Story of Israeli Spy for USSR Revealed After Court Lifts Ban
Menu JTA Search

Story of Israeli Spy for USSR Revealed After Court Lifts Ban

Download PDF for this date

The Jerusalem District Court has finally lifted the veil of secrecy that for 35 years surrounded the case of Ze’ev Avni, a rising young diplomat in Israel’s foreign service who was convicted in August 1956 of spying for the Soviet Union.

The revelations were immediately splashed across the front page of the afternoon tabloid Yediot Achronot, which was instrumental in getting the court to declassify the case.

Avni’s story had been only hinted at in previous publications, including the diary of the late Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister.

Avni served 10 years of a 14-year prison sentence and has since led an uneventful life practicing psychology.

The revelations allowed Issar Harel, retired chief of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, who first confronted the spy, to comment on the case. According to Harel, Avni acted not for monetary gain but out of ideological convictions.

“Basically he was an honest man, a real gentleman,” Harel said. “He changed his attitude and did not ask to receive privileges in prison. He had become an real Israeli patriot.”

Avni was born in Riga, Latvia, and during World War II joined a Soviet spy ring aimed at the Nazis.

After the war, the Soviets planted him in Israel as a “mole,” the term for a spy who is a member of the organization he is spying on.

Avni joined the foreign service and rose rapidly, serving as economic attache at the Israeli embassies in Brussels, Athens and Belgrade.

As a high-ranking diplomat, he “had access to the most sensitive secrets, which he gave the Russians,” Harel said.

In Brussels, Avni had entree to the embassy cipher room and was able to provide his Soviet handlers with Israeli codes with which they could decipher top-secret communications with Jerusalem.

He acted not out of greed but from the conviction of a “devoted Communist,” Harel said. “I don’t think he meant to harm Israel. He had the absurd Communist perception that he was serving some noble doctrines he thought right, morally and historically.”

Avni’s downfall came after four years. Harel and Amos Manor, then head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, told him they knew he was a Soviet spy. After an initial denial, he confessed all and cooperated.

According to Harel, Avni was supplied with newspapers and periodicals while in prison and gradually became disillusioned with communism.

“He slowly realized how wrong he was. He tried to repair some of the damage he had caused,” the former Mossad chief said.

The daily Ma’ariv reported Sunday that after Avni left prison, the Defense Ministry employed him as a psychologist to counsel settlers forced to evacuate Ophira, in southern Sinai, when the peninsula was handed back to Egypt.

Founding Funders

The digitization of the JTA Archive would not have been possible without the generous support of the following donors:
  • The Gottesman Fund
  • Righteous Persons Foundation
  • Charles H. Revson Foundation
  • Elisa Spungen Bildner and Robert Bildner, in honor of Norma Spungen
  • George S. Blumenthal
  • Grace and Scott Offen Charitable Fund