COVER

Confessions over cups of lemon tea

ROBERT MILLER May 7 1984
COVER

Confessions over cups of lemon tea

ROBERT MILLER May 7 1984

Confessions over cups of lemon tea

COVER

It was a cold and bleak Good Friday, and the self-proclaimed assassin was watching both his weight and his back. During a bizarre five-hour interview—the first of two cautious meetings that he arranged with Maclean's—the man known only as “Avner” merely picked at his luncheon of fruit salad while he talked about killing people for Israel and living on the run. He had two compelling reasons to be watchful: the slight hint of a double chin and the strong suspicion that dangerous people wanted to see him dead.

But Avner, a careful though far from prudent man, had agreed to undertake a hazardous mission: he was promoting a book, and his story was genuinely explosive—a tale of bombs, hand guns, terrorists, assassination squads and powerful politicians— the stuff, in fact, of spy novels. Still, he insisted that the version of his story, written by Toronto author-radio producer George Jonas and to be published this week as Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, was truth, not fiction. Either way, Avner agreed, he was living very dangerously indeed. All he could do to protect himself and his family against possible reprisals from either avenging Palestinians or angry Israelis was to try to minimize the risks that the book mission entailed.

The first meeting with Maclean's, on April 20, flowed out of a meeting with Jonas in the fashionable Courtyard Café in Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel, a favorite haunt of Jonas’s, and a place where at least some of the well-heeled patrons would assume that the spy novelist’s word “tradecraft” referred to a yacht exchange. Jonas, over coffee, suggested a brief stroll and he led a reporter down St. Thomas Street and along Charles Street West. The weather was blustery, overcast. There were no shadows. A black-and-white Metro Cab (plate no. 2378) cruised by, its roof light

off. Jonas hailed it and joined the reporter in the back seat. The driver headed toward Avenue Road, where he swung right. Following Jonas’s directions, the driver made his way north, taking an irregular route and occasionally running an orange light. The driver’s eyes constantly checked the rearview mirror. Finally, the cab pulled

into the parking lot of the suburban Prince Hotel. The driver swung around and held out his hand. “Hi,” he said, smiling. “I’m Avner.”

Avner led the way into the hotel and selected a table in the open-plan coffee shop off the lobby. He took a chair with its back to the pillar and seemed to relax. Jonas stayed only long enough to explain, “Avner wanted to check you [the reporter] out, and to make sure no one was following.” Jonas did not seem embarrassed by the precautions; neither did Avner. With lunch and lemon tea ordered, the man who claims he led a five-man hit team through Europe from September, 1972, until late

1975 in the course of a top-secret mission ordered by the Israeli government leaned back and volunteered to answer questions.

But he refused to allow his voice to be taped, to divulge his true identity, to reveal where he lives or to say how he earned his living. He conceded that large sections of his story—and of Jonas’s book—were impossible to prove. “I have told the truth; if you don’t believe me, don’t buy the book,” he declared. He predicted that Israeli officials would dismiss his story as sheer fabrication: “Of course they will deny it; they think of this book as treason.” And he rejected the suggestion that his principal motive in telling and selling his story was financial: “There are easier and safer ways to make money.”

Avner said that he is 38, that he served as a junior officer in an Israeli combat unit, fought in the Six Day War of 1967 and became an agent in Mossad (the Israeli secret service) in 1969. He is a stocky but fit-looking man who is rapidly losing his hair. He said that he has made no attempt to alter his appearance. And he claims to be less worried about his alleged former colleagues in Mossad than he is about Palestinians who may seek vengeance of their own for the dozen killings in which Avner claims to have been involved. “If they come looking, then I will have a problem,” said Avner. “I already have contingency plans, but how long I would keep running I don’t know. My gamble on my security is this: to find me, they will have to ask a lot of questions, and I have friends who will know they are asking and will tell me.”

Avner insists that he is a patriotic Israeli and that his feud with Mossad is restricted to “four or five of the big bosses, not the organization.” He undertook the book, he says, “to make the people of Israel open their eyes, to make them see that Mossad is not per-

feet, that there are problems.” One of the book’s contentions: that after Avner’s alleged mission was terminated, his pay—roughly $100,000—was recovered by Mossad from the Union de Banques Suisses in Geneva and used as a carrot to lure him back to work as a Mossad agent. He refused, he says, “and they cheated me out of my money.” But Avner added: “If they [Mossad] came to me today and said I had to do something for Israel, I would do it. Not for those who are in charge of the organization. But for the country.”

Avner also commented on:

•The ethics of his alleged mission: “I did not kill people. I eliminated terrorists. I didn’t want to know if they had wives, children, parents.

I just needed a name and an address. I was brought up to believe that they were the bad guys and we were the good guys. They made war on women and children. I believed I was doing a great service for my country. I believed then and I believe today that what I have done is right.”

•His legal position as a self-proclaimed killer who operated in such countries as Cyprus,

Greece, Italy, France and the Netherlands: “I have consulted with some lawyers, including Eddie Greenspan [a prominent Toronto criminal lawyer and a close personal friend of Jonas’s], and I took some advice about extradition.

But I took a look at how long it takes to extradite even Nazis—Klaus Barbie, for example—and I decided it takes years. I do not think I am so important that the French government or someone would spend millions of dollars to get me back.” (Greenspan later confirmed having talked with Avner, but he claimed that the conversation was privileged and refused further comment. Jonas said that he had also consulted Greenspan—on the question of whether having material knowledge of matters still under investigation in foreign countries placed him in jeopardy—before finally deciding to go ahead with the book.) •The effectiveness of the mission he claimed to have performed: “I think maybe we slowed down the terrorists a bit. We made them see that they were at risk too. But we didn’t stop it. Obvious-

ly. Terrorism still goes on every day.” •The team he claims to have led: “It’s amazing how brilliantly Mossad put it together. The five of us got along very well. Five Jews, living together all that time, and we didn’t even have one serious fight. The Mossad [leaders] knew us so well. They knew we were not going to take their money. And they knew we were going to play by their rules. But they didn’t know that we were going to break down under stress. They did not

understand____In a way, they created a

monster. We were running around Europe, out of control.”

•The amount of money he hopes to

make from the book: “I will be very, very disappointed if I make less than $100,000, because I would hate them [Mossad] to be able to say, ‘See, shmuck? You didn’t even get your money back.’ ”

Having returned the taxi to its owner, Jonas reappeared in the hotel coffee shop, wearing a black leather motorcycle outfit and carrying a crash helmet. Avner, who wore a brown sports jacket, white-on-white shirt and brown slacks, declared the interview to be over, but promised to be available for a second meeting. He finished the last of his third pot of tea, stood, shook hands and strolled toward the lobby, the front

door, and the cold again—alone.

Avner’s second meeting with Maclean’s, on April 24, was also unusual. The day before, Jonas had forwarded a message from Avner instructing the reporter to fly to New York the next morning. When passengers aboard American Airlines flight 121 disembarked at La Guardia Airport, Avner— now wearing a trench coat and carrying an attaché case—was waiting at the gate. The interview itself was conducted in an airport coffee shop—a secure and impersonal location for law-abiding citizens but, according to Jonas’s book (and countless thrillers), a high-risk zone for spies on clandestine operations.

In Vengeance, Avner is reported to have spent a great deal of his early Mossad career on airport surveillance and antihijacking missions. But he seemed quite at ease at La Guardia. “I have some people around,” he said, sipping his lemon tea. “This is much more secure than a hotel room. You can get out of here in a hurry. You’re not trapped.”

In the second interview Avner elaborated on, or simply repeated, his answers to earlier questions, and he attempted to clarify a number of points about the book, his activities and his immediate plans. “Just before the book is published,” he said, “I am taking my wife and ^ kids away for a while. A I change of scenery. I have a safe place.” But once 5 again he promised Macjjj lean’s to make himself 5 available—by tele5 phone—before the magazine went to press. He kept his word.

For a man on the run, Avner seemed remarkably accommodating to the requirements of the news media (earlier, he had granted an interview in Frankfurt to Ian Walker, deputy editor of London’s The Mail on Sunday, and in Rome to Claire Sterling, a veteran journalist and author of The Terror Network, published in 1981). But Avner continued to be cautious, evidently preferring to be a moving target rather than a sitting duck. The day after Maclean’s flew from Toronto to New York, Avner granted an interview to reporter Philip Taubman of The New York Times. They met in Toronto.

ROBERT MILLER