For the first time, former spymaster Rafi Eitan has revealed the story behind his handling of the convicted American Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard, whose case still casts a shadow over US-Israeli relationship nearly 30 years later.
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Consistently portrayed as a ‘rogue agent’ who was Pollard’s handler while he gathered classified documents from the heart of the US military, Eitan, 88, admitted for the first time in an extended television interview that then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been aware of his activities.
Eitan was asked point-blank by the interviewer on the magazine show “Uvda” as to whether Peres and Rabin knew what he was doing.
“Did the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister know that there were Israeli spies inside the US military?”
Eitan hesitated. “I don’t want to answer that because the oment I answer that I will make headlines in the press.”
“But we can understand the answer.”
“You can understand it.”
“Clearly I would never lie to my government.”
The interview, conducted with Eitan and his wife Miriam, covered the trajectory of Eitan’s career, including his famous participation in the kidnapping of Nazi Adolph Eichmann - but the focus of the story was clearly the Pollard case.
After he was exposed as a spy for Israel, Pollard sought asylum at the Israeli embassy, but was refused entry and was subsequently arrested by the FBI. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for treason in 1986. After the scandal, Eitan’s intelligence unit, the Department of Scientific Affairs was disbanded, he resigned, and has never stepped foot in the United States again.
In her interview, Eitan’s wife said she knew about Pollard and that she had even assisted in the process of recruiting the young American, by entertaining Pollard’s then-wife Anne in Paris when her husband first met him. Normally, she said, Eitan never mixed his family life with his work - but made an exception by meeting with Pollard in Europe on his way back from a family vacation.
Eitan said he was impressed by Pollard’s “superior mental abilities” but as time passed, there was concern over his “his lack of caution” mainly when it came to spending the extra money he was getting from Israel. “When he was making money he raised his standard of living. He ate in expensive restaurants. It raised suspicion. Essentially, in August of the same year there were thoughts to freeze Pollard. Under the pressure from sources in intelligence who wanted certain information about Iraq, I was convinced to keep operating him for a few months - and then what happened happened.”
When Pollard was called in for questioning in the fall of 1985, Eitan said that he “immediately gave Pollard the agreed upon sign for him to leave the United States.”
But instead of executing an agreed-upon escape plan, Eitan said, admitting for the first time that such a plan was in place, Pollard “went home. He wandered around for three days with them following him. He had many opportunities to do what I told him and he didn’t do it.”
Instead, Eitan said, shaking his head, Pollard “thought he and his wife would go into the embassy with two suitcases full of information and they would give him asylum.no ambassador would have given Pollard diplomatic shelter. No one.”
That was when, Eitan said, he gave the order to turn Pollard away. “I immediately said - throw him out,” he recounted, adding voluntarily: “I don’t regret it.”
In that case, as in any others, he said “I made the right decision to do what is best for the state of Israel. And anyone in that position who does otherwise would be wrong I know if I had done otherwise it would have been far worse.”
Pollard, he said, sealed his own fate when he chose his path. “The moment that this many decided to go to the embassy in the manner he chose to go there, he decided on his own that he was going to prison.”
Eitan said he took full responsibility for the decision to abandon Pollard. As for the decisions that led to his arrest, he said: “You can’t wage war without making mistakes.”
While he refused to express any feelings of guilt, his wife said otherwise. She said that when the couple built themselves a house in northern Israel years ago, she said that if Pollard was ever released from jail, she would give him a house to live in.
Though her husband may not have said it publicly, she added: “He would give a great deal to change the fate of Pollard.”
Last month reports emerged that Pollard was turned down for his first application for parole.
“The breadth and scope of the classified information that you sold to the Israelis was the greatest compromise of U.S. security to that date,” the parole commission said in an August letter to Pollard, according to the Jerusalem Post. “You passed thousands of Top Secret documents to Israeli agents, threatening U.S. relations in the Middle East among the Arab countries,” the parole commission letter said.
“Given all this information, paroling you at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the offense and promote disrespect for the law.”
The parole commission said it would review his case again next year.