One of the Best Docuseries in Recent Years Tells the Tragic Story of Israel's 'Agent 566'

The portrayal of ‘Field Agent 566,’ Eli Cohen, rises above jingoistic portrayals of Israel’s spy in Syria and delves into the complexities of this ‘necessary evil in an evil world’

Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed
Agent 566. The series is named for Cohen’s code name given by his Mossad operators.
Agent 566. The series is named for Cohen’s code name given by his Mossad operators.Credit: KAN 11
Ariana Melamed
Ariana Melamed

To preserve his cover, the Israeli spy Eli Cohen, known in Syria as Kamel Amin Thabet, would occasionally buy inlaid Damascus cabinets and export them to Europe. There the wares would be delivered to companies also working, like him, in the secret service of the Mossad. These cabinets were works of art made of wood, shells, amber, coral and other carefully chosen and intricately combined materials. They are a good metaphor for “Field Agent 566,” the best documentary series I’ve seen in years and definitely the most comprehensive and disturbing portrayal of “Our Man in Damascus.”

The series is named for Cohen’s code name given by his Mossad operators, so that telegraphists, decoders and others would not know the identity of the man transmitting the priceless information from Damascus. The series was formulated with wisdom and with rare decency for a documentary by Liora Amir Barmatz and Eyal Tavor.

The final product is the work of Itay Landsberg-Nevo, an excellent documentary filmmaker who ran the now defunct Channel 1 Documentary Department. Under him it was a beacon of quality amidst the general gloom. Together they chose the format into which evidence both old and new was embedded, turning the story into a keenly necessary examination of the myth and the reality, the legend and the riddle and the man.

The first episode, aired Sunday night, was built around the evidence presented in Cohen’s showcase trial in Syria, which had been gathering dust in the archives. Through a lovely tapestry of voices speaking in Arabic, photographs, snips of powerful animation and a particularly convincing soundtrack, Cohen’s story is told in a manner that no memorial site, or moronic series like “The Spy” starring of Sacha Baron-Cohen, has ever achieved.

Episode 1 of 'Agent 566' (in Hebrew).

The source for the first episode was the minutes of the trial, which is an issue, since we can’t know exactly what Eli Cohen was forced to say in the ritual confession extracted from him in court, or what he chose to say with the last vestiges of will still surviving in his tortured body and soul.

In any case, the picture painted by the evidence and by the biographical information supplied by members of the Cohen family, differs markedly from the heroic outline that official Israel promotes. The episode depicts Cohen as a brilliant, charming and talented man, who had been involved in underground activity back in Egypt. When he reached Israel after the Sinai campaign he found himself relegated to the margins of the jobs market, like so many other Jews people from the Arabian and North African nations, at the time. He appears to have been an immigrant trying in vain to create a sense of self worth, which led him to work as a petty clerk, living on the brink of despair.

Eli Cohen. He appears to have been an immigrant trying in vain to create a sense of self worth, which led him to work as a petty clerk, living on the brink of despair.Credit: Courtesy of IDF Archives

The story of his recruitment to the Mossad is convoluted. At first he wanted to join, but the organization’s leaders worried that he might be exposed in Egypt. Afterwards he was no longer interested, but the Mossad insisted, to the point that it got him fired from his job on the eve of his marriage to Nadia. That’s how he became “Field Agent 566,” for lack of choice and out of a feeling of responsibility to his family, and as a patriotic duty as well. The personal tragedy was began from the get go: To carry out his mission properly and to build up his sense of self worth, he was forced to betray his family, to lie and to distance himself from them.

A necessary evil

To have to choose between conflicting loyalties is always tragic. Spy operators everywhere in the world know how to exploit this innate distress. Eli Cohen’s phenomenal success story as a spy is a narrative that Israel loves to boast about, but it was also the trap en route to his execution. Before he was ordered to return to Damascus one last time, despite grave fears for his safety, Cohen met with then-Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin and senior officers of the defense establishment, who showered him with high praise. The more time passes and the greater the spy’s isolation and fear, the more dangerous and seductive is such feedback from the government, which becomes his raison d’etre but ultimately leads to exposure, arrest, and the hangman’s noose.

The creators of the series wanted to find the man within the myth, and with delicacy and thoroughness, did a very good job. Through the eyes of his daughter Sophie, who grew up on the myth and on the empty embraces of the establishment elite at memorial ceremonies; through the anger still bottled up in his wife Nadia that is shown throughout the series, with restraint but powerfully; through the pieces of information that his brother Avraham gathered as his life’s mission — the series undermines the image of the Mossad as a positive organization that is good to its nameless fighters and their families, and puts it in a more accurate light: a necessary evil in a world full of evil and deceit.

Eli Cohen. To have to choose between conflicting loyalties is always tragic.Credit: IDF Archives

Another central motif in the series is responsibility and blame. Anyone who grew up on the myth can tell you that complacency and a lack of caution exposed Eli Cohen to Syrian intelligence. Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who is interviewed in the series, admitted the Mossad’s responsiblity for what happened to Cohen only a few years ago, for the first time. But the family has never seen the findings of two nameless commissions of inquiry.

What is “responsibility”? That is the question asked throughout the three episodes. Does it begin on the day when it was decided to recruit Eli Cohen, when his weak cover story was constructed, when he assumed an Arab identity too soon, with over-zealousness? Every such question is important in shaping a more profound , more complex civic awareness out of every story of heroism. Each of the questions receives more than one answer in the series, and as in the best documentaries, invites more doubt, questions, and a feeling that the story is not closed, and can no longer serve as a basis for a single narrative dictated from above.

Above all, beyond the new facts and question marks about the fate of other spies who were exposed around the time of Cohen’s capture, beyond the questions about the existence of a mole in the Mossad, the series does justice to Cohen’s family. They were and are private people who were dragged, to their detriment and totally against their will, into the heroic national pantheon. Nadia, Sophie, Avraham and others are tragic heroes who are rescued here from the national finger of accusation and from the empty gestures showered on them, and become strong, fascinating figures, determined to say, elegantly and with restraint, what they have not been allowed to say outright until now. That is reason enough for this outstanding series, an industrious and precise work of art that is also amazingly aesthetic - to have been created and aired.

“ Field Agent 566,” Kan 11. Sundays, from May 3, 9:30 P.M.

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