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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism, by Ami Pedahzur.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.  215 pp.  $22.50.

On Thursday, April 12, 1984 four Fatah operatives commandeered the number 300 Egged bus en route from Tel Aviv, making hostages out of the thirty-four passengers on board. Although Israel had a unit within its police force (the “Yamam”) that was specifically trained to deal with hostage events, Chief of Staff Moshe Levy “arbitrarily” called on Sayeret Matkal, a reconnaissance unit within the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), to conduct the rescue operation. Sayeret’s mission ended after approximately nine minutes. During that time, two of the kidnappers and one of the hostages were killed and seven more passengers wounded. The remaining hostage takers were captured and summarily executed by operatives from the General Security Services acting on orders issued by GSS Chief Avraham Shalom.

              The 1984 hostage drama was neither the first nor the last time members of the Israeli government used the IDF’s Sayeret Matkal instead of the more specialized Yamam to deal with Palestinian terrorism. Although Sayeret’s forces often underperformed Yamam’s and were occasionally responsible for political crises, Prime Minister after Prime Minister turned to the IDF for military solutions to Israel’s terrorism problem. According to Ami Pedahzur, in his fine book The Israeli Secret Services and the Struggle Against Terrorism, the Israeli government’s preference for the “war model” can be traced to public pressure on democratic leaders to respond to terrorism decisively. The result is that the Israeli government consistently chooses counterproductive counterterrorism policies that help the Israeli public vent their collective spleen, but also provoke more terrorism and other political ills.

              Although Pedahzur’s thesis about the problems associated with war-like responses to terrorism is not new, he approaches his analysis of Israel’s counterterrorism dilemma in a novel way: through a series of original case studies of the Mossad’s involvement in efforts to thwart Palestinian terror organizations. The case studies show the political tensions that shape Israeli counterterrorism policy and underscore Pedahzur’s argument that the Israeli government remains committed to the war model even though the approach fails repeatedly. The case studies are the book’s strongest suit, providing behind-the-scenes accounts of some of the Israeli secret services’ finest moments (e.g., the rescue of a hijacked airliner in Entebbe) and humiliating defeats (e.g., the botched attempt to assassinate Khaled Mashal in Jordan). Pedahzur’s narrative clearly benefits from interviews he did with members of the intelligence community that enable him to go beyond journalistic accounts of these events and provide an analysis of what went right and wrong during Israeli counterterrorism efforts.

              The Israeli Secret Service is less successful, however, at explaining Israel’s attraction to the war model. Pedahzur argues the war model is ineffective as evidenced by the persistence of Palestinian terrorism even in the face of Israel’s most aggressive efforts to prevent further attack. On the other hand, Israel’s experiments with Pedahzur’s favored “defensive” approach to counterterrorism produced a number of important successes. The most notable of these was the sharp reduction in suicide attacks after Israel constructed a separation barrier between it and the West Bank. Pedahzur reasons, therefore, that the war model’s capacity to prevent terrorism cannot be its main selling point. The problem is that the evidence he marshals in support of this argument is not entirely persuasive. Demonstrating the weakness of the war model requires showing both that it failed to control Palestinian terrorism and that more effective alternatives were available. Pedhazur’s evidence only addresses the first part of this formula. His argument that the separation barrier is proof of the superiority of the defensive model is convincing only if one ignores the daily rocket attacks that Hamas launched from Gaza in lieu of the suicide missions it previously conducted from the West Bank. Finally, Pedahzur’s claim that democracies, like Israel, have a built-in inclination to rely on the war model overlooks the European experience with terrorism, which relied far more on the defensive techniques Pedahzur admires than the militarized approaches he disdains. Why European democracies were able to avoid the excesses of the war model while Israel could not remains unexplained.

              In the end, the weaknesses of Ami Pedahzur’s book on the Israeli secret service are outweighed by its strengths. Most importantly, the book sheds a great deal of light on the activities of counterterrorism organizations that mostly operate in the shadows and on the seemingly haphazard ways counterterrorism policy is formulated in times of crisis.


Aaron M. Hoffman

Department of Political Science

Northern Illinois University