A Failure of Intelligence

Review: Uri Bar-Joseph, 'The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel'

Israeli spy Ashraf Marwan, left, with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and family / AP

The Angel by Uri Bar-Joseph is a book that should be required reading—as a terrible warning—for everyone involved in intelligence. It is the tale of how an intelligence agency, despite having the best information imaginable, can still get it wrong. Bar-Joseph recounts how, prior to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 when Israel suffered a near-fatal blow, Israel had been given detailed knowledge of Egypt’s plans thanks "to an exceptionally rare situation in the history of espionage: the direct assistant to the leader of a country preparing to launch an attack on its enemy was a secret agent on behalf of that enemy."

That secret agent was Ashraf Marwan, the son-in-law of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a trusted confidante of his successor, Anwar Sadat. Bar-Joseph, a professor of political science at the University of Haifa, himself a veteran of the war, has the ideal background to write this book. His earlier effort, The Watchman Fell Asleep, took a broad view of the intelligence failures leading up to the Yom Kippur War; it is considered the most important study on the subject and won the Israeli Political Science Association Best Book Award in 2002. In The Angel, ably translated by David Hazony, Bar-Joseph focuses exclusively on the story of the spy central to the drama and the ossified thinking that prevented Israel from taking advantage of the secrets he provided.

In the summer of 1970, Marwan simply consulted the phone book and called the Israeli Embassy from a London telephone booth to offer his services. It took a second phone call five months later for Mossad agents to wake up to the fact that they were being offered what a former Mossad chief would call "the greatest source we have ever had."

What was Marwan’s motivation? Bar-Joseph hazards some conjectures. Nasser, unusually for an Arab leader, was immune to financial corruption and had no intention of allowing his ambitious son-in-law to use his new family connections to enrich himself. He disliked Marwan and, when his daughter refused his order to divorce him, put him in a job with little pay or scope. But while the desire to get back at Nasser and improve his finances might explain his initial decision, as Bar-Joseph notes, it does not explain why Marwan spied for Israel after Nasser’s death. Marwan’s situation radically improved after he backed Sadat in the face of an attempted palace coup d’état; from then on he enjoyed a key role in Sadat’s inner circle. Bar-Joseph suggests instead that Marwan had a need to live dangerously and seek out risk, almost like an adrenaline junkie. Whatever his motives, writes Bar-Joseph, the cornucopia of information that poured forth from him, the most important concerning the Egyptian military, "went far beyond anything [the Israelis] had known. It was unprecedented in its quality."

With such tremendous intelligence at Israel’s disposal, it begs the question: What went wrong? If one culprit emerges from this story, it is Maj. Gen. Eli Zeira, the chief of Israeli Military Intelligence who became captive of what became known as the ‘kontzeptzia,’ a theory that stated Egypt would not make war on Israel until it had overcome its military inferiority by obtaining better warplanes, long-range bombers, and Scud missiles. Ironically, Marwan himself was the source of this analysis. However, Bar-Josef points out that Marwan also was "the key source of information about Egypt’s change of heart, which should have convinced the Israelis that the paradigm was no longer relevant." While Sadat changed his mind, Zeira was incapable of changing his.

Zeira and the group of officers he led dismissed Marwan’s new information as false or irrelevant. Bar-Joseph describes their faith in the kontzeptzia as "unwavering, almost religious," and immune to the "mass of critical data that had only one reasonable interpretation: that Egypt and Syria were headed for war. … Their inflexibility continued all the way to the morning of October 6, 1973 [the day of the attack] – and was the single biggest reason that things went so deeply wrong from Israel’s perspective."

Nothing seemed to penetrate. King Hussein warned Prime Minister Golda Meir. Zeira said the warning was unreliable. There were heightened alert levels in the Egyptian air force. Military Intelligence ignored them. Military intelligence dismissed Syrian war preparations on the grounds that Syria would not attack without Egypt. Even the emergency evacuation of all Soviet personnel in Egypt and Syria did not dislodge Zeira from his belief. Faced with overwhelming evidence, military intelligence "chose any explanation that would let them continue believing in it [the kontzeptzia]," Bar-Joseph says. Finally, Marwan demanded a meeting in London. Mossad head Zvi Zamir met with him and was told Egypt and Syria would launch a full-scale attack the next day. Golda Meir finally approved a call-up of the Army reserves.

It was too little, too late to prevent disaster on the southern front. As Bar-Joseph wrote in The Watchmen Fall Asleep, "The total number of soldiers in the Bar-Lev line on Yom Kippur at noon reached 451, of which 331 were fighting soldiers. And this small fighting force was of a low quality. Battalion 68, whose soldiers manned most of the line, belonged to the Jerusalem Territorial Brigade — a second-rate reserve force by IDF standards. Many of its soldiers were hardly trained, and most of them did not have combat experience."

Up to this point, the book’s title would seem more appropriate if changed to "The Egyptian Spy Who Tried to Save Israel." But Bar-Joseph argues that the warning came in time to change the outcome on the Golan. "In retrospect, Ashraf Marwan was single-handedly responsible for enabling Israel to prevent the Syrian conquest of the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War," he writes. Marwan’s warning also prevented an Egyptian plan to bomb the center of Tel Aviv. Israel scrambled two warplanes to intercept the bombers (one of the Israeli planes literally shot a missile launched from one of the Egyptian bombers out of the sky). Had the attack on Tel Aviv been successful, it would have significantly affected Israeli morale and the way the conflict developed, says Bar-Joseph. Israel’s superior fighting ability would eventually turn the tide of the war.

Although Zeira was sent packing by a commission that looked into the reasons behind Israel’s intelligence failure, he was not done. Decades later, he began to drop hints of who the spy was to various writers and journalists. He insisted the spy was a double agent, a charge Bar-Joseph thoroughly debunks. There were Mossad officers who wanted Zeira to stand trial for revealing a source, but Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, vetoed the idea because he felt a trial would acknowledge that Marwan was the spy. He would be proven right. It was a trial, this one initiated by Zeira, that led to Marwan’s death.

In 2004, Zeira published a new edition of his book in which he specifically named Ashraf Marwan. Zvi Zamir, Mossad chief at the time of the war, accused Zeira of revealing a source and "breaking the first of the Ten Commandments of the Intelligence Corps." Zeira sued for defamation. The court found against him. The ruling was publicized on June 7, 2007. Less than three weeks later, Ashraf Marwan fell from his London apartment to his death. To Bar-Joseph it is clear the Egyptians killed him. Faced with the hugely embarrassing fact of a traitor at the top, the leadership adopted the line that he was a double agent and covered up by attending Marwan’s funeral.

The Angel is a terrific book. It has all the tension, plot twists, and dramatis personae of a spy novel, only the story is real, with the added twist that you’re rooting for an Egyptian and against an Israeli. Zeira has never paid for what he did. But what is most worrying is that there are other Zeiras out there, adhering to equally false konzceptzias. Only recently, a group of 214 retired Israeli generals released a position paper calling for Israel to unilaterally leave the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They are imprisoned in the konzceptzia of ‘land for peace,’ an idea that lives on despite overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work. It is arguably more dangerous than the konzceptzia that almost doomed Israel in 1973, and certainly longer lasting.