ISRAEL and Syria came to the brink of war last year because a senior Mossad official produced deliberately false intelligence reports based on a fictitious high-level Syrian source.
The reports, which may have undermined an opportunity for a peace agreement, claimed that Damascus was planning a lightning strike against Israeli forces occupying the Golan Heights.
For up to six years the operative, with an impressive record in some of Israel's best-known operations, duped his superiors into believing that Syria was not interested in peace.
He built his deception around a supposed reliable Syrian source, with whom he had lost touch but kept "alive" in fictitious reports to Mossad, complete with payments for information.
The suspicion is that he acted out of Right-wing beliefs to prevent a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. It was unclear how he was finally discovered, and he apparently returned the fake payments.
His campaign of disinformation amounts to one of the worst scandals of Israel's battered secret services. The almost disastrous climax came in the late summer of 1996, when Syria moved some of its divisions closer to the Golan Heights. Mossad, apparently influenced by the reports, reported this as a preparation for war. But America viewed the assessment as an exaggeration, if not a deliberate attempt by the newly-elected government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to kill the suspended peace talks with Syria.
Damascus announced that its deployment was purely defensive and Israel's Defence Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, backed by a military intelligence assessment that the disposition was not aggressive, held his nerve. He declined to order a general mobilisation and issued soothing signals to Syria. The crisis eventually passed, but not before spreading war fever through Israel.
A high-level committee has been appointed to investigate the scandal. It will seek to track down when the fake information began and determine whether it has influenced Israel's decision-making. It is possible that during the protracted peace talks with Syria, the chance for an historic peace agreement was lost.
Yitzhak Rabin, the late prime minister, froze the notion of peace with Syria in 1993, and concentrated on a deal with Palestinians. His successor, Shimon Peres, severed direct talks with Syria in 1996, although Syrian officials later said the countries were close to signing a peace treaty, based on Israel's full withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights.
Many details of the Mossad scandal remain censored but Maariv, the Hebrew daily, dropped a hint by running a box about John Le Carré's novel, The Tailor of Panama, in which the protagonist feeds British intelligence with invented reports about a Japanese plot to take over the Panama Canal. Embarrassed Israeli leaders have been at pains to play down the damage. David Levy, the Foreign Minister, denied that Israel was close to war with Syria. "Intelligence reports are only one working tool and are always cross-checked," he said.
Mr Peres said the disinformation had not influenced his decision to suspend talks with Damascus. "I didn't believe that President Assad was ready to lead his country into war for a fourth time," he declared. But it is difficult to avoid a sense that a deep rot has set into Israel's secret services. This extraordinary scandal has broken at a time when a commission of inquiry is preparing to publish its findings into the Mossad's botched attempt to assassinate a leader of Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist movement, in Jordan last September.
The domestic Shin Bet secret service is also living under a cloud after it failed to prevent the assassination of Mr Rabin.
"Strategic, diplomatic and political decisions were taken based on these false assessments of the situation," said Zeev Schiff, Israel's foremost defence analyst. "This affair represents an earthquake for Israel's intelligence services, whose reputations are at stake. This is a gangrene that will be difficult to heal."
The London Telegraph, Dec. 5, 1997
Israel finally disclosed the identity of the Mossad agent who had fed his superiors false information on Syria as Yehuda Gil, a retired agent whose services were sought by the Mossad over the past few years through a special contract. His superiors claimed his performance was outstanding and noted they had to call him back to service after his alleged Syrian agent had refused to cooperate with any other Mossad figure.
It was after the two television channels in Israel disclosed the identity of the agent that a magistrate court judge in Tel Aviv agreed to release some of the information pertaining to the case but ordered that Gil's picture not be published, for state security.
The damage caused by the false information, analysts in Israel said, was kept to a minimum since the information he passed was cross checked by many other branches of the Israeli intelligence and was found to contradict other assessments.
But so far, at least one person seemed to have won in this affair. That is the present head of the Mossad, Dani Yatom, whose name and career were damaged in the ill-fated Mossad attempt on the life of Hamas political figure Khaled Mishal in Amman.
Many Mossad officials did not hesitate to utilize the affair to enhance the credibility of Yatom, whose days in the Mossad had apparently were being counted in light of the Mishal affair. But now, with the full backing the prime minister given to Yatom and the press reports that spoke of Yatom's earnest decision to start the investigation into the false information affairs, Yatom seems to have fortified his position and is likely to escape any further repercussions from the Amman fiasco.
Yehuda Gil, 63, started his career in the Mossad as a minor agent responsible for handling other agents, known as sources, who gave information to the Mossad. Gil's father was an officer in the Italian army who continued to serve under the Fascist regime. In the 30s, after the forging of ties with Nazi Germany, the Italian army chief of staff tried to defend Jewish officers and thus sent them to far-off parts of the empire. That is how Gil's father found himself in Libya, which was then under Italian control. Yehuda was born in Libya and had shown talent for acquiring languages learning Arabic and Italian and later learning other languages as though they were his mother tongue.
Upon arriving in Israel, young and active, Yehuda's versatility with languages made him an easy recruit by the army intelligence. The same talents which impressed his superiors in the army led to his recruitment by the Mossad.
Despite his professional accomplishments and the great esteem in which he was held, Yehuda became bitter toward his employers. He believed the Mossad leadership did not sufficiently appreciate his talents. His ambition to be included in the Mossad command was not fulfilled. He retired from the Mossad and began to work for the ultra right wing Moledet party, which advocates the transfer of all Arabs out of mandatory Palestine.
Upon uncovering the false information affair, One Mossad veteran commented saying that if the Mishal Affair was an earthquake for the organization, this affair is a disaster. "This is the worst affair in the Mossad's history," he said.
Yehuda Gil is married a second time and is the father of three, one of whom is serving as an officer in an elite army unit. In the Mossad he is often characterized as an official who made a good impression on his surrounding colleagues, but also as a bit of a lone wolf, who was not good at supervising others. This is the main reason why, according to sources in the Mossad, he advanced very slowly on the professional promotion scale. Despite his strenuous efforts, his advance was too slow for his liking. Many years of service went by before Yehuda Gil received a senior position in the Mossad. Then many more years went by before he received a promotion above this senior spot.
In recent years, Gil continued to relay interesting information, seemingly from his source, but, as it turned out, he concocted this data in his own brain. This material was interesting despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that it involved a clear-cut contradiction of what was known from other sources. Sometimes his information was questioned for its contents but for years nobody within the Mossad or outside of it suspected that Gil was fabricating the information, inventing false information which mostly attested to Syria's alleged aggressive intentions.
Only in the last three years did eyebrows start to rise in the intelligence community about something not being right. Other bodies, especially the military intelligence corps, demanded that the Mossad clarify what was going on. But the Mossad did not make haste to act. Suspicions started to circulate. In August 1996, when Syria's 14th division started to move on the slopes of the Mount Hermon, Gil came with information from his source, even though it was later found to be entirely concocted.
The information Gil conveyed to his superiors could have entangled Israel in an unnecessary war with Syria; fortunately, however, the data was not taken in complete seriousness because it contradicted information obtained from good sources and attested to the opposite scenario.
Investigators looking into the Gil affair have not sorted out conclusively the motives which compelled him to act as he did. Did his extreme right-wing views cause him to fabricate information which might have, had it been treated with utmost seriousness, led to a war? Did Gil intend to rattle the security system and cause it to understand the dangers it faces from the north? Was there a financial motivation? Did Gil keep in his own pocket the considerable funds he was allocated in order to pay off his sources? Or maybe the deviation was caused by some personality disorder? No answers have been reached as yet but one thing is clear: the Mossad has run through another crisis and its image, many believe, is beyond any repair, at least for the near future.
Gil, who was responsible for disseminating false information, served as one of the permanent instructors in a professional course at the Mossad's college. He spoke in a number of courses for officers in both the Mossad and the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security agency. One of his courses, ironically enough, was under the title: "The Lie As Art." The course dealt with ways of lying in order to attain goals.
Gil was an experienced lecturer and routinely used stories and examples to illustrate successes and failures. The course was a very successful one and was considered to be one of the most attractive ones on the training course for agents. Generations of Mossad and Shin Bet agents took the course.
It was no accident that Gil was chosen to give the course. The Mossad considered him to be a master at attaining information by using false identities and ruses. "The man of a thousand faces," one of his former colleagues called him. "A man who could show up in an apartment for the first time in his life and convince the owner of the place that all the property there really belonged to him."
Arabic News Daily, Dec. 8, 1997
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