Redemption in the Fields of Bethlehem

Haaretz, Guy Horowitz, 25/04/2019

Operation Bethlehem is entertaining, intriguing, and very readable, and Yariv Inbar – whatever his real identity is – positions himself among the best thriller novelists writing in Hebrew.

(Read in Hebrew)

Daniel Ben-Atar is not the most talented or successful Mossad field agent to whom we’ve been introduced in Israeli literature in recent years. In fact, a specific weakness makes him a problematic agent. After his Achilles heel – an over-developed sense of justice and drive to protect women in distress at any price – led to a botched operation, the skilled field agent found himself outside the organization. Under extreme emotional distress, he is in voluntary exile far from Israel, the country he has sacrificed so much for that no longer wants his service.

Yariv Inbar’s second novel, the gripping thriller Operation Bethlehem, starts at the end of the protagonist’s official career. Daniel, a new immigrant from France who had always dreamed of living in Israel, decides to go on a private intelligence mission in search of a treasure he has learned about from his late grandfather’s papers. He is convinced that finding this treasure will bring meaning to his life and perhaps even help him regain professional respect and his self-esteem. However, his weaknesses as an agent and as a man once again put his life in danger – this time without his country at his back.

Yariv Inbar is the pen name of a former member of the Israeli intelligence community. As in his first book, The End Justifies, censorship forbids him from using his real name. The recent abundance of books with the stamp of censorship does not indicate a tightening of control over original fictional literature – perhaps on the contrary. The involvement of official defense agencies in book content and at publication provides government-sanctioned authentication and validation for authors whose past or present positions cannot be made public. Statements such as “denied or delayed publication” and “revised by order of censor” are top-tier marketing messages, although MPs, ministers, and senior officials in the defense establishment are gradually undermining the view that it is better to keep these secrets. Sometimes it seems as if the country’s leadership attaches less importance to real operational secrets and devotes a great deal of time to local spy literature.

Operation Bethlehem is gripping despite the many holes in the plot present almost from the beginning. It’s difficult to dispute the credibility of spy plots starring the Mossad because fact, as the cliché goes, is sometimes stranger than fiction, and for the average reader, it’s difficult to identify if the plot is realistic. However, similar to pornography, it is easy to identify an unbelievable plot when encountered – and Operation Bethlehem walks a fine line between credible and unrealistic. Yariv Inbar, it is hinted, spent many years at the operational front of one of Israel’s intelligence agencies, so he has firsthand knowledge of and access to “the real thing.” But Inbar is the first to admit that his closeness to the subject was problematic for the credibility of the story. In his acknowledgments, he writes, “Readers may find ‘distortions’ in the story forced on the author as a condition for publication. Ironically, an author with no security background would not have gone through this approval process and could have published more realistic descriptions.”

Despite its limitations, the novel is not disappointing. The structure is fairly schematic but includes some twists and turns that can surprise even experienced readers. The conclusion, with its abundance of predictable elements, ties things up nicely and is not jarring as is often the case in “popular” spy literature. Daniel is a character that evokes sympathy; his back story of immigrating to Israel and his attempts to integrate serve the psychological background and the main plot line. The character of “Roni” the field agent, not without cliché, has a depth that is not typical of secondary characters in the genre.

Right after the opening chapter, which follows Daniel’s training as a Mossad field agent, Inbar jumps five years ahead and leaves the reader to complete the puzzle. How did the skilled and experienced Daniel find himself at the heart of a Palestinian city with a fake French-Arab identity, cut off and isolated from his family, and how is all that connected to his relationship with Roni? Inbar leads the reader on a winding path, perhaps a bit too long, to solve the puzzle of Daniel’s character. Gradually it becomes clear that Operation Bethlehem [Hebrew title: The Split] is not just about a narrow hole found on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital in Bethlehem, but about a deep emotional split that led Daniel on a baseless intelligence mission with no safety net.

In the summer of 1981, shortly after Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor, a no less powerful bomb was neutralized under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Having been previously blocked off, excavations in the Western Wall Tunnel reached Warren’s Gate and were conducted secretly under the supervision of the Rabbi of the Western Wall, Meir Yehuda Getz, for one month before the word was leaked to the media and halted by the Waqf. In September that year, the tunnel was sealed by the Muslims, but not before Israel was accused of attempting to damage the foundations and cause the collapse of the Temple Mount. Almost 40 years after the events of that summer, no one knows what findings, perhaps treasures, were discovered hidden beneath the Temple Mount.

The story of Warren’s Gate, which inspired the novel, demonstrates the degree of volatility of Jewish archaeological findings in the middle of Palestinian territory. Daniel perhaps seeks to redeem his reputation, but he ignores the wider context of his independent mission, and when he is forced to confront the complex reality, the “split” in his personality grows. Determined not to give up on the thread that connects him and the land of Israel, he continues to endanger himself and put his life and that of others at risk.

Inbar doesn’t share with the reader his protagonist’s soul searching, or perhaps expects us to accept as fact the complete lack of doubt regarding the importance of his mission, at the price of turning Daniel into a kind of cliché. He is the new immigrant from France, apparently with right-wing political views, who is unwilling to give up on the chance to expose Jewish treasures on Palestinian land even if the risks are clear. “I came to Israel so that I would have a common identity with my people, my brothers,” Daniel says in one of his attempts to convince others, “but you Israelis don’t have to think about it. You were born here, and to you, it’s clear that this is our homeland. You don’t understand that it’s not something that can be taken for granted.”

The previous quote was taken from a dialog, one of many which could easily have been tighter and more effective. It is generally accepted that good books are not just well-written but also well-edited. Unfortunately for Inbar, imperfect editing kept him from a literary achievement that aligns with his talent and the book’s inherent potential. Operation Bethlehem lacks rhythm, it is wordy in places where it could have and should have been much shorter (especially the first part), and there are puzzling choices such as reflecting the thoughts and feelings of some of the characters through dialog that could have been more realistic or hinted at, and especially a lack of consistency in Daniel’s character.

Most readers will have met quite a few new immigrants from France in their 20s and could likely imagine how Daniel sounds when he speaks Hebrew with an accent. The grammatical mistakes and traces of accent that are revealed under stress are disconnected and unrealistic, and together with the weak connections in the plot, give the sense of a somewhat “half-baked” story.

To the author’s credit, just like the protagonist, he successfully overcomes the complex starting point and obstacles on the way to achieve his goal and complete his mission. Operation Bethlehem is entertaining, intriguing, and very readable, and Yariv Inbar – whatever his real identity is – positions himself among the best thriller novelists writing in Hebrew.