What Are You Going To Do, If You Don’t Know What To Do?

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By: Dave Gordon

The first part of a series of articles exploring in depth one of  the most fascinating figures in Israeli history, a Syrian Jew who – until his tragic end – pulled off what is perhaps the most successful espionage mission in modern times.

The parties were lavish affairs, featuring the most elegant amenities society had to offer – free-flowing alcohol, a steady stream of epicurean trays of food, and a host whose charm was said to be irresistible.

The gatherings attracted the “who’s who” of upper-tier Middle Eastern government types, as well as the movers and shakers of the elite. As a tight-knit circle, letting their guard down more and more with each glass of champagne, attendees felt uninhibited to discuss all things gossipy, personal, and even secretive. This included backroom politics and military intelligence, information that only trusted individuals were privy to.

This also included the finer details of a terror plot or two, which came tumbling through the lips of inebriated officials, whose bravado and hubris saw no bounds.

The well-heeled and powerful foreign bureaucrats rubbing elbows and hobnobbing were oblivious to the spy in the room – the gracious host – listening intently to the minutia of classified information that was freely shared. At times, he’d feign drunkenness, simply to give the impression he was too mentally loose to know what was being said around him.

His name was Kamal Amin Ta’abet, a Lebanese national, born to Syrian Muslim parents Amin Ta’abet and Sa’adia Ibrahim. The family moved to Argentina in 1948, launching what would become a brisk textile company. Ta’abet – our protagonist – returned to his native Syria at age 38, in 1962.

Actually, everything in the previous paragraph was all a fable, a cover story cleverly concocted, and which, luckily, fooled every official he met.

Like every spy, he had a secret mission and a secret identity.

A Young Zionist in Egypt

His real name was Eli Cohen; his real biography was that he was an Egyptian Jew, born in Alexandria, the son of an Aleppo-bornfather. His was a citizen of Israel, who commissioned him to infiltrate the upper echelons of power in Syria, knowing it would prove useful when – not if – their multiple military invasions were launched against the Jewish State.

Unbelievably, had circumstances been slightly different, Cohen might have served in the Egyptian army. At the age of 23, he chose to enlist rather than pay the head tax required of young Jews. However, he was roundly rejected, due to suspicions of questionable loyalty. It made perfect sense at the time. This was 1947, in the lead-up to Israel’s declaration of independence, when six Arab nations were readying to launch a war of annihilation against the nascent state.

Anti-Semitism was already at a boil, and Eli found himself harassed by the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting him to choose to leave university, in favor of home study. Hostility against Jews became the norm, particularly in the ensuing years after Israel’s establishment, and it didn’t take long before Jews in Egypt were forced to flee. That included Cohen’s parents and three brothers, all of whom were Israel-bound in 1949. But Eli stayed, determined to complete his degree in electronics, while simultaneously fighting for Zionist causes.

Anti-Zionist sentiment was whipped up yet again as soon as the 1950s rolled around, coincident to Egypt’s military coup. During that time, the authorities, who knew about Cohen’s Zionist activities, didn’t hesitate to arrest and interrogate him. Apparently, little became of the incident. But it would be the harbinger of things to come, a dress rehearsal for future undercover work that would become increasingly more complicated, and definitely more dangerous.

Throughout the decade, Cohen, armed with specialized espionage training, played variousroles in covert operations for Israel, including a mission dubbed Operation Goshen, a plan that helped smuggle out Egyptian Jews so they could forge a new life in Israel. Even though Egyptian officials had a sense he was working against their interest, they had no hard proof.

The ensuing warfare between Egypt and Israel didn’t do the Jewish community many favors, either.

By October 1956, the second Arab-Israeli war broke out, known both as the Suez Crisis, or Operation Kadesh, in which Israel, the United Kingdom, and France aimed to oust Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had by that time cozied up to the Soviet communists. During this conflict, Israelachieved its important objective – securing its shipping rights through the Straits of Tiran, which had been blocked by Egypt since 1950. Trade bywaterways constituted about one-fifth
of Israel’s commerce, something it could ill-afford to lose.

These events gave rise to another wave of anti-Semitism, more pretexts for government-sanctioned persecution, and the expulsion of Egyptian Jews. And this time, the authorities took action against Cohen, who was forced to leave.

Availing himself of the aid of the Jewish Agency, Cohen landed in the port of Haifa in 1957, and officially immigrated to Israel. Soon afterward, he stepped up to serve his new country, in the capacity of an army officer. But both his attempts to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces met with rejection, despite his well-known record of prior courageous feats. Cohen clearly had all the traits you would want in s soldier – an impressive IQ, fearlessness, superb memory retention, and the capability to keep important secrets under wraps. The problem? Apparently, higher ups found him arrogant and prone to taking unnecessary risks – qualities which would make him a liability, rather than an asset, in combat. His public service was relegated to the level of a logistics clerk. Later, he found work at an accounting firm.

Training a Superspy

But his life would very quickly change. A director at theMossad –
Israel’s secret service – stumbled upon Cohen’s file in a stack of files of rejected candidates. General Meir Amit had been seeking an individual capable of infiltrating the inner circle of the Syrian government, and eyed Cohen as the worthiest candidate. Cohen came under careful surveillance for two weeks, his every move closely watched and examined with the aim of determining whether he qualified for recruitment and training. He was, after all, perfect for the job – a native of an Arab country,fluent in Arabic, English and French, well acquainted with Arabic culture, and experienced doing exceptional espionage work.

The stars aligned; Cohen was let go from his job, he took the Mossad’s offer, and at age 29, he proceeded to train to be a katsa,or field agent. He demonstrated sharp abilities in all areas of training, which included high speed evasive driving techniques, weapons training, intricate map reading, sabotage, and
coded messaging.

What took particularly intense work was to learn how to speak a new dialect of Arabic – Syrian-Arabic, and eliminate his Egyptian accent. It took Cohen a great deal of time and effort to develop the skill to consciously, and intuitively, speak as a Syrian. He was trained by an Iraqi native, a Jew whose specialty was differentiations in Arabic language and dialects (of which there are dozens).

Eli Cohen officially became a spy in early 1961, when a formal document was stamped and signed by none other than Chaim Herzog, then Chief of Military Intelligence, who would eventually become Israel’s president (1982-1993).

First Stop: Argentina

Cohen was first stationed in Buenos Aires, Argentina, assigned the mission of establishing his cover as a Syrian businessman. In no time he managed to immerse himself in the social and cultural life of the Argentine-Syrian diaspora, a community that was all too quick to embrace his phony disguise as a well-to-do entrepreneur. It helped that he enjoyed a good party, soaked in the night life, tipped generously, and connected with strangers easily.

The plan worked to perfection.

Elites such as politicians, diplomats, and bureaucrats came to befriend this affable and congenial fellow, whom they came to deeply respect as a trusted confidant. The biggest catch, at least for a neophyte spy, was building a close network with military officials working out of the Syrian Embassy – including Colonel Amin al-Hafiz, who would later serve as Syria’s president, from 1963 to 1966.

The new socialite bobbed and weaved between cafes and restaurants, eavesdropping or prodding the political gossip of the day. By night, he was the most gracious host, inviting Syrian officials and the country’s business leaders to his home for lavish food and drink, where shop talk flowed as freely as the alcohol. Trust levels reached the point where Cohen would often serve as a sounding board or advice-giver to his newfound pals’ work problems. He even built a close bond with the Chief Adviser to the Syrian Minister of Defense. Other government officials with whom he developed relationships were said to have borrowed money from Cohen, earning him invitations to open various business ventures in Damascus in the hope of loading the homeland with rich, foreign investment.

Cohen was at the center of it all, the man about town, with networks in all the right places, and with a reputation for wealth, power, and style. But it was only the beginning. What came next would put his espionage skills to the test.

Part 2 of “Saluting Eli Cohen, an Israeli Hero”
will appear in the August issue of