Spy thrillers are always suspect, aren’t they? Either the writer is boasting about his or her expertise, or they tip over from the preposterous into parody. Not so with the thrillers of Mishka Ben-David, the first of which, Duet in Beirut, is published in English for the first time this month. For 12 years Ben-David was a Mossad operative — and it shows.
In the meticulous layering of detail about a dangerous Mossad initiative in Lebanon, Ben-David almost — but not quite — provides a handbook to the inside track of Israeli intelligence.
There is certainly the whiff of authenticity and the aura of clear and present danger. But more than that, this is a book with proper adult themes of love, patriotism, regret and shame. Living just outside Jerusalem, Ben-
David, 61, is now a full-time writer, much in demand by the media for comment on those Mossad operations which seep into the public eye. Born near Tel Aviv, both his parents came from what is now Ukraine after the Second World War. His mother spent the war years in a ghetto; his father was in a labour camp. When they decided to leave Europe for Mandate Palestine, their ship was intercepted by the British Navy and they spent two years in a British detention camp in Cyprus.
He served in a military intelligence unit during his initial army service, becoming an officer, but after the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, Ben-David stayed on for a further two years, serving as an intelligence officer of an armoured brigade, and later as commanding officer of the intelligence post on Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights.
Aged 23, Captain Ben-David left the IDF for the Hebrew University, where he completed his first degree in literature and philosophy. He then spent three years as a community shaliach in Milwaukee, where he took his master’s.
Although he had planned an academic career, returning to Israel on the eve of the first intifada, Ben-David saw a newspaper advert inviting applications for Mossad.
“I felt I wanted to do something for my country,” he recalls. “The fact that my parents were Holocaust survivors and that Israel is still not secure was definitely a part of my decision. I don’t think I would have become an MI6 or CIA agent if I had been British or American. I would most probably have continued as a lecturer and writer.” In fact, he had had five books, both novels and short stories, published before he joined Mossad.
Ben-David left the agency in 1999, having spent the last three years of his service as director of an intelligence department, with a rank equivalent to colonel, and had just been promoted to head of his division. So why did he leave?
“I decided the day my daughter enlisted in the army. I came to realise that it would become very difficult to restore the many days I was away and did not function as a father. My two younger children were still at home and I decided that I didn’t want this distance to occur with them too.”
It was not an easy decision. “It took me about a year to overcome my longings for Mossad. But they were fully replaced with good family life, writing and other activities. Now it is just a very important and cherished period of my past. This is not a job you can do without being fully committed and putting it above everything else.”
Three years after leaving the agency, he published Duet in Beirut, one of five Mossad-based thrillers he has written. It started life as a screenplay and its breathless cinematic feel makes it easy to visualise on the big screen. Ben-David is in discussion about a TV series based on his books, although he reckons it will be some time before we see his protagonists on UK television.
He is wryly aware of an international tendency to blame Mossad for everything but says he did not understand public perceptions of the agency outside Israel until he took part in a writers’ workshop when Duet in Beirut was still a script. Asked to sum up his work in one sentence, he said: “The good guys remain the good guys even if everyone around them is not good.” He was then asked: “How do we know that your characters are the good guys?” His response: “Because they are Mossad.” The reaction of his fellow writers, English and Czech, was somewhat astonished.
Duet in Beirut is a tense thriller about an expelled Mossad agent, Ronen, who disappears into Lebanon to try to make right an operation he botched the previous year. His former commander, Gadi, follows him into the field and the mental and physical struggle between the two — and the Mossad hierarchy in Tel Aviv — forms the backbone of the story. One of the book’s most interesting aspects is the debate about power and responsibility — who gives the orders and who has to obey them, no matter how stupid they may seem, particularly when they come from people who have never had to work in the field.
“In a novel I look for a conflict the protagonist may have, and for the drama,” he explains. “So I amplify possible situations which I thought of but never actually happened. I bring my heroes to extreme situations, or borderline ones, that are very rare in real life, if at all. The conflict between field agents and HQ always exists, even if the HQ people were operatives themselves in the past. The mantra is: ‘Things you see from here are not seen from there.’”
Ben-David was an operational fieldworker, meaning that he dealt with intelligence and planning, not with pulling the trigger. “When I was stationed abroad I had my quarrels with HQ and when I had an HQ position I had my differences with field agents. This is part of life.”
In publishing Duet in Beirut, Ben-David says he followed the law “very strictly and more. In addition to giving the manuscript to the government’s official censor, I also gave it to Mossad’s security for approval. I changed everything they asked, which wasn’t much, as the first and foremost censorship was the one I imposed on myself while writing.”
Nevertheless, he was aware that — if only to satisfy his former colleagues — the book had to read authentically. “The men and women who are described in the novel and their motivations, their relationships, all these are authentic. The atmosphere during an operation both in the field and at HQ or in the command room is authentic, the training and the planning process; the relationship between Mossad members and their families, etcetera.
“The book [and the ones which came after] aroused a great deal of sympathy towards the Mossad and it is often said so in articles and in emails I get. Officially, the Mossad doesn’t support any of its workers writing about it. Unofficially, they know and say that I am doing a great job for them, becoming a sort of unofficial spokesman. I did not update the methods. Espionage is the second oldest profession and its basic methods are still valid.”
Ben-David acknowledges that Israelis admire Mossad but are extremely critical of its failures. But with “an unbelievably positive ratio between success and failure”, he finds it “hard to accept the harsh criticism when one out of 1,000 operations fails. I think it has to do with the political rift in Israel and the fact that many of those in a position to criticise belong to one side and are not willing to take part in active service.”
Duet in Beirut (Halban), £8.99