Book review: The Spy’s Gamble

Howard Kaplan’s new novel revolves around the search for an Israeli prime minister who goes missing after a submarine ride

Howard Kaplan (photo credit: Courtesy)
Howard Kaplan
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“The Spy’s Gamble” races through actual events in Israel in 2016-2017.
As author Howard Kaplan has done in  his earlier thrillers, he moves fictional characters through recent headlines and unearths details not previously reported. In this, his fourth novel, early on, we witness the tragedy of Shuafat, the forgotten UNRWA Arab refugee camp in East Jerusalem so tempestuous that is unsafe for Israeli fire fighters to enter. Kaplan portray a young local Palestinian civil rights and youth group leader, Baha Nabata, who trained with Israeli fire fighters and returned to Shuafat to teach volunteers there how to extinguish blazes. Near midnight in May 2016, Nabata and many of his followers were repairing the main road, when a motorcyclist raced by him and fired ten bullets at Baha Nabata – seven struck him and ended his life. Beloved by the youth who followed him like a pied piper, yet others in the UNRWA camp deemed him a collaborator.
In no small feat, Kaplan’s novels are routinely praised by the Israeli, Jewish, Arab and mainstream press.  In seeking what’s actually happening on the ground, a balance organically appears on the page.  Al-Fajr the Palestinian weekly, wrote about Kaplan’s earlier book, “Bullets of Palestine.” 
“In a conflict where both sides have tended to dehumanize the other, Kaplan has created two extremely human characters – one Palestinian, the other Israeli. In observing such a fictional relationship I found myself looking at the Israelis that I came across this week in a slightly different manner. I found I wanted to try and shed some of the stereotypes that living on one side of the conflict had given me.”
In “The Spy’s Gamble,” the Palestinian novelist and former terrorist, Ramzy Awwad, now in his 70s, is teaching Middle East literature at UCLA as a visiting lecturer, when he’s approached by an Israeli agent, Eli Bardin, sent by Ramzy’s old friend, and sometimes foe, Shai Shaham now deputy director of the Mossad.  Israel has purchased a submarine from America with new stealth technology.  Israel’s prime minister, Uri Gutman, bearing  a striking resemblance to Benjamin Netanyahu, has boarded the submarine in Norfolk for a celebratory ride except the submarine fails to return.  Shai is asking if Ramzy will put his ear to the Palestinian ground for a clue to who has either kidnapped the prime minister or is after the new sub technology or both.  Ramzy’s ties to the Russians run long and deep.
Ramzy reluctantly agrees to see what he can find out.  He’s hardened and burdened by his peoples’ failure to achieve a state and Bardin is not certain he can be trusted, though apparently Shai does.  In an illustrative and interesting passage as Ramzy walks through UCLA towards the visiting faculty housing in Westwood, he moves past the David Geffen Medical Center and the David Geffen Theater.  In recent years, Ramzy and his wife had been teaching in the Palestinian Yarmouk refugee camp on the Damascus outskirts until it was decimated by the Syrian Civil War. Having lived so much of his life around poverty and despair, Ramzy muses about what it must be like to be David Geffen and be able to easily fund projects that were not even dear to your heart.  A big plot surprise awaits the reader when Ramzy returns to the faculty housing and unbeknownst to him, Eli Bardin is watching his apartment himself.
In a parallel plot, with the prime minister missing, various Israeli politicians angle for power, in and outside his party, in the event the prime minister is not found.  Or might someone there be complicit in his disappearance?  Kaplan finds an interesting way to make the population’s anticipated grief at such loss palpable and one a general audience can grasp.
When a general returns home, he finds his fifteen-year-old daughter scouring Facebook to see who among her friends were friends with those killed in a Jerusalem truck ramming of cadets.  Similarly, in Sderot – so close to Gaza that the Color Red alert system typically gives only fifteen seconds warning of an incoming missile attack – children run into long concrete caterpillar shelters in the playgrounds.  In Sderot wearing seatbelts is forbidden when driving as it slows the race to bomb shelters.
However, “The Spy’s Gamble” is not Exodus part 2. This is a different era with many opportunities for peace unfulfilled along the way.  A character in the new novel relates that in Paris in 1960, he went to see the film adaptation of Leon Uris’s iconic novel starring Paul Newman.  The theater owner heard there were Israelis in line, rushed out and brought them immediately to choice seats inside.  Today the same Israelis might be afraid to stand openly in a Paris line for a film about Israel.
Kaplan depicts an Israeli military patrol in the al-Amari refugee camp in Ramallah that shows the reader what such moments are like both for the soldiers and the residents. Occasionally, while on patrol Palestinians toss small refrigerators from roofs at them. Frightened soldiers squeeze off rounds. They pass a number of triangular stone monuments their faces covered with the names of Palestinians killed in clashes with the soldiers. 
We see too a family, whose son is implicated in the submarine’s disappearance, removed from their home for questioning.  On a wall is a small photo of their daughter, in a makeshift frame glued together from matches – a shahid, a martyr who attempted to stab a soldier at a border checkpoint.  A dozen bullets ripped into her body, propelling her brother in the United States into the plot. He asks, is there no way they could not have stopped a teenage girl with a small knife without killing her?  The brother feels guilty that he had left to study in America as had he been home he could have stopped her martyrdom.
In the search of that home, Eli Bardin finds UNRWA school textbooks used by the younger siblings. In them these books for young children, celebrate jihad and praise the killing of Jews.  In the home too, Eli finds the clue he is seeking. One of the would-be candidates for prime minister lectures to Israeli officers about plurality and what it means to be a Jew in service.
The lecturer is Meir Bardin, father of Shai’s protégé, Eli Bardin who, with leads Ramzy has provided, is on the trail of the missing submarine.  Shai takes Meir Bardin on a walk through the Arab marketplace. Bardin rages at Shai. “I learned two things from the Holocaust,” he said.  “First, what can happen to a people with no power. Power is vital. On the other hand, I learned what can happen when a people with no power gets power. As happened to the Germans. The Jews have to balance between the two – the struggle to have power and the fear you’ll behave inhumanely with that power.”
Kaplan’s novels are distinguished by huge plot twists at the climax that readers rarely see coming.  His 1977 novel, “The Damascus Cover,” has been transformed into a film, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Sir John Hurt, in his last film role – as the head of the Mossad – for release in 2018. 
The film’s director, Daniel Berk, said, “Often when you read a novel, there’s great suspense along the way, cliffhangers, but the resolution, the end disappoints. In “The Damascus Cover,” the end not only doesn’t disappoint but sheds surprising light on everything that’s come before.”
“The Spy’s Gamble” and the search for the missing prime minister also ends in a greatly unexpected twist.  Novels are meant to push the envelope and challenge us.  Howard Kaplan certainly does that yet again with this one – and does so shockingly.
The writer is Director of the Israel Resource News Agency at the Center for Near East Policy Research