Eli Cohen, the spy who was larger than life

Many of the mysteries surrounding the super-spy have been revealed over the years, others we might never learn, but Cohen’s courage and fate have returned to public consciousness lately.

eli cohen vb (photo credit: Courtesy)
eli cohen vb
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Everybody has secrets, but Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy hanged in Damascus in May 1965, had more secrets than most. Some he literally took to his grave. Tragically, his burial place in Syria is among the unknown. Many of the mysteries surrounding the super-spy have been revealed over the years, others we might never learn, but Cohen’s courage and fate have returned to public consciousness lately.
The story of the agent’s life, capture and execution were the subject of a Netflix series last year starring Sacha Baron Cohen. While the poetic license taken in The Spy upset his family, the dramatization did at least attract broad international attention to the affair.
I devoured the Netflix version of Cohen’s life, which managed to maintain tension throughout despite the fact that viewers knew there would be no happy ending. His wife, Nadia, would be left a widow with three very young children.
This week, KAN 11 began broadcasting a documentary series “Lochem 566,” (Fighter 566, Cohen’s Mossad codename). Again, I found myself riveted to the screen as I watched the first of three episodes on Sunday. This was Cohen’s story told – to a large extent – in his own words. The production team, led Itai Landsberg, a veteran Israeli documentary maker, based a lot of their research and footage on the actual court records of his trial in Damascus, which they found in an IDF archive. It is chilling, but compelling to see and hear Cohen answering the judge’s questions, providing his story in first person.
The best-known of Eli Cohen’s exploits was that the spy persuaded the Syrian army to plant eucalyptus trees on its bases on the Golan Heights which gave Israel their precise locations when the Six Day War broke out in 1967. Landsberg told Yisrael Hashavua’s Ariel Bulshtein that they were not able to confirm this particular widespread belief. But even without it, Cohen’s achievements acting in the guise of flamboyant businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet were incredible.
During a short period getting into his cover story in Argentina, the Egyptian-born Cohen already made connections that would help him reach the top echelons of Syrian society and the Baath Party, including Amin al-Hafez, who would later become Syria’s head of state. By the time of his capture, the Israeli Jewish spy had himself been suggested as a future Syrian president.
He exposed Syria’s plans to divert tributaries to the Jordan River, which would have cut off Israel’s water supply and he revealed detailed plans and methods of attack on communities in northern Israel. Prime minister Levi Eshkol said: “Eli Cohen’s acts and the information that he gathered before the Six Day War were intelligence worth their weight in pure gold...”
Watching the two series about Cohen’s deeds, it is clearer than ever that it is strategically essential that Israel maintain control of the Golan Heights, from where Syrian snipers picked off Israeli farmers in their fields, killed fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and helped Palestinian attacks on northern communities.
It is hard to estimate how much damage Cohen was able to prevent, but his activities demonstrate that, even today in the technological age, HUMINT – Human Intelligence – has a role to play. In a twist of fate, or a failing, one of his own brothers, Maurice, recruited separately to Israeli intelligence, found himself receiving Agent 566’s morse transmissions from Damascus and figured out Eli Cohen’s true identity. There are many theories concerning Cohen’s capture.
Writing in The Jerusalem Report last year, espionage expert Yossi Melman noted speculation that Syrian intelligence was able to hone in on his transmissions; that the Mossad ignored a warning that his cover was compromised; that he came under suspicion when he came into contact with a CIA agent who was being followed; or that a piece of political gossip transmitted by Cohen was broadcast by the Voice of Israel radio station before it had been announced by Damascus radio.
It’s the nature of the intelligence game that its achievements remain hidden while its blunders become known. Part of the phenomenal success of the Mossad is based on the actions of unsung heroes and heroines whose names and faces remain hidden. But there’s no doubt that their work – from the capture of arch-Nazi Adolf Eichmann in 1960 to the incredible heist of the Iranian nuclear archives from a warehouse in Tehran in 2018 – have contributed to creating a deterrent factor and making the world a safer place.
THIS WEEK, a senior defense official said that for the first time since Iran entered Syria with thousands of troops and militia fighters, the Islamic Republic is reducing its forces there. Israel has frequently warned of Iran’s dangerous nuclear plans as well as its aspirations of regional dominance.
“Syria has been paying a rising price for the Iranian presence in its territory, for a war that isn’t its own. Iran has gone from being an asset to a liability for Syria. Israel will ramp up the pressure on Iran until its departure from Syria,” the official said, as The Jerusalem Post’s Anna Ahronheim and others reported.
In the last two weeks, several attacks on Iranian targets in Syria have been attributed to Israel, including on May 4, a strike on the Scientific Studies and Research Center near Aleppo, which is allegedly used by the military industry for advanced weapons systems and missile production. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said this week, “We are determined – more determined – and I will tell you why. For Iran, Syria is an adventure 1,000 miles from home – but for us, [protecting ourselves from] it is life... We will not give up or allow the establishment of a forward Iranian base in Syria.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long boasted of Israel’s progress due to its two-pronged approach advancing technology and fighting terrorism. It’s a winning combination. Countries formerly complacent about the terrorism Israel had to deal with have since learned from painful experience that Sunni jihadists like ISIS and Shi’ite extremists like Iranian-backed Hezbollah have spread their tentacles of terrorism around the globe.
When Germany last week took the welcome decision to declare all Hezbollah a terrorist organization – instead of absurdly pretending there was a difference between its “political” and “military” wings – it was influenced by intelligence provided by the Mossad of Hezbollah activities on German soil, Channel 12 reported on May 2.
There have been reports that Israel has helped thwart or solve cases of terrorism in places ranging from Australia to Africa, and in several European countries, including Denmark, Turkey, the Netherlands, France and Sweden.
There’s a growing acknowledgment that Israel is part of the solution, not the problem.
In 2018, Israel managed to retrieve the fancy watch Cohen had worn in his role of wealthy businessman. Last year, with Russian help, Israel was able to bring back for burial in Jerusalem the remains of IDF soldier Zachary Baumel, who fell in the First Lebanon War in June 1982 and had been interred in Syria. Both the watch and Baumel’s return are signs that Israel does not give up on its missing fighters, even after decades.
It is probably small comfort to the families of Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, whose bodies are still being held by Hamas in Gaza, or to the relatives of other MIAs from Israel’s wars, but it seems, behind the scenes, the government is working to try to eventually grant these families closure.
For more than half a century, Eli Cohen has been known as “Our Man in Damascus.” It’s time he was brought home to rest in Israel.