YESHAYAHU Shaike Dan was no stranger to Romanian officials at Otopeni International Airport. He regularly received VIP treatment there, passing quickly through passport control formalities and to a black limousine, a large attache case clutched in his hand. Dan's case contained hundreds of thousands -- sometimes millions -- of dollars in cash.

Dan was no ordinary courier. A veteran of the Israeli intelligence community and officially a civil servant, Dan was the secret special envoy of the Israeli government to Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. His mission could be defined simply: buying Jews.

Israel regards itself as the national home of the Jewish people and the natural destination of every Jew. This has been cardinal to Zionism since its inception. Behind the doctrine, however, lies a degree of self-interest. As a state surrounded by far more numerous Arabs, Israel needs immigrants and feels an obligation to help Jews wherever they are in peril. As this task often must be clandestine, it has been assigned to the intelligence community.

In the late 1940s, this mission was accomplished by ha-Mossad le-Aliyah Bet -- the "Institute for Alternative Immigration," a huge network focusing on the global conveyance of Israel's most important asset: people. In the black markets of Europe and the Middle East, Israel's unique secret agents bribed policemen, port authorities and government functionaries. Iraqi Prime Minister Tewfiq Sawidi was paid through his travel agency to allow 120,000 Jews to go to Israel between 1950 and 1952. Good contacts were established with communist cabinet ministers in Eastern Europe. In return for Jewish emigration from Poland and Czechoslovakia, Israel bought Czechoslovak arms and Polish machine tools. But in Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania, Israel was forced to pay pure ransom. The price for a Bulgarian Jew ranged between $50 and $350. Hungary had the nerve to demand $1,000 a head, and got it. "The Romanians also demanded their share," noted a senior Israeli government official in a document in the state archives in Jerusalem. The Romanians were paid $100 per Jewish soul, and up until 1952 they allowed 300,000 Jews to emigrate.

Such massive immigration stopped in 1952. In Iraq and Yemen, there simply were no more Jews. Pre-Ceausescu Romania and the other communist countries imposed strict, Stalinist emigration bans. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Dan Raviv is a London-based CBS News correspondent. Their book on Israeli intelligence, "Every Spy a Prince," will be published in the spring by Houghton Mifflin. a shake-up of Israel's intelligence community, dissolving Aliyah Bet and putting the newly formed Mossad in charge of "underground activities in order to make contact with Jews and bring them to Israel," in the words of a special memo in the archives.

Israel's relations with the Soviet bloc deteriorated as the Jewish state increasingly adopted a pro-Western foreign policy. The Israelis feared that anti-Semitism would grow, especially in the Soviet Union where there were millions of Jews. There was a need for a special and secret agency to deal with the problem.

Shaul Avigur, the former head of Aliyah Bet, set up a new unit to focus on Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe. Those few who knew about his organization called it simply "the Liaison Bureau"; the KGB and the other communist security services considered Avigur's people to be spies. One of the most senior among them was Shaike Dan, the bagman in Romania.

Originally named Yeshayahu Trachtenberg, Dan joined the British army in World War II and parachuted with other young Palestinian Jews behind Nazi lines in the Balkans. He was one of the few survivors and returned to the newborn Israel, joining Avigur's team to buy Jews and weapons from Eastern Europe.

Dan's activities made him a Soviet bloc target, but it was an American who paid the price. On Aug. 20, 1967, the body of Charles Jordan, an official of a Jewish welfare organization, was dragged out of Prague's Vlatava River. The Czechoslovak authorities said Jordan must have fallen into the water and might even have committed suicide. But Israeli intelligence concluded that Jordan was murdered by communist agents who thought he was Shaike Dan.

Undeterred, Dan continued to operate in Eastern Europe and won Ceausescu's agreement to resume the exodus of Romanian Jewry. Ceausescu had already decided, as part of his stubborn independence from Moscow, to make Romania the only Warsaw Pact nation not to break diplomatic relations with Israel after the Six Day War of 1967. Of 150,000 Jews then in Romania, more than 120,000 were permitted to move to Israel over the next 22 years. They became Israel's second largest ethnic community, outnumbered only by the Moroccans.

In return, Ceausescu received cash from Dan. The Israeli agent paid according to the emigrants' professional skills. Doctors and engineers were the most expensive. It is estimated that Israel paid around $60 million in cash to the Romanians, at least half of which is believed to have gone to Ceausescu, his wife and children.

Paying a price in other ways, Israeli technicians serviced the Romanian army's Soviet-made tanks while Israel Aircraft Industries helped the Romanian dictator fulfill his megalomaniacal dream of developing an independent industry. Israel also agreed to import far more Romanian goods than it really needed. "There is a limit to how much prune jam we can use," joked a senior Israeli official. Israeli banks provided credit lines, and the Israeli government exerted its influence on Washington to endorse Romania's request for most-favored-nation trading status with the United States. The only condition set by Ceausescu was that these arrangements be kept secret. This was not simply to protect his friendships with sister communist states or the Arab countries. Ceausescu feared that other minorities, especially people of Hungarian and German origins, would press similar emigration demands. In the mid-1970s, however, he clinched a similar deal with the West German government and probably increased his bank balance accordingly. Gen. Ion Pacepa, deputy head of Romanian intelligence, revealed after defecting to the United States in 1978 that "President Ceausescu used to joke that his best export goods are Jews and Germans."

Israel even appears to have neglected its own security concerns. Ceausescu had strong links with such enemies of Zionism as Libya's Moammar Gadhafi, Syria's Hafez al-Assad, and Yasser Arafat. Ceausescu trained their cadets, provided Romanian passports to Arab guerrillas and even allowed Abu Nidal's renegade anti-Arafat terrorist gang to establish a base in Bucharest.

Yet from time to time Israel benefited from even these arrangements. Like a bazaar trader, Ceausescu sold the Israelis secrets and information involving his Arab friends. He also had a role in sensitive deal-making, including the groundwork which led to the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and efforts to free Israeli prisoners and hostages held in Lebanon.

After Ceausescu and his wife were executed, some Israeli politicians claimed that only after reading Ion Pacepa's book did they realize what a terrible tyrant Ceausescu had been. But Jerusalem did not need the defector's revelations to know what was happening; Dan, among others, had told them. "We knew that people were disappearing in the middle of the night," admitted Zvi Brosh, a former Israeli ambassador to Romania, "but our main concern was immigration and that dictated our priorities."

Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Dan Raviv is a London-based CBS News correspondent. Their book on Israeli intelligence, "Every Spy a Prince," will be published in the spring by Houghton Mifflin.