Israel’s legendary spy

The true story of Eli Cohen, the Israeli agent hanged in Syria.

Israeli master spy Eli Cohen in Syria, wearing a watch recovered by the Mossad (photo credit: GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE)
Israeli master spy Eli Cohen in Syria, wearing a watch recovered by the Mossad
Despite the deterioration of the Israeli image and its standing among Western nations, it seems that the world is not tired of Israeli spies.
The recent barrage of films and series about the plots, bravery but also failures of Israel’s intelligence community is a reminder of the subject’s draw, of which this Netflix six-episode series of “The Spy” recently released is just one example.
It tells the story of Eli Cohen, who was sent in 1962 as a spy (a “combatant,” in Mossad jargon) by Unit 188 of Aman (Hebrew acronym for military intelligence) to infiltrate Syria. Later, the unit was transferred to the Mossad and changed its name to Masada, and more recently Caesarea.
The series, which stars British Jewish actor Sacha Baron-Cohen as Eli Cohen, provides mainly the Israeli version of the affair and ignores the Syrian account. It is also filled with factual errors.
Eliyahu (Eli) Cohen was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1924. His father, Shaul, emigrated from Syria to Egypt when Eli was seven. He studied engineering and was a member of the local Zionist movement. He played a very marginal insignificant role in the ill-fated Israeli espionage network that was smashed by the Egyptian authorities in 1954. He, like the others, was arrested, but the police found no evidence against him so he was freed.
Cohen stayed in Egypt until just after the 1956 Suez (Sinai) war, and then moved to Israel. Being fluent in Arabic, French and Hebrew, he was hired as a translator for military intelligence. Yet he declined offers to be transferred to Unit 188.
The intelligence community let Cohen go on with his life – which included his wife, Nadia (sister of writer Sami Michael), children, and his comfortable and safe desk job – until border tensions with Syria erupted in May 1960.
Now the espionage team at Unit 188 urgently required a spy in Damascus, and had an ambitious plan for preparing and planting an undercover Israeli combatant there. Cohen was the man for the job. At the beginning he continued to refuse their repeated requests but eventually accepted the offer.
Even with a sense of immediate need, his training took over half a year. A small but significant part was a vigorous course in Koran studies in Israel so as to be conversant with “fellow Muslims” when he got to Syria.
In February 1961 he arrived in the “base” country, Argentina, carrying the passport of a European country. It bore what was, for him, a temporary name.
Three and a half months later, a Unit 188 courier arrived in Buenos Aires and handed Eli Cohen his new identity as Kamel Amin Taabeth, a Syrian businessman born in Lebanon. Taabeth had been invented by Aman, and his avatar as a rich man would make this a high-budget operation for Israel’s frugal military.
For a few months Cohen blended in with the many Arab entrepreneurs in South America, and he was dazzlingly successful at meeting rich and influential members of the Syrian community there.
In January 1962, he was ready to move to the “target” country. He arrived in Beirut, and then took a two-hour taxi ride across the border into Syria, with a sophisticated, high-speed radio transmitter hidden in his luggage. Cohen/Taabeth was also carrying genuine letters of introduction, penned by Syrians in South America.
In Damascus, he instantly became the fascinating new man in town, having been recommended by everyone who was anyone in Buenos Aires. The series shows that one of his acquaintances in Argentina was the Syrian military attaché Major Amin al-Hafez, who became the president of Syria. Prominent Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi rejected this claim, in a piece he wrote earlier this month, in the Asharq Al Awasat newspaper.
While running an import-export business, Cohen/Taabeth cultivated his political contacts. He arranged lavish parties at his home, with pretty women – some of them paid to be intimately entertaining for his powerful new friends. This was expensive. The Israeli spy had to have plenty of cash, as well as nerves of steel. But it paid off.
He was invited to military facilities, and he drove with army officers all along Syria’s Golan Heights, looking down at the vulnerable farms and roadways of Israel below. Cohen made a point, of course, of memorizing the location of all the Syrian bunkers and artillery pieces. He was able to describe troop deployments along the border in detail, and he focused on the tank traps that could prevent Israeli forces from climbing the heights if war were to break out. He also furnished a list of some of the Syrian pilots and accurate sketches of the weapons mounted on their warplanes.
He sent the data to Tel Aviv by tapping Morse code dots and dashes on his telegraph key, covering all areas of life in Syria. Israeli intelligence was able to get a good picture of an enemy country that had seemed impenetrable.
Ironically, one of the communications officers who handled the coded messages to and from Damascus was Cohen’s own brother Maurice. Each brother did not know that the other was working for Israeli intelligence. Eli had told Maurice that he was traveling abroad procuring goods for the Defense Ministry. But Eli, also always pining for his family, had taken to sending them greetings, and making some references to his family concealed in his Morse messages, without revealing where he was.
Eventually Maurice found out that the messages he was deciphering came from his brother in Damascus. During one of Eli’s visits he smilingly hinted that he knows what the work of his brother is. Eli was furious and complained to his handlers. Maurice was removed from his unit.
If Cohen and his Israeli controllers had only been more cautious, his chances of survival would have been higher. In November 1964 he was on leave in Israel, obviously shedding his Taabeth identity and trying to be a normal husband and father at home, awaiting the birth of his third child.
Cohen kept extending his leave and hinted that after nearly four years abroad, he might want to come in from the cold. He mentioned that he felt danger from Col. Ahmed Suedani, head of the intelligence branch of the Syrian army.
Unfortunately, Cohen’s case officers did not pay attention to the warning signs. They were too focused on preparing for conflict, because there was another bout of tension on the border. One could not be certain, but war seemed to be on the horizon. It was vital to have reliable intelligence from Damascus, and the Mossad applied pressure on Cohen to return to his espionage post as soon as possible.
In 2015, then-Mossad head Tamir Pardo told Nadia that it was wrong to send Eli back to continue his mission in Syria.
Upon returning to Damascus, Cohen forgot the rules of prudence. His broadcasts became more frequent, and in the space of five weeks he sent 31 radio transmissions. His case officers in Tel Aviv should have restrained him, but none did. The material he was sending was just too good to stop.
Even today 54 years later, Pardo admits that it is not clear what led the Syrian security services to expose Eli. There are a few explanations but all of them have never been fully verified.
One is that Colonel Suedani’s intelligence men – apparently guided by radio direction-finding equipment, most likely operated by Soviet advisers – broke into Cohen’s apartment on January 18, 1965, and caught him redhanded, tapping his telegraph key in the middle of a transmission.
Another speculation is that a piece of political gossip about Syrian politics transmitted by Cohen was given in haste to the Voice of Israel radio station and broadcast in Arabic, before it was officially announced by Damascus radio.
A third theory is that Syrian intelligence was shadowing a Syrian citizen who was suspected of working for the CIA. Cohen incidentally met him and became a suspect too.
Another clue as to why he was caught came from another spy. Masoud Buton was planted by Aman inside Lebanon from 1958 to 1962, when he quit over a financial dispute with Mossad headquarters and moved to France.
In his memoirs, Buton wrote that during his mission he was ordered to procure identity documents for a “Lebanese-born businessman of Syrian extraction.” Buton managed to do that and sent the papers of Kamel Taabeth to Unit 188. Later Buton sent a warning that the documentation might be compromised in some way. His warning was ignored. Meir Amit, the Mossad’s chief during the Cohen affair, strongly rejected Buton’s claim.
After his arrest the State of Israel immediately went into action, hoping against hope to get Eli Cohen out of Syria – or, at least, to keep him alive. The Mossad quietly hired a prominent French lawyer, who arranged official appeals to European governments and to the pope.
Syria turned a deaf ear. A court in Damascus sentenced Cohen to death, and he was hanged in a public square, to the cheers of a large crowd, on May 18, 1965. The Syrians did allow the spy to send a final written message to his family.
“I am writing to you these last words, a few minutes before my end,” he wrote. “I request you, dear Nadia, to pardon me and take care of yourself and our children. Don’t deprive them or yourself of anything. You can get remarried, in order not to deprive the children of a father.” Nadia never remarried.
Being the first and only Israeli Jew who was sent as a combatant to an enemy country and executed, Cohen has been mythologized as a super spy, whose information helped Israel to defeat the Syrian army and capture the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War. Because there is a Hebrew phrase to speak kindly of the dead, no one has dared to seriously analyze Cohen’s real contribution to the 1967 war.
True, Cohen was a courageous hero and paid with his life for serving the Jewish state. But former intelligence officers also admit that Cohen’s data was only one piece of the puzzle. No less important intelligence was gathered from other sources, such as bugging Syrian telephone poles and from reconnaissance flights.
To this day, Cohen’s family – while accusing the Mossad of mistakes which led to his downfall – has also waged a public campaign for Syria to return his body for burial in Israel. The Israeli government brought up the subject through third-party envoys.
A year ago, the Mossad found the expensive watch Cohen had worn to establish his cover story and credentials as a wealthy trader.
But Bashar Assad’s dictatorship may well have been sincere in declaring privately that no one in Syria knew where Cohen was buried.
Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies against Armagaeddon and co-creator of the Netflix documentary series “Inside the Mossad.” He tweets @ yossi _melman