Review of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

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Review of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations. Ronen Bergman. Published by Random House, 2018. $35.00 pp.784

The secret-history genre confronts the responsible reviewer with writer’s-block-inducing problems of interpretation and evaluation. Rise and Kill First is no exception. Without access to the classified documents and cloak & dagger sources upon which most of Bergman’s hush-hush history is purportedly based, a reviewer can do little more than assess the image, and how deliberately he intends to project this image, of Israel’s clandestine defense agencies and agents. In his “A Note on the Sources” — sources are, of course, what serious critics scrutinize most carefully in this kind of peering-through-the-keyhole history — Bergman claims that an IDF General urged Shin Bet to take “aggressive action” against him for perpetrating “aggravated espionage” and that “several actions have been taken by various [Israeli] bodies to stop the publication of this book.” Practically begging us to wonder why Mossad didn’t order his own targeted killing, Bergman adduces a mass of classified dossiers and confidential sources and yet, somehow, does not end up getting arrested and thrown into jail, or worse, by Shin Bet. The book gets published. The secret history gets told.

In other words, before we even get to the first page of the history proper, we must resolve a performative contradiction: “I’ll get killed for telling you this history, but I’m alive and  telling you this history.” Without getting into Leo-Strauss-levels of hermeneutical paranoia, the reader with eyes to see and ears to hear must, nevertheless, parse the book’s propositions from their author’s performance of them–with extreme epistemological and rhetorical vigilance. Responsible readers will separate what Bergman is saying from how he’s saying it. Anti-Semites and Israel-haters (a sub-readership for any book that proffers Mossad’s crown jewels on a silver platter) are not likely to be so careful, and I suspect Bergman knows that. So, he is writing, in part, for that careless reader, for they will think they’ve bought an Israeli version of The Way of the Knife or Dirty Wars. Juedo-phobes always judge a book by its cover.

At the same time, Bergman’s too smart, too methodologically self-conscious, too politically meta-aware not to know that a critical reader, lacking a top-secret clearance, finds himself in an epistemological conundrum when trying to evaluate the credibility of his claims about agencies that operate top secretly. Even a reader who does happen to have a top-secret clearance may not be able to state his professional evaluation publicly because he’s signed a non-disclosure agreement. Thus, he cannot legally disclose the critical yardstick by which he evaluates spooky claims such as this: “Mossad did manage to block access to some of my sources. Many more have died since I met them, most of natural causes.”

Bergman’s surely aware of the second-guess-the-author’s-intention nature of the “secret-history” genre. His “A Note on the Sources” does smack of the lady protesting too much; he lacquers one too many coats of forbidden fruit onto his foregoing narrative.  Based on our lack of classified access, he also surely knows that Intel-savvy readers are going to ask dismissive questions about the ulterior rhetorical motives and covert reasons for airing out Israel’s dirty laundry. He even seems to be inviting us to play a quick game of Operation Shylock. How reliable is this narrator?

Whom does Bergman really want to persuade and of what does he want to persuade them? Is he preaching to a choir of defense-intelligence professionals, for a readership  with eyes to see and ears to hear? Perhaps he intends to goad Israel-hostile conspiracy theorists, to provoke the BDS or HAMAS reader into responding, “Look! Look! Mossad & the Evil Israelis really are killing their deadliest enemies preemptively!” Maybe Bergman is simply cashing in on that Israel-hater’s moral confusion and paranoia? Or is this after all a clever piece of Mossad propaganda? The seriously paranoid may even wonder if the book itself be a Mossad operation, the real intention being to conduct big-data spider-analyses of who buys, reads, and responds (and how) to this kind of book, a clever public-opinion survey about a deadly serious subject.  After all, Phillip Roth did finally admit to the fact that he was working for Mossad, and the operation of Operation Shylock turned out to be the novel itself.

Style reveals the psychological attitude of author toward subject. So, if we can’t evaluate the credibility of his sources (and we cannot do so responsibly without classified or even supernatural access to those sources, “many have died, most of natural causes”), we must attend closely to what Bergman’s style reveals about his truest rhetorical intentions.

And Bergman’s style reveals that he’s proud to be a vital Jew. His psychological attitude toward his subject — Jews who kill terrorists to protect Jews — is not ambivalent, conflicted, or otherwise morally confused. His is a healthy sense of membership to a moral tribe worth defending for life unto death. Vitality in Jews does not bother Bergman, but, as I say, I think he does know it will bother a careless sub-readership.

Provocatively citing the famous “rise and kill first” passage from the Babylonian Talmud as the book’s eponymous epigraph, Bergman unabashedly projects the image not only of a vital Jew but also of a Jew who’s ready to kill his Jewish state’s enemies, even preemptively (“kill first“) when necessary. Because this book is basically about Jews killing other people with the sanction and in defense of the Jewish state, we must find it telling that Bergman reveals little falsifiable substance about Israel’s targeted-killing program. He never really makes good on the tell-all promise of the title and reveals nothing that truly compromises Mossad, AMAN, or the IDF.  And yet, he does talk a great deal about Israel’s tactical challenges, ethical dilemmas, and strategic requirements for killing Israel’s deadliest enemies. Indeed, the secret history he tells provides a fully thought-out morality for such killings. And the main policy-correction his history leads up to involves Israel’s long-game strategy, not tactics. I’ll return to this point below, for it’s what makes this book worth reading: Bergman wages cognitive battle in the 4th generation warfare environment at the moral level and for strategic goals.

Along the way, Bergman exposes his readers to the key moral qualities of the agents and agencies who compose Israel’s thin red line. In this regard, he not only projects but proactively promotes the living reality of a vital Jew, subtly defining and illustrating the moral chutzpah of Israel’s toughest guard-dogs throughout his case-by-case chronological analysis.

Readers who fear vital Jews, like BDS and HAMAS, will no doubt respond to Bergman’s narrative with a blend of fear and disgust, a response Bergman seems deliberately to elicit with his title. And he is writing, as I suspect, defiantly for a readership of anti-Semites who fear any and all vitality in Jews, both Jews willing to protect themselves from terrorists with lethal force and those who simply call the State of Israel home. He knows full well that Israel-haters will buy this book out of their own need for bias confirmation, to get a look-we-told-you-so glimpse into the secret workings of the Israeli subgroup by which they in-group themselves and take seedy masochistic pleasure in demonizing, Mossad. But before these readers can lay hold of that smoking drone, they must first confront Bergman’s vital Jew, on almost every page. Foremost among them is, “MEIR DAGAN, CHIEF OF the Israeli Mossad, legendary spy and assassin.” The best description Bergman delivers of Dagan is also a sly promotion of his ideal vital Jew: “There was something about him that expressed a direct, terse self-confidence, and a quiet, sometimes menacing charisma.” Admirable to some of Bergman’s readers, terrifying to others.

Attend to how Bergman narrates a Mossad hit:

AL-MABHOUH TRIED TO ESCAPE back into the corridor. But two pairs of strong arms gripped him. A third man gagged him with one hand and, with the other, pressed to al-Mabhouh’s neck an instrument that uses ultrasound waves to inject medication without breaking the skin. The instrument was loaded with suxamethonium chloride, an anesthetic known commercially as Scoline that is used in combination with other drugs in surgery.

On its own, it induces paralysis and, because it causes the muscles used in breathing to stop working, asphyxiation. The men maintained their grip until al-Mabhouh stopped struggling. As the paralysis spread through his body, they laid him on the floor. Al-Mabhouh was wide awake, thinking clearly, seeing and hearing everything. He just couldn’t move. Foam formed at the corners of his mouth. He gurgled.

I do strongly suspect Bergman cocked his style in sanguinary passages like that quite deviously to make readers who fear vital Jews and a robust Jewish state hyperventilate or even soil themselves. A meta-review of the book’s many reviews warrants my point, especially blog-land reviews. That’s part of the reason this particular Bergman title topped the New York Times bestseller list.  The other reason for bestseller success is his telling of this history in that edge-of-your-seat episodic style of Lee Child. Again, Bergman’s style draws attention to itself as a kind of psychological warfare.

However, Bergman is not only writing an in-your-face, page-turning military history of Israel to scare the crap out of a sub-readership of BDS and HAMAS Israel haters. Far more importantly, he confronts other vital Jews like himself with very serious reminders about how and why they need to remain vital, lethal, and, especially, morally resilient in the defense of the Jewish state. Starting with the provocative eponymous quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, Bergman begins rhetorically not historically, with a direct moral reminder to his fellow Jews. He reminds them that the lethal defense of Jews by Jews is not only not morally forbidden, it’s a moral imperative within Judaism.  In this sense, his history is performing didactic work even before we get to the first page. His citation of the Talmud is not ironic, it’s sermonic.

What I suspect Bergman has figured out from his work as a defense analyst is that Israel is now dealing with the perfidious realities of 4th generation warfare, which William Lind and Gregory Thiele best define:

While the three classic levels of war carry over into the Fourth Generation, they are joined there by three new levels which may ultimately be more important. Colonel Boyd identified these three new levels as the physical, the mental, and the moral levels. Furthermore, he argued that the physical level – killing people and breaking things – is the least powerful, the moral level is the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two. Colonel Boyd argued that this is especially true in guerrilla warfare, which is more closely related to Fourth Generation war than is formal warfare between state militaries.

The history of guerrilla warfare, from the Spanish guerrilla war against Napoleon through Israel’s experience in southern Lebanon, supports Colonel Boyd’s observation. This leads to the central dilemma of Fourth Generation war: what works for you on the physical (and sometimes mental) level often works against you at the moral level. It is therefore very easy to win all the tactical engagements in a Fourth Generation conflict yet still lose the war. To the degree you win at the physical level by utilizing firepower that causes casualties and property damage to the local population, every physical victory may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive. (William S. Lind and Gregory A. Thiel, 4th Generation Warfare Handbook)

 Bergman never cites Lind or Thiel, but his eyes are wide open to the central dilemma of 4GW: “To the degree you win at the physical level by utilizing firepower that causes casualties and property damage to the local population, every physical victory may move you closer to moral defeat, and the moral level is decisive.”

 In fact, his history emerges from that 4GW moral dilemma, which is why Bergman exerts much expository energy describing how Israeli authorities and in-the-field assets agonize over rules of engagement, especially the rules and protocols and conditions for giving a target “negative treatment,” at every level of operations. No country in the Middle East, no country in the world, agonizes more than Israel about state-sanctioned killings. Bergman makes this fact absolutely clear. Far more importantly, however, he also delineates an increasingly crippling split between Israel’s intel-community’s tactical brilliance and its political leadership’s strategic folly.  That’s the split that typically emerges as states begin to lose the moral battles of 4GW. And the Israeli state’s 4GW adversaries know it.

To get at the internal sources and drivers of that split, Bergman effectively weaponizes the moral authority of the center of gravity of Israel’s intelligence agencies, Meir Dagan. Even as Bergman not only praises but episodically dramatizes Israel’s tactical genius throughout the study, he ultimately bemoans Israel’s lack of long-term strategic vision, which for Bergman, as for Dagan, comes down to a lack of political leadership.

In fact, Bergman writes the entire history specifically to establish the broadest-possible context in which to understand a single speech by Dagan, the enigmatic 2015 pre-election speech to Netanyahu:

 How can you be responsible for our fate if you are so frightened of taking responsibility? Why does a man seek the leadership if he does not want to lead? How did it happen that this country, several times stronger than all the countries in the region, is not capable of carrying out a strategic move that would improve our situation? The answer is simple: We have a leader who has fought only one fight—the fight for his own political survival. For the sake of that war he has cast us down into becoming a binational state—the end of the Zionist dream.

That’s the punch line of Bergman’s history: Lack of political leadership (strategic vision) is undermining the intelligence community’s tactical victories. In this regard, Israel is now losing 4th generation warfare precisely at the level where 4GW is lost or won: The moral level.  The political egotism of 21st century politicians has replaced the collective idealism of the 20th century kibbutz.

Dagman knew it. Bergman is intent on correcting the problem, which is why he alerts his careful reader to two main cognitive errors within the intelligence community, insider-ism and complacency. Toward the end of his book, Bergman narrows in on the details of the uncharacteristically sloppy assassination of Al-Mabhouh. For Bergman, this assassination marks a turning point not only for Israel’s intelligence and defense communities but also for Israeli society generally.

Bergman showcases this ambiguous tactical-victory-strategic-failure episode as an example of how Mossad, Israeli political leadership, and Israeli society are failing to mutually support each other.

He notes:

It was a calamity born of hubris. “I love Israel and love the Israelis,” said one of the former chiefs of German intelligence. “But your problem has always been that you disparage everyone—the Arabs, the Iranians, Hamas. You’re always the smartest and think that you can fool everyone all of the time. A little more respect for the other side, even if you think that he’s an ignorant Arab or an unimaginative German, and a little more modesty would have saved all of us from this awkward mess.

That “awkward mess” amounted a major moral loss (strategic failure) for Israel on the 4GW battlefield. Mossad agents had been discovered to have used forged passports from other countries. A HAMAS official apprised Dubai police chief, Lieutenant General Dhahi Khalfan Tamim of that fact. He made it public. And that is precisely how the key moral level of 4GW gets lost.

Within Israeli society at large, Bergman had earlier identified a broader cognitive error that aggravates the moral level of 4GW in which Israel is forced to engage, namely, indifference to outside perceptions of Israel:

Acts that people in other countries might be ashamed to admit to are instead a source of pride for Israelis, because they are collectively perceived as imperatives of national security, necessary to protect threatened Israeli lives, if not the very existence of the embattled state.

At no point does Bergman criticize Israeli pride in their intelligence and defense communities. Quite the contrary, he encourages and embodies pride. But he does make readers perceive how pride at one level can become strategically problematic at another level of 4GW. Notice how he details Israel’s response to what Mossad perceived as a botched targeted killing:

On one level, none of that mattered in Israel. The harsh condemnations it was subjected to on the international stage—combined with similar condemnations the nation regularly received for its treatment of the Palestinians—produced an upsurge of patriotism. On Israel’s carnival holiday, Purim, which fell a few weeks after the story broke, a popular costume was that of a pistol-packing tennis player. Hundreds of Israelis with dual citizenship volunteered their passports to the Mossad for use in future operations. The organization’s website was flooded with inquiries about joining up.

 But within Mossad…

Things were different, however, inside the agency. The exposure and the negative attention the Mossad got was terribly damaging on an operational level, despite the fact that Khalfan never managed to prosecute any of the perpetrators. Whole sections of the Mossad’s operations were shut down, both because so many operatives had had their cover blown and because of the need to develop new procedures and methodologies, after the old ones had been all over the media. Early in July 2010, realizing that the Dubai affair had blocked his run to become head of the Mossad, Caesarea chief Holiday quit.

A homicidal HAMAS leader was dead, but look at what it cost Israel’s intelligence community. Bergman pokes his finger into this sore, the inverse relationship between tactical success and moral failure. Interestingly, it’s Israel’s intelligence community, not the general population, who comprehend the strategic and moral failure of their tactical success. They get the rules of 4GW, “killing people and breaking things – is the least powerful, the moral level is the most powerful, and the mental level lies between the other two.” In this regard, Bergman’s historical narrative here performs, throughout, 4GW work at the “mental level”– cognitive warfare.

One reason that Dagan is the moral hero of Bergman’s history is because Dagan was willing to admit his mistake and take responsibility for that mistake publicly:

Only in 2013, in an interview for this book, would Dagan admit, for the first time, that “I was wrong in sending the team in with those passports. It was my decision and only my decision. I bear the full responsibility for what happened.

The ability to accept rebuke and to self-correct in light of rebuke is perhaps the key moral quality of Bergman’s vital Jew. And that moral quality, that exceedingly unique virtue, will likely be the key to Israel’s survival in the coming decade of enhanced 4GW.

Where Bergman’s history finally lands its careful readers is in the middle of an emerging crises of legitimacy within the state of Israel:

There were times when the words of the generals were taken as sacred by most Israelis. But their campaigns against Netanyahu have thus far failed to topple him, and some say they have even bolstered him. Israel has undergone drastic changes in recent decades: The strength of the old elites, including the generals and their influence over the public agenda, has ebbed. New elites—Jews from Arab lands, the Orthodox, the right wing—are in ascendancy. “I thought I would be able to make a difference, to persuade,” Dagan told me sorrowfully in the last phone conversation we had, a few weeks before he died, in mid-March 2016. “I was surprised and disappointed.”

The divide between the combat-sated generals, who once had “a knife between their teeth” but later grasped the limits of force, and the majority of the people of Israel, is the sad reality in which Meir Dagan’s life came to its end.

The reader who cares about the future of a vital Jewish state will set those final backward-looking remarks by Bergman next to how Lind and Thiele describe the causes and sources of 4GW:

At the heart of this phenomenon, Fourth Generation war, lies not a military evolution but a political, social, and moral revolution: a  crisis of legitimacy of the state. All over the world, citizens of states are transferring their primary allegiance away from the state to other entities: to tribes, ethnic groups, religions, gangs, ideologies, and “causes.” Many people who will no longer fight for their state are willing to fight for their new primary loyalty. In America’s two wars with Iraq, the Iraqi state-armed forces showed little fight. But Iraqi insurgents whose loyalties were to various non-state elements waged a hard-fought and effective guerrilla war.

The fact that the root of Fourth Generation war is a political, social, and moral phenomenon, the decline of the state, means there can be no purely military solution to Fourth Generation threats. Military force is incapable, by itself, of restoring legitimacy to a state. This is especially the case when the military force is foreign; usually, its mere presence will further undermine the legitimacy of the state it is attempting to support. At the same time, there can be little doubt that state-armed forces will be tasked with fighting Fourth Generation wars. This is not just a problem, it is a dilemma – one of several dilemmas state militaries will face in the Fourth Generation of modern war.

“Military force is incapable, by itself, of restoring legitimacy to a state.” Therein lies the real value of Bergman’s otherwise non-falsifiable historical narrative: It demonstrates the severities of that rule of 4GW and locates Israel within them. No matter how deft Mossad and their alphabetic kith & kith get at targeted killing, their tactical victories alone will not be enough to win Israel’s future imperfect 4GW wars. Israel must learn how to weaponize its own moral authority. It must solve its growing internal crises of legitimacy, and undermine its enemies attempts to undermine that legitimacy, be it Hamas propaganda, BDS-supporting banks, lethal journalism, or terrorism.

At another level, in the style of his narrative, Bergman practices what he preaches. By proudly confronting sub-readers with remarkably morally resilient warriors like Dagan, Bergman also reminds us that there will be peace in the Middle East only when there is no more fear of vital Jews or of a vital Jewish state.



Review of Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

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