Israeli spy veterans question veracity of Spielbergs Munich

tel aviv | Fact may be stranger than fiction, but when it comes to espionage, fiction makes for better storytelling.

That was the conclusion drawn by many veterans of — and experts on — the Israeli intelligence service Mossad when they heard about Steven Spielberg’s new thriller “Munich,” which opened last month.

“The basis for this film has no relation to reality, though it may be a cracking tale,” said Eitan Haber, a Mossad historian.

In his portrayal of the Mossad’s retaliation for the Palestinian terrorist attack on its athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Spielberg has drawn on the book “Vengeance,” despite the fact that it has been discredited in Israel and abroad.

The killing of senior Palestinians blamed for the Munich massacre, in a series of shootings, booby-trap bombings and commando raids in Europe and the Middle East, is beyond dispute.

What irks those few Israelis with direct knowledge of the top-secret missions is the way Spielberg’s Mossad hit team functions, a depiction they say owes more to a romantic idea of the Zionist fighting ethos than to accurate historical research.

“The modus operandi is entirely wrong,” said Gad Shimron, a former Mossad operative-turned-journalist.

Spielberg insists that he consulted with a former Israeli agent for “Munich,” and he opens the film with the disclaimer that it was “inspired” by real events.

“Munich” posits that the hero was the leader of a diverse group of agents assigned to track down a rogue’s gallery of wanted men from the Black September faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Spielberg shows his doubts growing over time and under operational duress. For dramatic effect, the assassins are isolated in the field, left to their own devices by an Israeli high command loath to risk exposure.

But such a setup defies logic as well as logistics, according those in the know.

“There was never a single list of targets drawn up, and certainly never a single hit team assigned to handle them,” a retired Mossad deputy chief said on condition of anonymity.

“Munich” rightly notes that Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time of the Olympics attack, authorized Mossad to go on the offensive — this was an executive decision. But the film has elicited strong doubts in Israel by showing Meir personally recruiting Avner for the mission.

Dennis Ross, the former U.S. Middle East envoy, characterized the portrayal of Mossad as fair.

“This is a movie,” said Ross, who served as a consultant to Spielberg on the film. “There’s no claim that it’s a documentary.”

The agents in “Munich” are also all male. This flies in the face of a notorious, and fully documented, Mossad operation at the time: the 1973 killing in Norway of a Moroccan waiter who was mistaken for the Black September chief. Two women were among the Israeli agents tried for murder in that case.

But Ross said Spielberg had a goal other than historical accuracy in mind.

“In the end, I think he wanted to make a movie that was a compelling story to begin with. No. 2, I think he wanted to at least highlight some of the dilemmas that you face when responding to terror.”

The director admits inventing a scene entirely at one point in the plot — showing a PLO man lecturing Avner on the justice of the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

Without that exchange, Spielberg told Time magazine, “I would have been making a Charles Bronson movie — good guys vs. bad guys and Jews killing Arabs without any context. And I was never going to make that picture.”

JTA staff writer Chanan Tigay contributed to this report.