The Man Who Was There

Yediot Ahronot, Elad Zeret, 23/11/2016

He was in Israeli intelligence operations and had access to the most sensitive places. Now he has published a novel on what happens behind the scenes in the secret shadow world and sheds some light on the complex relations between politicians and intelligence officers. And yes, the name Yariv Inbar is a pen name, by order of military censorship.

(Raed in Hebrew)

Even after ending a long period of holding a senior position in the intelligence community, Yariv Inbar couldn’t really shake it off.  The habits, the tension, the memories – they continued to accompany him in every moment of his new life. So, he decided to write a fictional story based on his work in the intelligence service. After passing the obstacles of censorship including the book being published under a pseudonym, the intriguing novel The End Justifies, about what happens behind the scenes in the world of espionage, is now in stores.

Inbar is a very serious guy. Meticulous and organized. He weighs every sentence, choosing his words carefully. Years after his discharge, he still shoulders the burden of his position, the covenant of secrecy that accompanies every intelligence officer. He is proud of what he did but explains that during his years in service, he was isolated from the world, like a fish in an aquarium. “Working in the intelligence community,” he says, “is in a way like living in a bubble.”

>Please explain.

“In very intensive operations, you get up in the morning, get in the car, go where you go, and you’re there until the middle of the night, if you go home at all. And it’s always the same, you’re engaged as if there is nothing else. But on the other hand, you’re working on the very thing that everyone in the country is talking about, but you don’t really encounter all the background noise. You don’t read the newspapers, you’re just busy being involved in it.”

>And that bothered you?

“At some point it was enough. Suddenly, when you disconnect from it, there’s nothing to bother you. You can go to the gym, connect with people, and exchange opinions. I ended up quitting because I reached a position that in order to advance, I would have to become a politician, and it wasn’t for me. I wanted to leave with positive feelings.”

Everyone has a price.

The End Justifies is the story of Uri, a senior intelligence officer tasked with rescuing a secret source before he is discovered. Meanwhile, an IDF soldier held by Hamas is under threat. The personal lives of those involved in the situation run alongside convoluted politics and the security of the country that is in danger. Somewhat reminiscent of the Gilad Shalit affair, the similarity is not accidental at all. More on that later.

“I’m very familiar with this world of recruiting sources,” explains Inbar, and immediately qualifies his words, saying that he was not directly involved in handling agents. “Recruiting an agent is spying, it’s someone who will provide information on his country. I’ve met tens of sources, if not more, during my service, and in the end what happens? You make a person betray everything he believes in. Not everyone is capable of that. The person has to have access to information. It could be a person who comes to you directly, but it could also be someone who you’ve identified and gathered intelligence on. They say that everyone has a price, and maybe that’s true. Because the minute you know what someone really needs, that person will be willing to do anything to get it. It’s not always about money. It’s usually much greater needs, and so you need to learn about a person to set the scene that will bring him down.”

>Like what, for example?

“It could be medical treatment for his son who has a terminal illness. You pretend to be an international organization that comes to his aid, and a second before the surgery you tell him, ‘My friend, we are Israeli intelligence, give us the information or no surgery.’ There are as many stories as there are people and triggers for recruitment.”

>In your novel, the source is convinced that he is working for the good of his country.

“Some really are convinced that their actions are for the good of their country. They say to themselves, ‘I’m not a spy.’ They believe that one day they will be recognized as someone who has done good for their country.”

>This is reminiscent of Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas leader Sheikh Hassan Yousef Halil, and one of the Shabak’s most important spies.

“That’s a very unusual story. Also, he himself said he was a Shabak agent. Really, come on. That’s what they told him. I’ve met sources that were convinced that they were IDF officers; they had some kind of ceremony, and they were given a uniform and told that they were officers. As long as they’re happy.

“Yousef’s story isn’t an example of how sources are activated. There is no doubt there was something very unusual there also in terms of the case officer. But it does exemplify what I was talking about. If such a man can go against his entire family and upbringing and betray everything, and he says he isn’t a traitor and that for him to be a member of Hamas is to betray, that’s exactly the nuance to identify when recruiting. He needs to be brought to that realization, that perception.”

>But there are clear lines?

“Not really. Take Ronen Bergman’s series of articles in ‘7 Days’ about the exploits of the KGB in Israel. According to the KGB, Israelis in senior positions, MPs, worked as KGB agents. Ask those same Israelis, and they will tell you that isn’t true. They will say we spoke with them on intellectual matters, that they were not paid, just given gifts and drinks. What’s wrong with that, they ask. But what they don’t get is that an agent doesn’t have to consciously provide information. There are all kinds of ways to extract information from people.”

The lesson not learned

Inbar ended his service in 2011, several months before Gilad Shalit was released. “The case was at its peak then,” he says. “During my service, I touched on it in various circles. As an intelligence officer, I think the case was very disturbing. Just like Ron Arad. How is it possible that the best intelligence community in the world doesn’t succeed? Where is the man? And it eats at you, it doesn’t go away.”

So Inbar, 39, whose real name is not allowed to be published as is the intelligence unit he served in, can’t stop thinking about those days even long after. About the politics that were a part of the operational decisions, the high price the position exacts from intelligence personnel. The lesson that wasn’t learned. He let it all out in his debut novel.

“The Gilad Shalit affair bothered me most after I left, which was in March 2011. I tried to figure out why. I had a lot of time, and I wanted to understand – what were the interests of the leadership, what was happening here, and who were we waiting for? It was clear that in the end they would release prisoners. Haven’t we done that before?”

>Was it really clear that in the end they would release prisoners in exchange for the return of Gilad Shalit?

“Yes, just like in the past. But if you ask me, the waiting time until the exchange stems from prioritization. For the political side, it only creates problems. How will you be viewed if you let them go? I’ve been where the decisions are made, and you can always see when they realize they have to make a decision. When? When public pressure reaches such intensity that you can no longer bear it without paying the price.

“There are many interests involved—struggle, family, pressure, etc. In the end, it was public pressure that brought about the release. Gilad Shalit was released while I was writing the book, I was 40 pages in, and I said, f**k, they ruined my story! I left it for a while, but then I realized that it was a very central issue, and it will happen again. The issue of a kidnapped soldier stirring up the public. It’s a heavy topic. A topic that has a huge impact on the state.”

>How much does an affair like that really disturb the intelligence community?

“Very much. Although it isn’t the biggest disaster because it isn’t an existential threat. It’s not the Iranian nuclear program, but there is no doubt it is disturbing. You see what it does to the country. You free hundreds if not thousands of terrorist prisoners. They will always try to abduct; they are always motivated.”

It’s not an ambush by the Golani Brigade

Inbar grew up in the north of Israel, attended the military boarding school in Haifa, and enlisted in the paratroopers. During his service, he was transferred to the intelligence unit, where he served for many years in key sensitive positions until he realized that in order to advance, he would need to devote a lot of time to internal politics and not just operations, so he retired. Today Inbar is an entrepreneur and intelligence consultant. He is married and the father of two daughters.

“I was never at the senior echelon that determines policy,” he explains. “My experiences with the political leadership come from the tactical side of certain activities, but it’s not just another operation like an ambush by the Golani Brigade. The critical activities I engaged in required the approval of the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.”

>In the novel, you describe, among other things, the tension between the government and intelligence bodies.

“During my years of service, I presented what I knew to government leaders. I answered their questions. There are no games. You are with high-ranking officials, like the Minister of Defense, etc., and politics gets involved. I served at the time of Olmert’s administration, and I saw the tensions between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense. Some politicians understand, some not so much, and some get into the finer points. Olmert, for example, greatly impressed me with his questions.”

>How much does the Intelligence branch take into consideration government criticism?

“Of course, they take it into account, that’s our profession. But we don’t let the criticism filter in. The organization has an opinion, and it stands. In the Shalit case, that manifested itself very well. How is it possible that the head of Shabak, Yuval Diskin, presented a very clear opinion regarding the exchange deal based on the intelligence map, research, and the complete picture, and suddenly, after he is replaced, there is a different organizational opinion? How can that be? How can the intelligence picture change just like that?”

>How does it really happen?

“Intelligence is facts. But ultimately, the recommendation comes from the upper levels. My feeling is that what is at the bottom doesn’t always come up as it should. Everyone knows how to present things to suit their purpose. Can’t you change the truth? Try to spin it or present it differently, it will get in the back door. As the case with Shalit. It doesn’t matter how long you drag it out, what was supposed to happen happened.”

>Did the Intelligence branch fail in the Shalit abduction?

“The general public believes that for five years, Hamas held a soldier captive and no one knew where he was. Whether or not the intelligence community actually knew – it’s just speculation because, of course, they might very well have known, but the location was so problematic that there was no ability to perform a surgical operation to release him. If, in fact, they didn’t know anything, personally, I think that every intelligence officer that respects his profession should wholeheartedly admit the failure of the system to deliver the goods. What is more important, in my opinion, is that an event of this type doesn’t depend only on the intelligence community. If you know where then you rescue, and if you don’t know, then you wait.”

>What will happen next time a soldier is abducted?

“Next time, and there will be a next time, as history has proven, the defense establishment will always have the same role – to do everything they can to find and plan a military option to release the kidnapped soldier. The bigger lesson is related to how the political echelon will behave. But maybe that’s a topic for my next novel.”