(1912 - 1966)
Israel Be'er played a leading role in the early years
of the State of Israel as a close confidante of Prime Minister David
Minister from 1948-53 and 1955-63) and as an acknowledged expert on
military affairs. He lectured frequently to colleagues and academics
and had a leading position at the Ministry of Defense. He had regular
access to Ben-Gurion's private diaries in order to write an officially
sanctioned history of Israel's War of
He had an impressive military background fighting
with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil war in the 1930's.
At that point, he said, he was a communist. He claimed to have
undergone a conversion to Zionism in
1938, and thereafter made his way to Palestine. He joined the Haganah and became a distinguished member of that underground establishment.
"With his sharply analytical mind and academic military training
he rose quickly in rank, eventually becoming a colonel, and at the end
of the War of Independence he was chosen to be head of the planning and
operations department at army headquarters."
In 1950 he left the army for politics, but
maintained his contacts in the military world. Because of his standing
and the high esteem in which Ben-Gurion held him, he was able to attend
"top-secret staff meetings and had access to whatever information
he asked for. Army plans, blue-prints, defense documents of the highest
importance all passed through his hands."
He was able to achieve the prominence he did because he
managed to fool everyone about his background, including the Prime Minister
himself. That is, he managed to fool almost everyone.-- except for the
sharp-eyed Isser Harel, head
of the Mossad and Shin Bet from 1952-63.
Be'er first attracted the attention of Isser Harel in
the 1950's, when Be'er was part of the Israel Communist Party, Mapam.
This party was under close surveillance by the Mossad - which was
mainly loyal to the Ben-Gurion dominated Mapai party.
In 1953 Mapam split, and some of its former members
formed a new party further left called Maki. But Be'er moved to the
right and joined Mapai - Ben-Gurion's party. Be'er began writing for the
newspaper associated with the party, Davar. Harel saw this as
political opportunism. He put Be'er under limited surveillance, although
he kept his suspicions to himself.
Sharett became Prime Minister of Israel in 1953, and remained so
until 1955, when Ben-Gurion reasserted control of the government.
Sharrett "admired Be'er's ability to combine military expertise
with good writing." The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) Chief of Staff at the time, Moshe
Dayan, strongly disliked Be'er but that didn't stop Be'er from
entering Ben-Gurion's good graces with his return to office in 1955.
Ben-Gurion became Defense Minister at the same time, following the Lavon
Affair. Be'er enjoyed almost unlimited access to Ben-Gurion and to
classified IDF archives, and was given a "secretary and an
office" in the Defense Ministry.
Mounting tensions on the Egyptian-Israeli border and
the Czech-Egyptian arms deal of 1955-56 led to the Israeli attack and conquest
of the Sinai in October 1956. At the time, Harel tried to sound out
Be'er's opinion on these issues. Harel wrote later; "The excuse for
our conversation was to hear Be'er's views on Soviet penetration in the
Middle East, but its real intention was to gauge his loyalty…I
remained convinced that Be'er had not undergone real political and
ideological change and that he was a grave security risk." As war
approached, Be'er "was one of several people who were specifically
warned to keep away from foreign agents, especially Russians."
Be'er indeed did report on a meeting he had with a Soviet representative
in Israel. Harel kept quiet. But in 1957 he was behind the Shin Bet's
decision to break into Be'er's Tel Aviv apartment in search of evidence
that might incriminate Israel Be'er. They found nothing.
Be'er's prestige and ability to develop ties and gain
the respect of men of influence in the Israeli political/military
establishment continued to grow. He began writing for the newspaper Haaretz.
In 1959 he was appointed "to the chair of military history at Tel
Aviv University." Be'er became close to Shimon
Peres, who in the late 1950's was an ambitious and extremely
influential deputy minister of defense. Be'er "began to go on
regular visits to West Germany, touring NATO bases there." The
Austrian-born Be'er spoke German fluently, and that plus his academic
reputation "and close ties with the senior echelons of the defense
establishment in Tel Aviv made him an honored guest, and he was
received in Bonn by the defense minister, Franz-Josef Strauss, the key
figure in the evolving relationship between the two countries."
At the end of 1957 members of the non-Mapai parties
got news of the planned trip to Bonn by Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres,
who were trying to buy two submarines from the Germans. The news was
leaked to the press. "Be'er was an obvious suspect." There was
a public outcry, and Harel's suspicions intensified.
In mid 1958 Be'er requested to meet the head of West
Germany's Intelligence Service (the BND), Richard Gehlen.
Gehlen had an interesting past - one that may have
even made him anathema to Israel. He had been Hitler's espionage chief on the eastern front. Things had changed after the war,
when "his semi-private organization was taken over by the OSS and
then financed and run by the newly-founded CIA, until it became the
official West German external intelligence service, the BND, in
1956." Gehlen formed a close relationship with CIA chief Allen
Dulles, who asked Gehlen to work to improve the Egyptian secret
service. At the same time Gehlen felt that Germany "had to do what
(it) could to contribute to the survival of Israel."
After the Sinai
Campaign of 1956, Gehlen wrote that West Germany "began to
take a more professional interest in the Israelis. We gave them expert
advice on the development of their small but powerful secret service;
we made facilities available to them and (helped) them in placing key
agents in the Arab countries, especially since Nasser was becoming
increasingly involved with Moscow, and we recognized that Israel was as
much an outpost of the free world as West Berlin."
Israel Be'er finally met Richard Gehlen in May 1960.
Harel had been abroad for much of the first half of the year preparing
for the Eichmann kidnapping
in Argentina, so he hadn't had time to keep tabs on Israel Be'er.
When he returned, however, he was angry. He had explicitly forbidden
Be'er's repeated requests to meet Gehlen.
One day in the autumn of 1960 Harel summoned Be'er to
his office. He demanded an answer as to why Be'er had visited Gehlen.
Harel was convinced that "only a KGB agent would want to try so
hard to meet the legendary German spymaster." Moreover, Harel was
also "annoyed by Be'er's efforts to convince the Germans of his own
importance and present himself as an official conduit of the
policy-makers in Tel Aviv." According to Harel, the Mossad
"had only limited contact with the BND at the time. Gehlen wanted
Be'er had also been leading a more extravagant
lifestyle than the puritanical Harel, who already suspected Be'er, was
willing to tolerate. Be'er was pursuing women much younger than himself
- and succeeding. He had been beaten up by the jealous young husband of
Ora Zehavi, who had had an affair with the balding professor. Be'er
explained his injuries to his colleagues at the Defense Ministry as a
result of a car accident.
Harel's ire was raised, and he told Be'er "'I
think the Prime Minister is naive about you.'" Harel then went to
see Ben-Gurion and expressed his suspicions about Be'er to him. Harel
had done so before but Ben-Gurion had ignored the criticism. It seemed
Be'er was safely ensconced in his position in the inner circle of the
Prime Minister's entourage.
Harel was worried about Be'er, however, and returned
to tell Ben-Gurion his concerns about him. Harel reported: "Be'er
has been gathering military information which is of no concern to him.
He had been visiting communist cities on his trips through Europe. He
has been too friendly with the Russian diplomats serving in Israel. He
meets them frequently." He went on to tell Ben-Gurion about Be'er's
social life, and mentioned that in addition to seeing lady friends and
buying them expensive clothes, he was on bad terms with his wife and
was drinking heavily. Harel asserted that Be'er was "undergoing
some kind of strain - the sort of strain which an agent leading a
double life suffers from."
Ben-Gurion was unmoved. But that didn't faze Isser
Harel. He only increased his surveillance of Be'er and his inquiries
into Be'er's past.
On the night of March 28, 1961, Israel Be'er left his
Tel-Aviv apartment and made his way to a small cafe nearby with a
briefcase in his hand. He sat there silently, sipping a cognac,
ignoring the owner's attempt to strike up a conversation with him in
the nearly deserted cafe.
About five minutes later another man walked into the
cafe. They didn't speak. A few moments later, the second customer
walked out with the briefcase.
Be'er walked home to his address at 67 Brandeis
Street. He carried nothing. He entered his home and waited. At midnight
a car came driving down the street, parked, and a man made his way
upstairs. He had the briefcase Be'er had given him in the cafe.
Soon after Isser Harel's telephone rang. He picked
up the phone immediately. It was the voice of a top agent; "'Our
man has just seen the Russian contact for a second time this evening.
They met in a small cafe you know about. Our man had a briefcase with
him which he handed over to the contact, and they parted…I followed
our man home, I am outside the place now. The Russian has just walked
in with the same briefcase ho took in the cafe. He is inside with the
Harel decided to make a move on Israel Be'er then. He
obtained a search warrant, and insisted that his agents wait until the
Russian diplomat left before making a move. Then Isser Harel called
David Ben-Gurion. "Isser said simply: 'I am acting against Israel
Be'er tonight.' Ben-Gurion hesitated only a moment. The he said: 'Do
Israel Be'er sat in his home at Brandeis Street in
Tel Aviv. At 2:30 a.m. there was a knock on the door. Be'er had not time
to hide the briefcase before the door came crashing down. The officers
wasted no time: "'You are under arrest. We have a search
Whatever doubts the arresting officers may have had
about Be'er's identity "were quickly dispelled when the senior
officer opened the briefcase that was lying on the table near Be'er.
Inside the briefcase he saw a large number of top-secret documents,
including a detailed list of Israel's major armaments factories."
One source claims that parts of Ben-Gurion's diary that were in Be'er's
hands at the time were never recovered.
Be'er was taken into custody and the Prime Minister
was informed of what had transpired. A man he had trusted with his
innermost secrets had been found to have deceived him. "'I have
been surrounded by lies,'" he responded when told the news of
For the first few days of his interrogation, Be'er
admitted nothing. He repeated his old story that he had been born in
Vienna in 1912, he had studied at the University if Vienna, had taken
part in street battles against the Nazis in 1934, and had attended a
famous Austrian military academy for training. He became an officer, he
said, in the Austrian Schutzbund. He claimed to have taken part in the
Spanish Civil War fighting for the International brigade. He claimed to
have left Spain in 1938, and soon came under the influence of Zionism-
which led him to Palestine.
After four days of interrogation Isser Harel paid
Be'er a visit. Be'er had not been cooperative. Harel planned to do
something about that. "He looked Be'er in the face, just as he had
done at their first meeting so many months before. In a calm but
unyielding tone of voice he said to him: 'I know you are a Soviet
agent. Tell me the truth. If you are cooperative you will make it
easier on everyone, including yourself. Tell me your story.'" Be'er
proceeded to repeat his oft-used story again. "When he was
finished Isser calmly told him: 'You are a liar.'
'We can find no trace of your parents in Austria. If
they were typical Jewish parents, as you make them out to be, then why
aren't you circumcised?'
'We have checked all the records in Austria. You
never fought on the barricades. You never received a doctorate, as you
claim you did, nor did you ever attend the university. You did not go
to the military academy because Jews were not allowed to at the time.
They have checked their lists for us and your name is not there. The
Schutzbund has no record of your membership either.'
'We have gone through the records of the
international Brigade and your name is not there. You never fought in
'Now tell me: who are you? We want the truth.'"
The Mossad had obviously found him out. He told a
full account of his activities. But not everything was cleared up.
"Some entries in Be'er's personal diary contained three or four Xs,
with a total number of Xs appearing at the end of every month. Harel
was convinced that the entries were a coded summary relating to
meetings with his KGB controllers. Be'er insisted to his interrogators -
who were privately impressed by his worldly manner and his success with
women - that the Xs were a register of his sexual
accomplishments." Mrs. Zehavi had to admit that Be'er's version of
his liaison with her was true, despite the embarrassment.
It turned out that during the period leading up to the Sinai Campaign of 1956, when
France was supplying Israel with arms, Be'er had been passing details of
the deal to the Soviets. He also reported Israel's arms purchasing activities
Harel discovered that Be'er had first met the Soviet
diplomat he had given the briefcase to in 1957, and had regularly
visited Soviet bloc embassies in Israel and abroad.
Be'er's trial began in June 1961. It was mostly a
closed affair. Many of the secrets learned from Be'er were never
revealed to the public. "It is known, however, that he gave the
Russians secret army plans relating to battle tactics and lists of
secret military installations, in addition to information about
Israel's foreign arms suppliers." Be'er defended what he had done
on patriotic grounds at his trial. "'I felt I had to play a part
in saving Israel from falling into the hands of the western powers…My
belief is that Israel should be allied to the Communist countries. I
never betrayed Israel. I was trying to save my country."
His arguments didn't impress the judges, and he was
sentenced to ten years in prison. This was raised to 15 years soon
after. He died in prison in 1966. His book Israel's Security:
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow was published after his death. It
"was deemed by historians of the war of independence to contain
many original ideas and penetrating insights into the military and
diplomatic realities of the period."
Israel Be'er never revealed his true identity, nor
did he ever admit to have worked for the KGB. But it may well have been
that the Soviets waited almost 20 years before sending their man into
action. He transferred a lot of information to the Soviets regarding
Israel's military and political positions during the time he worked for
the Haganah and later, in the Israeli military and political
establishments. Yet even now we don't know who Israel Be'er really was.
It is fortunate that Israel had a Mossad chief like Isser Harel, who
was willing to bet on his "hunches" even when those more
powerful than himself never suspected Israel Be'er of a thing.
Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish
Agency for Israel, (c) 1992-2005, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman,
Webmaster: Esther Carciente. This material may not be republished without
the permission of the copyright owner.