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Rafi Eitan died last week at the age of 92. He is widely hailed by Israeli and foreign media as a national hero and Israel’s most famous spymaster. Though in physical appearance he was an unlikely specimen: he was short and dumpy (Haaretz describes him as “unkempt”), hard of hearing and wore owlish glasses that made him look like a cross between Mr. Magoo and the aged hero (Mr. Fredricksen) of the film, Up. He wore rumpled suits and his hair was always unruly.
He managed to triumph over his physical limitations and became the avatar of the Israeli secret agent. The reputation of Israel’s intelligence services, particularly the Mossad, was made by individuals like him. Tales of his derring-do served as mythic foundation stones and led to Hollywood movies and gallons of ink celebrating his exploits.
As the NY Times portrayed him:
He played important roles in the surgical strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, the theft in the late 1960s of at least 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium from a nuclear fuel plant in the Pittsburgh area that helped Israel’s atomic bomb program, and the assassinations of the Palestinian commandos who carried out the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Every Israeli school child learns of his greatest exploit, kidnapping Nazi architect of the Final Solution, Adolf Eichmann, and returning him to Israel for trial, which ended in his execution in 1962.
These operations often resulted in terrible failure or resulted in controversy which endangered Israel’s relationships with key allies. The uranium theft referred to above was assigned to a spy ring which included Arnon Milchan, who later went on the become a noted Hollywood producer. For years after the theft U.S. law and intelligence agencies sought to investigate and charge the culprits. But at least two presidents, seeking to avoid ruffling the feathers of important American pro-Israel power-brokers, refused to pursue the matter
Eitan’s dogged pursuit of the Munich terrorists, which became not just a Mossad obsession, but a national one, resulted in the murder of a Palestinian waiter who was targeted as a result of mistaken identity.
Earlier, in the 1950s, the Israeli spymaster led two disastrous operations. In 1954, Operation Bren involved a honeypot who ensnared an IDF military attaché, Capt. Alexander Israel, serving in Europe, who was suspected of selling military secrets to the Egyptians. After kidnapping him, Eitan put him on a plane back to Israel. However, the plane was forced to land and refuel several times. This prolonged the flight for forced the medical doctor on board to give him repeated injections of drugs which rendered him unconscious. The doctor caused a fatal overdose and Bren died en route. When Eitan told the Mossad chief, Isser Harel, what happened he angrily ordered the pilot to take flight and dump the body in the Mediterranean. The victim’s family never learned of his true fate till many years later.
This may have contributed to Dr. Yonah Elian’s suicide in 2011. In the years leading up to his death, he told his family that he feared he had betrayed the Hippocratic Oath by participating in the capture of Eichmann, which in turn led to his death. He also refused to attend a special gathering of the Knesset which honored him for his service to the nation. Eitan, on the other hand, had no such moral compunctions.
Another catastrophic failure was the 1965 assassination of Moroccan opposition leader, Mehdi Ben Barka, who lived in exile in Geneva. After Moroccan intelligence services offered Israel a tape of the Arab League summit held in Rabat at which plans were devised to create a joint Arab front against Israel in the event of future wars, the king called in an Israeli favor. He demanded that they kill the fiery young leader who threatened the royal dynasty’s hold on power. The operation resulted in kidnapping him at a newsstand in Geneva and spiriting him out of the country to France. In a secret apartment which the Mossad station chief, Eitan, secured for them, they drowned Ben Barka in a bathtub as they tortured him.
Ronen Bergman in his book on the history of Mossad assassinations, reports that the Moroccan was buried in the St. Germain forest outside Paris, under what is now a roadway leading to the headquarters of the Louis Vuitton Foundation. This killing spurred tremendous controversy because the Mossad had essentially farmed itself out as hired killers for a foreign country, instead of solely pursuing the interests of Israel. The French were furious when they discovered the Moroccan had been murdered on their soil. It threatened a major disruption to French-Israeli relations. French-Moroccan relations have been strained to this day. A former Mossad chief demanded the Israeli prime minister’s resignation and conducted a guerilla campaign trying to oust both him and the current head of the spy agency. The entire episode was a disaster for almost all concerned (except Eitan). Afterward, these sorts of operations were shunned by the intelligence agency.
Eitan’s most spectacular failure was “running” Jewish naval intelligence officer, Jonathan Pollard, one of the most damaging spies in U.S. history. Israel is alleged to have exchanged the photographic intelligence from him with the Soviet Union in return for freeing Soviet Jewish dissidents. U.S. counter-intelligence officials exposed the Israeli spy and he fled to the Israeli embassy in Washington. However, fearful of provoking an incident that might jeopardize U.S.-Israel relations, Eitan himself refused him access. Pollard was arrested and served a 30-year sentence for espionage.
Israel’s TV news magazine version of 60 Minutes, called Uvdah, profiled Eitan in the last years of his life. In a joint interview with his wife, who suffered many long periods of absence from her husband, she revealed the little-known role he played in founding Hezbollah:
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.
No one should be surprised by this seemingly counter-intuitive development. Israel has always sought to divide its Arab enemies. When it sought to deflect the power of the PLO in the West Bank, it created the short-lived Village Leagues. When it sought to sow division between the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, it helped facilitate the creation of Hamas. To diminish the powerful influence of the PLO in Lebanon in the early 1980s, Eitan was sent there to aid in the founding of Hezbollah.
Eitan even dabbled in politics, founding the Pensioner’s Party devoted to aiding Israel’s retirees and elderly. Like many such single-issue parties it came on the scene in a blaze of glory, winning seven seats in the 2006 Knesset. Its leader, Eitan, was named a minister. In the next election, the Party disappeared from the scene.
A year ago, Eitan made a startling announcement endorsing the views of Germany’s neo-Nazi AfD Party. In a video offering greetings to a party conference:
“The AfD is a great hope for many people, not only in Germany, but also for us in Israel and in many Western countries, above all in order to stop the false and dangerous policy of open borders. The policy of open borders destabilizes the whole world.”
…He [Eitan] applauded the AfD’s pledge to protect the Jewish community, “especially against the new and violent threat from Islamists” and as “Germany’s friend” suggested that they close their borders, find a solution for asylum seekers outside their borders…
“Islamic anti-Semitism today is aggressive and threatens not only Jews, but also Christians and all peaceful citizens. This ideology is incompatible with an open and peaceful society like today’s Germany,” criticizing Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow over a million asylum seekers into the country.
“I wish from the bottom of my heart that you will be strong enough to end the policy of open borders, to stop the further Islamization of your country, and protect your citizens from terrorism and crime. Let’s do this together.”
It’s a cruel irony that this towering “servant of the nation” who dedicated his life to eliminating threats to the State of Israel, would finally embrace a contemporary version of the very ideology which sought to destroy his people; and come to see Muslims as the contemporary equivalent of the Nazis he’d once hunted.
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.