Israel Harel, “The man who made the Mossad”

February 19, 2003


[Notes below by Tom Gross]

Israel (“Little Isser”) Harel, considered to be the true creator of Israel’s external intelligence agency, the Mossad, died yesterday in a Tel Aviv hospital, aged 91. (Reuven Shiloah actually set up the Mossad in 1951, but Harel than led it from 1952 and through much of the 1950s and 1960s.)

Harel was credited by Russian, American and British spy chiefs for making the Mossad one of the finest organizations of its kind in the world. In the words of today’s headline in Israel’s best-selling newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, he was “The Man who made the Mossad.”

He personally directed the two-year operation to capture Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who presided over the “Final Solution,” and after the war had escaped to Argentina where he lived under the pseudonym “Ricardo Klement”.



Moshe Tabor, the Mossad operative who captured Eichmann, said Harel played an instrumental role in the operation: “If you were in a room with Isser and a hundred other people, he wouldn’t even have caught your eye. He was small and quiet. He had a sharp ability to analyze situations and reach the right conclusions. Isser was the one who coordinated the whole Eichmann operation.”

In a television interview aired long after Eichmann’s capture in 1960, Harel said he told (then Israeli) Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion: “I have brought you a present. Eichmann is here.” Harel’s book recounting the abduction – “The House on Garibaldi Street” – became a best-seller and was turned into a Hollywood movie.



Among his other triumphs was when he handed James Jesus Angleton, the head of the CIA’s counterintelligence division, the full text of Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev’s famous 1956 “secret speech” denouncing Stalin, a copy of which the Mossad had obtained.

Born Isser Halperin in Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus (the region in which the famed painter Marc Chagall grew up and depicted in many of his paintings), Harel moved with his family to Latvia in 1922 and to Palestine in 1929. He fought for the British against the Nazis in the 1940s, while at the same time gathering intelligence for the Haganah against the British who then controlled Palestine. He became head of Haganah intelligence in 1944, and was appointed deputy head of the Mossad in 1952.



Among the agents under Harel’s command were:

* Shula Cohen, the so-called “Mata Hari of the Middle East,” who ran Mossad operations in Beirut in the 1950s and 60s
* Elie Cohen, whose information was critical in helping Israel win the Six Day War, and who was hanged in Damascus after being caught
* Wolfgang Lotz, the so-called “Champagne spy,” who lived in Cairo and befriended many senior Egyptian army officers. Lotz, who was born in Mannheim, Germany, and was partly Jewish but not circumcised, also took an Israeli name: Ze’ev Gur-Aryeh

I attach an obituary from the (London) Daily Telegraph.

-- Tom Gross



Israeli spymaster led ‘Operation Eichmann’
(London) Daily Telegraph
February 19, 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 execution of the “Final Solution” (the extermination of European Jews), to stand trial in Israel for war crimes; “Operation Eichmann” became the best organised kidnapping by a secret service in modern history.

Harel picked up a team of 11 which included, among others, a woman, a doctor, a skilled forger and a specialist in make-up. In Argentina, where Eichmann had been hiding under the pseudonym “Ricardo Klement”, Harel’s team rented half a dozen safe houses and then followed the man whom they thought was Eichmann for almost two years.

When Eichmann’s identity was verified, Harel gave the green light to his team which, on May 11 1960, kidnapped Eichmann when he got off a bus on Garibaldi Street, then took him to a hideout where he was kept for nine days.

On the afternoon of the departure day Eichmann was given an injection which made him drowsy and was then taken to Buenos Aires airport. With Harel’s people around him – some posing as male nurses, and others as relatives of the “sick passenger” – Eichmann went past immigration officers and was spirited on to a plane which took off for Israel at midnight on May 20.

The plane, a special Britannia airliner, was the aircraft that was flying the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban back home after attending Argentina’s 150th anniversary celebrations; Eban had no idea that with him on board was Eichmann. Eichmann was found guilty and on December 15 1961 was sentenced to death by hanging. After his appeal had been rejected by the Israeli Supreme Court, he was executed on May 31 1962.

In The House on Garibaldi Street (1975) Harel vividly described how he planned, led and executed the operation.

Harel was born Isser Halperin in 1912 at Vitebsk in central Russia, where his father had a small but prosperous vinegar factory. As a child Isser was short and thin, and possessed of 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, young Isser left home for Riga, where he joined other Jews in preparation and training before emigrating to Palestine.

In 1930, equipped with forged documents and a small pistol, Harel travelled through Warsaw, Vienna and Rome to Genoa, where he took ship for Palestine, then under the British Mandate.

Just 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 not Harel. Instead, he dismantled his pistol, hiding the pieces in a loaf and, poker-faced, passed through the British border control.

In Palestine Harel worked as a labourer and later, with a group of young people, 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 following a row in which he punched a British officer he was dismissed; he then joined the Jewish Settlement Police Force.

In 1944 Harel joined Shai, the intelligence service of Hagana. At first he failed to impress his superiors – he had difficulties 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 a few of his nicknames.

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 of the intelligence coups against the British, including the obtaining of the Central Investigation Department dossiers. His efficiency won him the respect and friendship of Ben Gurion, 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 UN mediator in Palestine, on September 7 1948, Harel, with the approval of Ben Gurion, arrested many of the Stern Gang terrorists, effectively rooting out and dismantling the organisation; he then turned on Irgun.

Harel also used Shin Bet to carry out surveillance upon political parties opposed to Ben Gurion’s Mapai, notably the Left-wing United Workers’ party, 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 in a domestic political operation 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. As the new Memuneh (“the one in charge”), Harel 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.

On the eve of the 1956 Sinai war, Harel launched a deception operation which 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”.

On being rebuffed, Harel approached influential members of the party, warning of the dangers Peres and Dayan posed for democracy.

Harel was often criticised for spending time and money on flamboyant operations, such as Eichmann’s kidnapping or pursuing – with 40 agents – the eight-year-old Yosalee Schumacher, who had been abducted from his parents and taken by ultra-Orthodox Jews to America.

He also came under considerable criticism for not concentrating enough on obtaining information on the Arab world; but he, typically, fought back: “You tell me our job is only to watch the Arabs?” Harel once asked.

“I will tell you our job is to watch who are the allies of the Arabs. And there are plenty of them all over the world, in Latin America just as much as in Moscow.”

In 1962, Harel received information that German scientists had helped Egypt to develop unconventional weapons, and he issued dire warnings demanding 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 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 which were being developed in Egypt with German help.

Ben Gurion was furious; he confronted Harel, who fought back in fury and finally offered his resignation, saying: “I cannot stay if I disagree so profoundly with the Prime Minister.” Harel resigned his post on March 25 1963, dragging with him Ben Gurion, who resigned three months later.

On his last trip to Paris, just before leaving office, Harel met with one of his agents at Yar, a little Russian restaurant. “Never before,” Harel wrote later, “had I drunk alcohol in that restaurant, but the proprietor noticed that this was a special occasion and brought a bottle of vodka on the house. To his great surprise, I agreed, and to his even greater surprise I thanked him in his mother tongue, which he had never guessed that I knew.”

In 1965 Harel was made special adviser on intelligence to prime minister Levi Eshkol; however, at the end of June 1966, he resigned, complaining that important intelligence information was concealed from him. Three years later, Harel joined the newly established party Ha’reshima Ha’mamlachtit and entered politics as an elected member of Israel’s Knesset.

“Little Isser” as Harel was known, to distinguish him from another intelligence officer of that name (Isser Be’eri – “Isser the Big”), was an inappropriately innocent description for the five-foot Harel, who was a hard man, ambitious, often used unorthodox methods to achieve his goals, and had as many enemies as admirers.

In the last years of his life, Harel was living in Zahala, a quiet suburb of Tel Aviv. He enjoyed reading biographies of world leaders; he admired Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana.

In addition to The House on Garibaldi Street, Harel published a few other books, including Jihad: an Anthology of Betrayal and Security and Democracy.

Harel was married and had a daughter.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.