Amit was one of the legendary figures in Mossad, which has spent a lot of time cultivating its legend. In his day of course the head of Mossad was never identified publicly during his tenure; it was a far cry from today, when Mossad has not only a website, but an English language webpage of its own with a message from Director Meir Dagan, complete with a picture. "M" would never approve. (Of course the real model for James Bond's "M", the SIS' "C," is also now a public figure. At least he has an appropriate James Bond name, Sir John McLeod Scarlett.) The Mossad chief was colloquially known as the meimouneh, roughly, the "responsible one" or "boss".
Amit was head of Military Intelligence when he was named head of Mossad in 1963; for a while he held both jobs at the same time, an unprecedented and unrepeated factoid. He succeeded the famous Isser Harel, who ran Mossad from 1952 until 1963 and was best known for the Eichmann capture, among other things. Amit, most notably, was the head of Mossad during the 1967 war.
Both linked Israeli obits note that some of his services to Israel are still classified. They do note that he ran Eli Cohen, a famous Israeli spy in Syria ultimately hanged by the Syrians. He also arranged the defection of an Iraqi Christian pilot to Israel, bringing his then-unseen-in-the west MiG-21 Fishbed to Israel intact.
Specifics aside, Amit has a reputation as a man who worked up a significant human intelligence (HUMINT) capability in the Arab world, providing the information needed for the pre-emptive strike of June 5, 1967, which destroyed the Arab Air Forces. At least some of his HUMINT network presumably were never identified, and he may have been behind the recruitments of many senior persons who long remained in senior positions in the Arab world. As is perhaps appropriate in an obituary of a spy chief, it's hard to know for sure. (If, as some have claimed, Nasser's son-in-law Ashraf Marwan was the source for tipping off Israel about the 1973 war, one wonders if he was recruited in Amit's day. But the Marwan story is more muddled than anything John Le Carré ever come up with: the Wikipedia entry is a reasonable recapitulation of all the claims and counterclaims. And there's an odd note about his 2007 death, falling from the balcony of his London apartment:
One witness, who was on the third floor of a nearby building, told police that he saw two men "wearing suits and of Mediterranean appearance" appear on the balcony moments after Marwan's fall, look down, and then return inside the apartment. Police are also reported to have lost Marwan's shoes, which could hold clues on whether or not Marwan himself jumped from the balcony.(Moral: If you're an Egyptian with vaguely spooky ties, stay off London balconies.)
Marwan is the fourth Egyptian of note to die in London in a similar way. The others, all of whom were involved in Egyptian politics between 1966 and 1971, are: Suad Hosni, the actress; Al-Leithy Nassif, the Egyptian ambassador to Britain; and Ali Shafeek, secretary in the office of former Egyptian Vice President Abdel Hakim Amer.
Meir Amit may never have had anything to do with Ashraf Marwan, who may have had no connection with Israel and in the 1980s ran Egypt's defense industry. But Amit moved comfortably in the shadowy world of deep-cover agents in Arab countries, and reportedly had highly placed agents in several Arab capitals. After Harel himself, he is probably more responsible than any later Mossad chief for the high (perhaps overblown) reputation the agency has long enjoyed, not least in the Arab world, where it is seen as the prime mover behind everything.
It's always hard to know what to say when somebody whose accomplishments are still classified passes away. A certain throat clearing and a note that somebody once quite important for reasons that may not be fully known for decades has passed on, may be the best response.
By the way: in earlier obituary for Nabawi Isma‘il I noted that:
So far, by the way, the label "obituaries" on this blog brings up only Ja‘far Numeiri and Nabawi Isma‘il. I hope eventually to find someone I can say unreservedly good things about, but not this time.Since that time, my "obituaries" label have been for posts about Robert S. McNamara and now, Meir Amit. Maybe you just don't get a name in the Middle East if there's nothing ambiguous about your career, but I keep hoping.
UPDATE: See Following Post on Walter Cronkite. I hope I didn't jinx him. (Oh: good. He died before I posted this.)