Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator who died on Monday at 83, used to wear Israeli paratrooper wings, owned a seaside villa in Herzliya and even sent his children to Jewish day school – all due to his tight ties with an ex-Mossad agent widely thought to be Panama's second most influential figure during the Eighties.
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Mike Harari – a legendary Mossad operative who was responsible for, among other things, establishing the agency's assassination unit – was officially Panama's honorary consul in Israel, starting in 1981, a year after he retired from the Israeli intelligence agency. But Harari's ties with Panama began long before then – under the previous dictator Omar Torrijos – and were so close that when the Americans invaded Panama in 1989 they sought to arrest two men: Noriega – whom they caught – and Harari – whom they didn't.
Noriega's capture came after years of close cooperation with the CIA. But after the invasion he was ousted, tried and convicted in a U.S. court of drug trafficking, money laundering and other charges and sentenced to 40 years in prison, later reduced to 30 years.
Harari managed to avoid capture and fled back to Israel. Rumors circulated among the Americans that Harari had been whisked to safety by an Israeli submarine, writes Ronen Bergman of Yediot Ahronoth. In fact, he told Bergman he got away overland with the help of local contacts.
A few months before Harari died he told Bergman, in interviews conducted as part of his upcoming book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assasinations, that U.S. officials turned to senior Israeli officials on behalf of President George H. W. Bush, asking them for Harari's help in the crisis with Panama.
Harari told Bergman that he had formulated a comprise that would have prevented the American invasion in Panama, but that it failed due to "internal wars within the administration."
Harari, who died three years ago, adamantly denied ever having being involved in the drug trafficking of which he was suspected by U.S. officials. But the anti-terror expert is thought to have been deeply involved in Panama's military affairs, including arms sales and organization of the country's army.
Parachute training in Israel
Noriega himself received parachute training in Israel (he reportedly made five or six jumps with the Israeli army, according to Israeli sources) and proudly wore his Israeli parachutist wings.
"Harari reorganized, renamed and trained the Panamanian Defense Forces when Noriega succeeded Torrijos," wrote the late Richard H. Curtiss, the former chief inspector of the U.S. Information Agency and co-founder of the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs.
"Harari also instructed Noriega's personal bodyguard and his 'Special Anti-Terror Unit,' wrote Curtiss in the Washington Report, adding that "Harari obtained advanced technical equipment and weapons for them."
'Noriega's kids went to Jewish day school'
On one of his visits to Israel arranged by Harari in the 1980s, Noriega bought a seaside villa in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya.
According to Curtiss, "Back in Panama, Noriega sent his children to the Jewish community's prestigious Alberto Einstein day school and to an Israeli kibbutz one summer. Noriega also employed other Israeli security experts in the Harari-organized PDF, which in effect became the Noriega administration."
'Harari was the boss'
Curtiss also quoted Panama's former police commander Eduardo Herrara Hassan, who said that during the time he served as ambassador to Israel "everything I did had to be authorized by Harari. He was my boss."
Harari first made contact with Panama's leaders during a 1968 visit to the country, where he met Torrijos, then head of airport security and soon to stage a successful coup that would make him the country's de facto dictator. Torrigjos was reportedly a great admirer of Israel, with a particular adulation for the country's iconic one-eyed general, Moshe Dayan.
Moshe Dayan, Panama's dictator and a family reunion
Torrigjos' wife was a Jewish woman, Raquel Pauzner, whose father cut off ties with her when she married out of the fold. According to Yediot's Bergman, Harari and Dayan himself were instrumental in bringing about a reconciliation between Pauzner and her father, who lived in the U.S. – an act for which Torrigjos was deeply grateful. (Harari is said to have tracked down the father.)
Noriega was head of intelligence under Torrijos and eventually became dictator of Panama after the mysterious death of Torrijos in 1981.
Noriega died in a Panama City hospital on Monday, shortly after an operation to remove a brain tumor. He was serving out a prison sentence after being extradited from France.