Mossad Mystery and Conspiracy Theories: The Questions Still Rocking a Capsized Boat Full of Israeli and Italian Spies

Analysis | 

A cloud of cover-stories and confusion fed by partial scraps of information surround a freak accident in Italy’s Lake Maggiore. Though Israel has named the Mossad agent that died, we’re unlikely to ever find out his real identity, or what he was doing thereShare in FacebookShare in TwitterShare in WhatsApp

Firefighters search for survivors following the incident in Lake Maggiore, in northern Italy, May 29, 2023.

Firefighters search for survivors following the incident in Lake Maggiore, in northern Italy, May 29, 2023.Credit: VIGILI DEL FUOCO/ REUTERS

Yossi Melman

May 31, 2023

An agent from Israel’s Mossad espionage agency, two Italian intelligence officers and the Russian wife of an Italian captain drowned this week under mysterious circumstances. The strange nature of the tragedy, which occurred in northern Italy, could have been right out of a complicated plot from an Agatha Christie detective novel and might have been called “Death on the Lake.”

The plot involves a picturesque setting on a lake surrounded by mountains, volatile and stormy weather, a sinking ship, survivors swimming to shore and four bodies pulled out of the water. But it actually happened Sunday night on Lake Maggiore in the northern Italian Alps. And although several days have elapsed, more remains a mystery about the mishap than what is known.

There is close intelligence cooperation between Israel and Italy, but the relationship has had its ups and downs.

A small excursion boat set out to cruise the lake with 23 on board, four of whom were crew members including the captain and his wife. The passengers were Italian and Israeli intelligence personnel who had booked the ship for the cruise.-

Fickle and stormy weather caused the boat to capsize, and it now appears that the captain hadn’t heeded storm warnings, setting sail in any event. There are also suspicions of safety shortcomings on the boat. The four who drowned were trapped in the overturned vessel. The others managed to swim to shore or were pulled from the water by boats that were dispatched to help or happened to be in the area.

If that weren’t enough, questions have been raised following the major blackout on the case in Israel – even if it was justified to some extent to facilitate the return of the body of the Israeli who died. The name of the Mossad man who drowned was published in the Italian media even as media outlets in Israel continued to refrain from reporting it.

Firefighters searching for survivors of Monday's boating accident on Lake Maggiore in Italy.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry only identified him as a “retiree from the security establishment.” But it’s no secret that experienced and skilled retirees from the security establishment, including the Mossad, are periodically called up for reserve duty of sorts pursuant to special contracts. They take part in operational activities or work at headquarters.

It was only after an Italian investigating judge permitted the release of the Israeli’s body following the inquiry over the deaths that the body was flown to Israel, arriving early Wednesday morning. Only then did the Mossad permit disclosure of his name – Erez Shimoni – as had already been reported in the Italian media. But that was not his real name. It’s standard procedure for Mossad personnel, particularly in operations, to use an assumed name.

It’s standard procedure for Mossad personnel, particularly in operations, to use an assumed name.

He was buried on Wednesday afternoon in Ashkelon at a funeral wrapped in secrecy and protected by Mossad security guards. The funeral was attended by Mossad chief David Barnea and many of Mossad colleagues, both past and present.

Earlier in the week, as time passed, the rumor mill was working overtime and conspiracy theories abounded. It was only thanks to the media in Italy that by Tuesday scraps of information and an incomplete picture of the accident emerged.

Italian investigating judges have independent status, and in the past, they have conducted complicated investigations on sensitive security matters. One such case surfaced about 20 years ago when it became clear that Italian intelligence was helping the American spy agency, the CIA, to operate on Italian soil and to kidnap an Egyptian citizen suspected of involvement in Al-Qaida terrorism. An investigating judge looked into the affair and issued arrest warrants against the men. The Rome government fired intelligence officers who were working with their American counterparts behind the back of the Italian government.

This week, the Italian press reported that the intelligence personnel who survived the disaster on the lake were quick to collect their equipment and other belongings from their hotel rooms and from the hospital where they received treatment and then left. The Israelis also abandoned their rental cars. Presumably their Italian colleagues took care of returning them. On Monday the Israeli Mossad personnel were flown back to Israel in a military plane, according to Italian media.

But actually it was an Israeli plane that was dispatched to Italy to bring the Mossad people home. According to publicly available radar data and aviation records, an Israeli Bombardier executive jet that can carry up to 15 passengers was seen landing Monday morning in Milan, which is not far from the lake. A short time later, the plane was seen flying back to Israel. It’s an aircraft that Israeli authorities use for official but secret missions. Based on identification markings, it turns out that it had previously flown under unknown circumstances to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and to Qatar.

A helicopter searches for survivors on Monday on Lake Maggiore in Italy after a boat capsized killing four, including an Israeli former intelligence agent.

Italian media reported that the cruise had been planned to celebrate the birthday of one of the Italian intelligence officers as part of a gathering of Mossad personnel and their Italian colleagues. As someone who does not believe in conspiracies, I tend to accept things as they seem, so the description is probably correct. In other words, the evening was planned as a social gathering, and it ended in disaster.

But it can be assumed with a considerable degree of certainty that the Mossad people didn’t came to Italy just to socialize. They were there for talks and to exchange of information and situation assessments or even more probably for a joint clandestine operation.

There is close intelligence cooperation between the two countries, even if in the past the relationship has had its ups and downs. In 1973, Italian intelligence together with the Mossad thwarted an attempt by the Palestine Liberation Organization to shoot down an El Al airplane taking off from Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Adm. Fulvio Martini, the head of Italian military intelligence, wrote in his memoirs that he often assisted Israeli intelligence in various missions. He also prided himself in that in the 1970s, he went to Syria and photographed sites there for Israel.

Italian intelligence also played a role of some kind in assisting the Mossad in bringing Ethiopian Jews from Sudan to Israel in the 1980s and early 1990s. On the other hand, there was also the case of Mordechai Vanunu, the Israeli nuclear whistleblower who was kidnapped by Mossad operatives on Italian soil in 1986, casting a shadow for a time over links between the two countries.

The current cooperation not only won’t damage the countries’ bilateral ties. It will only strengthen them out of a sense of shared destiny between the Mossad and Italian intelligence, which, like other Western intelligence communities, is helping the Mossad and the broader Israeli intelligence community to fight the Iranian nuclear program and Hezbollah.

In its response for this article, Mossad said: “This morning [Wednesday], the coffin of the Mossad retiree who was killed in the boating disaster following stormy weather conditions on Lake Maggiore in Italy was brought to Israel.

“Due to his service in the organization, it is not possible to elaborate regarding him. The Mossad has lost a dear friend, a dedicated and professional employee who dedicated his life to the security of the State of Israel for decades, even after his retirement. The Mossad grieves over the loss and shares in the grief of the family, which it will continue to support and embrace.”


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