Rafi Eitan is often remembered as Israel’s James Bond. An exceptional intelligence officer and politician, Eitan was in command of the momentous Mossad operation that resulted in detention of Adolf Eichmann – the German-Austrian official who was one of the main orchestrator of the Holocaust. Capture of this Nazi war criminal was a historic moment for the state Israel and Rafi emerged as a natural hero for his people!
Eitan’s life is also a reflection of the journey and struggles of the Jewish people and state of Israel. Born in British Palestine in 1926 to Russian Zionist immigrants, Rafi had a normal childhood. His father Noah Hantman was a peasant and poet, and Yehudit Volwelsky his mother, was a social activist. After completing his high school in 1940, Eitan’s love for secret services started to grow and he joined the Haganah and Palmach – Jewish community’s secret combat group after his high school studies. Thereafter, he went to London School of Economics for his bachelor’s degree. However as a part of his association with the secret agencies, he had to assist the illegal immigration of Jews from Europe into Palestine after World War II. As per historic records, he was involved in assassination of two members of Templers, a German Protestant community in Palestine who sympathised with the Nazi regime.
During 1940s, he met Yitzhak Rabin, the future Prime Minister of Israel and was involved in a heroic operation to blow up British radar station on Mount Carmel in Haifa, which was tracking ships carrying illegal Jewish immigrants. Eitan served as a soldier in the Yiftach Brigade during the 1947-48 civil war and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. While serving in Israel’s War of Independence he was injured in the foot and ear, after which he joined the Israeli intelligence services – Shin Bet.
Eventually he moved up the ranks to become the head of central operations for both Shin Bet and Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence branch. This position would help him achieve Israel’s biggest post-Holocaust victory: the capture of Holocaust’s main organizer Adolf Eichmann who was believed to be hiding in Argentina. In 1960, Eitan led an eight-man squad to Argentina and brought Eichmann to Israel for trial. This was one of Eitan’s most notable accomplishments.
He took part in some of the agency’s most audacious missions, either personally or in his capacity as chief of operations. His unit focused on counterespionage in the 1950s and 1960s, pursuing and hunting Soviet bloc diplomats and spies, breaking into foreign embassies and planting bugging devices.
In 1968, under the guise of an Israeli Ministry of Defense chemist, Eitan went to the US Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC) nuclear fuel plant. After his visit, it was discovered that 200 pounds of highly enriched uranium had vanished from the factory, and that the material had been moved to Israel in an operation dubbed as “The Apollo Affair.”
Eitan continued to serve in the Mossad until 1972 and thereafter he moved to the private sector, raising tropical fish and other agricultural ventures. However, Eitan’s reputation as one of the most revered subject expert resulted in his comeback in1978 as a Counsellor on Terrorism to Menachem Begin, Israel’s then-Prime Minister.
According to British Journalist Gordon Thomas’s account, Eitan was involved in a partnership between Israeli and US intelligence in the early 1980s, selling more than US$500 million worth of licenses of a trojan horse version of espionage software called PROMIS to foreign intelligence agencies in order to spy on them. He was also involved in developing Israel’s nuclear weapons capability and forging covert ties with unfriendly Arab countries. Some reports suggest his involvement in the planning and execution of the June 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility.
During 1980s, Eitan served as the head of the Defense Ministry’s Lekem, the Bureau for Scientific Relations. However he got mired in a serious controversy when as head of Bureau of Scientific Liaison, Eitan was accused of recruiting Jonathan Pollard, a US naval intelligence analyst to spy on the US. The incident negatively impacted the Israel-US relations resulting in Rafi’s resignation from the services. In 1985, he was appointed as the CEO of the state-owned Israel Chemicals Corporation, and after hanging his boots in 1993, he became a prominent businessman working on agricultural and construction projects in Cuba.
In mid-2000s, Rafi entered politics and was invited to represent the pensioners’ party –Gilin the 2006 Knesset elections. The party went on to win seven seats. However in 2009, the party failed to clear the electoral threshold and Eitan lost his seat, thereby ending his political stint.
Rafi once again found his name mired in controversy when in 2018, he officially endorsed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Jeremy Issacharoff, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany, wrote: “It is hard to believe how the person who captured Eichmann … is able to praise German right-wingers who so admire the Nazi past and wish on us that they become the alternative of Europe! Sad and shameful.” Clarifying his stance, Eitan in a video statement said that he appreciates the (AfD) party’s “attitude toward Judaism” and also endorsed the party’s “hardline toward Muslim immigrants”. Eitan believed that “the (AfD) party would help Israel on any matter we ask it to.” His political statements may have confused many people in Israel and abroad, however his loyalty to the state of Israel must not be questioned. Eitan died on March 23, 2019, at the age of 92 and left behind a rich legacy in spycraft which is still taught to the new Mossad recruits.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s eulogy and admiration for Rafi testifies his contribution to the nation – “We have lost a brave fighter whose contribution to Israel’s security will be taught for generations to come. Rafi Eitan was a born fighter who stuck to his mission and to what he knew to be right. Our heads are bowed today in his memory, and in deep appreciation”.