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Israel Be'er

(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 Ben-Gurion (Prime 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 Independence.

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.

Moshe 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 more."

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 money now.'"

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 your duty.'"

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 warrant.'"

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 Be'er's arrest.

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 Spain…'

'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 from Germany.

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.

Sources: The 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.