A rusty old antenna − now cleaned up and re-installed − was among the last surviving remnants of the era when the Mossad was housed in Tel Aviv’s Kirya compound. Agency veterans recall the good old days when they walked around on dirt paths and ate home-cooked food prepared on the premises.
The rusty antenna in the Kirya − the defense establishment compound in Tel Aviv − was the last vestige of the period in which the Mossad espionage agency was headquartered there, during its early days. Mossad veterans recall those days, when they would go to work on bus or by foot, and eat whatever the cook, Sabina, dished out for them at their offices, or walk via a dirt path to buy some hummus and pita nearby.
After having been taken down and repaired, the Mossad’s first antenna is now going on display. For years, the antenna was unobtrusively perched on a central traffic artery in Tel Aviv, rising above Derech Petah Tikva (today, Derech Begin); wrapped tightly in secrecy in its heyday, it was eventually forgotten and almost sold as junk metal. Only the last-minute intervention of an engineer, Gadi Roitman, saved the antenna: Now repaired and cleaned up, it will be displayed starting next week near its original site in the southern part of the Kirya, as part of a larger project that will highlight the “golden days” of the compound.
The antenna was originally used by Tachal (the Hebrew acronym for overseas stations) − an intra-departmental agency comprised of the Mossad and the Foreign and Defense Ministries.
“I waged a world war over Tachal and its antenna with foreign minister Golda Meir,” testified legendary, late Mossad chief Meir Amit, in an interview a few years ago. “Golda insisted that diplomatic communications should be the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, and I adamantly opposed that: I insisted that Tachal be under the Mossad’s full control and operated in line with the agency’s set of priorities. The cooperation with the Foreign Ministry was anachronistic and damaged the operational objectives of the intelligence-oriented communications body.”
The fight between the foreign minister and the Mossad director eventually led to the separation of the two bodies, who were tied together thanks to a single antenna. This was not the first conflict that flared up along the path blazed by Israel’s intelligence community during its formative years, in the 1950s.
The Tachal agency originated in the Gideonim network run by the Haganah pre-state underground militia. During Mandatory times, the Gideonim were Morse code operators who maintained communications with the ma’apilim (illegal Jewish immigrant) ships coming from Europe and with the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet (the organization responsible for this immigration), which was headed by Shaul Avigur. After the State of Israel was established, the ships were used to ferry new immigrants to the country, by means of a commercial company established by the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet. Avigur supervised the acquisition of military supplies overseas and their transport to Israel, relying on a network of couriers and a wireless communications network, etc.
“During the Mandatory period, the Gideonim network’s broadcast station was located in the home of Avraham Ben-Yosef (who later became Defense Ministry director general), on the second floor of a building on Sderot Nordau in Tel Aviv,” relates Col. (res.) Uri Goren, a veteran Gideonim radio man and founder of the Israel Defense Force’s Communications Corps. “The Tachal network was naturally born of the Gideonim, just as the Mossad intelligence agency is the ‘legitimate son’ of the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet: Both were created by persons involved in illegal immigration and in the Haganah’s weapons-acquisition efforts in Marseilles, Milan and elsewhere.”
How did Tachal develop?
Goren: “When the state was established, the Tachal station was moved to what was called the hilltop, in Ramat Gan (then called Gan Avraham), where IDF General Staff headquarters was originally located. Tachal’s broadcast station, commanded by Moshe Yerushalmi, was set up on the third floor of the building (at 21 Sharett Street) that served as base for the General Staff’s communications platoon.”
“Yerushalmi, then Gideonim commander in Europe, established the Tachal service, and headed it for about 30 years,” recalls Pitachia Feig, a veteran member of the Gideonim, and Tachal’s second commander. “Most of the wireless operators in the Tachal unit were veterans of the Gideonim. During the first half of the 1950s, Tachal turned into an independent network operated by the Mossad, and the IDF placed at its disposal its most talented Morse code specialists. When the General Staff compound moved in February 1955 from Ramat Gan to Tel Aviv, the Tachal division was situated in the southern part of the Kirya.”
The Mossad’s close connection with the Foreign Ministry has roots in the activities of the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet. During the state’s first years, the scope and definition of activities undertaken by the branches of the incipient intelligence community − i.e., the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the IDF’s Intelligence Corps − remained unclear. The lack of clarity concerning operational roles in this sphere was a by-product of the rather unorganized, non-professional traditions of the pre-1948 “state-in-the-making” period. Indeed, up until 1947, the pre-state governmental body, the Jewish Agency, did not have a single, well-defined defense apparatus. Security and intelligence matters, the Mossad L’aliyah Bet and conscription into the British army during World War II − all were handled by the agency’s political department, then headed by Moshe Sharett. After the state was established, the agency’s political department became the Foreign Ministry.
At that time, Asher Ben-Natan served as an aide to prime minister David Ben-Gurion. “As part of my work, I dealt with classified materials that were related to the Foreign Ministry’s operations,” he recalls. “I developed good working relations with Reuven Shiloah, Sharett’s assistant. Together we decided that an intelligence department needed to be established within the Foreign Ministry. In July 1948 the ministry’s political department was created with this in mind [under Shiloah]; it was the intelligence body that preceded the Mossad. Shiloah dealt with various special matters concerning the Foreign Ministry, and was also coordinator of intelligence services for the prime minister and defense minister.”
What was your job?
Ben Natan: “I was appointed head of the operational branch [of the new department], and I established intelligence networks overseas. A large portion of the recruits had worked in the pre-state Shai intelligence service, along with the Mossad L’Aliyah Bet, which had just been disbanded.”
Where were your offices?
“Shiloah worked in prime minister Ben-Gurion’s office, and then moved to Sharett’s office complex at 7 Gimmel Street, in the southern part of the Kirya − today, the Millennium Tower building stands on this site. I resided in Paris until March 1951.”
In December 1949, about a year and a half after the political department’s establishment, Ben-Gurion asked Shiloah to organize “an institute [literally, mossad, in Hebrew] for the coordination and consolidation of the state’s security and intelligence services,” which would be subordinate to the prime minister while still under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, explains Dr. Shimon Avivi, who has researched the Mossad’s origins.
“On February 8, 1951 Ben-Gurion instituted a fundamental change in the intelligence community’s structure,” he says. “The political department was dismantled, and its operational branch turned into an independent intelligence agency, called the central agency for overseas intelligence.”
What were the implications of this change?
Avivi: “After the political department was dismantled, a sharp clash ensued between Shiloah and Ben Natan, referred to as ‘the spies’ rebellion,’ and in its aftermath Ben Natan resigned. In May 1951 the new body that emerged and was headed by Shiloah was called ‘the central institute [Mossad] for intelligence,’ and two months later it was decided that it would be subordinate to the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Despite the changes in the intelligence body’s hierarchy and personnel, one thing remained the same: The Mossad’s offices stayed where they were, near the Foreign Ministry compound in the southern part of the Kirya, in Tel Aviv. In the summer of 1952, the ministry moved to Jerusalem and its three vacated buildings were put at the Mossad’s disposal. However, the impressive offices used by the foreign minister were reserved for him in the Kirya, where he continued to receive members of the foreign diplomatic corps.
At this stage, Shiloah quit his job as head of the Mossad and Isser Harel replaced him, while also holding the reins as the Shin Bet security service’s chief.
The move to the new buildings came at a time of major changes in the new intelligence organization’s personnel and structure. Three Templer buildings, replete with shingled roofs and colored tiled floors, were assigned to the Mossad. These were structures originally built for the families of German settlers in the 19th century − not as a compound designed for a modern intelligence service. The buildings formed a triangle and were located to the east of Gimmel Street, which at the time reached Hahashmonaim Street.
The “No. 13 Gimmel” compound was named after the most impressive of the three buildings, recalls Menachem (Nahik) Navot, former deputy director of the Mossad, who says, “The compound was surrounded by a fence, which was partly blocked by thick undergrowth and fruit trees.”
What remains of this compound today?
Navot: “The building were torn down. They were replaced by an electric company installation, which spreads out onto Derech Begin and Hahashmonaim Street. North of the compound, the Platinum and Millennium towers have been built.”
Isser Harel’s office was located in one of the three original buildings. “His small office was the entrance level of a two-story building,” recalls former Mossad director Nahum Admoni, who served as Harel’s assistant in the 1950s. “There was a conference room next to his office; eight to 10 participants could sit at the T-shaped table in that room. This is where meetings of heads of the [intelligence] services took place. Yitzhak Dorot, Harel’s deputy had an office on the building’s eastern side. There were two other office buildings in the compound that served the Mossad’s branches, in their early phases.”
Admoni adds: “The Mossad was born in a quiet, modest yard in the southern part of the Kirya. A little later, the ‘No. 17 building’ [on Maklef Street] was added. It was used to host important guests from overseas who had business with the Mossad; Isser did not want the guests to wander about the Mossad compound. Isser’s office was extremely puritanical; his style was rigidly ascetic. His conference rooms were modest and simple. A nice-looking meeting room was set up on No. 17’s ground floor; next to it, there was a kitchenette for refreshments, served according to the standards of that era.”
Did the Mossad have other buildings?
“There was a small structure that served as a kitchen and dining room. Apparently it had served in the past as a farmer’s shed or something. The cook was Sabina, a new immigrant from Eastern Europe who used big pots and served basic dishes − soup, mashed potatoes, perhaps some meat of the sort available in those days of rationing, and citrus fruit. There were two tables in the tiny dining room; due to lack of space, two others were set up outside, in the yard. Sabina’s husband worked as a driver, and as a young man had been a dancer. He was thus considered an oddball in the office’s machismo culture.”
“The dining area was called ‘Sabina’s soup kitchen,’” adds Yitzhak Barzilay, a former top Mossad official. “During breaks in the afternoon, and particularly during night shifts, when the kitchen was closed, we’d go to a kiosk outside, that we called ‘the dirty place,’ located on Sderot Yehudit, to buy some pita and hummus. It was a dump; with his filthy hands, the owner would spread the hummus on pita.”
How did you get there?
Barzilay: “We’d walk along a small dirt path, which was also used by workers who came by bus from Derech Petah Tikva. And every week, a parade of musicians from Israel Radio’s Arab broadcast orchestra, conducted by Zuzu Musa, would walk down that road. After finishing recording at Israel Radio studios nearby, they would walk back to the buses, each wearing dark sunglasses. The musicians were immigrants from Iraq and had excellent reputations.”
Why would you walk?
“There weren’t private cars back then, and we’d come to work by bus. Just seven or eight [Chevrolet] Sevilles and the Mossad chief’s own car would enter the compound.”
During Israel’s early years, the word “Mossad” was not mentioned in public, neither was the term “Shin Bet.” The Mossad’s major operations in the pre-1967 era were wide-ranging: It was involved in assisting in the immigration of Jews from Morocco; hunting down then-Soviet premier Khrushchev’s secret 1956 speech denouncing Stalinism; finding the child Yossele Schumacher, who was hidden by the Orthodox communities in Israel, Europe and New York; capturing and delivering Nazi criminal Adolph Eichmann to trial in Jerusalem; in dealing with the affair of Israeli agent Eli Cohen, who was executed in Damascus in 1965, and so on. Some Mossad operations remained classified − including the installation of Tachal antennae on rooftops of cities around the globe.
Mossad headquarters in the Kirya spawned colorful figures whose exploits later became famous − including David Kimche, Yitzhak Shamir and Efraim Halevy. As years went by, new buildings were added on the site, and eventually the Mossad moved out. After the Labor Party was voted out of power in 1977, then-MK Yitzhak Rabin’s modest office was located on the ground floor of the building that had formerly served the head of the Mossad. Due to technological changes in the communications field, the old antenna nearby became a functionless, rusting “period piece.”
The Sarona Gardens, the name for the park across from what is today the Azrieli Center complex, serves as an entryway to Tel Aviv from Kaplan Street. The site hosts 38 old Templer structures that are under preservation or repair; these include an olive press, a vineyard and a distillery that is penned up within Israel Broadcast Authority studios. The focus of the new visitors center being planned for the site will be underground operations against the British police, the activities of the Haganah base once located there, and so on.
When the security establishment left the southern part of the Kirya, buildings not slated for preservation were torn down, in keeping with development plans.
“When the army moved out of the buildings near the antenna, I walked around with the park’s demolition people and landscape contractors,” explains engineer Gadi Roitman, head of the Sarona Gardens management team.
“In 2006, the demand for iron rose in the world, owing to the high prices that the Chinese were willing to pay while building the Olympic Stadium in Beijing. When the demolition contractors saw the large antenna, their eyes lit up. Totally by coincidence, you [i.e., this writer] were at the site when the contractors were making the rounds. When I heard about the [history of the] antenna from you, I decided to stop it from being dismantled.”
Roitman: “The Israel Lands Administration adamantly objected to the antenna’s preservation, and demanded that it be removed.”
“Because it stood on a site that was planned for some sort of excavation, and the ILA claimed that another historical monument was unnecessary. I refused to allow the dismantling of the antenna; when the time came for authorizing development plans, I announced that I would not sign off on them if the antenna were moved. At this stage, the engineer Ze’ev Gerlitz entered the picture, and also lobbied for preservation. Gerlitz, 70, is a bulldozer; he drove everyone crazy until he persuaded them to preserve this artifact.”
Gerlitz’s assertive temperament and his ability to move mountains are indeed apparent. A person with a volunteering spirit, he uses his funds, knowledge of technology and connections to further causes he believes in, and is not afraid to engage in endless battles with bureaucrats. He donated money to the antenna preservation project, and has a warm spot in his heart for the Sarona Gardens site.
“When I was a child, my parents worked in the Kirya,” Gerlitz explains. “On Fridays, after finishing school, I would walk to my mother’s office in the Kirya. I remember that on Friday afternoons, Golda [Meir], who was then minister of labor, would walk around and send women home, saying: ‘It’s Friday, go home and prepare gefilte fish for Shabbat.’ Then they would light candles for Shabbat.
“In recent years I’ve walked around the southern Kirya on Friday mornings, and listened to explanations given by the tour guides at the site. I’ve noticed that each guide says something different. One day I heard your explanation about the antenna, and it aroused my interest.”
Why the antenna, of all things?
Gerlitz: “Preservation work at the Kirya has focused up to now on the German buildings in Sarona. The Templers deserve credit for modernizing settlement activity in Eretz Israel, but the Templer history also includes a Nazi period, and their support for Hitler’s regime. The time has come to preserve what’s important at the Kirya in terms of the history of the establishment of governmental institutions in the State of Israel.”
What have you done here?
“I got involved in this [antenna] matter − and also in the wonders of bureaucracy. Fortunately, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, who is a lawyer, also took an interest in this initiative, and took care of the authorization conferred by the ILA and the [Tel Aviv] municipality. Also, Haim Mer, from the company which originally manufactured this antenna, helped with the preservation project. He took charge of dismantling and repairing it in his factory, and re-installing it. He helped fund the project and dedicated it to the memory of his father, Aharon Mer, who first manufactured and erected the antenna. Haim Mer’s volunteer work on this was exemplary.”
Gerlitz continues: “During the process, I turned to Ran Hedvatti from Kibbutz Ein Shemer [and from the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sights], who became entranced by the project and found a way to overcome each technical problem. He has incredible skill with his hands, and his resume includes restoration projects such as the Mekorot pumping station at Rosh Ha’ayin, and the illegal immigrant ship at Atlit.”
“I saw the antenna when I worked on the renovation of Sarona’s olive press, but didn’t know about its importance,” says Hedvatti, who works for the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites in Israel.
“Ze’ev [Gerlitz] got me interested in this project. The antenna reaches a height of 18 meters. Preservation of it has singular historic importance since, like other structures and facilities from the past, it embodies stories encompassing the history of the [pre-state Jewish] Yishuv and the state’s early years. The antenna is connected to the heritage of Israel’s intelligence community and its contribution to the building of the state.”
Dr. Nir Mann explored the history of the Kirya site as part of his doctoral research.