Rafi Eitan, Spymaster Who Led Eichmann's Capture and Ran Pollard, Dies at 92

The former cabinet member was a founding member of the Israeli intelligence community

Rafi Eitan in 2009.
Tomer Appelbaum

Rafi Eitan, the Mossad agent who headed the mission to abduct Adolf Eichmann and bring him to Israel in 1960 for prosecution, died on Saturday at the age of 92.

A founding member of the Israeli intelligence community, Eitan was the handler of convicted American Jewish spy Jonathan Pollard. The former cabinet member was known as Israel's "master spy" and a living legend.

>> Read more: Ex-Mossad handler blames Pollard for bungling '85 escape plan'Operation Finale': How Israel captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann

Eitan was married to Miriam and had three children and grandchildren.

Eitan was born in 1926 in Kibbutz Ein Harud to Judith and Noah Huntman, Russian pioneers who came to Israel during the third wave of immigration. He was raised in Ramat Hasharon, and attended an agricultural high school in Givat Hashlosha. 

In 1944, when Eitan was 18, he joined the Palmach, the pre-state underground Jewish militia. While serving in the organization, Eitan participated in an operation to release Jewish immigrants from the Atlit detainee camp, which was run by the British Mandate. 

He also took part in the "Night of the Bridges," also known as Operation Markolet. The operation's aim was to destroy 11 bridges linking Mandatory Palestine to the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan and Egypt, in order to suspend the transportation routes used by the British army. 

In 1946, Eitan killed two German Templers in order to deter members of the movement, which considered itself an affiliate of the Nazi party, from returning to Israel. Eitan said he did this "for the Jewish people." 

During the 1948 War of Independence, Eitan participated in many battles and was gravely wounded. Upon his release from the army, he joined the Shin Bet security service, where he quickly rose up the ranks. 

Upon his release, Eitan joined the Shin Bet. Outwardly, he didn't look the part of a hero. He was short, unkempt, wore glasses and had bad vision and hearing. But his operational talents quickly stood out and he was appointed head of the central operations unit, a joint unit of the Shin Bet and the Mossad.

According to Eitan, he participated in hundreds of operations throughout his life. In a 2014 interview with Israeli investigative television show "Uvda," Eitan said that the operation to capture Eichmann was "one of the simplest operation I carried out." 

"You hit him on the right shoulder, you turn the left shoulder toward you, lock the head in both hands and then you drag him. I started feeling the scars I knew he had, and then I realized – this is the guy. In my heart I sang the song of the partisans: 'We are here.'"

In the 1960s Eitan led the European branch of the Mossad out of Paris. During this period, he was involved in Operation Damocles to thwart the German scientists’ involvement in Egypt and took part in the disappearance of Moroccan opposition leader Mahdi Bin Baraka, who had worked for King Hassan.

When asked about the morality issues involve in his job, Eitan replied: “When you’re in an intelligence struggle, you set morality aside. All intelligence work involves collaborating with crime.”

In 1978 Eitan was appointed as counter-terrorism adviser to Menachem Begin, and in the 1980s he was named head of the Bureau of Scientific Ties – a secret unit that specialized in stealing technological know-how from various countries for Israeli weapons and nuclear industries.

While serving in this role he was a key player in the Jonathan Pollard scandal. Pollard, an American Jew, was employed as a U.S.  Naval adviser and became a spy in Israel’s service.

When asked about the intelligence Pollard supplied, Eitan said: “After an initial view of the material my professional appetite grew. It was quality and accurate information.”

But the great potential ended abruptly when Pollard was arrested in 1985 sent to prison for 30 years. The affair ended Eitan’s intelligence-security career, for it had created a rift in Israel’s relationship with its largest ally, the United States. In addition, Eitan was accused of having instructed the Israeli embassy in Washington to deny Pollard refuge when he fled to its gates.

“I immediately said ‘throw him out,” Eitan told the Uvda television program, adding that he had no regrets. Later Eitan would describe the affair as “my most famous failure.” In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth on the eve of the spy’s release from prison he said, “In retrospect, the matter was one big mistake and I apologize from the depths of my heart.” 

At the end of his defense career Eitan was named as CEO of Israel Chemicals and later grew rich from international business and Cuba-based deals. In 2006 he led the Dor Party to a surprise seven-seat victory in the Knesset, and was named as Minister of Pensioner Affairs in Ehud Olmert’s cabinet. The party failed to win enough votes for a Knesset seat in 2009 and Eitan returned to private business. In his final years he dabbled in sculpture.

'Eitan will go down in the history of the people of Israel'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded Saturday evening to the news of Eitan's passing, stating that he and his wife Sara "are grieving alongside the entire people of Israel over the death of our beloved Rafi Eitan." 

"Eitan," Netanyahu added, "was one of the heroes of Israel's intelligence services... over the years he took part in public life, was a government minister and acted to retrieve Jewish property that was taken from Jews during the Holocaust." 

The prime minister also noted that Eitan was a close family friend. "No one could match his intelligence, his wit and his endless commitment to the people of Israel and to our country."

Head of the Shin Bet Nadav Argaman said, "The actions of Rafi Eitan, may he rest in peace, are entwined with the history of the Shin Bet and the state of Israel... The courage of his heart, his principled and modest path, as a protector and unafraid – this is our path and our legacy. We are pained at his parting and proud to be his successors."

Director of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen said, "Rafi Eitan, may he rest in peace, was a supporting pillar of the intelligence community, and the Mossad in particular. We will eternally cherish his contributions to the security of the state of Israel, from his start as a young fighter in the Palmach. His actions will be written in gold in the history of the nation."

"Rafi was a first class fighter and officer – original and brave – who led innumerable daring operations and complicated actions on behalf of the Mossad, including the capture of the Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann. A great majority of his actions cannot be shared publicly, but they contributed significantly to the security of the state of Israel," he added.

"The principles that Rafi laid out in the nation's first years are fundamental to the functioning of the Mossad today, and the nation of Israel owes him a great debt for all he has done."

Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein stated that "on behalf of the Knesset I express my sorrow over the passing of former Knesset member and member of the intelligence community, Rafi Eitan. His commitment and contribution to the State of Israel, state security and especially the operation to capture Nazi criminal Eichmann will forever go down in the history of the people of Israel. May his memory be a blessing."

President Reuven Rivlin said that Israel "lost a brave fighter... Rafi was a fighter in his soul, he stuck to his mission and to his truth. We bow our heads in sorrow and say goodbye with deep gratitude for everything he has done for the people and for the state."

Labor chairman Avi Gabbay took to Twitter to honor Eitan, writing that he was "one of the founding fathers of Israel's intelligence community. He contributed to the security of each and every one of Israel's civilians for decades, in operations about which information cannot be disclosed to this day. He didn't show off, he just did [the work]."