Shabtai Shavit, Mossad chief who aided Jordan peace talks, dies at 84


Shabtai Shavit, an Israeli spymaster whose career included an undercover life in Iran and command of an elite Mossad strike team before becoming head of the agency, where he used covert channels to help spur a 1994 peace pact with Jordan, died Sept. 5 while vacationing in Italy. He was 84.

Current and former Mossad officials were among mourners at Mr. Shavit’s funeral on Sept. 8 in Ramat Hasharon, Israel. No cause of death was given.

Mr. Shavit’s tenure as Mossad’s director general, from 1989 to 1996, tested wider roles for the agency in shadow diplomacy during major political shifts, including the collapse of the Soviet Union and the surge of the U.S. military into the Persian Gulf region to oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.

Mr. Shavit was deeply entrenched in Mossad’s clandestine operations. In 1992, he traveled to Paris on a fake identity to direct a team suspected of gunning down Atef Bseiso, a top intelligence adviser to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, according to an account by Israeli journalist Aaron Klein in the 2005 book “Striking Back: The 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre and Israel’s Deadly Response.” The Mossad, as often is the case, denied responsibility.

Yet Mr. Shavit also adapted to the challenges of reaching negotiated peace, believing that Israel hurt itself by emphasizing security defenses over diplomacy.

“All of this encloses the state of Israel,” Mr. Shavit told the Israeli policy site Fathom in 2019. “But is this how we want to live? Why not try to invest all of this money and to try and reach our neighbors? Why shouldn’t it be possible to drive to Damascus and eat hummus?”

With Jordan, Mr. Shavit’s Mossad was called on to help calm its then ruler, King Hussein. The monarch was dismayed about being left out of talks in Oslo between Israel and Arafat’s PLO. Mr. Shavit gave the go-ahead for one of his top deputies, Efraim Halevy, to arrange a secret meeting between Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1993. The king was reassured he would be kept in the loop on the Oslo dialogue.

The Jordanians also saw an opportunity to strike their own peace deal. The PLO’s outreach to Israel allowed Jordan to pursue talks without risking serious backlash from other Arab states.

In April 1994, Hussein funneled a message to the Mossad that Jordan was ready for serious discussions. Halevy, who had cultivated ties with Jordan’s royal family for years and later served as Mossad chief, was part of the negotiating team. President Bill Clinton came aboard as a mediator. By July 1994, Hussein and Rabin were shaking hands at the White House to announce the framework of a deal.

On the flight back from Washington, Hussein called Mr. Shavit at home to “thank me personally for my role in achieving peace,” Mr. Shavit wrote in his memoir, “Head of the Mossad: In Pursuit of a Safe and Secure Israel” (2020).

The treaty was sealed in October at a ceremony on the Israeli-Jordanian border — Israel’s first peace pact with an Arab state since a landmark accord with Egypt in 1979. More than two decades later, Israel normalized relations with other Arab states, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

The Oslo accords and its prospects of a possible Palestinian state eventually unraveled amid opposition from right-wing Israelis and violence in the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. The pact with Jordan also left many unfulfilled promises, such as failing to create major industrial zones and improved management of critical water resources.

Mr. Shavit laid much of the blame on the hardline policies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including his encouragement of more Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Mr. Shavit further denounced Netanyahu and his allies for recent efforts to curb the powers of Israel’s high court.

Mr. Shavit’s tenure, however, also showcased apparent Mossad failures in intelligence gathering. Two deadly suicide attacks in Buenos Aires — a 1992 truck bombing at the Israeli Embassy and a 1994 explosion of a bomb-packed van at a Jewish community center — were believed directed by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, according to a Mossad study. Twenty-nine people were killed in the embassy attack and 85 lives were lost at the Jewish center.

In late 1995, Mr. Shavit warned Rabin’s staff of credible threats to the prime minister but could not pinpoint any potential attackers, according to a 1999 book “Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad” by British journalist Gordon Thomas. On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was killed by a right-wing Jewish extremist after a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Mr. Shavit attended Rabin’s memorial ceremonies. But his identity remained shielded. He was the last Mossad chief whose name was kept from the public, a policy later changed by political demands for greater transparency and accountability.

“I visited the world over, flying, driving, visiting, and I felt completely safe because no one knew my identity,” he told the Jewish Insider in 2020. “Today it’s by far more difficult for the incumbent — they cannot do it like I did it. They have to take all kinds of precautions, which makes life far more difficult.”

Shabtai Shavit was born on July 17, 1939, in Nesher near the Mediterranean port Haifa nine years before Israeli statehood. His father was a school principal, and his mother taught nursery school.

He served in the navy and with a special forces unit. 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 University.

He was recruited by the Mossad in 1964 and given field assignments that included Tehran during the pro-Western rule of the shah, who was toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution. Mr. Shavit posed as a repatriated Iranian with his wife Yael, also an intelligence agent, who said she was French Canadian.

After Israel prevailed in a 1973 war against allied Arab forces, Mr. Shavit was part of a Mossad team that addressed government questions over suspected intelligence gaps. From 1980 to 1985, he led Mossad’s secretive Caesarea division, which is thought to conduct special operations and targeted assassinations. He then was deputy to Mossad director Nahum Admoni before becoming his successor in 1989.

After leaving Mossad, Mr. Shavit was chief executive of one of Israel’s largest health networks, Maccabi Healthcare Services, and board chairman at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. He also advised the New York Fire Department on preparing for possible terrorism-related scenarios.

Mr. Shavit joined other Israeli officials to successfully lobby Clinton to pardon Marc Rich, a Belgian-born American oil trader who fled to Switzerland before being indicted in 1983 on federal charges of tax evasion and breaking sanctions by buying oil from Iran. Mr. Shavit lauded Rich for allowing Mossad agents to use his offices and bankrolling airlifts of Jews from Ethiopia and elsewhere during times of crisis.

Mr. Shavit also did not hold back at dispensing criticism at leaders and others he saw as a threat to Israel’s security. He took frequent aim at former president Donald Trump, including his 2018 withdrawal from a deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program.

The ultimate question for Mr. Shavit was how a potentially nuclear-armed Iran could be managed by Israel, which has a nuclear arsenal that is undeclared but widely acknowledged to exist. (Iranian leaders have long insisted their nation’s nuclear program is only for energy production and research.)

“So, okay,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “We live in a dangerous area in a posture of mutually assured destruction, and we live. We have no choice.”

Survivors include his wife and three children.

When the couple were working as a covert team in Iran, their cover was almost compromised in a language slipup. Mr. Shavit’s wife was introduced to a real French Canadian, who wanted to speak French — a language Yael did not know well. She used her husband as an excuse.

“You know how men are,” she told a South Florida audience, recounting her reply. “My husband is a proud Iranian and feels uncomfortable when I speak a language he doesn’t understand. I swore to him that I would never speak a word of French again.”


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