Remembering Israel’s Most Celebrated Spy

Rafi Eitan was no 007. He was far more cunning.

Rafi Eitan, who was a member of the Mossad team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, waves to photographers during an exhibition at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 12, 2011, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the verdict against Eichmann, who was instrumental in the planning and execution the Holocaust.
Rafi Eitan, who was a member of the Mossad team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960, waves to photographers during an exhibition at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 12, 2011, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the verdict against Eichmann, who was instrumental in the planning and execution the Holocaust. (GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

Rafi Eitan, the legendary Israeli master spy who died on March 23 at age 92, was the antithesis of the James Bond spies of public imagination. He was short and heavy, with thick glasses and hearing problems.

He rose to fame for being one of the Mossad operatives who captured and kidnapped the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 by pulling him off a Buenos Aires street and getting him drunk before smuggling him back to Israel on a passenger flight. Eichmann was the senior Nazi official in charge of the Final Solution—Hitler’s plan to exterminate European Jews. He was later tried and executed in Israel.

But Eitan had many lesser-known operations under his belt that were no less important for Israel’s national interests. He was involved in enhancing Israel’s nuclear weapons capabilities, cultivating clandestine relations with Arab countries, and spying on the United States.

Eitan’s life parallels the story of Israel. He was born in 1926 in British Palestine. In his youth he joined Palmach, the underground fighting force of the Yishuv (Jewish community) during British rule. In 1946, at the age of 20, he was part of a hit team that killed two members of the Templers, a German Protestant community in Palestine that had sympathized with the Nazi regime. The successful operation, he told me 50 years later, enhanced his self-confidence and taught him that “if you are determined and creative everything is possible, even the most seemingly crazy plans.” This belief fueled his later endeavors in the Mossad.

After serving in Israel’s 1948 to 1949 War of Independence, in which he was wounded in his foot and ear, he joined the Israeli intelligence services. He was recruited in 1951 by another mythological figure, Isser Harel, who served as chief of both Mossad and Shin Bet, the domestic security service.

In one of our long conversations over the years, I asked Eitan how and why Harel had recruited him. He looked at me with a mysterious smile. “We had a very brief conversation,” he said.

“Isser pointed at a third-floor balcony in a building opposite the cafe where we were sitting and said, ‘I want to see you there.’ ‘No problem,’ I replied and left the table. I inspected the building and decided to climb the drainpipe. I was then lean and strong and in no time reached the balcony and waved to Isser. When I got down he told me I was accepted.”

Telling his story, Eitan was visibly elated. “You want me to demonstrate how I climbed? I still can do it,” he offered. He was then 85 years old.

Eitan served in the Mossad until 1972. During that period he participated personally or in his capacity as chief of operations in some of the agency’s most daring undertakings. In the 1950s and 1960s, he and his colleagues in the unit focused on counterespionage, following and chasing Soviet bloc diplomats and spies, and breaking into their embassies and installing bugging devices.

In 1965, as Mossad chief in Europe, he was involved in the murky operation of abducting Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan dissident. At that time surrounded by enemies led by Egypt, Israel was seeking to form secret ties with moderate pro-Western Arab regimes. Morocco was one of them. Its monarch, King Hassan II, and his security chiefs offered Israel a deal. Help us to locate Ben Barka, and the king would upgrade relations and allow you to spy on your Egyptian and Arab enemies from our soil. Israel gladly agreed.

Three years later, Eitan’s services were needed in another complicated mission. Israeli intelligence registered a front company in Europe. The firm bought 200 tons of uranium from a Belgian company that was eager to get rid of it. The uranium was loaded on a ship that Eitan and his colleague had purchased posing as foreign businessmen. The cargo was transferred at sea to another vessel and then unloaded at an Israeli port and shipped to fuel the Dimona reactor in order to produce nuclear bombs.

That same year, he visited the U.S. Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation plant in Apollo, Pennsylvania, which dealt which recycled uranium waste for the U.S. Department of Energy. The plant was owned by Zalman Shapiro, a Jewish American who was an ardent Zionist and contributed money to the Israeli intelligence charity. Eitan never admitted what he did at the plant, but it has long been suspected that he facilitated the theft of uranium for Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

In 1972, disappointed that he was not appointed as Mossad chief, he retired from public service only to return nine years later to lead another secret unit in charge of technological and scientific espionage. But managing Lakam, the Hebrew acronym for the Scientific Liaison Bureau, in his typical uninhibited manner eventually led to his downfall.

In 1985, Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew who worked as an analyst for the U.S. Navy counterintelligence center, was caught spying for Israel by FBI agents. Pollard said that he was recruited by Eitan, whom he admired.

Taking full responsibility for the intelligence fiasco, Eitan resigned, but he did so with his typical in-your-face approach. When then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the Pollard affair had been a rogue operation, Eitan contradicted the boss and declared he had acted under instructions from the government. He was wanted in the United States for questioning and claims that after that point he never again set foot on U.S. soil.

One year ago, I asked him if he had any remorse for recruiting and running Pollard. In his soft voice, he answered bluntly: “No, why should I? I worked in a high-risk business. You win some, you lose some.”

The Mossad and the broader Israeli intelligence community have undergone a major transformation. The way Eitan was recruited and the way he operated are long gone. New candidates are no longer recommended by the old boys’ network, and they are not required to prove their skills by climbing drainpipes. Instead, their character is evaluated and scrutinized by psychologists and other professionals. Technology and cyberwarfare have sidelined the old traits of human intelligence. Nevertheless, new Mossad recruits are still taught the legacy of Rafi Eitan and his creative and cunning lessons on how to be a successful spy.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli journalist who specializes in security and intelligence matters and the co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.