Yossi Melman is the intelligence and security columnist for the Israeli newspaper Maariv. Dan Raviv is the Washington correspondent for i24News. They are the co-authors of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars."
On Sept. 23, 1977, Menachem Begin, the feisty prime minister of Israel elected only four months earlier, convened his security cabinet for a secret meeting. After a short deliberation, a policy titled Decision B/4 was adopted. To prevent leaks, only two copies were typed. The ministers ordered the Mossad, Israel's feared and respected foreign espionage agency, to renew the hunt for Nazi war criminals, "in order to bring them for trial in Israel; and if bringing them for trial will not be possible — to kill them." The Mossad drafted a list of nine wanted Nazis, with a special focus on Josef Mengele, notorious for his ghoulish medical experiments on Jews in the Auschwitz death camp.
A photocopy of the cabinet decision appears in a secret three-volume book commissioned by the Mossad to summarize its program's outcome. We studied it before it was handed over to Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, this month. It is the first official, definitive tale of how the agency tried to track down and assassinate Nazi war criminals. And despite Israel's fearsome reputation for pursuing justice to the ends of the earth — and despite the bravado of its political leaders, who talked often about the need to punish the perpetrators of the Holocaust — it is largely a record of failure.
To the extent that an espionage agency reveals the truth, it is striking that Israel does not try to deny that its agents trampled on the sovereignty and laws of many countries in search of justice against mass murderers. (In a rare written comment, the Mossad — through the prime minister's office — told us that it released these volumes because the subject "is of the highest importance and significance," but it added that "the great majority" of the agency's work remains "hidden from the public's eye.") But even more surprising is the frankness with which the official history shrugs at the results of the vengeance program. One volume of the study is called "Clouds and Wind, but No Rain: In the Footsteps of Nazi War Criminals Who Were Not Punished." It is an allusion to Proverbs 25:14, a verse about promises and expectations that are not met.
The three paperbacks, each with the Hebrew words for "secret" printed on the cover, span a 30-year period, starting in 1960, in which the Mossad struggled to obtain and verify data on Nazis. In addition to Mengele, it focused on Adolf Hitler's deputy, Martin Bormann; the Gestapo chief, Heinrich Müller; Adolf Eichmann's assistant, Alois Brunner; Horst Schumann, a doctor who conducted sterilization and castration experiments on Jews by means of X-rays at Auschwitz; Walter Rauff, an SS engineer who developed the gas trucks that preceded the gas chambers; Klaus Barbie, a Gestapo officer known as the "Butcher of Lyon"; Franz Murer, an SS officer known as the "Butcher of Vilnius" in Lithuania; and Ernst Lerch, an administrator who directed the murder of tens of thousands of Polish Jews.
The history begins after the capture in Argentina of Eichmann, the bureaucrat who oversaw the "Final Solution" to exterminate Europe's Jews. He was tried before an Israeli court on international TV and was executed in 1962.
The interlocking missions took Israeli operatives, usually using false identities, to Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. These are stories of intrigue, deception, psychological warfare and assassination attempts — but also of negligence, errors, failures and, in the end, a surprising level of official apathy.
In the 1960s, Yitzhak Shamir, a future prime minister of Israel, was in charge of the Mossad's special operations unit. He sent a 31-year-old Israeli spy code-named "Candle," who was working in Damascus, to kill Brunner, Eichmann's assistant. Brunner was then serving as a security consultant to the Syrian government. There followed a nerve-wracking comedy of errors: A post office clerk in 1961 gave Candle a hard time when he tried to mail a concealed letter bomb, because it didn't have a return address. (The agent quickly invented one and scrawled it in the upper left corner of the package.) Brunner was only slightly injured when the bomb exploded at his house.
Later, the Mossad tried again: In 1980, it learned that Brunner subscribed to the catalogues of an Austrian company that sold herbs by mail order. An Israeli team went to the Austrian office, stole envelopes and brochures, and took them to Israel. There, experts in the Mossad's technology lab, known as the "toy factory," prepared another bomb. It was carried back to Austria to be mailed from the town where the herb company was located. But the outgoing mailbox they'd designated was too small, so operatives had to repackage the device into a smaller envelope. That meant inserting a smaller quantity of explosives. When Brunner opened the letter, the weak blast was not enough to finish him. He died in Damascus in 2001, at 89 years old. Perhaps the only solace for Israeli hunters was learning that he'd been held in squalid house arrest.
Also in 1980, two top Mossad officials flew to Latin America: the agency's chief, Gen. Yitzhak Hofi, and Shabtai Shavit, who was then the head of a special operations department called Masada and later would become Mossad's director. Several Masada gunmen were with them. The plan was to carry out twin killings within 24 hours, eliminating both Barbie in Bolivia and Rauff in Chile. Hofi and Shavit set up a command center in Panama where they could monitor every move.
After a few months of careful planning and surveillance, Mossad hit teams arrived in Santiago, Chile, and La Paz, Bolivia. They rented cars, prepared safe houses and mapped escape routes. They collected their guns from couriers who were expert at moving weapons across borders. According to the official Mossad history, the first hit team took its position around Rauff's house for Operation Stainless Steel. Then the Nazi's dog ruined everything. It barked, and Rauff's housekeeper emerged from the villa. She spotted the strangers and shouted at them; they immediately fled. Both operations were aborted, because the Israelis feared that Chilean authorities would tell Bolivia to increase security. Rauff, an unrepentant Nazi who did some work for the Syrian government, died in Chile in 1984 at age 77. Barbie was eventually extradited to, and given a life sentence in, France. He died of cancer in prison in 1991. He was 77.
Some Nazis on the nine-man list (such as Bormann and Müller) were no longer alive, and the Mossad was pursuing ghosts based on bad intelligence. Others, such as Mengele, were located, but despite the Mossad's plots to capture or kill them, they somehow managed to stay beyond the reach of the Jewish state's avengers. The Israelis thought they were surveilling Mengele's apartment in Argentina, but he had moved. They searched for him in Paraguay when he was being sheltered by Germans in Brazil. He died in 1979 at age 67, but even that was unconfirmed until Brazilian authorities exhumed his body for forensic testing in 1985.
One notable success is not covered in the official history released this month: the hunt for Herberts Cukurs, a Latvian pilot who helped German forces during World War II. He became known as the Butcher of Riga, responsible for the murder of 30,000 Latvian Jews. Cukurs had reinvented himself as a Brazil-based tour guide who flew visitors over the Amazon rain forest. The Mossad planned to send a hit team posing as tourists, who would hire him, kill him in mid-air and dump his body. But Cukurs was suspicious and turned down the job. Agents eventually lured him to Uruguay with a bogus business offer and fatally shot him there in 1965. (The volume dedicated to his case was not declassified; it appears that Israel is not ready to confirm that its operatives committed murder on foreign soil.)
An especially poignant part of the story is that the author of this Mossad history, Yossi Chen, is himself a Holocaust survivor who came to British-ruled Palestine on the famous ship Exodus. As a working spy, Chen hadn't been involved in the hunt for Nazis. His research was based on field reports by Mossad agents, who took notes during their reconnaissance and assassination missions, plus after-action testimonies, photos and drawings. Though the narrative is dry and factual, and he doesn't mention his own history, his disappointment comes through. "We should have done much more," Chen told us in an interview this past week, and he did not accept the idea that the mission was impossible for an agency that, in a matter of months in 1972-73, killed nine Palestinian terrorists in Europe to answer the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. Between 2010 and 2012, Mossad operatives also killed four Iranian nuclear scientists in Tehran and wounded another.
The trouble was that the Nazi hunt was never truly a high priority for the Mossad's directors. They were focused on much more urgent, sometimes existential, threats to Israel: the Egyptian missile program; Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists; and Iraqi, Syrian and Iranian weapons of mass destruction. Chen's study repeatedly notes that because of other priorities, operations were canceled, or that insufficient numbers of agents or desk officers were allocated to the hunt.
Israeli prime ministers of the 1960s and '70s — David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir — also showed signs of apathy as they focused on the here and now rather than the atrocities of the past. The only one truly interested in hunting Nazis was Begin, who considered himself an adamant Jewish nationalist standing up for his people. He had witnessed the first year of World War II in Poland and the Soviet Union, while the other prime ministers had lived in the relative safety of British-ruled Palestine.
This internal Mossad study smashes a myth, rooted in public and media perceptions (think of works such as "Munich" or "The Debt" or "Eichmann in Jerusalem"), of Israeli spies as omniscient and omnipotent. After the Eichmann trial, with sensational testimony from Holocaust victims, people assumed that the Mossad would do everything in its power to trace, surveil and then capture or kill Nazis. The Mossad study honestly admits that didn't happen. Spies did not turn over every stone and chase down every lead across the world. They had other problems.
The secret agency dropped the whole matter after one final, fruitless tracking mission in 1991, and the hunt for Nazi war criminals was over, according to the report. All in all, it yielded one war criminal (Eichmann) captured, one (Cukurs) assassinated and one (Brunner) injured. That is three out of 11 wanted men — an astonishingly low success rate for a nation that pulled off the destruction of nuclear reactors in Iraq and Syria, the Stuxnet virus that derailed Iran's nuclear enrichment program, the assassination of Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists, and other cloak-and-dagger successes.
The Mossad study also unmasks Israeli hypocrisy. Consecutive Israeli governments exploited the Holocaust's memory. When it suited them, they invoked the deaths of 6 million Jews. Israeli leaders accompany every visiting foreign dignitary to spend time at Yad Vashem, as President Trump did in May, and prime ministers for decades told Holocaust survivors in Israel and abroad that the Jewish state was never going to stop demanding justice.
But ultimately, after capturing Eichmann and making the point that Nazi crimes were real, Israel's leaders did very little to live up to their rhetoric.