As far as Moscow was concerned, the years leading up to the 1967 Six-Day War were a successful period for the Russian intelligence in Israel.
Not only did they manage to recruit local agents and spies—some of them at the top echelons of Israel’s parliament, leadership and defense establishment—the convenience and freedom of their activity in Israel allowed them to turn to foreign diplomats as well and try to recruit them.
In the world of intelligence, such recruitment is considered particularly prestigious: The diplomatic staff of a certain country is exposed to a lot of material, not just about Israel; and a junior diplomat recruited today can become an ambassador or a consul in an important country in several years. Such a prestigious recruitment is considered a “career-building” element in the KGB.
For example, according to the Mitrokhin documents, the KGB recruited Rosario Castellanos, the Mexican ambassador to Israel, a famous poet in her country; the code name “Gerda” was attached to a West German citizen who worked in an administrative role in his country’s embassy in Israel; Agent “Chal,” whose real name is Ber Heinz, was head of the Austrian ambassador’s bureau in Israel. “Chal,” according to one of the reports to the KGB’s center in Moscow, “delivered a lot of information to the KGB about Israeli intelligence’s activity against the Soviet Union, as well as about the head of the coordination center of the Israeli intelligence services, Halperin,” referring to Mossad chief Isser Harel-Halperin.
At a later stage, according to the Mitrokhin documents, the KGB also recruited Carlos Diemer, codename “Ron,” who served in Israel twice, first as just a diplomat and then as Chile’s ambassador to Israel. Yamando La Guardia, Uruguay’s ambassador, was also recruited as an agent.
The KGB would also recruit clergymen from across the Middle East. It recruited, for example, agent “Sid,” whose real name is Julian Mersiades Isidore, the archbishop of Nazareth and the Galilee on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church. Another person recruited in a joint operation of the branches in Beirut and Tel Aviv was the agent “Ognev,” whose name is Adrian Oleynikov and serves today in one of the highest clerical positions in Eastern Europe as the archbishop of St. Petersburg.
The operators of the KGB agents were particularly interested in journalists, who they believed had access to a lot of confidential information.
According to the documents, journalist Aviva Stan of Haolam Hazeh weekly news magazine was recruited by Yuri Kotov and given the codename “Dita.”
Another, more significant, recruitment was agent “Tammuz,” a rising star in the Israeli press at the time. The Mitrokhin documents include many details about this agent (whose name is withheld by the Israeli Military Censorship), including his place of birth, his university studies, the newspapers he worked in and his close association with Mapai, the Israeli Labor Party—and specifically with one of the leaders of the party and the nation. According to the Mitrokhin documents, the journalist, who was recruited in 1965, delivered a lot of information to Kotov and was one of the most important agents ever operated by the KGB in the Middle East.
What the Russians apparently did not know is that the Shin Bet was onto “Tammuz” and had turned him into a double agent, who fed the other side with erroneous or partial information.
The Shin Bet received reports from him about his meetings with Kotov and coordinated with him which information he would deliver.
Kotov’s Shin Bet file includes a video filmed by a team from the Shin Bet’s operations unit “Birds,” documenting one of his meetings with “Tammuz.” In the video, Kotov is seen doing exactly what he had been taught to do at spy school in Moscow: taking all of the necessary steps to shake off a tail, by-the-book signaling to the agent, and conducting the meeting in the necessary level of discretion. He took all of these measures without knowing, of course, that “Tammuz” was a double agent and that 14 “Birds” operatives were watching.
But while there are names which the Russians tried to recruit for clear reasons, Mitrokhin’s lists mention some puzzling names as well. Why, for example, did they make an effort to recruit the agent known as “Elialak,” who worked in a dry cleaning business? Did Moscow hope to find secret documents in the pockets of the suits delivered to him for cleaning?
Aryeh Hadar, who served as head of the Shin Bet’s Investigation Division and has caught several Soviet spies, says it was a key characteristic of Soviet intelligence at the time: “The agents’ handlers wanted to know everything from everyone. They were capable of asking a poor kiosk owner what exactly Prime Minister Levi Eshkol told US President Lyndon Johnson in their latest meeting. That kiosk owner, who lacked any accessibility, of course, was forced to fabricate the information to satisfy his handler.”
“At the end of the day, they had very poor results,” says Reuven Merhav, who served in the Shin Bet’s Counterintelligence Division in the mid-1960s. “It was a very delicate business, which stemmed from the structure of the Soviet Union’s dictatorial regime. If, for example, a handler discovered that one of his assets was a double agent, he had to consider it carefully before reporting it. The exposure of a double agent could taint his career, because they would ask why he didn’t notice it earlier and why didn’t he prevent the agent’s recruitment (by the other side).
This entire bureaucratic entanglement was to the Russians’ detriment and basically destroyed their intelligence system here.”
But outside the Shin Bet, there are those who think that the Russian intelligence’s activity in Israel was pretty impressive. Yaakov Kedmi, head of the Nativ Liaison Bureau from 1992 to 1997, for example, states that “they had an excellent picture and the utmost understanding of what was going on here.”
It was June 18, 1967, shortly after 5pm. The last of the Russian diplomatic personnel had left the embassy building in Ramat Gan and minutes later, the Shin Bet stormed in.
“The Russians took everything,” says a Shin Bet operative who participated in that raid, “they even peeled off the thick steel plates that covered the inside walls of the embassy’s secret floor and ripped out the cables of their internal communications system.”
The Soviet decision to cut ties with Israel was a major blow to the KGB. The Russians sought to fix the damage caused to their intelligence infrastructure in Israel with Operation TN, which included sending five “illegals” on short trips to Israel to serve as handlers for the assets still on the ground. But the entire operation went down the drain the day the Shin Bet arrested operation commander Yuri Linov.
It didn’t take long, however, for the Russians to find a new source of intelligence. Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union to Israel increased starting in 1971. Between the years 1971 to 1973, some 100,000 Jews received permission to go beyond the Iron Curtain, with many of them choosing to make aliyah to Israel. This was an opportunity the KGB could not miss.
“I remember that at the time I was the head of the Leningrad KGB, and just from my district 200 of the emigrants to Israel were our agents,” says former KGB general Oleg Kalugin.
“Obviously they didn’t all work for us. There were those who crossed the border and in that very same moment turned themselves in to the Shin Bet. But,” he says smiling, “there were others.”
“They really flooded us,” a Shin Bet agent describes those years. “We divided them into three groups: those who turned themselves in to the Shin Bet; those who didn’t turn themselves in, but the KGB never contacted them; and the third group—that I believe some of which have never been caught to this day—were active agents of the Soviet Union.”
The Mitrokhin documents list some of the names of the Jewish spies who were recruited at the time. The KGB picked emigrants whose professions it believed would be sought after by Israeli authorities, with a clear preference for the IDF.
For example, an agent who emigrated from Belarus in 1972, codenamed “Louis” and “Ivanov,” was an expert on diesel engines and employed by the IDF in a classified position.
Another agent, “Jimmy,” whose real name is Samuel Machtai, was a civil engineer who was recruited back in 1967 in the Soviet Union to “track nationalist Jews or those developing a nationalistic Jewish identity,” according to his file.
He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1972, and they settled in Tel Aviv’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood. After a few years and after having passed all of the security tests, he was appointed to a classified position in the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Engineering Division that, at the time, was working on the planning of their top-of-the-line Lavi fighter jet.
According to the Mitrokhin documents, “Jimmy” provided the Russians with a lot of information on the project and on other secret matters.
In August 1982, the Machtais decided to return to the Soviet Union. Machtai explained to his handlers that his wife could not adjust to life in Israel, but the KGB suspected—unjustifiably—that “Jimmy” had become a double agent, and placed him under strict monitoring. Nevertheless, Machtai went on with his life and even registered several patents in construction.
In December 1990, he decided to try his luck again and returned to Israel. This raised the suspicion of the Shin Bet, and Machtai was arrested in February 1991. During his interrogation, he confessed to and was subsequently charged with espionage. He was sentenced to seven years in prison under a plea bargain.
“I regret my actions,” he told the court. “After I’m released from prison, I want to keep living in Israel with my family.”
The Russians also recruited “Ulan,” who was sent to Israel through Vienna in 1971 and became a radio personality and writer in a Russian newspaper. He didn’t last long here either and emigrated in 1973 to West Germany, where he found success as the CEO of an international company that organizes conferences and conventions, a good cover for the KGB’s activities in the country.
The KGB was also able to implant in Israel a female agent codenamed “Nora,” who was hired by a Jerusalem-based company providing technical translation services to the government and other large companies in the country. This, of course, gave the Russians access to some valuable information.
Gregory Londin, an engineer who immigrated to Israel in 1973, was also recruited during that time. He was a reservist working on the maintenance and upgrade of the engine for the Israeli-made advanced Merkava tank. Londin was arrested in 1988, sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment, and was released in October 1996.
At the end of that year, thanks to information found in the Mitrokhin documents, the Shin Bet arrested Alexander Radelis, the former coach of Israel’s national table tennis team.
Radelis provided his handlers with information he got during his IDF service using a radio and letters written in invisible ink. This information included details on the political and economic situation in Israel, the State of Israel’s water supply, the tensions on the northern border, and the types of tanks and heavy equipments stationed in the different bases.
Radelis was tried, convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.
Another notable success in the KGB’s recruiting of Jewish emigrants is an agent codenamed “Bejan.” He was born in the mid-1950s in south-central Russia, studied engineering in the Soviet Union and was highly regarded in his field.
He was recruited as one of the KGB’s “illegals”—the agency’s elite unit of spies. After undergoing training, he immigrated to Israel and shortly thereafter enlisted in the IDF. He passed the Officer’s Course and quickly climbed up the ranks until he was put in charge of one the IDF’s main infrastructure projects. In this position, “Bejan” had access to many of the IDF’s secrets, particularly regarding base locations, infrastructure, order of battle, and preparations for future wars.
After his retirement from the IDF, “Bejan” served in several other very senior civil service positions. He disappeared in 2004 and hasn’t been seen or heard from since and could not be reached for comment. According to some reports, he returned to Russia.
The Shin Bet quickly caught onto the fact some of the immigrants coming to Israel could be Soviet agents and decided to conduct an initial security inquiry into every new arrival. Shortly thereafter, the agency caught two big fish.
During the first half of 1972, two KGB agents managed to infiltrate Israel—”Shomroni” and “Jupiter” (whose names are withheld by the Israeli Military Censorship). As part of the new procedure, the two were summoned for questioning by the Shin Bet. Something about their behavior raised suspicion; their answers were evasive and unsatisfying.
Later on, “Shomroni” also appeared to be seeking the company of public figures and opened a small business using funding the source of which was unclear.
The two were summoned for another questioning. They were invited to a hotel room in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood—separately, of course—where Shin Bet investigator Yossi Ginosar was waiting for them.
This time, the interrogation was a lot less pleasant. “Jupiter,” who had training both as a physical education expert and as a journalist, immediately confessed to having been recruited as a spy. “Shomroni” denied the accusation.
“Yossi didn’t believe him for even a second, and tore him to pieces—not physically, of course,” recounts one Shin Bet interrogator. “He realized this was a man who was very cunning and a skilled manipulator. But Yossi was no sucker, and a few hours later ‘Shomroni’ confessed to everything.”
The Shin Bet interrogators were impressed with “Shomroni,” describing him as a smart, clever man, “a genius manipulator.”
“Shomroni” and “Jupiter” were then presented with a hard bargain: They could turn into double agents. Otherwise, they would face charges of espionage and treason. They agreed, and so they served Israel’s interests for many years.
“Shomroni” soon became one of the top Russian agents in Israel. He provided the KGB with a lot of important information, which came, in part—or so the Russians thought—from inside sources. That information was actually a combination of true but harmless information and fabricated information.
The Shin Bet also helped “Shomroni” to establish his career in the country and instructed different government officials to aid him. This made him a very influential person in Israel as well.
“Shomroni” received his orders from the KGB while abroad. He would go on business trips, where he found an excuse to disappear for a few hours so he could meet with his KGB handlers.
Years later, “Shomroni” and “Jupiter” found themselves at the center of what is regarded as one of the most destructive spy scandals in Israel’s history.
At the time, the Russians were trying to reestablish contact Dr. Marcus Klingberg—their top spy at the Israel Institute for Biological Research (IIBR) in Ness Ziona—unsuccessfully. The IIRB is a top secret facility where Israel is reportedly developing its most lethal biological weapon, as well as silent assassination measures used on occasion by the Mossad.
Klingberg, who cut his ties with the KGB in 1977 for fear he would get caught, thought that if he ignored the attempts to contact him, Moscow would simply forget about him. But the KGB was not willing to simply give up on such an asset and kept trying to contact him through different channels.
Eventually, in late 1981, the Soviets sent two of their agents to seek out Klingberg—”Shomroni” and “Jupiter.” The double agents informed the Shin Bet about this, and the agency placed surveillance on Klingberg and collected information on his activities. Klingberg was later caught and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
“Shomroni” remained a double agent for the Shin Bet until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After that, he continued thriving in business and found his way to the centers of power in Israel.
The Russians made great efforts to bring about Klingberg’s release, including proposing a prisoner swap that included Jonathan Pollard and Ron Arad in return for their spy. These efforts were led by a KGB officer who was, at the time, a rising star in the agency—one Vladimir Putin.
“Unlike other spies who were caught in Israel, Klingberg was to us a senior official, and it was very important to us to get him released,” says Kalugin, the former KGB general. “Both morally and to show our loyalty to the people we sent.”
But all of that was to no avail. Klingberg served out his full 20-year sentence (some of it on house arrest) and left Israel upon his release. He died in 2015.