For retired Israeli spy Mishka Ben-David, writing fiction was a realization of artistic aspirations he had long suppressed.
Ben-David had a doctorate in Hebrew literature and four books published when the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad recruited him in 1987. He agreed to avoid the authorial limelight as he embarked on a career of surveillance and subterfuge, including a role in Israel's botched assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Jordan in 1997.
He says he stepped down after 12 years to spend more time with his family and resume writing. But Mossad stayed with Ben-David and features in half of the books that followed.
The first, “Duet in Beirut,” has been translated into English (Halban Publishers), with another two - "Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg" and "Last Stop Algiers" - to follow.
Ben-David, 61, spoke to Reuters at his home near Jerusalem about the benefits and drawbacks of taking creative inspiration from real-life espionage.
Q: To what extent do your spy novels reflect real events?
A: I am careful not to write anything that could disclose actual Mossad missions or tradecraft, though the portrayal of the kind of people who work there, their dilemmas and deliberations, the interaction between the command and field units, are accurate.
Some of my fictional devices - say, the undercover tactical unit sent into Lebanon in "Duet in Beirut", or the way the protagonist in "Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg" is required to carry out an assassination, ad hoc, without having gone through the rigorous training that would demand - simply do not happen in Mossad. There's a good deal of fabrication.
Q: Do you therefore sensationalize your story lines?
A: There might be a small element of bringing the fictional spies into line with reader expectations of how people in this line of work would look, and what they would be capable of. But in reality there's no such thing as James Bond, and Le Carre's Smiley is also an extreme portrayal, at the unassuming other end of the dramatic spectrum. My characters, like real Mossad people, are somewhere between James Bond and Smiley.
Paradoxically, I would say that what Mossad really does is much more demanding, much more dangerous, and much more mind-bogglingly creative than what you get to read about. The fact you don't read about it is a gauge of its successful execution.
When I write about Mossad, it's because that's where I worked and it's what I know. Had I been a teacher or a hi-tech executive, I'd write about those kinds of characters instead - but with the same human intensity and quality.
Q: You say that during Mossad's attempt to kill Mashaal with poison, your job was to wait in an Amman hotel with the antidote in hand in case one of the assassins was accidentally contaminated. The Jordanians captured the hit team and you were ordered by your superiors to give them the antidote so Mashaal's life could be saved. Did such twists of fate find their way into your fiction?
A: Not directly. But during my various assignments, when a situation presented itself that I thought had dramatic potential, I would make a note of it - literally writing myself a memo on the back of a business card or whatever came to hand.
At the end of my tenure, I had 60 of these notes, waiting to be strung together into storylines. "Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg" is the product of three of these. One posed a situation where a woman leaves her husband, who is in Mossad, because he breaks his promise to her not to carry out assassinations. The second, a dislocated Mossad officer who, while abroad, falls in love with the wrong woman and wants to stay with her despite the orders of his superiors. And the third, a Mossad man who becomes so enamored of his foreign cover that he is reluctant to 'go back' to being Israeli.
Q: Did your proclivity for fiction interfere with your Mossad work, where getting solid data and being a reliable informant are so essential?
A: There was never any clash between the two, because while I was in Mossad I would not have been temperamentally capable of writing. When I write I need utter concentration, for uninterrupted hours on end, as I delve into myself. My Mossad tasks were constantly focused on the outside world - the mission, the agents, the environment.
Q: Does Mossad have to approve your books?
A: By law, yes, as does the military censor's office and the civil service. Apart from one manuscript that was held up for more than six months while it was being vetted, I've not had any major problems in this regard.
On one occasion, Mossad asked me to change the make of a car that I had described as taking part in a fictional mission, because it was a little too close to the real thing.
The defense establishment also had a problem with the original location for my book "Last Stop Algiers", which was not Algeria and was a place considered politically sensitive. So I sat with the official and went over a Middle East map, running through the various capitals. Beirut, I had already written about. Amman, I had enough of in real life. Finally we agreed on Algiers, and I rewrote the manuscript accordingly. I've had no problem with Mossad.
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