Operation Red Falcon

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Operation Red Falcon

He was one of the greatest spies the Mossad had ever seen. Then he brought his own country to the brink of war.

By Ronen Bergman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 47


Ronen Bergman is a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs atYedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, and a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. He is the author of five bestselling Hebrew-language books; his third book, The Secret War with Iran, was published in English by Simon & Schuster. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, the Times, the Guardian, Der Spiegel and GQ. He is currently writing a history of the Mossad for Random House. Bergman lives in Tel Aviv.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Danny Kopp
Other images: AP Photo, Corbis Images, Getty Images, Yehuda Gil, Library of Congress, Eldad Rafaeli

Published in March 2015. Design updated in 2021.

One

Early on the morning of September 1, 1996, the Israeli military began moving troops to the Syrian border in preparation for a war they were convinced was imminent. The military’s actions were based on top-secret intelligence—that Syria was about to launch a surprise attack—passed on by an informant, a general at the center of Syria’s Supreme Military Council, code-named Red Falcon. Red Falcon’s information had caused panic at the highest reaches of the Israeli Defense Forces, and senior military officials and Mossad officers were urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to issue an order to the IDF to launch its own offensive before the Syrians could launch theirs.

The attack never materialized, and the people of Syria and Israel never knew how close their countries had come to a devastating war. More than a year after that tense alert, in November 1997, I met in secret with a senior member of the Israeli intelligence community, who told me a story I found nearly impossible to believe at the time. It would soon become one of the most infamous spy stories in modern history. A legendary Mossad operative, he said, had been arrested on suspicion of fabricating the intelligence that had brought Israel to the brink of war.

The operative, Yehuda Gil, had been widely celebrated within the Israeli intelligence community for years. In the aftermath of the massacre at the Munich Olympics, in 1972, Gil had been among the operatives who’d hunted down and executed members of the terrorist group Black September. He had collected operational intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear facility, which was later destroyed by Israel’s Air Force. He had laid the foundation for intelligence networks in Sudan and had played a key role in a covert operation, known publicly as Operation Moses and within the Mossad by the code name Brothers, that brought 7,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

And it was Gil who had recruited and handled Red Falcon, who for over two decades was Israel’s most valuable agent in the Arab world.

On March 24, 1999, Yehuda Gil was found guilty of espionage and theft in a secret trial—though he was released not long after, in December 2000, when his term was reduced for good behavior. For the next ten years, Gil refused to tell his story.

During that period, I spoke with many others in the Israeli intelligence community about why such a revered operative would so profoundly endanger his own country. Their theories varied. According to some, Gil was a sociopathic “evil genius.” Others suspected he had been undercover for too long and confused the good guys with the bad. Still others said he was driven by an inexplicable, egomaniacal desire to turn his unique gift—the ability to lie to and manipulate others—against his own side.

But no one could be sure why Gil had committed the crimes he’d committed. Or even what, exactly, those crimes were, though their consequences were severe. He had profoundly damaged the international credibility of the Mossad, whose false information—going back how long, no one was quite sure—had been shared with the major intelligence agencies of the Western world. He had put Israeli lives at terrible risk. He had even endangered his own family. One of Gil’s colleagues told me that Gil’s son was a paratrooper stationed at the Syrian front on that September day when the Israeli military prepared for war. “What kind of person is he,” the man said, “that he would risk the life of his own child?”

Two

It’s impossible to appreciate the enormity of the Yehuda Gil affair without first understanding the mythic place that the Mossad occupies in the collective Israeli consciousness. As with the CIA, the agency functions opaquely and is protected by a number of draconian laws; but the adulation it receives in Israel, the way in which the country’s survival is, in the minds of many Israeli citizens and leaders, due to and forever dependent upon the heroic and secretive operations of the Mossad, is unlike the experience of any other foreign intelligence agency in the world. For every operative who joins its ranks, there are a thousand turned away. And so for one of them—not just an agent, but one whose exploits were as legendary as Gil’s were—to deceive his own country was nearly impossible for Israelis to comprehend (as it was for me when I first heard about it).

Like many other reporters, I tried for years to arrange an interview with Gil. I spoke several times with his wife, Noa, but she was unable or unwilling to persuade him to meet with me. After Gil was released, he and Noa withdrew to their home in Gedera, a community 20 miles southeast of Tel Aviv, where they lived a very private life.

I tried other leads, none of which worked out. And then, in the course of working on another investigation, I met a man named Pierre Lavi, who had served in Israeli intelligence in Lebanon and was still in touch with Gil. Gil trusted him, Lavi told me, and he agreed to pass on my request. After two weeks, Lavi called to say Gil was willing to meet and that I should go on the appointed day to a busy café near a Trappist monastery on Highway 1, the main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Gil and Lavi arrived first. It was crowded and noisy, and the two of them sat in a far corner, facing the door. Gil had a heavy gray mustache that stood out across the room. He was noticeably uncomfortable when I sat down. Just before I arrived, they told me, Gil had seen two ex-colleagues and feared that either he or I was being tailed. I found the possibility far-fetched and tried to reassure him.

He was confrontational from the start, trying to control the conversation by saying, “So here’s the journalist who thinks he knows everything about the Mossad.” I appealed to the various motivations he might have to tell his story—to clear his reputation in the eyes of his family and friends and country, and to go on the record regarding the injustice he claimed Danny Yatom, the chief of the Mossad, had perpetrated against him. Yatom had just published a memoir that contained a searing attack on Gil, including an allegation that Gil had never recruited Red Falcon at all, that the whole thing—the agent, all the intelligence passed on over 23 years—was an elaborate lie.

“For the first time, someone who is supposed to know everything has spoken,” Gil said bitterly. “He knows how this operation fit in with the big picture, what it contributed and what it didn’t contribute. This man comes and says in the bluntest possible way, unequivocally, that Yehuda Gil never handled this source. That blows my fuses.” He didn’t know why Yatom would write what he did, he said, whether it was out of “arrogance, or a desire to harm me, or simply ignoring the facts.”

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Yehuda Gil near his home in Gedera, Israel, 2010. Photo: Eldad Rafaeli

Eventually, Gil agreed to let me interview him in his home. I was joined by a young woman who was familiar with the world of Israeli espionage and who, I hoped, would help Gil feel less defensive and contentious than he might if he was speaking only to me. The two of us met five times with Gil and his wife in their modest single-story home. The walls were lined with books; objects from their former lives in Africa and Europe sat on the shelves. On the walls were framed certificates and shields that Gil had been awarded in recognition of the high-level training courses he had conducted for various intelligence units. He pointed out that some of them had been presented to him after his trial and his time in prison, as evidence that the public story being told by the Mossad was not the real one. “I was released from prison on the 20th of December 2000,” he said. “Three weeks later, I was training classified IDF units. Tell me that’s not peculiar.”

Our meetings generally began in the early afternoon and continued until 7 p.m., when Noa would serve an evening meal, during which we agreed that all talk of espionage would stop. After dinner, the interviews carried on late into the night. Taken together, our conversations yielded a transcript nearly 60,000 words long; in the months since those initial meetings, we have met again on several occasions and spoken by phone many times. In all these conversations, Gil has maintained that he is innocent of deceiving his country and that he is a victim of the agency to which he dedicated his life.

“He was called ‘the man with a thousand faces.’ He could persuade anyone to do almost anything.”

Three

According to a senior Mossad member who investigated the Gil affair and has access to the agency’s personnel files, Gil was born in June 1934 in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, to Jewish parents of Italian and Greek origin. His grandfather was the chief rabbi of the Jewish community there. At home he spoke Spanish, Italian, and French; in the street he learned Arabic. Early in our conversations, Gil recounted his most formative experience as a young child, witnessing a pogrom against Libyan Jews carried out by his Muslim neighbors. “When you see with your own eyes how a pregnant woman is cut open and her baby is tossed onto a bonfire,” he said, “you don’t forget it.” 

When he was 12, his father taught him how to use a handgun and told him that it was better to commit suicide than to give himself up to the mercy of the Arabs. This background may explain his decision, years later, to join the radical (now defunct) nationalist Moledet movement, which advocated the “voluntary transfer” of Israel’s Arab citizens. “I have seen what bastards they are, what scum,” Gil said of Arabs. “A goy can’t be trusted, even after he’s been buried for forty years.” We sat in silence, listening to his tirade. I have heard these opinions many times, in many places, of course; there are plenty of Israelis, especially those who emigrated from Arab lands, who hold extreme hawkish views. It shouldn’t have surprised me that even a man as erudite as Gil is could be so unnuanced in his opinions. Still, I found myself wanting him to demonstrate the charm that others had said he was so famous for. As if he, too, was aware that he’d gone too far, Gil finally said, “I don’t hate Arabs. I truly do not hate Arabs. But I’m explaining to you that I am not capable of trusting them.” 

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Tel Aviv, 1948. Photo: Dmitri Kessel/Getty Images

In September 1948, in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence, 14-year-old Yehuda immigrated with his family to Israel. They were welcomed in the new country by Gil’s uncle, a former member of Etzel, the extremist guerrilla militia that fought against the British Mandate and the Arabs before the State of Israel was established. New immigrants were being given homes abandoned by the Arabs who had fled or were expelled from areas conquered by Israeli forces. Gil’s family was allocated a house in Jaffa, but not long after moving in he left for a kibbutz, where he stayed until he was conscripted into the army at age 18.

In 1964, the IDF sent Gil to train military forces in Chad and Cameroon. The training of African military and intelligence forces was part of a strategy known as the periphery doctrine, instituted by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The idea was to foster alliances with the countries just beyond the hostile Arab states encircling Israel. In exchange for weaponry and military and intelligence training, Israel received permission to use those countries as covert bases to act against the Arabs. 

When a Mossad operative working in Chad learned that Gil spoke several languages, he suggested that Gil apply to join the organization when he returned to Israel. “We got back in July 1970,” Gil said. “I called and began the screening process.” Gil takes pains to present a dignified, unemotional front when discussing his career, but it was clear how meaningful an invitation from the Mossad must have been to him at that point in his life. Recruitment into the organization, especially for someone with Gil’s background, meant not only getting a respected job and the chance to do exciting work, but also that he, an immigrant from Libya, had penetrated the very heart of the Israeli establishment. “To be in the Mossad,” Gil said, “was to give expression to the ability of a Jew not to be a willing slave, not to be a second- or third-rate citizen, but rather a person with the ability and the right to live free.”

After six months of security vetting and physical and psychological testing, Gil entered the agency’s cadets course, held in an academy named after Eli Cohen, an Israeli spy who was caught and hanged in Syria. The course prepares a core, elite group of Mossad operatives. They are not expert assassins. They can’t fly planes or captain submarines. They are more George Smiley than James Bond. Their main weapon is not a silenced handgun but, in most cases, something far more necessary and effective—the ability to take on a false identity and to manipulate others.

The recruitment and handling of foreign agents is carried out by the Mossad’s Tsomet division. Tsomet, Hebrew for “junction,” is a code name given to the section in the 1960s. Today, the Mossad uses a different code name in its internal correspondence, but its employees still refer to the division as Tsomet. It is the largest department within the Mossad, employing many hundreds of personnel who populate a large part of the hexagonal building in Tel Aviv that is Mossad headquarters. Most of those who work in this wing are staff officers, either at the headquarters or in the Mossad’s secret stations across the globe. Those in Tsomet who are responsible for recruiting and controlling agents are known as katsa, a Hebrew acronym for “collection officer,” or case officer.

Regarded as the elite of the elite, case officers are experts in the types of deceit necessary to exploit a target’s weak points—whether greed, pride, or loneliness. They are able to live under assumed identities for extended periods, fully inhabiting the roles they take on in order to extract information without raising alarms in the minds of their agents. Within the Mossad, case officers are granted nearly complete operational autonomy and are often the sole conduit through which information flows from a target back to the agency and to the highest members of the Israeli military and government. 

Until the Gil affair, the Mossad’s faith in its case officers was absolute. As a former head of Tsomet put it to me, “You can’t work unless you trust them 100 percent.” 

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Gil, second in line, in military school, 1955. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

It was clear early on that Gil had a remarkable aptitude for recruiting, running, and debriefing foreign agents. Several people who served with him described Gil as a man who possessed unique, preternatural skills and whose talent was matched only by his arrogance. One former commander, who ran a course for senior officers in the intelligence community, told me, “He complained all the time that we didn’t appreciate him enough, and he asked provocatively if I knew what operations he had executed. In the end, he was the only participant who appealed against the grade and evaluation we gave him.”

During one of our early conversations, Gil said of himself, “I passed every course the Mossad offered within a couple of days. I would begin a course, and two days later the instructor would say, ‘I have nothing to teach you.’” He claimed that in his 27 years with the Mossad, he never had a single operational mishap, even though most of that time was spent acting undercover as a foreign citizen. “Not because I am a genius,” he said. “Because I am a coward. Before I executed anything, I checked it out from all angles and I prepared. They used to laugh at me, ‘Why do you immerse yourself so deeply in your cover?’”

Recruiting agents is a complex, all-encompassing craft. The Mossad divides the process into three discrete stages, each one performed by a different member. The first stage, “spotting,” is when the initial contact is made with a target. It is a casual contact, an acquaintanceship, and its purpose is to provide a pretext for the spotter to introduce the target to the case officer who will carry out the next stage. The “attack” is when the case officer attempts over time to deepen the relationship in such a way that the source feels sufficient trust to begin to reveal valuable information. The last phase is the “handling” of a subject who has agreed, for any number of possible reasons, to give over state secrets—to extend and nurture the relationship for as long as possible.

From the beginning of his career, Gil was assigned as an attacking case officer. In each mission, it was up to him to decide how and where to approach a target, what cover to use, and how to induce the target—be it a Libyan diplomat, a Syrian officer, a PLO functionary, or an Iraqi nuclear scientist—to want to meet again. Retired general Danny Yatom, the Mossad chief who ultimately ordered the investigation against Gil, described him to me in the kinds of terms one would use to talk about an artist. Gil was “a charismatic, colorful, astute man, with an almost hypnotic presence and a phenomenal ability to improvise and change identities. He was called ‘the man with a thousand faces,’” Yatom said. “He could persuade anyone to do almost anything. We used to say Gil could get a telephone pole to talk.”

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An Israeli soldier surveilling the Golan Heights, February 1996. Photo: David Rubinger/Getty Images

“I didn’t even ask her. I came home and said, ‘Listen, in two weeks I’ll be going away for some time.’”

“I was released from prison on the 20th of December. Three weeks later, I was training classified IDF units. Tell me that’s not peculiar.”

Four

Gil nurtured his legendary status within the organization. In the courses he taught in the Mossad’s training academy, he made a point of leaving a dramatic, lasting impression on his young trainees. He once faked a heart attack in the classroom, leading his horrified students to call an ambulance. Another time he drew a pistol on a trainee, who burst into tears, fearing that Gil had lost his mind and was about to pull the trigger.

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Gil in the early 1960s. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

In 1984, according to Gil, the future director of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, summoned him to his office to review Gil’s cover story before he left on a mission to Sudan. Gil was planning to pose as a thoroughly corrupt businessman, “a real slave trader,” in his words, engaged in human trafficking—a cover story that made sense in this case because the “slaves” were Ethiopian Jews purportedly being transported to Europe via Israel.

Halevy was from the Tevel (or “world”) division—the part of the Mossad that serves as a liaison with foreign intelligence agencies. “This man who has never worked undercover is examining me?” Gil said, recounting the event. “What does he know about cover stories?”

As Gil described it, Halevy arrives at his office half an hour before their meeting to find a phone-company technician in overalls working on the wires. In a “peculiar” accent, the technician explains that he is there to check out a complaint that the office’s phones had been tapped. Halevy begins to panic and tries to shield the top-secret papers on his desk, all the while shouting for his secretary to call the Mossad’s chief security officer. As the secretary runs into the room and tries to calm Halevy, the technician mutters to himself and goes back to work. Then, after a few minutes have passed, the technician stands up straight, drops the accent, and says, “So, do you think I’m ready to go on my mission, Ephraim?”

When I contacted Halevy, who was the director of the Mossad from 1998 until 2002, I asked him about Gil’s story. His reply: “As a rule, I do not respond to such requests. However, in this case, I have decided to answer. The episode concerning Mr. Gil’s entry into my office in the disguise of a telephone technician is a figment of his imagination—it never happened. The comments concerning my operational career indicate to me that Mr. Gil knows nothing about it, and that is the way it should be.”

Gil served for prolonged periods in European countries where most of the Mossad’s operations take place, involving potential marks from enemy states traveling outside the Arab world. But he was also among the select few operatives who went undercover in “target countries”—hostile Arab and Muslim nations where the risk of torture, imprisonment, or execution was high if he was to be exposed.

“There were some case officers who wriggled out of such assignments,” Gil said. “When they were looking for someone to go to certain Arab countries, there were two men who agreed: Yehuda and Gil”—meaning only himself. “I was then a department head, with a nice armchair,” he went on, “with future promotion possibilities, air-conditioned rooms, and so forth. They would come to me and say, ‘We need someone to go to a certain country and do a certain job. Is there anyone?’ And I would say, ‘Why are you messing around? You’ve got the man. I’m right here.’ Within 24 hours I was being briefed, and within two weeks I was where I had to be.”

He paused and looked at Noa. “I didn’t even ask her. I came home and said, ‘Listen, in two weeks I’ll be going away for some time.’”

“You didn’t ask because the answer was self-evident.” Noa replied. “When you have to do a job, you do it.”

After the Munich massacre in 1972, Gil was among the team of operatives chosen to eliminate the Palestinian terrorists responsible for the attacks. Their first target was Adel Wael Zuaiter, whom the Mossad learned was working part-time as an interpreter for the Libyan embassy in Rome. Undercover as an Italian businessman, Gil managed to befriend an acquaintance of Zuaiter’s, who over time supplied Gil with many details about Zuaiter—his home phone number, his work hours, even descriptions of his personal habits and how he spent his free time. Gil took painstaking notes of these details and then transmitted them to Tsomet headquarters.

Once Gil had gathered sufficient intelligence, the Mossad’s special-operations division, known as the Caesarea, went into action. An assassination unit arrived in Rome and, using information supplied by Gil, shadowed Zuaiter for several days. On September 16, they followed him from the Libyan embassy to a nearby café, then to the city bus that took him home. When Zuaiter got off at his stop, the operatives who’d followed him signaled to a waiting team—two Caesarea members hiding in a dark stairwell—that the target was approaching. As Zuaiter called the elevator, the two men stepped out, drew their Beretta pistols with silencers, and shot him 11 times. Within hours all the team members had left Italy and were on their way back to Israel.

At the end of 1973, Gil was ordered to report to Paris for a new mission. “I didn’t see what could be more important than killing Palestinian terrorists,” he said. “But you don’t argue with orders. That night I headed for Paris.”

His new target was a general in the Syrian military who the Israelis had discovered was stationed for several months in Europe. The presence of a Syrian officer of that rank in a location so accessible to Mossad operatives was a rare opportunity. The general was given the code name Red Falcon.

There was no reason to believe Red Falcon would be sympathetic to Israel, quite the opposite. The general had fought in the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and his fierce hatred of Israel was well-known to the Israeli Defense Forces. On November 23, 1973, the Israeli government received a secret report stating that 42 Israeli soldiers who had been captured by the Syrians were murdered before reaching prison, where two others were also killed. According to intelligence information gathered by the IDF, some of those soldiers were killed in a zone where Red Falcon was commanding Syrian troops. The murder of the POWs was perpetrated, at the least, with his knowledge, and quite possibly on his orders. Other Israeli soldiers who’d been taken prisoner but spared during the monthlong war came home after their negotiated release and described torture sessions that Red Falcon had taken part in.

The surprise attack by Syria and Egypt that launched the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was catastrophic for the Israeli intelligence community. Israeli Military Intelligence (AMAN) had failed to correctly evaluate the intentions of Syria and Egypt as the two countries amassed troops on the Golan Heights and the West Bank of the Suez Canal, believing they were engaged in war games and not planning an invasion. When those troops attacked, the IDF was caught completely unawares, and its losses were crushing. October 1973 is AMAN’s deepest scar. To prevent such an attack from happening again, the Mossad was put under intense pressure to recruit agents who not only could supply secret information, but would also have access to what those in the agency referred to as the ”intent echelon”—the high-ranking inner circle who were involved in making strategic plans.

“There was a doleful atmosphere in the Mossad,” Gil said, recalling the effect that war had throughout the agency. He told the story of a young case officer who had worked with him in the Rome station and left to fight with his army unit when the war broke out. “He predicted that he wouldn’t come back, and he was killed on the Suez Canal. Many of the case officers, and that includes me, had a powerful need for revenge, a desire to do something out of the ordinary.”

I asked him if he distinguished at all between the Egyptians and the Syrians. For whom did he feel more rage? “There’s a proverb in Italian,” he said. “‘They’re all the same breed—kill them all.’ What difference is it to me if he’s a Syrian or an Egyptian? It doesn’t matter. I don’t like them. I don’t hate them, but I don’t like them. It’s because I know their mission is the exact opposite of mine.”

“Nobody knows who’s who at these meetings. You just have to know how to play the game.”

Five

Prior to Gil’s arrival in Paris, a female Arab spotter working for the Mossad had made initial contact with the general in Paris. “The orders she got were to develop a superficial relationship with him,” Gil explained. “He invites you to dinner, make eyes at him and so on. The aim is that at a certain stage he’ll accept your invitation to a party, and there he’ll meet someone who will execute the operational moves. That’s all she was supposed to do, but she went further and gave him sexual favors.” Despite her efforts, Red Falcon refused to meet any of the spotter’s acquaintances, and a second operative (to protect his identity, I will refer to him as Gabriel) was brought in to befriend him. That relationship also failed to develop as hoped, and so with three months left before the general was scheduled to return to Syria, Gil was called in.

As soon as he arrived in Paris, Gil joined the surveillance team already in place and began closely observing his target. Red Falcon came from an affluent family in Syria, but in Paris he lived frugally in a cheap hotel. Gil noted that he took great pains to put on a smart front—his suits were impeccably pressed, his shoes always freshly shined—but he usually caught the Metro or walked to his destination rather than spend money on a taxi. There were three possible “hooks,” Gil said, in the recruitment of agents—money, emotion, or sex—and based on his surveillance (and the failure of the female spotter to manipulate her mark), it appeared that money would be the key to convincing Red Falcon to betray his country.

Gil determined that the best way to approach his target would be through Gabriel, whose friendship with the general seemed to be taking hold. And so a plan was developed: Gabriel would invite the general to join him at an upcoming international convention on construction and development, and there they would meet Gil, working undercover as a prosperous and influential Italian businessman. For a few days prior to their visit, Gil attended the convention alone, deliberately cultivating ties to the staff and attendees. Within two days, exhibitors and waiters assumed that he was one of the event’s organizers, addressing him as Monsieur le directeur. “Everyone was coming up to ask me, ‘Mr. Director, we have a problem here and a problem there,’ and I would solve the problems for them,” Gil recalled. “I would scold some of them if it seemed to me they weren’t carrying out their duties.”

When Gabriel arrived with Red Falcon, he introduced Gil as an old friend of his father’s. Gil distractedly greeted Gabriel and his friend, making it clear that he was very busy. As Gil recalled the moment: “[Red Falcon] says, ‘Why’s he brushing us off like this?’ And Gabriel says, ‘Listen, he’s an important man. You see, everyone calls him le directeur.’ So the impression we created was that I was powerful. He sees everyone running around with name tags, and I haven’t got a tag or anything, but I’m telling them what to do.”

He quickly seized an opportunity to demonstrate his influence to Red Falcon, Gil said, by stopping a young woman walking past with a stack of brochures. “So I say, ‘Mademoiselle, what’s this? Show me.’ I open a brochure. ‘OK. It’s nice. What I asked for. Give a couple to these gentlemen here’—and I point at Gabriel and Red Falcon. She’s certain that it’s my job. Nobody knows who’s who at these meetings. You just have to know how to play the game.”

Gil took Red Falcon to a three-star restaurant that evening, and the next day escorted him to several presentations that he claimed to be overseeing. Throughout these meetings, and for all the years that they knew each other, Gil kept the fact that he spoke fluent Arabic a secret from the general, so that he could eavesdrop on the man’s conversations.

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Gil with his daughter in Chad, 1966. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

As is typical of the Mossad’s recruitment operations, the female spotter, Gabriel, and Gil all went undercover as Europeans, in what is known as a “false flag” operation. The reason for this is obvious: like most Arabs, Red Falcon could hardly be expected to cooperate directly with the Zionist enemy. The hope, though, was that if there was enough in it for him, he might be open to the possibility of working with an influential Westerner.

Gabriel urged Red Falcon to get to know Gil, suggesting that they might be able to do business together. He shared his friend’s life story with the Syrian: Gil was from an Italian Fascist family that supported the Nazis, Gabriel said. After the war ended, his father, who backed the Italian Christian Democratic Party, had collaborated with the Americans to undermine local Communist sympathizers. “And then the game begins,” Gil said. “That same day, [Red Falcon] tells me he is a military man, that he has a lot of land and his family is very rich, and that he’s a prince—all kinds of stories. Of course, in order to show how important he is, he too embellishes reality.”

The next stage was to set up a direct connection between Gil and Red Falcon, without Gabriel as the mediator. They told the Syrian that Gil knew Gabriel’s father when Gabriel was still a young roughneck and that Gil had promised to take care of him. “That way,” Gil said, “the officer and I suddenly became serious types, and he, Gabriel, was a little scamp we could boss around.”

To deepen the impression that Gil was a wealthy and powerful businessman, Gabriel showed up at one meeting with a sheaf of documents that were supposedly from a deal Gil was about to close. “We sat there for about an hour,” Gil said, “with papers that I had prepared and given Gabriel in advance. In the end I tell Gabriel, ‘Drop it. At most you’ll make half a million a year. Is it worth putting so much effort into this for half a million bucks?’ Red Falcon heard us tossing these sums around and, you know, his ears began perking up like an elephant in the savanna who catches a whiff of some female in heat.”

When the convention was over, Gil arranged to meet the Syrian alone. “Before we parted he said to me, ‘Tell me, do you think that in a country like ours it would be possible to do this kind of business?”’ It was then, Gil said, that he knew Red Falcon had swallowed the bait. Or, as he put it: “The elephant had lost his sense of direction and was charging after the female.”

“He has important information to convey to me and he expresses his readiness to supply whatever I ask for.”

Six

Gil’s initial meetings with Red Falcon were conducted under Mossad surveillance. Two of the agency’s operatives had recently been shot—one fatally—by double agents from the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Mossad had instituted a number of precautionary measures that are still in use today. It was determined that targets should always be followed on their way to meetings with case officers and that these meetings never be held at the predetermined venue; instead, the foreign agents should always be “jumped” to a different location, to prevent the possibility of the case officer being ambushed.

As he became more acquainted with Red Falcon, Gil said, he grew more disdainful of him. He described the general as “a peasant, a respectable peasant from a respectable family. But he looked at everything in terms of respect—the external image.” The general drank a lot of alcohol, Gil said, and the Mossad had proof that he was an adulterer, but in conversation he was offended by open talk about sex and found Western-style advertising, with its half-naked models, distasteful. He despised the rampant nepotism in Syrian society and, despite his high military rank, felt that some of his colleagues looked down on him.

In the course of their first lengthy conversation, Red Falcon told Gil that he hated Israel but was in awe of its military capabilities. He told him, too, about his treatment of Israeli POWs. “I encouraged him,” Gil said. “I said, ‘That’s what you need to do to those shitty Jews’ and so on and so forth. It’s not easy. It’s not easy.”

Despite the general’s criticism of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad and his cronies, Gil said, “he believed that with a leader like Assad and an army like the IDF, any objective could be met. To his great regret, the Syrian army was significantly inferior to the Israeli army.” In the first reports Gil submitted on Red Falcon, he noted that the general hoped to see Syria become an integral part of the West—allied with Europe and the U.S. and the developed world—rather than being part of a united Arab front or a nation that cooperated with the Soviet Bloc.

Gil focused during that first meeting on forming a more personal bond with his target, proving that he was sympathetic to the general’s anxieties and desires and could possibly help him. In response to Red Falcon’s financial concerns, Gil suggested that there were business opportunities for the Syrian and that he could introduce him to the kind of people who were working in very lucrative areas.

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Israel and neighboring states as of 1982. Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

Over months’ worth of conversations, Gil emphasized the ways in which he could provide connections that would bring Red Falcon economic security and searched for reasons that would justify Red Falcon’s frequent trips to Europe in the eyes of his superiors. The general told Gil that he hoped to send his eldest daughter to study in Europe but didn’t know how to raise the money necessary to afford it. “He could have applied to the French Foreign Ministry, and they would have arranged it,” Gil said. “But he didn’t know this, and I wasn’t about to tell him.” Gil explained to Red Falcon that he had an excellent solution, one that would not require filling out forms or dealing with government bureaucracy: “I told him that I’d found a company that was ready to finance talented and promising students in exchange for their signing on to work for the company for a few years.” When Red Falcon expressed interest, Gil and his colleagues in the Mossad hastily created a “scholarship” for the girl.

Before he left for Syria, Red Falcon had one final request: He wanted to return home with the ultimate Western status symbols—a large refrigerator and a washing machine manufactured in America. Gil immediately contacted Mossad colleagues stationed in Washington, who purchased Westinghouse appliances and shipped them to Paris. When they arrived, Gil recalled, the Syrian “gave me a strange look. ‘What’s going on?’ he says. And I see what’s going through his mind at that moment. He’s thinking, ‘What happened here? All of a sudden, the world is opening up before me. I want an education for my daughter, and bingo! I want an American refrigerator, and it’s all arranged.’ He says to me, ‘I don’t get it. Do you have friends everywhere?”’

This was the opening Gil had been waiting for, the most crucial point in the attack phase, when the relationship morphs from the sharing of opinions and common interests to the handing over of sensitive, secret information. The main problem Gil faced was how to deftly prepare Red Falcon for the questions and requests for information that he was about to start presenting. To make it all sound logical, even inevitable, he told Red Falcon more about his father’s intelligence work for Italy’s National Fascist Party and the relationships he’d formed with influential Americans working in Europe who were bent on rooting out Communists. According to Gil, Red Falcon said, “‘Your father was wise. Look what he made of you.’ I saw that I was on the right track and that I could press on. I explained that from time to time I was sent by Western intelligence services to all sorts of places in the world to look into sensitive matters, to speak to people, to do deals of one kind or another.” Global business and global intelligence went hand in hand, Gil suggested, and great opportunities existed for the few savvy people who understood that the truly rich and powerful were not overly constrained by national interests or ideology, who know how to move in these shadowy international networks and take advantage of them.

Red Falcon asked him how much money he made doing this work.

“A lot,” Gil said. “Working for this intelligence service gives me access to certain business opportunities. For example, when one of the countries in Western Europe renews its emergency stockpiles, which it does every three years, I get first opportunity to buy up the old stock cheap and resell it. Buy low, sell high to Third World countries, and make millions along the way.”

Gil swore Red Falcon to secrecy, expounding on the importance of loyalty among friends. This was meant to condition the Syrian to the security procedures he would soon be implementing with him, Gil said. It was important to teach him “what secrecy is, how secrets are kept, how loyalty is maintained, and how to avoid indicating to anyone that you are in touch with foreigners. Things like, if you ever have a lot of money, don’t start squandering it. Or if, for example, you are asked how your daughter has an apartment in Europe, you have to be ready with an answer.”

Gil saw Red Falcon off on his trip back to Damascus, then immediately headed to an office in a Parisian apartment operated by the Mossad. He wrote up his report and handed it to a waiting courier, who delivered it to headquarters in Tel Aviv. His superiors were elated, Gil said, but Red Falcon’s initial agreement to cooperate wasn’t enough. In countless other cases, a fresh recruit might have been happy about the money and gifts he received, but would then return to his own country and cut off the relationship.

Gil and his superiors waited tensely to see what would happen in the weeks following Red Falcon’s return to Damascus. Then the signal came in. The first letter from Red Falcon arrived at an address Gil had given him. A summary, written by Gil and filed with the letter, stated: “The letter contains a mention of and a demand for the sums that we promised him. He reiterates his agreement to cooperate.”

The Mossad began transferring money to a Middle Eastern bank account that it had opened in Red Falcon’s name. It was only a few thousand dollars, not a huge amount in Western eyes, but a great deal for a Syrian. A few weeks later another letter arrived, which Gil summarized: “[Red Falcon] claims he has important information to convey to me and he expresses his readiness to supply whatever I ask for.”

A month later, Red Falcon returned to Europe with his daughter, who was about to begin her studies, thanks to a Mossad contact within a prestigious French academy. “We introduced Red Falcon to a local collaborator,” Gil said. The collaborator posed as the chairman of a society “dedicated to encouraging promising youngsters from French-speaking countries.” The Mossad’s network in Paris provided an apartment for the girl and paid all her bills. Once the details of his daughter’s “scholarship” and living arrangements were finalized, Red Falcon returned to his high-level post in Syria.

“There was no other handling of a human source that occupied us more than Red Falcon.”

Seven

According to Gil’s reports to the Mossad’s chiefs, Red Falcon began sharing documents and military secrets with his Italian benefactor out of gratitude for the favors being heaped on him. In 1976, after two years of groundwork, the general handed over information of such high value that the heads of Israel’s intelligence community refused to believe it was true. “At first the Research Division of Military Intelligence laughed at me and at my source,” Gil said. “When it turned out that he was right, they had to eat their hats.”

The Research Division of AMAN is responsible for analyzing and evaluating all the information collected by the entire Israeli intelligence community—the Mossad, Military Intelligence, and the Shin Bet, as well as the intelligence branch of the Israeli police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hundreds of experts serve in the division, sifting through vast amounts of data and intelligence of various sorts to compile Israel’s National Intelligence Estimates, which serve as the bible for the assessment of threats and determination of military policy. The Mossad is engaged in the collection of information, mostly through human intelligence sources, but it is the analytical experts in the Research Division of AMAN who evaluate the information and decide upon its credibility. The intelligence community has far greater influence in Israel than the Foreign Ministry, and AMAN research has a critical influence not only on questions of war, but also on diplomatic decisions with hostile countries and all of Israel’s foreign policy.

Various members within the Mossad and the IDF whom I spoke with—and who were familiar with the affair—agreed that at this point the information Gil was providing was reliable and was coming directly from Red Falcon. It’s likely that the general wasn’t aware that he was betraying his country, they said, because Gil, a master at managing the questions and misgivings of his targets, was able to assuage any doubts Red Falcon may have expressed by assuring him that the secrets he was passing on would never be used against Syria.

With each new benefit, too, the general was less likely to question or end the arrangement. Aside from his daughter’s apartment and tuition, and the regular “bonuses” he was now receiving from “European intelligence employers,” Red Falcon was treated to seductive tastes of Western privilege. After he revealed to Gil that he dreamed of traveling around Europe, Gil took him on a grand European tour, covertly accompanied by a team of security and logistics personnel.

I spoke with a Mossad operative who acted as one of the unseen escorts on this trip. “I was young and not yet really sure of myself,” he told me. “When the trip was over, I learned that Gil had complained that Red Falcon had pointed me out and said, ‘That man looks like an Israeli commando.’ My boss said he wasn’t firing me only because Gil requested leniency on my behalf. Looking back, I realize how unlikely that story was. I come from a European background and don’t look at all like an Israeli. In the investigation following his arrest, it came to light that Gil used this tactic with lots of young guys, in order to make them indebted to him, as if it was thanks to him we weren’t kicked out of the Mossad.”

Everyone who served in the highest reaches of Military Intelligence between the mid-’70s and the late ’90s knew of Red Falcon (only by code name, not his real identity), and it was widely understood that the information he provided was precious. There are a very limited number of sources—the cardinal sources, as they are called—who are deemed to be so strategically significant that the raw material from meetings with them is sent directly to the prime minister and the Research Division is intimately involved in their handling. With these sources, the division’s experts are in direct contact with Mossad case officers, and analysts accompany Mossad handlers to the foreign cities where their meetings take place. They brief the handlers before the meetings and immediately debrief them afterward. Red Falcon was considered a cardinal source from early on—and, over time, was assumed to be Israel’s most important cardinal source.

Gil said that he held his first meetings “in the presence of members of AMAN Research” as early as 1976. “Amos Gilboa”—then head of the Syria desk and later commander of the Research Division—“came to Paris. In AMAN’s eyes, everything that [Red Falcon] said was not only serious but the word of God. They were agog [at what Red Falcon was saying]. The agent not only supplied them with information, but also described for them the strategic doctrines of the Syrian military.”

To suggest that Red Falcon outlined these things “for them”—meaning the AMAN members—is not entirely accurate, however. In each of his meetings, Gil refused to allow direct contact between anyone else on the team and his source, claiming that Red Falcon would be scared off. At most he would allow the AMAN analysts to sit in the same café in which he was meeting with his source or to watch from a distance as they took a morning stroll down the Champs-Elysées. This refusal to let anyone other than himself interact with Red Falcon was later used against Gil in his trial, but at the time, AMAN members went along. “I do not know how to work undercover,” Gilboa told me. “Gil’s refusal to allow me to meet the source seemed absolutely reasonable. We sat in the café and watched him meeting with the source, who we knew from photographs. Everything seemed logical to me. I didn’t suspect a thing. We were grateful to Gil for this amazing recruitment.”

The one aspect of his handling of Red Falcon that caused him the most concern, Gil said, was that the general’s daughter seemed to sense something. “She was very suspicious,” Gil said. “She knew there was something she couldn’t explain.” The question was, would she be able to convince her father that she was right.

On the one hand, the Syrian treated her harshly. “Once, I was dining at their home,” Gil said. “My fork fell, and I began to bend down to pick it up. When she, the daughter, didn’t hurry to bring me a clean fork, he slapped her, just like that, in the face.” But he also knew that the daughter loved her father and worried over him. She was suspicious of Gil’s motives and would often warn her father—in Arabic, which she didn’t realize Gil understood—that he was speaking too freely in the presence of his friend. “One time the girl told her mother: ‘Speak to father. Why is he telling him these things? These aren’t things you tell just anyone.’ The mother told her, ‘But he isn’t just anyone. He’s one of us. He’s family. Have you forgotten what he did for you?’”

Despite such warnings, Gil said, by this point in their relationship, Red Falcon was openly discussing military and political topics. “He believed that I was reporting on our conversations to NATO intelligence,” Gil said, “and that he was serving as a NATO adviser, through me, and getting paid for it.”

The intelligence coming in from Red Falcon was staggering. Gil reported back on the operations and training exercises of Syrian commandos, on structural changes within the Syrian army, on the purchase and allocation of new arms and electronic-warfare systems, and on redeployments along Syria’s borders. He was also learning about Syria’s internal politics, he said, including the news that President Assad intended to change Syrian law to enable him to continue in power despite his advanced age.

In March 1984, now over a decade into his handling of Red Falcon, Gil reported back information on a top-secret Syrian storage facility for chemical weapons. As the years passed, he expanded on this subject, filling his reports with more refined details. Each time Red Falcon indicated that he could meet Gil in Europe, a vast operation, involving dozens or sometimes hundreds of people, was set in motion. AMAN analysts exhaustively briefed Gil in advance of his meetings, prepping him on what questions to ask and what to follow up with after the Syrian’s replies. The Mossad planned all operational aspects of the meetings: security, logistics, safe houses, escape and surveillance routes, accommodations for everyone involved, transfer of funds to be paid directly to Red Falcon, along with depositing money in another account to satisfy his family’s various domestic needs.

“We used to hold meetings day and night, arguing about what questions Gil should ask Red Falcon about which topics during their limited time together,” an AMAN officer who served during those years told me. “These became real fights, with every individual sure that his question was more important and more vital to the security of the state.”

One top Mossad official put it this way: “There was no other handling of a human source that occupied us more than Red Falcon during those decades.”

“The Mossad called me a traitor, an enemy of the state. It was a very difficult time.”

Eight

In the spring of 1981, tensions mounted between Israel and Syria after the Syrians attacked Israeli allies, the Christian Falangists, in Lebanon. In response, Israeli warplanes downed Syrian helicopters ferrying troops in that country and flew warning flights over Beirut and Damascus. Syria countered by sending large numbers of forces and anti-aircraft missiles into Lebanon, far greater than had been stationed there before.

The Israelis were desperate to know what the Syrians were planning, and Gil called Red Falcon, who was once again visiting Paris. “I bought some wonderful grouper in the market today,” Gil said—using the code for “I need an urgent meeting.”

Danny Yatom told me that after that meeting, “Gil reported that the Syrian army’s moves were the first steps toward an offensive against Israel.”

The Mossad director at the time was Yitzhak Hofi, who had been a top IDF commander on the northern front during the surprise Syrian attack in October 1973. Like other senior commanders at that time, Hofi bore the psychic scars of the attack, and he immediately conveyed Gil’s report to the military’s high command and to Israel’s political leadership, where it was greeted with equal alarm. For the chief of the general staff, Rafael “Raful” Eitan, and the northern region commander, Avigdor “Yanosh” Ben-Gal, the Yom Kippur War also remained an open wound. Both had fought on the front lines, had lost comrades, and had nearly been killed themselves—and each was now eager to act on Gil’s intelligence.

The head of AMAN’s Syria desk at the time, Eli Halahmi, told me, “Raful and Yanosh wanted to call up all the reserves. I said that’s absurd. If we mobilize, the Syrians will see we’re mobilizing and think we’re going to attack them. Very quickly the situation will get out of control.” Halahmi said that he was suspicious of the information in Gil’s report but that the Mossad gave Gil its full backing. “Red Falcon was their flagship,” he said. “Everyone was pushing to call up the reserves. I moved into my office. For three months I slept there, so I would be the first to see new information, because I knew it was the only way to prevent war. The Mossad called me a traitor, an enemy of the state. It was a very difficult time.”

I asked Amos Gilboa why there weren’t others who shared Halahmi’s skepticism of Gil—and why he didn’t suspect Gil at the time. “Are you insane?” he replied. “Suspect one of our own? Would you suspect your own mother?”

Ultimately, Halahmi’s predictions were borne out. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin accepted the chief of staff’s recommendation and approved a call-up of military reserves. The Syrians noted the developments, feared an Israeli offensive, and began preparing for a preemptive attack.

According to various sources, Israel kept the United States informed of the crisis as it developed. Fearing further escalation, President Reagan sent Robert Ames, the CIA’s Middle East expert, to mediate the situation. Ames traveled between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, urgently seeking and providing assurances on all sides that no one was planning an attack. Eventually, it was Ames’s information gathering and diplomacy that convinced both Syria and Israel to back down. (Three years later, Ames would be killed in a suicide bombing in Beirut.)

“It turned out that Syria had no intention at all of attacking,” Danny Yatom said. “That call-up not only cost the country a fortune, but also nearly brought about a military confrontation.”

When I raised Yatom’s claims with Gil, he flatly denied that he had suggested that a Syrian attempt to recapture the Golan Heights was imminent. It was one of the first moments of direct confrontation in our conversations. I knew the history, and I had spoken to several people who were close to the events. I pointed out to Gil that, from what I understood, he had said the Syrians were going to launch an offensive immediately.

He erupted in anger. “That is not true,” he said. He claimed there was nothing in his reports that gave a specific window for the attack. He said that I should try to get the actual reports, originally written in Italian as he took notes from his source, and investigate the question myself. “If you are capable of it,” he said. “If you have the strength to make [the Mossad] relinquish the dictations.”

“You know I can’t make them do that,” I said.

“So I’m telling you, word for word, what was written in Italian. There was no date.”

According to Gil, what Red Falcon had told him, and what he conveyed, was that Syria was engaged in “strategic thinking, training. He described down to the last detail how the maneuvers would take place, where the blocking forces would be deployed, where the chopper-borne commando raids would be, and so on and so forth. But he didn’t say they were doing it today and he didn’t say it would be tomorrow.”

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An Israeli tank in the Yom Kippur War, 1973. Photo: Corbis Images

A year after the 1981 scare, Israel invaded Lebanon, with the stated purpose of destroying PLO bases in that country. In fact, the assault also served as a pretext for striking at Syrian forces there, another attempt to bring closure to the lasting trauma of the Yom Kippur War. The Syrian forces in Lebanon were devastated in the attack, and in its wake the prevailing opinion in Israeli intelligence was that Syria, having just suffered from the overwhelming force of the IDF, would now be very unlikely to engage in another conflict with Israel.

According to Gil’s reports, however, Red Falcon was saying the opposite. The intelligence Gil passed on was that Assad was preparing a secret plan to regain the Golan Heights territory that Israel had occupied since 1967. A source who served in the Mossad’s Research Division at the time told me that Red Falcon “began reporting on something that he called the ‘limited-attack theory.’” The thinking went like this, he said: “[The Syrians] wanted to do to Israel the same thing the Egyptians had succeeded so well at in October 1973—a limited ground attack to conquer a narrow strip inside Israeli-held territory, where they would enjoy the protection of their anti-aircraft missiles and artillery. Special forces would then be flown in by choppers and take Mount Hermon. The intention,” he said, “was to shock Israel and the world and to force Israel, this time in an inferior position, to begin negotiating the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.”

Red Falcon had not given a date for the offensive, but the limited-attack theory gradually acquired supporters in the intelligence community, and the pressure on Gil to get as much intelligence as possible from his source intensified. In order to facilitate that, Mossad directors allowed Gil to forgo a whole host of procedures normally employed to assure the veracity of intelligence, including recording conversations with his source, introducing a second case officer into the relationship, and facilitating face-to-face debriefings of the source with agency experts.

When the Mossad directorate ordered Gil to take another case officer along with him, he told them that Red Falcon refused to talk to him. Attempts to send in a female case officer posing as Gil’s wife also failed. And when his bosses insisted that Gil record his meetings, the machine didn’t work properly.

“Yehuda would spot a trick like that. He’s a million times smarter than they are. They’d break in a moment.”

Nine

In 1989, Red Falcon retired from his position in the Syrian army. Around the same time, Gil was passed over for a promotion. It’s unclear exactly why. Some people who served in the Mossad at the time told me that while Gil was regarded as one of the greatest case officers the Mossad had ever known, he was less esteemed as a commander. He had run a small station in Europe, and held intermediate command positions in Israel, but there was a sense that he wasn’t cut out for the teamwork and communication necessary to lead large groups of people.

Gil briefly left the Mossad to go into private business, but both his and Red Falcon’s retirements were mere formalities. Red Falcon remained involved in Syrian military affairs and participated in secret military discussions. And Gil continued to serve as an instructor within the intelligence community and was occasionally called up by the Mossad for various missions.

Gil’s brief life as a businessman was significantly less glorious than his life as a spy had been. A relative of his, who worked in the Israeli defense establishment and had tried to help Gil enter the business world after his retirement, told me: “I witnessed him in action posing as a rich businessman, and he was great. Ordered everyone around, managing a ‘successful import-export business.’ It was obvious to anyone that he was a major tycoon. In real business, in the real world, he wasn’t that good, and he was really disappointed. It’s almost as if he thought that acting as a businessman should be the same as being one.”

Gil’s lack of success in the civilian world was the opposite of the status he still commanded within the agency. He continued to meet frequently with Red Falcon, and the general remained the focus of Israel’s intelligence activity concerning Syria. “Gil had a tremendous talent for putting himself at the center of the action,” a former Mossad colleague told me. “When the big bosses come to us, or an AMAN representative, they listened to all of us politely, but it was clear whose words they were waiting for.”

It was during this period, though, that doubts about the credibility of Gil’s source began to spread. When a group of intelligence experts within the Mossad decided to take a closer look at Red Falcon’s voluminous file, they came upon the caustic comments Eli Halahmi had written during the scare with Syria back in 1981. “What we suspected,” one of the experts told me, “was not that Gil was fabricating, but that this was a classic case of over-identification between a handler and a source. And that the handler, in order to boost both his source and himself, was cutting corners a little in his reports.”

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Gil in Paris, 1985. Photo: Courtesy of Yehuda Gil

At the same time, Yehiam Mart, who was then head of Mossad’s Paris station, also began to have concerns. After a series of meetings between Gil and Red Falcon in July 1990, Mart ran a number of side operations to investigate some of the information Gil was reporting. He then sent a for-your-eyes-only memo to the agency’s director, Shabtai Shavit, saying that he believed there were problems with the Red Falcon operation. Shavit immediately summoned him to Israel for a meeting with the Mossad’s top officials. Mart was not the first to raise suspicions about Red Falcon, but he was the first to say the problem lay not with the source but with the handler. In his opinion, Gil was taking material from AMAN research experts, modifying it slightly to make it seem credible, then reporting it as intelligence he had obtained from his source. It was even possible, Mart said, that the entire Red Falcon operation was no more than a sophisticated disinformation project by Syrian intelligence, that it was the general who had recruited Gil and not the other way around.

A source who was present at that meeting recalled Mart’s words striking the high-ranking members who were gathered there like a thunderbolt. “It had never happened before that someone cast this kind of doubt on one of us,” the source said. “And not just any one of us but a legend who had recruited our most important agent.”

Mart’s plan for ferreting out the truth was something the Mossad had never done before. He proposed that they plant a false item, one that purportedly came from another source in Syria, within the information conveyed by the Mossad to AMAN’s Research Division. This item, about a new kind of weapon that Syria was receiving from Russia, would be sufficiently significant that AMAN’s Syria experts would pass it on to Gil before his next round of meetings with Red Falcon.

 One of the participants in the meeting suggested that they go straight to the AMAN analysts and tell them of the plan. “Why lie to them, too?” he said.

“Because Yehuda would spot a trick like that,” Mart replied. “He’s a million times smarter than they are, and he’d sense they were hiding something. They’d break in a moment.”

Shavit, who had long been offended by Gil’s arrogance, was in favor of the proposal, and a decision was made to inform only the head of AMAN’s Research Division, Brigadier General Yaakov Amidror, that the item was part of a plot to deceive Gil. At the last moment, however, Shavit gave in to heavy pressure exerted on him from high-ranking members of Tsomet, the division of the Mossad that oversees the case officers. “This is no more than a circumstantial theory,” a source inside the meeting told me one of them said. “There’s no real evidence against Gil, and if it comes out that we’ve played a trick on one of our own men, it will bring down the whole structure of mutual confidence in the organization.”

Shavit gave in, and Gil’s meetings with Red Falcon continued.

Shortly thereafter, however, Gil himself made the case that the Red Falcon operation should be terminated. “His access to material has become very restricted,” Gil wrote at the time. His request was granted, and for a year and a half—from early 1994 until the middle of 1995—no meetings were held with the source. According to information obtained by other intelligence units, though, it was apparent that Red Falcon still had access to highly placed members of the military and government, including excellent ties with Syria’s deputy chief of staff, Ali Aslan.

Why, then, had Gil suddenly tried to belittle his value? Some sources in the Mossad theorized that while Red Falcon may still have been closely connected to the so-called intent echelon, the burden of lies that Gil had peddled over the years was becoming too heavy for him to bear.

Whatever the explanation, the break did not last long. By mid-1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was engaged in intensive negotiations with the Syrians, under American mediation, and had guaranteed Secretary of State Warren Christopher that Israel would be prepared to withdraw from the Golan in exchange for a full peace accord with Syria. In the midst of these negotiations, Israel was desperate to ascertain whether the Syrians were sincere in their commitment to sign such a historic agreement. Amidror, the chief of the AMAN Research Division, exerted tremendous pressure on the Mossad to keep the Red Falcon operation alive. He took this demand to Rabin, who ordered Shavit to reactivate Red Falcon. “They told me to go back to him on all fours,” Gil said. “Just get him to agree.”

Gil once again met Red Falcon in Europe, where he was joined by the AMAN officer in charge of Syria at the time, who due to secrecy concerns I will refer to as Noam. Gil would meet Red Falcon in cafés or in a suite rented by the Mossad, then Noam would debrief him immediately afterward.

Lieutenant Colonel Udi Dekel of AMAN’s Research Division was also present at some of these meetings. He was amazed, Dekel told me, when he received from Gil information that was identical to intelligence assessments he had written himself several months before. “Verification like this, when a high-ranking human source confirms what you’ve deduced from other sources, ” he said, “is nothing short of orgasmic for an intelligence officer. Only later, when it all blew up, did I learn that Yehuda used to read our memoranda and files before he went for a round of meetings with Red Falcon. It never occurred to me to suspect him. They told us he was the greatest of all.”

In a précis sent back to the Research Division, Noam wrote, “The Syrian military has gone back to busying itself with the idea of a limited offensive. The aim of the offensive is to extricate the political process from deadlock, if and when it reaches a dead end. ‘Limited’ means limited in time to no more than 48 hours, to occupy as much territory as possible within this time frame.… This will be a surprise offensive.… The attacking forces will leave their training grounds and permanent bases while an inspection is under way to serve as cover for the plan.

 “There is no date for implementation.… The Syrian army needs two months to complete preparations for the war.”

In other words, as long as there was a political process and hope that Israel would retreat peacefully from the Golan Heights, there would be no Syrian action. If the peace process broke down, the Syrians would consider launching the limited offensive.

A dispute broke out within AMAN in reaction to this information. Northern Command intelligence argued that they saw no signs that supported Red Falcon’s claim that the Syrians were engaged in military preparations. Syria experts in AMAN’s Tel Aviv headquarters insisted that Red Falcon’s intelligence supported their sense of “hubs of activity in the Syrian army” and suggested that Assad was indeed preparing for war.

On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist named Yigal Amir, who was virulently opposed, as many on the Israeli right were, to the ongoing peace process and any discussion of ceding territory. Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, continued negotiations with Syria.

“Someone would have fired the first shot, thousands would have died, Yehuda Gil would have come out of it a national hero.”

Ten

Amid this intense tumult, Gil traveled again to Paris to meet with Red Falcon. It was at this meeting that Gil claimed to have received a detailed report on the preparations for war: “The limited-offensive plan is the only plan that the Syrian military has today,” Noam reported. “The breakthrough will be at dawn, carried out by two armored brigades, one from each division, while special forces, some landed by helicopters in the rear and the others on foot, will attack Mt. Hermon. All the preparations … will be implemented on the eve of the attack—ammunition, engineering equipment, and spare parts will be brought up to the front the day before the attack.”

This information was conveyed directly to the new prime minister. But Peres, who was determined to reach an agreement with Syria before the approaching election, minimized the information. According to other intelligence, the Syrians were convinced that they would soon get the Golan back and there would be no need for a military assault.

With a comfortable lead in the polls over his right-wing opponent, Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres called for an election in May 1996. In the intervening months, however, a wave of suicide attacks in Israel by Hamas extremists caused a spike in support for a more hardline government. On May 29, Netanyahu stunned the world when he was elected prime minister. He quickly appointed a number of former generals and outspoken hawks, all veterans of the 1973 war, to his government and made it clear that he was not bound by any of the guarantees Rabin had given to Secretary of State Christopher.

The Syrians sensed that their hope for the return of the Golan was disappearing, and it is within this context that Gil’s reports from his most recent meetings with Red Falcon were considered. “Syria will soon have the technical ability to carry out a surprise attack against Israel,” an AMAN report based on Gil’s intelligence stated. The Syrians are likely to launch an offensive, it suggested, “if [they are] disappointed with the political process.” And a Syrian attack would receive “Arab political backing and … meet with less international opposition … if Israel is blamed for the collapse in the talks.”

On August 14, 1996, AMAN received a dramatic report from one of its sources that Syria’s 14th Commando Division, based inside Lebanon for many years, was preparing to move from the Beirut-Damascus highway to the area of Katana in Syria, at the foot of Mount Hermon. It appeared to many that Red Falcon’s warnings were beginning to materialize, and a fierce argument erupted over how Israel should respond.

According to one of the experts who briefed Netanyahu on the movements, the prevailing feeling was, “It cannot be that all of the events and steps, mainly the recent significant move of the 14th Division, are coincidental. There must be a guiding hand behind it all.”

Under intense pressure, Gil reached out to Red Falcon, using a previously agreed-upon code that meant “come to Paris immediately.” He returned in a matter of days with information that the Syrian military’s movements were indeed a cover for Assad’s plan to retake part of the Golan Heights. A senior source in Military Intelligence recalled the morning that Gil’s intelligence was circulated: “Panic took hold. It seemed as though the nightmare scenario of October 1973 was about to recur. The nation was on high alert, and military forces were moved to the forward lines on the border, which caused an immediate increase in the Syrians’ state of alert.”

At the same time, other intelligence was coming in that appeared to support the sense that Syria was preparing for battle. Another division deployed along the border with Israel began to conduct war-games exercises, and Syrian reserves were mobilized in response to tension with Turkey in the north. The Israelis even learned that the Syrian military had refreshed the atropine syringes its troops carried as protection against chemical weapons.

Shortly after Gil’s information was received, someone leaked to the Israeli media that Syrian forces were massing and there were fears of an attack on the Golan. Panic swept through the populace.

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Poster in the Golan Heights of Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, 1996. Photo: Scott Peterson/Getty Images

As these events were unfolding, Amos Gilad was preparing to assume his new role as head of AMAN’s Research Division. Gilad, who currently serves as head of the Ministry of Defense’s security cabinet, has been at the center of some of the most tumultuous events in the Middle East for the past three decades. His reputation for focusing purely on the work and for bluntly standing his ground in times of intense disagreement is known throughout the Israeli intelligence community.

“I had never taken leave,” Gilad told me as we sat in his office in the Defense Ministry. “I was due to get my first month’s leave, before taking up my post as head of the Research Division. But then Yehuda Gil’s reports began coming in, and I realized, there goes my leave.”

Gil filed “beautiful reports in superb Hebrew,” Gilad said, “which included not only a warning of war, but also the diplomatic rationale behind it: Syria would attack on the Golan Heights just before the American elections. The attack would cause a shock, following which Israel would have to launch a diplomatic move [to avoid all-out war], all this before the American president could seriously settle into his next term.”

Something about the logic in Gil’s report struck Gilad as wrong. “This was Western reasoning,” he said, “which is the exact opposite of Assad’s. Anyone familiar with Assad knew that it could not be so. He would never launch a military operation to get a diplomatic process moving, especially when it depended upon political developments in the United States.”

Gilad’s interpretation met with scorn. “I was in a pretty miserable position here,” he said. “The officers under me thought that Gil was right and I was wrong. There were officers who told me, ‘Amos, you’re nuts. There’s going to be a war. We have to deploy forces, we have to mobilize reserves.’ Those were very difficult days for me.”

Even now, nearly 20 years later, Gilad’s temper flared as he discussed the way events unfolded over those few days. “Our supreme test as intelligence officers is to save blood,” he said. “And that works in two directions. After all, the easiest thing for me would have been to say Gil’s right and issue a war alert. And then we would have mobilized reserves, and the Syrians, whose intelligence is very weak and who have no sources inside Israel, would have seen that we were mobilizing, interpreted it as preparation for a surprise attack, and issued their own war alert. Someone would have fired the first shot, thousands would have died, Yehuda Gil would have come out of it a national hero, and I would have been seen as a saboteur and traitor.”

Gilad’s opinion was in direct conflict with that of his superior, AMAN chief Moshe Ya’alon (who today is Israel’s minister of defense). On the morning of August 30, Ya’alon did what none of his predecessors had ever done: sent an urgent, top-secret message to the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff, and the head of the Mossad, under the heading “Warning of war with Syria.” The warning read:

As I and my personnel stated in evaluations that we voiced this week, I find it necessary to emphasize that the likelihood of an offensive Syrian move is increasing as it becomes clear to the Syrian president that his prospects for regaining the Golan by agreement are decreasing. As of mid-September 1996, the likelihood of such a move will increase, in the light of the steps the Syrians intend to take in the course of the next two weeks to improve their readiness. Even though I cannot yet point at a concrete time for an offensive Syrian move, it is clear to me that the likelihood of such a move is increasing and I shall recommend drawing all conclusions and preparing for a new situation.

Upon reading this message, Netanyahu summoned Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin Shahak and ordered him to prepare for war. Shahak, who agreed with Gilad that Syria was not on the verge of attacking, tried but failed to persuade Netanyahu to reconsider. Acting on firm orders from the prime minister, he began preparing the army for combat.

At an urgent cabinet meeting on the morning of September 1, many of the ministers demanded that elite army forces be deployed in the north, that a division of reserves be mobilized, and that the IDF prepare for a preemptive strike against Syria.

Yitzhak Mordechai, then the newly appointed Israeli defense minister, found himself in a predicament: “When I was head of Northern Command,” Mordechai told me recently, “the whole limited-warfare theory that came from Red Falcon seemed strange to me, because I didn’t see any actual preparations on the ground. And now he was reporting on an imminent war, and the head of AMAN takes his information as the living word of God. I said in the cabinet that, in my opinion, the information is groundless. The Syrians are far from being ready to open fire. Moreover, I have studied President Assad well. He is not an adventurer. A move like this is simply not his style. True, he did it in the Yom Kippur War, but then the situation was completely different. Then they were ready to go to war.”

Mordechai met with stiff opposition in the cabinet, especially from his former army colleagues Ariel Sharon and Raful Eitan. “They had been my superior officers,” Mordechai said. “They were saying that I don’t get it. Sharon was saying, ‘War will break out soon and we have to get ready.’ Raful, who saw with his own eyes how Mount Hermon fell in the Yom Kippur War, thundered at me that I didn’t realize the price we would pay in blood to drive the Syrians out if we allowed them to invade now. The two of them pointed their fingers at me and said, ‘Know that you’re responsible! The blame will all be yours!’”

We were sitting in his apartment in north Tel Aviv, overlooking the sea, as Mordechai recalled the meeting. “I’m not bragging,” he said, “but in emergency situations like these, I turn into a block of ice. One should not let pressure decide for him.”

Mordechai is a tough, unemotional man, but when I said that it was difficult to imagine anyone not being affected by the strain of that situation, he softened. “Don’t think it was easy,” he said. “I went through ten days without sleeping. I realized I was taking enormous responsibility on myself.”

Ilan Mizrahi, who was the head of the Mossad’s Tsomet division at the time, told me: “If it had not been for Yitzhak Mordechai, who stood his ground in the cabinet, there would have been an outbreak of war. He saved Israel.”

With Mordechai refusing to budge, a compromise was reached: Steps would be taken to reinforce the border and quietly prepare for the mobilization of reserves. All female personnel would be evacuated from the border area, to prevent them from being taken captive during an invasion. At the same time, Netanyahu, who remained of the opinion that war was imminent, would convey the gravity of the situation to President Clinton and ask him to intervene immediately with Assad.

On September 7, Netanyahu flew to Washington, accompanied by his diplomatic adviser, Dore Gold, and the head of Mossad’s research division, Uzzi Arad. Dennis Ross, who was Clinton’s special coordinator in the Middle East, traveled with the Israelis, who briefed him en route about the gravity of the situation with Syria.

Immediately upon landing, the party headed for a meeting at a CIA facility near the Pentagon. John Deutsch, then director of the CIA, arrived with members of his staff, and Arad briefed them on the latest intelligence. “Deutsch and his experts listened to us attentively but said the CIA had no information to support the idea that Syria intended to go to war,” Arad told me.

In meetings with Deutsch, as well as at the Pentagon and the White House, Netanyahu made his plea that the Americans intervene urgently with the Syrians.

Clinton issued an order that a letter from him to Assad be drawn up, and it was formulated in a lengthy meeting at the State Department attended by Gold and Arad. The letter read in part:

The United States is committed to the achievement of peace.… In order to do this, the two sides are obliged to refrain from actions that place a question mark over their commitment to peace, or worse, that attest to their readiness to resort to the use of force. On this occasion we wish to raise with Syria the matter of its military force movements.… Some of these movements are unprecedented and cause instability in the region.… It is incumbent upon us to clarify that neither side will derive benefit from any military measure or from the negotiations that will begin in its wake.… Such an act will have the gravest repercussions on relations with the United States.… I implore you to take steps to reduce the tension.…

[Signed] William Jefferson Clinton, President of the United States of America

Clinton’s letter was delivered to Assad by Christopher Ross, the American ambassador in Damascus. After his meeting with Assad, Ross immediately sent a memo to Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, who conveyed the message to Dore Gold. According to the minutes of the Assad meeting sent by Ross (which have been translated here back to English from the Hebrew translation received by the Israelis), the following exchange occurred.

Assad read the message in Arabic.… He replied thus: Will you have a problem if Israel is the party that initiates military action?

Ross: The message is addressed to you. We do not want any action or any initiative from either side.

Assad: Our movements are not meant to start a war. They are technical and similar to movements that every army executes.… What the forces are doing is routine.… This state of alert and readiness at which they are at now are different from those required in war. We have moved them to the places where they were in the past. Israel is used to this, just as we are used to the IDF’s exercises on the Golan Heights. We also keep on training, like the American army. This is our reply to President Clinton’s message: We have no plans for war. The Israelis should know this. Netanyahu certainly gets intelligence reports from his intelligence services. He should know that our movements are not hostile.… But we do not see Israel making progress in this direction. I wonder if Netanyahu is really honest when he expresses his fears or, what seems more reasonable, that he is preparing justification for carrying out a military action himself.

“At that moment, two guys from the Shin Bet burst in. ‘Here’s the proof that you lied,’ they said. ‘Here’s the proof that you stole.’”

Eleven

Beyond the stark warnings about the Syrian military’s movements, the notes from Yehuda Gil’s meetings with Red Falcon in September 1996 contained another bombshell. According to Gil, Red Falcon had told him that Syria had placed a mole at the highest levels of the Israeli military. The general had access to the intelligence the mole was providing, and although he could not name who it was, Gil said he had supplied him with a number of clues that could help Israel identify the spy.

This news, too, was immediately conveyed all the way up to Netanyahu, who ordered Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, to set up a special squad whose mission was to root out the traitor. After intense investigation, a number of senior officers, including two generals, were found to fit the profile Gil had provided. For weeks their every move was carefully observed and documented, and highly invasive probes of their private lives were carried out, but nothing conclusive was discovered.

In the aftermath of the tense scare with Syria—and as the Shin Bet investigation came to its inconclusive end—suspicions that Gil was fabricating intelligence were now impossible to explain away. Danny Yatom, who by that point was serving as director of the Mossad, told me that the newly appointed head of Tsomet, Ilan Mizrahi, came to him with his concerns. “‘Vigorous steps must be taken to find out if the suspicions against Yehuda are correct,’” Yatom recalled Mizrahi telling him. Mizrahi said that the agency needed to begin a secret surveillance of one of its own. “If it turns out that I’m wrong,” Mizrahi told him, “I’ll immediately hand you my resignation. I won’t be able to continue after breaking the Mossad’s code of trust like this. Will you go all the way with me on this? If no, then better not to begin.”

When Gil next left for Europe, in March 1997, Yatom went to the head of the Shin Bet and asked that a team be sent to follow him. He could not use Mossad personnel, Yatom reasoned, because of the possibility that someone would leak the plan to Gil. A Shin Bet team followed Gil to Paris and was able to confirm that he did indeed meet with his source, but because the meeting took place in a crowded Parisian café, it was impossible to record the conversation. Gil would report that this meeting with Red Falcon lasted seven hours; in my interviews with Yatom, he said that the Shin Bet team observed that Gil met him for only 40 minutes.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Mossad director Danny Yatom, October 1997. Photo: AP

In October 1997, Mizrahi told Gil that he would not be going to the next round of meetings with Red Falcon and that another case officer would be replacing him. Gil protested but could no longer convince his bosses that he alone must handle the source. The replacement operative went to Paris and, after meeting with Red Falcon, reported back news that was stunning even in light of Mizrahi’s and Yatom’s already grave suspicions. According to Gil’s replacement, the Syrian general had never been recruited by Gil to be an informant; he had never provided intelligence regarding the workings of the Syrian military or government. All of it, all 23 years, was a lie. Red Falcon was invested in the relationship, the case officer said, because he enjoyed his Italian friend’s generosity.

Yatom immediately took the case to Israel’s state prosecutor. Mizrahi asked for a chance to persuade Gil to confess and to handle the problem internally, in part because of his undeniable contributions to the Mossad, and in part to avoid the tremendous damage he knew would be done to the agency’s image. Mizrahi summoned Gil to a meeting at Mossad headquarters, which took place in a room in which the Shin Bet and the Israeli police had installed hidden cameras and microphones.

According to Gil and to others who’d observed the meeting on a monitor in an adjacent room, Mizrahi greeted Gil with a stern face as he entered and asked him to sit down. He talked to Gil about all that they’d done together, the good that they’d accomplished for the state of Israel, and then Mizrahi said, “But I have grounds to believe that your handling of Red Falcon was not in accordance with accepted norms.”

Gill said he had no idea what Mizrahi was talking about.

“We know everything,” Mizrahi said. “Yehuda, do me a favor, do all of us a favor—the Mossad and yourself—tell us everything.”

“I really don’t know what’s going on here,” Gil said again.

“If you do not cooperate with me,” Mizrahi said, “I will have no other choice but to have the matter investigated.”

Gil remained implacable. Mizrahi clapped his hands together in sorrow and left the room. Moments later two men entered, one a police officer and the other the head of the Shin Bet’s interrogation unit, a man nicknamed Sheriff.

The men carried three cardboard boxes each. “Here’s the proof that you lied,” they said. “Here’s the proof that you stole.” (In the course of investigating whether Gil had fabricated intelligence, suspicions were also raised that he was stealing money that had been earmarked for Red Falcon.)

“Gil kept a poker face,” Danny Yatom told me. “With a stoical tranquility he replied, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’”

At one point in the interrogation, Sheriff compared Gil to an Arab terrorist. Gil’s voice trembled as he described that moment. “I wondered if I should get up, knock him down, and kill him,” he said. “We were alone in the room, and I am, after all, an expert at hand-to-hand combat. I know what I am capable of. Later on I said to myself, I can’t sink any lower. If a schmuck like this talks to me like that and I don’t respond, what have I come to? But cold calculation told me not to get up.”

Devorah Chen was the director of the Department of Security Matters and Special Affairs at the time. She was assigned to the case and was also present in the adjacent room full of Mossad chiefs watching the interrogation. “One must realize that the strength of the evidence they had before the interrogation was very weak indeed,” Chen told me. “I told them that if this was all they had, we couldn’t indict him.”

 As the interrogation continued, though, “Sheriff broke him,” Chen recalled. “He repeated the same question over and over again. He mentioned details that Gil had faked in his bio. That’s how he undermined his stability. Gil knows that it was there that he lost his cool, and that’s why he hates Sheriff so much.”

Gil maintains to this day that he did not, in fact, confess to anything, and that he never believed there would be a trial because he didn’t commit any crimes. “I was sure it would be over in a day or two,” he said. “I never imagined that a story like this, this hell, would explode in my face.”

When I pressed him to talk more about the interrogation, he said dismissively that it was he who was controlling the outcome, not Sheriff. “They did not break me or anything like that,” he insisted. “I said, ‘Ask me whatever you like, and I’ll answer you.’”

Gil allowed during the interrogation that “at certain stages there were things that I didn’t handle exactly as I should. But by no means, in no event, did I invent things that [Red Falcon] did not say.” Then, and in my conversations with him all these years later, he placed the blame instead at the feet of the AMAN researchers with whom he worked for so many years. On every trip, he said, he was accompanied by a number of experts, and each night they would intensely debrief him on what he’d learned. He blames any inaccuracies in his reports on the way these debriefings were handled.

“Their mania for getting real-time reporting did not allow me to sit down and write up my notes,” he said. “I said, ‘Guys, I can’t do it. I sit with you from five or six in the evening until nine or eleven at night, going over and translating from Italian the notes I took during the meeting. If after that I have to write them up, I won’t be able to get up in the morning.’ So they said, ‘You know what? You tell us, we’ll write the articles in your name.’” (“Articles” is Mossad jargon for the written reports submitted after meetings with agents.) Would it really have been possible to fool so many experts for so many years, Gil said, under such intense pressure?

When the interrogation was over, investigators from the Shin Bet and the Israeli police escorted him from Mossad headquarters to his home in Gedera. They searched his home and discovered a large amount of cash—$39,000, which Gil had reported he’d handed over to Red Falcon, kept in an envelope labeled “Office Money.” (“Office” is the term Mossad employees use when talking about the organization.)

A Mossad official who was involved in the affair told me, “It’s clear to us that Gil was prepared for the possibility of an investigation and had therefore written ‘Office Money’ on the envelope. Why else would he write this on an envelope that only he and his wife had access to, and that in any case he should have handed over to the agent? On the other hand,” he conceded, “Gil could have stolen a lot more money from us. He was very modest in this.”

Gil contended that keeping money at home was standard procedure in the Mossad and that he wasn’t using it for anything other than the mission. Danny Yatom disputes this. “Gil was a man of the world who knew a thing or two about the good life,” Yatom said. “That’s why he arranged all his meetings in Paris.”

To this Gil responded, “That’s absolute nonsense. The meetings were arranged where they could be held without arousing the suspicions of Syrian internal security.” As soon as the search was completed, Gil was taken to a secret Shin Bet holding facility south of Tel Aviv. He spent a week there before being allowed to go home and explain what he was being accused of to his wife and children. When he arrived home, he gathered his family around him. “If you think what they are saying about me is true,” he said to them, “you can leave me alone without any qualms. You do not have to back me up if you don’t believe that I’m innocent.”

His wife, Noa, told me that the repercussions have been hardest on her children, one of whom is a senior officer in the IDF. “They have suffered a great deal,” she said. “I don’t want to tell you what happened after that night, how each one of them fell to pieces.” I asked her how the accusations have affected her, and she said only, “I was born under the sign of Leo. I protect him like a lioness.”

“I heard the word ‘espionage,’ and it was the most humiliating moment of my life. To be accused of spying against the State of Israel.”

Twelve

The trial, which was held in secret, ended with Gil being convicted of espionage and theft by a panel of three judges and sentenced to five years in prison.

When the charges were read out, Gil recalled, “I heard the word ‘espionage,’ and it was the most humiliating moment of my life. To be accused of spying against the State of Israel.” 

Over the dozens of hours we spent talking about his career, Gil rarely appeared fragile or vulnerable. He is an intensely proud man, and occasionally bombastic, and secure, it seems, in the rightness of his actions. But now it was possible to glimpse something else beneath the guise of righteous indignation. “I erred,” he said. “Perhaps I embellished a little. Perhaps I rounded off corners. But I never willfully fabricated anything. I acted only on behalf of the security of the state.” After the ruling, Gil appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but to no avail. In their rejection of the appeal, the court’s justices wrote: 

By virtue of his training and his occupation and because of the special information that he possessed, the appellant knew that conveying false information was liable to harm the State’s security. The Syrian source to whom the appellant attributed the information was of high rank.… The information that [Gil] delivered was distributed even in raw form to the Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister. It was written up in a convincing manner. Some of it arrived at a time when there was tension in relations between Israel and Syria and as such it was liable to have grave consequences. The appellant was aware of this danger.

The court also refused to reduce Gil’s sentence, although it acknowledged that “for long years he served in a responsible and important position; sometimes he found himself in grave situations and risked his life. He controlled dozens of agents in different countries and in so doing brought great benefit to the security of Israel. Even after retiring he took upon himself the execution of important missions, before he stumbled and committed the crimes he is accused of.” 

I asked several of the roughly 60 sources I spoke to for this story why, in their estimation, someone as skilled and revered as Gil would do the things that he was found guilty of doing. What could his motive possibly be? 

 “That is a question for psychologists,” Devorah Chen, the state prosecutor, told me. “I think that his motive had to do more with his ego than with financial gain. This was the pinnacle of his work with the Mossad, and I think he was obsessed with feeling that he was still a key factor in the organization.” 

Many people, including Danny Yatom, agreed. “Part of the makeup of his personality is expressed in the bottomless need to be the center of attention,” Yatom told me. “Always to feel that he is needed.”

Others spoke of him as a man who, through relentless devotion to his work, had sacrificed his own identity. I met one day with Gad Shomron, a former Mossad operative who testified on Gil’s behalf at his trial. Shomron seemed pained, even now, talking about the affair. “This is a very sad story,” Shomron said. “Gil did great things for the sake of Israel’s security, but it may be that he never quite came back from there, from the land of illusions and lies in which he lived on behalf of us all.” He contemplated for a moment the pressure that Gil must have been under during all those years when Israel’s security seemed to hinge on his handling of an informant. “For a while he soared along with Red Falcon,” he said. “But for reasons many of us can understand, he simply forgot to come back to earth.”

Another Mossad operative, a man who was among those tasked with gathering evidence against Gil when suspicions inside the agency became too great to deny, was far less sympathetic. He suggested that there was a kind of intense sociopathology at work in Gil, one that found perfect expression in a job that required deceit and manipulation. When I first spoke with him, early in my relationship with Gil, the officer warned me, “Beware of him. He’ll recruit you and run you, and you won’t be aware of it.” I responded somewhat arrogantly that in this case I thought the opposite had happened, that I had been able to get him to open up. “Really?” he asked. “Tell me what he told you.” I briefly recounted some of what Gil had said in those initial interviews, including his description of his childhood in Libya, his Italian father, his military service.

The man chuckled. “That’s what he told the organization when he was recruited,” he said. “The details were seriously checked only when suspicions against him arose in 1996.” As far as he was concerned, nothing about Gil’s story could be trusted—where he was from, the prominence of his family, that his grandfather was a rabbi and his father was Italian. He questioned all of it, even details of Gil’s military career. “Because of his feelings of inferiority,” this man suggested, “Gil built a whole dream life and simply turned it into his cover story. It happens sometimes, that we introduce our fantasies or things that we lack into our cover stories. My wife, for example, will never forgive me for the time my cover story called for me to pass as a widower.”

I doubted his theory, but he waved me off. “These are the less important details,” he said. “Gil played you for a fool, just as he did all of us. The Mossad has clearcut, indubitable evidence that he fabricated the information almost right from the start.”

I’ve since heard the same from others, that the lies go all the way back, that nothing Gil reported from Red Falcon was true. And I’ve heard the opposite, and not just from Gil, that he reported information that was accurate. It’s impossible to know, of course. This is the hazard of reporting on an agency that in its obsessive search for secrets is so protective of its own. This man, after all, is a longtime recruiter and handler of agents, whose name is also connected to legendary intelligence feats. You can never fully know what personal or institutional arrogance, what image management, is at work. 

Shortly before this story was to be published, I met one more time with Gil at his home. Netanyahu had recently been elected again. There was a feeling that for all the drama and turbulence, little in Israel ever changes. All the old narratives and enmities insist on themselves. I had often wondered to myself if Gil could ever see that he and Red Falcon were driven, in some way, by the same raw, tribal grievances. He had spoken often of Red Falcon’s primitive anti-Semitism, and yet he had all but acknowledged his own searing hatred, even if he was unequivocal that it was necessary for survival. 

At one point in our conversations he offered that he had, over time, developed a kind of fondness for Red Falcon, or kinship maybe. “I feel sorry for the guy, for Red Falcon.” He was a decent man, Gil said, “in his own conception. He was not deceptive.” The investigation had certainly exposed him, Gil said. “They did him a terrible injustice, because the consequences could not have been pleasant. I sat in prison for three years, but I’m sure he lost much more, he and his family. The quarrels between the Jews shouldn’t have caused him damage. It doesn’t matter that I’d been prepared, if need be, to shoot a bullet between his eyes. It wouldn’t bother me. But the one thing has nothing to do with the other. The respect that he deserves, he should receive.”

On the last day I visited him, Gil looked older to me than when I’d seen him last. He and Noa were about to leave the country, he said. They were on their way to southern Italy, to the town he and his family had gone to when they left Libya, before coming to Israel in 1948. He seemed eager to go there, to this formative place of his youth, where his father had come from.