3 spies and six days

On June 5, 1967, the Six Day War began. It was one of the great military victories of our time as Israel held off the more numerous Arab attackers and captured the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Old City of Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (otherwise known as the West Bank of the Jordan River.)

As remarkable as the military victory was, the groundwork for that victory was laid in the years before. Israel’s external spy agency, the Mossad, pulled off a number of miraculous intelligence coups. Israeli spies accomplished quite a bit that helped make the military victory possible.

After my grandfather passed away, my father took the family to Israel in the summer of 1972 so he could take care of the estate. One thing we noticed was that in every Israeli city (at least the ones we visited) had an Eli Cohen street. On our way home we bought “Our man in Damascus” the tragic story of this great Israeli spy.

Eli Cohen came from a Egyptian Jewish family (that was originally from Syria). He was recruited by the Mossad to spy on Syria. He was so successful that by the time he was arrested and executed he had been thought to be in line to become the Defense Minister of Syria. He wasn’t just successful in finding out secrets of the Syrian government, even foiling terrorist attacks that originated in Syria, he got the Syrians to give away their positions on the Golan Heights.

He convinced the Syrian military to plant eucalyptus trees outside their fortifications in the Golan so that soldiers had a cool shady area to relax under. Of course, the trees also meant that Israeli bomber pilots knew exactly where the bunkers were located.

Cohen also made his apartment available for the use of Syrian elite when they required discretion, which no doubt gave him a lot of leverage in his dealings with them.

However the double life apparently caught up with him. When the the Syrians started detecting his transmissions, they arranged for a blackout. He transmitted that night too and was caught.

Cohen was hanged May 18, 1965.

Since then Syria has refused to return his body for reinternment in Israel. (Ironically Israel is often asked to release live terrorists as a “confidence building measure” but rarely is a word heard in favor of Syria releasing the body of a dead spy as “confidence building measure.” Recently though, Syria has claimed that Cohen’s body is inaccessible.

In an interesting postscript to his story, it turns out that Eli Cohen wasn’t the only member of his family working in intelligence. His brother Maurice was responsible for receiving the transmissions Eli Cohen sent as well as sending the responses. He was able to figure out what his brother was actually up to.

Wolfgang Lotz who spied on Egypt also was caught. He was much more fortunate though. The Chamapne Spy’s biggest contribution to the Israeli effort in the Six Day War was:

His friendships with key military figures proved invaluable. He was able to visit even “closely guarded, top-secret bases near the Suez Canal. He and Waltraud were allowed access to airports where the Egyptians stationed their newly arrived Migs, and took photographs of the aircraft at close range with their pilots standing proudly by.” Arms depots, air hangars, communication centers – all were open to him. At one point Israel wanted to find out more about the Russian Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) base being built near the Suez Canal City of Ismailia. It was absolutely off limits to people like him. But he went ahead and when arrested, he protested he had no idea where he was and if there were any problems, the military base commander could call Youssef Gahourab and Fouad Osman. The commander did so, and they indeed got Lotz off the hook.The Egyptians boasted to Lotz about the clever way they mixed real fighter planes in with dummies on the airfields in order to confuse the Israeli Air Force. Lotz dutifully complimented them on their ingenuity and reported all of this to Tel-Aviv.

In the first day of the war, Israel knocked out the Egyptian air force in the Sinai and didn’t hit a single decoy due to Lotz’s information.

Lotz was discovered and sentenced to 25 years in prison, but was released in a prisoner exchange with Israel after only three years.

The court let him off with a 25-year sentence, and only three years later Lotz and his German wife Waldrud were turned over to the Israelis in an exchange of prisoners. Along with nine Israeli captives, the Lotzes were swapped for more than 4,000 Egyptian prisoners, including nine generals.

In the third case, the spy’s name is not known. She was an American born Israeli who convinced a Maronite Iraqi pilot to defect to Israel – in his state of the art MIG-21.

The American woman was a Mossad agent (it is not clear if she was Jewish) who was not only lively and intelligent but beautiful as well. She mixed in easily in high social circles wherever she went. According to one source, she initiated the contact with Munir Redfa at a party, where the two immediately hit it off. He told her he was a patriotic Iraqi, but he “found himself in violent disagreement with the current war being waged by his government against the minority Kurdish tribesmen in northern Iraq.” In the 1960’s as in the 1990’s, the Kurds tried to maintain their independence in the Arab (and Turkish) world that did not wish to give it to them. As a minority Christian, Munir Redfa was greatly troubled by the fact that he, as a deputy commander of a MiG-21 squadron, was one of those who was asked to lead bombing missions against the almost defenseless Kurds. According to Dennis Eisenberg, Uri Dan, and Eli Landau, Redfa “even confessed a ‘sneaking admiration’ for the Israelis, who were ‘so few against so many Moslems.'” There were other things bothering him as well. He had been passed over as commander of his squadron, he was stationed far from his home in Baghdad, and “was allowed to fly only with small fuel tanks, because he was a Christian.” The American woman listened. She continued to see him and their intimacy, despite his marriage and several children, grew.

Aside from the black to Russia and the military boon to the United States, this coup had a real benefit for Israel.

For the Israelis the benefit of possession of the plane was even more immediate. In an April 7, 1967 dogfight with the Syrians, the IAF shot down six Syrian MiG’s to no Israeli planes. In the June 1967 War, the Israeli Air Force commanded overwhelming air superiority over the Syrian and Egyptian MiG’s. Not a little had to do with the fact that an MiG had been flown to Israel less than a year earlier with the connivance of Israeli Intelligence.

(Judge A. Jay Cristol points to the handing over of the MIG to the United States as the beginning of a strong American/Israeli relationship.)

There are many open aspects of war, but there are probably just as many hidden ones. The actions of Eli Cohen, Wolfgang Lotz and the mystery woman all played an unseen role in Israel’s eventual stunning victory in 1967.

FWIW, the story of Eli Cohen was made into a movie, The Impossible Spy. The story of Munir Redfa was made into the movie Steal the Sky. I’ve seen both and can’t say that either was particularly compelling, which is surprising given the material the creative teams had to work with. The Impossible Spy was the better movie. According to YNet a new film about the MIG was recently produced for Israeli television. (h/t Meryl Yourish.)