Rafael Eitan was born on Nov. 23, 1926, in the British Mandate of Palestine to Zionists who had immigrated from Russia three years earlier and lived in a small settlement near Tel Aviv. Not yet a teenager, Rafi joined the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli army, to defend the settlement against Arab attacks and was later recruited into its more elite branch, the Palmach.
With Jews pressing the British for an autonomous homeland, his most dazzling venture was to crawl through sewers to blow up a British radar installation on Mount Carmel. It earned him the sobriquet “Rafi the Smelly,” to distinguish him from another Rafael Eitan, who went on to become chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces. Mr. Eitan also played an important role in smuggling Jewish refugees from Nazism into Palestine.
Mr. Eitan was twice wounded in the 1948 war for independence. After telling his superiors that it was difficult for him to run in the field, they assigned him to an intelligence unit. His spying career had begun, though he took time to earn a degree from the London School of Economics.
Over the next few decades he served as operations chief at Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and as Mossad’s deputy operations chief. In 1965, posing as an Israeli government chemist, he visited a nuclear fuel plant in Apollo, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. It was later discovered that a large quantity of enriched uranium had vanished. Some American analysts concluded that it was more than a coincidence that Mr. Eitan’s visit had occurred around the time of the theft.
In 1985, Mr. Pollard, an intelligence analyst for the Navy assigned to monitor classified materials on global terrorist activities, was arrested on charges of spying for Israel and turning over thousands of documents to it. He confessed and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After serving 30 years, Mr. Pollard, now 64, was granted parole and released from prison in 2015.
The Pollard affair strained the close ties between the United States and Israel and raised the specter of divided loyalties among some American Jews, though today, after revelations in 2013 of the United States spying on allies through the National Security Agency, the double-dealing seems routine.
Israeli officials at first tried to depict the Pollard case as a rogue operation by Mossad. But Shimon Peres, Israel’s prime minister at the time, publicly apologized and allowed State Department officials to question Mr. Eitan, who had been the adviser on terrorism to a previous prime minister, Menachem Begin, and had overseen Mr. Pollard’s spying. Mr. Eitan later told journalists that he had acted with “permission and authority.”