Nevertheless, some would say that the Spadafora family was lucky. Unlike the long list of opponents of the military junta in Panama who were “disappeared,” at least they had a body to bury. The torture, the kidnappings, the murders and the disappearances had been an integral part of daily reality in Panama since a military coup in October 1968. The tyrannical regime retained power until it fell into disfavor with its American patron. When Noriega refused to relinquish power, the United States invaded Panama and deposed him by force. That was in late 1989.
The dictatorship in Panama indeed endured for 22 years thanks to American support, but the United States wasn’t the only country that backed the brutal military rule there. Israel, too, had security interests in the Central American country and maintained close ties with the government, systematically ignoring its human rights violations and its ingrained corruption.
Even today, most of the facts about American and Israeli relations with the Panamanian junta remain unknown. The U.S. Army is in possession of an archive of thousands of crates of classified documents relating to Gen. Noriega. On the Israeli side, relevant Mossad documents from that period also remain inaccessible to the public. What’s clear is that at the time both Israel and the United States had political and security-related interests connected not just to Panama and its famous canal, but to all of Central and South America. An example of this is the Iran-Contra affair of the mid-1980s, during which Noriega assisted the United States and Israel to arm the rebel forces that were seeking to topple the socialist government in Nicaragua.
Foreign Ministry documents recently declassified by the Israel State Archives shed some light on the ties Israel maintained with Panama’s despotic rulers. The dozens of files include cables from the Israeli embassy in Panama City, updating the ministry in Jerusalem about local developments. What exactly were Israel’s interests in Panama? The documents don’t say. What they do make clear unequivocally is that Israel’s military and political ties with Panama were conducted during the decades in question by the Mossad, to the complete exclusion of the Foreign Ministry.
Thus, many of the cables feature one central figure: Michael “Mike” Harari, the senior Mossad agent who established the espionage agency’s assassination unit and was dubbed the “Zionist James Bond” by Israeli journalists. Harari maintained close relations with the leaders of the military junta in Panama while it was in power. Shortly before his death in 2014, Harari told journalist Ronen Bergman in an interview that Noriega had been a senior collaborator in the service of Israel’s defense establishment.
Harari retired from the Mossad officially in 1980, but he continued to operate in Panama long after that: On the surface, he was a businessman with close connections to the regime who served as an eminence grise to strongman Noriega, but in parallel he continued to act in Panama on behalf of the Mossad. The documents reveal that the embassy in Panama City was furious at the dual role he played. At times they simply did not know what was driving him: Was he acting on behalf of the State of Israel, or advancing his own business interests?
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The material cleared for publication in the last few months describes the means Harari used to help Noriega retain power. It emerges that the Tel Aviv-born agent was a leading player in a political scheme aimed at tilting an election in favor of his Panamanian client. As part of this plot, Harari distributed a fabricated book which accused Noriega’s rival, Dr. Arnulfo Arias, of perpetrating a massacre of the country’s Jewish community. Harari was perceived as such a significant figure in Panama that during the final years of the military regime, Washington demanded that Israel remove him from the country. The Americans were convinced that only by ridding the country of Harari would it be possible to bring about the termination of Noriega’s rule, and they apparently did not hesitate to threaten Israel to achieve that goal.
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General Noriega leaves the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Francois Mitterrand, June 19, 1984.
General Noriega leaves the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris after a meeting with French President Francois Mitterrand, June 19, 1984. Credit: Herve Merliac / ASSOCIATED PRESS
• • •
The newly released cables sent by the embassy in Panama City throughout the years of the dictatorship paint a vivid portrayal of the dictatorial regime was forged. They reveal an ongoing cycle of human rights violations, corruption, popular protest and vicious suppression of dissent. In a cable dated November 25, 1969, a year after the military coup led by Omar Torrijos first seized power, the embassy informed the Foreign Ministry about a recently enacted new law. “The government can arrest a person without a court order,” Ambassador Yehiel Eilsar wrote, adding, “Individuals are forbidden to voice negative criticism of the government, a minister or an official.” A cable dated October 21, 1970, noted that politically active students from the universities and high schools were being expelled; in addition, a secret unit for security and espionage had been established within Panama’s National Guard. A few weeks later: “There is no doubt that the National Guard network is being deployed for every event, activity, performance or civilian phenomenon, sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely.”
Israel had security interests in Panama and maintained close ties with the government, systematically ignoring its human rights violations and its ingrained corruption.
In May 1971, Eilsar began to report to Jerusalem about the kidnapping and disappearance of a local priest, Hector Gallego Herrera – an incident that stirred protest among the public and by the Catholic Church. Eilsar had no doubt who was behind the event: Col. Noriega, then head of the secret police. “Col. Noriega is known to be ambitious, wily and smart, and as a person who likes to do things on his own initiative, such as kidnapping Father Gallego,” the ambassador wrote later that year.
Noriega and Torrijos’ activities at the time did not affect their open relations with Israel. A biographical document about Noriega drawn up by the Foreign Ministry states that he underwent a course in intelligence and defense in Israel, as well as parachute training. According to cables dispatched by the embassy in Panama City, the two officials also visited Israel on various occasions. In May 1970, Torrijos – who was de facto head of the country until 1981 but never officially named president – paid an official visit, and was followed a few months later by Noriega. The latter also visited Israel in 1984. Yitzhak Rabin, the former chief of staff at the time a Labor MK, visited Panama and met with Noriega in December 198 ; Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir met with him there a year later.
Following Torrijos’ death in a mysterious plane crash in July 1981, a struggle erupted over the leadership of the National Guard, in which Noriega emerged triumphant. He sought to entrench his standing further by appointing a puppet president named Nicolas Ardito Barletta, who would toe the line in the 1984 election.
However, a major obstacle to that plan emerged: Arias, the leader of the opposition, who had served as president three times before the military coup. Arias was extremely popular and was perceived as the only person who could bring about the end of the junta. All the forecasts suggested that he would win the election.
The assessment offered by the Israeli embassy in Panama was that Gen. Noriega would not accept an Arias victory. According to a cable dated March 15, 1984, sent by Ambassador Yosef Hassin, “Very few commentators believe in the existence of a free and untainted election. Everyone believes that Gen. Noriega will do everything he can to prevent the election of a president not to his liking, including a coup or falsifying the election results.”
Which is what happened: The strongman acted to liquidate his rival politically by means of a campaign of prevarication and vilification – and he was aided in that endeavor by none other than the ostensibly retired Mossad man Mike Harari.
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Harari. The U.S. assistant undersecretary of state recommended he leave Panama, adding: “For the good of Israel, that person should leave forthwith.”
Harari. The U.S. assistant undersecretary of state recommended he leave Panama, adding: “For the good of Israel, that person should leave forthwith.” Credit: David Bachar
• • •
It’s not clear from the Foreign Ministry documents when Harari first arrived in Panama. The first cable that mentions him is dated July 25, 1980. Written by the ambassador at that time, Chanan Olami, it notes that with regard to pro-Palestinian activity in Panama, “Mike Harari from the Mossad can be of assistance to us because of his ties with Torrijos.”
Harari is mentioned a second time in correspondence to Jerusalem from Olami, in August 198 , in which he reports on the ceremony at which Noriega became head of the National Guard: “The CV of Gen. Noriega, which was read out at the ceremony and distributed to the public, notes that he took courses in Israel, and among his private guests invited from abroad, one of those introduced to the audience was Gen. Mike Harari from Israel.”
The scheme concocted by Harari and Noriega for defeating Arias is lucidly described in the cables dispatched by Ambassador Hassin. Central to it is the writing and distribution of a book titled “Holocaust in Panama,” which invented a chapter in the past of presidential candidate Arias. According to the book, the opposition leader had ordered the murder of Jews of German origin who had immigrated to Panama during his first stint as president, in 1941.
The writing and distribution of the book were funded by the National Guard, and according to the Israeli ambassador, “the distribution rights for the book were acquired by Mike Harari.” The copies of the book were stored in the building of the Israel legation in Panama, without the ambassador’s authorization, while Harari waited for a “green light from the army to start distributing them to the public.”
Although the book’s allegations were fake, they drew on a dark period in Arias’ past. In the 19 0s, he served as Panama’s ambassador to Mussolini’s Italy. He was entranced by fascism and sympathetic to the Nazi regime. It emerged later that Jerusalem’s Foreign Ministry was forgiving on this issue. “To the best of our knowledge, Arias was indeed an envoy in Europe during the period of Nazism, and like many others of the same class (such as Argentine Juan Perón), he felt sympathetic toward the regime,” Herzl Inbar, director of the Latin American desk in the Foreign Ministry, wrote in March 198 . “However, we do not know of antisemitic and anti-Israeli statements or deeds during his political activity in Panama.”
The same impression was held by Panama’s Jewish community. Following a meeting that Arias held during his campaign for president with representatives of the community, the latter came away with the feeling that this had been “an event in remote history when extreme nationalism was in fashion. But now he harbors no anti-Jewish feelings and he desire to be close to them, and wishes them well,” Hassin wrote on March 14, 1984.
The ambassador reported in a cable a month later that the widespread distribution of the book was meant not only to deter the small Jewish community of 5,000 souls and others from supporting Arias, but to set in motion “a scare campaign in the face of his racist policy. According to this, he will expel all the Chinese, the Negroes, the Jews and the Indians from Panama.”
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Arnulfo Arias.Credit: Ralph K. Skinner / AP
The plot was successful: “Holocaust in Panama” sparked sensational headlines and was extensively covered in all the local media. In a cable to Jerusalem dated April 5, 1984, Hassin noted: “The press is filled with headlines and detailed descriptions of the shedding of Jewish blood and the murder of Jewish children by Arnulfo Arias.”
The fabricated story, he added, was causing much discomfiture in the Jewish community: “There is anger and embarrassment among the Jews because they are being used in a matter which in their view is fabricated in form and content. A petition with 50 signatures of Jews from the community declares that never was there antisemitism, discrimination or murder of Jews in Panama, and that they have no information or evidence concerning the affair.”
A biographical document about Noriega drawn up by the Foreign Ministry states that he underwent a course in intelligence and defense in Israel, as well as parachute training.
Hassin not only accepted Arias’ vigorous denials of any personal involvement in the alleged murder, he was also convinced that no such atrocity had ever occurred.
“It’s true that there was a German-Swiss community in the Chiriqui region [of western Panama], about which it’s not clear whether it was entirely, partly or at all composed of Jews,” the ambassador wrote on April 26. “It’s not known what happened to them over time – whether they returned to Europe, died of disease, were murdered or scattered in other cities of Panama.”
The election took place on May 6. On May 22, Hassin reported that he had heard questions to the effect that, “If all the accusations against Arias are documented in the book, why doesn’t the government of Panama put him on trial for murder, and why doesn’t the government of Israel press for his punishment?”
The ambassador was very troubled about the possible implications of the affair for Israel-Panama relations. “Why was it necessary in the first place to allow a private businessman, who also possesses official state status, to involve the embassy in a subject whose sole aim was intervention in a domestic election?” he wrote in a cable. “The episode is liable to place the embassy and Israel in an uncomfortable position and cause us complications,” he asked in another cable. “Arias might win the election, and when he learns that an Israeli businessman lent a hand to the battle against his election as president, we will not come out of this well.” He added, in a different cable, “It will be very difficult to rectify the damage that was done.”
Subsequently the Israeli envoy learned that this was not Harari’s only involvement in the election. As part of the campaign, Harari had also promised Noriega that a forest would be planted in Israel in memory of Gen. Torrijos. Hassin was outraged. “I don’t know of any other country that has commemorated Torrijos,” he wrote. “It’s clear to you that the donations that were collected for the ‘Torrijos Forest’ with Mr. Harari’s intercession are not the result of spontaneous friendship for Israel, but come in the wake of an explicit order by Noriega.” (It’s still not clear whether the forest was ever planted.)
It was evident to Hassin that one of the major beneficiaries of the meddling efforts was none other than Harari himself, the “businessman possessing official state status,” as he had put it. “In the meantime, only Israel, a foreign country, has taken a stand in the election campaign,” he wrote in an April 1984 cable, adding ironically, “As opposed to the damage that the ‘Torrijos Forest’ and the book ‘Holocaust in Panama’ will cause us, we will at least ensure continued excellent personal relations between a Panamanian general and an Israeli ‘general.’”
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An American tank in Panama City, 1987.
An American tank in Panama City, 1987. Credit: AP / Borea Robert
Despite the criticism leveled by the ambassador, it’s apparent from his remarks that he believed that the intervention in the election was not a private initiative by Harari but a deliberate move by Israel. “The forest exercise was superfluous in my opinion,” he noted. “I only hope that you are being guided by governmental considerations with which I am not familiar, and need not know about, and that the fruits of the Torrijos Forest are already being picked or will bear fruit soon. If so, I retract my criticism and ask for pardon from all those operating with secret success.”
But the ploys didn’t work: Arias won the May 1984 election by a small majority. Nevertheless, Noriega’s candidate was declared the winner. It was clear to Israel, to the United States and to the international community that the results had been fabricated.
In a report dated September 11, 1984, summing up his tenure in Panama, envoy Hassin described the completion of Noriega’s takeover of the country. “The center of power in the country is the army, and within the army the person at its head, and today that is Gen. Noriega,” he wrote. “There are institutions and organizations, unions and bureaus, a National Assembly and a legislative council, but their importance is negligible.”
Hassin also addressed Harari’s problematic activities: “An Israeli security official is maintaining tight and close ties with the head of the army, in matters of security and also in the framework of private business,” he reported. “That Israeli personage has an exclusive monopoly on business ties with the Panamanian government, and the embassy does not receive information about his business affairs. That individual also serves as a direct liaison to Israel on political-diplomatic matters, in the context of his ties with official and private Panamanians.”
The Americans believed that Harari was working to preserve Noriega’s rule at any price, and they were determined to make the Israeli leave the country.
• • •
The brutal murder of Dr. Hugo Spadafora sent shock waves through Panama and triggered broad protests against the ruling authorities. The opposition gained strength and there were increasing calls for Noriega’s removal from office. Concurrently, the oppression and the torture were also intensified, press censorship was ratcheted up and demonstrations were banned.
The next Israeli ambassador to Panama, Shaul Kariv, noted in his report summing up his term (1984-88), that Israel’s relations with Panama were “not very happy, and even problematic, if we take into account that these relations are being conducted with a corrupt regime that is loathed by a large proportion of the people of Panama, or more precisely, with a military dictator whose removal is demanded by a large portion of the nation.”
Around this time tensions between the United States and Panama also surged: Ronald Reagan’s administration initiated action to oust Noriega. The State Department began to accuse the dictator of engaging in corrupt practices, violating human rights, drug trafficking and transferring American technology into Cuban hands. The U.S. Senate passed a resolution calling on Noriega to step down, and in July 1987 the administration announced that it was suspending military aid to Panama.
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An anti-government protest in Panama City after a coup attempt was quashed by President Noriega, on March 16, 1988.
An anti-government protest in Panama City after a coup attempt was quashed by President Noriega, on March 16, 1988. Credit: Diana Smith / AP
But Noriega clung to power and refused to resign. Here, too, Harari played a significant role. On August 7, 1987, a document from Panama was relayed to the Israeli embassy in Washington. The document outlined an internal working plan aimed at keeping Noriega in power. Among other elements, the plan involved clamping down on gatherings and demonstrations by deploying the army; disseminating rumors about intentions to arrest or even murder the leaders of the opposition and business people in Panama and abroad; intensified activity by militias to generate a feeling of terror; bypassing the Reagan administration’s economic sanctions by directly lobbying American politicians; and tightening supervision over Panamanian media and journalists.
The Americans, for their part, were convinced that the document “was not Noriega’s brainchild but Mike Harari’s.” They believed that Harari was working to preserve Noriega’s rule at any price, and they were determined to make the Israeli leave the country.
On July 6, 1987, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams met with Oded Eran, an Israeli representative in Washington. The Foreign Ministry’s subsequent conclusion was unequivocal: “The Americans want to terminate the Noriega-Mike Harari connection.” According to the summation of the meeting conveyed by Yitzhak Shefi, who served on the Foreign Ministry’s Latin American desk, Abrams recommended that Harari leave Panama, adding: “For the good of Israel, that man should leave forthwith.”
Shefi gathered from the meeting that “the Americans are convinced that Harari’s contribution to Noriega’s standing is crucial and that ‘taking apart the package’ will hasten the general’s fall and significantly abbreviate the death throes of the present regime.” On July 29, Shefi himself spoke with Harari and found that he was not impressed by the Americans’ warnings. “Mike himself is identified with the government and with Noriega,” the official wrote. “He does not intend to abandon his friend precisely in this critical period.”
In March 1988, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bill Walker met with Gen. Noriega. The meeting took place in Harari’s home, and a cable dated March 22 recounts what happened. Walker suggested to Noriega that he move to Spain and promised that the United States would not demand his extradition and that his family would be unharmed. The cable states that Noriega rejected this idea “with rhetoric [in a conversation] that went on for about four hours and that can be summed up as ‘go to hell.’”
A cable sent to Jerusalem by Israel’s embassy in Washington on September 14, 1988, stated: “A Panamanian who has close ties with the opposition in Panama and who is working on its behalf in Washington, directed my attention to what he sees as serious damage being caused to Israel by Harari’s activity in Panama. He maintains that the opposition attributes Harari’s actions to Israel, and that [Israel’s] relations with Panama will be seriously affected if and when there is change of government.”
In May 1989, another presidential election was held in Panama. The opposition candidate won; Noriega declared the election null and void. On December 20, 1989, the United States invaded Panama. Noriega was arrested and later convicted for drug trafficking, money laundering and other offenses. He spent the rest of his life in prisons in the United States, France and Panama, until his death in May 2017.
Harari, who fled Panama for Israel just ahead of the American invasion, died in 2014 at the age of 87. People who eulogized him recalled his heroic deeds in various security operations throughout the world – among them acts of revenge against Palestinians after the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the rescue of hostages in the 1976 Entebbe operation. The declassified Foreign Ministry documents do not elaborate, however, on the services Harari provided to Gen. Noriega, other than regarding the 1984 election. But the highly unusual U.S. request to remove a Mossad agent from a foreign country indicates that those services were of great significance. The full nature of Harari’s activity in Panama will only become clear when the Mossad and Israel’s military censors allow more details to be made public. No one is under the illusion that this will happen anytime soon.
Eitay Mack is a lawyer who is acting to expose and stop the State of Israel’s relationships with dictatorships.