One of the key figures in the history of Israeli espionage has passed away. Rafi Eitan is most famous for commanding the eight man team that rendered Adolf Eichmann from Argentina back to Israel in 1960. The discovery and detention of this most evil exponent of the Final Solution captured headlines all around the world. Eichmann was tried and hanged in 1962.
Eitan was born in a settlement in Israel and the creation and protection of an Israeli state was always his prime motivation. He first joined Haganah, the underground Israeli army, shortly before independence. He took part in a range of military operations and assassination missions.
After independence, Eitan joined the Israeli security service, Shin Bet, and quickly rose to become a senior officer. It is while in this service that he was selected to lead the raid on Eichmann. Most of the team were Shin Bet operatives.
The greatest problem during the operation was ensuring that they actually had the right man. Eichmann had changed his appearance several times and there were no current photographs of him. Although, Israeli intelligence first became aware of Eichmann’s presence in Argentina in 1957, it took three years to confirm the intelligence and decide that a rendition operation was the correct solution. Once the team could be certain of his identity, the element of surprise made capturing and rendering Eichmann fairly straightforward. (Admittedly, that’s easy to say long after the event!).
As with intelligence professionals of all nations, Eitan believed that all foreign countries, both allies and enemies, were legitimate targets for espionage. He was one of the principals in arranging for the smuggling of elements for the Israeli nuclear weapons programme from America and Europe. He was the case officer during the recruitment of the Israeli spy Jonathon Pollard in the United States. In the UK he was very close to the British author Gordon Thomas.
All his life Eitan had a deep personal hatred for Palestinians. He believed that they were foreign invaders in a land given to Israel directly by God and said that the war against the Palestinians should be carried out “without principles”. It is perhaps no surprise that in later years he was a close personal friend of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, possibly the most right-wing prime minister in Israeli history. If one were in a reflective mood, there is a certain irony that a spy best known for capturing a man who espoused the worst kind of racial hatred should have spent his own life expressing the same kind of hatred.