It should come as no surprise to find Israel's name being mentioned whenever new declassified intelligence records are released. Mossad spies are often found behind sinister plots, including those against countries that have traditionally been seen as Israel's friend, most recently against its greatest ally, the US. Tel Aviv's habit of employing espionage against its allies has even been regarded by US counter-intelligence agencies to be one of the worst threats of all; Israel was listed among the "priority targets" for US counter-intelligence alongside China, Russia, Iran and Cuba. And who can forget the infamous case of Jonathan Pollard, a US naval intelligence officer who sold crucial documents to Israel? Pollard was arrested in 1985 and sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 2015 by the then US President, Barack Obama.
Leaked documents from 2016 revealed that British intelligence had labelled Israel as a "true threat" to the security of the Middle East. According to British intelligence-gathering agency GCHQ, "The Israelis constitute a true threat to regional security, notably because of the country's position on the Iran issue." The reality of Israel's Mossad spy agency is, however, a world away from the way that it is portrayed on our film and TV screens.
Few countries take as much pride in their ability to execute daring spy missions as Israel does. Its agents are portrayed as heroes, not least by the US media giant Netflix. Which other intelligence agency can be credited with as many movies and dramas on our screens these days as Mossad?
The latest in this genre is The Spy, starring British-born Sacha Baron Cohen, who is more famous for playing comedic characters such as Ali G and Borat than anything serious. His new six-part drama is about a real Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, who infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian government in the 1960s; it was released just a few weeks after Israeli spies were portrayed heroically in The Red Sea Diving Resort. Last year, viewers were able to watch Operation Finale, a film about Israeli spies undertaking a daring mission to capture Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Also in 2018, Netflix released two other productions: The Angel is an adaptation of the non-fiction book with the same title telling the story of an Egyptian spy who worked with Mossad to save Israel; Fauda focused on a team of so-called mistaravim, Israeli soldiers who conduct undercover raids in Palestinian communities.
It's hard to believe that the producers of such films simply wanted to entertain Netflix's 151 million subscribers. Given that the common theme in nearly all such pro-Israel spy stories is the contrast between the heroism of Israel's agents and the depravity of its enemies, one cannot but feel that there is also a sinister propaganda element at play.
Moreover, the romanticised heroism of celluloid Israeli spies offer viewers a distorted version of reality. Eli Cohen, for example, was actually involved in one of the most notorious plots ever seen in the Middle East. Before he was recruited by Mossad to spy on the Syrian regime, Egyptian-born Cohen is said to have taken part in various covert Israeli operations in the country of his birth during the 1950s. There are suggestions that he took part in Israel's Operation Goshen to smuggle Egyptian Jews out of the country and resettle them in the newly created Zionist state.
Cohen is perhaps more well-known for his role in the Israeli sabotage unit which carried out a false flag operation to undermine Egypt's relationships with western powers in the "Lavon Affair". Mossad is said to have recruited Egyptians Jews like Cohen to plant bombs in British and American civilian targets, including churches and libraries. The attacks were to be blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian communists in order to persuade the British government to maintain its occupation army in the Suez Canal zone. Similar plots were executed in Iraq in the 1950s. Mossad is suspected of carrying out five bomb attacks on Jewish targets in an operation known as Ali Baba, to create fear amongst and hostility towards Iraqi Jews and encourage them to migrate to Israel. Such attacks are one of the main reasons why Arab Jews left their homes in the Arab world for Israel.
The clandestine work of Mossad has been further exposed this week following the release of classified files on another Israeli agent which have been kept under wraps for decades. Yet again, the reality of Israeli spies is far from their heroic on-screen image. One of the names in those files is said to be Cyril Hector Abraham Wybrew, an official working for British intelligence in the Middle East during World War Two. He handled Palestinian affairs at Security Intelligence Middle East (SIME), an organisation made up of a number of British intelligence agencies based in Cairo at the time.
It's reported that SIME interrogated Wybrew in 1942 during his mission in Palestine after suspecting that he was involved in "financial improprieties" and had links with Jewish espionage agencies. During the period in which he was employed as a British agent, Britain was virtually at war with Zionist terrorist groups in Mandate Palestine. As highlighted in this article in Foreign Policy magazine explaining How Zionist Extremism Became British Spies' Biggest Enemy, Jewish terrorist organisations known as the Irgun and the Stern Gang went on to plan to send five terrorist "cells" to London "to work on IRA lines". Their goal was to "beat the [British] dog in his own kennel".
Britain's Prime Minister Clement Atlee was among the targets for assassination as was Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, who was regarded in 1946 as the main obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East. The Stern Gang hit list included MI5's new director-general, Sir Percy Sillitoe, who warned Atlee that "an assassination campaign in Britain had to be considered a real possibility."
Wybrew's links with Jewish espionage agencies, which came to light during this hostile period, made him a suspect. The now declassified files indicate that British officials at the time decided to use him to uncover details of his links to Jewish paramilitary groups. They insisted that he be put under surveillance while working at the Ministry of War, knowing that he was in contact with three Israeli intelligence officers. Their aim was to discover who his collaborators were.
Did Wybrew aid Jewish terrorist groups while working as a British agent at a time when Zionist terrorists were killing British soldiers and police officers, and bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, resulting in the deaths of 91 people in what was the British authorities' HQ in the city? That was the worst terrorist atrocity against the British in the twentieth century, and would be a story worth telling. Will Netflix consider it, I wonder, or does it only want to portray Zionist agents in a positive light?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.