Book Review // The Angel by Uri Bar-Joseph
2016, pp. 384, $28.99
by Dan Raviv
Nine years have passed since the mysterious death of Ashraf Marwan, the senior Egyptian government official who volunteered to spy for Israel’s Mossad. Marwan remains at the center of a bitter controversy over why the October 1973 attack that launched the Yom Kippur War took Israel by surprise.
The key question about Marwan is this: Did he give Israel all the information it needed to protect itself, or was he a double agent, loyal above all else to Egypt as he pulled the wool over the Israelis’ eyes?
Uri Bar-Joseph’s The Angel, which uses Marwan’s Mossad code name for its title, hails him as “one of the most important spies the world has seen.” Bar-Joseph, a professor at the University of Haifa who formerly worked for Israeli intelligence and now is an independent expert on it, makes a convincing case that Marwan not only never misled the Israelis, but was actually astoundingly valuable to them.
Ashraf Marwan was the son-in-law of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led a coup in 1952 and became Egypt’s second president and a pan-Arab hero. Yet Marwan stunned Israeli intelligence when, in 1970, he offered to provide secret documents and insights from deep within the top leadership in Cairo. It was almost too good to be true. Marwan was the chief aide to the new president, Anwar Sadat, and the Mossad ultimately decided that Marwan had seen a golden opportunity to cash in.
The spy was usually paid $10,000 each time he met with his Israeli handler, a Mossad official he had taken a liking to. He handed over copies of high-level reports and seemed happy to explain, at length, how Sadat planned to restore Egypt’s honor after its crushing defeat in the Six-Day War of 1967.
Throughout 1972 and 1973, Marwan repeatedly cautioned the Israelis that Sadat was absolutely determined to go to war. Because several of Marwan’s warnings proved to be false alarms—he explained this by saying that Sadat frequently changed his mind—some Israeli intelligence officials stopped taking his reports seriously. Instead of preparing for a possible war, the Israelis clung to their theory that the Arabs would never attack because they had no chance of winning.
A climactic moment came on October 5, 1973, at an urgently arranged meeting in London, where Marwan told the head of the Mossad that Egypt and Syria would strike Israel the next day. Israel’s military intelligence chief rejected the report, and with Marwan’s warnings unheeded, Israeli troops were not nearly as ready as they could have been when Egypt attacked—as promised—on Yom Kippur Day.
Another dramatic turning point in the book occurs with Marwan’s fatal fall from a fifth-floor apartment in London in 2007. Bar-Joseph weighs the possibility that the Mossad killed its own agent to silence him against the theory that Egypt assassinated him because he had been outed as a spy for Israel. (The fact that Marwan’s funeral in Cairo was attended by high-level Egyptian officials who sang his praises led to speculation that he had been a double agent.)
According to Bar-Joseph’s highly detailed account, full of names, dates and locations of meetings that demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge of the Marwan affair, the spy was doing his best to help Israel. He kept the Israelis fully apprised of Sadat’s evolving thought process: Egypt would attack soon. Then it only might attack. Then Sadat decided not to attack until the Soviets provided more arms. Then he wanted to be sure that Syria would join a two-front surprise offensive.
Israeli analysts were not quite able to keep up with this ever-changing picture. Bar-Joseph discloses that the most respected intelligence community in the Middle East, and perhaps the world, was often disorganized and torn by personal strife. He reveals that there was even a delay of several months in responding to Marwan after he first offered to spy for Israel.
Israeli intelligence agencies knew something was brewing. But they did not understand that Sadat’s only goal, six years after the humiliation of the Six-Day War, was to seize a strip of land on the eastern side of the Suez Canal to compel the world to take Egypt’s claims to the Suez seriously. Bar-Joseph assigns most of the blame for this to General Eli Zeira, the military intelligence chief who dismissed almost all of the intelligence that the Mossad received from its man in Cairo.
The author suggests that the spy’s violent death was a result of Zeira’s choice, as a retired general, to break all the rules of espionage by revealing Marwan’s name. Marwan had become a wealthy, if shady, entrepreneur based in London. His fall from his own balcony could have been an accident or suicide. Scotland Yard could never figure out why Marwan fell, or whether he was pushed.
Bar-Joseph’s book is an uneven read, unfortunately, with repetitions that more-stringent editing could have eliminated. Some of the paragraphs have to be reread to clarify who met with whom and which Egyptians and Israelis claim that Marwan was good or bad, heroic or corrupt. Many readers won’t want to go to the trouble of wading through an ocean of complicated details and overly long paragraphs, but the total tale is rewarding to anyone interested in Middle East intrigue.
The overall story is fascinating. Israel’s success as a nation in its 68 years has depended mostly on raw talent, skill and courage, especially compared with the deficiencies of the surrounding countries that have tried to wipe it out. Yet this book reminds us of the huge value of luck. The Mossad was lucky that President Nasser’s son-in-law phoned the Israeli Embassy in London to offer his services, and luckier still that he sold them an amazing library of secrets about Egypt and other Arab countries for nearly 30 years.
But Bar-Joseph’s deeply researched account leads us to the conclusion that Israel would have been even luckier—saving thousands of lives and avoiding Soviet and American nuclear alerts during a long Yom Kippur War—had they believed their spy.
Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, is the author of five books on Israeli intelligence and diplomacy, including Spies Against Armageddon.