Former Israeli Mossad spy Rafi Eitan, seen in this December 2011 picture, commanded the audacious capture in 1960 of top Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and smuggled him to Israel where he was tried and executed by hanging / © AFP/File
Former Mossad spy Rafi Eitan, who commanded the audacious 1960 capture of top Nazi Adolf Eichmann, died on Saturday aged 92, Israeli public radio announced.
Eitan, the handler for Jonathan Pollard, a US Navy analyst who passed Israel thousands of top secret documents, was himself wanted by American authorities for a time.
He died in the afternoon at Tel Aviv's Ichilov hospital, the radio said, without giving further details.
Israeli leaders paid tribute to him with rare public words of praise from Mossad.
"The late Rafi Eitan was a pillar of the intelligence community in general, and the Mossad in particular," agency chief Yossi Cohen wrote in a statement.
"The foundations that Rafi laid in the first years of the state are a significant layer in the activities of the Mossad even today."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "Rafi was one of the heroes of the state of Israel's intelligence service in countless acts for Israel's security."
"We mourn his passing," he added in a statement.
Eitan was born on a kibbutz in British-ruled Palestine in November 1926.
He was nicknamed "Rafi the Stinker" after he fell into a sewer during a military operation prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
After his service in the elite Palmach arm of the paramilitary Haganah organisation, the forerunner of the Israeli army, he joined Mossad in the 1950s.
He rose to become the agency's operations chief, commanding the operation to snatch Eichmann in the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires and smuggle him to Israel.
The mastermind of the Nazis' so-called Final Solution, Eichmann was then tried and hanged.
- 'Born fighter' -
The ability of the security services to bring him to justice was a source of pride for the Jewish state, which President Reuven Rivlin called a momentous moment in Israel's history.
But in 2017, as Mossad declassified files on the failed hunt for Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, Eitan admitted that he missed at least two chances to catch him.
This combination of pictures created on March 23, 2019 shows a file photo taken on January 27, 2016 of former Israeli Mossad spy Rafi Eitan (L) and a file picture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann taken on December 12, 1961 / © AFP/File
"At the same time as we caught Eichmann, Mengele was living in Buenos Aires. We found his apartment and kept it under observation," he told Israeli public radio.
He said that Mossad chief, Issar Harel, wanted him to move against Mengele as well, but he argued against the plan.
"I didn't want to carry out two operations at the same time because we had one succesful operation in the bag, and in my experience if you try to carry out another one you put them both at risk," Eitan said.
He said that he waited until Eichmann was taken to Israel but by then the former Auschwitz chief medical officer known to prisoners as the "Angel of Death" had slipped away.
The Mossad picked up Mengele's trail again when he was spotted in Brazil late in 1962, Eitan added.
But Harel resigned soon after and his successors did not approve an operation against Mengele as they had other priorities around the world, Eitan said.
In the 1980s, Eitan's name came into the spotlight in a major crisis between Israel and key ally the United States.
He was the handler for Jonathan Pollard, a US marine analyst who handed thousands of top secret documents over to Israel between May 1984 and his arrest in November 1985.
Pollard served 30 years in a US prison. He was freed in November 2015 but given a five-year probation period during which he is barred from travelling.
The FBI had also issued an arrest warrant against Eitan, Pollard's handler.
In 2006, at the age of 79, he was elected to Israel's parliament as head of the Pensioners' Party and appointed minister for senior citizens.
"I had a heart operation a year ago, I can't see anything and I can't hear anything, but I run every morning, I sculpt and my wife says I'm doing well," Eitan said on becoming a lawmaker.
Rivlin said in a statement Saturday evening that Eitan "was a born fighter who stuck to his mission and to what he knew to be right".
"Our heads are bowed today in his memory," he said.