Cover image of "The Angel," a book about Israeli history

Israeli history is one of continuous war punctuated by intermittent stretches of peace. The open military conflicts the young nation has experienced have always threatened its continuing existence, but none more so than the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Never before and never since has Israel come closer to annihilation.

In The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, the Israeli political scientist Uri Bar-Joseph tells the little-known tale of Ashraf Marwan. This son-in-law of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and close adviser to his successor, Anwar Sadat, was also a spy for the Mossad. Marwan’s reports to his handler enabled the Israeli Defense Force to recover from the surprise of the initial Egyptian and Syrian attack and soon turn the tide.

A remarkable episode in Israeli history

Marwan’s story is astonishing. As a supremely ambitious young man, he married Nasser’s daughter. Marwan made the mistake of misjudging his father-in-law. When the puritanical president learned that Marwan was using his position to enrich himself, he cast the young man adrift. Bar-Joseph speculates that Marwan’s desire to exert revenge on Nasser led him to offer himself as an informant for the Mossad.

The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel by Uri Bar-Joseph (2016) 373 pages ★★★★☆

The making of an Egyptian spy

Nasser died in 1970 when Marwan was just 26 years of age. He cleverly maneuvered himself into the good graces of Anwar Sadat by undermining the Nasserite faction during the confusion when the country’s new leadership was in question. In short order, Marwan became Sadat’s personal representative to other Middle Eastern leaders, including King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and President Moammar Gaddhafi of Libya. These connections, and his closeness to Sadat, enabled him to amass a large personal fortune while reporting to the Israelis on a regular basis.

Doubts about Marwan’s authenticity

Marwan’s reports in the early 1970s frequently reached the desk of Prime Minister Golda Meir. But he was not universally regarded as reliable within the Israeli intelligence community. In fact, for the rest of his life there were those in the Israeli military intelligence leadership who maintained that Marwan was a double agent, placed to mislead Israel at important junctures. It was this skepticism that led several key Israeli leaders to disregard several of Marwan’s early warnings of the impending Egyptian-Syrian attack. Only on the day of the attack itself was his last, desperate message heeded at the highest levels. Though it came only hours before the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal, the warning time was sufficient for the IDF to avoid catastrophe.

Espionage and egotism

Bar-Joseph explains at great length how distrust of Marwan came to be so widespread not just in the Israeli government and military but among the public as well. The head of military intelligence when the Yom Kippur War broke out had rejected Marwan’s report of the imminent attack—and for decades afterward he insisted in press interviews and in a widely read book that Marwan was a double agent. Bar-Joseph details the evidence refuting the double agent hypothesis and makes clear that Marwan’s chief critic was motivated by a desire to avoid blame for his failure to act on the warnings he received. Little wonder, since his stubborn refusal to accept reality was one of the most shameful acts in Israeli history.

About the author

Uri Bar-Joseph is an Israeli political scientist who has written the definitive book on the intelligence failures that caused his country to come close to losing the Yom Kippur War. The Angel focuses on the role of the intelligence establishment’s relationship with the spy whose reports were decisive in enabling an Israeli victory.

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