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 opens Friday in North America.
“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 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.
Like “Vengeance,” Spielberg’s film focuses on an Israeli assassin, Avner, who suffers a crisis of conscience over his country’s reprisals policy.
Spielberg shows Avner’s doubts growing over time and under operational duress. “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.
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 set-up flies in the face of logic as well as logistics, according to Israelis-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.
“It was a matter of putting out the word to our people who were posted in various countries to look out for top Black September members. When these were located, then we sent out the right agents to take care of business, on a more ad-hoc basis.”
“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.
“C’mon, like any intelligence agency we had the right people trained and ready to go. The idea of a prime minister meeting with a junior field agent is unthinkable — it’s bad for secrecy, for a start, not to mention completely unnecessary,” said one veteran of the Mossad operations at the time.
When asked about the Mossad’s criticism, Dennis Ross, the former U.S. Middle East envoy, characterized them 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.”
Then there is the peculiarly international composition of Spielberg’s hit team, with Avner apparently being the only Israeli-born agent. While the Mossad is known to seek out agents with foreign citizenships and mastery of foreign languages, veterans say it is rare for someone without an established Israeli pedigree to be recruited. Always on the look-out for potential moles or double agents, the Mossad is unlikely to take on someone whose personal history is not intricately ties to the Jewish state.
Remarkably, 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.
“In espionage, like in police work, there is nothing better than having a woman accomplice on hand,” said Shimron. “If you are on a stakeout — say, waiting in a car — and have a lady with you, you are far less likely to be questioned.”
According to “Munich,” the hit team had its expenses paid out of a Swiss bank account but still had to keep receipts — something Mossad veterans say is simply bad trade.
“The whole point of being a spy is having a cover, and having a cover usually means you have a legitimate-sounding and normal source of income,” said one. “So why schlep all the way to Switzerland? As for keeping receipts — why provide the authorities with a paper trail if you are caught?”
But Ross said Spielberg had a different goal 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.”
According to most authoritative accounts, Israel’s hunt for Black September continued over two decades, with the final death toll reaching close to 20. But Spielberg’s version leads the audience to believe that just 11 terrorists were on the hit list.
“There are 11 Jews killed in Munich, 11 Palestinians that we killed — in other words, ‘tit for tat’ and ‘an eye for an eye,’ ” Michael Bar-Zohar, who wrote an authorized history of the reprisals, told Israel Radio.
“This balancing act is simply outrageous, because anyone who sees our fight with those who want to destroy us as balanced does not know what he is talking about.”
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 in New York contributed to this report.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.