TEL AVIV — Isser Harel, who founded Israel’s intelligence community and directed the capture of Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, died this week at 91 after a lengthy illness.
Harel ran the Shin Bet security service for 15 years and the Mossad foreign intelligence service for 11 years, and was largely responsible for both agencies’ worldwide reputations. But while revered for his achievements, he was also frequently criticized for running the agencies as Israeli versions of the KGB.
Isser (Israel) Halperin was born in 1912 in Vitebsk, Russia, and joined the labor Zionist movement as a youth. In 1931, he moved to British-ruled Palestine and helped found Kibbutz Shefayim, where he married his wife Rivka.
In 1939, he joined the Haganah, the main pre-state Jewish underground militia, becoming head of its intelligence service in 1944. With statehood in 1948 he was put in charge of the new state’s domestic security agency, Sherutei Bitachon, or Shin Bet.
In 1952, he was named head of the Mossad, formally transferring control of the Shin Bet to a deputy. In practice he ran both agencies, giving him powers unparalleled in the Western world.
Harel built the Mossad into an agency with a worldwide reputation. He established a department to bring Jews to Israel from hostile countries, presiding over the mass Moroccan immigration during the 1950s. His war against Soviet-bloc spying led to several spectacular, high-level arrests but also caused complaints of police-state tactics.
His most spectacular exploit was the Mossad’s 1960 kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina for trial in Israel. This success firmly established the Mossad’s reputation for daring.
But that same year he overstepped, initiating a campaign to intimidate and harass German scientists working on Egyptian arms development. The campaign, including threats and some reputed assassinations, outraged the German government and threatened to disrupt the Israeli-German reconciliation then underway. Then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion demanded Harel’s resignation in 1963.
Harel served briefly in 1965 as intelligence advisor to Ben-Gurion’s successor, Levi Eshkol, and served a term in the Knesset in 1969. After that, he devoted himself mainly to writing books.