Friday, March 1, 2013

Q&A with author Dan Raviv

Dan Raviv
Dan Raviv is a Washington-based correspondent for CBS News, where he hosts the CBS News Weekend Roundup, a national radio broadcast. He is the author of Comic Wars, and the co-author, with Yossi Melman, of Every Spy a Prince, Friends In Deed, and, most recently, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars.

Q: What is the Obama administration likely to do regarding the situation between Israel and the Palestinians, both in the short term and looking ahead?

A: This very month, around March 21, Barack Obama will visit Israel and the West Bank -- his first visit to the Holy Land as President, although he did visit Israel when he was a senator.  

Frankly, no one in the region seems to know why Obama is going now.  Is it simply to counter the criticism, voiced mostly by American Jews who are politically conservative, that he snubbed Israel by not visiting during his first term?  Some White House officials privately admit that it was a mistake for him to visit Egypt and other Muslim nations, while excluding Israel from his first presidential visit to the region in 2009.  

I believe that he was trying to signal that he'd be very different from George W. Bush, who was perceived as absolutely pro-Israel in every way.  Obama had former senator George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explore the possibilities of negotiating a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but those efforts failed.  

There is no particular reason to be optimistic at this time, but Obama will certainly explore -- with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas -- whether negotiations can be re-started.  If that does happen, look for more friction between Obama and Netanyahu.  

The American president seems to believe that Israel, being the stronger party in the dispute with the Palestinians, should make the first concessions and gestures.  The prime minister, who was recently re-elected but hasn't yet formed his new coalition, generally has to include right-wing cabinet ministers who want to hold on to the West Bank and believe that Jewish settlements there are a good thing.  

However, if Netanyahu is somehow able to convince Obama that there is no substantial hope of progress toward negotiations with the deeply divided Palestinians at this time, then Israel and the United States may be able to put the emphasis on their military-security alliance.  They will find it preferable to confront Iran's nuclear program together.  Much of the cooperation is behind the scenes, in intelligence exchanges and joint covert operations: some of the subjects covered in the new book I co-wrote with Yossi Melman.

Q: Why did you and your co-author decide to write another book about Israeli intelligence, and what are some of the major changes you found since you wrote your first book on the subject more than two decades ago?

A: Yossi and I had already written four books together, so we have the work rhythms pretty figured out.  About four years ago we felt that it's time for an update to Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community.  Think about that title, and you'll understand we have heard wisecracks about our best seller from 1990 not being so "complete" -- if it requires a new book on the subject!  

Yet, of course, since 1990 there have been many new missions and adventures -- many successes and a few failures -- and a significant shift in emphasis for all of Israel's intelligence and security agencies.  

In about 2002, the Mossad -- the agency for foreign espionage and "special tasks" -- was ordered by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to focus on Iran as the primary enemy.  In addition to a suspected Iranian program to build nuclear bombs, Israel has gathered a massive amount of evidence that Iran finances terrorism by Hezbollah and other groups all around the world.  

The Mossad and the domestic security agency, Shin Bet, certainly continue to monitor and eavesdrop on Palestinian politics; and they pride themselves on tracking the plans and movements of violent groups in Gaza and Lebanon which constantly hatch plots against Israel.  

We note -- and this may resonate with people who have seen the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary, The Gatekeepers -- that despite Israel's excellence at counter-terrorism and other intelligence functions, those victories and capabilities have not resulted in peace and security for Israel.

Q: The first chapter of your new book deals with Iran. What do you think is likely to happen between Israel and Iran, and what will the U.S. role be?

A: There truly is a possibility that at any time, Israel's air force and missiles could attack uranium-enrichment facilities in Iran.  Netanyahu has warned of that, many times, but the saber-rattling mainly seems to be for the purpose of waking up the world: to get everyone's attention on how dangerous the Middle East would be if the Islamic Republic of Iran had nuclear bombs.  

President Obama and most European leaders agree with that, in theory, but Israel feels that its very existence could be at risk -- so military action is something the Israelis are rehearsing and planning in detail.  

However, most Israelis don't want to take extreme action without a go-ahead from the United States.  With the U.S. and other nations negotiating now with Iran, perhaps offering to ease sanctions in exchange for verifiable steps that freeze Iran's nuclear work, it seems unlikely that Israel would receive an American green light for a military strike.  Still, it's a possibility.   And if Iran refuses to freeze and open its nuclear program for full inspections, then it is also possible that the United States would join Israel in striking targets in Iran.

Q: How did you come up with the title Spies Against Armageddon?

A: For many months, we were fishing around for inspiration.  Most of our friends and publishers liked our previous titles, including Every Spy a Prince (based on a Biblical quote that I happened to hear recited on the radio one night, Numbers 13:2, "Send men to spy out the land of Canaan ...Of every tribe you shall send a man, every one a prince among them").  You know the popular phrase that inspired our book in 1994 about U.S.-Israel relations, Friends In Deed.  

As for the new one, we wanted a strong and recognizable word like "spies" or "Mossad," but we struggled with how to describe their mission in just a few words.  We discussed how Israel's security chiefs believe that they are averting disaster, because they believe that if their country loses just a few major battles -- or fails to detect huge threats -- then Armageddon would occur in the traditional land of Armageddon (named for Megiddo, a town in Israel that you can still visit today).

Q: Are you working on another book now?

A: Yossi, in Israel, is always writing about Israeli security, and he handled a very successful Hebrew translation of our latest book -- and thus a lot of potential sources are frequently in touch with grand ideas for books.  

Having written one book solo -- an account of the roller-coaster of litigation and rivalries that saved Marvel Comics from bankruptcy, Comic Wars -- I am also on the lookout for American topics.  It is very challenging to think of an interesting subject now, and commence the contacts and research, while feeling confident that in two or three years it will still be a topic that interests readers.  

We are both tempted by the possibilities of e-publishing, which has a very different business model -- with good and bad elements for authors -- but does allow a writer about current events to get his work out there in the book market quickly.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Spies Against Armageddon is my first book in a decade, and the first one I co-authored with Yossi Melman since 1994. I feel that the whirlwind of publicity, interviews, and waiting for the big reviews hasn't changed a lot.  

But bookstores are not the same as they were. There are far fewer, and many book buyers seem to depend only on Amazon and other on-line vendors.  Physical books are still popular, to be sure, as many folks like to hold a book as they read it.  But, as expected, a little more than half our sales so far have been e-books.  In case you're curious, the Kindle sales far outnumber all the others combined.  No one could blame an author, these days, for focusing his or her efforts on Amazon and its e-reading system, Kindle!  

Especially as a radio and TV broadcaster, where most of my reports are very short -- and in an instant, they vanish into the ether -- it still is a very good feeling to produce a longer and deeper work, in the hope that it can last a lot longer.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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