When Rafi Eitan died on March 23 at the age of 92, the obituaries told about his role in the founding of the Mossad and the capture of Adolf Eichmann, and described him as a hero of Israeli intelligence — the ultimate spymaster.
What was glossed over was his role in the story of Jonathan Pollard. Hamodia has been covering the Pollard saga since it first began thirty-three years ago. This exclusive investigative report, based on declassified CIA documents, court records and previously unpublished conversations the Pollards had with Hamodia more than a decade ago, as well as interviews Eitan gave to media outlets over the years, reveals a very different Rafi Eitan.
November, 1984, Paris, France
The air of the safehouse was thick with cigarette smoke. Among those in the room were Rafael Eitan, who served as both the head of Lakam — which was an intelligence agency under the auspices of the Israeli Defense Ministry — and advisor on counterterrorism to then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir; Joseph Yagur, the Counselor for Scientific Affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York; and a young civilian American naval intelligence analyst named Jonathan Pollard.
A few months earlier, Pollard, deeply concerned about the fact that information vital to Israel’s security was being deliberately withheld by certain elements within the U.S. national security establishment, had begun sharing with Israel classified material concerning military developments in several Arab countries. Now he was meeting, for the first time, Eitan, in his capacity as the head of the intelligence agency Pollard was working for.
Cognizant of what Pollard’s motives were, Eitan presented at that meeting a formal briefing to Pollard on the Middle East situation, which described how Israel could be quickly overrun by a Syrian attack. He emphasized that Israel faced a “technological Pearl Harbor” and badly needed access to the material Pollard could provide.
According to a declassified CIA report, Eitan then shocked Pollard by asking for “dirt” America had on Israeli political figures, as well as information that would be politically useful to his patron, then-cabinet minister Ariel Sharon, and other political figures.
The others in the room, standing behind Eitan, silently implored Pollard to refuse. Yagur, for his part, “violently” shook his head no, and later privately told Pollard that procuring such information would be grounds for immediate termination of the operation.
Pollard made it clear to Eitan that he had no intention to provide any such material. His sole motivation was Israel’s security needs, and aiding Eitan’s political cravings was not on his agenda.
Then Eitan made another startling request. He wanted Pollard to obtain the names of Americans spying on Israel, as well any information that would identify Israeli officials who were providing information to the United States.
This time, some of those behind Eitan shook their heads in the affirmative, urging Pollard to agree.
But the young agent would have no part in compromising others, whether they were American or Israeli, and flatly turned Eitan down.
“If you don’t share with us who they are, one of these Americans will end up killing you,” Eitan warned him.
“So be it,” Pollard defiantly declared.
(In contrast, Joseph Yagur, who at this meeting was named as Pollard’s new handler, emphasized that Pollard should seek military and scientific intelligence on Arab states, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union in regard to its role as the military patron of the Arabs.)
During the seventeen months in which Pollard handed over material to Israel, he repeatedly voiced concern to his handlers about what would happen to him if he were to be caught.
The orders were straightforward: In case something goes wrong, Pollard was to stall the investigators as long as possible to give time for the Israelis on the team to get out of the country. They instructed Pollard that, if questioned, he should claim that he was passing information to Pakistan, thus diverting attention from Israel. Most importantly, Eitan pledged that Pollard himself would be exfiltrated and taken to Israel.
According to the CIA report, Eitan repeatedly promised that Israel would take care of Pollard.
The last time the two men met, in a meeting that lasted only 15 to 20 minutes, Pollard once again told Eitan of his concern about detection. Eitan, who appeared very angry, once again told Pollard that he had nothing to worry about insofar as his personal security was concerned.
November 21, 1985, Washington, D.C.
When it became clear that the Americans had become aware of the operation, Pollard followed the instructions he had been given. After he stalled the FBI long enough for the entire Israeli team to flee the country, Pollard called his contact number for his own instructions.
It was only then that he found out — to his utter shock — that there was no escape plan in place for him. Instead, he was told to come to the Israeli embassy in Washington.
While being followed by the FBI, Pollard and his former wife made their way to the embassy.
The guards were awaiting him, and after he identified himself, the gates opened and he was allowed to drive into the embassy compound — an extraterritorial jurisdiction into which the FBI could not follow him.
For the first few moments it appeared that all was well, that the Israelis would keep their word and offer refuge to their agent.
Then someone came out of the embassy building and whispered something into the ear of the chief of security. He glanced at Pollard and then avoided his gaze.
What Pollard did not know at the time was that embassy officials had contacted Eitan and asked him what to do.
In a 2014 interview with Ha’aretz newspaper, Eitan recounted his response.
“I immediately said — throw him out,” he recalled. “I don’t regret it,” Eitan added.
“Do you know who I am?” Pollard asked the guards who had been tasked with throwing out their own agent.
“Do you know what they are going to do to me?” he queried.
They nodded again.
“I have an instruction to ask for your last report,” the chief of security told Pollard.
For a moment, Pollard didn’t know whether the man was joking. He shrugged and gave in his last report.
The guard then pointed to the gate and told him, “You have to leave the embassy and walk in through the front door.” Dozens of FBI agents had now massed outside the embassy, awaiting their prey. Pollard pleaded with the guards, but to no avail. He was forced to leave the compound and was immediately taken into custody by the FBI.
In the days and weeks after his arrest, FBI and CIA agents who interrogated Pollard told him repeatedly that they were shocked by his handler’s “callousness” and “lack of tradecraft.” His interrogators expressed disgust for a handler who would leave an agent without emergency training or instructions and then abandon him to his fate.
* * *
Eitan didn’t stop with having Pollard thrown out of the embassy. In a 2012 interview with Yediot Acharonot, Eitan revealed how he personally handed over incriminating evidence to the Americans, knowing full well it would be used to seal the fate of his own agent, Jonathan Pollard.
“It was not an easy moment,” Eitan told the newspaper, “The government made the decision, and I cooperated with the Americans against my agent.”
* * *
Following his arrest, Pollard initially remained silent.
When the investigators showed Pollard the box of material that Eitan had handed to the Americans — with Pollard’s fingerprints still on it — they told him, “Here is your reward for your silence, a present from your friend Rafi Eitan.”
In spite of this incriminating evidence, Pollard would only implicate himself and refused to testify against anyone else.
Eitan was well aware of the crucial importance of Pollard’s activities.
In a 2006 interview with Ronen Bergman of Yediot Acharonot, Eitan said, “We’re talking about information that was of such high quality, so accurate, so good and so important to the country’s security … After first looking through the information, and following a thorough examination of the materials by security experts, we realized the information was of critical significance to the country’s security.
“I would certainly say that, had a war broken out, the material Pollard relayed would have greatly boosted the IDF and had a fundamental impact on the battlefield,” Eitan added.
Nor did he have any doubts about Pollard’s motives.
“The man made an exceptional impression on me with his intellectual ability, the detailed memory, the understanding of what was going on in the Middle East, and his attachment and desire to help Israel,” Eitan told Bergman. “There’s no doubt he placed himself in huge risk, and he fully realized that, even without our explanations.
“Despite this, his motivation to help us, the State of Israel, was above and beyond … I had great appreciation for an American Jew willing to risk everything — his position in the U.S. Navy and in American society, and even his freedom, in order to help Israel and save the lives of Israelis.”
1998, Somewhere in Israel
For years, whenever Jonathan’s wife Esther, who for decades led an international effort to gain her husband’s freedom, asked to meet with Eitan, the latter refused.
Finally in 1998, Eitan consented and met with Mrs. Pollard, joined by their pro bono Israeli lawyer Larry Dub and Israeli prisoner rights advocate Herut Lapid.
As they began the conversation, which was described to Hamodia by Mrs. Pollard in a previously unpublished conversation a decade ago, Eitan told them the only thing he was sorry about was that he did not “finish the job” before leaving the United States.
When asked what he meant by this, Eitan bluntly replied, “If I had been at the embassy when Pollard came to seek asylum, I would have put a bullet through his head. There would have been no Pollard affair.”
Stunned, Mrs. Pollard and the others stared at Eitan as he continued:
“The next day, I would have seen to it that the news reports stated that an American intruder had attacked a guard at the Israeli embassy — no mention of any spy affair — and that in the scuffle a gun went off and the American was killed. There would have been no Pollard case. That is the only thing I am sorry about.”
It is telling that, according to the Washington Post, “All intelligence work is a partnership with crime,” Eitan once told an Israeli media interviewer. “Morals are put aside.”
“That statement symbolizes the way Eitan looked at life and the way he treated Jonathan Pollard,” a close friend of the Pollards, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Hamodia on Sunday. “Such an attitude towards Israel’s enemies is understandable, but toward one’s own agent is unconscionable.
“Eitan had many opportunities to try to make amends for his evil deeds, but in keeping with the words of Chazal (Eruvin 19a), which teaches that that the wicked do not repent even at the gate of Gehinnom, he chose not to do so,” the friend added.
2019, New York, N.Y.
After serving 30 years in prison, Jonathan Pollard was granted parole in November of 2015.
Yet he is far from a free man. His very harsh parole restrictions include wearing a GPS monitoring system that consists of a bulky non-removable transmitter installed on his wrist, and two box receivers that are plugged into outlets in his cramped Manhattan studio apartment, which he shares with his wife. Whenever he moves outside the range of the receiver, the transmitter — which is three inches long and two inches wide — acts as a GPS tracker and monitors his location. Were Mr. Pollard to step out of his apartment to daven with a minyan or get some fresh air on Shabbos or Yom Tov, the battery would quickly drain, forcing him to choose between violating Shabbos or facing rearrest.
The parole restrictions also include a “curfew” that puts him under house arrest between 7:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. During the daytime, he is only permitted to be in specific parts of southern Manhattan, and is even prohibited from visiting Brooklyn. The restrictions also include the unfettered monitoring and inspection of any computer he touches, including those of any employer who might choose to hire him, which has prevented him from being able to gain employment.
Since his release on parole, the Pollards have declined all requests for media interviews.
However, the family friend told Hamodia that the media coverage of Eitan’s death brought back a flood of memories for the Pollards, who have been shown many of the obituaries that have appeared in various newspapers. This includes Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu eulogizing him as one of “the heroes of the intelligence services of the State of Israel,” and Mossad Director Yossi Cohen saying that Eitan’s “work and his actions will be etched in gold letters in the annals of the state.”
“Jonathan has probably read twenty such obituaries in the last few days,” the family friend says. “He feels that the way the media is handling Eitan’s death symbolizes the way he was treated all these years by the government of Israel.
“This is the man most responsible for Israel’s betrayal of its own agent, and he is the one who had Jonathan thrown out of the embassy. Now Jonathan says he is ‘being thrown out of these obituaries like roadkill …’”
In a series of painful conversations with his friend in recent days, Pollard told him, “This is tragically typical of the government of Israel. Not only how it treats its bona fide agent, but how it treats its soldiers and citizens as a whole. They willingly accept our commitment and devotion, our sacrificing everything we have for the sake of Israel, and then throw us to the wolves when problems arise that threaten their political standing …”
A legal observer who has been closely following the Pollard case for many years, but who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, says he found the media coverage troubling.
“They turned Eitan into a hero and continued to bury Jonathan Pollard,” he said.
A week after Rafi Eitan died, Ronen Bergman published in Yediot Acharonot the last chapters of thirteen years of interviews with him, including an interview Eitan gave him on the condition that it not be published until after his death.
Bergman writes that Eitan expressed a deep regret over what happened to Pollard and claimed, “We did everything in order to save him.”
Eitan denied that he was the one who told Pollard to come to the embassy, and ended the interview by saying, “Sometimes in quiet moments when I think to myself, I think of the moment when I am going to meet with Jonathan.”
“What are you going to tell him?” Bergman asked.
“I will ask for his forgiveness. I will ask forgiveness for the gehinnom that he went through in jail. I apologize from the depth of my heart.”
When Pollard’s friend asked him about Eitan’s statements to Bergman, Jonathan described them as crocodile tears.
“There are two elements to teshuvah,” Pollard told him. “One is expressing regret. The other is making amends to correct the evil done to another. Eitan had 33 years to do both and he did neither. Over the years, people asked him about what he told my wife at that meeting in 1998 about his regretting not putting a bullet in my head. He would just smile …
“What he supposedly told Bergman is contrary to everything he did all these years,” Pollard flatly stated, saying that not only did Eitan refuse to help Pollard, he willfully interfered with efforts that his lawyers in Israel undertook on his behalf.
“Not once did he express regret to me, my wife or anyone close to us,” Pollard insisted.
Some readers may wonder about the purpose of exposing the shady past of a man only days after his death. The answer is simple: When an intelligence chief who betrayed his own agent is depicted as paragon of courage, not only are justice and historical accuracy victimized, but a dangerous message is sent to the world about who deserves to be revered and who deserves to be remembered in infamy.
It is vital that the truth be told so that all can know who are our villains and who are our heroes.