The Mythical Story of an Abducted Israeli Soldier

With skill and art, Yuval Elbashan imagines an Israeli political and security apparatus that has locked itself into bringing home a captive officer within one year.

Tik Metzada (The Masada Case‏), by Yuval Elbashan
Yedioth Ahronoth Books (Hebrew 367) pages, NIS 98

There’s something disorienting about reading this thriller about a soldier kidnapped by an enemy organization so soon after the return of Gilad Shalit, the IDF soldier held by Hamas for five years.

The prime minister in “The Masada Case” is a repulsive hybrid of all the prime ministers we’ve had over the last 15 years: a liar, a serial promise-breaker and a vacillator who treats journalists as though they were members of his own Byzantine court ‏(“Amikam Levy was the news director of Israeli television simply because the prime minister forced the head of the broadcast authority to appoint him.”‏).

This prime minister, however, is a scion of the Labor Movement, served in the Haganah and fought in Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, though he has long since forgotten the values he once cared about. It may be supposed that author Yuval Elbashan, a lawyer and social activist who supported Amir Peretz as Labor Party leader ‏(but later became disenchanted with him‏) and was himself a candidate of the party for the 17th Knesset ‏(but too far down on the list to have been elected‏), knows what he is talking about.

Lt. Col. Nimrod Green is a legendary commander who read “The Giving Tree” to his soldiers and preached sacrifice to them before being taken captive. As the book opens, he has been missing for nine years, during which there has been no sign of life from him. His devoted family, primarily his controlling mother, Hanna, fights for his release: posters, national rallies and media appearances. “I haven’t got much time left to live, as you know, and despite my [biblical] namesake, I haven’t got another six sons, only Nimrod,” Hanna Green says in a live broadcast with a Channel 1 news presenter whose name is, unsurprisingly, Haim ‏(like the real-life longtime Channel 1 news presenter Haim Yavin‏). “All I ask is to see him embrace his wife and two children again.”

Under the surface, however, things aren’t so simple. The admired commander is also an abusive husband ‏(the book hints that this behavior was influenced by his army service, when he and his soldiers thought they were entitled to beat Arabs‏). Deep in her heart, his beautiful, green-eyed wife Matti, who remembers her heroic husband’s fists, will not be glad to have him back.

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Who let the snakes out?

The army doesn’t know where Nimrod Green is − or even who is holding him captive or whether he is still alive − and neither does the Mossad or the prime minister. After years of searching, with an outlay of $97 million, one junior treasury official decides the time has come to stop wasting money and cancels this item in the budget. The argument is about what one gets for the money. “We can buy three armored helicopters to transport soldiers in the next war, and another sophisticated defense system that will save many lives,” the Finance Ministry official declares. “I think it’s wrong and unethical to spend this amount on the faint hope that we can save one soldier.” When his position is revealed in front of the television cameras, all hell breaks loose. Pushed into a corner, the prime minister’s spokesman finds himself promising an interviewer that the government will bring Green home within the year. Thus are all the relevant political and security officials forced to come up with a creative solution, so that the prime minister won’t be revealed as a liar yet again.

The secret plan is a peculiar one based on the following calculus: Nimrod Green’s enormous value lies in his rarity, as one of a kind. If false reports about contacts with his kidnappers suddenly emerge, the real kidnappers are likely to feel they could lose their ace in the hole and make contact themselves; their identity would be exposed and negotiations could begin. So as not to raise suspicion that the initial reports are false, everything must not only look real, it must actually be real. From this point on, things get complicated.

Books of this genre of thriller are, more often than not, written flatly, with characters based on stereotypes. It takes a skilled author to turn them into works of art filled with complex characters, which is what Elbashan, a talented writer ‏(and a frequent contributor to this paper‏) has done here. ‏(His other books include the best-selling novel “Forever Flora” and several children’s books, including one, “Sipui” published just a few months ago.‏)

I read the book with great interest, toying with the real-life parallels of characters: Who is Ronny and who is Daniel; who are the prime minister’s advisers; and who are “Akiva from Haaretz” and “Regev from Yedioth Ahronoth,” who leave messages for the prime minister’s spokesman, who refuses to call them back? And Dana from Channel 2, who is quite annoyed when she misses the scoop that goes to Channel 1? All of these will be familiar to the Israeli reader, since they are actual names of local media personalities. And of course, who are the Mossad agents and the head of the team in charge of prisoners and missing soldiers, and so on and so forth?
Yuval Elbashan is attentive to the many among us whose rights are trampled.

Earlier in his career, he established a free legal aid service for the needy, which operates to this day, and his 2004 book “Strangers in the Realm of the Law: Access to Justice in Israel” is about how the country’s legal system is virtually inaccessible to the poor, making it difficult for them to ensure their rights are upheld.

In “The Masada Case,” by contrast, he examines the elites in security, media and politics. Elbashan did not want to tell a story only about a captive soldier, but to consider the myths that guide us and to take a look at the machinery, overt and covert, of Israeli society. It is no accident that the name of the protagonist is Nimrod Green: Nimrod, the biblical rebel, the Canaanite, subject of the iconic sculpture by Itzhak Danziger, which scandalized the religious and Zionist establishments when it was created in 1939 because of its supposedly paganistic motifs. ‏(At the end of the book, Elbashan comes out and mentions the sculpture explicitly, apparently unsure that readers would take the hint.‏) And Grien was David Ben-Gurion’s name from the Diaspora before he chose a Hebrew one.

Myth of the mount

Elbashan also examines the pseudo-glorification of the value of life when we are actually celebrating death. The name of the book, and the significance of the book’s solution to the Nimrod Green dilemma, is taken from the myth of Masada. David Elazar, the ninth chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, said explicitly that in the war for the survival of the Jewish nation, it is sometimes preferable to choose death, that it’s better to fight unwinnable battles like those at Tel Hai and the Warsaw Ghetto than to die without struggle, and that the suicide of 1,000 men, women and children on the heights of Masada was preferable to falling into Roman captivity. It is no accident that IDF recruits are sworn in at Masada.

In light of the rampages by “price tag” thugs − settler attacks on Palestinians, left-wing activists, and the Israeli government and military − and by other extremists of different stripes, it is important to remember who those supposed heroes, the Masada suicides, really were. They were members of the Sicarii, a cult of zealots who climbed Masada after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem and used it as a base from which they looted neighboring communities.

Eilat Negev is the coauthor ‏(with Yehuda Koren‏) of “The First Lady of Fleet Street: The Life of Rachel Beer, Crusading Heiress and Newspaper Pioneer,” newly published in the U.S. by Random House.