The Handler

By Ella Florsheim, Avi Shilon

Forty years later, new revelations about Israel's most famous spy.

Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy executed by the Syrians forty years ago this past May, occupies a special place in the history of Israeli espionage. Both the importance of the information he provided to the Israeli army—information crucial to Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights in 1967—and his tragic end have made Cohen a national hero, his name emblazoned on Israeli street signs, public squares, and parks. Yet for all that is known about the master spy’s exploits—his penetration of the highest echelons of Syria’s military establishment, for example, and his charming of the Syrian presi­dent—the most intriguing question remains unanswered: Why did Eli Co­hen get caught? Does the blame for his capture fall to his Mossad handlers, or was it rather misplaced self-confidence that ultimately led to his arrest?
In the four decades since his ignoble hanging in Damascus’ Marjah Square, the tension surrounding the Cohen affair has yet to dissipate, particularly on the Syrian side. Cohen’s family and successive Israeli gov­ernments have pleaded for the return of his remains, only to be met with adamant rejection. Even when Syria engaged in peace talks with Israel, the request for the return of Cohen’s body as a gesture of goodwill was turned down. Apparently, Damascus is still smarting from the humiliation of Co­hen’s infiltration.
Israelis, for their part, have nearly resigned themselves to closing the book on this unresolved chapter in their history, accepting that the reasons for Cohen’s demise would never become public knowledge. But now one of his Mossad handlers, on condition of anonymity, has decided to speak his mind. At the urging of Meir Amit, head of the Mossad during the Cohen affair, “G.” agreed, for the first time, to divulge what he knows about Israel’s most famous spy. Shortly after Cohen’s execution, G. left his unit, and met with Cohen’s family several times in the ensuing months. The emotional weight of the affair, he says, has always lain heavily on him. Given the no­toriously tight-lipped nature of the Mossad, the exclusive interview Azure conducted with him was exceedingly uncommon. While G.’s testimony may not necessarily lay the Cohen controversy to rest, it does shed impor­tant new light on the man most Israelis know only as a legend.

Cohen was born in December 1924 in Alexandria, the second of eight children. After completing high school, he went on to study engineering. In October 1949, his family, ardent Zionists, moved to Israel, leaving Cohen behind in Egypt, ostensibly to continue his studies there. In 1954, when the Egyptians captured Moshe Marzouk and Shmuel Azar, members of an Israeli network operating in Egypt under the auspices of a mission known in English as Operation Susannah, Cohen was also ar­rested. Yet while Marzouk and Azar were convicted of treason and hanged, and several other Egyptian Jews arrested, interrogators accepted Cohen’s version of events, according to which he had rented a flat to Israeli activists unknowingly. What is certain, however, is that in the summer of 1955, he secretly visited Israel.
Cohen moved to Israel permanently in December 1956, after the Sinai campaign. At first, he had trouble acclimating. He found work as an ac­countant in a department store, but it afforded him little personal satisfac­tion. In the summer of 1959, he married Nadia Majald, an immigrant from Baghdad.
A year after his marriage, Israel’s intelligence services paid him an un­expected visit. Cohen was particularly qualified for surveillance: He was, after all, born in an Arab country, had Oriental features, and was deemed to be “intelligent, industrious, quick-witted, and reliable under pressure.” Soon he was sent to an intensive, six-month training course, where he first met G. “From the beginning,” recalls G., “Eli was designated to be what is now called an ‘Arab impersonator’ (mista’arev), someone who travels on a passport with an Arab name. He was also given training in the principles of Islam, Muslim prayer, etc.” The training for his assignment was stand­ard, insists G.—no longer or shorter than usual. His superiors held him in high regard for his courage, integrity, and intelligence. Nonetheless, G. makes it clear that Cohen was not sent to Syria with any great urgency, or for a specific task. His assignment was rather to infiltrate gradually into the Syrian power structure. In this task, he would surpass his handlers’ wildest dreams.
When he had completed his training, and in order to create a convincing cover as a Syrian bachelor who had inherited a large fortune, it was decided to send him to Argentina, home to a large and affluent Syrian community. On February 6, 1961, Cohen arrived in Buenos Aires under the name Kamel Amin Tabet. He quickly became proficient in Spanish and began to establish his connections with the local Syrian community: He opened an account in an Arab bank, sported the flashy clothes typical of a young Syr­ian bachelor, drove a luxury car, and began to turn up at the favorite haunts of the community’s elite. In a short time, Cohen managed to befriend Abd a-Latif el-Hashan, the Ba’athist-inclined editor of an Arabic-Spanish weekly, and Amin el-Hafez, Syria’s new military attaché in Argentina and the man destined to become president of Syria two years later. His stay in the Ar­gentinean capital was an immense success, and he returned to Israel nearly a year later for the High Holy Days, bade his young family farewell again, and prepared for his next assignment.
Before being sent to Syria, however, Cohen again traveled to Europe, where he met G. once again. While G. reports having been satisfied with Cohen’s condition, one conversation does stand out in his mind. “When we met,” he recalls, “he had brought along some of his equipment. I asked him, as usual, if everything was okay. He replied that it was. But I had a strange feeling about it, and so I persisted, asking, ‘Eli, what’s going on?’ Then he kind of steeled himself to tell me that he had had a minor glitch with his equipment. Apparently the weather was exceptionally cold at his location, and his hotel was extremely well heated; he thought that because of the tem­perature difference, one of his instruments had developed a crack. I asked him why he hadn’t told me before, but he insisted that it was nothing, that everything would be all right.”
To G., the conversation provides a telling example of Cohen’s character: In addition to his self-confidence, Cohen had a fierce will to succeed—even at the risk of his security. “To Cohen, it was like, ‘Why should I bother you with things like this? It’s only a small crack.’ But I spoke with one of our representatives on site and we sorted things out, and in the end I gave him back the instrument repaired. But I was struck that Eli had wanted so much to do well on his assignment. He kept saying, ‘Everything will be all right.’”

Despite the common tendency to idealize spies, it is widely accepted in the intelligence community that the definition of a successful spy need not necessarily include the traits of a “good guy”; one needs to be an actor of sorts, and certainly to display a capacity for cunning. As G. explains, “We grew accustomed to working with agents who occasionally pushed the envelope,” such as including all sorts of things in their expense accounts ostensibly to help maintain their cover. “But Eli wasn’t like those agents,” stresses G. “He was straight with us.” In fact, Cohen was remarka­ble for being at the opposite extreme: His expense account was quite frugal, and G. insists that he always behaved quietly and modestly and rarely asked for anything. In fact, his extreme reluctance to make requests of handlers and his insistence on managing on his own was, to G.’s mind, his one flaw. “I wouldn’t call it excessive self-confidence, but he was always one to say, ‘It’ll be fine, don’t worry, it’ll all work out.’”
In January 1962, Cohen arrived in Damascus. On his handlers’ orders, he rented an apartment in the fashionable Abu Romana district, near the Syrian general-staff headquarters; through letters of recommendation from “friends” in Buenos Aires, he began to cultivate relationships with the Syr­ian elites. Among those who smoothed his entry into Syrian society were George Saif, a radio broadcaster, and Adnan el-Jabi, an air-force pilot. Finally, when el-Hafez returned to Syria, Cohen was treated as one of the family at the presidential palace.
From the beginning, Cohen’s intelligence output was impressive: Among other things, he reported on the bunkers in which the Syrians stored Russian artillery, passed along a draft of the strategic plan to cut off north­ern Israel during a future invasion, and even managed to supply Israel with a report on two hundred T-54 tanks a few hours after they landed in Syria. But his most important achievement was undoubtedly the wide range of contacts he established with key personnel in the Syrian army and govern­ment, ties soon to prove invaluable.
In March 1963, the Ba’ath party staged a revolution. Cohen’s close friends, many of whom had enjoyed his financial and moral support, be­came Syria’s new rulers. Soon Cohen’s home became a venue for senior of­ficers, and the site of exclusive parties for the Syrian elite. Cohen, who had gained the trust of Syria’s most powerful men, was even invited to tour the Israeli border along with his air-force friend el-Jabi. There he visited a clas­sified military area and dined in a Syrian officers’ mess. All that he had seen was communicated to the Israelis through a secret transmitter that Cohen kept concealed in his window blind. Back home, Cohen’s Israeli handlers read his reports with astonishment, amazed that the introvert from Alexan­dria had so convincingly taken up the part of “Kamel,” Damascus socialite extraordinaire.

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