“Spies Against Armageddon is a history of Israel as passed through the prism of its intelligence and security services, stretching from before the 1948 War of Independence through operations against Iran in 2011. It re-plows ground the two authors tilled in 1990’s Every Spy a Prince, bringing that story up to date by making use of new material available from archives and recent interviews.
Unlike some other books covering this subject, Spies isn’t all about Mossad. The various other Israeli intelligence agencies get their time in the sun, too, even some of the more obscure. A few of the more familiar tales (the post-Munich hunt for Black September, for instance) don’t get a lot of airtime, which is fine since they’ve been done elsewhere. In their place we get profiles of some of the agents the agencies recruited. “Agents” are the people who do the actual stealing of secrets and usually aren’t trained intelligence operatives, but instead normal people who volunteer for or are suborned into their roles. They face the greatest dangers and often have the unhappiest stories, but often don’t get much attention in true-life spy accounts. The authors’ inclusion of these often-unsung figures helps round things out by showing that not all Israeli espionage victories are down to the professional spooks.
Raviv and Melman are clearly sympathetic toward Israel. Luckily, they don’t let that get in the way of recounting some of the security failures, bungles, bureaucratic wrangles, political maneuvering and shady tactics that are part-and-parcel of intelligence and security operations. For instance, the botched handling of the pre-Yom Kippur War indications-and-warning intel gets its own chapter; while apparently some of the details of this subject released earlier this year came out after the book was written, the parts we get paint a picture that’s unflattering enough.
Spies is nonfiction, and while not a textbook, it’s not exactly light reading. It’s no surprise the prose is spare and journalistic, given that both authors are veteran journalists. The narrative tends toward the episodic and you get a lot of names and places and dates thrown at you in a short time. It’ll be a rough go if you’re not used to foreign names. Once you forge past this, however, you get a good, chewy recounting of the continuous shadow war Israel has fought since before there was an Israel. Spies Against Armageddon is a solid introduction to the Israeli intelligence/security complex that will give you the grounding you’ll need to move on to weightier specialist works.