JERUSALEM -- On the last day of the celebrated 1984 libel trial of Israeli minister Ariel Sharon against Time magazine, a short, rather nondescript, elderly man leaned against the wall of the federal courthouse in New York, unnoticed by the spectators and reporters.

His name was Rafi Eitan, and he was an Israeli superspy, used to moving quietly and unobtrusively in the shadowy world of espionage. He was there to lend quiet support to his old friend, Sharon.

One year later, Eitan's name and photograph would be well known in the United States. The Justice Department would charge that he had been the mastermind of an Israeli spy operation in which an American Jew named Jonathan Pollard, who worked for U.S. Naval intelligence, was recruited to spy for Israel.

Who is Rafi Eitan? As he traveled last week through the Negev desert to visit the chemical factories that make up his present domain, Eitan offered a glimpse of the qualities that made him one of Israel's greatest spies ever. Dressed in blue jeans, sneakers and a blue cotton shirt, he appeared relaxed and calm on the eve of the harsh denunciations he expected -- and got -- from the two Israeli committees that were set up to investigate the Pollard affair.

To some Israelis like former foreign minister Abba Eban, who chaired a parliamentary investigation into the Pollard affair, Eitan is a man who led his country into a severe crisis with its most important ally, the United States. Other Israelis are critical not of Eitan, but of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres for returning to the Americans the papers Pollard had stolen -- and thereby ensuring Pollard's conviction. They argue that Eitan has been made a scapegoat.

Even Peres is said to have told the editorial board of one Israeli newspaper last year, according to a journalist who was there, that the trouble in the Pollard case wasn't the operation but getting caught.

What price has Eitan paid? So far, by American standards, the penalties have been relatively mild, and that's one measure of the different attitudes toward national security in the United States and Israel. Eitan is regarded, even by his critics, as an Israeli hero who deserves respect and, where possible, leniency.

Unlike Oliver North, Eitan doesn't have to worry about going to jail. His only concern is whether he might lose his job as head of Israel's large, state-owned chemical company, a job he was given last year when the intelligence unit he headed, Lekem, was disbanded after the Pollard affair. There doesn't seem to be much sentiment in Israel to depose Eitan from that position. The prevalent feeling appears to be that he has suffered enough by having been kicked out of the intelligence community.

"He's half-blind, and we're not going to put him on the streets," explains Eban. He adds, "The amount of condemnation is a pretty heavy burden."

Eitan's story is, in many ways, the story of modern Israel. His Russian-born parents were Zionists who moved to Israel in 1922 and joined a kibbutz, Ein Harod. Four years later, Rafi was born. When he was three, his parents moved to a village on the coastal plains.

One day his mother took him to a nearby village to see a film called "Fraulein Doctor." It was about a woman spy, and when Eitan went home, he told his mother, "I want to be a spy like Mata Hari."

First, he took a few other steps. At the age of 12 he joined the Haganah, the underground Jewish fighting force. As he recalls it, he and a couple of other children were taken into an orange grove and made to swear to be loyal to Zionism and to Israel. Eitan went on to join the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah. His first commander was Yitzhak Rabin, the former prime minister and present minister of defense.

As a Palmach member, Eitan worked to bring Jews to Palestine over the objections of the British. During late 1945 and 1946 he performed some daring exploits. He is particularly proud of one operation when he blew up a British radar station on Mount Carmel which was tracking ships bringing Jewish immigrants to Palestine. It was during this operation that he earned his nickname "Rafi the Stinker" because he had to swim through sewage to reach the radar station.

After World War II, the Haganah wanted to execute two or three important Germans in order to make clear to others who had been Nazi collaborators that they were not welcome in Palestine. Rafi, one of his friends recounts, "was chosen to execute one of them."

During the 1948 war of independence, Eitan claims to have taken part in 56 operations. He opened his shirt last week to show off a hole in his chest left over from a wound he suffered May 15, 1948, the day Ben Gurion declared Israel to be a state. By the time he rejoined his battalion a month later, his commander suggested that because of his severe wounds, he should join an intelligence unit. He thus embarked on the career that consumed the rest of his life.

At the end of the 1948 war, Eitan decided to leave the army and go into cattle farming. As his partner, he chose Uri Lubrani -- now Israel's leading expert on Iran and Lebanon, the man who predicted the fall of the shah long before it occurred. After spending six months on his farm in the Negev, Eitan was asked to rejoin army intelligence. He said he didn't want to rejoin the army but would join the secret service.

In 1949 or 1950, as Eitan recalls it, he first met Isser Harel, the legendary figure who created the Mossad. Harel suggested that Eitan join the Shin Bet, the Israeli version of the FBI. By the end of the '50s, he told me, "I became head of operations."

In May 1960 Eitan performed his most famous exploit, the capture of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal whom he seized in Argentina and brought to Israel to stand trial. In Argentina, Eitan and his team of agents, dressed up as El Al stewards, captured and held Eichmann in a safe house for 10 days.

When Eichmann was hanged, Eitan was present, and Eichmann's last words were addressed to Eitan: "I hope soon you will follow me."

Eitan remains the perfect spy, truly reluctant to talk about himself. He will only say that he stayed in the Shin Bet until 1963 "and I was involved in all operations of the {Shin Bet} and the Mossad at that time." In 1963, he joined the Mossad.

The intelligence deeds of "Rafi the Stinker" are legendary. In 1958, he discovered that Prime Minister David Ben Gurion's well-known aide, Lt. Col. Israel Beer, was a Soviet spy. He also caught at least half a dozen other Soviet spies in the second half of the '50s. Eitan also played a key role in eliminating German scientists whom the Israelis discovered at the beginning of the 1960s were producing ground-to-ground missiles for President Nasser in Egypt.

And Eitan himself says that in 1965, while in the Mossad, he established the first connection with Egypt and opened secret discussions with President Nasser on a peace plan.

Eitan stayed in the Mossad until 1972 when he was passed over for the top position. Many Israelis believe that his later activities at Lekem were designed to show his fellow intelligence officers what he could have done. In 1972, he says, "I decided to say bye-bye to the intelligence services, but . . . ."

In 1978, thanks to the urging of his good friend Sharon, Eitan was appointed by Prime Minister Begin to be his adviser on terrorism. In this capacity he planned and ran many operations against various terrorist organizations. During the Lebanese war, Eitan maintained and promoted contacts with the Shiites. "There wasn't a chance for a united Christian government in Lebanon," he argues now. "We should have worked with the Shia and the Druze. If we had helped Amal, then Hezbollah never would have come in."

Yet he defends the Lebanese war, saying: "Any Israeli government would have had to go into Lebanon. There was no other way to get rid of the PLO." A long-term solution to the Palestinian problem, he argues, will come in 25 years or so when the Palestinians rule Jordan. "Hussein is only temporarily a ruler," he says. When the Palestinians eventually take control of Jordan, "then we shall negotiate where the border shall go."

Forbidden to touch American shores, chastised by two Israeli committees, Eitan remains defiant. "I don't care," he said last week, standing in one of his chemical factories. Did he wish he had never heard of Pollard or the Pollard operation? "Of course I regret that it happened," he answers.

But he adds that he will survive the scandal because, as he puts it, "I am a part of Israeli life."

Lally Weymouth writes regularly about foreign affairs for The Washington Post.