Shabtai Shavit: Top Israeli Spymaster

From a New York Times obit by Sam Roberts headlined “Shabtai Shavit, Former Top Israeli Spymaster, Dies at 84”:

Shabtai Shavit, who as director-general of the Israeli intelligence agency the Mossad in the 1990s helped broker a peace agreement with Jordan, oversaw the assassinations of Islamic terrorists and navigated the global fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union, died during a vacation in Italy. His death was announced by the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Barnea, the Mossad’s current director, described Mr. Shavit as “a pillar of the world of operations, intelligence, security and strategy of the state of Israel.”

While the Mossad was credited with, and criticized for, numerous clandestine operations — among them targeted assassinations of terrorists, which Mr. Shavit defended — he and the agency were widely praised for their role in bringing Israel and Jordan to the table to sign a treaty in 1994, ending a state of war between the two countries that had existed since 1948, when Israel was founded.

The treaty — Israel’s first with an Arab country since the pact with Egypt in 1979 — provided for the establishment of diplomatic relations and assurances that neither Israel nor Jordan would allow another country to use its territory as a staging ground for military strikes.

“In the cases of Egypt and Jordan, intelligence identified their willingness to negotiate peace,” Mr. Shavit wrote in a memoir, and served “as an active participant in the negotiations right up to the signing of the peace treaty in the case of Jordan.”

The day after he signed the declaration of peace with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a White House ceremony joined by President Bill Clinton in July 1994, King Hussein of Jordan, on a flight from Washington, called Mr. Shavit at home. “The king wished to thank me personally for my role in achieving peace,” Mr. Shavit wrote. The peace treaty was signed that October.

If Mr. Shavit was a peacemaker, however, he was even more a spymaster who was accused of ordering deadly retaliations for terrorist attacks and staging pre-emptive strikes.

During Mr. Shavit’s term, Atef Bseiso, a top intelligence aide to the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, was fatally shot outside a hotel in Paris in 1992, an assassination that Mr. Arafat accused the Mossad of orchestrating. Israeli officials denied they were involved. And Fathi Shiqaqi, the leader of the militant group the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, was killed in Malta in 1995 in what was widely believed to be a Mossad operation.

Also during Mr. Shavit’s tenure, the Mossad was caught unawares by attacks on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and on a Jewish community center there in 1994 that left scores dead. An internal Mossad inquiry later concluded that the attacks had been carried out by a secret Hezbollah unit, The New York Times reported last year, and were widely considered to be in retaliation for Israeli’s strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon. The attacks demonstrated the militant group’s global reach at a time when Israel considered its mandate to be the protection of Jews even beyond its borders.

Mr. Shavit worked for the Mossad for 32 years, including seven as director under three prime ministers. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir chose him to lead the agency in 1989, and he was its director when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995.

He was the first head of the Mossad — known officially as the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations — who had come of age after the nation’s founding. And he was the last Mossad director whose very name remained classified during his tenure, until secrecy was subsumed by a public commitment to transparency.

In recent months Mr. Shavit vigorously opposed Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to curb the power of the nation’s judiciary. He also favored a negotiated two-state solution to achieve peace with the Palestinians.

“Why are we living here?” he said in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in 2018. “To have our grandchildren continue to fight wars? What is this insanity in which territory, land, is more important that human life?”

Shabtai Shavit was born on July 17, 1939, in Nesher, a suburb of coastal Haifa. His father was a school principal. His mother taught nursery school. As a boy he learned Arabic in part from Arabs who would arrive from a nearby village to pick olives in his family’s yard, he wrote in the memoir.

After graduating from the private Hebrew Reali School in Haifa, he served in the Navy and then in an elite special forces unit of the Israeli military. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a master’s in public administration from Harvard.

Recruited to the Mossad in 1964, he served in the division responsible for recruiting and managing foreign agents.

When Israel’s intelligence agencies were accused of lapses that led to a surprise attack by Arab forces in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Mr. Shavit helped coordinate the response of the Mossad’s director at the time to a government inquiry.

He told the newspaper Haaretz in 2013 that “during the failure of 1973, the Mossad was the one entity in the intelligence community which did what was required of it and beyond.”

Mr. Shavit was for some time stationed abroad, including in Iran before the Islamic revolution of 1979. He would later say in interviews that as the Mossad’s director his priority was to be prepared should Iran develop nuclear weapons.

He was military governor of Israel’s Southern regional command from 1978 to 1979. From 1980 to 1985 he led the Caesarea division, a highly-classified outfit said to have been charged with rescuing Israeli hostages and retaliating for their seizure. He was the deputy to the Mossad director Nahum Admoni from 1986 to 1989.

After retiring from the Mossad in 1996, Mr. Shavit became chief executive of Maccabi Health Care Services, one of the country’s largest health maintenance organizations. He also worked for gas and security companies; advised the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament; and chaired an organization that awarded scholarships to veterans.

He was the founding chairman of Reichman University’s International Counter Terrorism Institute in Herzliya, Israel, and worked with the New York City Fire Department in creating a terrorism preparedness task force.

Mr. Shavit was one of a number of leading Israeli officials who successfully lobbied the Clinton administration to pardon Marc Rich, the American oil trader who had fled to Switzerland after being indicted on charges of widespread tax evasion, illegal dealings with Iran and other crimes. Mr. Shavit had praised Mr. Rich for allowing Mossad agents to use his offices around the world and for financing airlifts of Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries.

Among his survivors are his wife, Yael, who worked with him as a covert agent early in his career, and his children and grandchildren.

In his memoir, “Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel” (2020), Mr. Shavit wrote: “The world during the Cold War was infinitely more stable than the world in which we live today. The fear of global annihilation in an inter-power nuclear event generated global stability, which lasted until 1990. The Soviet Union collapsed, but the United States was not able to seize the decade during which it was the only sheriff in town to establish a new global order.”

He expressed particular concern about the rise of international terrorism, saying the Islamic State “has brought terrorism to an extreme human history has not known since the Huns invaded the West from the steppes of Asia.”

Despite his outspoken criticism of Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Shavit described himself as taciturn.

As befits a man engaged in espionage, his reputation for laconism was so legendary that when he accepted his appointment as director general, Prime Minister Shamir turned to the person next to him and said, “I never knew that Shabtai could speak!”

“As the saying goes,” Mr. Shavit recalled, “I never regretted the things I didn’t say.”

Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV.

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