Top KGB Spies in Israel Exposed in Secret Soviet Documents

It isn’t always possible to know whether the KGB really did recruit the people who appear in its documents as spies, or whether the agency exaggerated in describing their connection with it.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Prime Minister Shimon Peres sits in the mock-up cockpit of the Lavi fighter at the Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters in Lod.
Then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres sits in the mock-up cockpit of the Lavi fighter at the Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters in Lod.Credit: Wikimedia commons
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Moshe Sneh, a senior member of the Haganah pre-state military organization and subsequently a Knesset member representing both the left-wing Mapam (United Workers Party) and Maki (the Israel Communist Party), served as an agent of the Soviet intelligence agency, according to a report by journalist Ronen Bergman published in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday .

According to the documents cited in the report, Sneh provided information to the Russians about Israeli foreign policy and was a source for the information sent by the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv to Moscow regarding the positive attitude of Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett toward the United States.

He was one of a number of Israelis mentioned in KGB documents as having served as agents of Soviet intelligence. The documents were copied by KGB agent Vasili Mitrokhin, who defected to Great Britain in 1992.

The first part of the list, which includes politicians, military men, Shin Bet security services personnel, defense industries employees, journalists, clerics and foreign diplomats who served in Israel, was published on Friday.

British intelligence allowed publication of the documents related to Israel some six months ago, after keeping them classified for decades. Some are being revealed to the public for the first time.

“It never happened,” said Moshe Sneh’s son, former minister and MK Ephraim Sneh, in response to the article. He stressed that his father’s connections with the Russians were out in the open and didn’t involve the transfer of classified information.

Sneh’s response attests to the complexity involved in the perusal of documents of this kind; it isn’t always possible to know whether the KGB really did recruit the people who appear in its documents as spies, or whether the KGB exaggerated in describing their connection with it.

In addition, it is not clear in every case what the nature of the connection was and whether the Israelis sent material to the Russians – or the nature of the documents, if they did so.

Among the other politicians from the Israeli left named in the documents as KGB agents was Yaakov (Kuba) Riftin, who served as a Mapam MK from 1949-1965. According to the documents, he regularly sent the Russian classified papers, including those designated top secret. “It never happened; it’s nonsense,” his son Giora said in response.

MK Elazar Granot, also of Mapam, appears on the list as well. Granot served as a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as party secretary. His son told Yedioth that his father did in fact meet with Russian diplomats, but added that he had no access to classified information.

Also mentioned are Yaakov Vardi, a member of the leadership of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair Zionist youth movement and one of the founding fathers of Israel’s water economy, and Shlomo Shamli, a member of Maki’s central committee.

According to the report, the papers indicate that the KGB also recruited Samuel Machtei, who had a classified position in the Israel Aerospace Industries and was involved in the design of the Lavi jet plane. He told Yedioth Ahronoth in response that he “wasn’t connected to that at all.”

Also mentioned is Gregory Londin, who worked in a factory for the maintenance and renovation of Merkava tank engines. Londin was arrested in 1988 and served a prison sentence in Israel for espionage.

Another familiar name is Foreign Ministry worker, economist Zeev Avni, who was arrested by Israel in 1956 after it was revealed that he was a KGB agent and was sent to prison for several years. The article describes for the first time – based on the KGB papers – the amount of material that he transmitted and the damage he caused the system. According to the documents, in 1955-1956 Avni sent Israel’s European communications codes to the head of the KGB branch in Belgrade, along with a great deal of information about Mossad agents in Europe.

The list of Israeli KGB agents also includes three journalists. One of them is Aviva Stan of the now-defunct weekly Haolam Hazeh. The names of the other two weren’t published, but it was claimed that one of them also worked in the office of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. The third journalist was revealed only by his code name, Tamuz, and is described as “a rising star in the skies of Israeli journalism” and close to the ruling party, Mapai (the forerunner of Labor). According to the documents, he was recruited to the KGB in 1965, with the Russians unaware that he was actually a double agent of the Shin Bet.

The highest ranking senior agents on the KGB list are an Israel Defense Forces general and a member of the Shin Bet. Their names and the nature of their connection with the KGB were not published. The Shin Bet member, who is said to have been codenamed Melinka, “was apparently a senior operative in the Shin Bet counterespionage division.”

Another agent on the list is dubbed Bejan – his name wasn’t published in Yedioth either. He is described as a Russian engineer who was trained as a spy and planted in the IDF, where he served in a central position in the field of infrastructure, which exposed him to many military secrets. After his discharge he was appointed to a senior economic position in Israel.

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