Still from "The Mossad" (Photo/courtesy JFI)
Still from "The Mossad" (Photo/courtesy JFI)

Unmasked for the first time, Mossad spies share big wins, fatal losses

For a shadowy intelligence service that shuns the spotlight, Israel’s Mossad has a fairly glamorous reputation. Its agents, known for their stealth, global reach and deadly effectiveness, by necessity have kept mum about agency activities.

With a new Hebrew-language documentary making its U.S. premiere at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the Mossad is ready for its close-up.

In a compact 90 minutes, “The Mossad,” by Israeli filmmaker Duki Dror, essentially look backs at the agency’s greatest hits.

For the first time, former Mossad agents unmask themselves (except for one woman, “Tamar,” who would not show her face on camera) to share more than they ever have publicly about their careers and cases, including assassinations of terrorists, Nazis and, in one instance, an Israeli traitor.

It’s clear from the grimacing, pausing and hedging that none of them were comfortable doing so. One, former deputy director Ram Ben Barak, wondered whether Dror’s camera crew was there to kill him. He seemed to be only half joking.

Following a linear timeline, from the agency’s founding in 1950 to the present day, Dror recounts some of the Mossad’s more spectacular successes — such as the ingenious kidnapping and extraction from Argentina of SS mastermind Adolf Eichmann — and failures, including the 1997 botched assassination attempt on former Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal in Amman, Jordan.

It also includes more recent activity, such as the killings of Iranian nuclear scientists and the development of the Stuxnet cyberweapon that disrupted Iran’s nuclear program in 2010.

Since virtually everything Mossad does is off the grid, there is little archival material of agents in action. Dror makes up for that with artful re-creations, flash cuts and repeated use of a “little toy soldier on a map” motif, suggesting the Mossad enterprise is a bit of a game.

“It is a game,” Ben Barak says. “But a very serious game.”

It is a game. But a very serious game.

How serious? That is evident in Mossad’s relationship with Ashraf Marwan, son-in-law of former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a high government official. He offered himself as a Mossad asset for years, even tipping off Israel that a surprise attack by several Arab nations was imminent. Tragically, the Israeli government dismissed that intelligence, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War ensued.

Adding to the tragedy, Marwan later was exposed as an Israeli spy and likely murdered in London. Zvi Zamir, the Mossad chief who worked with him, expresses on camera deep remorse over the way Israel abandoned a prized asset.

“Tamar” recounts her story as an undercover agent living in Egypt with a colleague. Together they posed as husband and wife (not unlike the Russian spy couple of the FX series “The Americans”).

Perhaps the film’s most astonishing tale is of the Mossad’s close cooperation with Savak, the notorious state security service of Iran under the Shah. Efraim Halevy, Mossad chief from 1998 to 2002, recalls the desperation as revolution swept across Iran, culminating in the triumphant return of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Savak asked the Mossad to assassinate Khomeni, but the Israelis declined, thus missing a chance to spare the world the ruling mullahs of today’s Iran. “This haunts me to this day,” said former agent Yossi Alpher.

In the final part of the film, Dror focuses on the Mossad’s efforts to thwart Palestinian terrorism, and the high cost of such work. The unclaimed 2008 assassination of Hezbollah terror mastermind Imad Mugniyeh in Syria was an example of the tit-for-tat killings that occur routinely in the war between the two sides.

“Winning isn’t easy,” says former Mossad agent Yehiam Mart.

Dror, in his on-camera interviews, presses the retired spies on whether they feel remorse for the killings, or what they believe their work has achieved.

None take the bait. All felt they had a job to do — protecting the Jewish state — and that to allow terrorist attacks to go unanswered was not an option. The men and one woman interviewed are old now, but no doubt their younger successors feel the same way.

Says Ben Barak, “It’s a dirty business.”

“The Mossad,” July 24 at CinéArts, 1:20 p.m. Palo Alto; 1:15 p.m. July 26 at the Castro, S.F.; and 3:50 p.m. July 27 at the Albany Twin.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.