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Customer Review

5 August 2007
George Jonas' 1985 book about the Israeli secret service's response to the appalling massacre of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games is a brilliant read that begs almost as many questions as it answers.

What's not in doubt is that the athletes were killed by a Palestinian terror group called Black September. What's also not in doubt is that, over the next few years, a number of leading Palestinian intellectuals, activists and (at least in some cases) probable guerrilla group leaders were assassinated in various cities across Europe and elsewhere. Jonas' book is based on the recollections of an ex-Mossad agent, referred to in the book as 'Avner' but who has since broken cover as an Israeli-born, New York-based security consultant named Juval Aviv, who claimed to have been the leader of an assassination squad charged with the task of killing the planners of the Munich massacre. In the course of the mission, which lasted several years, three of the five-man squad died (two killed, one apparently blowing himself up by accident). When 'Avner' finally responded to his controllers' plans to call off the mission, he refused to undertake any more missions for Mossad and, as a direct result, all the back pay he had accumulated was confiscated by Mossad. At least that's what he says, and if it's true it does explain a little about whatever residual bitterness led him to want to tell his story.

It has to be admitted that this behaviour (demanding loyalty from subordinates but giving little back) is in keeping with the little we know about Mossad. It also has to be admitted that nobody in Israeli intelligence has yet come out to confirm that any of Avner's story is true; but that also might be expected of an organisation that would place a high value on deniability.

Jonas' book is a gripping and highly enjoyable read, and a lot of it rings true (at least to this reader, who has no personal experience of intelligence work whatsoever). For me, it's marred by his tiresome sermonising on how every single dissident group in the West is somehow in the pay of Moscow - it may have seemed more plausible in 1985, but the USSR fell a few years later, and nobody suggests that anti-globalisation protesters are in the pay of Vladimir Putin. The problem with writing about intelligence work is that everybody has to seem like more of an expert than the next guy. It's an amusing theme in the book, but Jonas falls victim to it as much as everyone else does.

The best thing about the book is that it served as the source material for Steven Spielberg's troubled and flawed but also deeply troubling and moving movie 'Munich', a film which Jonas has criticised for being too pro-Palestinian. Spielberg and his chief screenwriter Tony Kushner saw to the heart of the moral and political dilemmas of the story in a way that Jonas fails to, which is why their film - which is a fictionalised version of something that may already be a fiction - is actually a more honest examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict than Jonas' ostensibly 'true story'. Sometimes the imagination is more honest than the journalist's sense of a good story.

This is a fine airport read, but precisely because it's supposed to be true I would take it with a pinch of salt. The Spielberg movie, on the other hand, which makes no bones about the stuff that it made up, is more true to the reality of the situation.
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