Traitors to their country

Makor Rishon, Jonathan de Shalit, 12/2/2016

A fax to the Prime Minister's Office demands the release of terrorists while threatening to expose a high-value source. The protagonist is the commander of the IDF's human intelligence unit, who is caught in a tangle of personal and political considerations.

(Read in Hebrew)

“Tabasco” is the code name of a high-value and important spy, the advisor to the Minister of Defense of an Arab country, and the sole source of intelligence on the Sahara Project, on which the State of Israel is interested in gathering information. Tabasco was recruited and is handled by the Military Intelligence Directorate. He belongs to a small group of high-level sources of whose existence the Prime Minister himself is aware. In the middle of a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister David Raz receives a fax that demands he comply with the Hamas’ demand to release many prisoners within one week in exchange for the abducted soldier Eliad Sagi. A threat accompanies the demand: if not, Tabasco’s identity will be revealed.

So starts the suspense novel The End Justifies by Yariv Inbar. The cover of the book states that his real name cannot be revealed. On the back, it says that Inbar served for many years in key sensitive positions in the intelligence community. It is not known where exactly he served, what his rank was, and what he did, but from the way he writes, it is evident that he is very familiar with the world of case officers who handle agents who have chosen or were tempted to betray their country and serve their bitter enemy – Israel.

The reader has no idea in which Arab country Tabasco lives. It is referred to in the book as Akadia, and its capital is Akad, and the reader has to be satisfied with that. The names are Assyrian-Babylonian, and ancient Akad bordered today’s Baghdad, so perhaps Akadia is a code name for Iraq. If so, it isn’t such a sophisticated code. It also isn’t clear what the Sahara Project is, and the reader has to be content in assuming that it is a dangerous project and critical that Israel monitors its development. Apparently, these details are less important than the relationships between the political and military ranks in the novel. The character of the abducted soldier Eliad Sagi is not based on Gilad Shalit. His character presents this political dilemma post Shalit’s real-life release, combined with the prospect of releasing terrorists with blood on their hands in order to free an Israeli soldier from captivity.

A family falling apart

The novel moves at a fast pace, from case officers in operations to the world of politics, teeming with passions and power struggles. Uri Vered, an officer with the rank of a colonel who commands the IDF’s human intelligence unit, is asked by his commanding officers – the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Chief of Staff, the Minister of Defense, and the Prime Minister – to find a way to extract Tabasco from Akadia to prevent his exposure and downfall. At the same time, he is asked to help Israel’s internal security service, Shabak, locate the source of the leak and identify the traitor who threatens to expose one of Israel’s most valuable assets. The Shabak agent leading the operation is the beautiful and sensual Dganit, who used to be Uri’s girlfriend. Their background is a sadly familiar tragedy. Eli, a case officer in the unit, was killed years ago by one of the agents he handled. Uri married Yifat, his good friend’s widow, and adopted their daughter.

The threat to expose Tabasco catches Uri at a difficult time. He and his family are supposed to go on vacation to Greece, and just like so many times before, Uri has to disappoint his wife and their two children and send them on vacation alone, with the empty promise to join them later. But this time, Yifat presents him with an ultimatum: either he retires from the army, or she will divorce him. This threat hangs like a shadow over his actions in the crisis that develops around Tabasco.

Uri goes from nighttime meetings at unit headquarters to the Prime Minister’s office. At first, he is unaware that the potential exposure of Tabasco involves a deal with Hamas, and the intense political conflicts between the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defense, and the head of the Mossad go on behind his back. In the meantime, Tabasco’s case officer has gone rogue, and the Mossad operatives, who are trying to track down the origin of the threatening fax in Vienna and Rome, get embroiled in complications.

American secret counsel

The author does a good job of describing the cognitive dissonance felt by spies like Tabasco. They can’t admit they are traitors, so they wrap their betrayal in artificial rationalization: “Tabasco didn’t feel like a spy. He loved his country and was convinced that his cooperation protected its national interests. He believed that one day there would be peace between the two countries and feared the enmity that could set his homeland back many years. He was determined to make Israel recognize the true power of his country and was sure that if it knew the truth, it would avoid preemptive attacks… in his own way, he wholly believed that he was protecting the stability of the region and its future.” Kudos to the officers who convinced Tabasco of this nonsense, all intended to make his act of betrayal easier. They supplemented this far-fetched justification for his actions by showering him with money and honor and the sense of adventure and secrecy that made him feel special and superior to those around him. The author incidentally mentions the constant competition between the Mossad and Military Intelligence Directorate agents and pulls out Tabasco as a trump card.

In one of the emergency discussions held due to the threat to reveal Tabasco, the Chief of Staff speaks adamantly about the uniqueness of the case officers and their potential to influence, which sometimes exceeds the firepower of other military units: “These officers, who are armed only with words and powers of persuasion, understand something deeper. This is their profession, and they do it best, often much better than entire divisions of warfighters.” Indeed, the human intelligence officers are unique not only within the Defense Forces, whose tanks and fighter planes are more in the Defense Force Officer’s realm of understanding than covert spies, but even within the intelligence division to which they belong. A division that specializes more in technology, computers and spy satellites than covert meetings in suites in Malta or Paris or, as their reputation alludes, in secret, remote locations.

The Prime Minister and Defense Minister are described as cynical people guided by political and personal benefit. Critical security decisions and the difficult moral and practical dilemmas involved in releasing terrorists in exchange for an abducted soldier are determined not based on merit but out of personal interests and cold political calculation. Fateful decisions are made with the guidance of an American secret advisor, following power struggles and cunning manipulations. The author writes at the beginning of the novel under the heading ‘Clarification’: “During my years of service, I met many good people driven by their beliefs who work night and day and make great personal sacrifices for their country, some even risk their lives. Unfortunately, I also met others.” The book seems to be a show of condemnation and guilt of these ‘others.’

Touching on bereavement

The End Justifies is a fun read, a political and operational thriller that offers an interesting glimpse into the dark world of case officers. Its authenticity is convincing in the description of moves against agents or intelligence gathering in the alleys of European capitals, as well as in descriptions of what happens in military headquarters and conversations between top IDF brass. The family tensions of a senior career officer are realistic and thought-provoking. The book is weaker at describing the political intrigues in the Prime Minister’s Office. Here the scenes are more superficial and lean toward caricature.

The Hebrew book cover is nondescript and is based on an aerial photo unrelated to the plot, as are parts of the plot itself. When the author addresses the terrible and heartbreaking topic of bereavement, he is on the verge of something deep and meaningful, and its a shame that the novel only addresses it fleetingly. The fast pace comes at the expense of developing real identification with the characters. The female characters, especially in this supposedly masculine-oriented novel, were, in my opinion, more intriguing and interesting, but we are not really given the opportunity to see their development. Instead, Dganit and Yifat, for example, remain secondary and disappointing despite their great potential.