The following is an excerpt from Operation Red Falcon, by Ronen Bergman, published this week in The Atavist Magazine.
Early on the morning of September 1, 1996, the Israeli military began moving troops to the Syrian border in preparation for a war they were convinced was imminent. The military’s actions were based on top-secret intelligence—that Syria was about to launch a surprise attack—passed on by an informant, a general at the center of Syria’s Supreme Military Council, code-named Red Falcon. Red Falcon’s information had caused panic at the highest reaches of the Israeli Defense Forces, and senior military officials and Mossad officers were urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an order to the IDF to launch its own offensive before the Syrians could launch theirs.
The attack never materialized, and the people of Syria and Israel never knew how close their countries had come to a devastating war. More than a year after that tense alert, in November 1997, I met in secret with a senior member of the Israeli intelligence community, who told me a story I found nearly impossible to believe at the time. It would soon become one of the most infamous spy stories in modern history. A legendary Mossad operative, he said, had been arrested on suspicion of fabricating the intelligence that had brought Israel to the brink of war.
The operative, Yehuda Gil, had been widely celebrated within the Israeli intelligence community for years. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics, in 1972, Gil had been among the operatives who’d hunted down and executed members of the terrorist group Black September. He had collected operational intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear facility, which was later destroyed by Israel’s Air Force. He had laid the foundation for intelligence networks in Sudan and had played a key role in a covert operation, known publicly as Operation Moses and within the Mossad by the code name Brothers, that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
And it was Gil who had recruited and handled Red Falcon, who for over two decades was Israel’s most valuable agent in the Arab world.
On March 24, 1999, Yehuda Gil was found guilty of espionage and theft in a secret trial—though he was released not long after, in December 2000, when his term was reduced for good behavior. For the next ten years, Gil refused to tell his story.
During that period, I spoke with many others in the Israeli intelligence community about why such a revered operative would so profoundly endanger his own country. Their theories varied. According to some, Gil was a sociopathic “evil genius.” Others suspected he had been undercover for too long and confused the good guys with the bad. Still others said he was driven by an inexplicable, egomaniacal desire to turn his unique gift—the ability to lie to and manipulate others—against his own side.
But no one could be sure why Gil had committed the crimes he’d committed. Or even what, exactly, those crimes were, though their consequences were severe. He had profoundly damaged the international credibility of the Mossad, whose false information—going back how long, no one was quite sure—had been shared with the major intelligence agencies of the Western world. He had put Israeli lives at terrible risk. He had even endangered his own family. One of Gil’s colleagues told me that Gil’s son was a paratrooper stationed at the Syrian front on that September day when the Israeli military prepared for war. “What kind of person is he,” the man said, “that he would risk the life of his own child?”
Operation Red Falcon, by Ronen Bergman, is Issue No. 47 of The Atavist Magazine, published April 2015. Read the full story here.
Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth, and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine.