Isikoff of its sister publication, Newsweek; and in an on-line gossip site called the Drudge Report. It has never been made clear how Mossad learned of the affair, who tipped off reporters Isikoff and, later, Matt Drudge, or why everyone decided to go public with the revelation that America’s president had a mistress not much older than his daughter just as Netanyahu arrived to “set Washington on fire.” More than a year later, the U.S. national capital is still smoldering.

According to author Thomas, Mossad’s Clinton tapes also directly affected another top-priority FBI investigation that may have roots going all the way back to the administration of President Ronald Reagan, when U.S. Naval counterintelligence specialist Jonathan Jay Pollard was given a life sentence for stealing thousands of pages of classified documents on behalf of Israel. The stolen material relating to codes, satellite surveillance, and intelligence sources and methods was so highly classified that the U.S. government declined to describe it even to the sentencing judge.

According to Thomas, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir passed some of Pollard’s stolen material pertaining to U.S. intelligence-gathering resources and capabilities to the former Soviet Union “as a gesture of goodwill.” Although Thomas doesn’t say it, the Soviets reciprocated by allowing tens of thousands of Soviet Jews to emigrate to Israel. Thomas reports also that Shamir also was able to turn over enough of the Pollard material to the former apartheid government of South Africa to enable it to cripple U.S. intelligence gathering in Africa and to hide joint Israeli-South African nuclear weapons development from U.S. detection.

Interestingly, U.S. investigators concluded that Pollard was able to gather such sensitive material because someone in a higher position in the U.S. government described to Pollard’s Israeli handlers the documents he should steal. Also, according to Thomas, Pollard’s Israeli handlers were able to give him the codes, some of them changed every few days, which were designed to make such sensitive material inaccessible to middle-level civil servants like Pollard.

The ongoing FBI search for an Israeli spy at the very top level of the U.S. government received a name during Clinton’s first term. On Feb. 16, 1997, a U.S. government agency intercepted a telephone call from a Mossad agent named Dov in Israel’s Washington, DC embassy to his Mossad superior in Tel Aviv. The Israeli ambassador wanted the agent to go to “Mega,” the agent said, to obtain a copy of guarantees then-U.S Secretary of State Warren Christopher had given to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat in connection with the Israeli withdrawal from part of Hebron in the West Bank.

“That’s not what we use Mega for,” the official in Tel Aviv responded, thus setting off a renewed top-priority search by the FBI for a high-level Israeli spy code-named “Mega.” Meanwhile, according to Thomas’s book, Mossad desperately planted “spin” stories in the U.S. media claiming that “Mega” was just Israeli government jargon for the CIA and its program of overt cooperation with Mossad.

Ignoring the spin, the FBI had narrowed the search to the upper echelon of the National Security Council, which includes National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, the secretaries of state and defense, and the employees who deal with foreign policy and military matters in the Clinton White House, or to someone who has access to all NSC correspondence when, according to Thomas, the FBI was ordered to downgrade its investigation.

In his book, Thomas implies that downgrading the FBI search for “Mega,” just when the circle of suspects had been narrowed down, was linked to Clinton succumbing to Israeli blackmail based on the Mossad’s tapes of his telephone conversations with Monica.

Yet another Thomas allegation which will be of particular interest in both Britain and the Middle East is that Mossad was in the process of recruiting security chief Henri Paul of the Ritz Hotel in Paris as an informer at the time Paul drove the automobile in which Britain’s Princess Diana and her Egyptian boyfriend, Dodi Al-Fayed, son of Paul’s employer, Harrod’s department store owner Mohammad Al-Fayed, were killed. However, Thomas does not corroborate the widespread belief of Middle Easterners that the death of the Princess of Wales was a conspiracy to prevent her from marrying Al-Fayed and having a future king of England brought up by a Muslim stepfather.

Instead, Thomas speculates that Mossad pressure being applied to Henri Paul to become an informer or be publicly exposed for taking bribes to inform paparrazi of the movements of celebrities drove him to the combination of pills and alcohol that led to the high-speed accident in which he perished.

Still another revelation in Thomas’s book is that Czech-born British publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, whom Thomas describes as a volunteer Mossad sayan (sayanim are locally recruited Jewish Mossad supporters abroad), was murdered by a two-man Mossad assassination squad who, after Maxwell was lured to the Canary Islands, slipped aboard his yacht, killed him and pushed his body overboard. The reason, according to Thomas, was that Maxwell was threatening to expose secret Israeli operations if Mossad did not return funds he had lent it from the pension fund of his London Daily Mirror newspaper to help Mossad finance its extensive operations abroad.

This arouses a question in the mind of any reader who has followed Israeli clandestine operations over the years. This writer had noted that Maxwell was murdered by Israel agents while he was negotiating the purchase of the New York Daily News, the only remaining non-Jewish-owned New York newspaper. A logical explanation was that when Israel was unable or unwilling to provide the remainder of the funds needed to finance his purchase, Maxwell had threatend to expose his extensive previous collaboration in shady Mossad financial and media operations.

The difference might seem minor, but if Thomas’s explanation for Maxwell’s assassination is accepted, U.S. investigative reporters might someday be less inclined to look into the circumstances of the subsequent purchase of the Daily News by U.S. real estate and media tycoon Morton Zuckerman, whose pro-Zionist media empire in the U.S.—which also includes U.S. News and World Report and the Atlantic Monthly—bears some resemblance to Maxwell’s in Europe.

In fact, Thomas’s book outlines in some detail the manner in which Mossad and other Israeli agencies have built up a network of prestigious publications and journalists in order to have the means to discredit Israel’s enemies, and to float false explanations for events that might otherwise discredit Israel.

There are other omissions from Thomas’s book which seem curious. For example, there is no mention of the infamous Lavon affair, the 1954 firebombing of U.S. government diplomatic establishments and libraries in Egypt by young Israeli-trained Egyptian Jews in order to cool the blossoming friendship between Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the U.S. government. Although the operation was carried out by Israeli military intelligence (Aman) rather than Mossad, its spectacular failure, which poisoned Israeli domestic politics for years afterward, seems worthy of mention.

Similarly, there is no mention of the assault by Israeli fighter-bombers and torpedo boats on the USS Liberty, a “ferret” ship operated by the U.S. Navy for the National Security Agency, in which 34 U.S. crew members were killed and 171 wounded. Surviving crew members insist the lengthy Israeli attack was a deliberate attempt to send the ship, which was monitoring all military communications in the area, to the bottom and blame Egypt. However, both Congress and the executive branch have steadfastly refused to investigate the tragedy that took place on the fourth day of the Six-Day Arab-Israeli war of June 1967.

Thomas explains in the final pages of his book that he was approached in August 1994, by Zvi Spielmann, creator of Israel’s United Film Studios, which has co-produced many films with Hollywood production companies, to write and present a television documentary on Mossad. He discovered there was very little hard information on Mossad other than the unauthorized and highly revealing works of Mossad defector Victor Ostrovsky, and another Israeli source, Ari Ben-Menashe, whose credibility remains unproven.

Thomas lived as a boy in both Egypt and Palestine, where his father was an officer in the Royal Air Force, and his father-in-law was an intelligence officer in Europe. But Thomas was otherwise heavily dependent upon background interviews with Israeli sources to whom he presumably was steered by Spielmann. The resulting film, and now the book, might therefore be described as an authorized biography of Mossad which, because the author is an outsider, remains deniable.

It contains at least cursory accounts of a great many incidents that have been reported previously. Among these are the familiar stories of Wolfgang Lotz, the Israeli spy who successfully posed as a German horse trainer in Cairo and who, after his capture in 1965, was exchanged for Egyptian prisoners of war; Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was caught and hanged in 1965 in Syria; Israeli collaboration with French intelligence agents in the kidnapping, torture and murder of Moroccan opposition leader Mehdi Ben Barka in 1965; the spectacular rescue by Israeli special forces of Jewish passengers from an Air France plane hijacked by Palestinians to Entebbe, Uganda in 1976; and the 1986 Mossad kidnapping of Mordechai Vanunu, a Moroccan-born Israeli Jew who, after his conversion to Christianity, blew the whistle on Israel’s nuclear weapons program.

Vanunu was lured from Britain, where he had been talking to the London Times, to Rome by American-born Mossad agent Cindy Johnson, aka Cheryl Ben-Tov, who has returned to her original home in Orlando, Florida where she now lives peacefully while the man she betrayed to kidnappers for revealing the existence of Israel’s hidden nuclear weapons plant in Dimona is serving a 20-year prison sentence in Israel.

Less familiar to Western readers may be Thomas’s accounts of how Mossad’s Al (Hebrew for “highest”) unit “prowled through California’s Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128 for high-tech secrets”; how Mossad’s LAP operation puts an Israeli “spin” on media accounts of events all over the world; how the FBI’s James Kallstrom remarked that “if there was a way to nail those bastards in Tel Aviv for time wasting, I sure would like to see it happen,” after Mossad’s sayanim in the U.S. media faithfully inserted into their reports and publications every LAP falsehood aimed at blaming Arabs or Muslims for the accidental explosion of Trans World Airlines Flight 800 off Long Island in 1996; how LAP tried to do the same thing at the time of the bombing of the Atlanta Olympic Games; of how Abraham Fineberg, “a Zionist supporter of Israel’s nuclear aspirations,” sought to buy control of President John F. Kennedy’s Middle East policy with a $500,000 campaign contribution and then threatened to withhold support for a re-election campaign if Kennedy insisted on an inspection of Israel’s nuclear weapons plant at Dimona; the failed attempt to assassinate Jordanian Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Amman in 1997; the Israeli role in instigating and then keeping alive the Israeli sale of American arms to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages which eventually became the Irangate scandal, for which President Reagan was nearly impeached; the extremes to which hatred of the U.S. and Britain and grudging admiration for Nazi Germany drove Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir; Israel’s role in the murky Inslaw case involving the theft of U.S. computer software which enables Israel to tap into law enforcement data banks all over the world; the concoction of a false plot which seemed to implicate Syria in a scheme to blow up an El Al commercial flight originating in Britain in 1986; the murder of Ali Hassan Salameh, who helped plan the seizure of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games in 1972, but who also was the principal American source of intelligence about Palestinian resistance groups; a murky account of unsolved mysteries surrounding the explosion of PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; the Mossad assassination of Canadian-American weapons developer Gerald Bull in Brussels in 1990; and myriad references to Mossad involvement in far more murders in the Middle East and Europe than Israel has ever admitted.

Most shocking, perhaps, is Thomas’s reiteration of the report first aired by Mossad defector Ostrovsky that Israeli Mossad agents were aware of the truck bomb being constructed in Beirut for use against U.S. peacekeeping forces there. Mossad withheld the information from the U.S. and allowed the Oct. 23, 1983 attack, in which 241 Americans were killed, to take place.

In deference to the book reviewers’ tradition of pointing up niggling problems, there are typos on pp. 106, 126, 189, and 249 which the publishers can correct in a second edition. And, mangled almost beyond recognition on p. 140, is the name of former Iranian Savak agent Manocher Ghorbanifar, who was so deeply involved in luring Reagan administration officials into the Israeli-inspired Irangate morass.

Much more important is the question of whether the principal purpose of this book is to put a Mossad spin on some events that, if they become better known, could be highly damaging to Israel, or whether it is to convince both Israelis and their Jewish financial backers throughout the world that Mossad is doing its job and deserves continued budgetary support, or both. It’s also possible, of course, that the author and his sponsors simply hope to make a profit and timed the book’s March 1999 release to exploit current world-wide interest in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Regardless of motives and seemingly minor inaccuracies, Gideon’s Spies is a gripping and informative narrative. Everyone interested in the long history of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and its far-reaching effects on the Arab states, the United States, and virtually every other country in the world, should read it.

*Gideon was an Old Testament hero who saved the Israelites from defeat by superior forces because he had superior intelligence.

Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.