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David Kimche obituary
Israeli spymaster with a key role in Africa and the Middle East
David Kimche berated Binyamin Netanyahu, left, for slowing the peace process. Photograph: David Rubinger/Getty Images
Wed 10 Mar ‘10 18.50 GMT
First published on Wed 10 Mar ‘10 18.50 GMT
Known as “the man with the suitcase” and a master of disguise, the British-born Israeli spy-master and diplomat David Kimche, who has died aged 82 of cancer, was renowned in clandestine circles from Zanzibar to Tehran. He often slipped in and out of countries, leaving profound political changes in his wake, and more recently became active in Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives.
Officially Kimche was deputy head of the Israeli intelligence and counterterrorism agency, the Mossad, until 1980, then director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry for seven years. Yet this only hints at his influence. He was largely responsible for Israel’s diplomatic and military overtures to Africa from the late 1950s, nurtured the young Idi Amin and secretly visited Arab leaders in Morocco and Egypt. He prepared the groundwork for the Camp David accords (1978) and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of the following year. Other involvements included Israel’s ill-fated plan to install a Christian potentate in Beirut in 1982, and the Iran-Contra scandal of 1985.
Kimche was born in London to a Swiss family. After reputedly working for British intelligence during the second world war, he emigrated to Palestine in 1946 and fought in the 1948 war of independence. He then took a PhD in international relations from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
In 1953 he was invited to join the Mossad. Brilliant and urbane, if somewhat detached, he was posted to Africa and Asia, where he masqueraded as a British businessman.
When Egyptian pressure barred Israel from the conference of non-aligned nations in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, Kimche and his colleagues responded by cultivating ties with non-Arab states bordering the Middle East. He compared Israel’s struggle against imperialism with Africa’s yearning for freedom. Yet sentiment and idealism were not his only weapons. He brought Kenyan Mau Mau rebels to Israel for military training, established national security agencies across the continent and helped Ghana spy on its ally, Egypt. He also located Mossad listening stations in the Horn of Africa and allegedly backed coups, including the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1964.
Numbered among Kimche’s presidential allies, and often friends, were Ivory Coast’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Chad’s Ngarta Tombalbaye, Nigeria’s Ibrahim Babangida and Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, enabling thousands of Israeli kibbutz workers to initiate medical, agricultural and environmental projects across Africa. Thousands more Africans studied at Israeli educational institutions. Israel in turn won blocking votes in the UN.
Kimche was disappointed when 34 African nations cut relations after the 1967 six-day war and the 1973 Yom Kippur war. He nonetheless maintained unofficial channels that served Israel well when the diplomatic tide turned after 1991.
As the Mossad’s chief recruiting officer, Kimche trained agents, and he retained a proactive approach when invited by Yitzhak Shamir, then foreign minister, to become director-general of his department. He armed Maronite clans in Lebanon’s escalating civil war in the 1970s, helped engineer Yasser Arafat’s departure from Beirut in 1982, and supplied Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala with captured PLO weapons later that year.
But his masterplan began to go awry in September 1982, with the assassination of the newly elected Maronite president of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, and the Sabra and Chatilla massacre that took place shortly afterwards. He negotiated a US-mediated treaty with Lebanon, signed in May 1983, although Beirut abrogated the agreement within a year.
In 1985 he told the US national security adviser Robert McFarlane that moderate elements in Iran might help free Americans captured in Lebanon. To encourage this process, Israel agreed to sell arms to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. The profits would sponsor CIA-backed Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Initially Iran received hundreds of anti-tank missiles, and one of the hostages, the Rev Benjamin Weir, was freed. Further deliveries were botched, however, and another hostage, the CIA agent William Buckley, was killed. Kimche was blamed and relieved of involvement. He was also implicated in “running” Jonathan Pollard, a US naval officer arrested in 1985 for spying on America.
After leaving the ministry in 1987, Kimche pursued business interests but maintained a public role. In 1997 he co-founded the International Alliance for Arab-Israeli Peace, known as the Copenhagen group. The following year he protested against the slowing down of the peace process by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. He berated Israeli leaders for treating Arab citizens unequally and particularly criticised his former protege Ariel Sharon. In 2003 he co-launched a campaign promoting Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and later that year was revealed as a key architect of the Geneva accords, the unofficial Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
Kimche chaired the Glocal Forum, a Zurich-based institute that addresses the challenges of globalisation, and was president of the Israel Council for Foreign Relations. His books include The Six-Day War: Prologue and Aftermath (1971), and The Last Option: The Quest for Peace in the Middle East (1988, updated 1992). To the end, he remained devoted to the belief that Israelis and Palestinians could co-exist peacefully. He is survived by his wife, Ruth, and four children.
• David Kimche, intelligence executive and diplomat, born 1928; died 8 March 2010
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