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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


February 1990, Page 5

Special Report

What You Won't Read About Michael Harari, Noriega's Israeli Adviser Who Got Away

By Richard H. Curtiss


"An Israeli reputed to be Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's closest associate may have eluded capture on the night of the United States invasion because he was warned to flee nearly six hours before American troops swept into the capital, the deputy commander of Panama's new police force said today. The Noriega associate, Mike Harari, a former Israeli intelligence officer, was last seen at 7 p.m. on Dec. 19 leaving the home of General Noriega's wife, the commander, Eduardo Herrera Hassan, said. The invasion began shortly before 1 a.m. on Dec. 20. Mr. Harari, the commander said, was reportedly accompanied by two Israeli assistants who had come for him with a car. The location of Mr. Harari, who is said to have trained and equipped General Noriega's elite security forces, has been a mystery."
— David E. Pitt, The New York Times, Jan. 2, 1990


For days it looked as if former Mossad hit squad chief Michael Harari, known to Panamanians as the "second most important person" in their country, was going to be totally ignored in US press accounts of the Panama invasion. Only NBC reported on two successive evenings at the beginning of the invasion that Noriega's Israeli aide and confidant had made a rapid series of visits to Nicaragua, Cuba and Israel in the days preceding the US strike in an apparent attempt to prepare a Noriega escape route.

The Israeli press, which considered Noriega the second most important person in Panama after Harari, wasn't so reticent as it speculated about how Israel's master spy would manage the escape to Israel, and whether or not he would bring Noriega along.

Despite the early warning to Israelis in Panama, however, Noriega didn't escape. US special operations troops disabled hidden planes and boats that would have been used, but at a cost in American lives. In the words of the Washington Times of Jan. 4: "Of the 23 soldiers killed in combat, I I were special operations forces. Military experts considered this a high casualty count for special forces." In other words, a lot of young American servicemen died at the hands of Panamanian elite units who apparently knew they were coming, possibly because of the action of one or more informants in the US government.

Americans won't read much serious media speculation about who those informants might be. The numbers of people within the US government who can find reasons not to pursue any investigation that may lead to Israel literally have reached critical mass.

Truth no longer will out, unless it absolves Israel. That is why virtually nothing significant emerged from the congressional hearings on the Reagan administration's arms-for-hostages dealings with Iran. Because every line of investigation led directly to Israel, no single line was pursued for long. The result is a near-total information blackout. Extremists in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir count on it, and conduct themselves with total disregard for American public opinion.

But for the bizarre circumstances of his escape, the mainstream US media might never have revealed any of Harari's key role in a Panama-based triangle that apparently helped put drugs from Colombia into the US, used the proceeds to buy arms (some captured from the PLO in Lebanon) from Israel or through Israeli brokers, and then sold the arms. They certainly went to US-backed contras and friendly Latin governments. They may also have gone to states like Cuba and Nicaragua, and to Marxist guerrillas like those in El Salvador and Peru.

There are reports that Harari slipped out of Panama on an Israeli plane just before US forces struck. Other reports say he was caught by US forces, and then released. Astonished Americans, from embassy personnel to GIs, who believe they witnessed parts of that drama leaked the story. Then the spin doctors went to work to explain that the Americans and Panamanians involved had confused Harari's driver, a young Panamanian sergeant, with his Israeli boss, the often photographed, 62-year-old, second-most powerful man in Panama.

In coming months there will be conflicting explanations for the leak that alerted Israel, and almost certainly Noriega's forces as well, to the invasion, and for the escape of his principal aide. Perhaps, a year from now, few Americans will even remember he was an Israeli.

A masterful example of such spin control is a detailed backgrounder in the Jan. 7 Washington Post on Harari's long association with Panama's rulers. The article, by David Halevy and Neil Livingstone, describes other such Harari exploits as his personal direction of Israeli assassination squads that killed 12 alleged Black September Palestinian terrorists (along with an innocent Moroccan waiter in Norway and some innocent bystanders in Beirut) after the 1972 murder of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich.

What the authors didn't mention is that by blowing up Ali Hassan Salameh with a car bomb in Beirut in January, 1979, Harari's amphibious hit squad also eliminated the PLO liaison to the US Embassy there. Salameh was the Palestinian personally responsible for assuring that official Americans assigned to the embassy, in a part of West Beirut controlled by the PLO, didn't get killed. Just how effective he was demonstrated after the PLO withdrew from West Beirut in 1982. Iranian-directed Shi'i terrorists twice bombed the embassy, with massive loss of life. That's another story, however, and not the kind Halevy and Livingstone make it their business to tell.

There are a lot of other things about Harari, Israelis in Panama, and their disastrous effect on the Jewish community there that Americans won't be reading in their daily newspapers or hearing on the evening news much longer. Before Harari recedes into the shadows, however, here are a few facts that were reported just before and immediately after his unplanned moment in the international media spotlight.

The Israeli government keeps referring to Harari as "retired." In the words of an official Israeli spokesman, "He is absolutely not connected in any way to the government." However, even Halevy and Livingstone admit he came out of his 1979 retirement in 1980 to accept an assignment as Mossad's director for Central America. Officially he was assigned to the Israeli Embassy in Mexico City. He spent most of his time, however, in Panama, where he had known since 1973 both Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, who was killed in a 1981 plane crash, and his successor, Noriega. Harari knew Noriega particularly well because, during the period "the Pineapple" was working as Torrijos' intelligence chief, and moonlighting as a $200,000 a year informant for the CIA and for Cuba as well, he also had become an informant for Israel's Mossad.

Noriega's Ties to Israel

It was no surprise. Noriega had undergone military and intelligence training in Israel, jumped five times with Israeli paratroopers, and-like Uganda's deposed dictator Idi Amin-proudly wore his Israeli paratrooper wings on his uniform for many years afterward. Although critics say America "bought and paid for" Noriega, he was also an Israeli creation and a great admirer of the ruthless "Israeli way," as was Amin, the most brutal despot in 20th century African history.

It was Harari who reorganized, renamed and trained the Panamanian Defense Forces when Noriega succeeded Torrijos. Harari also instructed Noriega's personal bodyguard and his "Special Anti-Terror Unit." Harari obtained advanced technical equipment and weapons for them, and there is no doubt he taught them how to anticipate and neutralize many of the attempts to monitor Noriega's activities launched by American intelligence officers from their bases in the Canal Zone.

Panama's strongman reciprocated. On one of his visits to Israel arranged by Harari in the 1980s, Noriega bought a seaside villa in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya. Back in Panama, he sent his children to the Jewish community's prestigious Alberto Einstein day school and to an Israeli kibbutz one summer. Noriega also employed other Israeli security experts in the Harari-organized PDF, which in effect became the Noriega administration.

As for Harari's ongoing connections with Israel, Panama's new police commander, Eduardo Herrara Hassan, explains: "I was the ambassador to Israel but he was my boss. Everything I did had to be authorized by Harari."


"Mr. 60 Percent"

In the spring of 1988, when Colonel Herrara first broke with Noriega and took refuge in Miami, he said of Michael Harari: "We call him 'Mr. 60 Percent' because he gets that much from any deal that he makes." Harari took kickbacks from Israeli businessmen seeking to invest in Panama, and split the proceeds with Noriega.

Just how profitable that was is indicated by a Panamanian Jewish leader quoted in the Washington Jewish Week of Dec. 28:

"The Israelis working here do not, by and large, reflect well either on Israel or the Panamanian Jewish community. They have practically gained control of the Central Avenue business district. They are engaged in contraband and money laundering. In general, they engage in very aggressive and often unfair business practices. They mainly keep apart from the Jewish community, and have little interest in Panama. They are here to make a lot of money and get out."

When they get out, they will leave serious problems for Panamanian Jews. The Panamanian Jewish community, estimated at between 4,000 and 7,000 people, is mainly Sephardic with Caribbean roots that go back for centuries to Dutch colonies on Aruba and Curacao. However, about 80 percent of Panama's present Jewish community arrived from Syria after World War 11 and began to prosper when Torrijos, Noriega's predecessor, deposed the country's old-line Christian families and encouraged the Jews to take their places not only in commerce, but in the professions and politics as well.

Several Jews served in cabinets during the Noriega period. One of them, Eric Arturo De Valle, was described as one of the -Kleenex presidents" whom Noriega used briefly and, when they had served his purposes, threw away.

After De Valle, with US backing, disavowed the general in 1987, rioting with strongly anti-Semitic overtones set the stage for the most recent crisis.

"We are seen as disloyal by many," complains Moises Mizrachi, a businessman who heads the Panamanian committee of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League. "The new government says there will be no revenge, but they have already put in jail without trial a lot of their enemies. Some of these people did terrible things, but there ought to have been due process."

Explaining his fears, Mizrachi told the Washington Jewish Week:

"It is certainly true that the Jewish community did prosper under the dictatorships (from 1969 to the present). The Christian businesses were largely displaced by Jewish businesses."

Perhaps the US had no stomach for the kind of revelations a top Mossad operator with 40-years of experience could make about some American leaders.

He noted that in the three-day Panama City looting spree touched off by the US invasion, most of the hundreds of stores wrecked along 20 blocks of Central Avenue were Jewish-owned.

"The US didn't do wrong by coming in here to restore democracy, but we paid too dearly for it," Mizrachi said. "In fact, the whole bill was paid by the Panamanian Jewish community ... There was bad planning on the part of the US. If they had used a few of their tanks in the center of Panama City to protect the stores, much of the damage could have been prevented."

Mizrachi has called upon the US to pay compensation to Panamanian Jewish businessmen for losses of up to $1 billion during the three days of looting. He admitted, however, that until 1987, when the Reagan administration denounced Noriega for drug dealing and asked Israel to break off its close ties with the dictator, "We were definitely pro-government."

"We thought the government was a 50-50 proposition, that it had some support," he explains. "We were wrong."

Describing feeling within the Jewish community in the wake of Noriega's capture, Mizrachi said: "Most feel it is a blessing that a long nightmare is over. Under Noriega, there was no liberty. The man was clearly evil, and implacable with his enemies. But a few said he was good for the Jews."

Noting that Panamanian Jews were shocked at reports that US troops found pictures of Hitler and Libya's Qaddafi in Noriega's quarters, Mizrachi concluded:

"It was a big surprise to us, because he was always so friendly to Israel. If Harari had known about this, I'm sure he would have had nothing to do with [Noriega]."

In the US, national chairman Abraham Foxman of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation League declined to support Mizrachi's appeal for compensation to Panamanian merchants, but he added that, "There's chaos down there and the Jews stand out."

Rabbi Morton Rosenthal, ADL director for Latin American affairs, commented: "In the central shopping district, about 80 to 90 percent of the stores are owned by Jews, so the Jewish community has taken a very heavy hit financially."


An Uncharacteristic Sophistication

When a senior US Embassy official in Panama City first said that the US had seized Harari on Dec. 27, new Panamanian government spokesman Louis A. Martinez announced: "Everyone is really delighted here. It's big news. Second to Noriega, he was the most important person in Panama. He had tremendous influence on Noriega."

Vague allegations that Noriega was involved in the drug trade date to the early 1970s, well before Harari set up shop in Panama City in 1980. They became specific in 1981, however. Then in August 1986, Noriega's dealings with the Reagan administration developed an uncharacteristic sophistication. He offered to assassinate Nicaragua's Sandinista leaders "in exchange for a promise to clean up Noriega's image and a commitment to lift the ban on military sales to the Panamanian defense forces," according to a statement introduced at the IranContra trial of former White House aide Oliver North.

North subsequently met in London with Noriega, who offered to sabotage Sandinista government facilities in Nicaragua. Although there is no evidence that the US accepted any of these offers, which presumably were devised by Harari, they help explain why until 1987 the Reagan administration ignored allegations both about Noriega's drug ties and the extensive arms trade which Harari had organized for him.

The US break with Noriega, and a 1987 request to Israel to cut its ties with the Panamanian strongman, apparently resulted from reports that Noriega was using information he gathered while working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to help drug smugglers avoid DEA detection of their aircraft.

The size of the arms trade conducted through Panama is suggested by Washington Post writer George Wilson's Jan. I report from David, a town near Panama's border with Costa Rica, where he accompanied US infantrymen confiscating weapons caches:

"All the officers and soldiers inter-viewed here expressed amazement at the quality and sophistication of the weapons, which they said include Soviet grenades and Chinese copies of the American M-16 assault rifle, and they wondered why Noriega stockpiled far more weapons than his military forces could use," Wilson wrote.

“... I'll give you my personal opinion," said an officer involved in the arms-recovery effort in this region. “Noriega was an international weapons trafficker as well as an international drug trafficker. There is no other way to explain why he had so many weapons hidden in so many different places."

As for the man who made Noriega into an international arms trafficker, after his escape from Panama he was back on Israeli television, whose last report before the invasion had described him as an "Israeli security agent" who was mapping out an escape route to Nicaragua for Noriega.

"They said I was Noriega's adviser," Harari complained in his Jan. 5 television interview in Israel. "I'm not an adviser. I wasn't in the past. I'm not number one and I'm not number two. Noriega is not a partner of mine ... I did not supervise affairs ... or train his forces. I did not organize his personal guard. I am simply a private individual involved in business."

Perhaps that's what he told the Americans who collared and then released him. Even though they didn't believe him, someone higher up pretended to. Perhaps the US had no stomach for the kind of revelations a top Mossad operator with 40 years of experience could make about some American leaders.

There's still one country on the globe, however, with the guts to bring this international merchant of death to justice. While Harari was reportedly in US custody, Norway's deputy state attorney indicated his country would ask the US to extradite Harari to Oslo for trial. The Norwegians, it seems, haven't forgotten a humble Moroccan immigrant whom Harari's team of casual killers mistook for Ali Hassan Salameh.

On July 21, 1973, Harari watched two of his six Mossad hit squad colleagues pump 14 bullets into the Moroccan waiter as he strolled with his pregnant Norwegian wife on a quiet street in Lillehammer. In Israel, and perhaps the United States as well, government officials may think that's macho. In God-fearing Norway, it's still called murder.

Richard H. Curtiss is editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.


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