Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Assassinating Terrorist Kingpins: Successful Counterterrorism or Opening the Gates of Hell?, Gidon D. Remba

The assassination last week in Damascus of Imad Mugniyah, the notorious Hezbollah arch-terrorist, raises anew the long-swirling controversy over the practical efficacy, wisdom and moral justification for the Israeli and American counter-terrorism strategy of targeted killing. Israeli news correspondent Ronen Bergman offered the following trenchant observation in “Bracing for Revenge” in the New York Times (Feb. 18, 2008):

"However much backslapping and Champagne-cork popping may be going on in Tel Aviv and Langley, Va., the questions remains: Was it worth the effort and resources and the mortal risk to the agents involved? Few would deny that Mr. Mugniyah, who had the blood of many hundreds of Americans and Israelis, not to mention Frenchmen, Germans and Britons, on his hands, deserved the violent death that befell him, or that eliminating this top-flight mass murderer might prevent more death. But this act of combined vengeance, punishment and pre-emption might extract a far greater cost in the future

At Mr. Mugniyah’s funeral on Thursday, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, threatened to retaliate against Israel, saying, “Let it be an open war anywhere.”… Hezbollah has no doubt that it was Israel who eliminated its top terrorist, and once more it is bent on vengeance. As Hezbollah draws no fine distinctions between the United States and Israel, both nations, along with Jews around the world, might well have to pay the price for the loss of the man whose mystical aura was as important as his operational prowess.

In the immediate aftermath, Hezbollah has chosen not to respond with volleys of rockets aimed at Galilee, as many Israelis feared. But an inkling of how the group might respond can be found in the July 2007 statements of Michael McConnell, America’s director of national intelligence, expressing grave apprehension about Hezbollah sleeper cells in the United States that could go into action should the Americans cross the organization’s “red line.”

This line has now been crossed. Only the severest of countermeasures by the intelligence services of Israel and the United States will prevent last week’s assassination, justified as it was, from costing a vastly disproportionate price in blood."

I took the train today from New Jersey to Penn Station and saw the new signs at Amtrak and around the station informing passengers of the new security procedures: random checks of carry-on baggage, officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains. Having lived through mass terrorist attacks in Israel, it is clear to me that, reassuring though such steps might be, they are woefully inadequate. They remain a giant leap short of Israeli security practices in public places like commuter train stations. Moreover, the security holes remaining in the public transportation system are so large that one could almost drive an explosive-laden Mack truck through them. A determined terrorist—even a not-so-determined terrorist—can still carry a bomb into Penn Station’s main public areas through any of the non-secure trains linking from the tri-state area to Penn Station, or from the public entrances from 7th and 8th avenues, and wreak massive damage, killing dozens if not hundreds of people.

Trust me, I’m not giving the terrorists any ideas: they’ve done this countless times already in public places in Europe and in Israel. Innumerable security experts have been warning for years that we are long overdue for such attacks in the U.S. Now, the assassination of Hezbollah’s number two may well be the trigger which activates its sleeper cells in the U.S., pushing us off the cliff into the bloody hell of terrorist revenge on American soil.

U.S. government officials—federal, state and local—along with transportation authority leaders, still refuse to take the kinds of precautions which could save hundreds of innocent lives. These would entail, among other things, checking every passenger and parcel before he or she enters Penn Station and other mass transit points. It would vastly slow down our public transportation system, and snarl public commuting. I fear that we will take this highly inconvenient step only after we have sacrificed many more American lives.

Our current dilemma makes relevant once more an essay I wrote on the controversies surrounding targeted killing and assassination of terrorists in response to Steven Spielberg’s film Munich, titled Munich’s Moral Muddle: Steven Spielberg, Counterterrorism and Middle East Peace. There I show why, contrary to Spielberg (in his incarnation as the film’s director), and screenwriter Tony Kushner, state assassination of terrorists without trial is both moral and legal, and a necessary part of safeguarding our own human rights.

But I maintain that “Strong counter-terrorist efforts which are never followed by serious and sustained attempts to encourage Palestinian support for reconciliation with Israel, failing to exploit opportunities for peace, are misbegotten. Much the same is true of preemption which never knows when it is best to forbear the use of lethal force. Both condemn Israel to live by the sword forever, nurturing the cynical right’s self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.” Now what applies with regard to the targeted killing of Palestinian terrorists does not hold when it comes to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Nonetheless, might the assassination of Mugniyeh have been one more case in which it would have been wiser to forbear in the exercise of our legitimate right to employ preemptive force?

Munich’s Moral Muddle: Steven Spielberg, Counterterrorism and Middle East Peace
Gidon D. Remba

Excerpts Delivered as a Talk at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, Evanston, IL

I. Spielberg’s Critique of Israeli Counterterrorism
II: The Historical Context: European Capitulation to Palestinian Terrorism after Munich
III. Targeted Killing and Jewish Ethics
IV. Just War, Terrorism and Preemptive Killing
V. Selective Criticism of Targeted Killings
VI. Spielberg’s Volte Face on Israeli Counterterrorism After Munich

I. Spielberg’s Critique of Israeli Counterterrorism

Steven Spielberg’s describes his film Munich as his “prayer for peace.” How so? Spielberg explained to the Los Angeles Times that answering aggression with aggression “creates a vicious cycle of violence with no real end in sight.” He has said much the same thing to Time magazine: “a response to a response doesn't really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine.” And indeed the message of the film is that striking back with force against terrorism only breeds more terrorism—a war on terror only engenders terror—and compromises the very moral values which differentiate the counterterrorists from the terrorists themselves. Spielberg’s juxtaposition of the World Trade Towers at the end of the film is meant to generalize this message from the Israeli context to the US war on terror. But Spielberg’s message is either banal or misbegotten. His film offers little insight into the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy for navigating the moral maze of war and peace.

It is worth noting that since it is the Israelis in the Mossad hit team who undergo these epiphanies about the moral dubiousness of preventive or retributive killing—not the Palestinians—criticisms of the film which suggest that the Israelis are portrayed as morally equivalent to Palestinian terrorists are groundless. It is, after all, the Israelis who are portrayed as fastidious about avoiding civilian casualties, the Israelis, not the Palestinians, who exhibit moral compunctions about every use of lethal force, a fact which stands in stark contrast with the indiscriminate slaughter perpetrated by Palestinian Black September members at Munich. But the overriding message of the film is clear—and it is delivered in the voice of the protagonist, Avner, the leader of the Israeli team, and secondarily in the voices of those other members of his team who increasingly question whether killing terrorists, or suspected terrorists, can be squared with their Jewish moral values, and with whether it is even effective as a counter-terror tactic. The conclusion they clearly reach is that counter-violence, counter-force is futile, solves nothing, that counter-terror tactics like targeted killings or assassinations of suspected terrorists simply breed more terror and can’t lead to peace. Indeed, several of the hit team members conclude that what they have been doing is both inimical to peace, immoral and un-Jewish.

Indeed, Avner protests, “maybe we will just keep killing them forever,” suggesting that the killing may simply contribute to an endless killing cycle with no exit. His Mossad handler, Ephraim, assures him: “in the end this will help bring peace,” but Avner remains skeptical: “Everyone we killed has been replaced by someone worse, someone more violent and more militant than their predecessor. There is no peace at the end of this,” he cries.

Consider this crucial scene at the end of the film: Avner wonders aloud to Ephraim: maybe we should have arrested the suspected Black September terrorists, as Israel did with Eichmann, rather than assassinating them. And there may be some who will think that this was a realistic or practical option for Israel. But nothing could be further from the truth. The kidnapping of Eichmann and his abduction to Israel from a foreign country was a unique event, and would be extraordinarily difficult to repeat, let alone dozens of times in numerous European countries. Israeli agents would be at much greater risk of failure and would likely to be caught and arrested themselves in the countries in question, since they would be committing crimes in those countries and violating their sovereignty.

II: The Historical Context: European Capitulation to Palestinian Terrorism after Munich

The sad truth is that we live in a world in which there is no serious international willingness to arrest, try and punish under law the terrorists who murder Israeli civilians. It was embarrassing how true this was in the period after Munich, when the Germans pusillanimously freed the three surviving captured Palestinian terrorists, in what many justifiably believe was a staged airplane hijacking by Black September designed to give the German government a pretext to free them from their Bavarian jail—and it remains largely true to this day. Upon learning of the “hijacking” of the Lufthansa jet only weeks after Munich, on October 29, 1972, the German government immediately acquiesced to the terrorists’ demands, without even informing the Israeli government. German Chancellor Willy Brandt explained that he “saw no alternative but to yield to this ultimatum and avoid further senseless bloodshed.” (Aaron J. Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response, pp. 127-8; Simon Reeve, One Day in September, p. 155, 156-159)

Simon Reeve reports: “The Palestinians had warned the government in Bonn that they would launch a wave of bombings and hijackings against Lufthansa unless the three Munich survivors were released. The ‘hijacking,’ according to German, Palestinian and Israeli sources, was a compromise agreed to by senior figures in the German government.” When Ulrich Wagner, a senior aide to German interior minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, “was asked point blank and on camera what he thought of the alleged German-Palestinian scheme, he replied, ‘Yes, I think it’s probably true.’” (Klein, p. 128) Wagner continued: “The German government thought that they could negotiate with the terrorist[s] and could convince them that they would give them money and something else to get rid of them…But of course it was the wrong way, no question, because when one case is solved in this way other cases will come.” (Reeve, pp. 157-8)

And come they did. On August 5, 1973, two Palestinians “produced submachine guns and grenades in the departure lounge at Athens airport and began blazing away at what they thought were Jewish passengers leaving Greece for Israel…There was carnage as they sprayed bullets indiscriminately…The departure lounge was a bloody mess, with the dying and seriously wounded screaming for help.” Three people were killed outright, a fourth died later in the hospital, and fifty-five passengers were wounded. The Palestinian terrorists were “caught, convicted and then promptly released by the Greek government when terrorists hijacked a Greek ship in Karachi and used them as bargaining chips.” (Reeve, pp. 199-200)

When Abu Daoud, the avowed mastermind of the Munich massacre, was arrested in France, he was quickly released “on a string of technicalities…after a perfunctory hearing lasting just twenty minutes.” (Reeve, p. 209) “The French authorities,” continues Reeve, “had been bribing and blackmailing terrorist groups to persuade them to avoid France during their attacks, and Daoud’s arrest by their officers threatened their delicate game…France chose to release Abu Daoud not only to protect itself from possible terrorist attacks but also because several Arab states threatened states threatened to withdraw deposits of cash totaling more than $15 billion—money from oil sales—that were stored in French banks. The morning after Daoud’s release, France also signed a deal with Egypt for the sale of two hundred Mirage jets…When the news of Daoud’s release was broadcast on radio and television there were near-riots in Tel Aviv…Even US President Jimmy Carter said he was ‘deeply disappointed.’” (Reeve, pp. 209-210) Much the same thing happened in Italy, as recently recounted by former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir: after arresting Palestinian terrorists who were about to fire Strella missiles at an El Al plane from an apartment overlooking the runway at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, “the Italians gave in and released” the terrorists when “a few months later the Palestinians hijacked a plane.” (Yossi Melman, “Preventive Measures,” Ha’aretz, Feb. 17, 2006).

The faked Lufthansa hijacking enabling the Germans to free the three surviving Palestinian Munich murderers little more than a month after the massacre of the Israeli Olympic athletes “produced astonishment and rage in Israel,” notes Aaron Klein. Prime Minister Golda Meir later said with evident disgust: “I think that there is not one single terrorist held in prison anywhere in the world. Everyone else gives in. We’re the only ones who do not.” (Reeve, p. 158) Golda had resisted the urgings of Israeli military and intelligence officials to hunt down and assassinate those responsible for the Munich massacre. The German release of the Munich murderers was for her “the last straw.” Facing German and European cravenness, she consented to the counter-terror plan.

In the absence of real international cooperation to track down, arrest, try terrorists for their crimes against humanity in courts of law—rather than only using such venues selectively to advance the agenda of national liberation movements against Israeli or Western leaders considered war criminals while giving a free pass to their own barbarians—and to mete out proper judicial punishment to the guilty, countries like Israel and the US often have no choice but to take preemptive or preventive action themselves. And that means killing terrorists and their accomplices before they can strike again, often on the basis of intelligence information that would be insufficient to convict a terrorist of murder in a court of law beyond reasonable doubt. Even were there a concerted international effort to punish terrorists post factum, it would remain necessary to use lethal force to preempt and interdict terrorists in an effort to prevent acts of mass killing, particularly the many undeterrable terrorists who are prepared for martyrdom if only they can inflict mass casualties on their victim population.

When Israel in 1960 abducted Eichmann from Argentina to stand trial in Israel for genocide against the Jewish people, Argentina convened the UN Security Council and charged Israel with violating its sovereignty by committing an act of illegal force on its soil. It was the Soviet representative to the UN who, representing the apparent consensus of member states, responded: “By omitting to take measures for the timely arrest and extradition of Eichmann as a war criminal” Argentina had violated its international legal obligations. (Thomas M. Franck, Recourse to Force: State Action Against Threats and Armed Attacks (Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 112-114). Following Munich, it is equally apparent that Germany and other European states who capitulated repeatedly to terrorist threats and hijackings, released convicted mass murderers, and bribed Palestinian terror groups to avoid their territory, failed to fulfill their fundamental legal and moral obligations, leaving Israel with no recourse but to use force to punish, deter, disrupt and prevent, to whatever extent possible, the ongoing terrorist activities of Black September and those Palestinians who aided and abetted it.

III. Targeted Killing and Jewish Ethics

Spielberg in his commentary, and in the film itself, attempts to send a resoundingly negative message about the value, both moral and practical, of using force against terrorism. Instead he offers (in a Time magazine interview) that “The only thing that's going to solve this is rational minds, a lot of sitting down and talking until you're blue in the gills.” As a veteran peace advocate who has long championed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, I find Spielberg’s nostrum singularly unhelpful and inapt. Yes, negotiations are sorely needed to “solve” the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—indeed they are well-advised right now not only with the Palestinians but with other Arab states, as Amos Oz suggests. [1] But that is not the question at hand.

The question rather is what to do now, and what was to be done then, about those who slaughter Israelis indiscriminately in the name of a political cause. “Munich” never ponders whether negotiations must sometimes be preceded by the just use of lethal force. The solution to Palestinian terrorism, much like the solution to the broader problem of Islamic terrorism, their differences notwithstanding, requires the use of both wise military counter-terror means and a foreign policy which dries up support for terror and provides viable alternatives to violence. The findings of the 9/11 Commission leave no room for doubt: success in the war on terror “demands the use of all elements of national power” including “a preventive strategy that is as much, or more, political than it is military.”

Spielberg’s screenwriter, Tony Kushner, has his Golda Meir justify Israel’s new targeted killing policy in the film thus: “Every civilization must negotiate compromises with its own values.” This suggests that Jewish values would prohibit the preemptive or retaliatory killing of suspected terrorists, but that practical necessities require Israel to flout those moral and religious norms. Kushner’s comments in Newsweek suggests that in his view targeted killings are indeed antithetical to morality: he refers to “the conflict between national security and ethics” as if ethics requires nonviolence and national security impels one towards immoral violence. But there are deep problems with this conception of Jewish ethics, and of morality in general. The dichotomy Kushner erects is meant to recapitulate the conflict between egoism and altruism writ large on a national scale. Those who act out of “national security” motives are the egoists, acting solely, or primarily, in the self-interest of their own co-nationals, their fellow citizens in the state whose security is at risk; while those who act out of “ethics,” for Kushner, value the rights of others so much so that they refrain from harming the other. It is the ethical ones, for Kushner, who engage only in respectful dialogue and negotiations over justice with their enemies and refrain from force of any kind. The ethical one, in sum, is drawn to an altruistic pacifism and nonviolence, while the national security actor acts violently and immorally from egoism and the demand for collective self-protection.

But consider this account of morality from a Jewish point of view put forth by Ahad Ha’am, the founder of cultural Zionism, and the difference he identifies between Christian and Jewish concepts of the ethical:

In an essay on “The Character of Judaism,” Ahad Ha'am maintained that the most fundamental principle of Jewish ethics—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18)—does not teach us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, but as much: “The true meaning of the verse is: ‘Self-love must not be allowed to incline the scale on the side of your own advantage; love your neighbor as yourself, and then justice will necessarily decide, and you will do nothing to your neighbor that you would consider a wrong if it were done to yourself’… Judaism cannot accept the altruistic principle; it cannot put ‘other’ in the center of the circle, because that place belongs to justice, which knows no distinction between ‘self’ and ‘other’…” (Ahad Ha'am, "The Character of Judaism," (1910), in Simon Noveck, ed., Contemporary Jewish Thought: A Reader (New York: B'nai Brith Department of Adult Jewish Education, 1963); originally published as "Between Two Opinions").
While we may question whether Ahad Ha’am has fairly depicted Christian morality as purely altruistic—it was, moreover, Catholic theologians like Augustine and Aquinas who made seminal contributions to the development of just war moral thinking—from Ahad Ha’am we learn that we have duties not only to others but to ourselves, and that we must seek to balance these duties by way of principles of justice. Some acts of self-respect and self-preservation are expressions of our moral responsibility to ourselves and our own communities, even if they may harm others. We must turn to principles of justice to understand which acts of self-protection are morally mandated, and which are violations of what justice requires.

Second, there is indeed a Jewish moral basis for the preemptive killing of a prospective murderer in the Talmud—“If a man comes to kill you, you kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a), a notion which is hardly in conflict with Jewish values, as Spielberg and Kushner suggest. The Munich massacre occurred within the context of an ongoing worldwide Palestinian terror war against Israel. “They hijacked planes, assassinated Israeli diplomats, and sent letter bombs all across the European continent,” notes Aaron Klein. In May 1972 alone, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a Sabena airlines flight from Brussels to Tel Aviv, demanding the release of Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, while the PFLP recruited members of the Japanese Red Army to commit an indiscriminate massacre at the arrivals terminal of Lod International Airport in Israel, killing twenty-six people and wounding seventy-six others. Palestinian terrorists had again and again risen to kill Israeli Jews, and there was no doubt that after Munich they would continue to do so.

IV. Just War, Terrorism and Preemptive Killing

In contrast to the standard context for preemptive killing or preemptive war, in which “peacetime” or an absence of armed conflict prevails between the two states until one party commits a preemptive act of war, Israeli preemptive killing of suspected terrorists has always occurred within the framework of an ongoing Palestinian war against Israel. Such acts are more akin to lawful reprisals committed after an armed conflict has already begun. Indeed, “‘defensive retaliation’ is justified when its prime motive is protective,” in the view of many legal scholars of the laws of war. “To be defensive, and therefore lawful, armed reprisals must be future oriented, and not limited to a desire to punish past transgressions.” (Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 199).

Former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir insists that “We were not engaged in vengeance. We are accused of having been guided by a desire for vengeance. That is nonsense. What we did was to concretely prevent terrorism in the future. We acted against those whom [we] thought would continue to perpetrate acts of terror…There is no defense without an offensive foundation….we viewed this as part the defensive alignment and deterrence that would put an end to open Palestinian terrorism in Europe. And I think that in the war which developed in the wake of Munich, we succeeded in putting an end to the type of terror that was perpetrated.” (Ha’aretz, Feb. 17, 2006) To be sure, one element in Israel’s motivation was surely a desire for retribution. But as Dinstein notes, “the motives driving states to action are usually multifaceted, and a tinge of retribution can probably be traced in every instance of response to force. The question is whether armed reprisals in a concrete situation go beyond retribution.”

Third, and most important, there is a crucial difference between pacifism and the just war traditions, between the endorsement of just but limited uses of force versus the view that all uses of force, and all wars, are immoral and unjust. In the pacifist schema, violence and peace are absolute polar opposites. But advocating peace, a just peace, does not require a pacifist stance against all violence or use of military force. In my view, those who take a just war approach to the use of force are the most responsible and the true advocates of peace and justice. But Spielberg’s film falls on the wrong side of this crucial distinction, confusing pacifism with peace, implicitly endorsing blanket opposition to the use of lethal force in self-defense—including anticipatory or preemptive self-defense—against those involved in murderous acts against innocents. The responsible peace advocate will instead embrace a more judicious way of criticizing inappropriate acts of force which at the same time recognizes the right of democratic states to engage in certain uses of lethal force.

I believe that the criteria for determining when an act of force is just must be redefined in the new era in which we live wherein Israel, European nations, the U.S., Australia and others are faced with asymmetrical warfare on the part of guerrillas, insurgents and terrorists. The characteristics defining such warfare include that
1. the agents of such forms of warfare against states are typically non-state groups;
2. they use stealth and do not identify themselves as combatants, refraining from wearing military uniforms;
3. they often engage in attacks against innocent civilians, often committing acts of mass murder.
In catastrophic acts of terror—like 9/11, or like the attempted bombing by Palestinian terrorists a few years ago of Israel’s largest fuel processing plant, near Tel Aviv, and another near Ashkelon, thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent lives are at risk. When terrorists begin to use non-conventional weapons—as there is good reason to believe they will in time—the loss of innocent life could be unimaginable, especially in the case of a small nuclear bomb in a major urban area. Graham Allison, the founding dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, concludes his remarkable book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe (Henry Holt, 204) with the warning that if policymakers in Washington keep doing what they are currently doing about the threat, a nuclear terrorist attack on a major American city is inevitable in the next decade. At the same time, if we and other nations take necessary and appropriate steps, the ultimate catastrophe is also preventable.

If liberal democratic states do not have the right to engage in acts of lethal force for the purpose of deterrence and prevention, taking preemptive steps against those we have good reason to hold responsible for committing murderous acts against their citizens, then democracies have no effective right to self-defense to protect their citizens against such atrocities given the inherent advantages which guerrilla, terrorist or insurgent combatants have against states and against vulnerable civilians in open societies like ours. The steps democracies should take to prevent such catastrophic terrorism are wide-ranging, but they must include the judicious use of preemptive killing of suspected terrorists.

Moreover, we may accept the legitimacy of preemptive killing of suspected terrorists without necessarily embracing a broader philosophy of preventive war. But it is clear that many contemporary observers have come to recognize that there is a

"fundamental problem with the existing UN-based rules governing the use of force. These rules are based on two key principles that were the product of a particular era, the end of World War II and the start of decolonization: first, that states are sovereign equals, and second, that they should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. The changes in the international environment of the past six decades have eroded the applicability of these foundational principles and thus rendered the rules based on them untenable." (Ivo Daalder and James Steinberg, in “The Future of Preemption,” The American Interest, Winter 2005).

But in a world in which state sovereignty is being eroded by a wide range of forces, and in which unprecedented threats to human life and well-being have emerged, the traditional UN “concept of the international system no longer accords with the world as it now exists. That means that the rules regulating the use of force must be adapted to the world we do live in—a world in which sovereignty is increasingly conditional on how states behave internally, and in which the need to intervene in the internal affairs of states is growing accordingly…[T]he problem with the Bush strategy has been less the concept of preventive force itself,” conclude Daalder and Steinberg, “than its near-unilateral application to achieve very ambitious—perhaps too ambitious—ends. Unilateral preventive wars of regime change should be relegated to the past. But circumstances will undoubtedly arise in the future in which policymakers will want to have the option of using force preventively—be it to kill terrorists, prevent weapons proliferation, halt genocide, stop the spread of deadly diseases, or deal with other kinds of danger. The proper task, then, is not to bury the concept, but to make it a more limited and more legitimate tool for addressing evolving security threats.”

Daalder and Steinberg maintain that

"a state’s failure to prevent internal developments that threaten people in other states implies that the responsibility to do so also falls on the international community. And the most effective way to commute that responsibility will often involve preventive action of some kind, up to and including military action. Indeed, the most effective way to defeat many of the new threats is to act before they are imminent—before enough fissile material has been produced to make nuclear weapons; before weapons in unsecured sites or deadly diseases in laboratories have been stolen; before terrorists have been fully trained to hatch their plots; before large-scale killing or ethnic cleansing has occurred; and before a deadly pathogen has mutated and spread sickness and death around the globe. Of course, in many of these cases military intervention is not the only or the preferred means for dealing with an emerging threat. There are often good alternatives…At the same time, the threat of force and the actual use of force will sometimes be necessary. And when it is, it is often best used early.” (pp. 36-37)

V. Selective Criticism of Targeted Killings

Beyond its blanket objection to Israel’s counterterrorism policy, “Munich” can also be understood as implicitly criticizing certain assassinations, like the killing in Rome of Wael Zu’aytir, a poet and translator who had rendered the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights into Italian, the first Palestinian assassinated in the film. The film depicts him as not having had a hand in killing Israeli civilians, whether the Munich athletes or others, though we hear Ephraim justify every target to Avner as having been complicit in terrorism against Israelis. Klein states that in fact, Zu’aytir, “unlike many of those around him…denounced terrorism and violence.” (p. 119)
He believes that “Zu’aytir was not directly involved in the Munich massacre. It also seems unlikely that he had an indirect hand in the operation as a saya’an [a helper]. Uncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced intelligence information tied him to the support network of Black September in Rome. From there, a slippery slope led the politically active, low-level saya’an to the Mossad’s hit list. Looking back, his assassination was a mistake. Undoubtedly, it resulted from the genuine desire to neutralize those involved in the Munich Massacre and ‘hot’ operatives in the midst of preparing an attack. Zu’aytir was, at best, a small fish in a pond of sharks. But in the vengeance-laced atmosphere of September and October 1972, when the head of the Mossad proclaimed that the mysterious, bohemian translator had blood on his hands, no one was in the mood to dispute it.” (p. 123)

Klein notes that a wide range of Palestinians in Europe who had been involved in the “planning, execution and logistical operations tied to the massacre” were placed on the Mossad’s assassination list. “In the weeks after the massacre, dozens of Palestinian names, implicated by thin shards of intelligence at best, were passed back to Tel Aviv. There, they were almost automatically put on a secret database of targets. The Mossad and the intelligence community, with the backing of the public consensus and the parliament, were stretching the meaning of the term ‘terrorist involvement’ to the limit. Anyone vaguely connected to a terrorist organization or act was immediately placed on the top of a slippery slope; assassination waited below.” (p. 111) While the Mossad did target terrorists who were substantially involved in the Munich massacre, or in planning or executing new attacks against Israelis, it is clear now that some of those it killed were not truly complicit in terrorism against Israel.

Had the film stopped there, its criticism of targeted killings would have been selective, judicious and appropriate. A judicious approach to criticizing targeted killings, drawn from just war tradition and modern laws of war, would apply the same sorts of criteria in deciding when an armed reprisal is immoral or unlawful: “[E]ach measure of counter-force should be put to the test whether it amounts to legitimate self-defense (in response to an armed attack), satisfying the requirements of necessity [and] proportionality…” (Dinstein, p. 203) Dinstein, like Michael Walzer and William O’Brien, among many other scholars who have applied just war doctrine to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, believes that some Israeli reprisals satisfy the criteria for just uses of force, while others do not. The same can be said for Israel’s assassinations. Each must be judged on its own merits.

Israeli governments can and should be criticized for having used this method at times irresponsibly, against the wrong people, including people who were innocent of complicity with the murder of Israelis and Jews; of having engaged in it at times and in ways that have sometimes have harmed the prospects for peace.[2] But from this it does not follow that targeted killings as a rule are inimical to a prospective peace. Aaron Klein concludes that overall, while some targeted killings have provoked acts of terror in the short term, “the numbers show a steep slide in the frequency of terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli institutions abroad from 1974 to the present.”

But the message that Spielberg and Munich seek to convey is that counter-terrorism solves nothing, begets more terror, and can’t lead to peace. Some targeted killings may indeed spur further retaliations, but the cumulative effect of a good counter-terror strategy is, and has been during several periods, the 80’s, 90’s and again in recent post-intifada years, to contribute to an overall disincentive to terror and to popular support for terror. At the same time, an effective counter-terrorism strategy must be accompanied by a very robust and generous set of political incentives to the Palestinian public to embrace moderation and the pursuit of peace talks with Israel, by far-reaching efforts to negotiate a peace agreement and on-the-ground changes which improve life for ordinary Palestinians. Strong counter-terrorist efforts which are never followed by serious and sustained attempts to encourage Palestinian support for reconciliation with Israel and to exploit opportunities for peace, are misbegotten. Much the same is true of preemption which never knows when it is best to forbear the use of lethal force. Both condemn Israel to live by the sword forever, nurturing the cynical right’s self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.

VI. Spielberg’s Volte Face on Israeli Counterterrorism After Munich

Having been subjected to widespread criticism for the moral message of Munich and for the politics he and Kushner attributed to the film in earlier interviews, Spielberg now insists that Israel was justified in waging its assassination campaign against Palestinian terrorists: He told Der Spiegel (January 26, 2006): “I believe that Israel’s prime minister had to respond to the monstrous provocation of Munich. Jews were being killed in Germany, and that at the Olympic Games. She could not let an act with such historic implications, such a gross transgression by the Black September movement, go unpunished. Munich was a national trauma for Israel. So in principle I think she did the right thing.” Now his revised view is that “A campaign of vengeance, even though it may contribute towards deterrence and preventing terror, can also have unintended consequences.” He draws our attention now to the damage such a campaign may wreak on the human beings who engage in assassinations: “It can change people, burden them, brutalize them, lead to their ethical decline. And even Mossad agents do not have water flowing through their veins.”

According to the new Spielberg, we are now to understand Avner’s disaffection with Israel, his abandonment of his country and his Mossad vocation, as nothing more than the dehumanizing consequences of combat on an individual, not as emblematic of the moral status of the State of Israel’s counter-terrorism policies. But can Spielberg have it both ways? The new Spielberg would have us believe, as he told Newsweek, that “’Munich’ never once attacks Israel”, and that “it barely criticizes Israel’s policy of counter-violence against violence.” Leon Wieseltier’s response to Spielberg’s new view is apt: “The latter claim is preposterous, as anybody who has seen Munich knows. The film’s very subject is the dubious moral legitimacy, and the dubious practical efficacy, of counterterrorism. If Munich is not about that, it is not about anything.” A repentant Spielberg, suddenly concerned with his image in the Jewish community, seems unwilling to stand by the principled criticisms of Israel’s counterterrorism policy that issue from his “prayer for peace.” As Wieseltier notes, “People should not engage the perplexities of morality and history if they are prepared only to be loved.”


Two books offer far more historically reliable accounts than Spielberg’s film of Israel’s counter-terror campaign following the Munich massacre, and both read like thrillers: Aaron J. Klein, Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response (Random House, 2005)

Klein, who is an officer in Israel’s Military Intelligence Branch, and Time magazine’s military and intelligence affairs Jerusalem correspondent, [from] interviews over 50 former and current Mossad members, and appears to have uncovered considerable new information. The book is described by the publisher as “the first full account based on access to key players who have never before spoken, of the Munich massacre and the Israeli response…”

Simon Reeve, One Day in September: The Full Story of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and the Israeli Revenge Operation “Wrath of God” (New York: Arcade, 2006)

For a more general history of Israeli intelligence and counter-terrorism:
Ian Black and Benny Morris, Israel’s Secret Wars: A History of Israel’s Intelligence Services

Recommended Articles:
1. Edward Rothstein, “Seeing Terrorism as Drama With Sequels and Prequels,” New York Times, December 26, 2005
2. Walter Reich, “Something’s Missing in Spielberg’s ‘Munich,’” Washington Post, January 1, 2006
3. Michael Kotzin, “‘Munich’ As a Post-Zionist Tale,”
4. Leon Wieseltier, “Steven Spielberg Bravely Confronts His Fundamentalist Critics,” The New Republic, February 2, 2006
5. Pauline Yearwood, “‘Munich’: Is Spielberg’s New Movie Good for the Jews?”, Chicago Jewish News cover story, January 1, 2006, presents a wide range of views about the film and its ideas in interviews with various Jewish commentators.

On the Jewish and Christian just war traditions, and law and morality in war, see:

1. Alan M. Dershowitz, Preemption: A Knife That Cuts Both Ways (Norton, 2006), which attempts to develop a jurisprudence or philosophy of preemption for our contemporary political world; unsurprisingly, the challenges facing Israel play a central role in Dershowitz’s thinking.
2. Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (Cambridge University Press, 2001), by Israel’s leading scholar of the laws of war.
3. Yoram Dinstein, The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
4. William V. O’Brien, Law and Morality in Israel’s War With the PLO (Routledge, 1991), a classic and still highly relevant application of just war thinking to Israel’s counter-terrorist operations prior to Oslo.
5. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (Basic, 1977), a highly readable volume on the just war tradition, with several examples pertaining to Israel;
6. Michael Walzer, “War and Peace in the Jewish Tradition,” and Aviezer Ravitzky, “Prohibited Wars in the Jewish Tradition,” in Terry Nardin, ed., The Ethics of War and Peace: Religious and Secular Perspectives (Princeton, 1996);
7. Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein, “The Jewish Tradition and the Gulf War,” in their Tough Choices: Jewish Perspectives on Social Justice (UAHC Press, 1992).

[1]“I think Israel would be advised to terminate the occupation through an agreement or a settlement that, if it can't be made with the Palestinians at this moment, should be made with the member states of the Arab League. I believe termination of the Israeli occupation is urgent, and is in Israel's best interests and can be implemented as a part of an Israel-Arab comprehensive agreement.” Amos Oz interview, The Nation (online) “Curing Fanaticism” by Jon Wiener, February 1, 2006.

[2]Aaron Klein observes that after Munich, Israel often went after Palestinian diplomats in Europe who were not directly responsible for the Munich massacre or for acts of terrorism against Israelis, simply because they were largely unprotected and accessible, whereas the real perpetrators of Munich—those few who survived and those involved behind the scenes in planning and orchestrating it—were living in third world countries with much protection so that Israel found it virtually impossible to go after them. (There was one notable exception to this rule, the 1972 commando operation against several prominent Palestinian terrorist masterminds in Beirut by the IDF’s special anti-terrorist force, Sayeret Matkal, in which the young Ehud Barak played a prominent role.) But this was the exception that proved the rule.

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