Author in the Shadows

Maariv, Mor Shimoni, 12/11/2018

After 15 years in the Israeli intelligence community serving in sensitive positions, Yariv Inbar, whose real identity cannot be revealed, decided to become an author and write novels inspired by the dangerous operations in which he participated. Now, upon the publication of his second book, Operation Bethlehem, he provides a glimpse into his time in secret service and talks about both writing and covert operations, such as the daring raid on Iran's nuclear archives. "The adrenaline in moments like that is sky-high, but you have to think about the before and after."

(Read in Hebrew)

After his debut novel came out, one day Yariv encountered a man on the train who was reading his book. He wanted to introduce himself and share that he was the author, but he couldn’t because military censorship forbids him to reveal his real identity. A man who served for years in Israel’s intelligence community, whose activities remain hidden in the shadows even from the people closest to him, once again could not take the credit that so many artists take for granted.

“When I was forbidden to reveal my real name [by the Israel Military Censorship Committee], I was actually relieved,” he says in an interview on the release of his new novel. “I’m used to doing things quietly. The fact that I use a pseudonym doesn’t affect the enjoyment of my readers; maybe it even adds to it. We all want recognition, but the question is how you get it. I’ll get my recognition when hopefully my book becomes a bestseller; if people read and enjoy it, that’s what drives me to continue writing.”

Inbar’s second novel, Operation Bethlehem, published under a pseudonym like his first novel, The End Justifies, provides another rare glimpse into the depths of Israeli intelligence and exposes a little, censorship allowing, on how intelligence officers operate. But it also opens a window into the souls of these shadow people and their daily Sisyphean lives.

“People in the intelligence community do what they do because they feel that they have to. They aren’t driven by recognition. They get credit within the organization. The organization’s culture is one of modesty. These are people who remain anonymous and humble, who believe in what they’re doing, and who are not out to get an award. It’s nice to see the results of something I did in the newspaper, and no one knows it was me. In the end, intelligence officers come home on regular commercial flights after changing planes in Europe and sit by someone who hasn’t got a clue. One is coming home from a vacation in Rome, and another from an enemy country.”

Going head-to-head with danger

Inbar (42), a married man and father of three, lives in the north of Israel. For 15 years, he served in key sensitive positions in operational divisions of the intelligence community. “Not as a field agent, but part of the outer shell,” he emphasizes. He resigned seven years ago. “I got to the stage that revolved around the politics of promotion, and it wasn’t for me,” he explains. “At the end of the day, it’s like any other organization. People are people – especially people who are very instinctive, with a sense of purpose and motivation.” Today, he is an entrepreneur and a consultant in the field of intelligence and counterterrorism. Two years ago, he added another title – author.

>How do you give up on the thrill of intelligence work?

“You get used to everything in the end. I held certain positions that others would consider very exciting, and although it is true you come to work enthusiastically, ultimately, you’re not there for the thrill; it’s exactly the opposite. People who are deemed thrill seekers aren’t accepted. You need people who are moderate, discreet, and understand the importance because in the end, you spend more time on profitless tasks than in climactic moments. I always say that in this work, 90% of the time is spent waiting. Intelligence work requires a lot of patience. You can observe the same place for an entire week, just for the second the person you’re waiting for shows up. You can ask a source for answers, and he’ll get back to you a month later. You have to know how to wait. Almost nothing is immediate. It’s not the place for people who have a problem with delayed gratification.”

>How much courage is required?

“I don’t think it’s fundamentally different from any other combat role where you are knowingly going to meet danger. In the intelligence world, you don’t walk around with a weapon or bulletproof vest, and you don’t face the enemy. On the contrary; no one knows who or what you are, and the entire purpose is to not be revealed, to not engage. On the other hand, you are alone or work in a small group, often without a weapon or the ability to be rescued, and language is your skill. A slip of the tongue can lead to a problematic situation. But you also get used to it; like in the army, in your first ambush, you’re very tense and apprehensive, but by the thirtieth or fortieth time, the tension diminishes. Everyone has some level of apprehension. You have to maintain a healthy level of tension. But fear leads to paralysis. People who are afraid don’t believe in their capabilities and training enough.”

>How does the family deal with this kind of work?

“Most of the years that I was in active service, I didn’t have a family of my own, but I served with other people who did. Usually, people don’t share too much and don’t want to bother or cause stress. I think families are always aware that there’s something in the background, but that you don’t constantly live in danger. In the end, life is pretty much in the shadows, secretive; the family doesn’t know. It depends on the person. A lot of the relationships were built as part of the intelligence community, so it seems natural. I’m sure the spouse of a commander of an infantry company worries much more.”

In all his years of service, Inbar never imagined that one day he’d write books. “It surprised not only me but also everyone around me. I’d never written before. I didn’t know I had it in me. When I left the intelligence community and became a civilian, I left the bubble and started to see things differently. It changed my perspective. I realized that people here in Israel regard operational and security decision-making processes as closed to questions, certain that everything is efficient and practical, and that just isn’t the case.”

Inbar left a few months before the release of Gilad Shalit in October 2011. Shalit is a former IDF soldier who was captured and held captive by Hamas for over five years. Strong feelings about the complex situation of a kidnapped soldier drove him to write his first book, The End Justifies, which deals with a similar situation. “I felt I had to write about it,” he says. “I was in the inner circles of the incident. I sat with Prime Ministers, Defense Ministers, and Cabinet members, and I was very concerned about the system of considerations. You have to keep in mind that everyone is human. The first time I prepared for a meeting with the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, I was excited. Although the plot of the novel is fictional, I tried to get across a sense of what happens behind the scenes, how the moves are made.”

>What did you think about the Shalit deal?

“You can’t base an opinion on principles in such cases – whether or not terrorists are released. It’s complicated. The situation unfolds in such a way where you know that in the past we released terrorists, so what can you do differently now? You can make laws, but the other side isn’t interested in our laws. But if you know that the decision to release them will be made at some point, then you shouldn’t wait for so long.”

>Does writing come easily for you?

“I really enjoyed the writing process. Some authors describe it as Sisyphean and painful. I have no idea what they’re talking about. I’m happy when I write. Entering the world that’s only in your head and creating it – the characters, the plot, the scenes. To put the words in each character’s mouth that lead to the outcome. It’s fascinating. Especially in the thriller and espionage genres. You have to maintain a certain level of tension about what will happen and mystery regarding what has already occurred. You immerse yourself; you live with the characters and you think like them. The writing doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at the keyboard. It can happen in the shower or when you’re running. The characters start to talk, and then you get it out on the page. In Israel, you don’t make a living from it, so you work during the day and write at night because its a need.”

Not James Bond

If Inbar’s first book, The End Justifies, dealt with the homeland security decision-making processes to reveal how these fateful decisions aren’t always made from purely practical considerations, Operation Bethlehem shows Inbar’s desire to question the legitimacy of the state to use intelligence entities to deal with matters not purely security-related.

The protagonist is Daniel, a Mossad field agent who is dismissed from the organization due to a mistake and loses everything, including the woman he loves. Years later, he initiates a personal operation that aims to restore meaning to his life: penetration into enemy territory and the discovery of a hidden treasure of great national importance. In the same context, only recently a special Mossad operation made headlines to retrieve the wristwatch of the Israeli spy Eli Cohen, who was executed in 1965.

“I choose topics I’m passionate about,” says Inbar. “The protagonist does something stupid and is thrown out of the Mossad. His life deteriorates. After hitting rock bottom, he goes on a mission to find a treasure; he thinks he knows where it’s hidden. The background deals with engaging in a non-security-related operation. To intensify the discussion, I chose items whose meaning and significance are unquestionable, the very exposure of which could be devastating. For years, the intelligence community has dealt with various issues that are not security-related, such as smuggling Torah scrolls, retrieving historical artifacts, and bringing Jews to Israel. The question arises: should intelligence operators be put at risk for this purpose? Who actually decides? The moral standard should always be questioned. If it isn’t clear and the value of a certain operation can’t be determined, then you have to question its necessity.”

>What was the reaction of the intelligence community to the novel?

“People like to read about what they do. I spoke to a friend, a former field agent, and he was thrilled when he read the book. He said that beyond the interest in reading about things he’d done in the past, he felt that he benefited from people learning about what we do. What spoke to him the most was the glimpse into daily life. It’s important for me to be authentic, not to write about James Bond’s adventures. It has to be believable. So, the plot is fictional, but it’s made up of many true incidents, feelings, and thoughts, without revealing operational methods but dealing with the essence of events. For example, in a story where a man crosses the border with a fake identity, I’m not revealing anything, but it is based on real events. The same goes for stories about assassinations or infiltration.”

One of the major operations this year that stirred up emotions in both the Israeli intelligence community and the entire country was the secret Mossad raid in the Iranian nuclear archive, smuggling all the files into Israel and exposing it to the world. “Intelligence officers weren’t overwhelmed,” says Inbar, “There is no doubt that this was an extraordinary operation, but the operational element of infiltrating a certain place, that’s something that happens all the time. Most people who saw the press conference (in which the Prime Minister presented the documents) thought about the people who entered the safe. But real life isn’t that single high point. What people on the outside don’t think about is that this world isn’t built on operational high points. As I said, 90% of the time is spent waiting.

“It’s true that the adrenaline in moments like that is sky-high,” adds Inbar, “but you have to think about what happened before and after. People arrived in the area a few days before, wandered around under a fake identity, and convinced the people around them that they had a reason to be there. They had to get there. They might have taken a taxi or ridden a bike. And let’s say that in this operation participated a field agent whose wife was pregnant and due any day. No one could replace him. And that same field agent is in a ‘business’ meeting with the subject in an enemy country. He’s making small talk that’s all under a fake identity, he talks about his fictional wife who works for an insurance company in England, and all the while, he’s thinking, ‘Dammit, my wife is due any minute,’ but he has to project business as usual.

“With everything that man is going through, he’s in a hostile environment, and he has to present a false front down to the level of body language. But in the actual moment when he’s inside that safe, alone with the other field agents, the work is purely technical. That’s when he is free to be himself. In a few minutes, he’ll be out of there and will have to make that switch in his head back to his fake identity. He has to remain sharp, to think one step ahead. Just before he returns to the field, he reminds himself of his cover story. In the novel, I try to describe things as they truly are. Not like in Hollywood, but the way it really happens.”