David Kimche, 1928-2010 – the man who walked in the shadows

Londoner made aliya to fight in 1948, played key role in intelligence, diplomacy.

March 10, 2010 03:39
4 minute read.
David Kimche.

david kimche 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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When David Kimche, the London-born former director-general of the Foreign Ministry and before that deputy head of the Mossad, succumbed to cancer on Monday, he took to his grave scores of secrets about Israeli clandestine activities that were not only classified information, but in many cases were without documentation and filed only in his brain.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed his deep sorrow over the passing of Kimche.

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“I remember many meetings with him in which he analyzed the international arena very well. Dave’s personality combined elegance, patriotism and sophistication; he loved people and exemplified how to fulfill a public mission,” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Urbane in appearance, with a commanding, aristocratic presence and a cultured British accent that remained permanently embedded in his Hebrew despite the fact that he immigrated to Israel in 1948 to fight in the War of Independence, Kimche was one of the nation’s most loyal and devoted public servants and continued to be both a spy and a diplomat long after he officially retired and became a business man.

After the War of Independence he enrolled in a course of Middle Eastern studies, first at the Hebrew University and later at the Sorbonne. He worked as a night editor at The Palestine Post, the forerunner of The Jerusalem Post, and over the years after leaving that position continued to contribute many politically insightful articles under a series of pseudonyms. Only in recent years did he resume writing under his own name.

While still a university student, Kimche had hoped to pursue a career as a diplomat, but flunked the entrance exam. Decades later, under the government of prime minister Menachem Begin, the left-leaning Kimche was appointed as the Foreign Ministry’s director-general.

Early on, the Mossad recognized his skills and his potential, and in 1953, he became an agent of the foreign intelligence service, working sometimes in the guise of a journalist, sometimes as a British businessman and sometimes as a diplomat.

He had an extraordinary talent for winning people’s confidence, and the work he did in Arab countries is inestimable. In some cases, he paved the way for diplomatic relations; in others he was the liaison for secret Israeli military or scientific aid; and in yet others he was simply gathering information.

A master of disguise, he was familiar with Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and many other places long before any such countries established diplomatic relations with Israel, or even thought of doing so.

Rising in the ranks of Mossad to the position of deputy director, he was thought to be next in line to inherit the mantle of leadership from Yitzhak Hofi (the agency’s director from 1974 to 1982), but his relations with Hofi were very strained.

The two disagreed strongly on policy related to Lebanon, where Kimche had established excellent contacts. Moreover, Hofi suspected Kimche of plotting against him behind his back and torpedoed his appointment.

Kimche left the Mossad in 1980 and soon was appointed director-general of the Foreign Ministry. He played key roles in Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and in its subsequent withdrawal. He was involved in the Iran-Contra affair (1985-87), and played a large part in the decision by Sri Lanka to re-establish diplomatic relation with Israel.

A man who for obvious reasons could not write his memoirs after retiring from government service in 1987, Kimche was also not the kind of person to simply sit down to enjoy his twilight years or to engage in business alone. He had to remain active in the fields he loved best.

As such, he was often a guest lecturer at Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan universities, and worked diligently in his role as president of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations – which kept him in constant contact with the diplomatic community and presented him with numerous opportunities to host events at which visiting political dignitaries – often presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers – were guest speakers.

He also continued to contribute to the Post. Notably, in recent years, before he fell ill, Kimche wrote a column every two weeks or so on the back page of the Friday Post, often focused on encouraging Israel to make greater efforts to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians and the Arab world. In his columns, Kimche relentlessly decried what he called extremism on both sides, and argued that a majority of Israelis and Palestinians firmly supported the notion of two states living side-by-side in peace.

“It was important for David that our readers hear his voice, and I was pleased to provide him the opportunity to write on our pages,” said Post Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz. “He was a valuable member of our mix of opinion writers, an insistent advocate of tolerance and compromise, and a colleague whose insights and experiences I valued. Professionally and personally, we mourn his passing, and we send our condolences to his loved ones.”

An ardent advocate for peace, in whose cause he even backed dialogue with Hamas, Kimche was disappointed by the lack of progress in the peace process.

He authored several books, all of them non-fiction. Had he turned to writing fiction based on his own experiences, he might have produced some amazing best sellers. With his passing, much of Israel’s secret history may remain forever hidden.

Kimche is survived by his wife, four children, and several grandchildren.

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