EVERY SPY A PRINCE The Complete History Of Israel's Intelligence Community By Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman Houghton Mifflin. 466 pp. $24.95

TRIPLE CROSS By Louis Toscano Birch Lane/Carol Publishing, 321 pp. $19.95

SOON AFTER Menachem Begin took over as Israel's prime minister in 1977, he summoned two top government officials to his office: the head of the Mossad, Israel's secret service for foreign intelligence matters, and the head of the Liaison Bureau, Israel's secret agency for promoting Jewish immigration. Begin had a plan and he needed the two men's help. He wanted to embark on a broad campaign to encourage Jews from all over the world to emigrate to Israel.

As recounted by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman in this detailed history of Israel's intelligence agencies, Begin put the highest priority on this new mission: "Begin told them that he regarded immigration to Israel as no less important than peace with Egypt, combating terrorism or issuing military assessments -- the vital tasks that were normally the highest priorities of the intelligence community."

To Americans accustomed to the Central Intelligence Agency and its role as a key component in U.S. national security, this scene might seem odd. Why put immigration in the hands of spies? What does immigration have to do with Israel's defense? Why does an immigration campaign have to be kept secret at all?

But for Israel, a state that has existed for 40 years in a permanent state of instability, immigration has always been considered an important part of Israel's strategic deterrent. The more Jews in Israel, the stronger the country; the stronger the country, the less likely that a hostile neighbor might attack.

Here, then, is an opportunity for Raviv and Melman, seasoned journalists who have amassed an impressive amount of material, to explore the nature of Israel's secret service and its role in Israel's peculiar democracy. But it is a missed opportunity, one of many in this thick volume. Raviv and Melman seem so preoccupied with packing everything into this "Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community" that any sort of analysis or context gets lost. Their approach is too shallow to be good history and too episodic to be complete.

Like the tourist who tries to visit too many countries on a short vacation, Every Spy a Prince covers too much territory. The narrative never has a chance to get going; there are too many tangential anecdotes, too many unnecessary details, too many places and names. This would make more sense if Raviv and Melman had a great deal of new information to offer. But, as their footnotes indicate, a lot of this ground has been covered in earlier books and in press accounts.

They give us a capsule history of the famous Lavon affair in 1954, when Israel sent saboteurs to blow up American and British buildings in Egypt in hopes that the new Egyptian government would be blamed or tarnished. They recount how Israeli agents killed the wrong man while trying to avenge the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. They describe how Israel's secret services -- particularly its military intelligence agency, Aman -- failed to predict the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They retell the story of Jonathan Jay Pollard, the U.S. naval intelligence analyst who spied for Israel until he was caught in 1985. They give a detailed account of how Israel's internal security agency, Shin Bet, killed two Palestinian bus hijackers and then tried to cover it up.

Included, too, are the successful operations that have brought fame to Israel's secret services: the securing of Khrushchev's secret speech to the 1956 Soviet Communist party congress, in which he denounced Stalin for the first time; the 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann; the remarkable rescue of 103 hostages at Entebbe in 1976.

The authors make clear their antipathy for Israel's failures and excesses -- for the abductions and assassinations conducted in the name of counter-terrorism, for the screw-ups that endangered lives. They clearly do not believe that every spy is a prince (the title is taken from God's instructions to Moses to "spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a prince"). But it is far less clear what they do expect. They write, "The complete story proves one fact beyond any doubt: Israel's spies are only human." That's neither profound nor enlightening, and it begs the question of how Israel's system of government has contributed to the failures.

Missing, too, is much sense of the people behind the scenes. The authors are fascinated by Isser Harel, who ran the Mossad from 1952 to 1963. They call him a legendary figure, but the reader is left to wonder why. According to the authors, he was often excluded from crucial events. They write, "petty disappointments such as being shunted aside from the preparations for the Suez campaign in 1956, the formation of the technological espionage agency Lakam behind his back, and his exclusion from Israel's strategic and peripheral alliances did not stop Harel. Instead of gazing back in anger, he preferred to look ahead with hope."

Petty? It is almost inconceivable that the CIA chief could be "shunted aside" in the planning of a major military attack and still survive in his job. How did Harel? The authors don't really say.

Perhaps the most consistent theme in the book is Israel's obsession with nuclear weapons, an obsession that goes back to the days of David Ben-Gurion. "Nuclear power was a goal fondly cherished by Ben-Gurion from the start of statehood," the authors write. "It would make Israel an unrivaled force in the Middle East. It could be the ultimate guarantee of the Jewish state's continued existence."

For years it was rumored that Israel was developing a nuclear bomb at its Dimona research center in the Negev desert, but Israel's leaders always denied it, using the same tortured language: "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East." All uncertainty, however, was shattered in October 1986 when the Sunday Times of London published photographs and an interview with Mordechai Vanunu, a disillusioned Dimona technician who provided evidence that Israel had developed offensive, first-strike weapons.

Every Spy a Prince has a chapter on Vanunu, but a far better and more illuminating account appears in Louis Toscano's book on the incident, Triple Cross. Toscano, a veteran UPI journalist, has pieced together a coherent and intelligent narrative from published accounts, interviews with Israeli officials and with Vanunu's friends and family. He portrays Vanunu as a lost soul in a society that does not tolerate lost souls; it is a far more sympathetic portrait than the one that emerged after the Mossad lured Vanunu out of London and arrested him in Rome.

Toscano's book brings home the consequences of Israel's immigration policies. Born in Morocco, Vanunu emigrated to Israel as a young boy. As a Sephardic Jew, however, he never felt welcome; his alienation grew and festered, until he struck back by leaking the photographs of Israel's greatest secret. Vanunu said his only motive was to stop the arms escalation and bring about peace. "Mordechai Vanunu was a naive misfit, truly a restless rebel searching for some cause out of an almost childish pique, who saw in the Dimona revelations an opportunity to strike back at a country that had shunted him aside," Toscano writes.

There is one troublesome part in this otherwise fine book. Toscano asserts that Israel's top leaders got word of Vanunu's plans before the Sunday Times story was published. He provides a fly-on-the-wall account of a meeting between Shimon Peres, then the prime minister, and Yitzhak Shamir, then the defense minister. They are trying to decide what to do. Shamir wants to capture Vanunu. Peres says it's too late and that he is worried about violating British law and instead proposed a radical plan: Let the story appear, then arrest Vanunu later. The story will scare our Arab neighbors and we will still punish the traitor.

As Toscano candidly reveals, he was turned down in his many requests to interview Peres and Shamir. Nonetheless, he quotes them in conversational language, reconstructed from interviews with other participants. While this is an often-used technique, it seems out of place here because of the gravity of what Peres and Shamir are discussing.

Both Triple Cross and Every Spy a Prince make clear how seriously Israel takes its secret services and how some Israeli leaders regard them almost reverentially. As Yitzhak Shamir, now Israel's prime minister, told Melman during a 1987 interview: "My days in the Mossad were among the happiest of my life and even politics and the premiership cannot compare to them."

Steven Luxenberg is the deputy editor of The Washington Post's Investigative staff.