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The inside story of Israel’s campaign of assassination

The state of Israel has a history of great violence, visited on it by its enemies and in return by Israel's own intelligence services and military. In "Rise and Kill First," journalist and author Ronen Bergman writes about the nearly century-long campaign of targeted killing. He joins Nick Schifrin to discuss the secret history of these strikes.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first- This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel.

    Bound up in its tumultuous existence, even before its founding, is a history of great violence visited on Israel by its enemies, and, in return, by Israel's own intelligence services and military.

    Now Nick Schifrin speaks with the author of a new book that charts Israel's campaign of assassination through the decades.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The sacred Jewish text the Talmud includes the verse, "If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first."

    That is also the opening quotation in Ronen Bergman's new book, "Rise and Kill First," a detailed history of Israel's campaign of targeted killing.

    Ronen is the national security correspondent for Israel's leading newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and a contributing writer to The New York Times.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Thank you for inviting me.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You write what is effectively about a century-long campaign by people before the state of Israel and then Israeli intelligence and the Israeli military about assassination.

    And, to be frank, I read this, and I'm a little uncomfortable with some of the details, reading it. And I imagine some other people are.

    You point out that, in Israel, for many people, what might be a source of shame elsewhere is a source of pride in Israel. Why is it a source of pride in Israel, some of these details that you write about?

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Not because people are murderers or not because people encourage murder.

    And, as in other countries in the West or worldwide, murder is the most serious offense in the criminal code.

    Because these people are considered people who participated, the people who initiated, the people who took extreme measures, as part of the intelligence community, are all considered people who defended Israel. When the mind-set is that if, every generation, your prime nemesis, your prime adversary is equated to Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Arafat or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then you do whatever you — whatever you need to do to stop him without attributing too much to international law or norms or whatever.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Has there ever been a sense from the people you have spoken to that Israel has assassinated so much, that it might lose sight of the values on which it was based?

  • Ronen Bergman:

    The chief, the former — the last veteran chief of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo, who finished his job in 2016, gave a blurb to the book in which he says, we had that dilemma every day.

    What sort of means does democracy allow itself to take when defending itself, while knowing that these means violate other values, like human lives, like human privacy, rights of privacy and others?

    I think that, in certain times, the leaders of Israel got themselves a little bit confused between tactics and strategy. Kill someone or bomb something, and they thought that would help them change history.

    So, the story is of a great or many, many, many great tactical successes of the intelligence community, but yet a strategic failure from its leaders thinking that they can use violence or they can use the intelligence to stop history, rather to turn to compromise, political discourse and statesmanship.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Almost seduced by some of the success that this campaign has had.

    And let's talk about just very quickly a few examples.

    The '72 Munich Olympics, Israel of course watched its athletes get killed, and felt that Germany wasn't willing to at least even try and save those Israeli soldiers. How did that moment convince some people who were actually quite skeptical of assassination actually that, no, that's what Israel needed to do?

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Until Munich, until the attack on the athletes, Golda Meir, the Israeli prime minister, didn't allow Mossad to kill Palestinian terrorists or Palestinian operatives in Europe.

    She said — when Mossad operatives came to her and said, we know who's doing that, and the European governments or intelligence services are doing nothing, she said, you're right, but these are friendly countries. This is not our country. There's a sovereign government, and they will never allow us to activate there and kill people on the ground, because they want to be neutral.

    After Munich, she told Mossad, go get them, kill them all in Europe. Now, that had an effect. Mossad were killing people, not the people in charge of Munich. These people remained alive. The Mossad were killing all PLO operatives and officials wherever they could.

    And that had an effect that, after a year or so, the chief of the PLO, Yasser Arafat, and his deputy, Abu Jihad Khalil Wazir, decided it wasn't worth it. And they stopped working in Europe and reconcentrate on the Middle East, trying to strike targets inside Israel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And perhaps the most recent example, Iran. How many scientists does your reporting suggest Israel killed. And did it work?

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Now, they have killed few Iranian scientists in Iran. And that had three different effects.

    First, it took out people from inside the project that were experienced. Second, it instilled fear with the others. And, third, it made the Iranians to go to such an extent to prevent the next assassination or the next implementation of a virus, that that by itself delayed the project in years, without the Mossad even doing anything.

    And to quote General Hayden, the former chief of the NSA and the CIA, when I asked him, General Hayden, what was the one thing that delayed the Iranian nuclear project more than anything, more than any of the other tools that were used, he said the one thing that caused them the most significant damage was that someone, I don't know who that was — it wasn't us — it's illegal according to American law.

    But it was that someone was starting to kill their scientists, because what they were building in Natanz, the nuclear site, wasn't an atomic bomb. They were building knowledge. And knowledge, there's only one thing that you can do to destroy it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kill the scientists.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Kill the scientists.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    As the end of that story goes.

    And at the end of the book, you write that Israeli military and intelligence believed that force could solve everything, but that was a delusion.

    Why was that a delusion?

  • Ronen Bergman:

    It doesn't matter how successful these measures were, the successful gathering of intelligence, targeted killing, the ability to understand who is recruiting the suicide bomber and killing him, and stop the next-day suicide bomber.

    But yet it will get to a point, and it cannot replace statesmanship, political discourse, and, at end of the day, reconciliation with the Palestinians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ronen Bergman, thank you very much for coming in.

  • Ronen Bergman:

    Thank you so much.

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