Israel’s divide and rule strategy in Syria is nothing new

I have recently been reading By Way of Deception, the 1990 book written by former Mossad spy Victor Ostrovsky. It provides some interesting insights into Israel’s violent and vindictive methods in the Arab region, not least its pernicious divide and rule strategy.

The book was controversial even before its publication. Israel filed lawsuits in New York and Canada which successfully halted publication of the book in both countries. In Canada (where Ostrovsky was born) journalists were prohibited from even covering the story and the book or any of its details. However, this attempt at censorship – a first for a foreign government in the US – was short lived. Only one day after the initial restraining order on the publisher, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the ban. Subsequent to this, Israel dropped its Canadian lawsuit.

The ban had the effect of basically ensuring the book’s best seller status. Ostrovsky’s account of his training and brief spell as a trainee case officer in what some have termed the “Israeli CIA” flew off the shelves.

By Way of Deception received mixed reviews, with many pro-Israel “experts” expressing scepticism over the detailed recounting of some events, as well as questioning how a relatively low-level trainee could have access to such detailed computer files on overseas spy operations in such a powerful and (literally) deadly organisation as the Mossad. And, indeed, there is cause for scepticism. Some of the book does seem almost fantastical, with one slightly graphic account of a poolside orgy involving high-ranking Mossad officers and the young female soldiers they were hooking up with at the Mossad headquarters behind their wives’ backs. In the book’s foreword, Canadian journalist and co-author Claire Hoy claims that Ostrovsky “possesses a photographic memory for charts, plans, and other visual data” although on page 108 Ostrovsky himself writes that his “memory for names is imperfect”.

More pertinently, in my opinion, are questions over Ostrovsky’s motives for writing the book. Was he a genuine and disillusioned whistle-blower as we have seen with Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden? In the text of the book he often tries to portray the Mossad as a noble organisation at its core, which has strayed from its essentially noble objectives. In the foreword, he says that he is writing out of “love for Israel.”

Ostrovsky claims this despite recounting some horrific crimes in his book, including what he says was a Mossad operation in France which blew up a nuclear power plant and pinned the blame on a phony ecological group, as well as the murder of an Egyptian nuclear scientist and a sex worker associated with him who had gone to the police.

There are also some grand claims in the book about the Mossad’s power, which strike me as somewhat exaggerated. These include the suggestion that the agency once held copies of the master keys to every single significant hotel in Europe.

Disentangling the facts from the propaganda here can be tricky, and there is much which is impossible to verify or check. Nonetheless, there is a lot in By Way of Deception which is of interest, and it cannot be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, a lawyer acting for Israel in the short-lived attempt to have the book banned argued that the very reason it should be supressed was that it contained real information which could have been a “threat” to the lives of active Mossad officers.

“One attorney representing Israel inadvertently gave additional support when he said Ostrovsky ‘prefers his credibility to the lives of others’,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “Some have argued that Ostrovsky was both too junior and too new to learn all that he is reporting, but the author claims that he was able to access Mossad computer files containing information on past operations. The attorney representing Israel in a way confirmed this when he admitted that even as a low-level employee, Ostrovsky could have had ‘access’ to important secrets.”

The explanation given in the book is that Mossad is a small organisation with only 30-35 case officers, though it also draws on a wider pool of informants, agents and “helpers” around the world. It would, therefore, have been fairly easy for him to access the relevant files. While the book is outdated in many respects, it provides some useful insights into the way the Mossad still operates.

After graduating from cadet status, Ostrovsky became a junior case officer, or trainee. The idea was to work in different parts of the agency in order to gain experience. He was placed in the research department on the Saudi desk during the years of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988). On page 124 he reveals that the Israeli policy at that time was to deliberately fuel and extend the war, and that Mossad was involved directly in this: “If they were busy fighting each other, they couldn’t fight us.”

He also says that he was involved in calculating the chances of oil tankers sailing safely through the Gulf, despite the war raging between Iran and Iraq. If a tanker was deemed likely to make it through (“over 48 per cent” chance) the Mossad would then begin informing the relevant side in the war so that the tanker could be targeted by its enemy. “We had a man in London who was calling the Iraqi and Iranian embassies, posing as a patriot in both bases,” he writes. “That way we could keep the war hot.”

Israeli policies behind divide and rule carry on to this day. This is why it has been fuelling regional wars, including by providing logistical aid groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Syrian-controlled sectors of the Golan Heights (the rest of which Israel has occupied and colonised illegally since 1967). As Israeli journalists and former diplomats have put it, this has been a cynical “let them bleed” strategy; while enemies are fighting each other, they can’t fight Israel, and will, literally, hopes Tel Aviv, bleed themselves dry. The targets may change, but Israel’s divide and rule strategy is certainly nothing new.

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