Traitor: Excerpts From a New, Best-selling Hebrew Novel by Jonathan De Shalit

Jonathan de Shalit
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'One-Dimensional Man,' a 2010 project by choreographer Daniel Landau, featuring Opla Compania. Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Jonathan de Shalit

Rome, 1983

Darkness fell suddenly. The sky, which just minutes before had been so blue and clean, turned purple and then instantly blackened, as though doused in ink. Chill abruptly blotted out the pleasant warmth of the early March day. Shadows lengthened and darkened. The street was poorly lit. Hidden spotlights washed across the walls; the magnificent buildings looked like a grandiose set for a play.

The time was 5:31. The young man walked through the narrow street again, yanking the zipper of his coat upward, though it was already pulled as high as possible. Once more he passed the iron gate of the American embassy. He was alone in the street; momentarily, it was empty and abandoned. An incessant hum of traffic rose from the broad Via Veneto, which the splendid façade of the embassy building – a former palace – overlooked. A large American flag, whipped by the cold wind, its red and white stripes lit by a beam, flew atop a high pole. To the young man, the vast structure, all of whose windows were shuttered, looked empty and grim, though he knew that its rooms were filled with hundreds of people at that very moment. Retracing his footsteps, he pressed the intercom on the gate forcefully. High above him, two security cameras rotated soundlessly and focused on him.

“Yes,” a metallic, nasal voice said through the intercom’s speaker.

“I want to speak with someone from intelligence,” he said in fluent English, his voice steady.

“The consulate’s reception hours are from 10:00 until 2:00,” the voice said. “You can come tomorrow.”

“I want to speak with someone from intelligence,” he repeated. “I don’t need consular services and I have no intention of coming tomorrow. My business is important and urgent.”

“What is your name and what brings you to the embassy?”

“I will only give my name to a representative of intelligence. I can tell him alone why I have come.” He hesitated for a moment and then added, “It is a matter relating to national security.”

“Enter, please,” the voice commanded. A click was heard, and the groaning of a metal door swinging open. The young man stepped in, and the door closed behind him. He found himself imprisoned between high metal walls, the black sky bare above him. He was in a small courtyard of two by three meters. The Roman street disappeared behind the gate that was locked behind him. Powerful lights came on suddenly, and for a second he covered his eyes.

The same metallic voice said, “Welcome. You will need to take off your coat and raise your hands. We need to see the hands clearly. A security guard will check you. You must obey his instructions. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly clear.”

The guard, wearing a suit with a leather jacket over it, entered the space through a door that opened in one of the walls. He ran a metal detector across the young man’s body. He then put the detector back into a pocket in his coat and proceeded to frisk the young man by hand, from his upheld arms down his back and along his legs.

“Come with me,” he said.

He followed the guard into a structure that resembled a big glass aquarium. He was asked to take off his coat and shoes, and remove his belt and watch. He was told to empty his pockets completely and pass through a large metal detector.

“Where is your passport?” one of the guards asked. “I don’t see your passport here,” he said, indicating the small pile of objects he had taken out of his pockets.

“I will show my passport only to someone from intelligence,” he said.

“Without a passport you’re not going any further,” the guard said in a clipped, no-nonsense voice. “Another second and you’re back in the street.”

“I left my passport in the hotel, but I have a driver’s license in my wallet.”

The security man opened the wallet and from it pulled two credit cards and a driver’s license. He entered the details of the license on a form that he took out of a drawer in the counter, then gave the credit cards a second look before putting them and the license back. He then nodded to another guard, who said to the young man, “Take your things and follow me.”

Entering the embassy building through a side door, they walked down a long, fluorescent-lit corridor. Their footsteps echoed in the deserted corridor.

“Wait here,” the security guard said after they entered a small, well-lit bare room unencumbered with unnecessary objects. It contained only a metal table, two chairs, a small refrigerator that reminded the young man of a hotel minibar, a relief of the American eagle on the wall and the Stars and Stripes in a corner. “Wait here.”

Ramat Aviv Mall, Tel Aviv, January 2013

Michael Turgeman rode the escalator up. A strong, delicious aroma of fine Italian coffee greeted him. That’s how it is with Aharon Levin. Levin hadn’t been his direct commander for years, and for years he hadn’t been head of the Mossad. Even I, Michael thought, with anger tempered by resignation, even I have been out of the organization for more than a year. But when Aharon Levin calls and asks for something in his confused, apologetic way, I immediately tell him “Yes.” Always yes.

“Some place he found to meet,” Michael grumbled to himself. Arcafe, in a mall. True, the coffee is wonderful but the prices always annoyed him, and the idea of paying that much to serve oneself seemed to him an innovation bordering on chutzpah. Unexplained irritation coursed through him when he thought of the chain’s regular clients, certainly in the branch in this luxurious mall. “Renovated” women of 50 or 60 with the body of models, wearing sports attire that hid scars of multiple plastic-surgery procedures. The truth is, Michael admitted to himself, that I’m prone to fits of anger and restlessness these days. Every little thing twitches my nerves. I’m becoming cranky and I grumble all the time. Definitely not attractive. Have to get on top of that. Focus, man. Home in on the main thing, he summed up to himself, pushing the truly important questions to the margins of his consciousness.

Wonder what the old man wants this time, he reflected to himself. Aharon Levin had called him the previous evening and said, “Hello, hello, hello” three times – surprised to have reached him even though he had been the one to call. It was always the same. “There’s something I want to consult with you about,” he said. “When would it be convenient for you?” And before Michael could reply, he answered his own question: “Maybe tomorrow morning, 7:30, before the mall gets crowded?”

The meeting is urgent for him, Michael thought: He had no illusions that Aharon really wanted to consult with him. Aharon had always relied exclusively on himself and on his prodigious intelligence. He doesn’t need advice, least of all from me, Michael thought with a certain bitterness, but he obviously does need something else. Otherwise he wouldn’t have called. That’s how it is, a hierarchy of status and age. That’s how it works.

The café was in fact empty at that early hour, other than the staff, who were turning on the espresso machines and arranging the cakes and sandwiches on the shelves. He didn’t see Aharon. After years of habit, Michael scanned the place, checking that Aharon wasn’t sitting outside somewhere for no good reason. Then he went back in and chose a table that would give him a wide view, not only of the café itself but also of the entrance to the mall and the space created by the stairs leading up from the parking area.

Aharon was a few minutes late, as always. His coat was rumpled and all his attention was riveted on the umbrella he was holding but which – the devil’s work – had turned inside out. His eyes also scanned the café, acknowledging Michael with an almost imperceptible movement of the head.

“You’re getting thinner all the time,” he told him. “You need to eat something. Double espresso?”

He returned carrying a tray a bit shakily, an espresso and a cup of tea perched on it dangerously. “We’re still waiting for a croissant,” he said. “They’ll call us.”

“Ya’akov!” the young man behind the bar called a couple of minutes later. “Ya’akov is me,” Aharon said with a smile, and was back quickly with a warm almond croissant, his face radiating the joy of victory. “Eat something, eat. I need you healthy and strong. At your best!” At which point the former head of the Mossad turned serious and grim-faced, businesslike and focused, the appearance of the absentminded professor erased in a twinkling.

Aharon told him about his meeting with the former head of the German Intelligence Service, and about his meeting with the president of Israel. Not for one moment, he said, had he considered not carrying out the president’s order. “How could I tell him no? And you, Michael, I need as the head of the team that we will set up. I know,” he continued, not allowing Michael to get a word in edgewise, “that you have opened your law firm. But you can relax, after all you are only in the first stages and nothing will happen to you if you delay that story a little. You didn’t practice law for 25 years, so it can wait a little longer.

“Avigdor Feldman will go on taking care of civil rights. You will enter the arena in a few more months, it’s not so terrible. Civil rights is important, but first we will catch that terrible man. I know he exists, I can feel in my old bones that he is operating and devising schemes and evil plots. I can hear his scales scratching the earth like a poisonous snake, I can feel how his venom is stinging and spreading. We will eliminate him!” he declared suddenly, and Michael felt the image of the reptile with its cold blood and the lethal poison in its fangs burying into his brain, too. And he hadn’t yet said a word.

“Tell me,” Aharon went on. “How many rooms are there in the apartment you’ve rented as an office? Three? Yes, that should do us fine. Nahmani Street? Excellent, excellent. Well, then, we have a team chief and we have a safe house. Tell me, whom were you thinking of? Whom else will we bring in?”

And thus, without giving his consent – in fact, without being asked to do so – Michael Turgeman saw his life take on one more small twist, another path he’d been pushed onto – the road not taken, he thought to himself with a tinge of irony, still recalling the Robert Frost poem from his school days. But to Aharon he said nothing. There was no point.

Or maybe he’d made his choice 26 years ago, when he started the application process for the Mossad. Indeed, his very participation in the selection process imbued him with a sense of secrecy and mission that warmed his heart, quite literally, and in his eyes set him apart from all his friends in the fourth year of law school. While they planned on being hired by one of the country’s top law firms or on doing a master’s degree at one of the better universities in the United States, he was embarking on a long road at the end of which he would join that famous yet elusive and mysterious organization: the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. In a word, the Mossad.

That had been a long time ago. A lengthy application and vetting process, followed by a quarter of a century of service. Long years in which he recruited and ran agents. When Michael was just starting out as a young case officer, Aharon Levin was the commander of Mossad forces in Europe. That’s where they had met and where they had occasionally spent long hours and equally long days waiting for an object to fall into their web, waiting for an agent to arrive after many months for a face-to-face meeting. As a senior commander, Aharon had of course not accompanied him on all his operations, but when an interesting assignment came up, different from the other operations, when a valuable, particularly important agent came in, Aharon would join, accompanying the unfolding events with his experience, wisdom and deep understanding of the human psyche, of the mind of the enemy they faced. About 10 years later, after the long hunting season across Europe, Aharon was appointed head of the Mossad. He asked Michael to be his personal assistant, and, as always, Michael replied: Yes, at your command. For three years they worked together, in closeness and intimacy that are created in 16- or 18-hour days of shared activity. The trust between them was forged from secrets known only to a few, from moments of rage and weakness, from crises and also from instances of secret glory. It was not a partnership of equals. The difference in responsibility, in authority, in age and in life experience was clear. And Michael knew that in his pleasant, intelligent and utterly charming way, Aharon was using him, as he used everyone who accompanied him on his meteoric path.

When he called him in now and without further ado shook him loose from the law firm he had just begun to establish, as though it meant nothing, Aharon relied on his absolute loyalty. On top of this there was his solidity, the high intelligence he was gifted with, and his practical ability. With uncommon honesty, Michael was aware of these traits, which were undoubtedly also delineated and summed up in the secret psychological documents of his personal file. Weaknesses were listed there, too – not a few and not insignificant. We are all human beings, he always quoted his commander. And not always even that. In any event, the brilliance, the deep understanding and the surges of faith that would be required henceforth would stem only from Aharon himself. So Aharon believed and so Michael thought. That’s how he worked all these years, and that’s how he went into battle this time, too. Michael was only his tool, a loyal and courageous servant, an essential albeit almost technical component in the tight, efficient machine that Aharon started to build in order to accomplish the mission.

Aboard an El Alflight from New York to Tel Aviv

I’m too old for these flights, Michael grumbled to himself as he tried to find a comfortable angle for his lanky body in the narrow tourist-class seat. He’d managed to get a seat in one of the last rows of the jumbo jet, a row with only two seats and not three between the aisle and the window. That afforded him a certain sense of ease, and above all the sense of minor victory of those who are familiar with these little tricks. But that feeling of achievement didn’t last long; after three hours of uneasy dozing over the Atlantic, it gave way to gloominess. He didn’t like the fact that many hours in the air were still ahead of him, and his attempts to organize his limbs in a way that would allow him to relax and quiet the noise whirring in his brain were of no avail.

He knew they were closing in on him, on Cobra. He knew that Aharon and Ya’ara would not return from Rhode Island empty-handed. They were getting closer to their prey in ever-smaller circles, and in the end they would trap him. Michael tried to imagine that moment, to envisage in his mind’s eye the moment at which they would close in on and overcome him. He couldn’t get out of his head the image of a large gray wolf – wounded and bleeding, collapsing in slow motion into deep snow, staining the white with its blood, its mouth agape and its nostrils exuding fetid vapor, its yellow eyes clouding over and losing their focus – as they stood around it in a circle, wearing heavy clothing, the hunting rifles in their hands aimed at the ground, watching it silently, the dying predator, vast plains of snow around them, the air painfully clear and bitterly cold.

Michael put on the earphones he found in the seat pocket in front of him. Once more he wondered why, when such high-quality earphones were being manufactured, the airlines continued to provide their passengers with substandard sets in which every sound was like tin being grated. “You’re grumpy,” he told himself voicelessly, and observed that this was not the first time that this self-analysis had passed through his mind in recent months. “You’re grumpy,” he told himself in the second person, “and it really doesn’t suit you. Make an effort to shake it off.”

Through the curtain of grating tin he heard, or thought he heard, Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York,” followed immediately by a glorious song in Italian, in the style of the San Remo song festival. “If you know what the San Remo Festival is, you’re apparently not so young anymore,” he thought to himself with a large dose of self-pity, and his thoughts wandered to Ya’ara, who probably had no idea what kind of music this was. He conjured up her pretty, serious face and the way the sun’s rays trap and illuminate golden threads in her hair.

He smiled to himself and then became serious. A moment before drifting off, he thought again of Cobra, imagining him in the interrogation room immediately after they caught him. Cobra, in a state of total shock at having been apprehended, fists beating on the door of his house, hair disheveled, eyes swollen with sleep. They would arrest him at the time of night when a person’s defenses were at their lowest. They would drag him out in his pajamas, to make him feel ridiculous and humiliated, his mouth terribly dry with the vapid taste of night. He would be pushed into the back seat of the camouflaged security vehicle, his head would be banged when he tried to bend over, his limbs would still be stiff from an unquiet sleep. They would proceed in a convoy of three cars, accelerating aggressively, showing him with their muscularity and his frightened wretchedness how fast and deep he was falling.

Michael fell into a disturbed sleep, his head resting on the armrest, imagining the fear that would seize Cobra, the sourness rising in his throat, the feeling of sudden thirst that would wash over him, the shrunken cock, the uncontrollable tremors occasionally shaking his body. For an instant, for just a fraction of a second, the thought ran through his mind that in other circumstances, in a different universe of revolving doors, Cobra could have been him.

(Translation by Ralph Mandel)

“Traitor” was written by a high-ranking member of the Israeli intelligence community, using the literary persona of Jonathan de Shalit. His real name cannot be revealed.

Note from author: “Traitor” is a spy novel. It is a thriller and I hope it draws the reader into its secrets and doesn’t let go. But it is also a story of deep, impossible love. Leonard Cohen once wrote: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Love is the crack in this tough spy story. It starts as a tiny one, but then it runs, out of control, along the seams, and eventually allows the bright sunshine to shine on and unravel the most intricate intelligence operations. Light wins out ultimately, but there is a price to pay. A self-conscious homage to John le Carre, “Traitor” humbly puts at center stage wise old women and men,as the Cold War lingers in the background, while young, determined, at times violent men and women join the fight. I hope you will enjoy the chase.