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Zvi Zamir, Israeli spy chief amid war and tragedy, dies at 98

Mr. Zamir directed Mossad operations against Palestinian militants after 11 Israeli Olympic team members were killed at the 1972 Games in Munich

Zvi Zamir speaks at a memorial service marking 21 years since the assassination of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, held in Jerusalem in November 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
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Zvi Zamir, an Israeli spymaster who watched in horror in 1972 as the hostage-taking of Israeli Olympic team members by Palestinian militants at the Munich Games ended in a deadly firefight, and who then directed a covert campaign by Mossad agents to strike back at Palestinian terrorist networks, died Jan. 2 at 98.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the death but gave no other details.

In Israel, the meticulous and sharp-tongued Mr. Zamir became a target of the nation’s questions and grief after Munich as one of the first Mossad chiefs to face intense public inquiry. The following year, Mr. Zamir was embroiled in high-level rifts over whether a tip he received from an Arab informant could have better prepared Israel for the Yom Kippur war in October 1973.

Mr. Zamir was widely credited for maintaining discipline and focus within Mossad amid the fallout from Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed after Palestinian gunmen stormed the Olympic Village on Sept. 5, 1972.

Two Israelis were killed during the attack, and nine athletes and coaches were taken hostage in a standoff broadcast around the world. Nearly 20 hours after the raid, Mr. Zamir watched as West German snipers and Palestinians traded fire at an airfield, leaving all the captives dead as well as five of the militants from the Black September faction.

“To see this happen on German soil was a terrible sight,” said Mr. Zamir, who had taken over as Mossad’s chief in 1968 and served until 1974.

He mobilized a counterstrike on Palestinian targets, code-named “Wrath of God,” an operation that lasted more than a decade and was linked to the killing of more than a dozen suspected Palestinian militant leaders and others. Among them was the alleged mastermind of the Munich attack, Ali Hassan Salameh, who died in a bombing in Beirut in 1979.

Israel never publicly acknowledged any role in the deaths, but Mr. Zamir made clear that Mossad was in a more aggressive posture after Munich. “I am not saying that those who were involved in Munich were not marked for death,” Mr. Zamir told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “They definitely deserved to die. But we were not dealing with the past. We concentrated on the future.”

Mr. Zamir raced to Germany as the hostage standoff unfolded, but West German authorities denied his requests to have Israeli commandos help.

Negotiators eventually agreed to the Palestinians’ demands for helicopters to take them and the hostages about 15 miles to Fürstenfeldbruck military airfield, where they presumably would try to arrange a flight to a safe-haven Arab country.

“I saw a scene I’ll never forget for the rest of my life,” Mr. Zamir said in “Mossad: Secret Service of Israel,” a 2017 documentary series. “With their hands and feet tied to each other, the athletes trudged past me. Next to them, the Arabs. A deathly silence.”

The West Germans planned an ambush at the airfield. Mr. Zamir recalled that he was shocked that some of the West German sniper rifles were outdated and without telescopic scopes. “It broke my heart,” he said.

The snipers opened fire. Mr. Zamir watched from the airfield’s control tower. At one point during the chaos, his Arabic-speaking aide shouted to the Palestinians: “Stop firing! … The plane is ready for you!”

“Their reply was clear … They opened fire at us on the balcony,” he recalled.

Some of the hostages burned to death after a militant tossed a grenade into a helicopter while they were still aboard. Five of the eight captors were gunned down. The remaining three were captured — only to be released less than two months later after Palestinian militants hijacked a Lufthansa flight traveling from Damascus to Frankfurt. (Mr. Zamir called “Munich,” director Steven Spielberg’s account of the events, a “cowboy film” that lacked nuance.)

Mr. Zamir returned to the Olympic Village after the bloodshed. He called the prime minister, Golda Meir, at home. She had already seen a misfiled wire report saying all hostages were freed.

“Golda,” Mr. Zamir said, according to his Hebrew-language memoir “Eyes Wide Open” (2012). “I’m sorry to tell you but the athletes were not rescued. I saw them. Not one of them survived.”

Mr. Zamir’s tenure also led to internal rifts and investigations that reverberated for years.

In July 1973, Israeli agents operating under Mr. Zamir’s direction mistakenly killed a Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchikhi, in Lillehammer, Norway, believing in error that he was the Munich attack planner Salameh. Members of the Mossad team were captured, and five were convicted by a Norwegian court.

The agents were freed in 1975, but the damage ran deep. Europe’s relations with Israel were strained, and testimony revealed Mossad secrets including safe houses in France and elsewhere. Mr. Zamir submitted his resignation, but Meir demanded he stay on.

Meir’s faith in Mr. Zamir was soon put to the test again. Mr. Zamir’s top Arab informant — later identified as Ashraf Marwan, a son-in-law of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nassar — said Egypt and Syria were planning surprise attacks in October on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish religious calendar.

An earlier warning by Mr. Zamir had been proven wrong. In April 1973, Mr. Zamir’s informant said war was looming. The second tip from Mr. Zamir was only partially heeded.

Israeli forces were bolstered but not put on full war footing. “You can’t call up the whole system just because of a few messages from Zvicka,” scoffed Israeli’s defense minister, Moshe Dayan, using Mr. Zamir’s full first name, according to an account by Israeli political researcher Uri Bar-Joseph in his 2016 book on the informant Marwan, “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.”

Less than 10 hours later, Syrian tanks rolled into the Golan Heights, and Egyptian ground forces crossed the Suez Canal. Israel took early losses but eventually prevailed after nearly three weeks of fighting aided by rapid U.S. military aid.

“It burned [Mr. Zamir] up that he didn’t succeed in getting the Israeli government to try to counter the surprise attack by Egypt and Syria sooner,” Danny Yatom, who led Mossad in the 1990s, told Army Radio in Israel. The Agranat Commission, an Israeli panel that investigated the lead-up to the war, offered some vindication for Mr. Zamir by praising his informant tip.

“The greatest achievement of Mossad during my time in charge,” Mr. Zamir later said, “was to provide the warning about the looming war.”

Military life

Zvicka Zarzevsky was born in Lodz, Poland, on March 3, 1925. Before his first birthday, his family emigrated to what was then the British Mandate of Palestine. His father drove a horse-drawn wagon for an electric company; his mother was a homemaker.

He changed his last name, according to some accounts, because a teacher struggled to pronounce Zarzevsky. One of Mr. Zamir’s boyhood soccer playmates was future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

As a teenager, Mr. Zamir joined Palmach, a guerrilla-style force within Haganah, a clandestine Jewish paramilitary group. He took part in battles against Arabs in and around Jerusalem. He also served nearly a year in British custody for links to a network smuggling Jewish immigrants to the region.

In 1950 — two years after Israel’s statehood — Mr. Zamir was given command of a military brigade and, in 1953, was assigned for training at the Staff College in Camberley, England.

He rose through the military ranks, being given command of forces along in the Israel-Egypt border in the early 1960s. In July 1966, he was appointed Israel’s military attaché in London, a post he held during Israel’s 1967 war against allied Arab forces.

After leaving Mossad in 1974, he led a construction firm and served as the chairman of the Institute for Petroleum and Geophysics Research and the Israel Petroleum and Energy Institute. In 1995, he was part of the Shamgar Commission set up to investigate the assassination of Rabin.

Mr. Zamir’s wife, the former Rina Sadovsky, died in 2019. They had three children. Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.

Mr. Zamir remained intensely loyal to Meir until her death in 1978. When some Israeli commentators blamed her for Israel’s military missteps before the Yom Kippur War, Mr. Zamir often asserted that the guilt rested with Dayan and others.

During a visit to Mossad headquarters in July 1974, Meir joked that the strong-willed Mr. Zamir was easy to work with. “All that is needed,” she said, “is that you agree with everything he says.”