September 18, 2019

Aaron Cohen: Soldier, Actor, Writer, Spy

Aaron Cohen has lived many lives in his 43 years. Born in Montreal, he volunteered for the Israeli Army at 18 and served for three years in an elite Special Forces counterterrorism unit, which he wrote about in his memoir “Brotherhood of Warriors.” Then, using his Israel Defense Forces (IDF) training, he opened his own company, providing personal security for celebrities and VIPs.

Now, with security issues more important than ever, he trains and advises law enforcement agencies while pursuing a career in Hollywood. His latest assignment: playing a police captain in “Rambo: Last Blood,” opposite Sylvester Stallone. Cohen spoke with the Journal about his journey from Israeli undercover missions to the backlots of Hollywood. 

Jewish Journal: How did you come to serve in the IDF?

Aaron Cohen: After my parents divorced, my mother married Abby Mann, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and we moved to Los Angeles. He was a Zionist and very much believed in the Jewish state. He encouraged the idea of me going to Israel and serving in the IDF. So I started reading about Israel. I went to a military school for a portion of high school, and then when I graduated, I didn’t really know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any plans for college. I went to Israel and volunteered at Kibbutz HaZore’a, where I spent four months learning Hebrew. I fell in love with Israel and joined the IDF because I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn about Israel and do something adventurous. After an 18-month training period, I joined the Duvdevan unit, which the show “Fauda” is based on. Soldiers masquerade as Arabs for the purpose of infiltrating terrorist neighborhoods and sending terrorists back to Israel for trial and interrogation. I learned Arabic, too. I was on over 200 missions. 

JJ: You also worked on covert operations with the Mossad, right?

AC: I don’t publicly acknowledge any connection to Israel’s foreign intelligence service, but I will say I worked very closely with the special operations community in Israel while in the unit, and that’s all I can say about that.

JJ: Have you been back to Israel?

AC: A couple of times. I am a Zionist and a Jew who really believes in the importance of the State of Israel. I am a son of Israel. I will never get Israel out of my blood. I want to take my future wife there. I just got engaged.

JJ: What was your Jewish upbringing like? 

AC: I come from a family with a strong Jewish identity, but not very observant. My grandparents are Russian Jews on my mother’s side and my father’s side is Russian and Romanian. They were truckers and metal collectors — tough Jews who emigrated to Canada just before [World War II]. There are some Holocaust survivors on my father’s side.

JJ: After the IDF, what was your plan?

AC: I didn’t know. I had some depression and probably some PTSD and spent the next year-and-a-half decompressing. Then I started working as a bodyguard for Brad Pitt and the Schwarzeneggers. Just before 9/11 [2001], I opened my own security company, hiring over 200 guys from my unit over the years and giving back to Israelis who wanted an opportunity here. I worked with other celebrities, providing residential security for [model] Kate Moss, [actor] Jackie Chan and protective services for Pink, Katy Perry and other musicians on tour. I sold the company five years ago. It was a 15-year run, and it led me to my first movie.

In 2011, [director] Steven Soderbergh was working on “Haywire” and called me. He said, “I’m working on a film with Channing Tatum, Gina Carano and Michael Fassbender, and I’m looking for a consultant because it’s a special operations type of movie. Would you be interested?” I was asked to train the actors with all the firearms and Krav Maga fighting for about three months leading up to the film and helped design the action to make it look real. Steven gave me some dialogue; I had a couple of scenes in the film. That was it. I was hooked. I was reminded of how much I loved acting in high school. 

After that I did “211,” a cop drama with Nic Cage for Netflix. I played his lieutenant. And did a short film called “Overwatch” as an exercise to build up my reel. One day maybe it’ll turn into a feature.

JJ: How did you become involved with “Rambo: Last Blood?”

AC: The producers of “211” called and said they had a great scene with Sly for me. We shot in Bulgaria for about a month. I also did some advising on the film. There were a lot of special effects; it was a rain scene. It was a very expensive sequence. There’s a bit of a twist that I can’t reveal, but I had a great time doing it. 

JJ: What’s next for you?

AC: There’s another project for Netflix based on the Mexican pop star Luis Miguel’s life — there’s a role in it for a Mossad [agent]. I’m going to spend the next two years focusing on transitioning into acting full time. Meanwhile, [with] with my company Cherries — Duvdevan is cherry in English — I manufacture products for law enforcement, and I’ve put together an affordable digital counterterror training series. I’ve got agencies from all over the world downloading the content.

JJ: As an expert, what advice would you give synagogues to better protect themselves against attacks?

AC: Hire armed security or put together a volunteer security team, and get them trained in behavior-based counterterrorism and active-shooter response. Stop playing around with feel-good unarmed security. It will fail, and members of your congregation will get killed. I want to see synagogues safe, and that means an aggressive response.

“Rambo: Last Blood” is in theaters Sept. 20.

Sacha Baron Cohen Plays Israeli Hero in ‘The Spy’

Photo courtesy of Netflix

Israeli writer-director Gideon Raff’s story about Israel’s secret mission to rescue Ethiopian refugees in “The Red Sea Diving Resort” recently premiered on Netflix. He returns to the streaming service with another secret mission story from Israel’s past with “The Spy,” a six-part miniseries starring Sacha Baron Cohen in the title role of Mossad agent and national hero Eli Cohen.

Following Cohen on undercover missions in Syria in the early 1960s, where he managed to infiltrate the highest levels of government, the drama has many heart-stopping scenes in which Cohen narrowly escapes detection. But the series is also about what spying does to the psyche and the repercussions of living a double life.

“In telling another spy story, I was looking to do something different this time: to convey the human aspect of being a spy, what it does to your personality, your character, to be torn between your disguise and your real person,” Raff told the Journal. “You have to almost be a method actor. You have to really embrace the undercover identity, but when you come back home, you have to strip it away. I wanted to explore the aspect of identity and, for Eli, the tug and pull between patriotic duty and his family.”

Like every Israeli, Jerusalem-born Raff (“Prisoners of War,” “Homeland”) grew up learning about Cohen’s heroism in school. “We knew the highlights of the story, what he achieved but not the details of how he achieved it and how big his sacrifice was,” he said. Finding out involved extensive research, meeting with Cohen’s wife and children, and talking to ex-Mossad agents who were working at the time, but not directly with Cohen. There was a lot of story to tell, which is why it’s a miniseries, not a movie.

Raff wrote the script with Baron Cohen in mind, and flew to London to meet with him. The British-born actor and double Emmy nominee for “Who Is America?” grew up with the Eli Cohen story, too. “He’s very connected to Israel. His mother is Israeli. He understands the culture. He speaks Hebrew. But this is a bit outside of what Sacha usually does,” Raff said. “He was so courageous to take this on.” 

“This story isn’t about how it ends, whether Eli will be caught or not. It’s about how he rose so high in Syria, what made him tick, and the price he had to pay and all the people around him had to pay.” — Gideon Raff

Most of “The Spy” was shot on locations all over Morocco including Casablanca, for its visual verisimilitude to Damascus and Tel Aviv. Budapest stood in for Zurich, Paris and Buenos Aires. While there, Raff and his husband, Udi Peleg, visited the Tree of Life memorial, a sculpture adjacent to the Dohány Street Synagogue. It’s inscribed with the names of Hungarian Holocaust victims, including those of Peleg’s grandfather and great-grandfather.

Raff acknowledged the challenges that come with making a period piece, but credited his international cast and production team with keeping things accurate. He purposely chose to tell the story in a nonlinear fashion, beginning the first episode with a foreshadowing of the ending. “This story isn’t about how it ends, whether Eli will be caught or not,” Raff said. “It’s about how he rose so high in Syria, what made him tick, and the price he had to pay and all the people around him had to pay.”

Sacha Baron Cohen in “The Spy.” Photo courtesy of Netflix

Cohen’s relationships with his Mossad handler Dan Peleg (Noah Emmerich) and his wife, Nadia (Hadar Ratzon Rotem) are at the heart of the story. “Dan is sending this man he has grown to love to a very dangerous place. He has this dilemma: He wants to protect him, but by sending Eli in, he’s protecting many other people,” Raff said. “Nadia senses more and more that [Eli] is changing and putting himself in danger. But she loves him and she doesn’t want to stand in the way of his duty and self-fulfillment. So a lot of the suspense comes from the personal drama, not whether Cohen is going to jump off a cliff or shoot a guy. You care about these people, and that’s what keeps you on the edge of your seat.”
Beyond the personal story, “The Spy” is a slice of history covering a seldom-portrayed period that significantly impacted the conflicts that followed. The intelligence that Cohen provided enabled Israel to defeat the Syrians in the Six-Day War. “It’s a story about how the Middle East came to be what it is today,” Raff said.

But 55 years after his death, Cohen’s story isn’t over. The Syrians refused to return his remains to Israel, and Nadia still campaigns for their return. “With everything happening in Syria right now, who knows?” Raff said. “But I can only hope that the family has some closure and gets his body back.” In any case, Cohen’s name lives on all over Israel, where numerous streets and schools are named for him.

Having gone straight from editing “The Red Sea Diving Resort” to shooting “The Spy,” Raff is welcoming the break. “I have nothing coming out soon so I’m going to dive back into my little cave and start writing,” he said. He hopes that audiences will watch and realize the price paid by people like Cohen and the ones they left behind. “We put these heroes on pedestals but for their families, the sacrifices they made endure. The pain continues,” Raff said. “Stories like these investigate the people behind that iconic stature — the lives they led and the price they paid.”

 “The Spy” begins streaming Sept. 6 on Netflix. 

Israeli Spy Drama ‘Spider in the Web’ Brings Twists and Turns

Ben Kingsley in “Spider in the Web.” Photo by Hannah Lawrence

From his 1984 debut “On a Clear Day You Can See Damascus” through his most recent release, “Shelter,” in 2017 and the acclaimed dramas “The Syrian Bride,” “Lemon Tree” and “Zaytoun,” Israeli filmmaker Eran Riklis is known for his provocative exploration of Middle East sociopolitics, often in a thriller context. In his latest release, “Spider in the Web,” Riklis returns to that wheelhouse to explore the story of an aging Mossad agent on his final mission.

In the script by Gidon Maron and Emmanuel Naccache, Avram Adereth (Ben Kingsley) knows that Mossad wants to retire him, and his desperation to deliver vital intelligence leads to reckless behavior. A young agent (Itay Tiran) is sent in to baby-sit him, forming the film’s most intriguing dynamic.  

“Adereth wants to make a mark but suddenly realizes he might be leaving with nothing, in disgrace. It’s his last hurrah. That fascinated me on many levels,” Riklis told the Journal. “I liked the juxtaposition with a young guy who has his own complexities and things to resolve. It’s about resolution and the chase in a world that is quite shady and takes you in surprising directions.”

Riklis, a big fan of John le Carré and his Cold War spy George Smiley, always has been intrigued by the concept of living a secret life, “creating a new person who takes over your old personality, living a double life while trying to stay alive,” he said. “It’s about identity, survival, dignity, loyalty, betrayal, trust. Small decisions have a huge impact, instantly. It’s a dangerous world. It’s a bigger-than-life situation.”

Mossad stories fit right into that. “It’s a fantasy, the world of secret services,” he said. “There’s an undercurrent of strength and the ability to win silently, under the radar. Israel has been fertile ground for these stories.”

“It’s a fantasy, the world of secret services. There’s an undercurrent of strength and the ability to win silently, under the radar.” — Eran Ricklis

Using an Israeli and Belgian crew, Riklis shot on location in the Netherlands and Antwerp, Belgium, switching from the original script’s Paris and Berlin. “It gives the film an offbeat touch because it’s a city that nobody knows,” he said. While he took the customary artistic license, “Everything you see is rooted in reality on many levels — personality-wise, acting-wise, the way things work.”

Riklis, 64, aimed to make “something relevant that says something about the Middle East and was intense with twists and turns and a fair amount of action, but when you strip all that away, you’re left with a character study,” he said. “Ben is amazing and Itay, who is one of the best theater actors in Israel, supplies the complexity and depth I needed for the character.” 

The central relationship between the two men “is what grabbed me from Day One in the script and it’s there in the movie. It’s like having two expensive violins. You put the bow on them and they almost play themselves,” Riklis said. He revealed that when the stars first met, “Ben was kind of cautious. But at lunch that first day, I told Ben that Itay played Hamlet in Tel Aviv and that was the turning point. That created an immediate bond, on and off screen.”

Now based in Tel Aviv, the Beersheba-born Riklis was exposed early on to films and TV, and made his own 8mm films.  He spent his early childhood in Canada, Brazil and the United States, relocating for his father’s nuclear science studies and career. The frequent moves required some chameleon-like adjustments, perhaps accounting for his affinity for spies. “It was about adapting and making friends and identifying enemies, like the secret services of the world have to do,” he said.

An Ashkenazi Jew and a 10th-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, Riklis is married to film director Dina Zvi-Riklis and is the father of Tammy, a journalist, and Jonathan, a musician and composer who wrote the score for “Spider in the Web.” 

“As an Israeli, it goes without saying that I was always connected to Judaism as part of my life,” he said. “Although my family and I were and are totally secular.”

Riklis’ next project is a movie based on the memoir “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” set in post-revolution Iran. It centers on a fired female literature professor who creates a secret book club. He’s also developing some projects for television. “For me, it’s about making a list and sorting out what you really want to do. At this point in life, there’s a clock ticking somewhat so I can’t really waste time on things that are not important for me to make,” he said. “I don’t want to say I have to make important films but I do want to make films that have a relevance to what’s going on everywhere but especially in Israel.”

Riklis said he is proud of “Spider in the Web” on both a cinematic and storytelling level. “I think it’s an exciting experience with tension and twists and turns and Middle East intrigue that is also an emotional ride,” he said. “It’s an old school meets new school blend that combines the genre with the search for something new.”

“Spider in the Web” opens in theaters Aug. 30.

The Dangerous Affair that is Mossad Spy Thriller ‘The Operative’

Diane Kruger, Cas Anwar in "The Operative." Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

While CIA and MI6 spies have long been beloved by moviemakers, the secret agents of Israel’s Mossad are having a cinematic moment as the protagonists of such films as “Operation Finale,” “The Red Sea Diving Resort” and the forthcoming “Spider in the Web.” 

Writer-director Yuval Adler’s “The Operative” is the latest in the subgenre, spinning a suspenseful story about a woman (Diane Kruger) working undercover for the Mossad in Tehran, her handler (Martin Freeman) and her target (Cas Anvar), an electronics company mogul. Her mission is to use the target to transfer faulty nuclear components to Iranian intelligence, but it’s compromised when the two begin an affair. 

Don’t come expecting flashy heroics à la James Bond or Jason Bourne, Adler told the Journal. “It’s more personal. I think a movie is most interesting when it shows you something about human nature and relationships.”

Adapted from the novel “The English Teacher” by Yiftach R. Atir, “it’s a psychological espionage story that explores spy craft from the first-person perspective of a spy on the ground in Iran,” Adler said. “It shows spying like it really is, not all chases and guns. There’s something about the idea of somebody who assumes an identity and lives a fake life in a different country and what that means. What I loved about the book was how realistic it was in showing the minutiae of long-term espionage work. I connected to the story emotionally and especially to the main character, Rachel. And I liked the fact that it is told from two different perspectives.”

“Don’t come expecting flashy heroics à la James Bond or Jason Bourne. It’s more personal. I think a movie is most interesting when it shows you something about human nature and relationships.” 

— Yuval Adler

Adler needed to make substantial changes in plot, structure and character to bring the book to the screen, but the fundamental idea is the same, he said. For research, he consulted Mossad agents and handlers “about the details of running an asset and the deep psychological aspect of it.” Ever since his Ophir (the Israeli Oscars) Award-winning 2013 debut film, “Bethlehem,” about an Israeli intelligence officer and his Palestinian asset, “people in the intelligence community have wanted to meet me,” he said.

Diane Kruger, Martin Freeman in “The Operative.” Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

It took Adler a couple of years to secure funding from European and American sources for “The Operative.” He then shot the film in less than 10 months on location in Germany, Israel, Bulgaria and Iran. To shoot in Tehran, he had to send his German cinematographer under the auspices of a shell company to obtain second-unit footage. As an Israeli, Adler couldn’t enter the country. He found parts of Sofia, Bulgaria, with similar architecture to stand in for Tehran in scenes with the actors. 

Although he came late to filmmaking, Adler dreamed about it as a teenager. “When I was 16, 17, 18, all I thought about was making films,” he said, but after his Israeli army service he detoured into math and physics studies at Tel Aviv University. He moved to New York at 23 to get his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University, also studying art and photography. “That was my way back to film,” he said.

Aside from a five-year period when he returned to Israel and made “Bethlehem,” Adler has spent most of his adult life in New York, where he lives with his wife and two children, ages 10 and 8 1/2. Born in Herzliya, Adler said, “I feel more Jewish in America than in Israel,” but added he visits Israel two or three times a year because “it’s who I am. I believe you are your heritage.” 

Martin Freeman, Diane Kruger in “The Operative.” Photos by Kolja Brandt/Vertical Entertainment

Adler’s paternal forebears, from Austria, Prussia and Alexandria, Egypt, arrived in Palestine in the mid-19th century, and his mother’s Zionist family emigrated from Bulgaria in the early 1930s. He describes his Jewish upbringing as “totally secular” but revealed a strong interest in Judaism and Torah from an intellectual, literary and historical point of view 

His upcoming projects veer far from the world of Mossad spies. He’s currently editing “The Secrets We Keep,” a drama set in post-World War II Europe starring Joel Kinnaman and Noomi Rapace. “When it came to me at the end of last year, it was about Jewish Nazis and the Holocaust, but I did rewrites and it’s now more about war crime,” Adler said. 

He also has written a script for what he calls “a romantic sex comedy” with the working title “Pussy,” and he’s trying to buy the film rights to a crime drama. 

Equally interested in writing and directing, he’d like to make more action films and write more personal stories. Although his interest in espionage remains, “I’m trying to branch out and do different types of things,” Adler said. “I feel that I just started.”

“The Operative” is now in theaters.

‘The Red Sea Diving Resort’ Dramatizes Rescue of Ethiopian Jews

Chris Evans in “The Red Sea Diving Resort.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

There are upwards of 130,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel today, most of them refugees or their descendants, brought there in a series of covert rescue missions in the 1980s and 1990s. Fleeing famine, civil war and murderous rebels in Ethiopia, these “Beta Israel” Africans crossed into Sudan in the hope of immigrating to Israel under the Jewish Law of Return. But thousands died of illness, starvation or were killed in refugee camps in the custody of the hostile Sudanese military regime. 

The Mossad (Israeli Intelligence) came up with an ingenious plan that involved leasing a strategically located abandoned seaside hotel as a front and staging area. Undercover agents ran it by day and evacuated the Ethiopians at night. The riveting story of the “Operation Brothers” missions plays out in “The Red Sea Diving Resort,” premiering on Netflix July 31. 

Writer-director-producer Gideon Raff (“Prisoners of War,” “Homeland,” “Dig,” “Tyrant”) was immediately intrigued when he heard about the mission, only recently declassified. “I knew it had the potential to be a very entertaining and uplifting movie that could reach a lot of people,” he said. “It’s a great message. This story of the Jewish Diaspora is really relevant for our times. The idea of these two very different communities coming together touched me in a big way. The Ethiopians were as active in their own rescue as the Mossad was. This is about a crazy, almost impossible mission that went right.”

Raff met with members of the actual Mossad team and Ethiopian community leaders before he began writing 2 1/2 years ago, and later relied on them as advisers. “Some of the facts were shifted because I had to condense five years into two hours,” he said. “The involvement of the CIA came a bit later, for example. It’s by no means a documentary, but it’s a movie inspired by the truth. I felt very responsible to tell this story right and honor this community.”

The characters are composites, including mission leader Ari Levinson (Chris Evans) and Ethiopian mission liaison Kebede Bimro (Michael K. Williams). The cast also includes Alessandro Nivola, Michiel Huisman and Haley Bennett as Mossad agents; Greg Kinnear as a CIA operative; and Ben Kingsley and Mark Ivanir as Mossad superiors. Ivanir served in Israeli Intelligence and participated in later airlift missions. Several Israeli-Ethiopian actors in the film enact their parents’ experiences.

Raff shot the movie in South Africa and Namibia, mostly in remote locations. “The challenges were abundant,” he said. “First of all it’s a period piece. There’s no place on the Red Sea that you can shoot — too much modernity, too dangerous, or the insurance companies won’t let you.” The Arous Holiday Resort was re-created in Namibia, “which was in itself a challenge. Our crew was staying in tents and our actors were working under hard conditions — very hot, freezing cold, crossing rivers. It’s amazing what I did to them.” 

Jerusalem-born Raff thought about becoming an actor but he took a class and realized his desire to tell stories would be better served another way. “I started directing my classmates,” he said. Having lived in Washington, D.C., in his childhood when his father worked as an economic attaché at the Israeli Embassy, he earned his degree in film at Tel Aviv University, served as a paratrooper in the Israel Defense Forces and returned to the States in 2003, where he obtained his graduate degree at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. 

Director Gideon Raff of The Red Sea Diving Resort – Photo Credit: Netflix / Marcos Cruz

After assisting director Doug Lyman on “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” he made his first feature, “The Killing Floor,” in 2007 and returned to Israel for “Prisoners of War” (“Hatufim”) two years later. Now based in L.A., where he lives with his husband, he goes back and forth regularly. His next project, the Netflix miniseries “The Spy,” stars Sacha Baron Cohen as Mossad agent Eli Cohen. It will premiere later this year.

The grandson of Polish-born halutzim (pioneers) who lost most of their relatives in the Holocaust, Raff was raised secular. “But we did grow up with Jewish values and I feel very Jewish. It’s a huge part of who I am,” he said. A vegan, he lives by the precepts of tikkun olam and “love your neighbor as yourself.” “I try to be as compassionate as possible in my life,” he said.

Raff considers “The Red Sea Diving Resort” to be “an extremely Jewish story, in the sense that these are former refugees who are helping other refugees.” The film is being released at a time when anti-Israel sentiment is escalating, but Raff didn’t make the film as a means to counter it. “My mission was to tell a story about refugees at a time when we aren’t doing enough for them,” he said. “I wanted to find a good example and was happy to find it in Israel. I never approach a project as ‘This is going to be pro-Israel.’ But if it has that effect, great. This is an example of something magical and heroic and a story that should be told.”

Not surprisingly, he’s proudest of it and “Prisoners of War.” “Both are based on real stories in Israel and they’ve reminded me why I love this industry and what a privilege it is to tell stories,” he said. “I don’t take that for granted. I’m always excited to tell stories that are very personal but have international stakes. I’m grateful that I get to tell stories that I want to see on screen.”

“The Red Sea Diving Resort” premieres July 31 on Netflix.

Forgotten ‘Spies’ Finally Get Their Due

Israel is much admired, even among its enemies, for the valor and acuity of its storied secret service, Mossad. Before there was a Mossad, however, and even before there was a State of Israel, a few brave young men and women were already at work in conditions of the greatest danger to serve a Jewish state that was still in the making.

Among them were three young men who were all named Cohen but who were not related to one another — Gamliel, Yakuba and Havakuk — and a fourth man named Isaac Shoshan, whom author Matti Friedman befriended when Isaac was already a nonagenarian. Their exploits in advance of the War of Independence in 1948 are presented with the urgent episodic pacing of a spy novel in Friedman’s “Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). But the book is a work of history and biography, the untold tale of a unit of the Haganah known variously as “the Black Section,” “the Dawn Section,” “the Arab Section” or, more bluntly, “the Ones Who Become Like Arabs.” 

Indeed, the four young men were all Arab-speakers, only one of whom was born in what was soon to be Israel. Friedman likens them to contemporary Israelis whose families also came from Yemen, Syria and other Middle Eastern corners of the Diaspora: “These were Israelis, but not the kibbutz pioneers of the old Zionist imagination,” Friedman explains. “These were people from the Islamic world, in the Islamic world, their lives entwined with the fate of Islam.” Their command of the Arabic language and their ability to disguise themselves as native speakers were weapons of war. “If Arab spies were needed, the Jews wouldn’t pay them — they would be them,” Friedman writes.

The author, a veteran Associated Press foreign correspondent who has reported from Israel, Lebanon, Morocco and Moscow, among other places, was born in Toronto and now lives in Jerusalem. His first book, “The Aleppo Codex,” won the 2014 Sami Rohr Prize and the American Library Association’s Sophie Brody Medal. His 2016 book, “Pumpkinflowers,” was chosen as a notable book by The New York Times and other publications. “Spies of No Country” already has been honored with the Natan Book Award.

As it happens, we learn more about what a real-life espionage agent actually does in “Spies of No Country” than in any mere thriller. To be sure, the members of the Arab Section trained in the use of firearms and explosives, and “when they could round up a few bullets, they held target practice.” But they also “slipped in and out of Arab towns, practiced dialect, saw what fooled people and what didn’t.” Their tradecraft sometimes consisted only of “sitting at a cheap café or smoking on the steps of the post office, looking around, asking a question of a passerby as casually as possible.”

Now and then, we are able to witness the daring and dangerous missions that we hope to find in a book about espionage. When Jewish agents discovered an Arab plan to detonate a car bomb in a Jewish neighborhood, for example, the members of the Arab Section went to work on a car bomb of their own, placing it in a stolen car, parking it next to the Arab car, and then blowing up both vehicles in a pre-emptive strike. The bomb was assembled in a classroom at Technion, the scientific university in Haifa, and the detonator was fashioned out of a condom, an ampul of sulfuric acid, and quantities of sugar and potash. An Oldsmobile was stolen for use as a getaway car, and Isaac was assigned to be the driver even though he had never driven a car before. “This wasn’t allowed to slow things down,” Friedman reports. “Yakuba taught him to drive the Oldsmobile in the streets around [Technion], gears on the first day, steering on the second.” On the day of the operation, Isaac left the car in first gear all the way to the target because he had not yet mastered the manual transmission.

“Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle. Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be — the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services.” — Matti Friedman

At least one of the secret missions revealed in “Spies of No Country” is so exotic that it sounds like something out of the imagination of Ian Fleming. The armored yacht that had been built for Hitler during World War II ended up at anchor in the harbor of Beirut. To deny use of the vessel by Arab forces, the Arab Section was assigned the task of detonating a bomb under its hull. “Evidence of Nazi fingerprints on the Arab side always drew special attention from the Jewish intelligence services,” writes Friedman. “If later on [the attack] was remembered by the Arab Section as ‘the jewel of our operations beyond the border,’” as Friedman reports, “the appraisal was less about the results than about seeing whether the Jews could pull

 off something like this at all.”

Friedman refuses to hype the heroes of his own book. “Their mission didn’t culminate in a dramatic explosion that averted disaster, or in the solution of a devious puzzle,” he writes. “Their importance to history lies instead in what they turned out to be — the embryo of one of the world’s most formidable intelligence services.” In fact, the author reveals a conversation between Havakuk and Isaac when they wondered aloud what would happen to them “if the Arabs really do capture Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.” Havakuk jokingly told Isaac that “he wasn’t concerned, because he had a contingency plan for Jewish defeat: ‘We can always go back to Palestine as Arabs.’ ”

At the same time, Friedman’s book is animated by his conviction that respect must be paid to these overlooked heroes. “People trying to forge a Jewish state in the Middle East should have seen that Jews from the Middle East could be helpful,” he argues. “The newcomers might have been invited to serve as equal partners in the creation of this new society, but they weren’t. Instead they were condescended to, and pushed to the fringes; it was one of the state’s worst errors, one for which we are still paying.” Thus does Friedman rectify a moral and historical wrong when he calls our attention to the four young men whom we come to know so well and admire so much in the pages of “Spies of No Country.”


Jonathan Kirsch, attorney and author, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Annexation Is a Pernicious Issue for Israel

Houses in Shvut Rachel, a West Bank Jewish settlement. Photo by Baz Ratner/Reuters

Modern Israel has been a remarkable unifying force for American Jewry. Sadly, the subject of Israel and most discussions about Israeli policies today have become deeply divisive. In some instances, these debates have cost friendships and silenced organizations and Jewish leaders from engaging in conversations around Israel.

There is an issue, however, around which most Jews can coalesce — the potential annexation of portions or all of Judea and Samaria, the West Bank. This poses a threat to Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, which should concern all Jews.

Various proposals for annexation of portions or all of the territory are currently on the Israeli political agenda. Advocates of these proposals are not bashful about their intent to pass such legislation during the next government. This is a result of Israeli coalition politics whereby a minority political party can demand support of a policy as a condition for its participation in the governing coalition. 

Yet, contrary to common understanding, a just-released poll by The Institute for National Security Studies shows that only 25 percent of Israelis support some form of annexation. However, the majority opposing annexation do not view this issue as a priority, while its passionate advocates do.

The ideological controversy over borders mirrors historic debates about “Greater Israel.” For over 100 years, there have been passionate debates within the Zionist movement about the required borders of the Jewish state — the entirety of biblical Israel or only those areas with majority Jewish population. In debates over whether to support the United Nations partition resolution in 1947, the consensus position favoring a Jewish state separate from an Arab state prevailed over advocates who embraced the Greater Israel position, enabling the Zionist enterprise to succeed dramatically with the formation of modern Israel. Similarly, the agreement to cede territory to Egypt at Camp David prevailed over fierce opposition, leading to four decades of peace, which continues to be maintained.

Defeat of current annexation proposals is essential to preventing a cascade of extremely serious political, security and economic consequences. Many of the proposals seem deceptively innocuous, promising to annex unpopulated territory,  not Palestinians. The consequences of these proposals would likely produce dire long-term and short-term consequences. Advocates of this “luxurious” (no cost) annexation proposal pretend this action will not trigger reactions. They are wrong.

There is a strong consensus among security experts that annexation, even on a small scale, would upset the fragile balance with the Palestinians. For example, territory annexed in all the proposals would eliminate contiguity for areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is essential for transit from one area to another. This arrangement would likely lead to the termination of security cooperation and/or the collapse of the PA. As a result, the Israel Defense Forces would be required to re-enter and take over all of Judea/Samaria and assume responsibility for its millions of Palestinians.

This would have a severe impact on Israel’s security and economy, while also burying any possibility of an ultimate resolution separating the parties to the conflict. The multiple billions of dollars in security and public services expenditures for control of the territories alone would cripple the Israeli economy, and international sanctions or loss of investment would add to the blow.

Israel has made tremendous strides in its relations with many of its Arab neighbors, creating the opportunity for a different Middle East, which might eventually include a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Proposed annexation moves would give potentially friendly powers in the region little choice but to abandon this hopeful path. Public outrage in the Arab countries would very likely result in termination of existing limited cooperation. Iran would have a potent public weapon against its Sunni enemies. American groups opposing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) would be severely disadvantaged. While annexation consequences would far exceed BDS as a threat, they also would make its success substantially more likely.

Internationally, severe diplomatic, financial and legal problems would likely result. Although the current U.S. government might not initially object, reaction from the European Union might well include concrete measures, including political, economic and arms supply sanctions. Russia and China might well join in opposing Israel’s actions. The international community, assuming abandonment of any possibility of an eventual two-state solution, would increase pressure on Israel to grant equal rights to all Palestinians. Thus, Israel would be faced with a tragic dilemma — either the loss of its dominant Jewish character and becoming a secular, democratic state; or denying Palestinians equal rights and losing its standing and character as a democratic nation.

Annexation initiatives have galvanized a strong nonpartisan effort to defeat these measures. Notable among them is the Commanders for Israel’s Security, a network of almost 300 former senior leaders of the IDF, Mossad, Shin Bet and police that has conducted extensive research on the subject, illustrating the immediate and existential threat. Each political party campaigning for election should be encouraged to publicly commit not to enter a government unless the coalition agreement opposes annexation or permits it a veto. In this way, the consensus opposing annexation can prevail in a nonpartisan way.

Only by preventing annexation can Israel retain its strategic security, flexibility and future options while insuring against a required choice between being a Jewish or democratic state.


Ed Robin is a board member of the Israel Policy Forum. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Episode 87 – Mossad: Kill or be Killed

Photo by Ziv Koren.

A little over a week ago, in the early morning of April 21st, Fadi Al-Batsh was walking down a road in Gombak, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was on his way to the local mosque for dawn prayers. Suddenly, two men on a motorcycle drove up, drew their pistols and gunned down Al batsh with no less than 14 bullets before driving off.

Seven years prior to his assassination, Fadi Al-Batsh had moved to Malaysia from Gaza to research and acquire weapon systems and drones for Hamas, the ruling power in the strip. This, ostensibly, made him a target for Israel’s international spy agency, the Mossad.

Of course, this is not the first such mission undertaken by the clandestine organization. The Mossad, along with the other branches of Israel’s intelligence apparatus, has a long, dark and often contentious history of targeted assassinations dating back to the very founding of the state.

If we listed the qualifications and accomplishments of Dr. Ronen Bergman, we’d have no time left to talk about his incredible new book, Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations. Suffice it to say that Dr. Bergman is a senior political and military analyst for Yedioth Aharonot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, he’s been a guest lecturer at countless universities including Princeton, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge (where he received his PhD in history), he’s written for numerous international newspapers including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Times and finally, he deserves a special congratulations for recently becoming a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine.

We are thrilled to be joined today by Dr. Ronen Bergman to talk about his new book and Israel’s history of covert killings.

Dr. Bergman’s books on Amazon, his Facebook and Twitter

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Satirical Mossad Twitter Account Trolls Linda Sarsour for ‘Jewish Media’ Remark

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Linda Sarsour, who became well-known for organizing the Women’s March, claimed criticism from her stemmed from the “Jewish media,” a remark that set herself up to be trolled by a satirical Mossad Twitter account.

Sarsour was part of a panel at The New School in New York City discussing anti-Semitism on Tuesday evening when she blamed the “Jewish media” for stirring up controversy against her.

“If what you’re reading all day long, morning and night, in the Jewish media is that Linda Sarsour and Minister Farrakhan are the existential threat to the Jewish community, something really bad’s going to happen and we’re going to miss the mark on it,” said Sarsour.

“Minister Farrakhan” is a reference to Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of anti-Semitic invectives.

Sarsour also stated her support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“What other way am I supposed to be, as a Palestinian-American who’s a daughter of immigrants who lived under military occupation and still has relatives in Palestine that live under military occupation?” said Sarsour. “I should be expected to have the views that I hold.”

A Twitter account under “The Mossad” moniker happened to see Sarsour’s “Jewish media” comment on Twitter, so they tweeted, “We will take credit for causing earthquakes, releasing sharks into your waters and even stealing your shoe. But you being unpopular, @lsarsour? You did that all on your own.”

Sarsour’s appearance on the anti-Semitism panel drew criticism from the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt:

Sarsour has been celebrated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for her work in promoting various progressive causes, including her support for Black Lives Matter and fighting alongside the ACLU against the “unlawful police spying” of Muslims. Others, such as Journal columnist Ben Shapiro, have criticized Sarsour for supporting Sharia law and her embrace of various Palestinian terrorists.

There’s an Israeli flag circulating on the set of NCIS

Actress Pauley Perrette announced that the 15th season of NCIS would be her last via Twitter.

Which begs the question, what will happen to the Israeli flag she keeps on her desk?

The flag originally belonged to the character Ziva David, a former Mossad agent played by Chilean actress Cote de Pablo. The Jerusalem Post once cited Ziva as “the only full-time Israeli character on any mainstream network hit drama.” After Ziva left the show in 2013, the flag ended up on Pauley’s desk, who plays a goth pigtailed forensic specialist named Abby Sciuto.

We’re bidding on Leroy’s desk next.

Nathan Englander interview: A novel’s view of Israel-Palestine conflict

Nathan Englander. Photo from nathanenglander.com

More words may have been written about the Israel-Palestine conflict than there are grains of sand at the beach, but to Nathan Englander there is still room on bookshelves for a novel that stirs the emotions and invites the empathy so often lost in the conflict’s polemics. 

[MORE: Love story meets thriller over Englander’s ‘Dinner’]

“Dinner at the Center of the Earth,” the author’s fourth and latest book, is a political thriller that examines the conflict from the perspectives of a renegade Mossad agent, a young Palestinian activist and a multitude of characters swept up in the conflict’s moral vortex. Englander spoke with the Journal about the challenge of writing through controversy and his commitment to peace, now stronger than ever, in today’s fractured political landscape. 

Jewish Journal: The Israel-Palestine conflict is among the most fraught and nuanced subjects for a novel. What compelled you to write about it? 

Nathan Englander: I moved to Israel [from New York] in 1996 for the peace process, because I was just so excited for this brand-new day and peace in the Middle East. It sounds almost like a utopian vision now, but [peace] really was happening and really right there.

Over the years, the whole thing came apart. Peace between Israel and Palestine and the idea of a two-state solution fell apart, and now the opposite of progress continues to be made. I moved home [to the United States] sort of heartbroken about that in 2001.

For 20 years, I’ve always wanted to explore this conflict and my own internal belief in peace, because I don’t know what other position there is to hold. What I’ve watched over these last two decades is that the two sides separate more and more. Every day going by, every week, the people understand each other less. A physical wall has gone up — Gaza’s closed off, there’s a wall between the West Bank and Israel, there are roadblocks. Even though there was occupation and many of the same issues [in the past], people still mixed more. There was just so much more sharing of the daily life. To me, this book was a way to explore these notions of empathy on both sides.

JJ: What does this book add to the noise of opinions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict? What’s the fresh angle?

NE: I don’t think it’s the writer’s job to give answers or to give opinions. In fact, when a writer has answers, I think the work ends up being corrupted. It becomes didactic. What a book does is share a consciousness and invite people to explore the questions as best as you can. This book is not my answer; it is my optimistic lament for lost peace.

Every book is vulnerable and every book is nerve-wracking, but I’ve never been both so excited and terrified to have a book coming into the world. It’s an expressly loaded subject, one on which you can’t win. Even with people on the same side — my editor was telling me about her sweet Israeli in-laws who both read the book and got into an argument over it. If all goes well, there will be arguments. 

JJ: Did you have to change your writing style at all in handling such a nuanced topic? 

NE: I was looking for a way to tell this story for a long time because I didn’t want it to be didactic or turn into a history lesson. Nobody needed a 500-page lecture from me on peace in the Middle East. Finally, when it came to me, it was such a departure from my other books in so many ways. It’s sort of like a literary thriller that’s also a metafictional historical novel that ends up being a love story that turns into an allegory. 

I think in circles and speak in circles. When I wrote my first book [“For the Relief of Unbearable Urges”], I studied how to be linear and tell a story straight. This is my fourth book, and I was like, “I finally get to keep my circles,” because the conflict is so circular. Whichever way I start a sentence is going to upset someone — if I say, “Israel attacks Palestine” or “Palestine attacks Israel,” someone will be like, “They started first” or “No, they started first.” Who cares at this point who started first? It’s this endless, heartbreaking cycle that just happens again and again as if it’s new. 

That’s why I wanted the book to swing from side to side. It’s not even two sides — I don’t think there are many sides when it comes to Nazis or neo-Nazis, where there’s only one side that’s functional — but there are two peoples here, and there are many sides among those peoples.

JJ: While you were writing, was your target audience Jews or non-Jews, or both? 

NE: When somebody asks a variation of “Who do you write for?” I always feel like the writer got trapped into putting a form on something that has no form. Certain things are amorphous.

If a story is functioning, it better be universal. I can’t control how an Israeli will feel about the book, or a Palestinian or a left-wing person or a right-wing person. But if a story is working, it should travel across time, across space, across language, across gender, across belief.

JJ: You said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Tribune that you feel strongly that Judaism is not your subject, your characters just happen to be Jewish. Is that still your position after writing a book about Israel? 

NE: I still stand by that statement. I think it shows more about why it’s being asked than whatever my answer is. Nobody would take a John Updike book and say, “I want to give this to my Jewish friend, but can they read this?” Or they don’t say, “Oh, I love Voltaire, but my friend’s not French and he’s not dead and he’s not 300 years old, so can I give him ‘Candide’?” You just read a book. Some people tell me, “I love your book. Can I give it to my friend who’s not Jewish?” You wouldn’t ask that in the reverse.

Still, this is the book where I feel most like a Jewish writer because of what’s happening in this country right now. Now that some things [in American society] are being let out of the darkness where they belong, I claim [the Jewish label] that much more.

JJ: What is it exactly about current events that makes you embrace that niche label?

NE: A sign of democracy in danger is how our president keeps threatening journalists and tweeting disturbing photos about hurting journalists. The reason people get afraid of writing real, honest journalism and fiction, and the reason corrupted people and demagogues are afraid of journalism and fiction and poetry across the world, is because it is a subversive form.

Writing travels. You can enter into a world far different from your own and understand that there is a reality other than the one you have been spoon-fed. I grew up in a closed, religious, suburban world — I call it a terrarium or a bubble — and opening books just blew my mind open. It just opened universes to me. 

JJ: How were you able to write Palestinian characters and understand a Palestinian’s perspective?

NE: It is hugely important to me what it means to identify, what it means to enter other cultures, what it means to co-opt. I’m not writing this book and pretending to be Palestinian. I do believe writing is a moral act, both your obligation to it and where it comes from.

But all I can tell you is that I write from the heart and put my whole heart and soul into each character equally. There’s no way to work if I am so limited.

JJ: The book’s dust jacket describes a “nice American Jewish boy from Long Island.” Is that an autobiographical character? 

NE: One of the main characters is Prisoner Z, a boy from Long Island who joins the Mossad and ends up betraying it. There was a public story [in 2010] about a real Australian agent in the Mossad called Prisoner X, who was accused of being a traitor. I got to thinking what it would be like if someone like me had joined the Mossad.

I wanted to close in on what it would take for someone like me — someone who moves to a different country, who’s so ideological and so believes in what that country is about that they join its secret service — to flip on the ethical front. What could they hear or see or empathize with the other side that would cause them to turn on their own?

JJ: How have your attitudes toward the Israel-Palestine conflict changed over the course of writing this book? 

NE: Oh, God. I can’t tell you how much, over time, my views have changed. It’s been a long evolution of ideas based on experience, and this book was a way for me to re-ponder and re-explore my positions on a million fronts.

It’s impossible for [young people] to have a memory when peace was really happening and on the horizon. It was over when [their] life began. Two-state seems impossible now, and peace between Israel and Palestine seems a ridiculous notion. That’s something I refuse to let go of, and if you think that’s a romantic notion or a naive notion, I don’t know what better idea anyone has.

But I can tell you, if it keeps building toward extreme conflict, someone’s going to win. Maybe that’s the point of the book — to say, “We should really make peace, because without it, someone is gonna win.” And I don’t understand why we wouldn’t want both peoples to have bright and open and hopeful futures.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan dies at 71

Former Mossad director Meir Dagan, who called the idea of bombing Iranian nuclear sites “stupid,” has died.

Dagan, who headed Israel’s foreign intelligence and special operations organization for nearly a decade until 2011, died Thursday in a Tel Aviv hospital following a long battle with cancer. He was 71.

He served as a national security adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who appointed him director-general of Mossad in August 2002. He made his remarks on Iran at a conference after leaving the Mossad post.

Dagan served 32 years as an Israel Defense Forces officer, retiring in 1995 with the rank of major general. He fought in the Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War and First Lebanon War, and is said to have led some of the IDF’s most daring missions.

He received a liver transplant in Belarus in 2012, at the age of 67, after being refused one in Israel. Patients are placed on the waiting list for transplants in Israel only up to 65.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Dagan was a “daring fighter and commander who greatly contributed to the security of the state.”

Netanyahu added: “The photograph in which his grandfather is being humiliated by Nazi soldiers shortly before he was murdered in the Holocaust was always before his eyes. Meir was determined to ensure that the Jewish people would never be helpless and defenseless again, and to this end he dedicated his life to building up the strength of the State of Israel.”

President Reuven Rivlin called Dagan “one of the bravest fighters the Jewish people has known.”

“He was imaginative and had profound faith,” Rivlin said in a statement. “His dedication to the State of Israel was absolute — he saw his own well-being linked to that of the state and did everything possible to ensure the State of Israel’s survival for generations to come.”

Netanyahu security adviser named to head Mossad

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser has been appointed the head of the Mossad.

Yossi Cohen will succeed Tamir Pardo as chief of Israel’s intelligence agency in January, Netanyahu announced Monday night, the Times of Israel reported. Cohen was the deputy head of Mossad from 2011 to 2013 before taking the reins of the National Security Council.

“Yossi Cohen has a vast wealth of experience and achievements, and has proven his ability in various fields within the organization,” Netanyahu said in announcing the appointment. “He has leadership skills and professional understanding, which are the characteristics required of those who would lead the organization.”

A Jerusalem native, Cohen was raised modern Orthodox but no longer wears a kippah, according to the Times of Israel, which said he was the sole Orthodox candidate when he entered the Mossad’s case-officer course.

Cohen will be the Mossad’s 12th chief. Among his predecessors in the key security post, six were career officers in the spy agency and five were former army generals. Pardo will be leaving after having served as the agency’s head for five years.

Mossad: All 11 Jews missing after fleeing Iran in the 90s were murdered

One year after determining that eight Jews who tried to escape from Iran in 1994 were murdered on their way to Israel, the Mossad has recently found that three other Jews who left Iran three years later were also murdered, Ynet reported. The new determination enabled the Rabbinical Court to rule that their wives are released from their Agunah status and may remarry.

Agunah (Heb: anchored) is a halachic term for a Jewish woman who may not be married because her husband refuses to divorce her, or is missing.

The brothers Cyrus and Ibrahim Kahrameni and Norallah Ravizada fled Tehran in February 1997. They were to meet with a smuggler at the Pakistani border, but did not arrive at the meeting and have since disappeared. Three years earlier, eight other Jews who left Iran in an attempt to flee to Israel disappeared. Their families, who came to Israel via Turkey, have been complaining over the years that the state is not doing enough to find their loved ones and provide closure to the painful affair.

A few years ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the Mossad to expand the investigation of the fate of the missing. Mossad chief Tamir Pardo took on the assignment and managed to close the case. In March last year it was reported that the Mossad was able to unravel what happened to the eight Jews who fled in 1994, stating that “intelligence officials received information from a reliable source that those Jews were captured during the escape and were killed.”

Recently the Mossad also informed the families of three other missing that their loved ones were also caught and killed during their escape.

Using this new information, a panel of the Rabbinical Court in Jerusalem, headed by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, removed the status of Agunot from the wives of the missing, stating that they are the widows of martyrs. The families are now waiting for the official judgment to be released and until then they have declined to comment.

The families requested a meeting with the President and the Prime Minister so that they will officially deliver to them the news.

At odds over Iran stance, Netanyahu tried to nix Mossad briefing for U.S. senators

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly tried to cancel a Mossad briefing for visiting U.S. senators because of the Israeli security agency’s warnings on an Iran sanctions bill.

Netanyahu removed the Jan. 19 briefing from the itinerary of six senators visiting Israel, led by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Time magazine reported Saturday.

Corker reportedly threatened to abort the trip to Israel to protest the move, Time reported, citing unnamed sources it said were familiar with the incident. The briefing went forward after Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, became involved.

Mossad chief Tamir Pardo warned that the Kirk-Menendez bill, which would have imposed new sanctions on Iran if it did not agree by June 30 to a long-term deal to regulate its nuclear program, would be like “throwing a grenade” into the diplomatic process with Iran.

The apparent position by the Mossad is in conflict with the Israeli government’s stated position urging additional sanctions.

The senators at the briefing were Corker and fellow Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Barrasso of Wyoming, along with Democrats Tim Kaine of Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Angus King, an independent from Maine.

Corker later proposed a new bill that would impose new sanctions only if Iran walked away from a November 2013 agreement with the world powers in which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear program and allow international inspections, as well as the removal of medium-enriched uranium, in exchange for no new economic sanctions.

New Mossad recruiting website goes online

Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency has launched a new website to recruit for various positions.

In addition to Hebrew, the website, which went online Sept. 22, is available in several languages including Russian, English, Arabic and French.

A questionnaire to determine suitability for the agency can be filled out and submitted online.

Positions are available in operations, intelligence, technology and cyber, and administration, according to the website.

Sinai terror group beheads four accused of spying for Israel

Four Egyptian men were beheaded by a Sinai-based terror group for allegedly spying for Israel.

Members of the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis said in a video released Thursday that they killed the men because they had been spying for Israel’s Mossad agency.

The headless bodies were found in the Sinai earlier this month, Reuters reported citing security sources.

The video shows men in black masks beheading the accused collaborators as they kneeled on the ground, according to Reuters.

The terror group said that the men provided intelligence to Israel used in a July airstrike on northern Sinai, in which three Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis fighters were killed. The Egyptian army said at the time of the strike that no Israeli aircraft had been in Egyptian airspace.

Two of the executed men served time in Israeli jails for smuggling, and two had said the Mossad had paid them for information, the group asserted in the video.

Report: Mandela received Mossad training

Nelson Mandela received training from Israel’s Mossad in the 1960s, an Israeli government document has revealed.

Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid leader who died earlier this month, was trained by Mossad agents in weaponry and sabotage in 1962, according to a report Thursday in Haaretz that was based on a document in the Israel State Archives labeled “Top Secret.”

The document, a letter sent from the Mossad to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, said Mossad operatives also attempted to encourage Zionist sympathies in Mandela, Haaretz reported.

Mandela led the struggle against apartheid in his country from the 1950s. He was arrested, tried and released a number of times before going underground in the early 1960s. In January 1962, he left South Africa and visited various African countries, including Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and Ghana.

Mandela met with the Israelis in Ethiopia, where he arrived under the alias David Mobsari.

The letter noted that Mandela “showed an interest in the methods of the Haganah and other Israeli underground movements “ and that “he greeted our men with ‘Shalom,’ was familiar with the problems of Jewry and of Israel, and gave the impression of being an intellectual. The staff tried to make him into a Zionist,” the Mossad operative wrote.

“In conversations with him, he expressed socialist worldviews and at times created the impression that he leaned toward communism,” the letter continued, noting that the man who called himself David Mobsari was indeed Mandela.

This letter was discovered several years ago by David Fachler, 43, a resident of Alon Shvut, who was researching documents about South Africa for a master’s thesis.

Spying for Mossad, Israeli author never forsook fiction [Q&A]

For retired Israeli spy Mishka Ben-David, writing fiction was a realization of artistic aspirations he had long suppressed.

Ben-David had a doctorate in Hebrew literature and four books published when the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad recruited him in 1987. He agreed to avoid the authorial limelight as he embarked on a career of surveillance and subterfuge, including a role in Israel's botched assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in Jordan in 1997.

He says he stepped down after 12 years to spend more time with his family and resume writing. But Mossad stayed with Ben-David and features in half of the books that followed.

The first, “Duet in Beirut”, has been translated into English (Halban Publishers), with another two — “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” and “Last Stop Algiers” – to follow.

Ben-David, 61, spoke to Reuters at his home near Jerusalem about the benefits and drawbacks of taking creative inspiration from real-life espionage.

Q: To what extent do your spy novels reflect real events?

A: I am careful not to write anything that could disclose actual Mossad missions or tradecraft, though the portrayal of the kind of people who work there, their dilemmas and deliberations, the interaction between the command and field units, are accurate.

Some of my fictional devices – say, the undercover tactical unit sent into Lebanon in “Duet in Beirut”, or the way the protagonist in “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” is required to carry out an assassination, ad hoc, without having gone through the rigorous training that would demand – simply do not happen in Mossad. There's a good deal of fabrication.

Q: Do you therefore sensationalise your story lines?

A: There might be a small element of bringing the fictional spies into line with reader expectations of how people in this line of work would look, and what they would be capable of. But in reality there's no such thing as James Bond, and Le Carre's Smiley is also an extreme portrayal, at the unassuming other end of the dramatic spectrum. My characters, like real Mossad people, are somewhere between James Bond and Smiley.

Paradoxically, I would say that what Mossad really does is much more demanding, much more dangerous, and much more mind-bogglingly creative than what you get to read about. The fact you don't read about it is a gauge of its successful execution.

When I write about Mossad, it's because that's where I worked and it's what I know. Had I been a teacher or a hi-tech executive, I'd write about those kinds of characters instead – but with the same human intensity and quality.

Q: You say that during Mossad's attempt to kill Meshaal with poison, your job was to wait in an Amman hotel with the antidote in hand in case one of the assassins was accidentally contaminated. The Jordanians captured the hit team and you were ordered by your superiors to give them the antidote so Meshaal's life could be saved. Did such twists of fate find their way into your fiction?

A: Not directly. But during my various assignments, when a situation presented itself that I thought had dramatic potential, I would make a note of it – literally writing myself a memo on the back of a business card or whatever came to hand.

At the end of my tenure, I had 60 of these notes, waiting to be strung together into storylines. “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” is the product of three of these. One posed a situation where a woman leaves her husband, who is in Mossad, because he breaks his promise to her not to carry out assassinations. The second, a dislocated Mossad officer who, while abroad, falls in love with the wrong woman and wants to stay with her despite the orders of his superiors. And the third, a Mossad man who becomes so enamoured of his foreign cover that he is reluctant to 'go back' to being Israeli.

Q: Did your proclivity for fiction interfere with your Mossad work, where getting solid data and being a reliable informant are so essential?

A: There was never any clash between the two, because while I was in Mossad I would not have been temperamentally capable of writing. When I write I need utter concentration, for uninterrupted hours on end, as I delve into myself. My Mossad tasks were constantly focused on the outside world – the mission, the agents, the environment.

Q: Does Mossad have to approve your books?

A: By law, yes, as does the military censor's office and the civil service. Apart from one manuscript that was held up for more than six months while it was being vetted, I've not had any major problems in this regard.

On one occasion, Mossad asked me to change the make of a car that I had described as taking part in a fictional mission, because it was a little too close to the real thing.

The defence establishment also had a problem with the original location for my book “Last Stop Algiers”, which was not Algeria and was a place considered politically sensitive. So I sat with the official and went over a Middle East map, running through the various capitals. Beirut, I had already written about. Amman, I had enough of in real life. Finally we agreed on Algiers, and I rewrote the manuscript accordingly. I've had no problem with Mossad.

Editing by Tom Pfeiffer

David Suissa: On bombing Iran

“The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those powerful and unambiguous words were spoken by presidential candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 AIPAC convention. 

Since then, the danger from Iran has only gotten more “grave” as the regime has moved significantly closer to its nuclear dream.

How urgent is the threat? As Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently wrote in the Atlantic: “That Iran’s nuclear challenge poses the most urgent threat to peace and security today is widely agreed across the national security community.”

Allison quotes former Mossad head Efraim Halevy saying that “Israel has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran,” while Henry Kissinger warned that “we are in the last year where you can say a negotiation can conceivably succeed. … If nothing happens, the president will have to make some really tough decisions.”

We’ve seen how Iran has been resolute in its mission to become a nuclear power. But what about President Obama’s mission to “eliminate this threat”?

The president has done an admirable job of rallying the global community to enforce tough economic sanctions on Iran. The problem is that these sanctions haven’t convinced the Iranian regime to stop or end its nuclear program.

I’m no expert on centrifuges and uranium enrichment, but I do know something about human nature. When a bad guy shows you his evil intentions, it’s best to assume the worst, especially when the stakes are so high.

But instead of assuming the worst, we’ve been hoping for the best.

In particular, we’ve hoped that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Iran are tough enough to induce its leaders to abandon their dream of ruling the region and bringing Islamic glory back to Persia. That’s a big hope.

The latest instance of wishful thinking is that Iran’s new, more “moderate” president, Hassan Rohani, will decide that the bomb is really not worth all the tsuris and, voila, no more nuclear threat!

White House spokesman Jay Carney put it a little more diplomatically:

“The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

Yes, and should Hamas choose to reform its anti-Semitic charter and seek Israeli investment to build a Riviera on the Gaza coast, it will find many willing partners.

Remember, Rohani is the same sneaky guy who “struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator under another reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program,” as international jurist Irwin Cotler wrote recently.

Cotler even quotes Rohani boasting about it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan [a crucial nuclear site]. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Well, it looks like the shmoozing mullah is at it again, charming the West with wily words of reason while buying Iran more time to “complete the work.”

If the Obama administration was looking for an excuse to kick the can down the road and avoid making tough decisions, it certainly found it in Rohani.

So, this is where things stand: Even as Secretary of State John Kerry invests enormous energy trying to create a Palestinian state that he hopes won’t become another terror regime, a real terror regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction is continuing its headlong push for a nuclear bomb.

Is there anything the United States can do to get Iran’s attention, short of bombing its nuclear facilities?

I heard a good answer the other day from a prominent Jewish leader.

During a recent visit to the Jewish Journal offices, American Jewish Committee head David Harris explained that in this game of high-stakes poker, the crucial thing is to show Iran that you’re not bluffing — that you’re deadly serious about preventing a nuclear weapon. 

His idea? Explode a bunker-buster bomb — the kind of weapon the United States would use to take out the nuclear facilities — as a military “exercise,” and make sure everyone knows about it.

Could the move backfire and rally the Iranian people and the Shiite world behind the Persian regime? Sure, there are always risks, and the Iranian crisis has always been about picking the best of bad options.  

But here’s the essential point: An Iranian nuclear bomb is a deadly threat to Israel and the world. You can make all the tough speeches you want, and impose all the tough sanctions, but in the end, until the bad guy sees that you really mean business, he won’t take you seriously.

I think they call that human nature.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

The Middle East: Where upheaval reigns

In December 1973, shortly after the Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur War, Israel’s director of central intelligence submitted a report about the performance of the intelligence community before the war. The report acknowledged an “intelligence failure.” The problem wasn’t the collection of intelligence, which the report deemed sufficient, but “errors of evaluation” attributed to “attitudes and preconceptions lying behind the analysis.” Israel failed in forecasting the Yom Kippur War, for reasons that are now — as we approach the war’s 40th anniversary — being debated more than ever before.  

Such debate is useful only if the conclusions drawn from it benefit not only historians, but also contemporary policy makers. They must remember that collection and evaluation are not always compatible; they must avoid preconceptions. 

In December 2011, a year and a half ago, Israel’s then-defense minister, Ehud Barak, estimated that Syria’s Bashar Assad fall would come in a matter of “weeks.” He was not alone in his estimation. A month or so before him, “Western diplomats” told Reuters that Assad’s fall was all but certain. In January 2012, a month after Barak, a spokesman for the White House explained that Assad “has lost control of the country” and it is inevitable that his “brutal regime” would fall from power. Yet Assad has persisted in defeating such expectations and refused to comply. 

By April 2012, observers began to realize that the tune had to change. “It might take more than we thought,” a senior officer said, and the former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security services, mockingly suggested that the Assad regime would outlive Barak’s party. As things turned out, this was an accurate forecast, one of few such successes.

Seven years ago, I wrote in an article for Slate magazine that “for the United States, Syria is a constant reminder of the limitations of a superpower.” Assad, I wrote in this long-forgotten article on Syria’s strategy for survival, “is a fine acrobat — a joy to watch — as long as he doesn’t fall. And he understands the ways of the tumbler, knows that the only way for him to stay above the rest of the crowd is to keep moving in the same direction. One stop, even a minor hesitation, will be the end of his journey.” In the past he was ridiculed as an imbecile. Shimon Peres derogatively called him “the son of a clever man.” Yet, as with Barak, Assad might still outlast Peres’ term as Israel’s president. A year or so to go.

Another intelligence failure then? The progress of the Arab Spring is tricky to predict. Just weeks before Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt, the head of Israel’s military intelligence told a Knesset committee that the Egyptian regime was stable. The predictions with regard to Syria are somewhat similar, but not all intelligence services repeated the mistake, or they attempted to correct the mistake of not foreseeing Mubarak’s fall with another mistake — hurriedly concluding that Assad stood no chance for survival. Some weren’t as quick as the Americans and the Israelis to bury Assad and the Syrian regime. Some also decided not to be subjugated to the role of bystander in this supposed forthcoming funeral. The Iranians were assisting Assad with weaponry, manpower and political support. Hezbollah fighters came to the rescue. Russia was blocking any attempt to use international forums to punish him and was insisting on keeping commitments related to the arming of the Syrian army. “Russia was simply calculating that Assad would be able to defeat the uprising in Syria and remain in power,” a former head of Mossad suggested. 

That Mossad chief is quoted in a paper by Noah Slepkov, foreign policy analyst and adjunct fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, but his is not the only possible explanation given for Russia’s conduct. Another reason given for Russia’s insistence on allying with the Assad regime is that “Russia wanted to send a strong message to its allies in the region that ‘if you stick with us, we won’t turn our back on you.’ ” That’s the sort of message — a bitter Israeli diplomat told me earlier this week — that the U.S. no longer can send in the wake of its abandonment of the Egyptian Mubarak regime. 

A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi holds a defaced poster of Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi by the Tamarod (rebel) movement in downtown Cairo on June 6. Photo by Amr Abdallah Dalsh/REUTERS

Last month, the Russians boldly let it be known that their surface-to-air missiles will be sent to Syria as planned. Disregarding Israeli warnings that such missiles would be destroyed, as well as American protestations, the Russian are betting on the Assad regime and its ability to survive, as well as on America’s lack of appetite for confrontation. Dangling the promise of a future peace conference on Syria — not in June, as “there is still a lot of work to do to bring a conference about,” but possibly in July — the Kremlin is running circles around an American administration yearning for a painless and cost-free solution in Syria. Discussions in Washington this week about possibly arming rebel groups might be too little and too late. If earlier the Obama administration could sit on its hands and assume that the rebels could succeed without the need of American intervention, it now has the opposite worry: whether it should buy into what might be a losing stake. 

The never-ending Arab Spring has put the Middle East under a constant cloud of chaos, through which only the far-sighted can see and only the determined can pass. U.S. influence is waning, and with it the trust of other nations in its reliability. And while the Syrian crisis was initially seen as a possible blow to Iranian influence and power, things are murkier today: If Assad survives, it will be a huge victory for the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Shiite axis. The Kremlin doesn’t much like the prospect of Sunni extremists taking advantage of a political vacuum in Syria. So, yes, the Russians seem to bet on the Shiites — Iran, Hezbollah and Assad’s Alawites — while the United States is, reluctantly, left with the Sunnis. That’s another peculiar result of the ongoing regional crisis, as the U.S. went to war in the Middle East, not so very long ago, to avenge and prevent further terror actions of Sunni extremists. 

In recent weeks, a debate has been growing over the extent to which the Syrian war is becoming a religious war between Sunnis and Shiites. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, following his short visit into Syrian territory, said last week that “a sectarian battle line is being drawn through the heart of the region — with Sunni extremists, many allied with al-Qaeda, dominant on one side, and Iranian-backed proxy forces dominant on the other.” McCain also declared “the entire Middle East is now up for grabs.” That is, the Syrian war is no longer about Syria. At stake: fragile Iraq, terrified Jordan, tense Israel, nervous Turkey, miserable Lebanon. 

The Syrian flag is seen as people watch Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking to supporters via live broadcast during a May 25 event in Bekaa Valley, Resistance and Liberation Day,  which marks the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Photo by Sharif Karim/REUTERS

This is not “a war that is being fought by nation states. Borders are being erased. Borders are becoming liquid in a way,” Robert Malley, program director for Middle East and North Africa for the International Crisis Group said last week. 

The crisis is bubbling through the region by way of religious osmosis. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on June 9 warned of “a storm passing through the region.” Al-Maliki’s Shiite government is facing a Sunni opposition, so he knows what he is talking about as he warns of “a brutal sectarian storm.” The split in Islam is old — almost as old as Islam itself. Having originated with a battle for dominance among some of the followers of Muhammad, the result was different and at times contradicting interpretations of Islam’s teachings. At times, these branches have coexisted peacefully; at other times, competition and emotions have run high and war ensued. 

In Syria, Islam’s major strands have taken sides against one another. The Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil states have been sending arms to Sunni rebels. Sunni organizations, some linked to al-Qaeda, have been dispatching fighters to the front. On the other side, Shiite Iran and Hezbollah were bolstering Assad’s forces. 

The rhetoric gives an indication of a wider war among Muslims that was ignited at the high temperatures of the reactor core that is the Syrian conflict. Egyptian cleric Sheik Mohammed el-Zoghbi on June 7 called on “young men in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen” to go to Syria to fight. “We must all go to purge Syria of this infidel regime, with its Shiites who came from Iran, southern Lebanon and Iraq,” el-Zoghbi said. Influential Yusuf al-Qaradawi branded Hezbollah — literally, “the party of God” — as the “party of Satan.” The image of Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, not long ago the most popular leader on the Arab street, is waning. But he was right to declare that the war is now entering “a completely new phase.” 

Also waning is any short-term fantasy about a better Middle East. In recent weeks, the war in Syria went viral and spread through the region, while at the same time, the model for a better region — Turkey — is wracked by protests. In fact, any conceivable model leading to stability and calm is fast disappearing from this area of the world. 

Fadi Kerkoz mourns next to a body of his brother Shadi Kerkoz, who was killed in a battle against Syrian forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, in the Syrian town of Qusair, near the Lebanon border, on June 2. AP Photo/Qusair Lens

Borders are no longer a guarantor of national coherence, as religious emotions play a growing role in the way battle lines are drawn. Political arrangements collapse: The autocratic yet stable model of Egypt lost to the street, and the Democratic-Islamist model of Egypt doesn’t quite work. In early June, an Egyptian court sent dozens of NGO workers to prison for working in an organization not registered with the government. Two years after Mubarak’s fall, the Pew Research Center found that “Egyptian public mood is increasingly negative.” The public wants democracy but thinks that law and order is getting worse, along with a loss of personal freedoms and a declining standard of living. “While they endorse democratic principles, most Egyptians say they are dissatisfied with the way their new democracy is currently working. 

The once exemplary model of Turkey — hailed by some as the “road map” for other Muslim countries striving to have a democracy — is also in trouble, as recent events in Istanbul’s Taksim Square demonstrate. Early on June 11, as protesters in Turkey were pondering the meaning of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supposed agreement to meet with their leaders, police forces stormed Taksim Square, using tear gas and prompting many of the protesters to flee the area. And while the ultimate result of the recent Turkish strife is far from clear, one thing clearly happened in Turkey: the façade of a liberal democracy was torn away, leaving the reality of a problematic regime exposed in the town’s square. All this suggests long-term instability. A nightmare for any intelligence agency attempting to make predictions and a mixed bag for Israel. Surviving in an unstable and violent region is hardly a blessing for Israel and ensures that the coming years will be filled with twists and turns. It also ensures a growing demand for investment in military and defense measures and in keeping up with all the other costs associated with the maintenance of what was once tagged by Barak as a “villa in the jungle.” And of course, also looming is the very serious problem of Iran’s nuclear program, threatening to void all other predictions. On the other hand, that Israel’s enemies have to busy themselves with fighting one another probably makes it less likely that they will have the energy or the resources to launch a war — that is, the good old conventional type of battle — against Israel. They can harass Israel, they can attack it with missiles or terror, but they are hardly likely to find time to plot a strategy that will defeat it on the battlefield. 

A sprinkle of sugar in a boiling, bitter dish.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, please visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/Rosnersdomain.

Australian FM confirms Ben Zygier worked for Israeli government

Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli dual national known previously as Prisoner X, worked for the Israeli government, Australia's foreign minister confirmed for the first time.

But Minister of Foreign Affairs Bob Carr at a news conference Wednesday refused to say whether Zygier worked for the Mossad, Israel's secret service, as has been speculated since an Australian Broadcasting Corp. investigation last month linked Zygier to the infamous Prisoner X.  The Melbourne native, a graduate of Zionist youth movements in Australia, had moved to Israel in 1994.

Releasing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's internal report into the mysterious suicide of Zygier while in custody in a maximum security prison in Israel in December 2010, Carr criticized the Australian authorities handling of the case as ''unsatisfactory.”

He also warned that Australia's government will react angrily if there is proof that Zygier, who held three Australian passports under three aliases, abused the integrity of Australian passports.

''We won't settle for Australian passports being abused in this way,” Carr said.

“If the world thinks Australian passports are routinely debauched by another country, then Australians presenting their passports all over the world could well place their lives in danger. We can't live with that.”

According to the report, Australian intelligence agents found out about Zygier's arrest on Feb. 16, 2010, and told senior officials just over a week later. It said ASIO, Australia's spy agency, told officials in then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's office and then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith's office on March 1, 2010.

But Rudd and Smith said Wednesday that they had no recollection of being briefed on the Zygier case.

The report said Zygier received more than 50 visits from family in the 10 months he was incarcerated before he apparently committed suicide on Dec. 15, 2010.

Report: Israel informed Australia when Zygier was arrested

Israeli intelligence services notified Australian officials of Ben Zygier’s arrest immediately after he was detained, an Australian news agency reported. 

Australia’s Fairfax Media quoted a “well-placed source familiar with the case” as saying Israeli intelligence had told Australian officials about the 2010 arrest of Zygier, a dual Australian-Israeli citizen dubbed Prisoner X who committed suicide later that year while in prison in Israel. Zygier is alleged to have worked with the Mossad.

Fairfax Media's former Middle East correspondent, Jason Koutsoukis, said he had been tipped off by an ''Australian intelligence source'' in October 2009 about concerns that Zygier may have been facilitating the use of Australian passports by Israeli spies. He then interviewed Zygier, who denied the allegation. A week after their last conversation, Zygier was imprisoned.

Israel releases judge’s report into Australian’s suicide

Israel released details on Tuesday about the 2010 jailhouse suicide of an Australian immigrant reported to have been a disgraced Mossad spy, saying he hanged himself in his cell and no foul play was involved.

The affair was kept under wraps until it emerged last week with an Australian television expose that identified the dead man as 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a likely Israeli foreign intelligence recruit held for suspected security offences.

Without explicitly naming Zygier, Israel has confirmed that at the time it had a dual citizen in custody and under alias to stem serious harm to national interests, on which it would not elaborate. The Dec. 15 date it gave for the detainee's death matched that etched on the Melbourne-born Jew's gravestone.

Easing a gag order, an Israeli court allowed the publication on Tuesday of the results of a judge's inquiry, completed two months ago, into the death.

The investigation showed the prisoner looped a wet sheet around his neck, tied it to the bars of a bathroom window in his cell and hanged himself, choking to death.

Israeli media reported the bathroom area was not covered, for privacy reasons, by closed-circuit television cameras that transmitted images from other parts of the isolation cell.

Ruling out foul play on the basis of medical and physical evidence, Judge Dafna Blatman-Kardai said entry to the cell was monitored by cameras and examination of their footage showed no one “intervened in causing the death of the deceased”.

She said his family – which has not commented publicly on the case – agreed with the findings.

“A small amount of sedative was found in his blood. There was no alcohol or drugs. This does not change my determination … about the cause of death,” a forensic medical expert was quoted as saying in the judge's report.

Civil liberties groups and some lawmakers in Israel, protesting at the state censorship restricting local reporting on the case, have demanded to know whether Zygier's rights were violated by his months of incarceration, isolated from other inmates, and whether his death could have been prevented.

Those calls were echoed in Australia, where media suggested Zygier had been suspected of betraying Mossad missions to Canberra's spy services. Australia was angered in 2010 by the fraudulent use of its passports in the assassination of a Hamas arms procurer in Dubai, which the Gulf emirate blamed on Israel.

NEGLIGENCE IN QUESTION

In her report, the judge said there was prima facie evidence that the Prisons Authority had been negligent, noting that it had received special instructions on supervising the prisoner to prevent a possible suicide.

A Justice Ministry spokesman said state prosecutors would decide whether charges will be brought.

A source briefed on the affair told Reuters that Israel has since installed biometric detectors in the toilet stalls of high-risk prisoners, designed to summon guards within seconds should they stop breathing or display other signs of distress.

Responding to the media reports about Zygier, Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told parliament on Monday that the detainee had received frequent family visits and been “supervised by mental-health support and treatment systems, both external and those of the Prisons Service”.

Zygier also consulted with Israeli lawyers, one of whom, Avigdor Feldman, said he saw the married father of two shortly before his death to discuss “grave charges” on which he had been indicted, and the possibility of a plea bargain.

“I met with a balanced person … who was rationally weighing his legal options,” Feldman told Israeli television last week, adding Zygier had denied the charges against him.

“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail time and be ostracised from his family and the Jewish community. There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”

Feldman declined to comment on an Israeli newspaper report that Zygier faced between 10 and 20 years in prison.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor on Saturday called Zygier's death a “tragedy” but said his treatment was justified.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Report: Zygier may have told Australian intelligence about Mossad ops

Suspected Israeli spy Ben Zygier may have given detailed information about his work to Australian intelligence, leading to his arrest and imprisonment in Israel, according to an Australian news program.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s “Foreign Correspondent” reported Monday that Zygier met with Australia's domestic intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, or ASIO, and provided details about Israel's Mossad secret service operations, including a top-secret mission in Italy that had taken years to plan.

Zygier, a Melbourne native, visited Australia often with his wife and children, and enrolled in a master's in business administration program at Montash University in that city. It was during one of those visits that he had contact with Australian intelligence, “Foreign Correspondent” reported, and also applied for a visa to Italy.

Zygier, who was known as Prisoner X as well as Ben Alon, was the subject of an expose by “Foreign Correspondent” that reported Feb. 12 that he was jailed in early 2010 and apparently committed suicide in the high-security Ayalon Prison near Tel Aviv. The report suggested that he worked with the Mossad.

Following the report, internal investigations on his case were initiated in Israel and Australia.

Zygier was one of three Australian Jews who changed their names several times, receiving new passports for travel in the Middle East and Europe allegedly for their work for the Mossad, according to the news program. He was buried in Melbourne, where he attended day school.

Mystery Australian’s next-of-kin seek compensation from Israel

Relatives of an Australian immigrant to Israel who killed himself in 2010 while secretly jailed on charges of violating national security are seeking compensation from the state, a source briefed on the affair said on Friday.

The source said the talks were preliminary as Israel had not formally faulted its prison authorities in the death of Ben Zygier, which was made public this week by an Australian television expose that described him as a Mossad officer.

A Mossad link has been neither denied nor confirmed by Australia or Israel, where military censorship and court gag orders kept many details of the case from the media.

The silence has fanned media speculation that Israel believes the 34-year-old Melbourne Jew had betrayed its intelligence agency's high-stakes work abroad.

The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which oversees the Mossad, did not respond for a request for comment on the matter.

Israel's Haaretz daily said the state agreed to pay “several million shekels” in damages to Zygier's family around six weeks ago, when an internal inquest declared his death a suicide.

The inquest result was disclosed by the Justice Ministry on Wednesday, in Israel's only official statement on the case. The statement, which did not identify Zygier by name, said a judge had also ordered an “evaluation regarding issues of negligence”.

A source briefed on the affair denied there had been any agreement to compensate Zygier's family for the failure of staff to prevent his suicide at Ayalon prison, where he had been held for months, under alias and in isolation from other inmates.

“There's no decision on negligence yet, so there's no compensation in any form in that regard,” the source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “What there have been are initial inquiries by the deceased's representatives about compensation.”

“GRAVE CRIMES”

A Zygier family lawyer, Moshe Mazur, declined to comment, citing the sensitivity of the case.

So did Israel's Prisons Service. But one of its officials voiced skepticism about the idea of compensation being agreed with Zygier's family, saying such payouts in negligence cases could take “years” to negotiate.

Avigdor Feldman, an Israeli lawyer with whom Zygier briefly consulted while in prison, said he knew of no compensation deal.

Were the state to pay damages for negligence, he said, it would not reflect any official position on Zygier's guilt or innocence: “Even convicted criminals are eligible for compensation if their jailers fail to provide for their well-being as required.”

Feldman said Zygier died after being indicted for “grave crimes” but before being tried. Zygier had denied the charges against him but was considering a plea bargain, Feldman said.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said on Thursday that Canberra was told Zygier had been held over “serious offences under Israeli national security legislation”.

Feldman told Israeli radio on Thursday that a “Mossad liaison” contact had arranged his with Zygier.

The Age, a Melbourne newspaper, said in a report citing Australian security officials that Zygier may have been in contact with the intelligence services of his native country and “been about to blow the whistle” about Mossad operations – including their possible fraudulent use of Australian passports.

A veteran intelligence officer who declined to be identified by name or nationality said there was a possibility that, had Zygier indeed served Mossad, the agency would have paid death benefits to his family – regardless of the charges against him.

“If he was never tried, then he was never found guilty, and he may be considered to have died while in active service,” the intelligence veteran said. “That would make his next-of-kin eligible to the various relevant payouts.”

The Hebrew word for compensation, “pitzuim”, can also be used for benefits paid without claims of misconduct.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood

Spy suicide scandal focuses attention on Israel’s foreign Jews

The jailhouse suicide of an Australian immigrant who may have betrayed Israel's Mossad has focused attention on the agency's recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover of their native passports.

After a three-year blackout was broken by an Australian TV expose, Israel on Wednesday acknowledged that a dual national had committed suicide in prison where he had been kept isolated in the name of state security.

Authorities made no effort to deny reports the man was 34-year-old Ben Zygier, a Melbourne Jew who moved to Israel, became a citizen, joined its military and Mossad, only to be arrested in early 2010 on suspicion of betraying secrets after Canberra began investigating trips he took to Middle East trouble-spots.

Such travel would be impossible for an Israeli but not for an Australian, especially if – according to one media account – Zygier used a passport reissued under a new, Anglicised name.

Israel has made little secret of seeing its influxes of foreign Jews, often from Muslim countries, as intelligence assets given their language skills and cultural savvy. Many immigrants recall being tapped by Mossad recruiters or asked to loan out their original passports, presumably a cover for spies.

But Israeli officials insist that Jews abroad are never used by Mossad against the interests of their countries – a lesson from the enlistment in the 1980s of U.S. Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard, whose discovery provoked lasting outrage in Washington.

While some intelligence veterans say employing foreign-born Jews is consistent with the universally elastic ethics of espionage, it has dangers. Vetting foreign volunteers is difficult, opening Israel up to security leaks less likely with homegrown spies. Some experts say Israel also needs to be wary of miring allies in its shadow wars and stirring suspicions about the allegiances of Jews abroad.

THREAT TO A LOT OF PEOPLE

Warren Reed, a retired officer with Australia's overseas intelligence service ASIS, said the Zygier affair could endanger compatriots who might now be mistaken for Mossad spies while travelling in areas hostile to Israelis.

“This poses a threat to a lot of people, especially journalists who move around frequently,” Reed told Reuters.

While all intelligence agencies work with assumed or filched identities, Reed argued, Mossad creates a bigger probability of reprisals by “by being more severe in its actions, given Israel's security predicament”.

These actions are reputed to include assassinations, such as of a Palestinian weapons procurer in Dubai in 2010, in which the suspected Israeli hit-team used forged Australian and European passports.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida quoted unidentified Western sources on Thursday as saying Zygier took part in the Dubai operation and offered information on the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in return for the emirate's protection.

In another twist, Australia's Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.

LOYALTIES

Israel has not confirmed publicly that Zygier was a Mossad operative. But Avigdor Feldman, a criminal attorney who met Zygier in his isolated jail cell a day or two before his death, appeared to let slip that he was indeed a spy.

“The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive,” Feldman told Israel's Kol Barama radio station.

Nick Pratt, a retired U.S. Marines colonel and CIA officer now with the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, took a forgiving view of Mossad passport tactics.

“Israel is a unique country. They live in a bad neighbourhood and they will do anything they can to preserve and protect that country, and quite frankly I have absolutely no problem with that,” he said.

Citing his own experience of foreign nationals being brought in as CIA officers and then deployed to their areas of origin, Pratt said the priority was to ensure that their loyalty was exclusively to the recruiting country.

“Intelligence agencies break the law – but other people's laws,” he said.

Both Reed and Pratt said disclosures of Jewish diaspora involvement in Israeli espionage could stoke anti-Semitism and allegations of dual loyalty – an opinion shared by Gad Shimron, a former Mossad officer who writes on intelligence issues.

“This is a problem that has always been there, and will remain,” Shimron said. “I don't know what to say, other than that the rule is: Never turn a Jew against his host country.”

While Zygier's family declined all public comment on his case, friends of the dead man recalled his Zionist upbringing and pride in Israel, where he was married and had children.

The idea that someone like Zygier had violated Mossad's code of silence, perhaps even imperilling lives, provoked soul-searching in Israel. “Did the Mossad operative commit treason?” asked the biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth on its front page.

Shimron said this was a possibility, given Israel's past cases of double-agents and moles, among them Jewish immigrants.

“There's always the chance of bad apples in a batch of recruits. The trick is to weed them out in good time,” he said.

Reed suggested Mossad was likelier to miss warning signs in candidates from abroad, where Israel would find it harder to carry out comprehensive background checks and psychological screening, especially if there were a rush to find recruits to fend off proliferating Middle East menaces.

“If they don't have the time and inclination to carefully build up a picture of the person, including the first 20 years of his or her life, they never really find out what's in their heart,” Reed said.

“I would imagine that this paradox is a real problem for Israeli intelligence, and possibly people there are saying now, 'I warned you!'”

Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Israeli lawyer sheds some light on Australian spy mystery

An Australian immigrant, reported to have been recruited by Israel's Mossad spy agency, was charged with grave crimes before he committed suicide in an Israeli jail, one of his lawyers said on Thursday.

The closely guarded case has raised questions in Australia and Israel about the suspected use by the Mossad of dual Australian-Israeli nationals and the circumstances behind the 2010 detention and death of 34-year-old Ben Zygier.

Israel on Wednesday broke its silence over an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) report which said that Zygier, who moved to Israel, was jailed in isolation over suspected misconduct while spying for the Mossad.

Partially lifting a gag order on the case, an Israeli court said a dual-nationality citizen had been imprisoned secretly under a false name for “security reasons”, and found dead in his cell in what was eventually ruled a suicide.

Israeli criminal attorney Avigdor Feldman said he met with the man, dubbed “Prisoner X”, a day before his death.

“I met with a balanced person, given the tragic outcome, who was rationally weighing his legal options,” Feldman told Channel 10 Television.

He said the detainee was charged with “grave crimes” and that there were ongoing negotiations for a plea bargain. The attorney did not elaborate on the allegations, which he said the prisoner denied. Reporting in Israel on the case is still subject to strict government censorship.

The Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida quoted on Thursday unidentified Western sources as saying Zygier took part in the killing by a Mossad hit-team of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in Dubai in 2010.

Zygier, the newspaper reported, offered Dubai information about the operation in return for the emirate's protection.

Offering a different version, Australia's Fairfax Media said Australian security officials suspected Zygier may have been about to disclose Israeli intelligence operations, including the use of fraudulent Australian passports, either to the Canberra government or to the media before his arrest.

“His interrogators told him he could expect lengthy jail- time and be ostracized from his family and the Jewish community,” Feldman said. “There was no heart string they did not pull, and I suppose that ultimately brought about the tragic end.”

In a separate interview Feldman appeared to inadvertently confirm the man was a Mossad spy.

“The Mossad liaison I was in touch with informed me that, unfortunately, my client was no longer alive,” Feldman told Kol Barama Radio. Israel has neither denied nor confirmed that “Prisoner X” was a Mossad officer.

The jailhouse suicide of Zygier has focused attention on the agency's recruitment of foreign-born Jews who could spy under cover of their native passports.

SUSPICIONS

Australian media have reported that Zygier had been one of at least three Australian-Israeli dual nationals under investigation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation over suspicions of espionage for Israel.

Australia complained to Israel in 2010 after Dubai said forged Australian passports were used by the Mossad squad. Mahbouh's killers, authorities in the emirate said, also had also had British, Irish, French and German passports.

Mossad is widely reputed to have stepped up its shadow war in recent years against Iran's nuclear program, Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas, suspected nuclear procurement by Syria and arms smuggling to Palestinians through Dubai, Sudan and Egypt.

In an apparent reversal from previous statements, Australian Foreign minister Bob Carr said on Thursday his ministry had known about Zygier's jailing in Israel as early as February 2010. On Wednesday he said Australian diplomats in Israel only found out about the detention after his death in custody later that year.

Israel's Justice Ministry said a court has ordered an inquiry into possible negligence in Zygier's death.

Zygier, who came from a prominent Jewish family in Australia and was also known as Ben Alon and Ben Allen, was buried in Melbourne. He had been married with two young children. His relatives have declined all comment on the case.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

More details trickle out about Israel’s Prisoner X, aka Ben Zygier, an Australian Jew

More information has begun to trickle out about the mysterious man known as Prisoner X who hanged himself in Israel’s Ayalon Prison in 2010.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s “Foreign Correspondent” program made headlines worldwide when it reported this week that the prisoner, whose identity was so secret that even his jailers did not know it, was a Jewish immigrant to Israel from Melbourne named Ben Zygier. The program claimed it had “compelling evidence” that the inmate incarcerated for several months in the suicide-proof cell built specifically for Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin was Zygier and that he had worked with the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

Zygier was 34 when he died on Dec. 15, 2010 from “asphyxiation by hanging,” according to documents obtained by the TV investigation.

Israel had imposed a strict gag order on the case that forbade publication of any details related to the case — or even the existence of the prisoner. When Israeli media outlets began to report this week about the Australian news report, Israeli authorities ordered them to be deleted.

On Wednesday, however, the gag order was lifted a day after Knesset members began to raise questions about the case in Israel’s parliament.

Zygier is no stranger in the Australian Jewish community. His father, Geoffrey, is the executive director of B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation Commission. At the time of his son’s death, he was executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria. Geoffrey Zygier did not respond to JTA’s inquiries this week about his son.

Zygier’s mother, Louise, worked at Melbourne’s Monash University and helped raise funds for its Jewish center.

Zygier himself went to two Jewish day schools in Melbourne, King David and Bialik College. He was a member of the Jewish youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and spent significant time in Israel, where he graduated from the Machon leadership program in Jerusalem. He lived for a while at Kibbutz Gazit, in Israel’s Galilee region. Back in Australia, he worked at the Deacons law firm in Melbourne before immigrating to Israel and assuming the name Ben Alon, according to acquaintances.

He eventually married an Israeli woman and lived in Raanana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, with his wife and two children.

The Australian network's report said Zygier had another Australian passport under the name Ben Allen, and that he was connected to the Mossad, but the program offered no conclusive proof. Ex-Mossad officials reached in Israel told reporters they had no comment.

Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr ordered a review of the case on Wednesday in light of the “Foreign Correspondent” probe. Carr said he understood that consular officials were neither informed that an Australian was in jail nor that he had died in prison.

The first the government heard of the case was when family members contacted the Australian consulate in Israel to seek help repatriating Zygier’s body for burial in Melbourne.

It emerged on Wednesday that Israel had informed an Australian diplomat of Zygier’s jailing but that the diplomat had not passed on the information through the requisite channels.

Meanwhile, members of Australia’s Jewish community shared the details they knew about Zygier’s earlier life. One Hashomer friend who was on Kibbutz Gazit with Zygier in 1994 said that Zygier “never struck me as someone who was stable.”

“I could never imagine someone like that being good for Mossad,” said the acquaintance, who like most acquaintances interviewed about Zygier did not want to be identified. “Also, Ben talked too much.”

Another acquaintance said, “I remember hanging out in Israel with him in 1996. He was a nice guy, a bit lost. Next I heard was that he died in Israel. At the time, what the family understood to be the case was that he was overseas on a [Mossad] operation, then they got confirmation he had committed suicide. It crushed the family.”

Reached by JTA, Zygier’s cousin, Marlon Dubs, said, “I have nothing to add, nothing at all.”

The family’s rabbi, Shimshon Yurkowicz of Chabad, declined to confirm or deny anything to do with the Australian network's report.

Zygier’s uncle said the family was in mourning.

“I saw that show last night. I have no idea what is true and what isn't true,” Willy Zygier told The Age newspaper on Wednesday. “All I know is there is a family tragedy. Every suicide is a family tragedy.”

A spokesman for the family told the newspaper that the family would not be releasing a statement.

Others who know the family said the parents were devastated in 2010 by their son’s death.

“They were absolutely shocked, it was just terrible,” recalled Danny Lamm, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. Lamm said he had no current information on the case.

“There was a complete shutdown,” said someone else about circumstances surrounding Zygier’s death. “No one knew what the story was. The parents crumbled. They cut off from life. They were broken. They completely withdrew from everything for two years.”

Both of Zygier’s parents quit the Jewish community posts they held around the time of Zygier’s death.

“The poor parents have suffered enough till now,” one former Jewish community leader told JTA. “No one acknowledged there was suicide. There were rumors he was Mossad, but no one knew, there was such secrecy.”

The Israeli Embassy in Canberra did not respond to a request for comment. Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Council of Australia, said, “We know absolutely nothing about the allegations in the story.”

The gag order placed on Israeli media for stories about Prisoner X was unusually strict. Citing “a serious breach of the state's security,” the order forbade Israeli media not just from reporting any details about the case but also from noting the Australian Broadcasting Corp.'s report this week. Shortly after the report aired, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned top editors to reaffirm the importance of the suppression order.

Israel rattled by mysterious Australian prisoner, reports ABC

An Australian man committed suicide in a high-security Israeli jail in 2010 after being held for months in great secrecy, Australia's ABC channel said on Tuesday, throwing new light on a case that has rattled Israel.

The unforced ABC story named the man, known previously only as “prisoner x”, as Ben Zygier. It added that it “understood” the 34-year-old from Melbourne had been previously recruited by the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

There was no official comment on the story in Israel.

However, within hours of the report surfacing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office summoned Israeli editors to ask them not to publish a story “that is very embarrassing to a certain government agency”, Israel's Haaretz newspaper said.

“The emergency meeting was called following a broadcast outside Israel regarding the incident in question,” Haaretz said, giving no further information.

Shortly afterwards, all reference to the Australian report vanished from Israeli news sites — including Haaretz itself.

Such a gag order is highly unusual in Israel, where state military censors normally allow local media to quote foreign sources on controversial incidents — such as an alleged attack on Syria last month by the Israeli airforce.

ABC said that Zygier's imprisonment was so secret that not even his guards knew his name. However, word got out at the time of a mysterious prisoner and human rights groups wrote to the state to demand more information.

“It is insupportable that, in a democratic country, authorities can arrest people in complete secrecy and disappear them from public view without the public even knowing such an arrest took place,” the Association for Civil Rights in Israel wrote in June 2010.

When Israel's Ynet website wrote about the case that same month the story was quickly removed because of a gag order.

ABC said Zygier had moved to Israel 10 years before his death and changed his name to Ben Alon. It gave no reason for his imprisonment, speculating only that it would have had to concern espionage and sensitive state secrets.

Funeral notices from Australia show that Zygier's body was flown back to Melbourne at the end of December 2010 for burial.