CAMBRIDGE – Security is very much on Ronen Bergman’s mind these days. The author of the acclaimed 2018 best-seller, “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” Bergman has plenty of recent history to ponder in his day job as a journalist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth and the New York Times.
When the Tel Aviv-based Bergman, 47, came to the Boston area for a recent talk at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the headlines were full of developments. The Trump Administration had presented an Israeli/Palestinian peace plan, which was released in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being indicted on charges that included bribery and fraud. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas rejected the plan.
Reflecting the local interest in the Middle East, Bergman spoke to a capacity crowd in a closed-door, off-the-record event. It was overall a busy day at the Kennedy School, which also hosted a talk by 2011 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, the second Muslim woman to earn the peace prize.
After Bergman’s talk, he sat down with The Jewish Journal to discuss his views on Israel’s security.
Asked about the relative danger of external versus internal concerns, Bergman said, “I always think internal is by far the greatest threat.”
While he expressed faith in Israel’s ability to defend itself from outside challenges, he lamented “the internal shifts inside Israeli society,” including “the violence, the incitement, the language used [by] one against the other on social media, the disrespect of democracy, the campaign Prime Minister Netanyahu is leading against the very foundation of democracy in order to save his neck from jail.
“A lot of that is a recipe for disaster,” Bergman concluded.
He also mentioned economic stratification in Israeli society as well as other types of separation: “Divisions between right and left, religious and nonreligious, differences between Ashkenazis and Sephardim, all of that; differences between Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, between liberals and nationalists. These are all deepening. They’re not getting better, but much, much worse.”
Into this volatile mix, there is now the Trump peace plan, which Bergman characterized as “not a peace plan,” but rather “an agreement between Netanyahu and Trump, orchestrated, planned … in order to save Netanyahu from trial and prison.” He said that the plan “has no chance to become a real basis for negotiations,” and added, “this plan, if executed, could lead to war.”
Earlier last month, news coverage addressed fears of a separate Mideast conflict after the U.S. carried out a targeted assassination of a prominent Iranian military commander, General Qasem Soleimani, on Jan. 3 in Baghdad.
“I’m not sure it really changes a lot of things for Israel,” Bergman said of the assassination. However, he added, there are “other parts” of possible developments that “do include Israel.” For instance, he said, “if Iran continues to enrich uranium, if Iran continues its military buildup in Syria and Lebanon,” and if Iran increases support of militant groups such as Hezbollah, “all of this could lead to a further deterioration of the situation.”
Bergman has become a sought-after speaker following the publication of “Rise and Kill First,” which takes its title from a Talmudic phrase. Israel has done more targeted killings than any other Western country since World War II. According to Bergman, his book is the first-ever account of this longtime Israeli policy, which he said has prevented larger-scale conflagrations.
“In many, many cases, it was the alternative for all-out war,” he said. “It will save lives.”
Now being adapted into a dramatic series by HBO, the book was “the product of eight years of hard work,” Bergman said. He interviewed 1,000 people while doing research, including Netanyahu and three of his predecessors: Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon.
“I always decide to do more [rather] than less,” he said. “It proved to be the right call.”
That was reflected by the full house at his Harvard talk.
“The reception has been just wonderful,” Bergman said. “I’ve been so positively surprised, and happy we received so many great reviews, prizes, nominations.”