Yom Kippur in Israel – and Thoughts of Espionage and War

by Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv

Israel has just come to a standstill for 26 hours.  It’s the eve of Yom Kippur, and even for those who don’t attend Kol Nidrei services at synagogues it is a very quiet time – suitable  for contemplation and reflection.

Yom Kippur is, of course, the Day of Atonement: the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.

For many Israelis, notably those who were in the army or the security agencies in the early 1970s, this is remembered as the 39th anniversary of Israel’s biggest military and intelligence failure.  On that day, at least – October 6, 1973 – it was a defeat for the seemingly invincible forces of Israel.

Egypt and Syria took Israel by surprise, with coordinated attacks in the South and in the North.  The Yom Kippur War – known to Arabs as The October War – cost the lives of nearly 2,700 young Israeli servicemen.  Restoring some measure of pride to Egypt and its then-president Anwar Sadat, the war did also pave the way to a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.

Ashraf Marwan was paid by Israel’s Mossad

Recently declassified documents in Israel reveal a large part of the intelligence failure: the refusal to believe information from a top-level spy in Cairo, an Egyptian who was very close to Sadat, who told the Mossad that Egypt and Syria would attack on October 6.  Our book similarly tells the tale of that spy for the Mossad.  His name was Ashraf Marwan, and he was a son-in-law of Sadat’s predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Israelis and Egyptians still debate whether Marwan might have been a double- or a triple-agent. Whom did he truly serve? His mysterious death in London in 2007 only deepened the debate.

That story is in our Chapter 12, “Surprises of War and Peace,” as is another entirely new and true tale of Israeli espionage inside Egypt in the years leading up to the Yom Kippur War.

The protagonist, whose family asks that he not be named, was an Israeli Jew who had linguistic abilities and was recruited by the Mossad.  He was trained as an intelligence officer and sent into Egypt in 1969 under deep cover – with a most unusual “legend,” or false identity.  His story, unfortunately, does not have a happy ending.  Here is an excerpt:

“Serving in the Mossad was a big honor for him,” one of his controllers recalled.  He was clearly willing to take on a notably dangerous assignment: living, under a false identity, in an enemy country.  His destination would be Egypt.

He underwent an intensive course to learn the crafts needed to be an intelligence officer.  That was the usual stuff taught to dozens of Israelis as they prepared to vanish into enemy lands.  Unusual in his case was the cover story.

Thanks to especially warm relations with a small nation, the leader of which was a true friend of Israel, the Mossad arranged that A. would go to Egypt as a citizen of that country.  Only the country’s leader and three of his top officials were privy to the secret.

Before  A. left Israel, the head of Caesarea [the operations department], Mike Harari, tried unsuccessfully to persuade A.’s girlfriend to marry him and tag along on the adventure in Cairo.  A married couple was considered safer – far less likely to be harassed or blackmailed – than a 30-year-old bachelor.  Even worse, when Wolfgang Lotz [who spied for Israel in Cairo in the early 1960s] went to Egypt without his wife, he ended up marrying a second woman.   

A. was very successful, from the Mossad’s point of view.  He quickly became a prominent member of the expatriates’ circuit in Cairo, hosting parties and mingling with foreign diplomats and the Egyptian elites, including army officers.

He sent his information and observations in coded messages to Tel Aviv, using a transmitter hidden in the posh villa he rented in one of Cairo’s most prestigious neighborhoods.  Some reports were sent in the mail to post office boxes rented by the Mossad in Europe.

When circumstances permitted, he traveled to European capitals for face-to-face meetings with his controllers, because then he could freely add details and respond to questions.  He used some of those trips to fly to Israel for brief visits with his girlfriend.

Mossad headquarters began to realize that the fears about sending a bachelor were materializing.  Several women in Cairo, notably the daughter of a European diplomat, were attracted by A., and he went out on dates with some of them.

His loneliness manifested itself in personal messages that he transmitted – along with his official espionage reports – asking that “birthday wishes” to his friends and regards to his girlfriend be passed along by the Mossad communications desk.  His handlers, including Harari, found that to be excessive and reprimanded him; but they also grew increasingly concerned about his state of mind.

Still unable to persuade A.’s girlfriend to join him in Egypt, Harari decided – for the sake of the important mission – to “marry him off.”  The Israeli spy was instructed to fly to Europe on “vacation,” where he would meet a pretty young woman and bring her to Cairo.  Harari sent a female combatant, whose first initial was M., to meet A., and they were “married” in Europe by virtue of documents she brought with her from the Mossad’s forgers.

Before their flight to Egypt, they lavished a lot of Israeli government cash on new furniture, bed linens, and tableware – just as any newlyweds might do.

Now the Mossad had two spies in Cairo.  A. and M. worked in concert and helped each other achieve more than one person could.  In the months leading to the October 1973 war, A. was able to photograph the military build-up from Cairo all the way to the Suez Canal.

A. reported that Egypt was preparing for war.  Military intelligence analysts in Tel Aviv were not moved by his reports.  They were sticking to their conclusion that Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat was not ready for a new war.

A. and M. would remain in Cairo during the war and had the strange experience of seeing the entire city rejoicing at setbacks for Israeli troops.  This, frankly, was frustrating for two Jews in the middle of a crowded Arab country, however well trained they might have been to act dispassionate. 

They stayed in Egypt for another two years.  The Caesarea department decided in 1976 to remove the “couple,” after consulting with the Mossad chief who took over in 1974, General Yitzhak Hofi.   A. was offered a new job as an instructor at the Midrasha [the Mossad’s training academy], as he would have many experiences to share with up-and-coming Mossad field personnel.  But he declined and decided to leave the agency.

M., meantime, had actually fallen in love with A. and wanted to marry him.  Harari, in a cruel manner, told her that even if A. were willing, the Mossad would not allow that to happen.  “You were sent on a specific mission,” Harari told her, “which now comes to an end – not to falling in love.”

A. was not interested in marrying her.  A series of quarrels ensued, and M. telephoned him several times, yelling at him and insisting that some of the household assets were hers.

A. instead married his longtime sweetheart, who had loyally waited for seven years.  They had an ostensibly normal life, including two children.  But his espionage years were bothering him.  The Mossad’s “rehabilitation” effort, routinely offered to operatives who returned home after a long mission, seemed to have failed. 

He was haunted by the secret life he had lived.  A. could not help but be suspicious of everyone as a potential attacker or assassin.

On the other hand, in business, he genuinely was cheated by partners when trying to set up a plastics company.  That failure depressed him.  An even more scarring tragedy occurred when A.’s car struck and killed a pedestrian.

He asked the Mossad to help him with the obvious legal complications, but the agency refused to do anything for the former undercover employee.  Feeling disappointed and bitter, A. left his wife and children and abruptly moved to his original homeland.

He did some odd jobs there, living hand to mouth.  His life story was reminiscent of that of Wolfgang Lotz, who also became a lost soul after his secret years in Egypt.  But in this case, the story had an even sadder ending.  Sitting in a city park one day, A. committed suicide.

In his tale is further proof that very rarely did any spy who worked under deep cover return home as a happy, well-adjusted person.

 [from the new book by Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman, Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, pp. 159-161]

September 25, 2012

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