Removing the Mask From Israel’s Famed Mossad Spy Agency

The new three-part documentary by Amit Goren seeks to answer the question: Is it right for an organization like the Mossad to be controlled by one person – a prime minister?

Itay Stern
Itay Stern
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Filmmaker Amit Goren, December 11, 2019.
Filmmaker Amit Goren, December 11, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Itay Stern
Itay Stern

In recent times, the top brass at the Mossad and their agents have become guests of honor on television news broadcasts, investigative shows and documentary programs. These include veteran investigative journalist Ilana Dayan’s long interview last year with former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, Alon Ben David’s Channel 13 program on the intelligence agency, and a series of episodes as part of the Kan public broadcaster’s “Zman Emet” (“Real Time”), which tried to dispel the fog surrounding several of the organization’s operations.

To this list we can add Channel 8’s documentary mini-series, “Inside the Mossad” by Zadok (Duki) Dror, which was sold to Netflix and centers around a Mossad agent, his clandestine misdeeds and tortured soul; the recent Netflix series “Eli,” which focused on Eli Cohen, who spied for Israel in Syria; and the popular Channel 12 program “Kfulim” (“False Flag”), which during its two seasons scattered a little more fairy dust over the familiar mixture: false identities, beautiful women and an aura of mystery.

The latest addition is “Le’einav Bilvad” (“For His Eyes Only: The Politics of the Mossad”), created by filmmaker Amit Goren and veteran defense commentator Amir Oren (formerly of Haaretz), which has aired locally on Yes Docu, is now available on Yes VOD and will be streamed next year by Netflix. This three-episode documentary-historical series trains a spotlight on the built-in tension that has prevailed throughout the generations between Mossad’s chiefs and Israel’s prime ministers.

For example, the series links the post-war reparations agreement between Israel and Germany, which aroused powerful opposition in Israel, to then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s decision to catch Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. It also connects the decision to recruit Yitzhak Shamir and other leading members of the pre-state Lehi and Etzel undergrounds to the Mossad with the attempt to quash a possible political rebellion during those tense years.

Goren, who has made dozens of documentaries and now heads the Makor Foundation, which supports productions of documentaries and short films, suggests that Pardo (head of the Mossad from 2011 to 2016) was the one responsible to some extent for opening the gates of the Mossad to the public. Pardo initiated the launch of an official Mossad website and for the first time allowed the media to conduct interviews with agents who spoke about their activities without concealing their faces. Goren was also able to avail himself of this window of opportunity, in 2014, when producing “Lo Tishkot Ha’aretz” (“The Avoidable War”), about the failures of the 1973 Yom Kippur War; subsequently, he began work on the new documentary, “Le’einav Bilvad.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo
Benjamin Netanyahu and ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo.Credit: Courtesy of Yes Docu

The Mossad approved a considerable number of interviews for it – but in the middle of production Goren’s wife, curator Sarit Shapira, succumbed to cancer and, as a widower and father of three, Goren was forced to freeze his work and reorganize his life.

“To a certain extent we were left behind,” he tells Haaretz, about the timing of the series. “When Sarit became ill I had to put it on hold. When we went back to working on it, we discovered that the programs that had aired in the interim were mainly about operations and achievements, about the mysterious Mossad agent. We were more interested in knowing who the Mossad agents are and about the system of relationships within which they operate. To look at something that hasn’t been examined until now.”

And still, the historical crossroads that you refer to in the series – including the case of Ashraf Marwan, who warned Israel about the Yom Kippur War, or the assassination of Hamas’ Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai – have already been told more than once. What new information did you hope to add?

Goren: “We tried to look beyond the known things. We could have done an episode about Eichmann, about Marwan or about [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal – there’s no problem with inflating things – but instead we tried to create a road map with stations that represent something about the overall activity of the Mossad.”

Asked if he was not concerned that his production would become a marketing tool for the Mossad, which has to approve stories for broadcast, the filmmaker says, “We also dealt with the agency’s mistakes, we didn’t only praise them. If you look back 10 years, people didn’t know at all what the Mossad is and how it talks. There is also value to the demystification of the organization. It has always interested me, to remove the mask.”

Benjamin Netanyahu and current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen
Benjamin Netanyahu and current Mossad chief Yossi Cohen.Credit: Courtesy of Yes Docu

Did you feel that you succeeded in your mission?

“Of course as a documentary filmmaker you want to thrust your hands into the body, take out the heart and look at it, but you don’t always manage to do that. In the series we did on the Yom Kippur War, ‘The Avoidable War,’ people sat in the studio and wept, fell apart. It’s possible that with the Mossad [something like that] will take another 20 to 30 years. The Mossad psychologist who is interviewed, Mili Nahari, says that on her door in the agency it didn’t say ‘psychologist.’ You don’t go to a psychologist when you’re in the Mossad.”

Which raises the question: To what degree are Mossad people capable of introspection?

“They are willing to do it but aren’t used to talking about it. It’s not in their DNA to sit and tell you what they did in some operation or other. But in the final analysis, anyone who comes to talk to us does so because he wants recognition. It’s a kind of therapy, to be heard and to hear his voice speaking. Most of them were in disguise; with about three of them, barely anyone knew who they really were.”

You mention in the new series on several occasions the unreasonable power that the prime minister has in regard to the Mossad’s operational decisions. How much does that power disturb you?

“What I ask there is whether such a strong arm should be controlled by a single person. In other countries, such as Germany, the prime minister doesn’t decide by himself about important espionage activities. It’s possible that tomorrow morning the prime minister will wake up and be influenced from some direction or another, initiating an activity that causes everyone to forget his own problems and impacting reality. The time has come to ask what’s legitimate and what’s possible.”

Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (second from right) with Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan in Amman in 1994.
Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (second from right) with Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton and King Hussein of Jordan in Amman in 1994.Credit: GPO, Courtesy of Yes Docu

The Mossad is a huge organization in terms of size, budget and influence in the world – it’s quite similar to an international crime syndicate. Whether by chance or not, members of the Mafia have also been the subject of innumerable cinematic and television works. Is it possible that we’ve lost the ability to ask tough questions about these organizations?

“You’ve also answered the question as to why it isn’t logical that only one person decides about what will happen vis-à-vis the Mossad. Even in crime organizations, with a godfather, the big decisions are made in committees. I hope that this series will contribute to the need to ask the questions. I personally am not impressed by the Mossad. Its agents have a halo around them but it’s somewhat fake because it exists in the movies, not in reality, and when it is evident in reality we can’t talk about it. Maybe through this series people will also understand the difficulty of being a Mossad agent.”

“For His Eyes Only: The Politics of the Mossad”
“For His Eyes Only: The Politics of the Mossad”.Credit: Courtesy of Yes Docu

Political brouhaha

Amit Goren, 52, is an admired documentary filmmaker who graduated with honors from New York University’s Film and Television Department in 1983 and a year later won the Ministry of Education Prize for Excellence in Cinema. On the recommendation of current Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, “The Avoidable War,” about the failures of the Yom Kippur War, has become compulsory viewing in the army’s officers training school. He became the head of the Makor Foundation two years ago, replacing Gideon Ganani, who held the job for 21 years.

In recent years Makor has supported several controversial productions: The best known of these is this year’s “Advocate” – about attorney Lea Tsemel, who defends Palestinians – which aroused a political brouhaha after winning the Howard Gilman Award for the Best Israeli Film at the recent DocAviv International Film Festival. But the hermetically sealed world of Israel’s five veteran cinema foundations, including Makor, was recently cracked open to a great degree with the decision of Culture Minister Miri Regev to open three additional regional funds: one in the north, one in the south and one in the northern West Bank.

“The job of the foundations is to support Israeli artists who live under Israeli sovereignty, who have Israeli ID cards,” says Goren. “That includes all the opinions, religions and cultures within the borders of the State of Israel. If you look at the logo of the Makor Foundation, you’ll see it’s written in Hebrew, Arabic and English; our website is also in three languages. I think that in principle, the addition of these foundations is great, but the problem is what happens practically: It creates superfluous systems, 20 percent of whose funding goes to salaries rather than to the artists themselves. It would have been possible to work via the existing funds.”

What do you think about initiating the regional foundation in the West Bank?

“It perpetuates something that already exists. What exists is that we [i.e., Israelis] are there as citizens and those who are occupied aren’t there as citizens. I have no problem with a foundation operating in Judea and Samaria – I want a Palestinian living in Nablus and Ramallah and Jericho to be able to submit work to this foundation [for financing]. It’s a game we’re playing here, of trying to hold onto the rope at both ends. On the one hand, I’m the sovereign and I distribute the money, but on the other hand, [it goes] only to Jews. That’s apartheid. I’m not in favor. That’s why I didn’t agree to be part of the process of starting this thing.”

From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.
From the documentary "Advocate" about Lea Tsemel.Credit: Philippe Bellaiche / Courtesy of

You supported the film about Lea Tsemel that caused a tremendous public uproar: Bereaved parents opposed it, the culture minister attacked it and for a short time it led to withdrawal of Mifal Hapayis (the national lottery) support for the DocAviv Festival. To what extent do you stand behind this film?

“I was happy that the Makor Foundation was involved in it. I think it’s excellent and it does what it should do. We expected it to cause an uproar but not such a huge one. The discussion surrounding it is somewhat superficial. When I viewed it during various stages of production, I realized that it creates ambivalence – sometimes you agree with Lea Tsemel and sometimes you don’t. I think it’s an important film that does everything a documentary should do: It arouses discussion and debate.”