Israel’s Legendary Spy Catcher Dies of COVID
הישגו הגדול ביותר של בכיר השב”כ יצחק אילן (חשיפת “החפרפרת” של איראן בצמרת המוסד) עדיין מוסתר מהציבור הישראלי
After exposing Israeli spies and murdering senior Hamas militants, Israel’s most in/famous spy catcher died last week of COVID. Yitzhak Ilan, age 64, suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and had a lung transplant in the last few years.
He served in the Shin Bet for thirty years, rising to become the second-in-command and heir-apparent to agency chief, Yuval Diskin. His appointment was even announced with great fanfare (though military censorship prohibited naming him) and Amir Oren wrote a flattering profile (English version) for Haaretz. Exposing his identity was prohibited by military censorship. But I named him here.
He lost out on the job due to the intervention of Sara Netanyahu. It’s a poorly-kept secret in Israel that she not only has a taste for expensive pink champagne supplied by courtiers, is chauffeured in $250,000 armored limousines, and flies on luxury jets refurbished at the cost of tens of millions; but she exercises enormous influence over government appointments to senior positions. Ilan was a Soviet immigrant from Georgia (his nickname was “The Georgian”). Among his earlier positions had been chief of the Jewish terror unit, tasked with arresting and impeding settler terror attacks. For this reason among others, she didn’t like him and preferred his chief rival for the post, Yoram Cohen, who was an Orthodox Jew and settler (Ilan was neither). Another version says that a settler rabbi who’d been a Yeshiva mentor of Cohen intervened on his behalf. It worked: Cohen got the job.
There was internal politics at play as well. Ilan’s mentor, Diskin, had served as part of the military-intelligence triumvirate which rejected Netanyahu’s purported plans to attack Iran. Another member of that group of three was Meir Dagan, Mossad chief. With Dagan’s retirement, Diskin was reputed to be in line to become Mossad chief. Netanyahu realized that appointing Diskin and Ilan would give them considerable power to frustrate any similar war plans he might have in the future. That was another mark against Ilan. Not to mention that he’d made aliyah from Georgia, which excluded him from the Ashkenazi Good Ol’ Boy network that operates at the highest levels of Israeli society. He left the Shin Bet after losing out on his dream job. Later, he became a candidate to lead the defense ministry cyber-security agency, known as Malmab. He never got that position either.
Ilan entered politics at the urging of Benny Gantz, then head of the Blue and White opposition. Gantz promised him a spot on the list offering a chance of entry into the Knesset. But Gantz betrayed Ilan, who ended up 45th on the list, offering no prospect a seat. Ilan, embittered, retired from politics.
Ilan had also served under Diskin’s Shin Bet predecessor, Avi Dichter, who wrote a glowing tribute to him in the far-right Israel HaYom, after he died. In it, he likened Ilan’s high level of “integrity” to the Biblical verse: “God made Man in his image.” If that’s so, one wonders how a killer can become such a saint. Is God a killer? Or is Israel turning those who kill on its behalf into godlike creatures?
Dichter further lauded him as “a genius.” What merits such praise? Ilan planned the targeted assassination of senior Hamas militant, Yahya Ayyash, known as “The Engineer.” Diskin adds this mysterious allusion to Ilan’s counter-intelligence successes:
He was not a doctor, but his “medical treatments” foiled many a terror attack.
This could be a figure of speech like the term “surgical strike;” or conceivably could refer to the types of counter-intelligence operations which eliminated Palestinian threats. Among them are poisoning (Israel maintains a robust chemical and biological weapons program), used by both the Shin Bet and Mossad in covert assassinations.
It is an indication of Israel’s values as a nation that Ilan is held up as a paragon. Whatever the high qualities of his character might have been, he was a killer. He may’ve killed men who killed Israelis, but his life was filled with death. While it is true that many nations hold up their top spies and warriors as national heroes, the worship of such killers isn’t what nations should place on the highest pedestal. To paraphrase Brecht in Galileo: “unhappy is the land that needs such heroes.”
Israel’s targeted assassination policy, which every Mossad and Shin Bet chief implements, is a poor substitute for negotiating to resolve outstanding issues dividing Israel from Palestinians and other frontline states. While counter-intelligence operations of the sort Ilan ran (Prisoner X2) are important to all nations, they take on vast significance when the cost is potential nuclear annihilation. But then, one must ask: how did Iran and Israel get to the point where they were threatening such horrors on each other? If they maintained normal relations, spying might happen but it would not amount to an existential threat.
The problem with the national security state is that through it’s refusal to engage in the conventional forms of diplomacy and negotiation of differences, it entrust its spies with far too much power. As ex-Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo once told Ilana Dayan: “My job gives me a license to crime.” That is far too much unchecked license to give any individual or government.
Spy Catcher: Exposing Prisoner X2
One of Ilan’s lesser known, but critical, “successes” was to uncover the Mossad officer (known only by the initials, “A.A.”) tasked with managing its Iran affairs. I published here the Mossad role he played, as this too was prohibited by military censorship. He was turned by the Iranians and began exposing Israeli secrets to their intelligence agency. The betrayal of the Iran mole caused enormous damage to efforts to penetrate Iran and its nuclear program. So exposing him became a critical effort. Ilan did so in 2004. I’ve called this spy Prisoner X2 (the first Prisoner X was Ben Zygier, who betrayed the Mossad in another infamous case).
Amir Oren broke the story of Prisoner X2 in Haaretz. He revealed that he had been secretly arrested in 2004, then tried and imprisoned (his lawyer was Avigdor Feldman). He was sentenced to 14 years and was released in 2018. Despite Oren’s best efforts, the ex-spy refuses even today to cooperate and reveal anything about his deeds. The Shin Bet agent who exposed him was none other than Yitzhak Ilan.
My guess is that over the years, Oren developed a close relationship with Ilan as a source. And that Ilan, in turn, revealed to him to story of Prisoner X2. It is also possible, though less likely that Oren learned the story through Feldman or his associates.
Ilan arrived in Israel from the Soviet republic of Georgia in 1973. He served in the Israeli air force. As a new Russian immigrant, he would’ve been a prize recruit for the Shin Bet’s counter-intelligence unit, charged with ferreting out KGB agents planted among the new arrivals. He joined the agency in 1982.
This was the same year that a young Soviet immigrant from Kiev arrived in Israel. Boris Krasny, on his arrival, was interrogated by the Shin Bet and admitted that the KGB had recruited him. The agency “turned” him and made him a double agent, because it had a far more important spy it wanted to expose.
The Shin Bet suspected that Marcus Klingberg, one of Israel’s leading chemical weapons researchers, had spied for the Russians since the 1950s. But by the 1970s Klingberg had ceased cooperating with the KGB. He had stopped his espionage activity. So Shin Bet counterintelligence chief, Haim Ben Ami, came upon the plan to pose Krasny as a KGB operative tasked with contacting Klingberg on its behalf. We don’t know exactly what happened. But we do know that the agency secretly arrested, tried and convicted Klingberg in 1983. He remained in prison for decades until his release shortly before his death in 2015.
It seems unlikely that such a new recruit such as Ilan would have been involved in such a high-profile and sensitive case as Krasny-Klingberg. But it is the sort of operation for which those who recruited him would have found him to be a valuable asset.
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On the day of his lung transplant, he told Caspit in January, all were aware of the surgery but none but the party’s Chili Tropper sent him a message and no party members visited him in hospital during the recovery.
A forgotten hero during his lifetime – Israeli politics.