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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Man in the Shadows, by Efraim Halevy

What should one expect when picking up a book with a subtitle that reads: "Inside the Middle East Crisis with a Man Who Led the Mossad"? Surely this is going to be a real-life rendering of a Tom Clancy novel, or at the very least, a John Le Carre one? Well, not exactly. Efraim Halevy, who was at the helm of Israel's notorious and legendary secret service organization for five years, is not your typical cloak-and-dagger type. Far from it. I happened to have met him personally on a couple of occasions many years ago, and if anything, he reminded me of Sir Humphrey in the TV show "Yes Minister": the quintessential British civil servant, with impeccable manners and the Queen's English.

"Man in the Shadows" is more of a political memoir than an account of the Mossad's activities. Halevy played a dominant role as the secret envoy of several Israeli prime ministers (Shamir, Peres, Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon) and as such was privy to many negotiations that shaped the region's politics in the 1990s. He writes of these experiences in a low-key and level-headed manner; rarely does he lapse into the emotional zone and when he does so it usually, and suprisingly, concerns Shimon Peres and/or the Israeli foreign services. Although not stated in so many words, it is clear that Halevy has little sympathy for Peres. He speaks fondly of other prime ministers he served under, but for Peres he has nothing but scorn and distrust. As for the foreign office diplomats, he makes them out to look like total amateurs.

A lot of attention is given to Jordan and to its late king, Hussein. This is understandable given Halevy's special relationship with the Hashemite kingdom and the late monarch. His involvement in bringing about the peace agreement between Jordan and Israel was substantial. His account of the Khaled Mashal incident - a botched attempt by the Mossad to kill a Hamas leader in Amman that brought about a serious crisis between the two countries - is probably the most fascinating chapter in the book. Halevy is well aware of this "Jordan bias" of his and admits to it; nevertheless, he remains of the opinion that Jordan plays a pivotal role in the Middle East, well and above what most observers will admit to.

Halevy also devotes many pages to how he views the intelligence community and its interaction with its political masters. I found these parts of the book to be more interesting than the historical accounts (especially as there are no new revelations anyway). Halevy laments the decline of the special standing of the intelligence community, especially in the US, in the aftermath of the 9/11 structural shake-ups. He believes that in the current war of the civilised world against global terrorism - a war he calls "World War 3" - the West cannot win if it does not accord its intelligence organs the proper standing and freedom of operation they deserve.

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