JERUSALEM—As a Mossad trainee, Yael’s first test in subterfuge was to wheedle a cheesecake recipe out of the formidable leader of an Israeli organization who was known both for her baking skills and her adamant refusal to share recipes.
When Yael returned to base triumphant, recipe in hand, she was told that the real-world assignments awaiting her would likely involve more than eliciting recipes.
Yael related the cheesecake caper this month in a joint interview given by five female Mossad officials to the Israeli women’s magazine Lady Globes, the first-ever exposure of Mossad women to the press.
The five women, identified only by their first names, hold ranks equivalent to colonel or brigadier general. Mossad director Tamir Pardo approved their interview in order to call attention to the changing role of women in the vaunted espionage organization.
The interviews, which were conducted by the editor of the magazine, Vered Ramon Rivlin, offered no operational details, but did shed light on an area of espionage hitherto little exposed—the mindset of female agents.
In a previous generation, Mossad women in the field served mainly as props on surveillance teams made up of "couples" sitting in parked cars or hanging around hotel lobbies. Today, women are at the heart of the organization and often outperform men, Pardo told the magazine.
"At the operational level, they are the same number as men," Pardo said to Lady Globes. "They have a big advantage over men in multi-tasking. They read the ground better, they size up situations, and have a broad view, contrary to the stereotype. It’s also easier for women to set aside their egos and focus on the mission. They are much better than men at acting. And their capacity for suffering is no less than men, even higher."
The most prominent female Mossad veteran is former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, a former leader of the opposition who sees herself as a future prime minister. She served with the organization for four years in Europe in the 1980s.
Mossad women today often operate in hostile countries on their own and function as team leaders, commanding men who may have been paratroopers or air force pilots.
"They are excellent team leaders," said Pardo to the Israeli publication, "able to bring out the best in operatives."
Lady Globes is a monthly woman’s supplement published by a Tel Aviv business daily, Globes. The current edition, coinciding with the Jewish New Year, focused on "Women of the Year." All five Mossad women were described as mothers.
Although the women cited service to the nation as their prime motivation, the theme that emerged most strongly was the sheer exhilaration of testing their wit, skills, and nerve, often in dangerous environments.
"It’s like living in a movie," Shira told interviewer Rivlin. "I say to myself ‘I can’t really be doing this.’ I always thought that only very, very special people could do this. It’s the most amazing thing in the world."
"There are movies I’ve lived through … that haven’t been made yet," said Ela.
"Before I came to the Mossad I had no self confidence" Shira told Lady Globes. "I would grip my husband’s arm tightly whenever I entered a place with people. This work has brought out a whole spectrum of things in me I didn’t know existed. It brings you to the edge."
Although the Mossad uses all the wiles of the trade it draws the line at sex, the women stressed.
"We use our femininity because all means are kosher," Efrat, the most senior of the women, told Lady Globes. "But if we were to think that the best way to advance the cause is to sleep with (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad’s bureau chief no one in the Mossad would permit it. There are seduction games, there is attraction, there are attempts to arouse the other side, but the limit is actual sex."
"On one mission," said Ela, "I was in contact with a senior figure in an Arab country. He thought that a romance was developing. He wailed outside the door but it didn’t happen."
"You get hooked. The lifestyle. The adrenalin. You’re always in movement. That’s something very hard for me to be without," Efrat said in the article.
There is, however, a price to be paid. Looking in on her three sleeping children before she leaves for a hazardous assignment always brings a lump to Ela’s throat.
"We’ve become tougher. Harder. And that bothers me. But I’m on a high half of my life," she said.