The Handler

By Ella Florsheim, Avi Shilon

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

G. does not dwell on the psychological aspects of this change in character, however. In his view, the contrast between Cohen’s true self and the social animal that was Kamel is not unlike the difference between an actor and the part he plays. “To tell you the truth,” admits G., “if I had just met him casually once or twice in a café, I wouldn’t have been sure that he was up to the job. But he turned out to be an excellent actor. He played the part one hundred percent.”
G. is a circumspect type. He knows that the spies who became house­hold names are the ones who were caught, and it is important for him to emphasize that there were others who did crucial work who were never publicly acknowledged. There was, for example, an agent who infiltrated into Syria “a year or two after Eli Cohen had already gone there,” he recalls. However, he does not underestimate Cohen’s achievements, or the coura­geous connections he made with the Syrian elite. “Eli managed to meet with all kinds of officers,” including, G. reveals for the first time, Syria’s current minister of defense. Because of these contacts, Cohen was able to supply the Israelis with information crucial to their victory in the Six Day War.
Meir Amit, then head of the Mossad, says that Cohen’s main contribu­tion to Israeli intelligence was the fact that his finger was always on the Syrian pulse. “The information Cohen provided was largely cautionary. His flat was opposite the general-staff headquarters, and he would report on how many people were there at night, when the lights went out, and when motorcades left. He had all kinds of indications that something was about to happen. In my opinion, this was the most important information: The material about the disposition, intentions, and preparations” of the Syrian officials at headquarters and the mood of the political and military echelons at any given time. In a country like Syria, Amit stresses, this is an especially difficult task, since “when they’re all dictators, the country’s plans are in the head of one man, and no more than two or three assistants. If you can get close to the decision maker, it is of enormous importance.” Yet in retrospect, Eli Cohen’s achievement was even greater, since, as G. explains, “Initially, we didn’t even intend for him to be an agent in the Syrian upper echelons. An agent is like a cholent [stew]. You know what you’re putting into it, but you don’t know what you’re going to get out.”
In August 1964, Cohen visited Israel for the last time. During this visit, his widow Nadia later reported, he appeared to be concerned about his continued stay in Syria. After meeting with his handlers, however, he re­turned to Damascus, even increasing the frequency of his transmissions. To this day, there are differences of opinion between the Mossad and Cohen’s family about his intuitions. His family claims that during his meeting with his handlers, he expressed fears about returning to Damascus, and only after they pressured him did he agree to go back. Amit, however, argues just the opposite: That during their talk, he ordered Cohen to be doubly careful, but despite this advice the spy continued to transmit often—too often.
Indeed, it was Cohen’s insistence on transmitting so frequently that ultimately—so G. believes—got him into trouble. “Those agents who had wireless instruments had to be contacted by us at certain times. But Cohen also took the initiative himself. No doubt this was connected with his drive to succeed in his mission, but it may well be one of the things that led to his downfall.” Indeed, G. is careful to stress that the real problem was not the way the transmissions were made, the times at which they were made, or the code used—but their frequency. “Even if you told him not to transmit unless he had something to report,” G. says, “he would still transmit more than once a week.”
If Cohen’s life was endangered by these frequent transmissions to the Mossad, why was he not told emphatically that what he was doing was dan­gerous? Could it be that the information he provided was simply too useful, and his handlers were blinded to the consequences? G. recalls that there were certain misgivings among Mossad handlers, but nothing that reached the stage of a general warning. “We were worried, yes, but not sufficiently worried to take action.... In hindsight, it’s easy to say that maybe I should have shut him down completely. In any case, we had warned Eli not to transmit so frequently. But he was his own man. Despite all our warnings, he simply said, ‘Don’t worry. It’ll be okay.’”

It is difficult to ascertain just how sensitive the Mossad was to the psychological strain likely to develop in someone leading a double life. Eli Cohen was on the one hand a charming Arab millionaire who rubbed elbows with the rich and famous of Damascus; and on the other, a new im­migrant from Egypt who worked as an accountant and lived in a modest flat in the Israeli town of Bat Yam. It is uncertain if his handlers understood that this difference was so striking, or that it was liable to lead to a breakdown of sorts that could have manifested itself in the increased frequency of his transmissions.
Either way, Cohen had now returned to a different, post-revolution Damascus, even more volatile, more suspicious, and more threatened by the Egyptian-Syrian alliance opposed to the new regime. The head of Syr­ian intelligence, Colonel Ahmad Suweidani, had decided to do his utmost to track down leaks, and was helped to do so by the Soviets. “They did all kinds of things to try to catch spies,” says G. “For example, they would cut off the electricity to specific areas of the city while transmissions were occurring. When the transmission suddenly stopped, they knew they had found the right neighborhood. In this way, they were able increasingly to narrow it down to a given spy’s exact location. In fact, one time they traced a transmission to Cohen’s very building—they broke in and searched the apartment of a UN officer who happened to be living next door.”
On January 18, 1965, however, they came for Cohen. His apartment was located by a wireless scanner supplied to the Syrians by the Soviets, and eight security officers burst in while he was transmitting. He tried at first to deny that he had engaged in espionage, but it was clear that nothing could save him. G. describes how he learned of Cohen’s capture. “The head of a certain unit at the Mossad called me to say that he wanted to tell me a certain name, and that I should tell him if it meant anything to me. I asked him to go ahead, and he told me. I told him to put the phone down, that I’d be over at his office right away. I asked him what this was all about, and he told me that his unit had a report that this individual had been captured. I went back to my unit and said, ‘Guys, it’s over.’ We all felt as if the ceiling had caved in. It was such a total, awful shock.”
Both G. and Amit are convinced that Cohen’s capture was pure chance: If he hadn’t been transmitting at the moment the scanner was on, he may never have been caught. As the years passed, however, different reasons for Cohen’s capture were put forward. Amin el-Hafez, for instance, then presi­dent of Syria, claimed some years ago that the Israeli spy had been caught because he was not well versed in the secrets of the Koran. Cohen once let it slip, he said, that he was going to pray in “a Muslim mosque,” an expression that immediately aroused suspicion. Of course, el-Hafez had a clear inter­est in downplaying the extent of Cohen’s ingenuity. G. rejects such claims, however, and insists that Cohen was caught only because his transmission frequency was identified.
Once Cohen had been captured, the Syrians attempted to force him to make misleading transmissions to the Mossad. The keying rate and the se­cret code he used, however, made it clear to the Mossad that these were not normal transmissions. “The Syrians didn’t know that we had a signal, that we could know if it was him or not,” G. reports. When the Syrians realized that Cohen was of no use to them, they sent a cable through the Mossad to then Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol: The game was up. They had him.

While Cohen was being subjected to Syrian interrogation, back in Israel ways of rescuing him were being suggested. Israel appealed to world lead­ers, including the Pope and UN delegates. Military intelligence proposed kidnapping Syrian notables as a bargaining chip, an idea, G. says, “that was never put into practice.” It was suggested that ransom money be transferred to the Syrians through the French, and that commandos be sent in to free him. Israel was even prepared to give the Syrians intelligence on internal Syrian matters, such as details of the plans of the regime’s opponents to overthrow the president. But the Syrians would not be dissuaded. Cohen, who was forbidden to meet with anyone during his interrogation, very likely knew nothing of these discussions.
In February 1965, after a long interrogation during which he was se­verely tortured, Cohen was put on trial, and for the first time, the world learned of his capture. Amit points out, however, that even as Cohen’s trial was under way, fresh agents were being sent on missions, including to Syria. “You can gather electronic intelligence and all kinds of things like that,” he says, “but there’s nothing like human intelligence.” Notwithstanding the tragic end to the Cohen affair, G. agrees: “There is no substitute for human intelligence. At the end of the day, men like Cohen will still have to be sent” into the field. Indeed, G. tells us that a year or two after Cohen had first infiltrated Syria, another Israeli spy had been sent to Damascus, one about whom Cohen knew nothing. Immediately after Cohen’s capture, the second spy was summoned back to Israel. “He was told to get out of there as quickly as possible,” G. recalls, “and he didn’t understand why.” Only when he re­turned to Israel and learned of what had happened to Cohen did he under­stand that his hasty withdrawal from Syria had probably saved his life.
Unsurprisingly, Cohen was sentenced to death. Although the sentence was expected, the news of his execution surprised even Israel. Eli Cohen was hanged in Marjah Square on Tuesday, May 18, 1965. After his body had been left hanging for hours—a spectacle for thousands of Syrian pas­sersby—he was buried at an undisclosed location. Just before his execution, he had been permitted to meet with the chief rabbi of Damascus. Cohen gave the rabbi a letter to Nadia and his children in which he gave consent for his wife to remarry, and asked them to forgive him.

Ella Florsheim is Assistant Editor of Azure. Avi Shilon, a journalist, is working on a biography of Menachem Begin.

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