“Duet in Beirut” by Mishka Ben-David (translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg). Halban Publishers, 389 pages, £8.99 (paperback)
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The spy game reluctantly came in from the cold in 2013, thanks mainly to the efforts of the aptly named Edward Snowden. Yet while America’s National Security Agency and Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6) had to take cover from the “friendly ire” of Western governments whom they’d been spying upon – one major player was largely absent from the news last year.
In fact, you were as likely to read about the Mossad in the arts section as in the news pages. The Israeli film “Kidon” borrowed the name of the espionage agency’s alleged assassination unit and its most recent notorious act – the 2010 assassination of Hamas’ Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai – and tried to turn it, of all things, into a comedy (the movie flopped in Israel).
Then there was the 4 million-shekel ($1.2 million) lawsuit brought by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman against Michal Bar-Zohar and Nissim Mishal, authors of best-selling tome “Mossad: The Great Operations of Israel’s Secret Service.” And while the revelations about the 2010 suicide of purported Mossad agent Ben Zygier (“Prisoner X”) dominated hard-news headlines last spring, by the end of the year, the Australian’s dramatic story was itself set to be dramatized for television.
The success of nonfiction books about the Mossad highlights the fascination that Israel’s overseas spy agency (full name: The Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) exerts around the world. Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman described it best in their book “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars,” where they write: “Just as the Statue of Liberty and McDonald’s became snappy synonyms for America, ‘Mossad’ has become an internationally recognized Israeli brand.”
International interest in the Mossad is hardly surprising, with the agency’s audacious methods – poisoned chocolates and exploding cell phones, to name but two – often seeming to be lifted from the pages of a pulp thriller themselves. “We try never to use the same method twice. Our technicians spend all their time devising new ways to kill,” a Mossad agent once told Gordon Thomas, author of “Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad.”
Mishka Ben-David knows all about the methods of “the institution,” having spent, by his own admission, 12 years working for the Mossad, between 1987 and 1999. Following in the fleet footsteps of John Le Carre and former MI5 head Dame Stella Rimington, Ben-David swapped the “world’s second-oldest profession” for the less-pressured pursuit of novel-writing, where the greatest dangers are presumably writer’s block, repetitive strain injuries and the distractions of daytime TV.
Ben-David, 61, has penned five spy thrillers in his native Hebrew, with “Duet in Beirut,” the first to be translated into English. (Two subsequent novels, “Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg” and “Final Stop, Algiers,” are also set for translation, so let’s hope there’s still time to come up with slightly more sophisticated titles.) “Beirut” was originally published in 2002, but despite the lengthy interval between the two versions, nothing feels dated about the story. And although Ben-David doesn’t specify a time period for his thriller, that’s irrelevant given that the clock in Israel is always stuck on zero hour anyway.
When operations go wrong
What is significant is the story Ben-David focuses on. Forget the “derring-Jew” exploits of the Mossad lovingly glorified in nonfiction. Ben-David is more interested in when operations go wrong. Seriously wrong. He told British weekly The Observer last October that the ratio of failed missions to successful ones “is about one to 1,000,” but he’s got special reason to care about a singular event triggering numerous repercussions.
Ben-David told Yedioth Ahronoth that he had been part of a five-man Mossad team involved in arguably the agency’s most ignoble failure: the 1997 attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal, the political head of Hamas. (Mossad agents were caught by the Jordanian authorities in Amman after putting poison in Meshal’s left ear in a street-corner attack, paralyzing him almost immediately. Ben-David said that it was he himself who had to hand over the antidote to save Meshal’s life when the Jordanians threatened to execute the captured spies.)
That’s a novel in itself, but of course Ben-David signed a confidentiality clause before a book deal, so you won’t get anything quite so dramatic in “Duet in Beirut.” Instead, the author focuses on two Israeli agents, Gadi and Ronen, and the aftermath of a failed Mossad assassination attempt on a senior Hezbollah operative in the Lebanese capital. When a commission of inquiry finds Ronen at fault for the operation’s failure and removes him from active duty, he takes it upon himself to complete the mission. This leaves his commander, Gadi, in the unusual position of having to try and stop an attack on the Hezbollah officer responsible for many suicide bombings in Israel.
Although the spy agency has been credited with several high-level Hezbollah assassinations in Beirut over the years, Ben-David says the events described in his novel are all made up. Even though the plot is fictitious, there’s no doubting the authenticity of his depiction of the agents and their modus operandi.
Ben-David has said his role at the Mossad involved intelligence-gathering and planning, not any actual killings, and that shines through in the details. You understand the nervousness of even an experienced agent as he arrives at a foreign airport, about to go behind enemy lines; the tactics employed during a stakeout, where “the only weapons available” to a spy are his “quiet demeanor, ability to blend in with his surroundings, and his smile or eloquence when dealing with aroused suspicions.”
The author also handles the action scenes with aplomb. The description of how to apply a chop to the neck, rendering the victim unconscious but not dead, is a lovely detail, but please, kids, don’t try this at home (and, yes, that message is specifically aimed at my own children).
“The Mossad doesn’t take natural-born killers or thieves,” Ben-David’s protagonist, Gadi, muses at one point. “They take nice boys and teach them to lie, break in, kill. And there’s a price to pay for that.”
The writer himself was in the midst of pursuing a doctorate in Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, when he was recruited in the 1980s, and it’s clear that he’s still rooting for Team Mossad, whose members he sees as the good guys in a bad world.
The real bad guys here are those who put self-interest before their country: the sleazy journalists looking to expose the agency’s missteps and to further their own careers; the members of commissions of inquiry seeking to make a name for themselves rather than acknowledging the patriotically motivated actions of their agents (in Israel, commissions of inquiry arrive with far more regularity and predictability than the local train service); and the political higher-ups who rush into operations for self-serving reasons and then leave the agents high-and-dry when things go wrong.
Ben-David mentions the concept of “criminal tenacity” many times, accusing Israel’s leaders of damaging the Mossad’s reputation as a punctilious organization by forcing it to take greater risks for questionable rewards. Interestingly, he makes his (unseen) prime minister a military man, which would rule out direct references to Benjamin Netanyahu, who was actually at the helm during that botched Meshal assassination – and whose wife, Sara, was famously rumored to have ordered the Mossad to check how often the bedding was changed in the homes of ambassadors who might be hosting her and her husband during state visits.
It’s telling that there’s only one Arab “character” in the book, and that’s the city of Beirut itself. For the battle within “Duet in Beirut” is not between Jew and Arab, but between Israelis themselves, living in a permanent state of denial about their geographical location, hermetically sealing themselves off from the Arab world. (The only other “Arabs” here are the Mossad operatives known as mista’aravim, agents who pass themselves off as locals during missions in Middle Eastern countries.) The only hand-wringing evident here regards Israel’s treatment of its own unseen “heroes,” not over the government’s intransigence in seeking peace with its Arab neighbors.
Even allowing for the limitations of the genre, Ben-David’s depiction of women seems to encapsulate former Mossad director Meir Amit’s view that “sex is a woman’s weapon.”
You’d be hard pressed to remember one thing about the physical characteristics of the men here, but there are lascivious paeans to the women’s physiques and attire. There are probably transcripts of Mossad interrogations displaying more subtlety.
The novel’s roots in an abandoned film screenplay shine through, with the action sequences unfolding at a particularly fast and enjoyable pace. A TV series is also reportedly in the works, although the book’s tone suggests something more like “Bravo Two Zero” than “Homeland.”
Fans of spy thrillers will find plenty to enjoy in “Duet in Beirut,” while fans of Israel’s espionage agency will find even more. While so many journalists have gone out of their way to promote the legendary Mossad, Ben-David has veered toward an almost mundane version. And given such unbelievable-yet-true stories such as “Project Ulysses” – in which, in the 1950s, Mossad agents reportedly embedded themselves in Arab communities for up to 15 years, even marrying there and having children – that was arguably the author’s smartest piece of intelligence.
The writer is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.