‘If she wants to, a woman can head the Mossad'
From the Eichmann abduction through the seduction of Vanunu to the alleged Mabhouh assassination, female agents have been at the forefront of numerous Mossad missions; ‘Women are responsible for some of the organization’s greatest operations,’ former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo says in a rare interview, as he and other senior organization officials reveal everything that can be told about the secret lives of the women of the Mossad.
After walking up and down the street for a while she returned to her flat, sat down in the balcony, set a canvas on an easel and began painting, as she used to do every day. At around 3:30 pm, she put down the paint, picked up a small device resembling a remote control, directed it at her red Volkswagen car, which was parked on the street, and pushed a button.
About 100 kilograms of explosives sent a Chevrolet station wagon flying in the air as it passed by the Volkswagen. The car’s passengers were killed almost on the spot. One of them was Ali Hassan Salameh, also known as “Red Prince,” one of the architects of the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and one of the top names on Israel’s most-wanted list.
The explosion was witnessed by Mossad fighters observing the street.
That very same day, January 22, 1979, Chambers disappeared from Beirut as if she had never been there. In Israel, she received a heroes’ welcome, as well as the Medal for Distinguished Service.
“She spent many months there, almost on her own,” one of the former Mossad directors says today.” She was the one who had to decide when to pull the trigger and assassinate Salameh.”
How did she manage to live in the city without being suspected?
“In a high-threat environment, women are perceived as less threatening. It’s a big advantage. Besides, from my experience, women know how to achieve things in a much more sophisticated manner than men, which makes their advantage ten times better.”
At the top echelon of the Mossad, the female advantage is now more evident than ever: For the first time in the organization’s history, two of the division heads (the rank equivalent to a major-general in the IDF) are women. One heads the Human Resources Division, and the other heads the Training Division. So far, there has been only one woman or none in the organization’s top command. This is an opportunity to tell the story of the unknown fighters, the women of the Mossad.
Women have served in the Mossad since its establishment. They have participated in operations in the enemy’s hinterland, set honey traps across the globe and risked their lives quite a few times. According to foreign reports, women have even been involved in assassinations in recent decades. It’s enough to look at the pictures of the assassins of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010, an act which was attributed in the world to the Mossad, to understand the role women play in the boldest operations.
“Throughout my 35 years in the Mossad, women have been equal to men in their level of decisiveness, importance, abilities and outstanding talent,” former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo says in a rare interview. “Women are excellent in the technological area, there are brilliant women in the cyber area, there are big-shot women analysts in the intelligence area too, and women are in no way inferior in the operational area either. After all, women are responsible for some of the organization’s greatest operations.”
Why is it easier for women to become integrated in operational jobs in the Mossad than in the IDF?
“In the IDF there are many jobs which are physically difficult, while in our operational work all you have is what you have between your ears. You don’t have to carry 60 kilograms on your back. Another advantage is that women have a much more diversified division of attention, which is naturally very important in these kinds of jobs.”
Aliza Magen Halevi is the first woman to serve as the organization’s No. 2, deputy Mossad director under Shabtai Shavit and Danny Yatom.
“Women can easily be in places where men have to make up 1,001 excuses to be in,” she says. “It’s much easier for women to blend in. Who would suspect a woman? I took a lot of advantage of that.
“In one exercise, for example, we had to observe a certain place, and there was no observation point we could be in without raising people’s suspicions. So I found a small store across the street with a pavement in front of it. I asked the salesman if I could get a chair and rest outside for a while, because I was exhausted and felt dizzy. When everyone else was looking for a way to observe, I just sat down on a chair calmly. I don’t think a man could do such a thing.”
Former Mossad fighter Mirla Gal provides her own example: “I’m not a woman who sweats, but there were moments I felt my heart beat fast. Once we had to do something in the middle of the night in a foreign country. Suddenly, we were approached by people. It could have ended bad. We had to get out of the situation at that very moment. I only had a few minutes to think.
“I knew the language, and we immediately pretended to be a group talking about everyday issues and left the place naturally, chattering and laughing. Had there only been men there, it would have raised more suspicion. Sometimes, women have an advantage in this kind of world, which is perceived as manlier.”
“People are always less suspicious of a woman and more interested in hitting on her,” adds a former Mossad fighter. “In operations, if I wanted to recruit someone, I was supposed to give him the feeling that he had approached me rather than that I had approached him. It’s very important, and I found it easy.
“Once I had to recruit someone in Europe. I knew I had a few days. I met him every day, stood behind him in a queue. On the second morning, he already said ‘good morning’ and I smiled at him. On the third morning, we greeted each other with ‘good morning,’ and by the end of the encounter he felt he had hit on me.
“Over the years, I learned how to use my naïve looks in the target countries. Everywhere, people would ask how they could help me, as if I were a little girl. I received help especially from men in the Arab world. Something in my fragile image didn’t create any suspicion.”
A national trauma
The introduction of women into operational service in the Mossad was accompanied by a national trauma which left a profound mark on the secret organization: The Lavon Affair—a failed covert operation conducted in Egypt in the summer of 1954, in which a group of Egyptian Jews was recruited to plant bombs in American and British centers in the country, in a bid to incriminate the Egyptians and create a conflict between them and the Western powers.
Marcelle Ninio, a Cairo-born Jew, was one of the suspects arrested by the Egyptians. She was brutally tortured during her interrogation, and was then seriously hurt in a suicide attempt. After recovering in the hospital for several months, she was prosecuted and sentences to 15 years in prison.
Although that operation wasn’t attributed to the Mossad, when Ninio was released and returned to Israel in 1968, then-Mossad Director Meir Amit awarded her ranks equivalent to a lieutenant-colonel. Ninio herself prefers not to discuss the affair today. “When I remember what happened, I feel very distressed and it takes me a few days to calm down,” she explains.
Ninio doesn’t talk, but her experience became an inseparable part of the Mossad’s DNA, a cause for concern. “I remember that when Mossad fighter Yael went to Beirut in 1973 and lived there disguised as a scriptwriter, Mike Harari (who was at the time the commander of Caesarea, the Mossad’s special operations division) walked around as if he had a weight hanging on his neck,” says a senior Mossad official. “Yael was there on her own, and the information she delivered made Operation Spring of Youth (the 1973 Israeli raid on Lebanon) possible.”
Magen Halevi also remembers the concern that took over the Mossad when three senior Black September terrorists were assassinated by members of the Sayeret Matkal special forces unit, but the woman who fired the opening shot of Operation Spring of Youth remained on enemy territory.
“Marcelle Ninio’s story is really historical, but it has stayed with the Mossad to this very day, when there is a woman in a cell working in an Arab country and there is a risk that she’ll get caught,” Magen Halevi explains. “Yael stayed in Beirut a few more days after the operation ended, in an atmosphere of great suspicion, and we were all worried about her, although she rocked. What makes a woman an excellent agent, after all? A Mossad fighter needs a strong personality, impersonation skills, an ability to adapt to the circumstances and an ability to make an appearance. Yael was beautiful too. You need a bunch of qualities, which she had.”
Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy is very familiar with the great concern that a woman agent would be taken captive. “From my personal experience, I can say that knowing there is even just one woman working in an enemy country is a heavy burden on any Mossad chief who signs an operation, but I don’t recall ever dismissing or radically changing an operation over such a consideration.”
Two female Mossad fighters were jailed 20 years after Ninio, although this time it happened in a friendlier country—Norway. In 1973, Sylvia Raphael and Marianne Gladnikoff took part in Operation Wrath of God, which was aimed at settling the score with the masterminds and executors of the 1972 Munich massacre. A misidentification led to the assassination of Ahmed Bouchikhi, an innocent waiter, in the serene town of Lillehammer, and the cell members were arrested. After her release from prison, Raphael married her defense attorney.
In 1991, two women suspected as Mossad fighters were arrested in Cyprus together with other cell members from the Keshet Division, which is responsible for surveillances and wiretapping, while they were replacing the batteries of a listening device in a civilian building in Nicosia.
Pardo believes the trauma from women’s arrest is exaggerated. “A woman’s pain threshold is much higher than a man’s. It’s a fact—they give birth,” the former Mossad chief says. “If you put a woman and a man in a detention cell and tell the man, ‘You see the black guy who just passed by? He’s going to screw you,’ and tell the woman, ‘He’s going to rape you’—I’m not sure the man isn’t going to be more scared. Is it less problematic if a man is raped in captivity than if a woman is raped there? There were people who used it as an excuse for why women can’t do a certain job.”
The door for women’s participation in operational activities was widely opened by the Eichmann affair. Then-Mossad Director Isser Harel decided to add a woman to the operation to capture Nazi criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and bring him to trial in Israel, and Mossad agent Yehudit Nessyahu was selected for the mission. The Mossad people who were watching Eichmann in the apartment he was abducted to knew that Harel was sending a woman over. Instead of an Israeli Mata Hari, they saw a religious woman wearing a white headdress and golden eyeglasses with thick lenses.
According to Avner Avraham, a former Mossad division head and an expert on the Eichmann affair, who is advising a Hollywood film on the trial, “Nessyahu arrived in Argentina to give the house Eichmann was being held in an innocent and normal appearance. Every day at 4 pm, for example, she used to sit outside the house and drink tea in a porcelain cup, so she would look like an institutionalized Western European woman. Her appearance was very anti-James Bond.”
Part of Nessyahu’s job was to pose as the wife of one the agents. “Her mission was to run the household, go in and out, go shopping,” Avraham adds. “She would cook for Eichmann according to the doctor’s orders, and she seemed to have trouble cooking for such a person. She was a very intelligent woman who spoke Dutch, German and English, made contact easily and managed to fit in.”
Magen Halevi had just started her career in the Mossad back then. “I was a 22-23-year-old child. I used to write reports as part of my job, and Isser Harel read them and said: ‘Bring the girl over.’”
Was the Mossad chauvinist in the Harel era?
“I can’t say, I was too young. But with all the chauvinist atmosphere back then, the door was opened for me.”
Harel was the one who decided two years later to assign Nessyahu and Magen Halevi to another famous mission: Locating Yossele Schumacher, a child who was abducted and hidden in Europe and in the United States after his ultra-Orthodox grandfather refused to return him to his secular parents.
Nessyahu was sent to infiltrate the Satmar community in Antwerp, “and she went there disguised as a poor religious woman looking for a match,” says Avraham. “They didn’t know she spoke a lot of languages, so she would stand in the kitchen and listen. She realized he had been moved from Belgium to the US, and in some sense, she is the heroine of the operation.”
Magen Halevi was the agent who made convert Ruth Ben David, the woman who had smuggled Schumacher out of the country, to talk. “We were in the same room in a house which was rented especially for the mission,” she says. “Since Ruth is religious, there had to be a woman in the room when she was questioned by a man. My only responsibility was to watch her, but because we were close, we spoke. She was a sophisticated woman. I didn’t get that much out of her. There’s no need to exaggerated, it’s all tales,” she says humbly.
The Mossad women were often given seduction roles or asked to “relieve tensions.” Around the Yom Kippur War, for example, a Mossad agent was asked to calm a colleague of hers down: Agent B., who had entered Egypt with a cover story. The Mossad sent a fighter who married him in a fake marriage, moved in with him in Cairo and helped him with his mission.
The Mossad’s most famous seduction mission was in 1986, when Cheryl Bentov, also known as Cindy, managed to lure nuclear spy Mordechai Vanunu to fly with her to Rome, where he was kidnapped and brought to trial in Israel.
Sima Shine, head of research at the Intelligence Division of the Mossad, who lit an Independence Day torch as the organization’s representative in 2015, says there is nothing morally wrong with using women in seduction roles: “In the entire intelligence activity, there are many aspects which are a lot less moral than seduction. For example, making someone betray his country. Is that moral? But it’s part of the job. It’s like asking if in order to become famous and make money, a woman has to undress and become a nude model.”
And what is the answer?
“I suppose that like with a lot of things, some would say yes and do it, and others would say no. I was never a fighter, so I never faced such a dilemma.”
Magen Halevi is more decisive: “Seduction is definitely moral. It’s a case of ‘the end justifies the mean.’ The agent doesn’t seduce someone to develop an affair, but in order to reach a situation in which she would be able to manage him, keep him at distance.”
Films give the impression that Mossad agents are constantly killing people.
“Incidents in which the Mossad assassinates a person are rare.”
And the cases in which women have to get into bed with men?
“Those are not as rare, but the women definitely have to agree to do it.”
Were you asked to seduce?
“No, I wasn’t the seducing type at all.”
Did you send women on such a mission?
“I didn’t, but I know it exists. It doesn’t happen very often though.”
Two years before Vanunu’s Cindy, in 1984-1985, Mossad agent Yola posed as a European businesswoman and established a relationship with a Sudanese businessman as part of Operation Moses, in which Ethiopian Jews were brought to Israel. Yola ran a “resort village” where groups of Jews would arrive. They left the place on fishing boats towards a Navy ship waiting far out at sea and were led to Hercules planes that took them to Israel from a hiding point.
“With a woman, the object (target) feels less threatened,” says former Deputy Mossad Director Ram Ben Barak. “He thinks she’s interested in him because he’s good-looking, charming. A man will never think that a woman who says to him, ‘You’re so successful,’ has an ulterior motive. If a man approaches the object, he will be deterred. If a girl approaches him, he’ll open up. It’s so trivial, that sometimes it’s hard to understand how they fall for it so easily.”
Which female character are they more vulnerable to—the librarian or Wonder Woman?
“A combination. To succeed, the Mossad agent must move as far as possible from the image of a Mossad agent. When she approaches a mission, she has to ensure that no one becomes suspicious of her.”
If I entered a room filled with female Mossad fighters, would I find most of them beautiful?
Ben Barak is silent for a minute, and then laughs: “Yeah, but that’s not a condition obviously.”
Somehow, it’s just happens to be that way.
“One day,” a very senior former Mossad official recalls, “I received information that my division had an excellent candidate, a woman with very high grades. ‘There’s one problem,’ they said. ‘She’s too beautiful.’ I must admit that’s a limitation. We don’t want someone in the organization who will make heads spin while she walks on the street, and this woman used to be a model.
“In any event, we arranged to meet at a café, and the lady arrived. She was dressed modestly, her hair was combed in a traditional manner, nothing like a dolled-up model, although she was extremely beautiful. We spoke, I was impressed and I decided to move forward with her nomination. But the recruitment process is very slow, and in the meantime, she decided not to join.
“Then I got a call from Aliza Magen (who was deputy Mossad chief at the time), who said to me: ‘She’s a relative of mine and I didn’t intervene, but now that it’s over I want you to know I really appreciate the fact that you didn’t disqualify her because of her beauty.”
What kind of women is the Mossad looking for?
“The tendency is to pick people who can blend in without attracting attention. When a woman is very beautiful, we often make sure she doesn’t go to an event looking her best. By the way, it turns out you don’t have to be Marilyn Monroe to be able to seduce a man. All the senior women who were fighters were good-looking, but they weren’t beauty queens. That didn’t make them less attractive or interesting.”
Mirla Gal isn’t too happy with the femme fatale image of female Mossad fighters. “It’s not true, and seduction isn’t part of women’s job in the Mossad,” she says. “It’s very rare. In James Bond films everyone is beautiful and glowing from head to toe, but the beautiful thing about us is that we’re people who don’t stand out. It’s our ability to blend in. To this very day, my friends still laugh at the depressing colors of my wardrobe—black, grey and sometimes also blue.”
When Livni left to get married
Gal, who went on to become director-general of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and director-general of WIZO—Women's International Zionist Organization, joined the Mossad in the late 1970s, bringing along her childhood friend, Tzipi Livni, who later served as Israel's foreign minister and nearly became prime minister.
Livni first joined the Mossad’s Research Department in 1980, after completing her military service. Simultaneously, she studied law at Bar-Ilan University. During the first Lebanon War, Europe was a terrorist stronghold, and Livni got an offer to serve there for a year on behalf of the Mossad. She put her studies on hold, took a short operational course and left for Europe, where she lived in an apartment which was actually a meeting and hiding place, disconnected from her family, friends and everything else.
“It’s a different life,” Livni says. “It’s a year of being alone, hiding where you live, making sure you’re not being followed, telling stories about what you do and concealing what you’re really doing there.
“My father, who was a Knesset member, came to Strasburg with a delegation, and I received special permission to go there to meet him. While he was happy to finally see me and talk to me—until then we had only been allowed to exchange letters—he had trouble sharing my cover story with the other MKs. He was so proud to have a daughter who was studying law and serving in the Mossad, and suddenly, he felt so embarrassed having to tell people that I had quit my studies in the middle and was hanging out in Europe and studying French, which was very unacceptable those days.”
Were you afraid?
“There wasn’t a sense of fear, there was a sense of loneliness. I was all alone. No one around me knew what I was actually doing there or how to contact me, and I played the part.”
When she returned to Israel, she and Gal underwent a long operational course. “Although I was an officer in the army, women weren’t fighters at the time, and in the Mossad I suddenly felt like I had come to a place where there were spots opening up for women too,” Livni says. “The men in the course were all IDF fighters, people from Sayeret Matkal and pilots. We all got the exact same training, and women could be not only the cover story in an operation but actually carry it out. That was a huge innovation.”
Nevertheless, you chose to leave at the end of the course.
“I got drawn into the Mossad and into the course. At some stage, I no longer went to university, I only showed up to take my tests. It was intensive. I hadn’t thought about getting married, but life is full of surprises. I met Naftali, and within two months we decided to get married.
“There was this thing a month after I met Naftali,” she recalls, smiling. “I told him I was studying law and working at the Defense Ministry, and in the course we used to hold exercises at night in Tel Aviv. One day, a friend of his said to him: ‘Listen, I saw your new girlfriend hanging out with some men.’ Go build a relationship like that.
“At the end of the course, I was already about to get married and was asked to sign a commitment concerning my service in the following years. It was unclear whether the position I was offered would allow me to lead a family life as well. They told me at the Mossad, ‘Sign, and if you get pregnant you can leave. No one will give you a hard time about it. I said I was only going to sign a commitment for the next few years if I was certain I would be able to keep my commitment. I left after four years, with a warm recommendation to return whenever I wanted to,” Livni says.
“Every time a politician is detained,” she adds, “I think about the fact that I’m probably the only politician who spent a night in detention as part of a Mossad operational course rather than because of corruption.”
Gal faced the exact same dilemma, but chose to remain in the Mossad, serving in operational roles in elite field units in the next 20 years.
“At the end of my training, I was supposed to go on a mission and I told them I was getting married,” she says. “It wasn’t easy for them to hear that, and I do hope the system has made some progress since then. I was the first to get a role in this specific unit as a married woman, and people in the Mossad weren’t completely okay with it. I went on my second mission, several years later, as a married woman with children, and the system had trouble digesting that too.
“Then, but now too, we still live in a world in which it is pretty clear that the woman follows the man, but it’s not so clear that the man also follows the woman. I’m married to a lawyer, and it wasn’t a simple decision as far as the family was concerned. In some sense, I was a pioneer, because married woman went on the same mission after I did. But this kind of life carries prices that not every woman is willing to pay, and not every man would be willing to do what my husband did. There may have been a need to invest more in the partners, to listen to them, understand their needs and their problems, and of course invest more in the women themselves, in their empowerment and in their ability to cope in the complex reality between home and work.”
Livni and Gal’s commander in the course was the legendary R., who went from fighter and cell commander to head of training, head of logistics, chief security officer and head of the Auditing Division. She was the first woman in the history of the Mossad to serve in the last two positions.
“If Tzipi had stayed with us, she would have become a division head and even more than that,” R. says today. “I’m confident of that. She was my student.”
R., Magen Halevi, Yael and many other women gave up on motherhood for the Mossad. “If women standing at the same crossroad Livni and Mirla had stood at would ask me what to do today, I would say to them: ‘Don’t give up, neither on the position nor on children,” Magen Halevi says.
“During my activity, I didn’t give my intimate relations with men any chance of developing,” Yael admitted in an interview to Yedioth Ahronoth a little over two years ago. “After Operation Spring of Youth, I fell in love with a man I had met in Brussels, and it didn’t even cross my mind to move forward in the relationship without consulting Mike Harari. Our private life and our life in the Mossad were intertwined. I introduced him to Mike. Mike gave me his approval and said, ‘Follow your love.’ I did, but very soon I let go of this relationship too. I felt that it was getting in the way, that it wasn’t working out.”
Can the position you had in the Mossad be done with a husband and kids?
“I couldn’t. I met my husband when I was about to retire from the Mossad, and it’s no coincidence that I began my relationship with him only after completing my position as a fighter. It was only then that I allowed myself to do so. It was already too late for kids, but those years gave my life a lot of meaning.”
Pardo doesn’t deny the difficulty in combining motherhood with a career in the Mossad. “On the production floor, the rates of women are very high, but as the ranks increase, they drop dramatically,” he says. “Women mostly choose to fulfill themselves in the Mossad up to a certain age, when they decide to extend their family. The decision to raise children doesn’t always fit in with the decision to keep doing operational jobs. This creates a conflict. There are women who have paid a very heavy price, careerists who have decided not to have children, but they’re rare. In general, in many cases women work on several levels and a lot harder than men.”
What do you mean?
“Unfortunately, there is no equality in the world yet. Even a woman who decides to take a non-operational job actually works in several jobs, and after leaving the office she has many other missions in front of her which men take less responsibility for. So the way I see it, the reason fewer women advance in the Mossad is not an organizational problem, it is largely their choice and a result of the circumstances. Up to the rank equivalent to lieutenant-colonel, women run on the track, but then, when they decide to start a family, they say: ‘I gave 10 years, now I want a career where I can develop and be able to combine it with family life.’
“There is a situation here which the system has failed to deal with properly. Women may have complaints, and it’s possible that other models could have been adopted, but at the end of the day it’s their choice. The lack of correlation between the number of women who develop in the Mossad and the number of men in the Mossad has to do, first and foremost, with their decisions. In the first period of operational work, women—like men—work around the clock. Later, in very senior positions, if they make it up there, their children have already grown. The problem is in the mid-levels, and that’s where the dropout rate is high.”
To hell with the stigmas
Nevertheless, Mossad officials say, the organization is determined to recruit women and promote them. Recently, the Mossad published an ad reading: “Wanted: Powerful women.”
The perception of the female advantage grew stronger following an exercise conducted in the organization in the past. “We gave a group of women and a group of men a certain activity, and then we threw a firecracker into each group and monitored its reaction,” says a senior Mossad official. “The women’s performance was as good as the men’s and even better. The men were stiffer. They did a double take.”
Pardo offers an example: “A commander with 15 years of experience and a 22 or 23-year-old woman fighter worked as a team on a certain mission. It was a very complicated activity which involved memorizing a lot of technical processes, and it was clear that the commander had the experience and professional education and she didn’t. Before the mission was carried out, the guy said to me: ‘Let her command over me. She’s not as stressed out as I am and she’ll perform better.’ And her self-control really was exceptional. She did it in the best possible manner, and he was her assistant.”
Ben Barak witnessed female excellence too and saw stigmas about female and male skills being shattered. “You send a group on an operational driving course, and in almost 70 percent of the cases the women get the higher scores,” he says. “They just show off less and are more levelheaded, so you don’t hear about it later. Women also know how to manipulate from the day they’re born, so they’re basically very suitable for the Mossad.”
According to foreign reports, the Mossad assassinated terrorists in recent decades. In some cases, it has been claimed, women were involved too. “The stereotype is so wrong,” says Pardo. “A woman can navigate just as well as a man. In general, the person with the better skills will perform the mission better. Fortunately, 99.9 percent of the missions aren’t reported, but women and men did the exact same job.”
Former Mossad Director Efraim Halevy adds, “I can talk about one operation, which I won’t elaborate on, that was carried out by both men and women. At some stage, there was a need for a person to do the final act, so that the operation would end with a positive result. That person was a woman. The mission was accomplished thousands of miles from here. It was very complicated, and its success or failure were placed on the shoulders of one woman. She was the one who provided the result, which was strategically significant for the State of Israel.”
When Uzi Arad took office as head of research at the Mossad, he decided to expand the personnel resources to additional fields and recruit more women.
“If people used to think that the industry needed people with regional expertise, I said we could also bring people from the fields of economics, law and especially history,” he explains. “There are similarities between historical research and intelligence research, except history deals with the uncertainty of the past and intelligence deals with the uncertainty of the present and future. I decided to recruit more women. As a target, I wanted to reach a 50-50 distribution and I think I reached one-third. It was a move that proved itself.
“I remember that at some stage I had a female candidate who was an outstanding historian. She had high analytical abilities, but she wasn’t familiar with the Middle East. I faced a dilemma: Should I take her and hope she catches up and gains knowledge on the region or give up on her? I decided to do the boldest thing and throw her into the deepest water. I assigned her to our most difficult desk, and two years later she was ‘the brain’ there. I have no doubt that when it comes to intelligence research, women and men have the exact same intellectual rights.”
During Pardo and Ben Barak’s time in the Keshet Division, female presence made a further leap. If up until then about 20 percent of participants in the Mossad’s different courses were women, towards the late 1990s women made up about 40 percent of the courses’ graduates.
“We have all matured in terms of the perceptions and stigmas we were caught in 30 and 40 years ago,” Ben Barak admits. “If we used to think that a female Mossad fighter is a sort of escort who only provides the background and the serenity of a mission’s execution, we realized that women can actually do everything and a bit better.”
Why in Keshet of all places? One would think women would have a higher relative advantage in the Tzomet department, where agents are recruited.
“Logically, it’s true, but the problem is that the main population on the other side can’t work with women from a perceptual aspect. Most of them haven’t gone through the change we have. It’s very hard for a woman to function and talk to men on the other side. In Keshet, it’s all about special operations, so we don’t have that problem.”
In one of the special operations, Ben Barak says, he was saved by one of the women fighters. “There was a situation in which we had to do a very gentle and complex activity. We heard people approaching us, but we had no option of pulling back at that stage. We had to keep going for 10 more seconds. It’s an example of a situation in which, if you miss out by only a few seconds, you could get into real trouble. I carried out the activity and I was dripping with sweat. She stood next to me, said ‘everything’s okay,’ pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped my forehead. Her levelheadedness affected me. We managed to complete the mission before people arrived. It was thanks to her that I accomplished the mission.”
A woman as Mossad chief?
But despite the growing acknowledgement of women’s importance in the organization, when Danny Yatom left his position as Mossad chief in 1998, his deputy Magen Halevi wasn’t suggested as his replacement.
“I didn’t pursue it at that stage either. As far as I was concerned, it was almost the end of the road,” Magen Halevi says. “It wasn’t on the agenda, neither on mine nor on theirs. If there had been a man there instead of me, his name would have likely been raised.”
Do you think a woman could ever become Mossad chief?
“It seems unlikely to me, because there are few women who take the right path. To have a career, you have to get through the operational field, and a woman has to sacrifice a lot to get there. It’s not simple. A family, children don’t fit in with a career.”
Yatom is more of an optimist, providing evidence from abroad. “I don’t see why a woman can’t head the Mossad,” he protests. “It’s not unlikely. After all, a woman served as head of the MI5, the ‘British Shin Bet.’ All these military and organizational systems, which are manly by nature, are opening up, and the Mossad was always the leader in this field.”
And Pardo adds, “If a woman wants to, she will become the Mossad head. It’s up to them.”