Former Deputy Mossad Chief Who Helped Bring Iranian Jews to Israel Dies at 88

Menahem Navot's career spanned 40 years, and included extracting the last Israelis from Tehran during the Islamic Revolution

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Navot in his home in Ramat Hasharon, 2015.
Navot in his home in Ramat Hasharon, 2015.Credit: Alon Ron
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Former deputy chief of the Mossad, Menahem Navot, died Saturday at the age of 88. Navot’s career spanned 40 years and included involvement in bringing the Jews of Iraq to Israel and the dramatic extraction of the last Israelis from Tehran at the end of the 1970s.

Born Menahem Lipovetzky in Herzliya in 1931, a descendent of the Vilna Gaon, Navot received his first intelligence assignment at age 14: His handlers in the Haganah’s intelligence unit ordered him to climb to the top of a tree between Herzliya and the neighboring Kfar Shmaryahu and spy on a nearby house. “They said the house was being used as a hideout and a secret meeting place for Lehi leaders,” referring to a rival underground movement, “and people like Yitzhak Shamir would visit it,” he said in an interview four years ago with Haaretz.

In 1948, Navot was drafted and was tasked with combing Tel Aviv to find apartments that were being used as safe houses for leaders of the rival movements. “Decades have passed since then, but I remember very well the disturbing thoughts that went through my mind about the significance of the task I was given. The state had been established. Everyone was busy building the state’s official institutions like other countries, and I was sent to fight other Jews?” he said at the time.

In 1952, after he joined the Shin Bet security service, he was appointed private secretary to the prime minister. The title came with another role – Ben-Gurion’s first bodyguard. The Shin Bet decided to assign Ben Gurion a body guard in light of the reparations agreement between Israel and Germany and the ensuing outrage it sparked among members of the Etzel underground.

Navot in Iraq

“There were reports that former fighters of the organization were planning on entering the Frumin building in Jerusalem, the Knesset building at the time, to prevent the agreement from being signed. There was of course concern that opponents of the reparations agreement would try to assassinate the prime minister,” he said. Navot shadowed “the old man” for a few months.

'Who knows whether this won’t be the last flight'

In 1955, Navot transfered to the Mossad where he served a variety of roles overseas, including in the department that was responsible for the Mossad’s ties to organizations worldwide. He was sent to Iran in 1969, where he forged ties with the Kurds in Iraq, who helped bring the Jews of Iraq to Israel. “The representatives of the Mossad had the addresses of the Jews in Baghdad and other cities in Iraq. We gave them to our friends the Kurds, and their representatives went to the Jewish homes and told them to get ready to leave,” he said. The Jewish families were driven in Kurdish jeeps to the Iraq-Iran border and from there into Iran and to Israel. The Kurds called Navot Abu Nur (“Father of Light”) because his eldest son was named Nir.

In September 1978, when the shah's rule was tottering, Navot was responsible for ensuring the safety of the Jewish and Israeli community and preparing to evacuate them in light of concerns over the impending revolution.

Navot (left) with Kurdish fighters in Iraq

In January 1979, the storm hit its peak. Navot, who had been shuttling between Iran and Israel, came for another visit to coordinate the extraction of the last Jews in the country. On January 22, he was on the El Al flight to Tehran, whose airport was barely functioning by then.

“The pilot was coordinating with other pilots around him,” Navot wrote in his journal. “There was no one to land them. The pilot said he couldn’t go on with the operation under these conditions, and to complete it a military plane would be needed,” Navot recalled. “I said, ‘well, then, this plane is now a military aircraft.’ They said I was crazy,” he said. “We landed. The crew left us by saying: ‘the person who comes to Tehran is a hero. Who knows if this won’t be the last flight,’” Navot wrote. Navot was eventually extracted by the Americans after he completed his mission in Tehran.

In 1980 Navot began to visit Lebanon, until it sank “deep in the Lebanese mud,” as he put it. “From the moment I took the job, I realized that war with Lebanon was inevitable,” he said. Then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon “won the war, but he wasn't the one who started it,” Navot said. He assigned that responsibility Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Navot described a meeting at Begin’s home in Jerusalem that he participated in, along with the president-elect of Lebanon, Bashir Jumayyil, and Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. “During the conversation, Begin burst out and said, ‘we’ll attack Beirut and we’ll smash and destroy and the nation of Israel lives on!’ I stood next to Begin, shocked at the meaning of the words and the powerful way they were said,” he recalled.

Navot explained the reasons for embarking on the First Lebanon War in 1982. “Eventually it became clear to me why Begin approved the operation: He agreed to give autonomy to the Palestinians at Camp David. Apparently, as time went by, he deeply regretted his agreement, fearing that autonomy would lead to a Palestinian state. Thus, it was easier to persuade him that to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Palestinian leadership should be removed from Lebanon and sent out of the region. That, I believe, is how Begin bought into the reasoning of the IDF generals and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to go to war in Lebanon.”

Navot, who lived in Ramat Hasharon, summed up interview at the time by saying: “I was working in countries with which we had no relations. I believe in dialogue. You have to try to correctly read the other side and see the positives."