Long before George W. Bush declared his war on terrorism, Israel had begun its own. The advance guard in this never-ending battle against foes of the Jewish state lurk near the frontline, but many more are at work far behind enemy lines.
They are the agents of Mossad, Israel’s foremost intelligence agency.
Since its inception in 1951, the agency has earned a formidable reputation as a key self-defence pillar of a state which has been almost permanently under siege.
When you think of Mossad, you think of daring missions and rescues. But you also think of assassinations of Israel’s enemies.
One of its legend-building operations came during one of Israel’s darkest hours – the massacre of Israeli athletes by the Palestinian terror group Black September at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Mossad assassination teams were set up on the orders of Israel’s premier of the time, Golda Meir, and tasked to find and kill the people Israel believed were involved in organising the massacre. Within two years of the Munich attack eight of 11 people on the original hit list were assassinated.
But why would Mossad have any interest in New Zealand? This week, the Weekend Herald traced a former Mossad agent living in New Zealand who played a part in the counter-terrorist campaign.
He has lived half his life here, is a New Zealand citizen and holds a respected position in society.
He said he has not had any official role with the Israeli Government since moving to New Zealand.
But his contacts include Israeli Government officials.
The Weekend Herald met him twice last week. He spoke on condition he would not be identified.
He said his reason for coming to New Zealand was to change his life.
“I was fed up with all this bloodshed. I’d spent my life in that environment and I wanted something different.”
He emigrated with the assistance of the New Zealand Government, which paid resettlement expenses because there was a skills shortage in the career in which he has since worked.
The Government, he believes, would be unaware of his background.
Mossad operations are well planned, he said, but luck is always a factor. “Sometimes luck kills you and sometimes it saves you.”
And he noted that despite Mossad’s history of daring “they **** up sometimes”.
The former agent is convinced that Mossad’s interest in New Zealand is likely to be limited to passports.
He has no doubts that if Mossad were interested in New Zealand passports they would prefer the real thing to a fake.
“They can fake them but here it is the real thing. You get a genuine New Zealand passport.”
In the past, passports would be sought in the name of people who had died but with computerised records officials can easily check for death certificates. The next logical step was to find someone who was alive but never likely to travel.
Dr Jim Rolfe, a former New Zealand Army officer and defence analyst who lectures at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu, says he thought the era of intelligence agencies obtaining false documents in this way ended with the Cold War, during which Russia had a reputation for snaffling foreign passports.
Clearly, he says, it has not.
The value of a passport to an intelligence agent is the new identity it allows him to assume.
“With a New Zealand passport they can work in international organisations or NGOs in the Middle East as an unsuspected person.
“It’s not necessarily that being a New Zealander makes you more trusted, it’s just that you’re not an Israeli.”
Passports could also enable an agent to obtain other useful documents or identities.
“With a New Zealand passport, depending on the true owner’s background, that might get you British permanent residency and you might then get an EU passport.”
Dr Michael McKinley, an international relations and diplomacy expert at the Australian National University in Canberra, said the value of the New Zealand passport was its “inoffensiveness” – something of which the Wellington-born academic has had personal experience.
About three years ago, he was travelling to Portugal but was told he could not get on the plane with his Australian passport. But when he pulled out his New Zealand passport the problem vanished and he was allowed to board.
McKinley believed it would be prudent to assume that Mossad would have an interest in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Where there is a significant Muslim population which possesses within it a minority of people who are sympathetic to the aims of al Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah, or whoever, you will, I think, find Mossad takes an interest.”
In Australia, with a large population of Muslims, a few of whom have been known to have fundamentalist sympathies, it would be natural for Mossad to watch closely.
He was not so sure about New Zealand, but said “New Zealand can be thought of as a place where you can hide away – a bit more, I suppose, than Sydney and Melbourne”.
This was also known to terrorists, so Mossad could come to New Zealand to check individuals lying low.
Rolfe, too, believed Australia would be more interesting to Mossad than New Zealand. But obtaining a New Zealand passport would make the job of accessing Australia easier.
Rolfe says if a Mossad group was working in Australia, “some of them, no doubt, will be being serviced out of the Israeli Embassy. Some of them will be there as citizens of other countries. Some of them will be there as Australian citizens and some of them [may have been] intending to be there as New Zealand citizens”.
The mix of citizenship would make it less easy for outsiders to figure out connections.
“A lot of what this kind of activity is, is throwing dust up in the air. You are trying to conceal all sorts of things, sometimes just for the sake of concealing them to confuse people who try and backtrack.”
“Why do it simply when you can add a bit of external complexity so that if someone was trying to put things together they would see two separate operations rather than one?”
McKinley believed there would “almost certainly” be a declared Mossad staff member inside the Canberra embassy. As to who else was helping, it may never be known.
“Mossad, to the extent that public statements have ever been made by people who work for them, seems to rely a great deal on the indigenous Jewish population. That has been an open boast for some years.”
The news website Scoop this week quoted sources as confirming that the strength of the organisation was how it relied on help from outsiders.
“Mossad is able to function on a low number of core [agents] due to a loyal Jewish community outside Israel. The loyalists are networked via a system of sayanim, or volunteer Jewish helpers,” says Scoop.
“There are reportedly thousands of sayanim around the world. Their role will be specific to their professions: A loyalist in the travel industry could help Mossad obtain documents.”
In this way, Mossad’s work can be carried out in a low-key way, with the added bonus that its own agents are not put at risk.
As the former agent can attest, there is enough in their line of work that is risky enough.
He admits knowing personally members of the assassination squads set up to hunt the planners of the Munich massacre, and describes them as “the most remarkable people I have met in my life”.
The operation was described by George Jonas in his book, Vengeance, an account which the former agent said is accurate. Jonas described the activities of one of the Mossad hit teams whose work led to the killing of eight on the Munich list.
In the process, two of its five members were killed, one after being lured with the prospect of sex by a freelance female assassin.
A second team shot dead an innocent waiter in Lillehammer, Norway, in July 1973, having mistaken him for Ali Hassan Salameh, regarded by Israel as the primary architect of the Munich massacre and Mossad’s number one target.
Six of the Israeli hit team members were arrested, five were convicted for killing the waiter and sentenced to serve from two to five and a half years in prison.
All were released by the Norwegians within 22 months.
The killing of the waiter in Lillehammer is cited by the former agent as an example that agencies as sophisticated as Mossad do make mistakes.
He told the Weekend Herald he was pessimistic “for the first time in my life about the future for the Middle East.
The Road Map – much vaunted by the Bush Administration – did not discuss key issues such as the future of Jerusalem and defining boundaries and had been overwhelmed by tit-for-tat bombings and assassinations.
He said terrorist attacks had to be responded to with force but he acknowledged a cycle of violence usually resulted.
“They can’t sit around a table anymore. They haven’t even been able to finalise a framework to get to a starting point.”
He cautioned against New Zealanders thinking the country’s remoteness meant it wasn’t touched by world events. September 11 had made New Zealand passports more valuable. New Zealand was a small, neutral country seen by the Arab world as sympathetic.
By contrast, the Israeli Government regarded the New Zealand Government as “anti-Israel”, he said. That view would have been enhanced by Foreign Minister Phil Goff’s meeting with Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat last year.
McKinley believes the Australian and New Zealand Governments would be “pissed off” if Mossad had strayed into their patch, although Rolfe did not think the New Zealand intelligence agencies would be morally outraged.
More likely, says Rolfe, they would be thinking of what they could learn from the situation.
“What can we learn in terms of our passport procedures? What can we learn about tradecraft generally? Did the Israelis do anything different from the Russians in the 1950s when New Zealand passports were acquired?”