The Impossible Spy  (1987)




Director:     Jim Goddard. 

Starring:     John Shea (Eli Cohen),  Eli Wallach (Yacov),  Sasson Gabai (General Haled),  Michal Bat-Adam (Nadia Cohen),  Rami Danon (Amram),  Chaim Girafi (Salloum (as Haim Gerafi),  Jack Cohen (Assan),  Anat Barzilai (Galela),  Yossi Kenan (Nassim),  Judith Milo (Madame Massim),  Victor Kamar (Major Massim),  Fahami Shishtawi (Syrian Border Captain),  Shlomo Sadan (Syrian Colonel),  Jonathan Cherchi (Syrian Radio Operator),  Yitzhak Aloni (Mossad Radio Operator).

Made for TV movie. 

Israeli spy Eli Cohen performs a valuable espionage service while sacrificing his family and himself in the period before the 1967 Six Days' War



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

In June 1967 Israel dealt a stunning defeat to the Syrian army in the Golan Heights during the Six Day War Ė a victory due largely to the intelligence efforts of one man: Eli Cohen . This is his story.

This film is a dramatization based on published sources and other research. Where direct evidence is unavailable, the film represents the opinion of the film-makers as to events that happened in secret.

The names of all Syrian officials and Mossad personnel, and the names of some locations have been changed.

Egypt, 1955. Elie Cohen is there when they hang two of his compatriots in the intelligence service. Also there was agent Yacov of the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad. 

Tel Aviv, 1959. Yacov and agent Amran look at a photo recently taken of Eli Cohen. Amram says there is something Arabic about Cohen. Yacov says he is an eastern Jew with his father born in Syria. His father immigrated to Egypt in 1916. Since he was brought up and educated there, he is fluent in Arabic. Eli was thrown out of Egypt two and a half years ago. He now works at the accounts department of a supermarket chain and has a modest income. His wife Nadia is a nurse who is now pregnant and will give up her job.

The next morning when Eli comes out from his apartment and into the street Amram grabs him and asks him to join him for some coffee. At the cafť Eli reacts negatively when he is told that Amram is with the Mossad. He says he is not interested and has helped Israel enough and wonít help in "that way". Eli also says he is "an ordinary man in an ordinary job" and he likes it that way. Eli leaves despite all attempts by Amram to keep him talking.

At night asleep Eli has a nightmare about his two compatriots being hanged for killing innocent Egyptian men, women and children. When he awakens he sees his wife looking out the window. She is worried by the recent school bus bombing in Israel. Nadia wonders if itís fair to "bring a child into all this." She is tired of hearing about war all the time in Israel. Eli tells her to stop it because he gets "sick of talking about war all the time."

The next day Eli returns early from his job. He got fired. When Amran speaks to him on the street, Eli says that he did this to him and starts poking his finger into Amranís chest. Since he is causing a scene, Amran subdues him by putting Eliís arm behind his back and forcing him up against a car. Eli stops struggling.

Amran takes Eli to meet Yacov. Yacov tells Eli that everything is all wrong for his being an agent and thatís why heís so perfect for the job. And he has an exceptional gift of being able to remember things. But Cohen resists Yacov saying the Mossad people are crazy. He gets angry and tells Yacov to leave his life alone. Yacov says: "Iím afraid I canít do that." The older man tells Eli that he will be known among the Israelis as a government buyer for the Ministry of Defense. Eli gets disgusted and leaves.

Eli seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because he keeps dreaming about what he did in Egypt for military intelligence. He heard the screams and saw the bloody survivors of the bombing he helped carry out.

The next day Eli goes to the shore and thinks about what he will do. Yacov comes to him and gives him a bank check. Eli says if he works for him, it is only temporary.

Eli tells his wife he has to go away for two weeks. Nadia takes it well as he says goodbye to her. Eli now goes through rigorous training in Mossad techniques. He is going to be sent to Syria ,so he has to study as much about Syria, including its history and culture, as he can.

The key to Syria is in the Syrian community in Argentina. Eli receives training in Islam. He receives a new name. His last name it Tabit and he came to Argentina when he was very young with his Syrian dad. For the past several years, he has been traveling for his textile firm, but now he is back in Argentina. He will make it known that he wants to put his considerable wealth behind the effort to bring the illegal Syrian Baath Party to power in Syria.

Eli leaves telling his wife that he is touring Europe and America buying arms for Israel. His first assignment will begin in Zurich, Switzerland at an Israeli safe house.

Zurich, January 1961. He is to start cultivating a relationship with persons of the Syrian community in Argentina living or working in Zurich. There he will meet Syrian Colonel Haled. In secret he is the leader of the Syrian Baath Party. When the overthrow attempt is made in Syria, Tabit must be right there to inform Yacov on whatís happening and/or what will happen.

Tel Aviv, three months later. Eli sends photographs back to Yacov. He seems to be already accepted by the Syrian community there.

Argentina, one month later. Tabit and Haled meet in Haledís car on a deserted stretch of beach. Haled wants to be sure this man is on the up and up. He tells Eil that he has been heard expressing sympathy for the Baath Party. But Haled frankly says that he does not trust Tabit because he is a businessman and the Baath are socialists. He needs proof of his genuine commitment to the Baath Party. Tabit responds by writing out a check for a huge sum of money to the Baath Party.

Now Yacov receives photos of Tabit together with his "friend" Col. Haled. Yacov says: "Heís done it!"

Tel Aviv one month later. Eli is back with now his wife and baby girl Sophie. He meets with Yacov at his office. Yacov gives Eli a transmitter, a microphone bug and a tape recorder. He also gets cyanide tablets just in case.

And suddenly Eli is leaving his family again. This time Nadia is not so willing to have him leave. Eli tells her if anything comes up to go to Yacov for assistance. She wonders out loud if there are any buyer inducements, like pretty Swedish blondes, on his trips. Nadia even tells him to miss the plane.

Damascus, January 1962.

David is driven in a BMW car over the border into Syria by a Syrian who thinks that Tabit is someone working to bring the extreme right-wing Baath Party into power.

The fellow sets up David in an apartment right across from military headquarters. The rent has already been paid for an entire year. He leaves Tabit with the BMW.

Tabit keeps his eyes open as to the movements of the military in the capital. He sets up his radio transmitter and starts transmitting back to Tel Aviv. "Mission commenced."

Tabit meets with now General Haled at his home. The General welcomes him to Syria. He introduces Tabit to his wife and children and some special guests. There he meets Major Salloum. Then Haled introduces Tabit to the leader and founder of the Baath party, Hassan.

Eli transmits the information on the Baath power hierarchy to Yacov. He also takes photographs of some of the military goings-on and ships the film to a destination where they pack the film in another container and send it on to Yacov.

Hassan swears Tabit into the Baath party. Later, Tabit is there when the coup is discussed. The coup is launched an is successful. General Haled is made commander-in-chief of the army and the new minister of defense.

Tabit throws a big party in honor of the success of the coup. He even hires a pretty belly dancer to dance for the party goers. Major Salloum is a bit jealous of Tabit who is surrounded "by such beautiful women." He goes to Tabit and asks him if it would be possible to set up "something" so he could be alone with the beautiful woman Tabit introduced him to. Tabit says he is more than willing to help Salloum out.

Nadia yells at Yacov. She has not seen her husband in the last six months and has only seen him twice in the past two years. Nadia wants to know if Yacov is keeping something from her. Is Eli deliberately staying away? Yacov assures her that Eli loves her.

Major Salloum thanks Tabit for an afternoon he will remember forever. Tabit asks him for some advice. If he makes a big investment, will Syria be stable for awhile so he doesnít lose his money? Salloum tells him to hold off a little.

At another party thrown by Tabit, the Baath leadership make fun of Nasser of Egypt. Hassan says these Egyptians will mate with anything from a Jew to a jackal. Haled says: "The Baath has no intention of reforming the United Arab Republic, whatever Nasser may think.. It is a federation only on paper."

When next time Eli transmits a message, a radio monitor confirms with his higher ups that an illegal signal is being sent. He doesnít know where itís coming from, but when they receive the newest Russian equipment perhaps they can find out from where the transmission is coming.

Eli comes home to see his family. Yacov talks with Eli. He asks Eli which does he prefer: Eli Cohen or Tabit? Eli hesitates long enough for Yacov to laugh at his hesitation. Getting back to serious business, Yacov says he wants Eli to get him the exact gun positions of the Syrian defense set up on the Golan Heights. The guns are killing innocent Israelis on the plains below them. Yacov says if Eli can succeed in getting this information, he will be finished with Tabit.

Nadia tells her husband that she cannot cope with this anymore. He is going away again, this time perhaps from one to two years. She asks him if he is telling her the truth about what is happening? He says that defense buying has to be secret. She tells him not to drift away from her.

A coup to overthrow the Baath party begins, but is put down. Haled himself gets involved in the actual fighting. Tabit comes out after the fighting is over and tells Haled that he was concerned for his welfare in the fight. Haled is impressed at this show of "genuine" friendship.

Haled and Tabit go for a fast horse ride. The General tells Eli that he trusts him and he may want him to move up to "higher things". He will tell him when the time comes. Now Tabit asks to see the Golan Heights, but Haled says that is impossible for any civilian. That is, any civilian except Tabit.

Tabit gets his tour of the Golan Heights. He carefully observes and does his best to memorize each and every gun emplacement. Back in Damascus, Haled tells Tabit that the Palestinian El-Fatah has been brought in to be trained to raid the kibbutzim in the plain below the Golan Heights.

Back with Yacov, Eli is able to remember every gun emplacement. On a terrain model, an assistant sticks in different colored flags to indicate the type of gun emplacement and the position. Yacov and the others are impressed by his memory.

Alone, Eli says he has got to go back. Yacov tells him itís over. Itís getting more dangerous all the time. What if a Syrian agent in Israel spots him out and about with his wife? But Eli keeps insisting he has to go back. Yacov gets frustrated and tells him frankly that he shouldnít make this trip back to Syria. Eli is going anyways.

The new radio monitoring machines come in from Russia.

Out for a walk Nadia notices that her husband is very much on edge. She even asks him whatís the matter? She also asks if he thinks itís too late for them? And she wants to know the truth about it all. Eli only says: "I canít."

Eli leaves for Syria.

Major Salloum and Tabit start to get drunk, but Salloum really gets plastered. He tells Tabit that El-Fatah will attack a certain kibbutz in Israel. They toast to El-Fatah. The attack will happen later this evening. When the Major passes out, Tabit gets out his transmitter and sends a warning to Yacov.

This time the Russian monitoring machines pick up the signal. The monitor tells the higher-ups that the signal is coming directly from across the street. As the Syrian soldiers rush into Tabit's place, he continues to transmit.

The message suddenly stops. The transmission has been cut. Tabit tries to reach his cyanide pills but is dragged away.

Kibbutz Tel Yeshuv, 3:00 a.m. When El-Fatah attacks they are ambushed by soldiers of the Israeli army. The Palestinians are all killed.

Haled speaks with Eli in his jail cell. Of course, he feels very betrayed. But he is very calm and deliberate, and perhaps a little concerned for his one-time friendís fate. Eli will be tortured. He says he trusted him as he has trusted few men. He also say Eli made a fool of him. Haled was even going to make him Deputy Minister of Defense, the third most powerful man in Syria.

Yacov has to break the bad news to Nadia. She feels betrayed and lied to. Nadia says she knew something was wrong the whole time.

Yacov has to return to Nadia to tell her that Eli will be hanged tomorrow.

Haled talks with Eli again. He says the fight goes on. Eli replies: "Not for me!" Haled asks if he needs anything. Eli asks to write a letter to his wife and to have a rabbi. His wishes will be granted. Before Haled leaves, he says: "We were friends." Elis responds: "Yes, we were."

Eli gives the letter to the rabbi. He is hanged before an audience of military men and civilians. When the deed is done, the soldiers and civilians yell with glee.

In his letter, Eli urges Nadia to marry again and always look forward to the future. He also begs her to forgive him and to pray for his soul.

Two years after Elie Cohenís death, the information he supplied helped enable Israel to defeat Syria on the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six Day War.

Today, over twenty years later, Eli Cohenís body still remains in Syria. Its return continues to be one of the high priorities of the Israeli government.


Good movie.  My wife and I both enjoyed it.  The movie shows respect to both sides in the film:  Israel and Syria.  It was interesting how they got the spy to be accepted by high-ranking Syrian officials.  An interesting question is why did Cohen tempt fate by staying too long on the same assignment?  He probably was an adrenal junkie and the assignment gave him a terrific life style.  He had lots of money, lots of power and prestige, was surrounded by beautiful regular women and belly dancers and gave a lot of parties.  These have to be the reason, because very few sane men would  take an assignment that would surely result in death. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:

1943-1949  --  first reign of Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli.

1946-1956  -- Syria has 20 different cabinets.

late 1940s  --  the Baath Party became active in Syria and other Arab countries.

1948  --  Syria involved in the Arab-Israeli War.

1949 (July)  --  Syria is the last Arab country to sign an armistice with Israel.

1949  --  Syria's government overthrown by a military coup d'ťtat led by Hussni al-Zaim.

1949 (later that year)  --   Zaim overthrown by colleague Sami al-Hinnawi.

1949 (few months later)  --  Hinnawi overthrown by Colonel Adib al-Sheeshakli.

1954  --  public opposition forced Sheeshakli to resign and leave the country.

1955-1958  --  second reign of Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli.

1956 (November)  --  Syria signs a pact with the Soviet Union in exchange for military aide. 

1958 (February 1)  --  Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatlii and Nasser announced the merging of Syria and Egypt, creating the United Arab Republic.  All Syrian political parties were told to cease their activities. 

1961 (September 28)  --  a military coup overthrows the government.  Syria seceded from the United Arab Republic, reestablishing itself as the Syrian Arab Republic.

1963 (March 8)  --  a military coup by leftist Syrian Army officers of the National Council of the Revolutionary Command (NCRC).  The source of the revolt was the Baath Party (Arab Socialilst Resurrection Party).  The new cabinet was led by Baath members. 

1963 (November)  --  the Baath regime in Iraq overthrown.

1964 (May)  --  President Amin Hafiz of the NCRC established a new cabinet. 

1966 (February 23)  --  military coup imprisons President Hafiz, dissolves the cabinet and the NCR. 

1966 (March 1)  --  civilian Baath government established. 

1967 (June)  --  Syria attacks Israel in the Six Days' War.  Israel took and occupied the Golan Heilghts.


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