Zvi Zamir was chief of the Mossad when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Munich Olympics. Contrary to what happens in the new Spielberg film, he says, Israel did not act out of vengeance: The assassinations ordered by then prime minister Golda Meir were intended to preclude future terrorist acts
In a quiet, somewhat monotonous voice, rather as if he were delivering a prepared speech, the former head of the Mossad espionage agency, Zvi Zamir, debunks myths and beliefs that have taken root as facts in the Israeli public consciousness for some three decades. No, he says.
The assassinations of Palestinian terrorists after the 1972 Munich Olympics were not an act of revenge.
"There was no order given by Golda [Meir, the prime minister at the time] to exact revenge," he emphasizes. It was less a case of looking for those who had been involved in the attack, he explains, and more a desire to strike at the infrastructure of the terrorist organizations in Europe - "their offices, liaison people, means of transportation, their representatives."
The term "liquidation" is not in Zamir's dictionary. Throughout the interview he keeps using "the prevention of future threats." In other words, he claims that terrorists who were killed by Mossad agents were "not involved or connected with the planning or the execution of the murder of the Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games.
We reached the conclusion that we had no choice but to start with preventive measures.
This decision was made," Zamir continues, because "Israeli civilians in their travels abroad, and Israeli installations, were not protected and even when the European authorities arrested the terrorists, they immediately surrendered to their entreaties and demands, and released them. As far as the terrorist organizations and groups were concerned, there was no risk for them in attacking Israeli targets."
INTERVIEW TWICE SINCE 1968
This is the second interview Zamir has given since he was appointed head of the Mossad in September 1968. Zamir held the post for six years; his tenure was marked by the struggle against Palestinian terrorism; efforts to obtain information regarding the intentions of Arab states concerning another war (after their defeat in 1967); immigrant operations aimed at bringing the Jews of Syria to Israel, via Lebanon, and at bringing Iraqi Jews to Israel overland by way of Iran; and provision of Israeli aid to the campaign of the Kurds in Iraq and to that of the Christians in southern Sudan.
Zamir paid secret visits to both Iraq and Sudan, thus continuing the tradition by which the Mossad chief spends time in the field, including enemy states, and closely monitors the operations on which he sends his people.
Zamir gave his first interview six years ago to the Jewish-Swiss producer Arthur Cohn, producer of the film "One Day in September," which won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2000. At that time Zamir was interviewed mainly about what happened during the Munich Games themselves, events that he had to watch helplessly and which ended in a botched rescue operation by the Bavarian police: The Israeli hostages were murdered, but not all the terrorists were killed. Now, for the first time, he comments also on the assassination campaign after the Olympics, which he led. The catalyst for this interview: Steven Spielberg's new film "Munich."
A CHANCE TO CALARIFY
The Mossad recently permitted several of its former senior personnel to be interviewed for documentary films about the events in Munich in 1972, as part of a public relations campaign in the wake of Spielberg's film. Was Zamir also asked to contribute his version? "The reason I am giving an interview is my wish to explain and clarify the whole background of what really happened."
Zamir does not reveal his feelings toward Spielberg, but he is unquestionably angry. It is not anger that stems from personal affront. Its source lies in a genuine belief that "Munich" does an injustice to Mossad personnel, to Israel and to the struggle against terrorism. "I read that Spielberg hopes to get the Oscar for the film. In my opinion, if he deserves a citation, it is one of opprobrium."
Did the film thrill you?
Zamir: "I see it as a cowboy movie. It did not thrill me. Spielberg is of course a name that arouses curiosity, but I understand that the film has not done well in Israel, and rightly so. The Israelis, who understand the subject, know that the film does not reflect what really happened."
In what sense does it not reflect the events?
"It is a disgrace that Spielberg compares Golda Meir to terrorist leaders in Lebanon. For quite a lengthy period Golda rejected our proposals - of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet [security service] - for operations against terrorism in Europe. She hoped the Europeans would be vigilant and would take action themselves against Palestinian terrorism aimed at Israel."
What else bothers you in the film?
"The 'sages' behind the film do not explain the blow, the shock that Munich delivered to all our conceptions. Those things were pushed out of the film in order to make room for operational depictions based on the director's fertile imagination."
And it didn't happen as he depicts it?
"Of course not. He depicts the Mossad fighters as a gang of Englishmen and
Frenchmen - of mercenary types who take on the mission in return for $200,000 or $300,000. And then there is the story of the squad leader, a certain 'Avner,' who never existed."
To show how sensitive Meir was to human life and how she was not obsessed with vengeance, Zamir relates the following anecdote which, he says, has never before been made public: "In some of my conversations with Golda, she expressed her concern that our people might be involved in illegal actions on European soil. It was indeed unavoidable, but illegal. Therefore, I suggested that Golda meet with some of my people, so she could see who they are and draw her own impression. She once told me: 'We are actually hitting people who were never sentenced in a trial.' I felt that she might be having hesitations and doubts about the judgment of the people who were doing the work, who were taking part in the operations, and so I decided that Golda should meet them.
"When the opportunity arose I brought to a meeting with her one of the people who had just returned from an operation, which he had carried out almost independently, alone. He was responsible for a certain sensitive action. He was a member of a pioneer youth movement, who immigrated to Israel. A kibbutz member, a physician, Anglo-Saxon in origin. Golda knew me and maybe one or two others who worked in the Mossad, but she did not get to know the majority. So I wanted her to form her own impression of the people, to place her trust in us and to see the people to whom the mission was entrusted.
"He spoke Hebrew with an accent, just like her. Golda heard him out. She did not say much, but I saw in her eyes that he had made a powerful impression on her. Later Golda visited his kibbutz and ran into him by chance. She was so moved that she called me afterward to tell me. And he is only one example of our human quality. Not mercenaries and not Spielberg-type clowns."
MUNICH TURNING POINT
The conversation takes place on the lushly green lawn of Zamir's home in Zahala, a suburb north of Tel Aviv. "My wife, Rina, and I planted the grass with our own hands 50 years ago," he says with obvious pride. It is a modest home, simply furnished, which evokes times past, a different Israel, when being rich was not considered a great honor.
Zamir, 81, was born in Poland and arrived in Palestine with his parents at the age of seven months, in 1925. At the age of 18 he joined the Palmah, the commando unit of the pre-1948 Haganah defense force, fought in the War of Independence and remained in the Israel Defense Forces, rising to the rank of major general. His last IDF post, in 1966, was GOC Southern Command, after which he was appointed IDF attache in Britain. He thus missed both the Six-Day War - the war that enhanced the myth of the generals - and the postwar euphoria. Nevertheless, in September 1968, the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, named him chief of the Mossad, successor to the charismatic Meir Amit.
When Zamir, known as "Zvika" to his friends, took over the Mossad, he discovered that Israel was up to its neck in a war against terrorism. In January 1969 Palestinian terrorists hijacked an El Al plane to Algeria and for the first time forced the Israeli government to capitulate to their demands. At the end of 1969 terrorists attacked the El Al counter at the airport in
Athens. "Until Munich, the line Israel followed was guided by the assumption that the European states would not allow this terrorism to be perpetrated in their countries and would not permit the wave of plane hijackings."
In other words, Israel's working assumption was that there was no need for action by you, by Israeli intelligence?
"That is correct - that there was no need for illegal Israeli activity in Europe. We - the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet - believed, on the basis of what we knew, that the Palestinian organizations, such as the organization of Wadia Hadad and Black September, which was actually run by the Palestine Liberation Organization, viewed terrorism in Europe as being relatively easy to perpetrate. Easier than infiltrating into Israel across the borders with neighboring states, and also more effective. Using terror, they
wanted to besiege Israel: to strike at the airlines by hijacking planes. They wanted to place the Palestinian 'holocaust' on the world agenda, to make it known to the world.
"We, who understood this, tried to persuade Golda of the need to respond and operate abroad, too. But Golda rebuffed all our proposals. She did not want to be dragged into anything by us, even though there were cabinet ministers, such as Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, who supported us. But Golda believed that the European states would wake up in the light of the terrorist offensive on their soil and take action by themselves."
And did they?
"No. And by taking action, we meant intelligence - not police - treatment of terrorism. But they didn't do it. Some countries even refused to allow the El Al security guards to be armed. European intelligence had no idea what was going on in the Arab states. They did not know and did not understand. They had no sources and they did not speak the language. The European services also lost their deterrent capability. Even when they uncovered and arrested terrorists, they immediately released them the moment one of their planes was hijacked or they received threats. I remember a conversation with the head of one security service, who told me: General Zamir, you are trying to drag us into this."
And you were better prepared than them?
"Certainly. We believed that we had to prepare for the worst and we improved our sources of information. That was a critical major effort."
A GIFT FROM THE ITALIANS
Can you give me an example of Israeli capability as compared with the Europeans' inaction?
"Yes, although this is an event that happened after Munich. We received information about an intention by terrorists to down an El Al plane lifting off from Fiumicino Airport in Rome using Strella missiles. We identified the terrorists' arrival in Italy and, with many difficulties, kept them under surveillance. They entered an apartment building that overlooked the runway. When I saw the location I immediately ordered the plane's takeoff - it was on the way to New York - to be delayed."
You were on the scene, in Rome?
"Yes. I was with a team of six or eight who managed the operation. The problem was that it was a building of 50 or 100 apartments and we did not know which apartment the terrorists were in. I decided that the Italian security service had to be informed immediately. I called the head of intelligence, a Sicilian general whom I knew and was friendly with, and I told him I was on my way to him about an urgent matter. He was surprised to see me in jeans, because in our meetings I always wore a suit and tie. I told him what we knew. He was stunned.
"I asked only one favor of him: that if Strella missiles were found in the apartment, to let me have one. Our people wanted very much to get to know the missile. The general said: But we will need the missile as evidence. I told him that if he were to need it in court, I promised to give it back. He agreed and informed the security service, who sent men to the apartment immediately. They found one Arab there and Strella missiles wrapped in packages. The others, another four or five people, were in a nearby cafe, and our people, who were following them, informed the Italians, who arrested them.
"The Italian general thanked me, even though he didn't really like us operating in Italy, and promised that if their guilt would be proved in court, they would rot in jail for many years. But what happened was that a a few months later the Palestinians hijacked a plane and the Italians gave in and released them. Our problem was that Israelis were exposed to attack, while the terrorists knew that their comrades would get them released. The European states did not want to and could not deal with the problem."
Some time after the operation, in 1974, an old Dakota transport plane of the Italian air force crashed. Fifteen years later, in 1989, a judge was appointed to investigate the circumstances of the crash and found that the Mossad blew up the plane, to avenge the Italians' release of the terrorists. Zamir says the charge is groundless. Nevertheless, the investigative magistrate issued arrest warrants for Zamir and for Asa Lappin, both of them Mossad liaison officers with the Italian intelligence services. Only three years later did an Italian court refute the charge.
As soon as the report came in that Palestinian terrorists had seized Israeli athletes in Munich as hostages, Zamir rushed to the Knesset for an emergency meeting with the prime minister. "It became clear very quickly that it would not be possible to organize a military unit that would be able to board a plane and reach the Olympic Village in daylight, before dark, in order to get acquainted with the territory," Zamir explains.
Then, after Meir spoke with German Chancellor Willy Brandt, it also became clear that the German Constitution prohibited foreigners from carrying out military operations on German soil. Thus the Germans were unable to allow an Israeli force - the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, which just five months earlier had gained world renown after freeing the passengers of a Sabena plane that had been hijacked to Lod Airport - to carry out the rescue operation.
Zamir adds that Golda Meir suggested that the defense minister and the chief of the Mossad go to Munich. Zamir was not eager to do so, but agreed.
In the end, Dayan stayed in Israel. He feared a failure that could harm his image, and persuaded Meir that information about his arrival - which would not be kept secret because of the many journalists who were in Munich to cover both the Olympics and the kidnapping - was liable to prompt the terrorists to kill the hostages. Thus a special El Al flight departed for Munich carrying Zvi Zamir and Victor Cohen, who headed the Shin Bet's interrogations branch and, along with Dayan, had held the contacts with the terrorists who hijacked the Sabena plane.
The story of the German fiasco, as Zamir and Cohen witnessed it in Munich, has been told many times and was skillfully documented in Arthur Cohn's film.
Zamir says only that one particular image has been etched in his consciousness for all time: the bound Israeli athletes being led by the armed terrorists to the helicopters that were waiting in the Olympic Village, as thousands of participants in the Olympic Games and media representatives watched mutely. "To see that on German soil was a terrible sight. I told Victor that if this horrific spectacle that we were watching would lead to the athletes' release, that would be our consolation."
Zamir: "Munich was a shock for us. A turning point. What we had foreseen and expected, happened. Now it was clear to everyone, including the opponents and to Golda Meir as well, that the Europeans would not do what was called for. The cabinet held a discussion about how to proceed. In the discussion I said that we in the Mossad would do our best to integrate into the policy of defending Israeli facilities and Israeli citizens abroad."
But the liquidation operations were about offense, not defense.
"There is no defense without an offensive foundation. We knew the modus operandi of the terrorist organizations, and because they did not send battalions of terrorists to Europe, but individuals, we decided to deal with their liaison people, their officers, their representatives, their means of transportation in Europe. But we viewed this as part of the defensive alignment and deterrence that would put an end to open Palestinian terrorism in Europe. And I think that in the war which developed in the wake of Munich, we succeeded in putting an end to the type of terror that was perpetrated."
Because of your actions?
"Not only. Of course, it was not just 10 or 12 Mossad people, or whatever number we were - and we were few - who brought about order in Europe. Gradually it became clear to the local services that it is their duty to fight terrorism and put an end to it. It was joint work."
Was there no element of vengeance in the decision to take action against the terrorists?
"No. We were not engaged in vengeance. We are accused of having been guided by a desire for vengeance. That is nonsense. What we did was to concretely prevent terrorism in the future. We acted against those who thought that they would continue to perpetrate acts of terror. I am not saying that those who were involved in Munich were not marked for death. They definitely deserved to die. But we were not dealing with the past; we concentrated on the future."
Did you not receive a directive from Golda Meir along the lines of " take revenge on those responsible for Munich"?
"Golda abhorred the necessity that was imposed on us to carry out the operations. Golda never told me to 'take revenge on those who were responsible for Munich.' No one told me that."
How was it decided who was slated to be assassinated?
"Without going into operational considerations, I will say that there was a thorough examination within the system."
And what about Committee X, the famous ministerial body that was informed about each proposed liquidation and acted as a kind of special court for executions?
"Who said there was a Committee X?"
Was there no such body?
"I will not comment on that. I will say only that the whole issue of whom to strike at was given meticulous consideration and the probable consequences were evaluated. What guided us was [the need] to strike at the infrastructures of terrorism and at those who might attack Israelis in the future."
Apart from Lillehammer - the Norwegian town in which a Moroccan waiter was mistakenly killed - were there other hitches which the public does not know about?
"Yes. There were hitches. We were always careful not to hurt innocent people, only the target we chose, the accused and not others. However, there was one case in which the rule was not kept and someone whom we did not want to hurt was hurt. He was simply not supposed to have been there."
What was the role in the operation of Mike Harari, the head of the operations division, the Caesarea Division?
"I will not comment on specific names."
What caused the failure at Lillehammer?
"It was a coincidence of erroneous information, which went with an amazing facial resemblance between the wanted person and the person who was attacked mistakenly."
There were reports in the past that the Mossad had an informer who deliberately misled you and brought you to Ahmed Bouchiki instead of Hassan Salameh.
"I will not talk about operational details. But there was no deliberate deception."
Did you examine the matter well?
"After every operation there were debriefings to draw lessons."
Was Salameh a central target not only in Lillehammer?
"He was an important target, because he wielded influence in the PLO's operational alignment. But there were other important operations, which did not earn the attention they deserved. There was the firing of rockets at Wadia Hadad's house in Beirut, for example. Those people started to be concerned about their safety and some of them went underground and were less preoccupied about planning attacks against us."
Was Yasser Arafat also a target for assassination in that period?
"The question of how far to go always comes up. We dealt with an operational infrastructure and not with the political level. Those who engaged in political discussions did not kill Israelis."
Why did you, along with those responsible for the failure at Lillehammer, not resign?
"Why was resignation called for?"
Because there was a major failure. An innocent man was killed and Mossad agents were caught and sentence to prison.
"Regarding the failure we apologized and paid the family compensation. It was clear to me then that I was doing a mission. If you send someone on a dangerous and complicated mission, you have to take into account that mistakes can be made. If my superiors had thought that I should be fired, they would have fired me."
- WARS ARE NOT PRETTY
Spielberg's film talks about contrition and pangs of conscience experienced by some of those who took part in the operations. Were there such feelings?
"Wars are not pretty. It was not simple for those who did it. People shared fears. But I spoke to them before the mission, during the mission and
afterward, too, and I knew them all. Thanks to their high quality, they did what they did out of understanding and awareness and trust in their co mmanders. I admire them and they deserve to be part of the Israeli record and not through crappy films. They should be thanked and told that they achieved the mission that was set for them."
There are those who say that the Mossad's struggle against terrorism diverted attention from the most important goal of intelligence - collecting information about the military capability of the Arab states and issuing a warning about a war - and that this led to the blunder in the Yom Kippur War.
IMPOSSIBLE TO DO EVERYTHING
"No. The Mossad was capable of dealing with a number of missions and coping on several levels: immigration of Jews from various countries, preparations for war and also the struggle against terrorism. It's true that it is impossible to do everything, and therefore during my time, the effort my predecessors made to hunt down Nazi war criminals was greatly diminished. But anyone who reads the report of the Agranat Commission, which investigated the intelligence situation before the war, knows that the Mossad deserved praise.
In my view, the greatest achievement of the Mossad in my term of office was the information about the preparations made by Egypt and Syria to go to war and the warning we provided about the war. That, of course, is the achievement of everyone in the Mossad, not mine."
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