The Israeli spy in Beirut: his life in print

Published June 25th, 2012 - 07:45 GMT
Massoud Bouton, the Israeli spy in Beirut in the Chouf mountains
Massoud Bouton, the Israeli spy in Beirut in the Chouf mountains

Early in 1962, a Lebanese businessman of Algerian descent called Mustafa Taleb disappeared. He told his friends he was returning to Algeria to live with his family following his home country’s liberation from French occupation.

None of these friends, who included Lebanese public figures, businessmen, and merchants, ever heard of him again. Nor did they know that Taleb was an Israeli spy from Unit 131 of Israel’s military intelligence service, charged with recruiting operatives in enemy countries.

His disappearance was due to a decision by his unit to terminate his spying mission and send him back to Israel.

The book was written in order to whitewash Bouton’s name and restore the good reputation that he had lost when he was fired from his unit without compensation.On 14 January 1962, Taleb, or Massoud Bouton according to his original Israeli ID, landed in Lod airport, ending a seven year assignment in which he operated between Beirut and Damascus, beginning in 1956. 

The story of those seven years has now appeared in a book called From Jerusalem to Damascus and Back – An Intelligence Agent’s Storypublished in Israel last week.

It is written by former Shabak officer and current Palestinian affairs reporter in Yediot Ahronot. He met with Bouton for several long sessions before the spy’s death last year, gathering the details of a life of espionage.

The book was written in order to whitewash Bouton’s name and restore the good reputation that he had lost when he was fired from his unit without compensation, following a disagreement with his bosses.

It explores key stages of the work of “Mustafa Taleb.” The Algerian businessman came to Beirut in 1956 and settled in the city creating a wide social network which he used to collect intelligence. He relayed the information to Tel Aviv through a special communication device.

Bouton was born in Old Jerusalem in 1924. At 11, his family moved to the western section of the city. He joined the Irgun Zionist militia (IZL) and used to distribute their statements and press releases.

Bouton was arrested twice. The first time due to his participation in the bombing of the Jerusalem train station [in 1946]. The second arrest was administrative, during the final days of the British mandate over Palestine.

A few hours after the declaration of the establishment of the state of Israel, he was released. Bouton joined IZL again and participated in battles against Palestinians in Jerusalem which culminated with the occupation of the western part of the city.

There, Bouton met Surmeri, a young Italian woman who he would later marry. She did not know about his Israeli wife Esther, or his two children Ehud and Naomi.Following Israel’s “War of Independence,” Bouton was deployed by the Jewish Agency to countries in north Africa to assist in bringing Jews into Israel. He spoke Arabic ever since he was a child.

Upon his return to Israel in 1954, he was called to Unit 131 of Israel’s military intelligence. The unit worked on recruiting, training, and providing cover for spies. The operatives would be sent to enemy countries to settle. This allowed them to collect intelligence information and create a working base to be put into operation during times of war.

Bouton underwent a training process which included courses on firearms, explosive devices, tracking, surveillance, evasion, photography, and encrypted communications. His training also included a course on Arab culture, customs, and traditions, in addition to religious aspects. At the beginning of 1955, Bouton left Israel on a new mission.

According to the book, Unit 131 did not provide him with cover, “so he had to stitch one by himself.” First, he was sent to Europe, where he left for Algeria. Bouton, described by the book as having exemplary field skills, sharp senses, and mental alertness, succeeded immediately in creating a new personality: Mustafa Taleb.

Six months after landing in Algiers, he managed to obtain an authentic Algerian identification paper. He established himself as a businessman.

He returned to Israel in 1956 on vacation, where he met his commanders who told him that he was chosen to go to Syria and Lebanon.

His first stop was in Rome, where he visited the Lebanese consulate and applied for a business visa. There, he met Surmeri, a young Italian woman who he would later marry. She did not know about his Israeli wife Esther, or his two children Ehud and Naomi.

He also made friends with a member of the consulate’s staff, created trade links, and travelled to Libya.

He left Italy to Lebanon in 1957, where he rented a room in a hotel in Burj Square, [in downtown Beirut]. He initiated legal procedures to obtain the Lebanese nationality. A few weeks later, he began receiving offers for several types of businesses, such as trading in fish.

Bouton asked for the help of a number of high ranking Lebanese officials, particularly from the Interior Ministry, who he had met through his business dealings.He purchased a fishing boat with a cooler that could carry eight tons of fish, in addition to high tech communications devices, which would be used for special operations when required. He also worked in the import of agricultural tractor engines from the UK, carpentry, cement production, fabrics, film distribution, import of home furniture from Italy, among other things.

He was also contracted at a time to provide Beirut’s airport with some technical installations. He used the project to obtain the blueprints of the airport, claiming he wanted to align the installations with the airport’s pre-existing engineering characteristics.

As soon as he received the plans, he sent them to his unit in Tel Aviv, allowing them to plan the Israeli special forces operation on Beirut’s airport in 1968, destroying [commercial] planes that were on the runway. Some of his efforts were also directed towards identifying Saudi and Iraqi oil importers.

Surmeri joined her husband almost a year later, where they lived in a luxury apartment in Badaro. Bouton was in the middle of legal procedures to obtain the Lebanese citizenship.

He devised a brilliant plan to help him in his application. He said he was originally born in Lebanon and his family had emigrated when he was just one year old. He managed to get documents pertaining to a southern Lebanese family who did the same.

To help him in his application, Bouton asked for the help of a number of high ranking Lebanese officials, particularly from the Interior Ministry, who he had met through his business dealings. In 1959, he was recognized as a Lebanese citizen.

At the time, Bouton’s commercial activities had reached Syria. He lived in the Abu Rumaneh neighborhood in Damascus. His Lebanese nationality helped him in creating a network of contacts and enter into the world of the cement industry.

To be able to communicate properly, Bouton installed a long antenna on the roof of his house, claiming that his wife likes to listen to the Italian radio station.He travelled all over Syria, always accompanied by other businessmen. He was very excited about the Hama dam built by the Syrians and the Bulgarians and enthralled with Aleppo’s markets.

During his visits, he would focus on military installations and bases, memorizing details to record them later and send them in his reports to Israel. He used a special communications device hidden in his bedroom closet in Beirut. To be able to communicate properly, he installed a long antenna on the roof of his house, claiming that his wife likes to listen to the Italian radio station.

Bouton used to own an opulent office that was visited daily by his business partners. It was the main base for his network of contact and made him “part of the family” in Beirut airport’s duty free zone and other ports of entry, in Tripoli, Jounieh, Sour, and Saida.

These contacts allowed him to attend a meeting of Arab trade ministers which was held in Beirut in 1959. He shook hands with the ministers and spoke to them closely. According to the book, he appeared in a picture of the meeting in a Lebanese newspaper.

In the meantime, and following the instruction of his operators, he created a personality, complete with formal documents, for another member of his unit who was later implanted in Syria.

The new guy, who would be known as Kamel Amin Thabet, was none other than Eli Cohen (Eliahu ben Shaoul Cohen) who succeeded Bouton after his return to Israel. Cohen was later uncovered by Syrian intelligence and executed by public hanging in Marjeh Square in Damascus.

Bouton would visit Israel for a period of 10 days each year, where he would spend his time in training, orientation, transcribing reports, and briefing his operators about the intelligence he had collected.

The new guy, was none other than Eli Cohen who succeeded Bouton after his return to Israel. Cohen was later uncovered by Syrian intelligence and executed by public hanging in Marjeh Square in Damascus.Only his Israeli wife knew about his real job. The remaining members of his family believed he was in a delegation sent by the army to study in Paris and was working as an assistant to the military attache in the Israeli Embassy.

According to the book, the beginning of the end of his life as a spy was Bouton’s insistence on a yearly family vacation to Switzerland. The unit’s command agreed on allowing the vacation once, but refused to make it regular.

Bouton objected to the decision and tried to pressure his commanders by threatening to leave his mission and return to Israel. This attempt lost him the trust of his unit commanders, who told him that his mission was terminated and he should return to Israel promptly.

He tried to justify his demands and even retract them, but to no avail. He obeyed his orders, liquidated his business, and broke away quickly from his friends and business contacts.

When he arrived in Israel, he attempted to change the decision to suspend him. He even went to the Director-General of Israel’s military intelligence unit, Meir Amit, who took a final decision to fire him due to breach of contract. Bouton never received his end of service compensation.

Two years later, he left Israel with his family and settled in France due to his difficult financial situation. In Strasbourg, he worked as a dishwasher in a Jewish establishment. Then he became a driver and traveling salesman.

He remained there until his death last year. He is buried in the Jewish cemetery in the city.

Who Exposed Eli Cohen?

According to his biography, when Bouton’s mission was terminated, he begged the Unit 131 commander not to use the persona he had created under the name of Kamel Amin Thabet, as a cover for a spy to be sent to Syria.

Bouton justified his request by saying that he had prepared all the necessary identification documents and that his disappearance will put it under suspicion. Whoever claims the personality will find it difficult to prove a relationship with him in his absence.

Intelligence commanders did not heed his advice and used the Thabet persona as a cover for Eli Cohen, the famous Israeli spy who was caught and hanged in Syrian in 1965.

Sources in Israel’s intelligence services denied Bouton’s claims that he created the personality used by Cohen. They indicated that Thabet’s identity was originally created in Argentina and Bouton did not have any role in it.

The sources accused Bouton of lying about his role in the Thabet case, saying he invented the story to make himself famous.


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