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Ex-Israeli Cairo envoy’s Arabic eavesdropping changed the 1973 Yom Kippur War

On the 50th anniversary of the war, Itzhak Levanon tells JNS that Israel and Egypt have been close in many ways, but there is more work to be done.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog with author and former Israeli diplomat Itzhak Levanon in 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog with author and former Israeli diplomat Itzhak Levanon in 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Shulamit Kishik-Cohen. Credit: Courtesy.

Itzhak Levanon has a complicated relationship with his upbringing.

Born Isaac Kishik-Cohen in Beirut in 1944, Levanon was just a teenager in 1960 when his mother, Shulamit Kishik-Cohen, was jailed for seven years on charges of spying for Israel. Levanon’s mother led a network “assisted by the Mossad” to spy for Israel and smuggle Jews out of Lebanon, he told JNS.

She was released as part of a prisoner exchange with Israel in 1967 and reunited with her family in Israel.

The former Israeli diplomat—the Jewish state’s ambassador to Egypt from 2009 to 2011—adopted the Hebrew first name and changed his last name to sever some ties with his native Lebanon over the way it treated his mother, he told JNS. But having taken himself out of Lebanon, he couldn’t or wouldn’t fully take Lebanon out of himself, which is why he changed his last name to Levanon.

“In spite of everything, I still wanted to maintain some sort of link to Lebanon,” he said. “I was born there, and it was a part of me.”


As a child, Levanon dreamed of joining the Israeli foreign service. He got his start as a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when he worked with Teddy Kollek, then mayor of Jerusalem. In 1972, Levanon joined the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The following year, he was in the right place at the right time to make history.

Assigned to the United Nations delegation, Levanon was in Switzerland during the Yom Kippur War when he overheard Egyptian and Syrian diplomats arguing. The delegations didn’t realize that he was fluent in Arabic.

“I overheard the Syrians expressing their anger against the Egyptians for seeking a ceasefire with Israel,” Levanon told JNS. “The Egyptians responded that they had no choice because Israeli troops were in the Suez.”

Levanon relayed what he had overheard to Yosef Tekoah—then the Israeli representative to the United Nations—who explained that Israel was in fact outside of the Egyptian town.

Itzhak Levanon in Geneva in 2008. Credit: Courtesy.

Tekoah ran this chance inside information up the chain, and word came back from the Foreign Ministry that he should deliver a two-hour speech on the U.N. floor to stall. As Tekoah filibustered, Israeli troops took the Suez and sealed off Egyptian troops before U.N. observers could arrive.

The rest was history.

In recognition of his efforts, Israel moved Levanon to Egypt to help negotiate a peace agreement after then-Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1977 historic visit to Jerusalem. Levanon served in various positions before being named Israeli ambassador to Egypt in 2009.

Presenting his credentials to then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, was one of the few times he recalls having cried in his career, Levanon told JNS.

Egypt and Israel enjoyed nearly 30 years of peace during Levanon’s tenure as a diplomat. The two countries maintain relations at high levels, but there are virtually no economic and social relations between the two.

The one major economic exception has been Israeli natural-gas export via Egypt, Levanon said. “Both countries have developed close military but not civilian relations.”

Levanon lamented Egyptian colleagues’ lack of action combating antisemitism in the country. He told JNS that his pleas fell on deaf ears when he got in touch with the state-owned Al Gomhuria newspaper, which published an antisemitic article with an image of a swastika in 2010.

Itzhak Levanon. Credit: Courtesy.

“I told the newspaper that if they would like us to be aware of your sensitivities, they needed to take ours into account as well,” he said.

Levanon, who has lectured at Reichman University since he retired from the foreign service in 2011, hopes that Amira Oron, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, can usher in a new era of relations between the countries.

“I enjoyed my stay in Egypt very much and had no problems on a personal level,” Levanon said. “Although we have made so much progress since the Yom Kippur War, we still have a long way to go.”

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