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Yossi and the Mossad

A former Israeli spy describes his life and work in the 1960s and ’70s

Robert Rockaway
June 25, 2019
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Yossi sat across from me and opened his bag. He was a nice looking and well-built elderly man. He took out four passports: two from the United States, and one each from Costa Rica and Britain. Each passport had his picture, but under a different name. His American passports had the same picture, but different names. I asked him how he got them. “Quite simple,” he said. And he described to me how he did so. I was amazed how easy it seemed. In his youth in the 1960s, Yossi had been an agent in the Mossad, Israel’s national security agency. After he left the agency, he became a Mossad associate. Yossi explained that a Mossad associate is someone who is officially not an agent, but a person who the Mossad contacts from time to time for special assignments when they needed them. Then he launched into a description of some of his exploits and “assignments” over the years.

Yossi was born in Jerusalem in 1943. Over the years he lived in Italy, Holland, the Ukraine, Thailand, Mongolia, and the United States. He speaks fluent German and Italian. While in the Mossad and as an associate, he posed as different Jewish people.

In the early 1960s Yossi was living in Italy. He was then a Mossad agent. At the time, Mohammed Hussein Heikal was the editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. This newspaper was the de facto voice of the Egyptian government led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. In 1957, Nasser installed his longtime friend and confident Mohammed Heikal to be editor of the newspaper. The Mossad came up with a plan on how to get information about Nasser’s personal feelings and thoughts about Israel from his closest confidant, Heikal. The plan involved secretly kidnapping Heikal’s brother, who lived in Italy, and smuggle him to Israel. Once in Israel, they could use him to pressure Heikal to provide them with information about Nasser.

The Mossad assigned Yossi, who was fluent in Italian, to help kidnap Heikal’s brother. Yossi and four other Mossad operatives were to go to the brother’s apartment and abduct him. They gave Yossi the Italian name of a close friend of the brother. His job was to knock on the brother’s door, mimic the friend’s voice and identify himself as the friend. When the brother opened the door, the four other agents were to grab him, hustle him into a car, drive to Genoa, and place him on a cargo ship bound for Israel.

All went well until Yossi knocked on the door. When he knocked on the door and the brother asked in Italian, “Who is it?,” Yossi got mixed up and said, “Giuseppe,” his own name in Italian. “Luckily,” Yossi said, “the brother opened the door and the five of us grabbed him in a headlock, sealed his mouth with tape, covered his head, and put him in the car. We drove him to Genoa, and put him on the cargo ship to Israel.” Yossi says that once in Israel the Mossad photographed the brother shaking hands with Israeli government officials and walking with Israelis on Dizengoff Street. “The pictures were used to warn Mohammed Heikal that if he did not cooperate with them, they would show the pictures to Egyptian officials. So he cooperated, said Yossi. He added that they also put money in the brother’s bank account, as proof that he was being paid by Israel. This threat led Heikal to give Israel information about what Nasser was thinking. “This helped Israel a great deal,” said Yossi.

Yossi also related an episode when Hafez al-Assad was president of Syria. Israeli officials knew that Assad was diabetic and had suffered a heart attack. Israeli officials wanted to find out just how sick he was. The Mossad knew that Assad was flying to the Hilton Hotel in Geneva. The owner of this hotel was Nissim Gaon, a wealthy Swiss Jewish financier who was very active in Jewish affairs. Mossad agents came to the hotel before Assad arrived. They knew in which room Assad was staying. The Mossad agents took the room directly under this room and connected Assad’s toilet pipe to their room’s toilet. When Assad went to the toilet they took samples of his stool and sent it to Israel for analysis as to whether he was sick. They found that Assad was indeed very sick and that his days were likely numbered. Some months later, Assad suffered a heart attack and died.

In 1980, Yossi moved to Hong Kong and worked for an American company. In 1986, he was a Mossad associate, and the Mossad contacted him for a special task. They asked him to take someone named Zvi Aharoni to work for him. Aharoni was a Mossad agent. In 1960, he was the Mossad agent who traced Adolf Eichmann to Argentina and identified him as Ricardo Klement. This led to Eichmann’s capture, trial and execution by hanging in Israel for war crimes.

Aharoni’s real name was Hermann Arndt. He had been born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1921. He immigrated to Palestine in 1938 and served in the British army during World War II. After the war he joined the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, and later the Mossad. He spent 20 years as a Nazi hunter.

Yossi explained to me why the Mossad sent Aharoni to him in Hong Kong. While living and working in Hong Kong, Yossi was using Hong Kong as a base of operations as an associate of the Mossad. The Mossad sent Aharoni to Yossi so he could also legally live and work in Hong Kong and use it as his base for operations. By means of his German passport, Z.A., Aharoni’s code name, had been making contacts with foreign governments for Israel. At that time, Israel had no relations with China and Indonesia. In his role as a Mossad agent, Aharoni secretly brought the Indonesian army chief of staff to Israel. He also did the same with the Chinese army. This led to surreptitious contacts between these countries and Israel. China eventually established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. Aharoni later retired and lived in England until his death.

Yossi claims that the Mossad used him in many ways because he was able to do things others can’t do. He then told me the following story to illustrate this point. A young Israeli and his girlfriend went to Brazil for a vacation. The girlfriend carried a package given to her by a friend, who asked her to deliver it to someone. She claims that she did not know that the package contained 700 LSD pills. In any event, she was caught and sentenced to seven years in prison. Yossi was called in by a member of her family who knew about Yossi’s connections. He asked Yossi to help get his daughter out of jail. Yossi had a connection in Brazil with the head of a group of Israeli bodyguards who worked for the wealthy Safra banking family in Brazil.

The head of the Israeli bodyguards knew the chief of the Brazilian federal police. The bodyguard called him and asked for his help. The chief told him that he knew the warden of the prison where the young woman was held. He placed a call to the warden. The warden said for $10,000 he would give the girl a weekend furlough. The chief of police also wanted $10,000 for his services. An associate of the Israeli Consulate in São Paulo wanted $3,000 to issue an Israeli passport. The head of the Israeli bodyguard detail wanted $25,000. He said he would get the girl out of the country, but after she left the country he wanted $50,000. Yossi and his contacts agreed to these sums.

The young woman got out of jail. Yossi got a passport picture from the girl’s mother and he sent it to the bodyguard head. As soon as the passport was ready, Yossi went to Brazil and drove the girl to Uruguay. From there they flew to Madrid and then to Tel Aviv.

The Brazilian government investigated this affair and wanted to know who issued the passport. They traced it to the Israeli in the Israeli consulate. The consulate worker had to leave and go back to Israel. He had diplomatic immunity. Yossi had arranged for the girl’s release from prison and freedom. He remarks that people like these will call him because he can get people out of jail.

In May 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army terrorist group, who were recruited by the Palestinian group called National Front for the Liberation of Palestine, deplaned at Lod Airport (now Ben-Gurion Airport) from an Air France flight from Rome. They entered the welcoming hall with violin cases, took out Czech assault rifles and began firing and throwing grenades at the passengers. They killed 26 people, tourists and returning Israelis, and injured 80 others. Israeli security guards killed two of the Japanese attackers and wounded and captured Kozo Okamoto, the third perpetrator.

The three perpetrators had trained for the operation in Baalbek, Lebanon. Okamoto was interrogated in the hospital by the Israeli security service and a Japanese diplomat. He said he had nothing against the Israeli people but that he had to do what he did because it was his duty as a soldier of the revolution. He was tried by a military tribunal, pleaded guilty, and received a life sentence. He was released in 1985 along with 1,000 other prisoners in exchange for captured Israeli soldiers. He settled in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. He was arrested in 1997 for passport forgery and visa violations, but was granted political asylum in Lebanon. He is still living in Lebanon although the Japanese government wants him extradited.

Yossi told me this story and said that he was not involved in the initial capturing of or interrogation of Okamoto. But the Mossad was worried that the Italian Red Brigades were interested in becoming active against Israel. So Yossi was sent to Europe to give them a warning. He killed one of Okamoto’s Red Brigade associates, a Swiss national who was a Red Army banker in Europe.

The banker lived in a house surrounded by trees. You could not see the house because of the trees. Yossi and another agent monitored the comings and goings of the official. They knew he arrived home every day at 5 p.m.. The other agent drove the car, while Yossi hid behind a tree. There was a small road to the house from the main road. The gate to his house took 10 seconds to open.

When the banker drove up the road, Yossi left his hiding place and shot him before the gate opened. He fell on his steering wheel, setting off the car horn. His wife, who was in the house, saw the gate open and heard the horn but didn’t see the car. She went outside to look and found her husband dead in the car. She called the police and they arrived within 10 minutes. By then Yossi and his associate had left. Within twenty minutes, they had crossed the border to another country.

Early in the 1970s some unofficial Israelis wanted to know what happened to the money German, Dutch, Austrian, and Czech Jews had deposited in Swiss banks before the Holocaust. One of the investigators, Ronnie, found a Swiss spinster who held a high position in the bank. He started to woo her. She began to sense that something was not right and called the Swiss police. Ronnie was arrested and jailed in a detention center in the Swiss city of Zurich to await trial. A group of Ronnie’s friends wanted to break him out of the detention center. He had a British passport under the name of Donald Cook.

Yossi and the others created a plan to spring Ronnie. Yossi was made commander of the operation. The plan involved two cars and four people: two getaway cars, a Peugeot 404 driven by one man; and a woman sitting in a Volkswagen on a street away from the detention center. Her job was to drive with Ronnie across the border.

The Volkswagen had ski racks on it. This was to make her and Ronnie appear like two young lovers on a ski holiday as they drove across the border. There was a gunman with a toy gun that looked exactly like a real gun. He carried a toy gun because the Swiss guards did not carry weapons. Yossi’s job was to make sure everything went according to plan.

There was a corridor leading from the detention center to the courthouse, where the investigating magistrate sat. The prisoners were taken through this corridor to the courthouse. There were benches for visitors on both sides of the corridor. A door in the center of the corridor opened on to the street.

The crew knew the date and time when Ronnie was to be brought to the courthouse.

The plan was for the man in the Peugeot to be on the street in front of the door. The gunman was to enter the corridor from the street and sit on a bench. When Ronnie and his police guard passed by, the gunman was to hold the gun against the policeman. Ronnie was to run out the door of the corridor and into the waiting Peugeot. They were to pick up Yossi and drive to where the woman in the Volkswagen waited for them. They were to abandon the Peugeot, enter the Volkswagen, and drive to the border crossing. Ronnie and the woman were to drive across the border in the Volkswagen.

Everything was set when, a day before the operation was to take place, the Peugeot driver notified Yossi that he couldn’t come. Yossi decided to take his place and be the driver.

On the day of the operation, Yossi drove the car to the street across from the door of the corridor. The gunman walked into the corridor door and sat on a bench. Two minutes later, four plainclothes policemen opened the doors to the Peugeot and jumped on Yossi. Four other plainclothes policemen arrested the gunman. The reason that this happened so quickly was that the police were looking for an Israeli named Bennie Singer. Singer had escaped through the same corridor door 15 minutes before Yossi and his crew arrived. The police mistakenly assumed that Yossi and the gunman had helped Singer escape.

When Ronnie didn’t show up at the Volkswagen at the appointed time, the woman knew that something went awry. So she abandoned the Volkswagen and walked away.

The plainclothes men drove Yossi to a police station and began interrogating him about where an escaped Israeli prisoner name Bennie Singer was. Yossi didn’t know what they were talking about. “Who is Bennie Singer?” he asked. In the meantime, the police found one of the keys to the Volkswagen on Yossi and saw that it was a rented car. Two hours later they found the Volkswagen. Inside the Volkswagen they found an Israeli passport for Ronnie. They now assumed that Yossi intended to help Ronnie escape.

The police took Yossi to court with Ronnie. Yossi received 14 months in jail for attempting to help a prisoner escape. He was sent to a minimum security prison in Regensdorf, Switzerland. The gunman received a six-month sentence for attempting to help a prisoner escape. Six months later, Ronnie arrived at the same jail in Regensdorf where Yossi was held. Immediately, they started planning another escape for Ronnie.

Yossi was working in the prison’s bookbinding shop on the fourth floor. He sat next to the Swiss guard. This guard had a key that opened all the doors on all the floors in the prison. One day, the guard went on a vacation and left the key in his drawer. When the guard left, Yossi took the key and asked a Swiss prisoner he was friendly with to make a copy for him when he went on weekend leave. When the Swiss prisoner came back, he gave Yossi the new key. Yossi then returned the old key to the guard’s drawer.

The prison was four stories high with an open court in the center. The prison had three corridors with cells and one section that housed the prison administration. The prison administration had placed Ronnie in a security cell on the fourth floor that contained double doors and double bars on the windows. Yossi worked not far from Ronnie’s cell.

To get help outside the prison, Yossi used the unsecured telephone in the administration office that belonged to the office secretary. Her phone was not monitored by the prison administration. Yossi had begun a romantic liaison with her, and she allowed him to use her phone.

The escape was planned for Dec. 7, 1977. There were two types of prison uniforms. One uniform was brown and was worn by prisoners who worked inside the prison, and the other uniform was green for those who worked outside the prison. Yossi managed to get Ronnie a green uniform.

At exactly 9:20 a.m., Yossi opened Ronnie’s cell door with his key. Ronnie then came out wearing the green uniform and a heavy hat, since it was winter and very cold. The hat covered his eyes. Then Yossi and Ronnie walked to the ground floor. Yossi opened the door where the administration offices were located and walked along the corridor to the visitors’ room, which was attached to the prison.

At the same time, two Israeli agents came to the visitor’s room from the outside. They pulled a gun on the visiting room guard. They handcuffed him to a heating pipe and taped his mouth shut. They met Ronnie in the visiting room. One man stayed behind to open the gate to the street. A car was waiting for them. All three men got into the car. Ronnie shaved off his small beard and changed clothes in the car. He then threw his prison clothes out the window. They had an Israeli passport for Ronnie.

Instead of driving to the German border a half hour away, they drove to the French border two hours away. They did so because they knew that once Ronnie was discovered missing, the prison would raise the alarm and police would block the roads to the German border, the shortest escape route, and not the French border. So they took the long route. Two hours later they crossed the French border and Ronnie flew to Paris. From there he flew to Israel. He arrived in Tel Aviv at 9 p.m., 12 hours after the escape plan had begun.

Yossi returned to the bookbinding shop and hid the second key he had. The prison authorities came to his cell and took him for interrogation. They wanted to know if he helped Ronnie escape, and how he did it. He responded no, he did not help Ronnie escape. They asked if he had a key. He said no. He asked his interrogators if they counted the keys. They answered yes. If so, asked Yossi, were any keys missing. They said no. So, he said, how could I help him get out of the prison and escape? You have all the keys

Three months later Yossi was back in Israel. And Ronnie and the team were waiting for him when he arrived. The next day the headline in a Swiss paper said: “Disappeared in Midair.”


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Robert Rockaway is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and the author of But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters.