The spymaster’s tale

Rafi Eitan has been at the heart of the Israel story since before the creation of the state.

Rafi Eitan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Rafi Eitan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
 THE FIRST impression one gets on meeting legendary spymaster Rafi Eitan face to face is how tiny he is.
The Mossad officer who led the team that captured Nazi Holocaust planner Adolf Eichmann in 1960; the spy who ran former US Navy intelligence officer Jonathan Pollard convicted of espionage for Israel, the affair that would taint his name and end his intelligence career; the cabinet minister under Ariel Sharon; the present-day multimillionaire with vast business interests in Cuba and Africa who, at 88, still whispers into the ears of decision makers in Israel and around the world – looks exactly like the adorable cartoon character Mr. Magoo – perpetual happy grin, oversized Coke-bottle-thick glasses and all.
That jolly image is hard to shake, even when one is acutely aware of his long career and reputation as a “cold-blooded master spy,” occasional assassin and an essential part of some of the most famous intelligence operations in history.
Recently Eitan’s name has been in the news again following the US Parole Commission’s ruling that Pollard will be released from prison in November, after serving a 30- year sentence.
Eitan, Pollard’s former handler, has in the past admitted the Pollard affair was his greatest personal failure, but has agreed to a request from Pollard’s lawyers not to comment about the affair until the actual release. But, in an interview with The Jerusalem Report, he proceeds to comment, after all.
“Before Pollard’s trial, an American commission investigating the case came to Israel and sat with us. There was an understanding, I repeat, understanding, that he would be in prison for 10 years,” Eitan insists.
“I believe that if Israeli government officials had kept quiet, hadn’t gone running to visit him and make him into a national hero, he wouldn’t still be in prison. The Americans thought, well if he’s a hero [to the Israelis], next we’ll have more American Jews spying on the US for Israel, so let’s keep him locked up. That’s what happened.”
“I’m no bleeding heart,” declared Eitan late last year on the Channel Two investigative television program “Uvda” (“Fact”), Israel’s version of “60 Minutes.” Though Eitan has given the occasional interview in the last few years, the one on Channel Two seems remarkable for its bluntness and candor – both on the part of the interviewer and interviewee. “All intelligence work is a partnership with crime. Morals are put aside,” he asserts.
Eitan’s wife of 50 years, Miriam, also made some rather startling statements on the program, including her disclosure that for years she had weighed compensating Pollard for Rafi’s “mistakes.” “We bought a house in the Galilee, and I was thinking I would keep this house until Pollard is released and then give him the house. Rafi just laughed at me,” she said.
Asked by The Report how he had agreed to his wife pouring out her heart on national TV, Eitan replies simply, “Miriam and I are of the same mind. Throughout the years she was a full partner in everything I did, though she didn’t always agree.”
“I’m an archaeological relic, I speak straight to the point,” Eitan jokes. “I’m a member of the old generation that helped bring the state into being. In my generation, there was loyalty and the willingness to sacrifice oneself and to work for the benefit of everyone. Thanks to this, the state exists but this value has disappeared,” he states.
Eitan was born on Kibbutz Ein Harod during the British Mandate era. His parents had emigrated from Russia to Palestine in 1923. Rafi was born three years later. His father Noach Hantman was a farmer and poet, and his mother Yehudit Volwelsky, a social activist. (Rafi and his brother changed their name to Eitan in 1948, when the trend was to Hebraicize one’s name.) His parents spoke Hebrew to him and his siblings, having spoken it at home even before they came to Palestine. “To each other, they spoke Russian, which was the dominant culture at home.”
EITAN JOINED the Hagana, the underground Jewish fighting force, at age 12. He recalls being taken into an orange grove with several other children and made to swear loyalty to Zionism. Later, he joined the Palmach, the elite and secret commando unit of the Hagana. His first commander was Yitzhak Rabin. Upon finishing agricultural high school, Eitan moved to London to study at the London School of Economics.
After World War II, he was involved in smuggling Jews into the country, defying the British authorities. One celebrated escapade involved blowing up a radar station overlooking the port of Haifa used by the British to detect ships approaching the harbor illegally. To reach the station unseen, Eitan had to crawl through underground sewer pipes, earning the nickname “Stinky Rafi.”
In 1947, he also participated in a daring operation to free the prisoners being held in the Atlit detainment camp outside Haifa where thousands of illegal Jewish immigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors, were interned. Eitan’s task was to plant mines along the way to prevent the British army from reaching the camp once the operation had begun. He was wounded when one of the devices exploded, damaging his ears. (Today he wears hearing aids.) On May 15, 1948, the day David Ben-Gurion declared Israel to be a state, Eitan was fighting with a Palmach unit in the far north near the village of Malkiya, battling the approaching Lebanese army.
“In the middle of the battle, the radio operator called me over to tell me that [Palmach commander] Yigal Allon was relaying Ben-Gurion’s proclamation in Tel Aviv.
So I said, ‘Thanks a lot,’ and went back to fighting. We were too busy to celebrate that day,” he relates.
Once, when Eitan was a child, his mother took him to a neighboring village to see a British film about a World War I German woman spy. “I was very impressed, and later told my mother this should be my career, to be a spy,” he grins. His mother would live to see him join the intelligence service, almost immediately after the War of Independence.
He would become a longtime intelligence operative whose biggest (public) triumph was overseeing the capture of Eichmann in 1960, in Argentina, and bringing him back to Israel for trial. Eitan has described the mission as, operationally speaking, “one of the easiest missions we did.”
Eichmann’s trial began in April 1961. On June 1, 1962, he was sentenced to death and executed by hanging. Eitan was present. “In the last 20 minutes of his life, a Lutheran minister visited him in his cell. I came when the guards removed him from his cell, and I walked behind him together with Tuvia Dori, who was deputy prison commissioner at the time, who understood German.
He told me that Eichmann said, ‘I hope that all of you will follow me,’” recalls Eitan. “I stood next to the crematorium where he was cremated, but declined to go on the boat from which his ashes would be dumped into the sea,” Eitan adds.
He continued his career in the Mossad, heading or involved in many secret operations – some public knowledge today, others never acknowledged. These included unmasking Israel Beer, a former lieutenant colonel in the IDF found to be spying for the Soviet Union; thwarting German armaments sales to Egypt; involvement in the diversion of highly enriched uranium from an American nuclear fuel plant (“The Apollo Affair”); advising the British MI6 on counterterrorism operations in Northern Ireland; helping Moroccan ruler King Hassan II to make a political rival in Paris “disappear”; and planning the Israel Air Force attack on the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981.
In 1987, after taking responsibility for the Pollard affair scandal by resigning from the intelligence service, Eitan was appointed head of the state-owned Israel Chemicals Ltd., after which he became involved in businesses in Cuba. Together with old Palmach friends who had been working as advisers in South America, Eitan won the bid to take over the running of Cuba’s biggest citrus groves.
The company, GBM Inc. Consulting & Trade Company in Cuba for Agriculture Technology, was so successful that within a short time the company was awarded the “Medal for Agricultural Work” by the Cuban government, with Fidel Castro personally handing the award to Eitan at the ceremony.
“That’s when I first met Fidel, who later invited us to many meetings,” relates Eitan.
The Cuban leader was mainly interested in agricultural developments, but, says Eitan, “he was also curious about the Middle East.
This was when the war in Iraq was heating up.” In one particular meeting, he found himself explaining to Castro how the modern political entities were formed in 1921 after World War I. He insists he never discussed anything related to intelligence.
In Israel’s 2006 elections, Eitan suddenly and unexpectedly became a politician as head of the newly formed Pensioners Party.
Astounding everyone, the party won seven Knesset seats – something no group running on behalf of an apolitical cause had ever achieved. Analysts at the time believed their success was the result of a protest vote among young voters fed up with the corruption and hypocrisy of local politics.
“MY POLITICAL career was an accident,” Eitan laughs, adding that had he wanted to be a Member of Knesset, he could have run 30 years earlier, but wasn’t interested. When Ariel Sharon formed the Kadima Party in 2005, members of the Pensioners Party asked him to include two of their people on his list. Eitan, a close friend of Sharon’s, was asked to intervene.
When only unrealistic slots were offered, the question of running as an independent party was raised. “We were told we had zero chance of winning any seats. So I said, ‘In that case, I’ll run at the head of the party on condition that if we win two seats, I’ll resign.’ Then we ran and won seven seats, so I decided to stay.”
As part of the government, Eitan set up the Pensioners Affairs Ministry, which still exists today, though the current minister has expanded responsibilities. It’s a mistake to ignore the elderly, cautions Eitan, “because life expectancy is growing so immensely ‒ in another 20 years, the elderly will be more than 20 percent of the population.”
Did he achieve anything in his three years in the Knesset? “Bureaucracy is so impossible that it’s hard to get anything done in this country. Any minister is helpless in the face of this, he replies, though he points proudly to at least one achievement – a hotline for the elderly (*8840) that is manned around the clock by 100 volunteers.
In the next two elections, the party did not win enough votes to get into the Knesset.
Eitan, obviously, finds the whole political adventure greatly amusing. He disagrees that the surprise win was a protest vote.
“There is always a certain vacuum in every election, when people don’t know who to vote for, so they look for people like Yair Lapid,” he posits.
Eitan’s Tel Aviv office, which he shares with son Yuval, an architect and his business partner, is decorated with several original pieces of Israeli art, as well as his own bronze sculptures. This has been his hobby for the last 30 years; he works out of his workshop in Kfar Vradim in the Galilee These days, he still deals with his business interests in Cuba and Africa through Y.R. Eitan Co., chiefly in agricultural development.
He sometimes also facilitates defense-related deals. “We have good connections with this or that president, so people sometimes ask for our help, for a fee, of course,” he says affably.
He also volunteers as head of the National Jewish Assets Council, an advisory body working to locate property in Eastern Europe and Arab countries where Jewish property has been confiscated – especially in Libya and Iraq. His favorite charity, he says, is the Portland Trust, founded by Sir Ronald Cohen, a non-profit that helps develop the Palestinian private sector.
Eitan was one of Ariel Sharon’s closest advisers who helped convince him of the necessity of removing Israeli settlers from Gaza. The unilateral disengagement was carried out in the summer of 2005. Eitan asserts today that a few months later he and Sharon discussed a preliminary plan to leave the West Bank, as well, while maintaining the maximum number of Israeli settlements under Israeli control. When Sharon suffered his stroke, the plan was shelved under Ehud Olmert.
“I was strongly in favor of the Gaza disengagement,” says Eitan. “I’d like to see this happen in Judea and Samaria. There’s no way we can reach an agreement with the Palestinians. We must disengage. It’s better for the State of Israel if both [the West Bank and Gaza] become Hamas controlled than the situation existing today,” he declares.
“Just do it. Once this happens the rest of the world will agree. There’s no other alternative. Only for this would I be willing to rejoin the government,” he says, still smiling.