When Syria strung up Eli Cohen in a Damascus public square 35 years ago, his wife Nadia mourned his death--and so did all of Israel. The handsome superspy--the man who had penetrated Syria's military establishment, sponged up its secrets and charmed the Syrian president--was hanging by a noose, dead, but the myth of Eli Cohen was just being born.
Cohen became an overnight Israeli legend, his name emblazoned on street signs, parks and synagogues. With his fame a cause was born--bringing home Cohen's remains. For three deades, Israel and Nadia Cohen have pleaded with the Syrians to return Cohen's body, to no avail.
Now, though, the issue has assumed more than symbolic importance. In the Israeli-Syrian peace talks that opened Monday in Shepherdstown, W. Va., Prime Minister Ehud Barak has said he is angling for the return of Cohen's body as a gesture to the Israeli public of Syria's desire to be a partner in peace.
The diplomacy of gestures is critical in Israel. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat reshaped Israeli public opinion at a stroke--and alienated some of his own people--when he flew to Jerusalem and spoke before the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in 1977. Similarly, Jordan's King Hussein stunned Israelis in 1997 when he fell to his knees and asked the forgiveness of families of Israeli schoolgirls murdered by a Jordanian soldier.
Analysts here say Syria, too, could have a dramatic effect on the Israeli public by handing over Cohen's remains. If anything, they say, the need today is even greater because Barak has promised that any peace deal will be submitted to Israeli public opinion in a referendum. And thus far, Israeli opinion is deeply divided about making peace with Damascus, particularly over the idea of giving back the Golan Heights, the wind-swept plateau Israel captured from the Syrians in the 1967 Middle East war.
"So far, Syria has not made even one substantive gesture that has proven that there has been any appreciable change in its attitude toward Israel or that Syria circa 1999 is any different from Syria circa 1973 or 1967," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote last month. "Such a gesture is needed not to win hearts, but to provide hard-nosed proof of Damascus's intentions."
Barak has predicted his government will persuade Israelis to vote in favor of a peace deal with Syria, if he negotiates one. As described by Barak, the talks with Syria are the key to a broader regional peace, offering the promise of an orderly conclusion to Israel's war of attrition in southern Lebanon and a revival of the struggling Israeli economy.
But at the moment, at least half the Israeli public opposes returning the Golan Heights, where 17,000 Israelis have settled. Golan residents have mounted a spirited campaign to persuade Israelis that the plateau is integral to Israel's security and that Syria cannot be trusted to control so valuable a piece of territory.
Their cause has been helped by Syria's attitude in the negotiations. When Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Chaara refused to shake hands publicly with Barak in the opening round of negotiations in Washington last month, it was noticed by the Israeli public and dissected by Israeli media. Conversely, some Israeli officials have spoken of Barak's readiness to travel to Damascus and meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad should an invitation be extended.
"No handshake means no warmth, and no warmth will be interpreted by many people, rightly or wrongly, as a sign that we should not be ready to trust them," one Israeli official said.
That Syria has so far been reluctant to discuss the question of Cohen's remains is seen here as a measure of the damage he did as a secret agent. Like Chaara's refusal to shake hands before the cameras, it is also taken by Israelis as a sign of Syria's reluctance to change the atmospherics and build confidence for peace.
Outgoing and affable, Cohen was a native Arabic speaker who grew up in Egypt, the son of Syrian Jews. He was active in Zionist underground movements in Cairo and finally fled Egypt for Israel in 1956, the year of the Suez war. He spent barely four years in Israel, just long enough to marry and learn Hebrew, before he joined the Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, and was sent to Argentina.
In Buenos Aires, Cohen assumed a new identity--Kamal Amin Taabet, a wealthy Syrian merchant. He courted Syrian businessmen, making contacts and friends, then moved on to Damascus in late 1961. With remarkable speed, he penetrated ruling circles, befriended army generals and hosted parties attended by the Damascus elite.
At a time of rising Middle East tensions, the intelligence Cohen gathered was a treasure trove of insider information, all tapped out in Morse code for transmittal to Israel.
According to lore, Cohen's espionage was critical to Israel's capture of the Golan Heights in 1967. In addition to providing detailed information about the strength and location of Syria's forces in the Golan, he is said to have persuaded the Syrians to plant eucalyptus trees around their bunkers and bases, thus pinpointing them for Israeli bombers and artillery.
The Syrians caught Cohen in 1965. After torture and a summary trial, he was hanged before a cheering crowd. He was 40 years old. A blurred photograph of his body dangling from a rope flashed around the world. By the end of the day, even his wife, at home near Tel Aviv with three small children, had seen it.
The country's yearning for the return of its hero, and Nadia Cohen's yearning for the return of her husband, have overlapped over the years, but in different forms. Nadia Cohen is 64 and has lived more than half her life as a widow. But even now, as she speaks of Eli and their brief, troubled marriage, she fingers a yellow tissue and dabs at her eyes.
She married Eli barely a year before he left Israel to assume a covert life, about which she knew almost nothing before his capture. Their married life was hard. Nadia bore three children in six years, but saw her husband only rarely. On his last, brief trip home, just months before he was captured, the couple argued and felt the anxiety of their distance acutely.
"The children were with me; I had no one to help me. He understood how hard it was," she said in an interview at her home in Herziliyya. "Each time he was home, there'd be one less smile, and I'd be very nervous. Not everything was about flowers and kisses and hugs. There were a lot of tears and difficulties."
Nadia Cohen's struggle has been to cherish the private memory of a man whose name has been expropriated by an entire nation. She has never remarried and still wears her wedding band. She has attended countless memorial services for her husband but has never been able to mourn at his grave. She yearns to do that, to hear one last memorial service at a grave containing his remains.
"I'd like them to sing a [patriotic] song of the Land of Israel," she said. "I'd prefer not to hear the prayer of the dead again.
"For 35 years I've been accompanying him, and the [public adulation] has never diminished," she said. "It's hard for us. I'm the wife of the hero, and they're the kids of the hero. But my pain is real pain, and the kids don't even remember him."