The Myths and Reality of Munich

After the slaughter of its Olympians, Israel vowed to hunt down the killers. But, says a new book, that's not whom it got

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Vowing to hunt down the perpetrators of Munich, Prime Minister Meir set up a process by which the head of the Mossad, Israel's spy agency, could make the case for a candidate's assassination. The PM and select Cabinet members would say yea or nay. If yea, the hit would be executed by a unit called Caesarea, dubbed by some media the Wrath of God team.

The first Palestinian to die was Wael Zwaiter, shot in Rome six weeks after Munich. Mossad told Meir he was head of Black September in Rome and had abetted the Munich massacre. But Klein, who based his book in large part on rare interviews with key Mossad officers involved in the reprisal missions, writes that the intelligence on Zwaiter was "uncorroborated and improperly cross-referenced. Looking back, his assassination was a mistake."

The Israelis, of course, wanted to get to the real planners and executors of Munich, but these had hunkered down with bodyguards in East-bloc and Arab countries, where the Israelis couldn't reach them. Meanwhile, lesser Palestinian activists wandered around West Europe unprotected, and so Palestinians began to die at the hands of assassins across Europe. Israeli security officials claimed these dead men were responsible for Munich; P.L.O. pronouncements made them out to be important figures; and so the image of the Mossad as capable of delivering death at will grew and grew.

The idea behind the slayings was not just to punish the perpetrators of Munich but also to disrupt and deter future terrorist acts. For the second goal, one dead P.L.O. operative was as good as another. Klein quotes a senior intelligence source: "Our blood was boiling. When there was information implicating someone, we didn't inspect it with a magnifying glass."

And Munich's actual perpetrators? Klein believes the Mossad got only one man directly connected to the massacre: Atef Bseiso, shot in Paris as late as 1992. Abu Iyad, Black September's chief, was killed by a fellow Palestinian in 1991. Abu Daoud, who commanded the Munich attack, was, ironically, allowed to enter Israel in 1996 so he could go to the Gaza Strip for a P.L.O. meeting convened to rescind an article in its charter calling for Israel's eradication. Of the three terrorists who survived the airfield firefight, one died of heart failure in the '70s. Another, Jamal al Gashey, appeared in the 2000 documentary One Day in September. Last summer P.L.O. veteran Tawfiq Tirawi told Klein that the third, his friend Mohammed Safady, was "as alive as you are."

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