Espionage, Anyone?

In the halcyon days of the Mossad, even recruiting spies was a covert operation. Sometimes Israel's fabled secret service set up front companies to lure prospects. In an unmarked building on the outskirts of town, a lone recruiter would ask candidates if they were interested in a fulfilling career that included service to the country and exotic travel. The Mossad was not mentioned. Sometimes the agency ran "false flag" recruitments in which an agent would pose as an operative of another country. New recruits might never know they were gathering intelligence for Israel. The safest method was one Mossadniks called haver mevir haver, Hebrew for "a friend brings along a friend." Relying on Israel's small but powerful old-boy network, spies would discreetly recommend their relatives or closest friends for service. So Israeli spymasters were aghast when they learned of the Mossad's latest plan to find new recruits: last week the agency began running splashy ads in Israeli newspapers and on government Web sites. Featuring yawning steel doors emblazoned with a menorah, the state emblem, the ads announce the Mossad is opening up, and beckon applicants to a "thrilling career" and a future of service in a field that is "dearest to all of us."

Thrilling, perhaps, but in recent years the Mossad has had a hard time replenishing its ranks. As the nation's society evolves and its high-tech economy continues to boom, young Israelis are finding the glitz and glamour of the dot-com world more seductive than the quiet sacrifices of the Mossad. No longer feeling under siege from all sides, Israelis are less burdened by the tug of national service and less willing to submerge their individualism for the good of the Zionist enterprise. "The feeling of being part of a noble collective pursuit has been replaced by the preaching of individualism," says Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and the author of a respected book on the Mossad. And the Mossad has its own problems. A series of high-profile bungles in recent years has tarnished its luster and made it less attractive to the best and the brightest.

Given the pressures on the agency, it couldn't afford to be timid in rolling out its recruitment campaign. Besides placing the ads, the Mossad tapped a prominent PR consultant to plan the media blitz. The current top spy, Ephraim Halevy, even trotted out a few of his predecessors to help the public "interpret" Mossad's surprising move. For an agency that until recently guarded the identity of its director as a state secret, the campaign is a stunning turnaround. "I was appalled at first," says Shabtai Shavit, chief of the Mossad from 1989 until 1996. "My generation considered the Mossad a black box, where secrecy and compartmentalization was the first order of the day." He came around when he realized that his beloved agency was facing a crisis. "The Mossad could not remain stagnant as the rest of the world changed," he says.

The Israeli government readily admits that the Mossad is being outbid by Internet start-ups. "High-tech companies and the business world attract high-caliber workers with generous salaries, fringe benefits and a social status that the Mossad cannot offer," the office of Prime Minister Ehud Barak conceded in a statement released last week. But it is trying. The agency is even offering perks, including new cars and assistance with mortgages, as incentives. The irony, Mossad veterans say, is that it was Israel's military and security services that inspired the country's high-tech explosion and trained many of its innovators.

Officials are more reluctant to talk about the other reasons for the Mossad's poor recruitment. Lately the agency that captured Adolf Eichmann and planned the Entebbe rescue seemed like the gang that couldn't shoot straight. In 1997 the failed attempt to assassinate a Hamas leader in Amman caused a diplomatic storm. It settled only when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to release from prison Sheik Ahmed Yasin, Hamas's spiritual leader and founder and a mortal enemy of Israel. Earlier this summer a Mossad agent went on trial in Switzerland after police nabbed him as he attempted to wiretap the home of a Lebanese car dealer. Convicted, the spy received a suspended sentence.

Despite the occasional blunder, the Mossad may still be just as effective. But in an Israel that is busy questioning its founding myths, the spy agency is also under more scrutiny than ever before. "All the sacred cows have been slaughtered, including the Mossad," says Shavit. Moreover, in a time of peace deals and summits, when Israel is the unchallenged regional superpower, the Mossad is groping for a clearer role. The challenge for Israel's spies will be to boost the Mossad's beleaguered image while redefining its mission. That's something even the slickest admen can't help them do.