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Munich Revisited: Where Spielberg’s Movie Went Astray

Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” is not a bad action film. It tells an intense and haunting story of a man whose willingness to kill for his country engenders a personal dilemma regarding the efficacy of violence, even justified violence, as a response to terrorism.

But it also badly distorts the circumstances under which Israeli intelligence operatives assassinated Palestinian terrorists outside the borders of Israel during the early 1970s. Because of the potential influence worldwide of a Spielberg film such as “Munich,” this has ramifications for both the Israeli and American responses to terrorism. Hence, the issues must be examined closely. Having served as a Mossad operative in Europe during the period in which the movie is set, I feel I can lend some useful historical perspective.

The Israeli assassinations depicted in “Munich” are portrayed with near total disregard for the actual operational activities involved. The film, after all, is based on a book by an intelligence wannabe whose real-life hero, “Avner,” is an impostor who never served in the Mossad. But more important, at the strategic level this was not merely or even mainly a revenge operation, as the film suggests. Its purpose, rather, was twofold: to deter Palestinians from killing Israelis, Jews and others abroad by signaling that they would pay the ultimate price for such murderous acts, and to render it difficult for Palestinian terror operatives and their supporters and apologists to operate freely in the open.

Nor was the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the only provocation. None of us walked around with a list of the Munich terrorists in our pockets. The Israeli assassinations were a response to a broad escalation of the Palestinian terror strategy against Israel from the late 1960s onward, to encompass Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. The Palestinian campaign featured aircraft hijackings and mid-air explosions, and attacks on targets that included airport check-in desks, synagogues, immigrant transit centers, Israeli diplomats and at least one prominent European Jewish leader. Munich was perhaps the most spectacular of these attacks, but not the first or the last.

The Palestinian perpetrators were mainly from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Fatah, the latter operating under the guise of “Black September” — ironically, a name that commemorated a Jordanian massacre of Palestinian militants who endangered the Hashemite regime. Those Palestinian terrorists arrested by European police were usually quickly released by government edict, in exchange for new hostages who had been taken by the same terrorist organizations. At this time, all Palestinian organizations, led by Yasser Arafat’s Fatah, unequivocally rejected a two-state solution or any form of negotiations with Israel.

Israel’s response, the assassinations, succeeded in radically reducing the intensity and saliency of the Palestinian attacks. European intelligence agencies, angry at their own governments’ temerity in the face of Arab intimidation, generally looked the other way when a Palestinian terrorist was eliminated on their soil. Within a few years of this campaign, the Palestine Liberation Organization/Fatah policy began to evolve toward official acceptance of a two-state solution. Whether and to what extent the Israeli reply to Black September contributed to this political evolution is difficult to determine.

I know of no case in which a Mossad operative had a crisis of conscience about these operations, which were understood to have the clear and immediate purpose of saving innocent lives. When I inquired, at an early stage, as to the nature of the quasi-judicial mechanism invoked back in Tel Aviv to determine the guilt of targets for assassination, I received a clear and convincing response. Needless to say, targets were determined and located through an extensive intelligence-gathering operation by Israelis, and not in the dubious way depicted in the film.

Fast-forward to the years 2001 to 2006. Again, Palestinian terror organizations, mainly Hamas and Fatah (now operating under the guise of the “al-Aqsa Brigades”) escalated their tactics, this time with a broad campaign of suicide bombings that deliberately targeted Israeli civilians inside Israel. The Israeli security establishment responded with targeted assassinations, usually by attack helicopter and pilot-less aircraft, that focused on terrorist operatives and ultimately included so-called “political” leaders, like Sheikh Yassin of Hamas, who were known to bear responsibility for the suicide bombings. Additional measures, such as a security fence, were also adopted. Ultimately, the Palestinian will and capacity to carry out suicide bombings was radically reduced. Even Hamas may now be considering the necessity of taking the political road.

During the 1970s, none of us had qualms about “moral equivalency,” an issue debated by the Israeli characters in “Munich.” Palestinian terrorists were killing innocent civilians; in response, Israel was targeting only terrorists and the terrorist infrastructure. When a single nonterrorist was killed by mistake (the fiasco of Lillehammer, in which an innocent Moroccan immigrant in Norway was mistaken for Black September leader Ali Hassan Salame and killed in 1973), the entire operation was closed down. More recently, when innocent civilians were killed in Gaza in the course of targeted assassinations, Israeli air force reserve pilots went on strike and three former heads of the General Security Service protested to the prime minister, thereby obliging the security establishment to refine its tactics and its ordnance and radically reducing “collateral damage.”

My experience has taught me that a country that doesn’t respond to terrorism very forcefully will suffer even worse; that a forceful and consistent response produces results, and that a society that doesn’t maintain civilized standards in its response is in danger of becoming uncivilized. The final shot in “Munich,” of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, appears to constitute an attempt by Spielberg to suggest that America’s response to 9/11 is in danger of applying force in an ill-considered manner. If this is Spielberg’s complaint, he should find a different, non-Israeli metaphor to express it.

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