The real story of the spy who saved Israel
June 12, 2020
By Lenore Richman
Thirty-two years ago, I watched "The Impossible Spy," a 90-minute film, released on HBO On Demand. It introduced to the Western world the real story of Eli Cohen, an Israeli hero, who had become a legend in the Mideast. An extraordinary Israeli spy from 1961-1965, he infiltrated the high command of Syria's socialist Ba'ath Party and gathered military information that enabled Israel to win the 1967 Six-Day War against Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
In 2019, I viewed Netflix's six-episode TV series, "The Spy," also about Cohen, but this story presented him as a James Bond character who operated in a world of flash and fantasy. Netflix rewrote history to entertain its audience.
The real story of Cohen is the one that should be honored and preserved for present and future generations. It is a valuable record of courage, dedication and self-sacrifice.
To refresh my memory, I watched "The Impossible Spy" again, this time on Amazon Prime (and also can be rented on Vimeo). And I reviewed episodes of "The Spy."
"The Impossible Spy" was co-produced by BBC and Quartet International, a film production and distribution company headed by my friend, Harvey Chertok, a New York advertising/marketing director and president of Quartet International. Two renowned American actors played the key roles, John Shea as Cohen, and Eli Wallach as the director of Mossad, the Israeli spy organization. The Netflix program, produced by Alain Goldman, was written and directed by Gideon Raff, creator of popular TV series, and stars comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Cohen.
Who was Eli Cohen before he settled in Tel Aviv and became an Israeli spy? Born in Egypt to Syrian parents who were devout Jews and Zionists, Cohen learned about different cultures at a young age. A Zionist before he settled in Israel, he smuggled Jews from Egypt to Israel. At the start of his new life in Tel Aviv, Cohen worked as an accountant in a supermarket and lived a simple life with his wife, Nadia, an Iraqi by birth. His family grew with the addition of three children, the first born after he agreed to become an Israeli spy and the last after his death by hanging in Syria.
Cohen's life story needs no added drama. For months he trained to become an Israeli spy, learning about Muslim beliefs and practicing its customs. Adopting the fictitious identity of a Syrian expatriate, Kamel Amin Thaabeth, a wealthy import-export merchant in the textile business, he moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to connect with the Syrian expatriates of the illegal socialist Ba'ath Party and its military attaché, General Gamal Haled. They were plotting to return to Syria to overthrow the conservative party in power. Wooing them with money, gifts and charm, Cohen demonstrated his support of their cause. On his journey to Syria to set up residence, he met the leader of the ruling party, the Syrian Arab Republic, who welcomed him into his inner circle. Each piece of the puzzle fell into place.
In Damascus, Cohen communicated by code each day with Mossad, sharing information essential for Israel's defense. As a merchant permitted to travel outside of Syria, he delivered his messages to Mossad in person and visited his family as well.
The behind-the-scenes of how Cohen's real story reached the West sheds light on the film's birth. The seeds were planted in August 1982 during a serendipitous meeting in Haifa between the assistant manager of Haifa's Nof Hotel and two guests whom he met by chance in the hotel lobby: Chertok and his wife. He offered to give the Chertoks a geography lesson on the hotel's rooftop. There he identified the countries surrounding Israel - Lebanon, Syria, Jordan - and the West Bank, only eight miles away. Israel's strong intelligence network, the hotel executive explained, enabled them to know what was happening in their neighbors' territory before their people knew. As an example, he related the remarkable story of Cohen. Chertok knew this riveting story would become his next project. During his flight back to the States, preparing for the work ahead, he read "Our Man in Damascus: Eli Cohen" (published in 1969) written by Eli Ben-Hanan, an Israeli journalist and businessman.
From the start, "The Impossible Spy" co-producers and director planned to both inform and entertain. Before filming began, the script was shared with Israel's Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and Mossad leader Meir Amit, who confirmed the story's authenticity and granted permission to film in Israel. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to provide military security at the production site.
After the film was produced, Cohen's brother, Maurice, a Mossad agent in Tel Aviv who had decoded some of Cohen's messages sent from Damascus, viewed a DVD of "The Impossible Spy." He also acknowledged that the story was told just as it happened.
Though its story is authentic, "The Impossible Spy" is not a documentary. Before its opening scene, a message displays, describing the film as "a dramatization based on published sources and other research" and "where direct evidence is unavailable, the film represents the opinion of the film-makers as to events that happened in secret."
"The Impossible Spy" presents Cohen at the start of his journey as a humble man. Reluctant at first to accept Mossad's spy assignment, he describes himself as "an ordinary man" who works in an "ordinary job." In reality, however, he is well above average, with a foolproof memory, well-developed social skills and mastery of Arabic, Hebrew and French. In 1961, it is only after he is fired (probably Mossad's doing) from his accounting job that he agrees to sign on as a spy. At first his wife supports his decision, but in time she agonizes about their prolonged separation.
In one of the film's pivotal scenes, Cohen and Haled ride side by side on horseback into the desert and then continue their journey by jeep to the Golan Heights. Trusting Cohen as a "loyal friend," even hinting that he may offer him a high government position, Haled allows him to observe each camouflaged gun aimed at Israel. Upon Cohen's return to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv, he works feverishly through the night without a break, relying solely on his memory as he places a pin on a papier maché map to mark each gun emplacement.
The Mossad director, portrayed as a caring man, first praises Cohen for his extraordinary achievement but begs him never to return to Syria. "You've done enough," he says. Acting impulsively without considering the risks, convinced he can do more for his country, Cohen returns to Damascus. He continues his work but does not follow the protocol. He sends radio transmissions too frequently and at the same time each day. He is arrested, imprisoned and tortured.
Wracked by conflicting emotions, Haled visits Cohen in prison. Portrayed as a sensitive military man, Halad expresses not only his anger at Cohen's betrayal but also his grief at the loss of a trusted friend. "If you had continued to be a spy, would you have become an Arab?" he asks. Cohen's muted response shocks. "I don't know," he whispers. The Syrian reminds him that they are much the same, fighting over a small piece of land. "We were friends. Yes, we were. May your God give you peace, Eli Cohen," he says as he leaves the cell, addressing Cohen for the first time by his real name.
Cohen in Netflix's "The Spy" is not the same man as in "The Impossible Spy." The TV series presents the Israeli spy as a swashbuckling risk-taker, who steals a journalist's camera, corners a man who jumps to his death, breaks into private offices to gather information, runs for his life from a Syrian secret military base and wantonly carouses with women. This version of Cohen's story was challenged from its inception. Before filming began, its producers agreed to share their script with Cohen's family. According to an article in the UK's newspaper Daily Mail (Sept. 2019), Netflix received a strong negative response from the Cohens, who wanted the project cancelled. The director did change small details but would not alter the basic plot. In response to objections from Sofia Ben-Dor, Cohen's oldest daughter, about the sensationalism of her father's legacy, he reshaped the fictional scene of Cohen pushing a man to his death from a balcony. Also, he assured them that Cohen would not be shown nude at the extravagant, orgiastic gatherings he held in his residence for the officials of the party in power.
In "The Spy" Cohen is aggressive, determined to work for Mossad though he has been rejected twice before. To qualify for the job, he trains to pass a series of extreme physical and intensive mental tests and learns Muslim religious customs so he can be accepted as an Arab. He practices using spy gadgets hidden in everyday objects and sharpens his ability to overhear conversations, detect enemies and slip away into the shadows.
To entertain and escalate the tension, "The Spy" strays far from reality. In a flashy red convertible, Cohen and Ma'azi, young nephew of the traditional Ba'ath party 's commander-in-chief, speed along a sinuous desert road to meet with a colonel. Leading them to a hill used for surveillance, the colonel dares Cohen to shoot at a group of men in the distance, whom he identifies as Zionists pretending to be Syrians. Cohen stands behind the mounted gun, his fear palpable. He cannot pull the trigger. Very dramatic but fictional.
The two most significant men in Cohen's life, as depicted in "The Spy," are one-dimensional: the Mossad director and the leader of the socialist Ba'ath party. When Cohen returns to Mossad headquarters after completing his mission on the Golan Heights, "The Spy" suggests that Cohen is ready to begin a new life at home, unlike the film's hero who insists on resuming his undercover work. But in "The Spy," the Mossad leader, lacking any depth of emotion, orders Cohen to return to Syria and accept the Minister of Defense position offered by the Ba'ath Party leader. In fact, the job, only hinted at in "The Impossible Spy," is never actually revealed by Haled until after Cohen is imprisoned.
In the prison scene in "The Spy," the Ba'ath leader, consumed by his righteous anger and revenge, is certain that Cohen will get what he deserves. As Cohen is hung in the public square, he shows no emotion. In contrast, in "The Impossible Spy," the compassionate Ba'ath leader bows his head, unable to bear witness to the brutal killing. Cohen was only 40 when he died in May 1965.
The last scene in "The Impossible Spy" juxtaposes an image of Nadia watching the hanging on TV, with the sound of Cohen's voice as he reads his final letter to her, begging for forgiveness and urging her to remarry and start a new life. Moving beyond Cohen's story, "The Spy" looks to the future and its new generation of spies. In Mossad's office, a young man enters a room for an interview. The focus shifts too soon from the loss of Israel's most important spy.
As "The Impossible Spy" began with a printed message, so it ends with one. Cohen's body, it states, remains in Syria to this day, despite Israel's request for its return and its $30 million offer, which included medical supplies and military trucks. Fifty years after Cohen's execution, in May 2015, a commemorative ceremony was held at the official residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the first memorial of its kind that took place there. Among those attending were Cohen's wife, Nadia, and their three children, Cohen's three brothers, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo. "Israel will always remember Eli, our national hero," Rivlin said, "who risked his life to safeguard Israel's security and freedom," contributing to Israel's victory in the Six-Day War.
Epilogue: This year, 2020, marks the 53rd anniversary of Israel's Six-Day War. And this year, Eli Cohen's story will be told in a different setting, as part of the exhibit in Washington D.C.'s new International Spy Museum.
A free-lance writer and editor, Lenore Roland has written award- winning short stories, articles about travel and other life adventures published in major newspapers (Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Orlando Sentinel, The Fairfax Journal), literary magazines, and an anthology as well as short plays presented in a black box theater. She currently resides in Windermere, Fla.