Israel’s top weekly TV newsmagazine, Uvdah, features a profile of Israel’s most-storied living spy, Rafi Eitan. The stories of his exploits as operations chief within the Mossad are legend: he began his career by kidnapping Eichmann and returning him to face justice in Israel. In 1968, while serving as an Israeli ministry of defense “chemist” he visited the U.S. uranium enrichment facility. Later, 200 pounds of materials were discovered stolen and believed to have played a crucial role in accelerating Israel’s own WMD program. Though the U.S. investigated the theft and discovered the culprits, the results were never released and no findings were ever made.
Eitan played a key role in the planning of the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, which led to its destruction. In 1984, while heading LEKEM, an intelligence unit tasked with recruiting sources from technical-scientific backgrounds, he recruited and ran Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst. While Pollard was active as an Israeli spy, he offered Israel a treasure trove of material on the Soviet navy. The damage Pollard did to U.S. intelligence was massive. Eitan’s failure came when Pollard fell under suspicion and was eventually captured by the FBI’s counter-espionage unit. Then, the damage Eitan’s intelligence asset did to U.S.-Israel relations was immeasurable and has colored our relations ever since. The spy was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Israeli prime ministers and the Israel Lobby in the U.S. have mounted repeated attempts to free him, which have failed due to counter-pressure exerted by the U.S. intelligence community.
One previously unknown facet of the story of Pollard’s exposure as an Israeli agent involved an escape plan which Eitan activated when it became clear Pollard had become a suspect. For some reason, Pollard never fled as the plan had directed. He waited three days and then tried to gain asylum at the Israeli embassy. It was Eitan himself who refused him entry, realizing that giving him refuge would cause an even worse breach with the U.S. government than allowing him to be caught and tried.
Eitan returned home and accepted full responsibility for the Pollard affair. He resigned his position, Lekem was disbanded, and Eitan’s spy career was over. Israel promised (falsely) that it would never spy on the U.S. again. It continues doing so to this day.
An interesting personal anecdote concerns Eitan’s post-career hobby as a sculptor. It strangely mirrors Meir Dagan’s hobby as a painter and art collector. What personal schizoid psychological phenomena is it within these individuals that allows them to transition from cold-blooded killers to refined artists? Let’s not forget that Hitler himself was a landscape artist (one of his paintings sold this week for $164,000) before his rise to power.
One notorious and hitherto secret operation for which Eitan deserves far more ‘credit’ is the key role he played in the formation of Hezbollah. Eitan’s wife, Miriam, who for decades played the traditional Israeli role of dutiful wife and silent witness, reveals via her personal diary, Eitan’s efforts in founding the Islamist group:
She remained quiet when he disappeared for days on end in Lebanon and founded there a militant Shiite organization which, in future days would come to be Hezbollah.
He initially conceived Hezbollah as a counter to the power of Arafat’s PLO within Lebanon. It’s virtually the same strategy Israel used in founding Hamas, also a little known chapter in Israeli intelligence history told in the Wall Street Journal (of all places!). In this circumstance too, after trying and failing numerous times to create quisling Palestinian entities to combat the supremacy of the PLO, it determined to found an Islamist organization to counter-balance the secular Fatah.
In both cases, Israel’s strategy succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. In fact, both Islamist groups, like the legendary Golem from the medieval Jewish folktale, took on a life of their own and escaped the clutches of their creators. Once they became independent, they turned into Israel’s worst nightmare. Anyone who’s seen the film, Charley Wilson’s War, will understand that the CIA determined to do the same with the Afghan mujahadeen, in fighting the Russians. Instead, they eventually spawned Osama bin Laden. Similarly, in trying to bring the downfall of Bashar al-Assad the U.S. and Gulf States built up the radical Islamist Sunni groups that became Al Nusra and ISIS. This sort of strategy almost always leads to unforeseen fatal consequences. These are tragedies borne by future generations. The geniuses who conceive these ideas rarely have to live with, or take responsibility for what they’ve done.
For once, I’d like a Meir Dagan or Rafi Eitan to look back on the mayhem they’ve wrought and pronounce upon themselves the ultimate fate, as this medical doctor did (Hebrew), who served as Eitan’s medical specialist during his exploits kidnapping Israeli enemies and traitors. Dr. Elian realized he’d betrayed his Hippocratic Oath in serving as Eitan’s facilitator of state-sponsored vengeance or murder. He couldn’t live with himself. The problem with men like Eitan and Dagan is that they have enormous reserves of self-deceit that protect them from seeing what they’ve done.
Miriam doesn’t share the same megalomania. She is a woman very aware of her husband’s weaknesses and the compromises she’s had to make to remain his partner. She is someone who confides them to her diary, though she will tell virtually no one else, not even her husband. In the Mako story, she recounts her shame at hearing that her husband, in 1988 during the days of the First Intifada, as Yitzhak Rabin is telling his troops to break the bones of demonstrators, gives a TV interview in which he advocates unleashing attack-dogs on the Palestinians. In those days, when Israel’s moral conscience was somewhat more refined, such echoes of the acts of the Nazis who sicced their dogs on helpless Jewish victims, raised horrible memories. Eitan, who’d been trying to recover his own reputation after the Pollard fiasco, was reviled. Miriam herself wanted to flee. His words repelled her. But she’d been trained to be the helpmeet, to keep her views to herself. In the end, she compromised and remained with him despite her understanding of the ‘small-mindedness’ of which he was capable.
In many ways, this is a moral wrestling that all Israelis with consciences must experience. Can you live with the compromises your husband or country demand from you? Can you live with yourself when you see such ugliness? Most can, but some can’t.
Though some of us, reading Miriam’s words, root for her to have the courage to leave. We must understand how hard it is for a lone individual to make such a frightening choice. In the same way, it’s hard for the average Israeli to consider uprooting himself from the land, language, and country which nurtured him or her. But I believe that more and more will be forced to make such choices as conditions continue to deteriorate inside Israel. It’s a sad, tragic situation.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.