Note: contains major spoilers for Netflix's The Spy
Netflix's The Spy, which dropped on Aug 6, sees Sacha Baron-Cohen take on a rare non-comedic role (and is it ever non-comedic) as true-life Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who rose up through the levels of Syria's government in the guise of a glad-handing businessman.
He was so successful that he even reportedly befriended Amin Al-Hafiz (Waleed Zuaiter), who later became President, and – as the series shows – he even actively targeted fortified Syrian positions for the Israeli military by planting trees "to let the soldiers have some shade". Israeli forces used the trees as markers in raids during the Six-Day War.
So how much of Gideon Raff's drama is true? Well… all the important stuff, frankly.
Cohen was an Egyptian-born Jew who joined Israeli military intelligence only to grow disillusioned and take up work as a filing clerk.
He later joined Mossad (a separate agency to Israeli military intelligence, though concerned with much the same activities) and was given the false identity of Syrian businessman "Kamel Amin Thaabet", who was, according to the paperwork, returning to Syria after living in Argentina.
Cohen did in fact move to Buenos Aires in 1961 in order to make his cover plausible, before travelling to Syria in 1962 and infiltrating the government. He would throw lavish parties where he would make alcohol and women available to officials while secretly passing on the gossip that flowed to his superiors in Israel. As he rose through the ranks he left gossip behind and began to acquire classified information.
Cohen travelled in secret back to Israel only three times in four years, and was reluctant to return to Syria on the last occasion because he knew Intelligence chief Ahmed Su'edani (Alexander Siddig) distrusted him.
By the way, his brother really did find out he was "Agent 88" when he received a transmission with a reference to a "new Singer" and put two and two together when he saw Nadia's new sewing machine in her apartment.
The Syrians, knowing there was a mole among them, got help from their Soviet allies and maintained radio silence in the hope of picking up illicit transmissions using borrowed technology.
Cohen was intercepted mid-broadcast in January 1965 and convicted of espionage by a military tribunal. Despite intervention by Israel's foreign minister Golda Meir, the governments of France, Belgium and Canada and even Pope Paul VI, Syria executed Cohen in May 1965, hanging him in public in Damascus in a white robe with his sentence written across it.
Syria still refuses to release his body to his widow, but she revealed that Mossad had managed to acquire his wristwatch in 2018 (possibly at an auction) and return it to her. "My mouth went dry and I got the chills," she told Israeli TV.
In April 2019 a number of news outlets reported that a Russian delegation had managed to return his coffin to Israel. The reports remain unconfirmed.
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