The women exposing Mossad's secrets

A new play reveals how Israeli agents used sex to trap the mastermind behind the attack at the Munich Olympics

By John Nathan, October 11, 2011
Spy mission: Orly Rabinyan (left) and Julia Pascal

Spy mission: Orly Rabinyan (left) and Julia Pascal

For most of us it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which we would kill for our country. But what drives a person not only to kill in cold blood, but to do it for someone else's country?

This is one of the questions that writer/director Julia Pascal has carried with her ever since a chance meeting with a retired Swedish nurse whose occupation outside her day job was to meet terrorists, sleep with them, and then kill them. And she did not do it for Sweden, she did it for Israel.

It is a question that Pascal, whose plays include The Holocaust Trilogy, has attempted to answer with her latest work, Honeypot, which opened at London's New Diorama Theatre this week. Unsurprisingly, Pascal's heroine has a fictional name and background even though the woman who inspired the character died four years ago.

"I don't want to endanger people," says Pascal. "There are still people alive who are connected to her."

Sitting next to Pascal in a central London rehearsal room is the young Israeli director, Orly Rabinyan. The two first worked together on Pascal's play Crossing Jerusalem. But this is Rabinyan's London debut as the director of a fully staged production.

Set in 1982, Honeypot takes its name from the kind of secret service operation that uses attractive agents to trap or kill wanted men. It was a method that Mordechai Vanunu, the man who passed Israel's nuclear secrets to a British newspaper, claims was used by Mossad to capture him. The story goes that after what appeared to Vanunu to be a chance meeting with a young blonde woman in Leicester Square, Cindy, as she was called, persuaded him to travel with her to Rome where Vanunu was abducted and taken back to Israel.

The blonde in Pascal's play is known as Susanne to the man she has been sent to kill. He is the brains behind Black September's terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972, resulting in the murder of 11 Israeli athletes.

"It was very strange telling agents that I want a really beautiful blonde," says Pascal, who is now talking about theatrical agents, not the secret service kind. "It felt like sexist casting. But that's what the story is."

She couldn't walk down the street without men flocking

"But it works. The story is partly about a dark man and a blonde woman," adds Rabinyan, referring to the two-hander's main characters of Susanne, played by the very fair Jessica Claire, and tough Mossad controller Kobi, played by the relatively swarthy Paul Herzberg. Herzberg also plays Susanne's target, a Palestinian jet-setting charmer who goes by the name of Joseph Assad.

Pascal has vivid memories of the woman she met in the late 1980s in Israel. "She looked like Ingrid Bergman. She was very blonde. It was very interesting to write a character based on a woman who is that beautiful and that sensational. She couldn't walk down the street without men flocking - it's that level of attraction."

Although it was said that the Swedish woman was Jewish, Pascal had her doubts - until it emerged that she had converted from Swedish Protestantism. Her motivation for working for Mossad was, says Pascal, bound up in a sense of guilt.

"She talked lot about being a privileged Swedish child who had grown up at the end of the war. And that she hadn't suffered and that Jews had suffered and that she wanted to do something for Israel. She had been to Israel, fell in love with the place, and had decided to volunteer."

This is not the first time Israel's response to the Munich attack has been written about. Stephen Spielberg's 2005 movie Munich dramatised the Israeli operation to wipe out the Black September team behind the attack. The film, and particularly those parts of Tony Kushner's script that some supporters of Israel thought was too sympathetic to the Palestinians, received a lot of criticism. Was Pascal aware of these issues as she sat down to write Honeypot?

"I was very conscious of the film and it affected me quite deeply. But it doesn't really go into the same territory. Honeypot is not the same story. I am much more interested in Susanne's search for identity. Because I've met a lot of people who look towards Israel as an identity even though they are not Jewish. And what also interests me is, when does the cycle of revenge stop? The eye for an eye, which is a biblical concept, in a way is being played out in the 21st century by both sides. At what point do you stop and say enough? And that's sort of what I feel. There has to be a point when you stop. The cycle of killing is just too terrible. It's too much loss."

While preparing for the production, Rabinyan spoke to people connected to Mossad about honeypot methods. "It's not just about sex", she explains. "There is an emotional element. The female agent has to be warm enough for there to be a promise to the target of a future life with her. And also the amount of psychological analysing that goes into the operation - both by the agent on her target, and by the Mossad controller on the agent - is something which I found very interesting."

Mossad is a subject that has yet to be explored to any great extent by Israeli theatre. Pascal and Rabinyan would like the play to be the first attempt.

"When I told Israelis about Honeypot…" Rabinyam takes sharp breath, to illustrate their response. "We Israelis have that instinct that a play about Mossad may not good for the country. We are programmed not to want to mess with Mossad. But people were very intrigued by the idea And some of the actors I know said: 'Yeah, I want to play a Mossad agent'."

'Honeypot' runs until October 30 at the New Diorama Theatre, London NW1. Tel: 020 7383 9034

Last updated: 4:18pm, October 12 2011