Mike Harari, daring, innovative Mossad officer, dead at 87

Active in Beirut, Entebbe, Europe and beyond during the tumultuous seventies, legendary commander left indelible mark on the clandestine organization

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Mike Harari, left, and Mossad commander Yitzhak Hofi in the 70s in Panama (photo credit: courtesy Mike Harari)
Mike Harari, left, and Mossad commander Yitzhak Hofi in the 70s in Panama (photo credit: courtesy Mike Harari)

The man who led the Mossad’s operational unit before and after the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre, a lover of art and opera, a Francophile who kept a framed Beretta handgun on his piano — a memento from the heady days in Europe — died on Sunday. Mike Harari is survived by his wife, Pnina, two children and five grandchildren. He was 87.

The majority of Harari’s actions in the defense of the state of Israel will never be known, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday. “But anyone who had the privilege of knowing him, knew that he was a rare and ground-breaking man of operations, brave and creatively daring, whose influence on the Mossad and on generations of combatants is evident during these days and will continue to be so for many more years.”

Under Harari the Mossad’s Caesarea unit delivered key information enabling the hostage rescue in Entebbe and the “Spring of Youth” commando operation in Beirut, and led the clandestine anti-terror war in the capitals of Europe, killing those Israel held responsible for the 1972 Munich Olympics terror attack. In one tragic instance, a team of men and women under his command gunned down an innocent Moroccan waiter in Lillehammer, Norway – after which he offered Prime Minister Golda Meir his resignation.

She turned him down, saying there was still too much work to be done. The dreadful error, though, likely barred his way to the very top of the organization.

Harari, left, with the leader of Panama during the 70s Omar Torrijo (photo credit: courtesy Mike Harari)
Harari, left, with the leader of Panama during the 70s Omar Torrijo (photo credit: courtesy Mike Harari)

After his 1980 retirement, the Mossad continued to use his services. At one point in the mid 2000s, Mossad commander Meir Dagan bestowed the intelligence agency’s highest honor on Harari for work he performed at the age of 80. The citation was given, Aaron J. Klein wrote in “The Master of Operations,” a biography of his time in service, for his “important contribution to a unique operational activity.”

Klein wrote nothing more about the matter. But a knowledgeable source confirmed to The Times of Israel that the mission was part of the Mossad’s clandestine efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear program and that the work itself required Harari to spend many months abroad in reserves service for the Mossad. “The citation was not for bravery,” the source said, underscoring that Harari was not sent into enemy territory, but for “a creative solution to a problem that couldn’t be solved.”

The source said that young Mossad officers, “who weren’t even born when Mike retired, were left slack-jawed” by what he called an operational solution that resolved a seemingly insurmountable problem.

There were many such instances in his career and yet it would seem his style of leadership was epitomized by an operation that ruffled no feathers and left no trace.

Early in the 1970s Harari planned an operation in Tripoli that would have changed the shape of the Middle East, eliminating at least one very central figure. One month before the operation was to be launched, Mossad commander Zvi Zamir arrived at the old headquarters on King Saul Boulevard in Tel Aviv and gave Harari the bad news: the security cabinet had not authorized the operation. It was over.

Harari had every right to fume or flail but instead, Klein reported, he lit a cigarette and asked Zamir for permission to do a dry run – a full dress rehearsal of the operation, on enemy soil, but without the firearms and the blast.

Zamir agreed, accepting Harari’s argument that it was important for the Mossad combatants, to prove to them that it could be done, and for the cabinet, for the same reason.

The plan revolved around a pair of combatants, a couple, decked out as hippies, driving their way across Europe and North Africa in a VW bus. The operation, which still cannot be fully detailed, called for the couple to travel by ferry from Napoli to Palermo to Libya. The only problem was that by the time the dry run had been green-lighted in Tel Aviv, there were no tickets left for the ferry.

Harari instructed his combatants to drive to the port and wait on line. “I’ll get you on the ferry,” he told them, according to Klein’s account.

He got there 15 minutes before the couple and watched the port. Somewhere, he knew, would be the strongman, the stevedore who gave out the orders. He found him, waited for the right instant, and strode over, arms spread wide. “Giovanni!” he said, filling the man’s big palm with 20 bills of 10,000 Lira each. “Here are my tickets, and there’s the vehicle,” he said, pointing to the bus.

Twenty minutes later the combatants waved goodbye to Harari from the deck outside the first class cabin. As he departed, he saw a fair-haired couple standing outside their Volvo, protesting, in vain, that they had ordered the cabin in advance.

The operational plan was followed in full.

Harari was born in Tel Aviv on February 18, 1927. In 1943, at age 16, he lied about his age and joined the Palmach. In 1946, still shy of his 20th birthday, he was sent to Marseilles, where he was put in command of 1,300 displaced Holocaust survivors looking to illegally immigrate to Israel. It was there, in France, that he learned firsthand of the devastation of the Jews of Europe and of life undercover.

Harari, left, in Milan in 1947 (photo credit: courtesy of Mike Harari)
Harari, left, in Milan in 1947 (photo credit: courtesy of Mike Harari)

After the founding of the state in 1948, he established the security regime at Lod Airport and, later, at Israeli embassies around the world.

Isser Harel, the legendary commander of both the Mossad and the Shin Bet, gave him the embassy security job in 1952 and, two years later, appointed him commander of Tzomet, the Mossad’s human intelligence-gathering wing.

While serving in that role, in the early sixties, Harel summoned Harari from Paris to Cologne and told him, in a cafe after midnight, that he had an important operation in the works but that he was only taking volunteers. “Only God will save you if things get complicated,” Harel said, according to Klein’s account.

Harari took the job, putting together his own cover story, as a filthy-rich hunting aficionado eager to bag an elephant and other wild animals. He would not hide the sniper’s rifle he was asked to smuggle into the country, as Harel had suggested, but rather would place it at the bottom of a huge set of luxury suitcases from Paris. If anyone had any questions, he was prepared to act as if it was understood that he traveled with his own firearm.

Only a change in the “quality target’s” travel plans foiled the ambush and spared the man’s life.

In July 1973, a Mossad team under his command believed it had spotted Ali Hassan Salame, a PLO commander thought to have played a central role in the Olympics massacre. With Mossad commander Zvi Zamir stuck in transit, Harari assured him that the man was Salame, and Zamir, from Schipol Airport, authorized the assassination. The Mossad men killed an innocent man, Achmed Bouchiki. His wife, Toril Larsen Bouchiki, was seven months’ pregnant at the time.

Entebbe hostages come home photo credit: IDF archives)
Entebbe hostages come home photo credit: IDF archives)

Several years later, in July 1976, he called a Mossad operative from vacation and tasked him with the job of flying over the airport in Entebbe. The pilot snapped several rolls of film and landed at the airport, allegedly to fill up gas. He went up to the control tower and chatted with the officials there, who detailed all they had seen during the hijacking of Air France flight 139. The information was relayed back to Israel and hand delivered to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. According to Klein’s account, Rabin looked over the images and said, “That’s the intelligence I wanted. With this we can carry out the mission.”

In 1980, after 37 years of service, he retired.

Klein, in a phone interview, said that Harari left more of an impression on the Mossad’s operational unit than any of his predecessors and successors, describing operations that continued to run for years after his retirement. “The Mossad would not look the way it looks without Mike,” he said.

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