I’m about to tell you a story that you will not believe. The stupidity, self-delusion, and sheer ineptitude displayed by those who approved this IDF intelligence mission simply beggar belief. Lest anyone doubt the truth of the story, it comes directly from a 2012 memoir published by a veteran of Israeli military intelligence, someone with impeccable credentials and a hero to the nation, Rafi Sutton. Sutton is 82 years old. More on him later. But here’s the story:
In 1968, the Six Day War had just ended. Israel had conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Relations with Jordan were extremely tense. The PLO had begun to use Jordan both as a refuge and forward operating base against Israel. This would eventually lead to Black September in 1970, in which King Hussein liquidated the PLO presence killing thousands of Palestinians. But back in 1968, that was still in the future.
Israeli intelligence sought to attack and degrade the PLO wherever possible. Which led to a cockamamie plan developed by a senior IDF officer and approved all the way up to the Aman chief, Aharon Yariv. According to Sutton, the officer planned to choose a PLO prisoner, train him to carry out an assassination of a target Sutton inside Jordan. It would be Sutton’s job to provide logistical support and get the hit man across the border with the necessary equipment to carry out the operation.
But here’s the kicker: Aman was worried about how it would deal with the aftermath. What happened once the assassin was caught and he spilled the beans to PLO or Jordanian intelligence? Israel didn’t want Jordan to be able trace the operation back to the IDF. So the genius who devised this plan decided to hypnotize (you read that right) the would-be killer so that once he was captured he wouldn’t remember anything of how he got there, who sent him, etc. If the killer’s mind was wiped clean, Israel would be off the hook.
A well-placed Israeli source has added some crucial detail that wasn’t included in Sutton’s own autobiography. The officer who concocted this bizarre plan was the Israeli Navy’s chief psychologist, Maj. Binyamin Shalit. Shalit later brought a groundbreaking case demanding his children be considered Jewish though his wife was not Jewish and he an atheist.
Israel’s target was none other than Yaser Arafat himself. This may be the first time Israel attempted to murder Arafat (but it certainly wouldn’t be the last).
If you think that’s the end of this sorry caper, you’re mistaken: Sutton carried out his portion of the plan. The Palestinian crossed into Jordan. But instead of making his way to the victim and carrying out his job, he went straight to the nearest Jordanian police station, asked to speak with the nearest PLO liaison, gave up his gun to the Jordanian officer on duty in the station, and promptly spilled the beans on the entire operation.
Naturally, this further inflamed relations with Jordan and gave Aman a tremendous black eye.
Decades later, Sutton met Yariv in Heathrow Airport, where they both awaited a connecting flight to Israel. Sutton had genuine affection for his former commander. But his curiosity about this Keystone caper and how it was approved, got the better of him. He asked how the operation came to be and whether the commander had any second-thoughts. This was how he replied:
Ahareleh [Yariv] signed deeply two or three times and said: “My dear Leon [the nickname Yariv had for Sutton], even great and wise men, and I don’t count myself as either great or wise, make mistakes in the course of their lives and in the course of their work. The years following allow us to allay our pain and learn lesson [from our mistakes].”
Ahareleh’s answer was a pleasant embroidery of words which attested to the the error [he made] and his personal accounting for it.
This incredible adventure attests to the fact that Israeli intelligence, despite its noted successes such as capturing Eichmann, had its share of bizarre, catastrophic failures. These failures were almost always rooted in a sense of hubris, and sometimes an enormous amount of ignorance (in this case, concerning the nature of hypnosis). They show a lack of oversight and skepticism that is always advisable in an intelligence context. It was true in 1968 and remains true today.
To be fair, Aman isn’t the only national intelligence service which engaged in cockamamie operations over the years: note the CIA’s 1950s dabbling in LSD, which led one subject to commit suicide; and the exploding cigars which failed to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Interesting to note that the Israeli Intelligence Heritage Center (yes, there is such a thing) published Yariv’s biography a year after Sutton’s was published. Not a word about this episode. I smell a conspiracy by the Israeli intelligence establishment to clean its dirty laundry. Few are the “heroes” willing to bare all to tell the truth about their life. Those who do are both courageous and doing a good deed both for historians and their fellow citizens. Those who don’t are flattering their egos and protecting their legacy. I don’t protect legacies. I expose them so that the truth is known.
Sutton is an interesting figure in his own right as this 1982 JTA story, about his reunion with his childhood synagogue in Lebanon during the 1982 War, attests. Here is another Hebrew biography by the IDF veterans association.