| RAMAT RAZIEL, Israel
RAMAT RAZIEL, Israel Oct 22 For retired Israeli
spy Mishka Ben-David, writing fiction was a realisation 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 Meshaal 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 sensationalise 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
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 Meshaal 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 Meshaal's
life could be saved. Did such twists of fate find their way into
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 enamoured 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 defence 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.
(editing by Tom Pfeiffer)