JERUSALEM — The Israeli foreign intelligence service, the Mossad, has long enjoyed an almost superhuman reputation for pulling off stealthy operations around the globe, as well as for an ability to get information other spy agencies can only dream about.
Despite occasional screwups, the Mossad sometimes seems unbeatable.
This all-knowing espionage machine, the backroom star of many a spy novel and just as many real-life spy stories, however, has finally met its match: the workers’ union at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
Officials at the Foreign Ministry are cutting all financing to Mossad operatives based in Israeli embassies around the world. They’re protesting what they see as Mossad’s participation in breaking a strike by Foreign Ministry workers.
Hanan Goder, chairman of the State Workers’ Committee, said diplomats were withdrawing all aid to Mossad representatives, except in “life or death” situations.
The standoff began with the visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Greece, which started Monday. It’s the first time the head of an Israeli government has been to Greece, which is seen as traditionally anti-Israel. It’s also a trip in which the secret savvy of the Mossad might be useful. After all, Greek leftists — who recently brought their country to a standstill with their own ebullient form of striking — are threatening big demonstrations against Netanyahu. A number of Athens streets are shut down, particularly around the Jewish Museum, for fear of terror attacks.
Problem is, the Foreign Ministry workers had intended to use Netanyahu’s trip as a bargaining chip in their ongoing strike for increased pay. Then the Mossad stepped in to facilitate the trip — including tasks that usually fall to Foreign Ministry staff. That’s strikebreaking, and, even though Israel is barely clinging to the socialism that molded its first four or five decades, its public sector unions remain powerful and unyielding.
“It’s unacceptable that the prime minister would use another body, which is only in charge of security matters, to break a strike,” Goder said.
The union has some clout. One of its workers at each embassy pays out expenses to the local Mossad station chief and they’ve decided to stop doing that.
Mossad will now be barred from using diplomatic bags to transport (presumably) secret documents. The embassies will stop paying school fees for the children of Mossad agents. They may also stop paying the agents’ wages. Diplomats won’t help Mossad agents with visa issues or provide diplomatic passports.
The workers’ union sent a directive to all its diplomats on Sunday ordering them to cut off the Mossad. “Their involvement in breaking the strike moved us to respond,” the directive said.
It’s hard enough being the Mossad as it is.
The Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, to use its full name (“Mossad” is Hebrew for “Institute”), was no doubt breathing a sigh of relief when a German court released one of its alleged operatives last Friday. Uri Brodski, who was released on bail in Cologne, had been extradited from Poland, accused of taking part in a Mossad assassination of a Hamas fund-raiser in Dubai in January. In the end, the Germans charged him only with obtaining a German passport under false pretenses.
The Dubai hit was criticized internationally because the Mossad agents allegedly used the doctored passports of several European nations, leading to complaints by the governments of Germany, Ireland and Britain about the misuse of their official documents. Even in Israel, that was seen as a costly gaffe. Espionage experts, however, say that operating with a fake passport in an “enemy” country would be too dangerous.
Mossad agents in the Arab world have to use real passports — albeit doctored ones — so that if they run into trouble they can count on the embassy of the country that issued the passport to vouch for them, thus making it less likely that they’ll be identified as Israeli spies.
In case you’re wondering, being identified as an Israeli spy in an Arab country would be very, very bad news.
Reaction to the Foreign Ministry standoff in Israel has been muted so far.
“It’s crazy that nobody’s talking about this,” said Aaron Lerner, director of the Independent Media Review and Analysis think tank in Ra’anana, Israel. “It’s surely compromising Mossad operations already.”
Lerner said the workers’ union and the Finance Ministry officials who oppose a pay raise for the diplomats would want to show that they’re strong. “They don’t care about Mossad operations,” he said, and would be unlikely to back down quickly. But if the conflict continues, it’s sure to prove embarrassing enough that even militant union leaders and ice-cold, calculating spooks might blanch.