Who Killed Joe Alon?

Nearly 40 years after the murder of Israel's air attache in Washington, the case remains unsolved. A new book seeks to shed more light on the affair


This article was originally published in 2011. The FBI has reportedly reopened the case.

A few minutes before 1 A.M. on Sunday, July 1, 1973, Col.Yosef (Joe ) Alon and his wife Dvora returned to their home in a quiet Washington, D.C., suburb. Alon, the air attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, had been at a farewell party for an Israeli diplomat. They parked the car. Dvora went into the house and then heard five gunshots.

She rushed outside, saw her husband lying in a pool of blood, and glimpsed a white car driving away. She and her daughter Dalia, then 17, tried to help him. The other two girls, 14-year-old Yael and 6-year-old Rachel woke up. Joe tried to mumble something. An ambulance rushed him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Yosef Alon was born Josef Palchak in 1929 on Kibbutz Ein Harod, to parents of Czech origin. When he was 2 years old, his parents returned to Czechoslovakia. When World War II broke out in 1939, the father sent his 10-year-old son to England, saving his life. Most of the family was wiped out in the Holocaust. After the end of the war Alon returned to Czechoslovakia, where he tried to begin a new life as a jeweler. In 1947 he volunteered for the first pilots course of what was to become Israel Air Force, which took place in that country.

He then immigrated to Israel, changed his name, and was among the founders of the IAF, together with Ezer Weizman and Moti Hod. He served in the IAF for more than 20 years and became one of its icons. In the early 1970s he was appointed air attache at the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

In the first years after the murder, Dvora tried to find out why her husband had been assassinated. She suspected that Alon might not have been only a representative of the air force, but also an intelligence agent. She appealed to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, to the Israel Air Force heads and senior Israel Defense Forces officers, including the chief of the General Staff, Mordechai (Motta ) Gur, who had been Alon's counterpart as the IDF attache in Washington. Gur told her, without having been asked, "I can assure you that Joe was not a Mossad man."

In her overwhelming despair, Dvora clutched at conspiracy theories. The most far-fetched of all was that her husband was murdered because he had uncovered a terrible secret - that Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had spied for the U.S.

Dvora Alon died in 1995. In 2004 her daughters approached Haaretz in order to revive public interest in the affair, and hoping to find new information about their father's murder. In articles I published on the subject, three theories were raised regarding the motive: criminal; romantic - Joe Alon was a ladies' man; and political - that a Palestinian organization was behind it. Alon's daughters also applied to Israeli authorities, including the IDF, the Mossad, and the Shin Bet security service, and demanded to see all the material in the case.

Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who represented both the Mossad and the Shin Bet in the U.S. at the time of Alon's murder, met with them in March 2004, but did not offer any new details. In light of this, the daughters, too, grew suspicious of the defense establishment and believed the Mossad was bugging their phone. At this point the daughters petitioned the High Court of Justice, which ordered the Shin Bet and Mossad to hand over the information it had. But the material was paltry and largely relied on what the FBI investigation had yielded.

The Shin Bet had this to say on the matter at the time: "The Israel Security Agency was not actively involved in the investigation of the murder of Colonel Joe Alon, which was conducted by the authorized agencies in the United States. Following the family's petition to the High Court of Justice, the Shin Bet provided them with details of information the service had received pertaining to the incident."

The sisters suspected that the Israeli authorities wished to conceal something. In order to advance their inquiry they returned to the scene of the crime in the U.S. They contacted several journalists, asking them to obtain original documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Later they also got in touch with Fred Burton, now a vice president at Stratfor, a company that supplies information, analysis and consulting on intelligence and security matters. Burton was formerly deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.

The result is a book set to be released this month in the U.S., entitled "Chasing Shadows" (Palgrave Macmillan ). The book is subtitled: "A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice." (A Hebrew edition is being published by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan.) The special agent is Fred Burton.

At the time of Alon's murder, Burton was 16 years old and lived a few blocks from the scene of the shooting. Over the course of his career he came across the case a number of times, but like others before him, he failed to crack it.

Although it reveals new information about the murder, Burton's book (written with John Bruning, a military historian ) does not solve the mystery. It does, however, sharpen the recognition that the issue is first and foremost one of incompetence by both U.S. investigative and intelligence authorities - the FBI mislaid evidence and investigation materials from the murder scene - and by the Shin Bet and Mossad. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis went out of their way to advance the investigation.

Burton discovered that Alon had at one point called a Los Angeles number that turned out to belong to a local prostitute, and on another occasion met with a woman in New York. But he discounts the possibility that the murder was romantically motivated. Burton believes Alon's killers were members of Black September, a front organization of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Those were the days of the tit-for-tat war between the PLO and Israel. Following the murder of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Israeli intelligence launched operations across Europe and the Middle East against PLO representatives, bases and "terrorism infrastructures." The PLO responded by attempting to kill Israeli representatives overseas, as well as Shin Bet and Mossad officers.

In an e-mail interview with Haaretz, Burton notes that information uncovered in recent years dispels the prevailing notion that Black September did not have sleeper cells in the U.S.

"Colonel Alon was killed by Black September," he maintains, though he provides only circumstantial evidence for this conclusion. "This was after car bombs were deployed in New York in March 1973, which were intended to hit Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, who was visiting the city, and branches of Israeli banks." These terror attacks were foiled.

The car bomb operation in New York took place one day before Black September seized control of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, took hostages there, and murdered two diplomats, an American and a Belgian.

"As far as Black September was concerned, the choice of Alon as a target was a brilliant decision. From their standpoint he was a symbol and a target worthy of attack. He was an Israeli diplomat and a military attache."

Who do you think was negligent in conducting the investigation, and why?

"In my opinion the FBI and the local police did their best under the circumstances of 1973. None of them was equipped back then with tools for solving an international terror operation. There were plenty of extremist organizations at the time in the U.S. - the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, and Palestinian radicals - that drew the FBI's full attention. The counterterrorism division I headed did not exist at the time. The information gaps and the lack of ability in terms of recruiting sources and agents were substantial and undermined every effort to solve the murder."

And what about Israel?

"Israel relied too heavily on the FBI to solve the case. It seems that in Israel, too, they were too busy hunting Palestinian terrorists. Let me remind you that the same month that Joe was murdered there was the Mossad fiasco in Norway [the killing of Ahmed Bouchiki, a waiter who was mistaken for the terrorist Hassan Salameh ]. The investigation into Alon's murder was neglected, and unfortunately the case simply petered out over the years. Solving the murder of a single person just wasn't top priority."