Isser Harel

Almost the personification of the Mossad, well known for his capture of Adolf Eichmann, and awarded the honorary title Memunah - Chief, by Ben-Gurion, Isser Harel also played an important role in the events of 1948, and according to the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, was one of the central figures in the dispossession and expulsion of Arab Palestinians known as The Nakba .1,2

Harel was born Izya (a variant of Isiah) Halperin in 1912, in a village near Vitebsk, in what is now Belarus. He was the youngest of four sons of Nathan Halperin, a wealthy businessman, who was educated to be a rabbi. In 1922, the family moved to Latvia.3 Harel became a fervent communist, and a follower of Trotsky, one of whose speeches he attended.4 He joined a Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, and convinced his parents to let him quit school and work on a collective farm near Riga. About 1930, he emigrated with a group of Hashomer Hatzair members to Israel.5

When he emigrated, he was determined to smuggle a gun to the Hagana, and in fact did bring the gun into Palestine past the British Mandate customs guards.6 He began life there as a kibbutznik, and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Shefayim, where he worked on a plantation of orange groves, and eventually married.7,8 In 1935, after a heated quarrel with other kibbutzniks, he and his wife Rivka moved to Tel Aviv, where he went into the orange packing business.9,10

Shortly after the move to Tel Aviv, Harel joined the Hagana.11 During World War II, Hagana sided with the Allies, and he spent some time in the British Coast Guard, after which, his Hagana superiors moved him into their intelligence division, Shai.12,13 Here he was noticed by Israel Amir, the head of Shai, and quickly rose through the ranks.14 In 1944, he was given the job of chief of the Jewish division of Shai.15,16

During this period Harel amassed an intelligence archive that was so valuable, that it was actively sought by the British authorities. Harel hid the archive in a secret, concealed room. A story of the construction of that sealed room is told by Mikhail Zhdanov. According to Zhdanov, Isser Harel bought an apartment where construction was being done, convinced one of the workers to build a secret room at night, without the knowledge of the architect or other workers, and when the concealed room was finished, killed the worker (the only other person to know about it.)17

Many accounts of Harel's life gloss over his responsibilites as the British began to withdraw from Palestine in the Spring of 1948, and the violent dispossession of Arab Palestinians began, but according to Ilan Pappe, Harel, with the rank of colonel, was in charge of the intelligence units, who played a major role in ethnic cleansing. These units, aside from their intelligence functions, like interrogation, would often decide which prisoners would be executed and which would be imprisoned, and took part in some of the worst atrocities.18

Ilan Pappe also claims that Isser Harel was a member of the committee that Pappe terms " The Consultancy." According to Pappe, this committee, meeting in Tel-Aviv and chaired by David Ben-Gurion, planned the program of harassment, murder, and terrorism that culminated in the dispossession, of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and land.19

After the formation of the state of Israel in 1948, Shai was broken up, and its personnel used to form brand new intelligence services. Harel, by then a close associate of Ben-Gurion, was chosen to head Shin Bet, Israel's internal security service. In 1952, he went on to head Mossad.

When Harel took over Mossad, it consisted of twelve people working in three rooms. Harel asked Ben-Gurion for a bigger budget, and Ben-Gurion increased it 1000%.20

Harel was severe with himself and others. For the sake of the success of an operation, he wouldn't spare anyone: neither his adversaries or his own personnel. It's said that when he spoke to a subordinate, he not only looked him in the eye, but kept looking him in the eye as long as they talked. A colleague said that you always felt guilty about something when you talked to Isser Harel.21 He was ascetic. His office furniture consisted of a desk, a chair, and a small sofa. In many ways, Mossad was, at least for a time, like Isser Harel: spartan, distrusting technical gimmicks, and pathologically secret.22

Yitzhak Shamir worked in Harel's Mossad, and comments in his autobiography that Harel could tolerate mistakes, but not inaccuracy or dishonesty, and insisted on strict standards of personal behavior. He also didn't like talkativeness.23

His pastimes were opera and mysteries, and he especially liked those of Agatha Christie. He dispised spy novels, with the exception of LeCarré's.24

What is often thought of as one of Mossad's most striking successes under Harel, was the procurement of Krushchev's 1956 secret speech criticizing Stalin and Stalin's "cult of personality," although it was largely due to the enterprise of one Jewish Pole, wholly unconnected with espionage. At the time, every western intelligence organization was energetically trying to find a copy of Krushchev's momentous speech, but it was Israel who succeeded. There was a legend, possibly encouraged by Mossad, that Harel had created an espionage network inside the Soviet government, and that an Israeli agent in the highest circles of Soviet power had passed the speech to Israel, but the truth is more prosaic. A Jewish official in the Polish government read the speech, which had been sent to the leaders of Soviet satellite countries, and took it to the Israeli embassy in Warsaw. It was quickly copied, carried to the Shin Bet chief, Amos Manor, in Vienna, and then flown to Tel-Aviv. Harel was able to use the speech to bargain with then CIA head, Allen Dulles, for an agreement that certain kinds of information be exchanged between Mossad and the CIA.25

The identification of a Russian mole in the Israeli defense establishment was another Mossad victory during Harel's time as Mossad chief. The episode shows both Mossad's limitations under Harel and the perseverance of Isser Harel himself. Via Israeli agents in Arab capitals, Harel saw that someone high up in the Israeli government was leaking secret information, information not widely available, and that certain Arab governments were receiving it. His network was able to determine that the secrets came to the Arabs by way of the Soviet Union. In order to find the source of the leak, he passed a piece of apparently valuable disinformation through the left wing Mapam party. Sure enough, the information (about a fictitious future Israeli jet fighter) soon appeared in Cairo and Damascus. A member of the Mapam party, Aharon Cohen, who frequently met with a KGB officer with diplomatic cover, was arrested. He protested his innocence, saying that although the meetings took place, he never gave away secret information.26 Cohen was also vigorously defended by fellow Mapam members, who accused Harel of fabricating evidence. (According to Russian author, Ioseph Daichman, Harel was accused of the fabrication of evidence more than once by fellow Israelis, and hints they were occasionally right, although Harel would have had reasons that were sufficient at least to himself for doing so.)27 In 1958, Cohen was tried and imprisoned, but the leaks didn't stop. Harel went back to the drawing board, and Aharon Cohen's sentence, although not reversed, was very quietly reduced. It wasn't until three years later that evidence to convict the right source of the leak was found. Mossad personnel caught Israel Beer passing information to a Soviet agent in March, 1961. Israel Beer was a high ranking Mapam official and a personal friend of Ben-Gurion. Moreover he was working on an official history of the 1948 war, and all government archives were available to him. He was convicted, sentenced to fifteen years, and died in prison.28

Harel's career as Mossad chief ended after "Operation Damocles." In 1962, Mossad discovered at the same time as everyone else that Egypt, under Nasser, was building missles that might reach Israel. Operation Damocles was Harel's response: to kill or intimidate West German scientists who were working on the project. One scientist, in Munich, was disappeared, others were attacked or threatened in various ways. During the same time period Ben-Gurion was trying to negotiate financial and military agreements with the West German government under Chancellor Adenaur. The differences of opinion between Harel and Ben-Gurion finally became public, and Harel resigned.29

After leaving the Mossad, he wrote several books, including "The House on Garibaldi Street", about the capture of Adolf Eichmann, and was elected to the eighth Knesset. He died in February, 2003.30

1 Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine , (Oxford: OneWorld, Paperback, 2010), 6
2 Константин Алексеевич Капитонов, Израиль. История Моссада и спецназа, Глава - ИСЕР ХАРЭЛЬ — АГЕНТ «001», Widely available on the Russian web, Example:
3 Капитанов
4 Михаил Жданов, Моссад: одни против всех. История и современность израильской разведки Глава - Во враждебном окружении, Widely available on the Russian web, Example:
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7 Maghen, Zev. 'Isser Harel.' Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. Gale, 2004. Biography in Context. Web. 15 June 2016.
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12 Maghen
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14 Игорь Анатольевич Дамаскин, 100 великих разведчиков , Глава - Иссер Гарель (1912–2003). Widely available on the Russian web. Example:
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16 Дамаскин
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18 Pappe 6
19 Pappe, 267
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23 Yitzhak Shamir, Summing Up , (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 80
24 Иосиф Дайчман, "Моссад" - Первые полвека , Глава - "Моссад" при Хареле., Widely available on the Russian web, \ Example:,
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26 Жданов, Глава - «Моссад» против КГБ
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29 Dan Kurzman, Ben-Gurion, Prophet of Fire , (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983), 438-440
30 Maghen