Israel's Secret Prisoner, Suicide and Hubris: Don't Rely on Spies to Be Perfect

02/20/2013 06:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2014

The complex tale of Ben Zygier -- the Australian immigrant to Israel who became a Mossad spy, was arrested in his adopted country, and was found hanged in a high-security prison cell -- would merit a place in espionage fiction. Over two years since his death but merely a week after his very existence was revealed, there are intriguing mysteries still unresolved. Above all: What did he do undercover for Israeli intelligence? And where did he take a wrong turn?

The most important lesson, however, is about hubris.

When people watch the Academy Award-nominated Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers, they marvel at how the six former directors of the security agency Shin Bet succeeded at their basic mission: keeping tabs on alleged terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza, listening in on them, and striking them from the air at will.

Yet the Shin Bet men admit that their achievements failed to move Israelis any closer to what should be their biggest strategic objective: peace with their Palestinian neighbors.

The Mossad, as Israel's agency for foreign intelligence and covert missions, enjoys its reputation for nearly mythic perfection. It has, however, made major personnel errors. A notable example was Yehuda Gil, a Mossad officer who was a multi-lingual master of disguise. His mission in 1974 was to recruit a high-level spy in Syria. He made contact with an army general, who agreed to receive gifts including an American refrigerator, but the Syrian repeatedly refused to betray his country by divulging secrets. So for 23 years, Gil sent his Mossad bosses reports that he simply invented.

Mainly to save themselves embarrassment, Israeli authorities tried to keep the case secret, but the story leaked to a British newspaper in 1997 when Gil was about to go on trial. He served five years in prison.

Israel, while boasting of being the only true democracy in the Middle East, has habitually tried to muzzle its media -- even, as in the Zygier case last week, prohibiting repetition of news that is on television and in newspapers abroad. The intelligence community and successive prime ministers keep making the same mistake: thinking that the media should be loyal servants of the state, and failing to respect the role of journalists in a free country.

The most egregious example was the Israeli government's attempt to prevent publication of a book in the United States in 1990. Victor Ostrovsky, who had been a Mossad trainee, wrote an expose of the spy agency's alleged misdeeds. Israel's litigation, aimed at banning By Way of Deception in America, simply turned that book into a worldwide best seller.

Even Israel's biggest admirers do not, of course, expect perfection. But senior Israelis -- whether they are politicians, army generals, or intelligence chiefs -- often do seem to feel that they can do no wrong.

Perhaps the Shin Bet chiefs, interviewed in The Gatekeepers, expected that by doing excellent counter-terrorism work and pacifying the occupied territories, that would clear the way for the Holy Grail of peace.

Today's gatekeepers -- the heads of the security agencies and the prime minister -- exhibited hubris when they thought that a Mossad man could be arrested and imprisoned without a word leaking to the public.

Most serious of all are inflated hopes that Israeli covert action can be sufficient to prevent Iran from creating a nuclear weapon. Working with American intelligence, according to sources, Israel has waged cyber-war against Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. Israeli operatives are also believed responsible for assassinations and sabotage inside Iran.

It is little more than wishful thinking, however, that Israel's unacknowledged efforts will be sufficient to guarantee that Iran will never develop nuclear weapons. Hubris should not stand in the way of other paths to avoiding all-out war.

Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent in Washington. Yossi Melman is a security and intelligence analyst with the Israeli website Walla.co.il. Their latest book is Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars.