Spy's Handler May Get a Post
Forward NY - March 31, 2006
WASHINGTON The surprise showing of the upstart Pensioners' Party could mean a Cabinet post for Jonathan Pollard's spymaster and the reopening of painful wounds from a case that deeply damaged American-Israeli relations two decades ago.
Rafi Eitan, a legendary former Mossad agent who was named an un-indicted co-conspirator in the 1986 case that ended with Pollard's pleading guilty to espionage, led the new party to an impressive showing in Tuesday's elections. With seven seats, the party is almost certain to become a key partner in Israel's incoming coalition, making Eitan a candidate to be in Ehud Olmert's next Cabinet.
That could become an embarrassment for both Jerusalem and Washington. "This could cast a shadow on America's relations with Israel," said Philip Wilcox, the State Department's former coordinator of counterterrorism. Added Wilcox, who is now president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace: "It would be awkward. [Eitan] was involved in criminal activity against the United States, and the issue in which he was involved continues to trouble the United States."
Israeli experts hailed the unexpectedly strong showing by Eitan's party Tuesday as the most sensational surprise of the elections. Shortly after exit-poll data came in, 79-year-old Eitan a short man with thick, black-rimmed glasses and a high-pitched voice told Israel Radio that he would wholeheartedly join the next coalition. He said that he supports Olmert's West Bank disengagement plan and that he intends to fight for Israeli seniors as a coalition member.
As the third or fourth largest coalition partner, Eitan is likely to demand at least one portfolio. As the leader of the party, he is the most likely candidate to fill the Cabinet post. But Eitan is unwelcome in the United States, where he is still regarded as the mastermind of a spy caper that severely strained American-Israeli relations. Even two decades later, the affair casts a shadow over strategic ties between the two nations.
A conflict over Eitan could be averted if the former spymaster "expresses regret over the role he played, and finds a way to make amends," said Seymour Reich, former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Reich now heads the Israel Policy Forum. But Eitan known in Israel's intelligence community by his nickname, "Stinky" (he fell into a sewage ditch when he was in the Palmach, the strike force of Israel's pre-1948 defense organization) is unapologetic.
Earlier this month, he gave a long interview to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot the first since the Pollard affair in which he acknowledged making mistakes. However, he expressed no remorse for damaging Israel's relations with America. He insisted that Pollard, who worked as a Navy analyst when he spied for Israel, "may have undermined American laws and the U.S. intelligence community's code of conduct, but he caused no damage to America's security; not at all."
"Nothing of what Pollard handed us ever leaked outside the Israeli intelligence community. Nothing," Eitan said. "Besides, he never provided us with information that could have exposed American agents in the Soviet Union or anywhere else."
Eitan told Yediot's reporter, Ronen Bergman, that he was aware of the risk in operating an American Jewish spy in Washington, but just couldn't help his appetite for valuable intelligence.
"We're talking about information that was of such high quality, so accurate, so good and so important to the country's security that I couldn't resist the temptation and order the operation be terminated," Eitan said. "My desire, my appetite to get more and more material, overcame me. Yes, despite the seemingly tough exterior, I'm shedding tears over this affair. As was the case my entire life, I thought I was doing the best thing for the State of Israel."
Eitan's tenacity is what made him attractive to Israeli voters, former Israeli justice minister Tommy Lapid said in a Tuesday interview with Israel Radio. "It may be his romantic character, his being responsible for catching [Nazi war criminal Adolf] Eichmann that people found charming," Lapid said. In 1960, Eitan commanded the Mossad team that abducted Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to justice in Jerusalem.
As a co-conspirator in the Pollard affair, Eitan cannot enter the United States. That causes him "very little damage," he dismissively said in a recent interview with the local Tel Aviv weekly Tsfon Ha'Ir.
Since his disgraced retirement from Israel's intelligence community, Eitan has been conducting agricultural business in Cuba. There he befriended President Fidel Castro, to whom he refers by first name. Eitan told the interviewer that it is "silly" for Israel to join the United States in voting against Cuba in the United Nations.
Eitan told Tsfon Ha'Ir last week that he intends to demand the creation of a new portfolio in the Cabinet: minister for senior affairs. Asked if he wants to receive that portfolio, Eitan replied in a way that could give hope to those wishing to avoid a new conflict with the United States. "Not necessarily," he said, "With all the experience I have with Israeli governments, I may delegate the service to one of the professionals on the list."