Israeli Prisoner X, Intel Agent Turned Murderer, Dies at 91

Mordechai Kedar, a Military Intelligence operative, was sent to Argentina in the ‘50s to launch sabotage operations in Egypt in the guise of a businessman, but would be convicted of killing a businessman in cahoots with him

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Yossi Melman
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Mordechai Kedar, who spied for the Mossad out of his base in Argentina; he later would convicted in an Israeli court of murdering a helper.
Mordechai Kedar, who spied for the Mossad out of his base in Argentina; he later would convicted in an Israeli court of murdering a helper. Credit: Moti Kimche
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Military Intelligence agent Mordechai Kedar, who in 1962 was convicted of murdering a businessman who helped him with his spying from his Argentine base, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was 91.

Despite Kedar’s dubious past (more on that later), Military Intelligence recruited him as an agent with deep cover in Egypt. In 1954 and 1955, Israeli intelligence was suffering a shortage of agents and sources after the downfall of the Jewish espionage and sabotage network in Egypt – the result of the failed covert operation known as the Lavon Affair.

Kedar’s history and borderline personality were known, but in those years it wasn’t a rare phenomenon to recruit agents with a criminal past. During Kedar’s training, he was diagnosed by a Military Intelligence psychologist, David Rudy. Kedar’s recruitment was approved by senior MI officers, Maj. Gen. Yehoshafat Harkabi and Col. Yuval Ne’eman. Harkabi was a relative of a member of a criminal gang that Kedar led.

In March 1957 Kedar, who was widely known by his nickname Motke, was sent to Argentina by his handlers to establish a false identity. Kedar was a navy man, and in Argentina he was tasked with launching sabotage missions in Egypt under cover as a businessman who was an amateur sailor. He was asked to use the services of Kalman Klein, a Jewish businessman who helped him rent an apartment and transferred money to him so he could craft his cover story.

Kedar became friendly with Klein’s daughter, who in November 1957 found her father’s dead body bearing knife wounds. On the eve of the murder Kedar had met with Klein, who gave him about $15,000 before a trip to Egypt. A few days later Kedar contacted his handlers in Israel claiming that the Argentine police suspected he was involved in a plot to bring down the government, and asked to return to Israel immediately.

After MI chiefs were told by the Jewish helper’s family that his body had been found, they connected the dots and concluded that Kedar was the murderer. They pretended they believed his fears of being arrested by the Argentine police as an anti-government rebel and encouraged him to return immediately to Israel. After a stopover in Europe he landed at Lod Airport and was arrested on the spot.

Some of the money he had received from Klein was found in his luggage. For three weeks Kedar was interrogated at a packing house in an orchard outside Tel Aviv. He was then sent to Ramle Prison, where he was kept in administrative detention for about six months until he was indicted for murder.

“He was my toughest case,” Victor Cohen, a Shin Bet investigator who interrogated Kedar, told Haaretz. “For days he refused to admit anything and tried with philosophical arguments to charm me, but my team and I had the evidence: The money he had stolen from the Jewish helper was found in the double compartment of Kedar’s bag.”

In his Hebrew-language book “Security and Democracy,” then-Mossad chief Isser Harel, the guiding spirit behind the investigation, said he feared that Kedar was “likely to physically harm anyone who could serve as a witness against him.”

Harel once told me that he didn’t rule out the possibility that Kedar would try to murder him, too. Kedar’s trial began in February 1959 and ended in June 1962. He denied the allegations but in the end was convicted of murder and theft, based on circumstantial evidence, and received a 20-year prison sentence.

Isser Harel, the Mossad chief from 1952 to 1963. He feared that Kedar was “likely to physically harm anyone who could serve as a witness against him.” Credit: Yaakov Saar/ GPO

A hotheaded hedonist

Mordechai Kravitzki, later Kedar, was born in 1929 in Vilna and led a turbulent life, a Raskolnikov-like figure. He immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine with his grandparents in 1934 and lived with them in Hadera north of Tel Aviv, studied at the maritime school in Haifa, and at 17 worked as a seaman on a merchant ship.

After the UN decision to partition the land and create two states, he joined the Palyam, the naval arm of the Palmach pre-state strike force, and later was drafted into the navy. During his military service he quarreled with his commanders, was sent to prison and later went AWOL. In Hadera he was known as a hotheaded bully, a hedonist, a lover of motorcycles and women, and a student of philosophy.

In the early ‘50s Kedar led a gang suspected of committing a robbery in Tel Aviv suburb Kfar Shmaryahu, the murder of a taxi driver on the beach near Hadera and the robbery of the Loan and Savings Bank in Afula, from which the gang emerged with today’s equivalent of 1 million shekels ($303,000). All of Hadera knew that Kedar and his friends were the perpetrators, but the police couldn’t prove it.

Kedar began studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem but was expelled when it turned out he had forged his matriculation certificate.

During his six months in detention before the murder trial, no one knew about the arrest, which was discovered only after an incidental visit to Ramle Prison by an acquaintance of Kedar’s.

The press learned about the affair on the initiative of Rudy, the psychologist, but due to heavy censorship, the articles on the matter were vague. “An official emissary is suspected of murder” was a typical phrase, without any mention of Kedar’s work in Military Intelligence and the circumstances of his arrest. Later the courts issued a gag order on the affair – the media was forced to remain silent until Kedar was paroled in 1974.

Solitary confinement

Kedar, who was dubbed Prisoner X, served most of his sentence in isolation. In the next cell another Prisoner X was serving – Avri Elad, who was suspected of informing on his fellow members of the Jewish espionage network in Egypt.

Kedar and Elad got to know each other by knocking on the walls of their cells in Morse code. Later Yitzhak Rabin’s murderer Yigal Amir and Mossad agent Ben Zygier, who committed suicide in his cell in 2010, were held in those cells.

Kedar maintained his innocence throughout his time in prison. He studied philosophy and became a student of philosopher Moshe Kroy, a disciple of Ayn Rand; for years Kedar espoused her utilitarian philosophy.

In prison Kedar divorced his first wife, and after his release he met Tamar Appelbaum, a widow and the mother of a son and daughter. The two married and went to live on the U.S. West Coast. For decades Kedar lived on a yacht and often sailed the Pacific to Central and South America. This gave rise to rumors about mysterious business dealings of his.

Kedar lost his son Erez (who changed his last name to Ben Horin) in 2009. Erez’s mother, Tamar, and her second husband died in a house fire in London, when Erez was in a British prison on suspicion of drug dealing. (Kedar, meanwhile, will have no funeral; he asked to be cremated.)

In 1995 Kedar demanded a retrial. His appeal was sent through civil and military courts for years until in 2004 the High Court of Justice finally rejected his request.

“I went to visit him in a poor neighborhood of Latin immigrants downtown,” journalist Shosh Maimon told Haaretz; she met and spoke to Kedar in Los Angeles a few years ago.

“He was sloppily dressed. I had the impression that he was an obsessive person. There was something dogmatic about him that believed that he was right,” Maimon said.

“During the interview with him he barely let me speak and kept complaining that he had suffered an injustice. There was something about him that petrified me.”

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