Isser Harel, Israeli spymaster, 1912-2003
Isser Harel, who has died aged 91, was the most famous Israeli
spymaster; as the second boss of Mossad (which was established in 1951
to gather intelligence from abroad and run special operations) he
turned it into one of the most effective and boldest intelligence
services in the world.
Harel personally commanded some of Mossad's most spectacular
operations, notably the abduction from Argentina of Adolf Eichmann, the
SS officer who presided over the "Final Solution" (the extermination of
European Jews), to stand trial in Israel for war crimes. "Operation
Eichmann" was the best-organised kidnapping by a secret service in
Harel picked a team of 11 that included a woman, a doctor, a
skilled forger and a specialist in make-up. In Argentina, where
Eichmann had been hiding as "Ricardo Klement", Harel's people rented
half a dozen safe houses and then followed their suspect for almost two
years before verifying his identity. On May 11, 1960, Harel's team
kidnapped Eichmann when he got off a bus, then took him to a hideout
where he was kept for nine days.
Eichmann was given an injection that made him drowsy, and was taken
to Buenos Aires airport. With Harel's people posing as male nurses and
relatives of the "sick passenger", Eichmann went past immigration
officers and was spirited onto an aircraft
that was flying the Israeli foreign minister, Abba Eban, back home
after attending Argentina's 150th anniversary celebrations. Eban had no
idea that Eichmann was on board.
Eichmann was found guilty and on December 15, 1961, was sentenced
to death. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal, and he was hanged on
May 31, 1962.
Harel was born Isser Halperin at Vitebsk in central Russia, where
his father had a small but prosperous vinegar factory. As a child Isser
was short and thin, with blue-grey eyes and large, protruding ears;
from an early age he was an avid reader of detective books.
After the family business was confiscated by revolutionaries, the
Haleperins moved to Dvinsk in Latvia, where Isser's father had to start
again in business from scratch. At 16, Isser left home for Riga, where
he joined other Jews in preparation and training before emigrating to
In 1930, equipped with forged documents and a small pistol, Harel
travelled through Warsaw, Vienna and Rome to Genoa, where he took a
ship for Palestine, then under the British Mandate.
Before disembarking the passengers were advised to get rid of any
weapons they had, to avoid being sent back to Italy. Most threw their
weapons into the sea, but Harel dismantled his pistol, hid the pieces
in a loaf and, poker-faced, passed through the British border control.
In Palestine Harel worked as a labourer and later helped to
establish Kibbutz Shefaim. He joined Hagana, the largest clandestine
Jewish organisation, which in 1942 ordered him to join the locally
recruited auxiliary constabulary. But he was dismissed after a row in
which he punched a British officer, and joined the Jewish Settlement
In 1944 Harel joined Shai, the intelligence service of Hagana. At
first he did not impress his superiors - he had trouble expressing
himself, his written reports were poor, and he had the habit of keeping
his fingers in his mouth and biting his nails; he also lacked a sense
of humour. But soon he made his mark as an authoritarian, efficient and
tough soldier - "Napoleon" and "Isser the Terrible" were only two of
In 1947 Harel was promoted to lead the Tel Aviv section of Shai,
where his job was to spy on the paramilitary groups Irgun and the Stern
Gang; he also organised some intelligence coups against the British,
including obtaining the Central Investigation Department dossiers. His
efficiency won him the respect and friendship of David Ben-Gurion, the
leader of the Jewish community in Palestine.
On June 30, 1948, Harel established Shin Bet (Sherut HaBitachon
HaKlali in Hebrew), which was the organisation in charge of internal
counter-espionage and spying on dangerous dissidents, and which he led
until 1963. After the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the
United Nations mediator in Palestine, on September 7, 1948, Harel, with
the approval of Ben-Gurion, arrested many of the Stern Gang terrorists,
in effect rooting out and dismantling the organisation. He then turned
Harel also used Shin Bet to spy upon political parties opposed to
Ben-Gurion's Mapai, notably the left-wing United Workers party and
Mapam, thought to have been infiltrated by communists. When it was
discovered that a bug had been planted in the party headquarters,
Harel's organisation was caught red-handed and scandal followed.
Harel's spies also followed members of the right-wing opposition Herut
party, led by Menachem Begin.
On September 14, 1952, Reuben Shiloach, the first head of Mossad,
retired, leaving the organisation in the hands of the 40-year-old
Harel. He recruited large numbers of former Irgun and Stern Gang
members; among them Yitzhak Shamir, the future prime minister. Under
Harel, Shamir became Mossad's chief of European operations, a job he
held for 10 years. Harel, meanwhile, became one of Israel's most
powerful figures, heading Mossad and Shin Bet and becoming chairman of
the secret services' co-ordinating committee.
Sensing a chance for peace in the region, in 1955 Harel tried to
organise a meeting between Egypt's President Nasser and Ben-Gurion. A
year later, the Suez War destroyed such hopes. Undaunted, Harel formed
a secret relationship with King Hassan, who allowed some 80,000
Moroccan Jews to leave for Israel in return for valuable security
Harel persevered with Shiloach's dream of a "peripheral alliance"
between Israel and potential non-Arab allies in the Middle East. In
1957 he befriended Taimur Bakhtiar, first head of Iran's feared
intelligence agency, Savak, and later prime minister. A year later, he
formed the Trident network with Savak and Turkey's National Security
Services as "a dam to stop the Nasser-Soviet flood". He also armed and
trained Iraqi Kurds, and built bases and airfields in Turkey and
Ethiopia, via the fictitious CIA-funded Reynolds Concrete Company. In
return, Mossad monitored developments in the Red Sea from a vast
clandestine complex in Addis Ababa.
On the eve of the 1956 Sinai war, Harel staged a deception operation that helped keep Egyptian bombers away from Israeli cities.
In 1959, when Ben-Gurion was putting together his new government,
Harel pressed to become his deputy. In his diaries, Ben-Gurion noted
that Harel "is embittered over my making ... Moshe Dayan a minister and
[Shimon] Peres deputy minister, and not him".
In 1962, Harel learnt that German scientists had helped Egypt to
develop unconventional weapons, and he demanded that Ben-Gurion
formally ask the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, to intervene
to halt the work. But Ben-Gurion was determined not to clash with the
West German government. Harel then, on his own initiative, launched
Operation Damocles - subversive operations against the Germans and
their families, including letter bombs.
When challenged, he said: "There are people who are marked to die."
Harel also planted, in Israeli papers, stories about the sinister
weapons that were being developed in Egypt with German help. Ben-Gurion
was furious; he confronted Harel, who fought back in fury and finally
resigned on March 25, 1963, dragging with him Ben-Gurion, who quit
three months later.
In 1965 Harel was made special adviser on intelligence to the prime
minister, Levi Eshkol. However, at the end of June 1966 he resigned,
complaining that important information was kept from him. Three years
later, he joined the newly established party Ha'reshima Ha'mamlachtit
and entered politics as an elected member of the Knesset.
Known as "Little Isser", the 1.5-metre Harel was a hard and
ambitious man who often used unorthodox methods, and had as many
enemies as admirers.
He is survived by his wife and daughter.