In the new, six-part Netflix miniseries The Spy, comedian Sacha Baron Cohen — best known as “Borat” in the film of the same name — takes on a rare, dramatic role as Eli Cohen, perhaps Israel’s most famous undercover intelligence agent.
Posing as a wealthy Syrian businessman and playboy, Cohen infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian government in the early 1960s, at a time when Syria more than any other country in the Middle East posed a direct threat to Israel’s existence. Cohen is widely credited with providing a treasure trove of intelligence that helped Israel win the 1967 “Six-Day War,” capturing the Golan Heights from Syria — important strategic territory that Israel controls to the present day, as The Jewish Virtual Library recounts.
If anything, Cohen’s true story, and the Netflix series it inspired, was even more incredible and suspenseful than any James Bond thriller. But how much of The Spy is fact, and how much is fiction?
To explore that question will require revealing spoilers for the Netflix series, which made its debut on the streaming service September 6. As a result, to avoid finding out what happens in the series, readers not already familiar with the Eli Cohen story are strongly advised to watch the full series before reading the remainder of this article.
Israel has had many heroes in its history and one of them is the legendary spy, Eli Cohen. What he accomplished in Syria penetrating the highest echelons of the Syrian dictatorship is nothing short of miraculous. Netflix has come along to tell his story in the 6 part … pic.twitter.com/58D4Sk5f65
— TonyWendice (@tonywendice1954) September 8, 2019
Of all Cohen’s intelligence successes, the greatest — and the one that led to his final downfall — was his success in becoming close to a Syrian military Colonel and politician, Amin al-Hafez, who staged a bloody coup in 1963, naming himself president of Syria. But as Time recounts, al-Hafez, who lived until 2009, repeatedly denied that he was close to Cohen.
As the series portrays, Cohen began his mission — in which he assumed the false identity of businessman Kamel Amin Thaabet — in Argentina, where he enmeshed himself in the country’s large, Syrian expat community. There, he met al-Hafez in 1961. But according to a Newsweek account, al-Hafez claimed in later interviews that he was in Moscow until 1962, by which time Cohen, posing at Thaabet, had departed Argentina for Damascus, Syria.
The Netflix series portrays Cohen as a key player in the 1963 coup staged by al-Hafez. In the show, “Thaabet” hosts a series of wild sex parties at his lavish apartment, attended by top Syrian military officials. During one of these orgies, al-Hafez and his private army carry out their coup while the military leaders who could stop it are extremely distracted by the debauchery at Cohen’s apartment.
But as Newsweek notes, while “Thaabet” is believed to have hosted some outrageous parties at his Damascus bachelor pad (though in his true identity, Cohen was happily married), there is no solid evidence that the parties, or Cohen, were connected to the coup d’etat.
Have you seen Episode One of "The Spy" on Netflix?
Mossad legend Eli Cohen (in the middle) posing as Arab merchant Kamel Amin Thaabet, with his friends from the Syrian army on the Golan Heights overlooking Israel, mid-1960s. #TheSpy #EliCohen #Israel #Mossad #Israel #Jewish pic.twitter.com/pxAshVnMVA
— (((Joel Leyden))) (@joelleyden) September 8, 2019
In a minor alteration of the facts, the historical al-Hafez did not assume Syria’s presidency until a few months after the coup. At that time, President Lu’ay al-Atassi resigned over the new government’s policy of executing political rivals, even from within their own party, the Ba’ath.
But in one incident portrayed largely with accuracy in The Spy, Cohen, who was forbidden from telling the truth about his espionage work even to his wife and family, found that his cover had been blown — by his own brother. In a 2006 interview, Cohen’s brother Maurice, who also worked for Israel’s Mossad spy agency in a much more routine capacity, confirmed that he did, in fact, piece together clues to discover what his brother was actually doing for the Israeli government, according to the Newsweek account.
One odd alteration made by the series occurs during what is portrayed as Cohen’s final visit to his family in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1964. During that visit, Cohen’s wife Nadia — who believes that her husband is simply a buyer of office furniture for the Israeli Defense Ministry — pleads with him to quit the job and stay home. But in the show, the Sacha Baron Cohen version of Eli Cohen refuses.
In real life, Eli Cohen feared that he was under suspicion by the head of Syria’s security service, Colonel Ahmed Su’edani, according to a historical account by The Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Fearful of returning to Damascus, he pleaded with his Mossad bosses to let him stay in Israel. But they demanded more intelligence out of him, and sent him back.
Unfortunately, Cohen was correct about Su’edani. As the miniseries accurately portrays, the intelligence chief discovered Cohen’s activities, and in January 1965, broke into his apartment with a unit of soldiers, catching Cohen in the act of transmitting a coded message to Mossad headquarters via radio.
After five months of brutal torture and interrogation, and a sham “trial,” al-Hafez ordered Cohen’s execution in a Damascus public square, where on May 19, 1965, he was hanged in front of an audience of several thousand.
The Inquisitr also looked into the factual content of the Netflix film The Highwaymen earlier this year. In another article, The Inquisitr examined what was fact and fiction in the German-made Netflix 1920s-era detective series, Babylon Berlin.