And on the screen, streaming hits like Apple TV Plus’s “Tehran,” Netflix’s “The Spy” and Hulu’s “False Flag” have starred the Mossad as a cold, ruthless and efficient machine.
Far from squirming, the once-supersecret agency has welcomed the exposure, former spies say. The Mossad needs recruits.
With military technology rapidly evolving, the Mossad faces higher-than-ever turnover. To fill the highly skilled positions uniquely suited to the world’s cyber-battlefields, the Mossad is competing with Israel’s booming private tech sector for the country’s best and brightest. Military veterans who might have once made their career in national service now leave to work for lucrative start-ups, or found their own. Israeli companies Waze, Wix, Viber and others were started by intelligence veterans.
In response, Yossi Cohen, the Mossad’s director since 2016 and a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has embarked on a hiring spree, increased the agency’s number of sabotage operations and enlarged its budget by billions of shekels, according to a report in the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.
The Mossad’s recruitment drive includes a heightened social media presence and a calculated trickle of unconfirmed information about its exploits. And former spies say the agency is quietly embracing a slew of TV shows and movies that could do for the agency what “Top Gun” famously did for naval recruitment: make a life in the organization seem cool again.
Mossad missions that are exposed to the public “support our legacy. They allow people to feel pride and to think about the next generation,” said Avner Avraham, who was a Mossad officer for 28 years and now runs the Spy Legends Agency, a consulting firm for Hollywood studios. “We need more agents.”
The Mossad’s new website, which Avraham helped design, embraces this spirit. Its homepage features an unattributed quote: “Suddenly, I’m finding myself doing things that you maybe only see in the movies.” (As a young officer, Avraham said, he and his colleagues scanned James Bond movies for inspiration.)
The agency’s reputation loomed large over Steven Spielberg’s “Munich,” whose protagonist was a Mossad agent sent to exact revenge on the Palestinian terrorists who killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. In “Munich” and other Mossad-inspired dramatizations to come, a common theme is the psychological toll that the job’s brutality takes on the agents.
Officially, Israel maintains a strict no-comment policy on covert operations. Leaders were mum on the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, which was widely attributed to Israel. Israeli analysts said the killing dealt a blow to Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, while critics said it was an illegal operation that did little to keep Iran from acquiring those weapons if it chose to do so.
In a rare move, in 2018 the government did go public after the raid on Iran’s nuclear archive. Netanyahu appeared on television to offer details on the secretly acquired files, to foster international pressure against what he said were Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
In Israel, writers and producers are part of a tightly knit society where “every person has a friend or an uncle in the Mossad,” said Israeli director Eytan Fox, making it easier to create screen versions of the Mossad. Fox said he has many friends who work or have worked there, and he’s consulted with them for his upcoming series about an American immigrant to Israel who is recruited as a spy.
These on-screen depictions of the Mossad are part of a wider genre of war-themed dramas that have helped make Israel a major exporter of movies and television shows.
The trend dates to 2010, when the Israeli show “Hatufim,” or “POWs,” portraying the homecoming of three Israelis who had been held in captivity in Lebanon, became the basis for Showtime’s “Homeland.” Then, in 2016, Netflix acquired “Fauda,” a fictionalized serial about an Israeli counterterrorism unit operating in the occupied West Bank. In 2019, Sacha Baron Cohen starred in the Netflix period thriller “The Spy,” about a legendary Mossad agent whose successful intelligence-gathering helped Israel clinch its swift victory in the 1967 war and who was exposed, tortured and then hanged in a Damascus public square.
In March, Uma Thurman announced she would star in the American remake of the Israeli thriller series “False Flag,” which is loosely based on the 2010 assassination of Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, for which Israel was blamed. The assassination, while dramatic, set back efforts to establish ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The most recent — and most topical — hit is the series “Tehran,” which follows a young female Mossad hacker undercover in the Iranian capital. Broadcast in Israel and streaming on Apple TV Plus, its telenovela-style plot twists and cultural details — from the Iranian nose job fad to the illegal underground parties to the hierarchical politics within Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — offered Israelis a peek into a place long understood as only an existential threat.
One of Israel’s major news broadcasts even used footage from “Tehran” for a segment on the Fakhrizadeh assassination.
Recent news about the Israeli-Iranian shadow conflict has significant buzz, said Ronny Perry, who was responsible for the show as the head of dramatic productions at the Kan television channel. “Suddenly, there’s this exposure, this secret that you are being let in on, which, until recently, was something for only a few people,” she said.
As tensions between Israel and Iran escalate, the crew is preparing for its second season with one eye on news developments, “which sometimes go beyond what we could have imagined,” Perry said.
Not all former Mossad employees are comfortable with the new openness. Orna Klein, a former Mossad spy, said she is worried that the melodramatic portrayal could make it harder for operatives to do their jobs.
Over 26 years at the agency, she said she slept every night with the lights on, knowing that, if awakened, she would instantly need to recognize the country she was in, the language she needed to speak, the person she needed to be.
“In my days, no one talked about anything — not to the newspapers, not to anybody,” she said. “That’s not the job.”
Mishka Ben-David, a former Mossad agent who went on to write a spy novel that is being adapted as an Israeli television series, recalled when the agency started becoming more open about its work.
It was after the 2010 assassination in Dubai of the Hamas official. The hit squad reportedly used the names of real Israelis and forged copies of European passports, an embarrassing diplomatic blunder for Israel. An official censor called Ben-David, he recounted, and encouraged him to speak to the media about the agency, presumably to defend it. His ex-bosses wanted him “to stop refusing interviews.”
“It took a few years, but the Mossad or the heads of Mossad know today that there is no option that they remain unknown,” said Ben-David. “This is a war they cannot win.”