A National Treasure in Bethlehem

Makor Rishon, Jonathan de Shalit, 17/1/2019

In a thriller that introduces the reader to the world of undercover intelligence, an ex-Mossad field agent goes on a private mission under a fake identity. As the book unfolds, the tensions between homeland security considerations and values and national and personal redemption ricochet to breaking point.

(Read in Hebrew)

In his first novel, The End Justifies, Yariv Inbar uncovered the world of case officers. Now, in his second release, he dives into the hidden secrets of field agents who live and operate under deep-cover. Although not a field agent or case officer, Yariv worked in an unknown role in intelligence and writes with great expertise. He successfully draws us into their world, creating a sense of authenticity without falling into the trap of too many tedious details.

The protagonist is Daniel Ben-Atar. Daniel is a new immigrant from France; he served in the IDF Duvdevan Unit and was later recruited into the Mossad. Mossad field agents, like in other intelligence organizations, do not wear uniforms. They operate undercover, carry out covert missions alone, and rely on their bravery, professional training, and absolute dedication.

The extreme demands on these agents require exceptional abilities, sometimes based on strong personality and character traits. They are supposed to be balanced by discipline and good judgment. This demand in the realm of covert operations sometimes contradicts basic human values, such as coming to the aid of people in distress, even for brothers in arms.

The hospital tunnels

On only one occasion did Daniel’s tempestuous and naive personality not meet the brutal test forced upon him as a field agent. He acted in accordance with his compassion, in complete contrast to the operational discipline required of him and paid a heavy price. He was fired from the Mossad, and in a storm of emotions, he also abandoned Yael, a fellow field agent and his pregnant fiancée. He returned to France, his life stripped of the meaning he discovered as an Israeli at the spearhead of his country’s defense.

Striving to find value in his life again and to regain a trace of the capability and competence he’d felt as a field agent, Daniel relocates to Bethlehem as an “agent” on a private operation. He fabricates a cover story that he is a French Muslim of North African origin and volunteers at a psychiatric hospital. His drive is to reveal an ancient national treasure. Daniel has discovered a sketch among his late grandfather’s papers, a man who had for many years participated in archaeological digs in Israel, with a clue that the missing treasure could be on the hospital grounds.

Daniel, now called Jalal, finds a lead through Ibrahim, an elderly Arab who has been living in the hospital for decades. Ibrahim is not mentally ill. He arrived there as a child when the building was an orphanage and somehow stayed once it became a psychiatric hospital. Everyone grew accustomed to him being there, and perhaps he, too, had adapted to become like its residents. Ibrahim told Jalal about ancient tunnels beneath the hospital grounds. What may seem like just another delusion of someone mentally disturbed aligns with the solid information Daniel has learned from his grandfather.

The volatile Temple Mount

It turns out that it isn’t just Daniel who is interested in what is going on at the hospital. The Shabak, Israel’s internal security service, has also been keeping an eye on it. Not because of lost national treasures but because of a concrete threat. The tension between a mystery of the past and current danger allows the author to tackle the question of whether, and to what extent, it is right to devote resources and endanger agents for non-security-related purposes.

The answer to this question is clear, even if the boundaries are blurred. When the IDF liberated the Old City in the Six-Day War, it was not just another strategic hill to climb. It was because Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish people. When the Mossad caught Adolf Eichmann and brought him from the end of the world to stand trial in Jerusalem, it wasn’t for security reasons but because the trial gave a voice to Holocaust survivors, forcing Israelis and the entire world to face the horrors. Israel’s security forces worked relentlessly to bring Jews to Israel not only because the immigration contributed to national fortitude – and they are indeed the greatest force multipliers we have – but because of the deep inherent value of Jewish immigration, of gathering exiles from around the world back to their homeland.

However, even in these contexts, there are complex considerations of priorities and urgency, and most of all, perceiving the overall picture. After Eichmann, Israel considerably slowed down the pursuit of Nazi criminals. Israel probably invests more than any other country in returning captured soldiers and MIAs, but also, in this matter, there are priorities and limits to resources. One place where Israel exercises particular caution is the Temple Mount. Alongside the religious, emotional, and historical importance of the place where the two temples once stood, enormous weight is given to international considerations, to Muslim rights, and halakhic sensitivities [Jewish religious laws]. Inbar successfully reflects the reluctance of the Israeli government to approach this volatile issue in a riveting encounter between Daniel and the head of the Shabak.

At the heart of Operation Bethlehem is a love story, the story of Daniel and Yael. The story of the operation around the psychiatric hospital provides the background and, in my opinion, is less important and interesting. As in his previous novel, the female character is deeper and more complex than the male. Daniel’s character is drawn in broad strokes. The forces that drive him are clear. It is fairly easy to push his buttons, and indeed, everyone does it in turn. He evokes appreciation and sometimes even admiration but much less identification and sympathy.

Between totality and sanity

Field agents operating covertly within a hostile and dangerous population develop feelings of kinship. When the weapons at their disposal are interpersonal contact, trust, and even friendship, they inevitably see their enemies as people. But this is complex; the enemy is a person, but one that must be used. And so, when Ibrahim dies of old age, Daniel – Jalal – feels real grief. “Daniel felt as if his heart was being squeezed. Ibrahim was dear to him, and his sudden passing hit him hard. He didn’t see him as an enemy, the same as with almost everyone else in Bethlehem. It was a professional choice, not personal – you can’t live among people for such a long time and look at them through a sniper’s sight. On the contrary, the friendlier and more personal the contact, the safer you’ll be. And Ibrahim, as fate would have it, was the anchor Daniel could tie to all his missions.”

One of the dangers in secret organizations is their totality. Some people cling to this all-encompassing effect with every fiber of their being; their sense of identity and self-worth is contingent on their belonging to the organization. Daniel is like this, in a way. After being fired from the Mossad, he feels that he has lost his entire world. “I was ashamed…,” he tells his interrogator, “Don’t you see? Everything I’d thought about myself burst like a balloon, and there was nothing left. I couldn’t live with being disgraced. She [Yael] was still a field agent… how could I be with her?” He experiences his expulsion from the Mossad as something that inherently threatens his personality, the person he is; he seeks to fix it through a rather crazy private mission, and I don’t know if the location at a psychiatric hospital is consciously ironic.

On an emotional level, Daniel needs a grandiose purpose, one that connects to the deepest veins of the Jewish people. Perhaps the reservations of the people around him handling the operations express balance and sanity. In any case, Yael offers Daniel a different, deep, and true personal redemption. It turns out, like in many other occurrences related to the world of shadows, that the redemption she offers is tainted. Here too, does the end justify? It seems so.