A Spy in Exile
Soothed by the sound coming from the Audi’s wide tires on the asphalt, Ya’ara reclined in the backseat of the car and closed her eyes. The vehicle’s interior, insulated from the blistering late afternoon sun by the tinted windows, was chilly. Two tight-lipped young men, who Ya’ara assumed were members of the Shin Bet security service’s VIP Protection Unit, were sitting in the front seats. The call from the prime minister’s office had come through some two hours earlier. The prime minister would like to meet with you, said Mai, or was it Kim—whatever, it was one of those typical names for young women working for older senior officials. Today, right away, the secretary said. We’ll send a car to get you.
She had spotted the black Audi from a mile away, and the guy who was waiting for her stood out like a sore thumb, too. After all, you didn’t see very many young men hanging around a college campus in dark glasses and a dark jacket on a blistering hot day in June, even if the sun was sinking steadily toward the blue strip of sea on the horizon at the far end of Einstein Street.
They were northward bound from the Morasha Junction, with gilt-edged clouds visible to the west and the loam-earth fields glowing orange. In this light, of almost-sunset, the orchards had taken on a purple-black hue, and Ya’ara couldn’t help but marvel at the scene. In the twilight that encapsulated the drive, the landscape appeared profound and filled with splendor, a German expressionist painting. And yet, it was Israel.
Almost a year had gone by since she’d played her part in flushing out of one of Israel’s most dangerous traitors. Ya’ara had been on unpaid leave when Michael Turgeman recruited her for the team set up by former Mossad chief Aharon Levin. It hadn’t ended well. The hunt had been swift and dizzying. The team had managed to identify the traitor within just a few months. He was an aide close to the prime minister. She hadn’t been alone in urging Levin to kill the man immediately, but Levin refused and ordered the team not to touch him. Ya’ara decided when the man chose to run that there were times when justice must be written in blood. Alon Regev, the advisor who had crossed the line, was on his way to a deserted beach north of Ashkelon, where a rescue boat courtesy of the Russian intelligence service was waiting for him. He didn’t make it to the rendezvous point. He died on his way there in a road accident, and his extraction team slipped away silently through the black waters.
Ya’ara was never accused of killing Regev. The papers reported the accident; the police closed the case. But Aharon Levin made sure she couldn’t go back to the Mossad after that. He’d told her that she was aggressive, undisciplined, unpredictable, and too prone to violence. And he didn’t keep his opinions to himself.
Ya’ara didn’t want to go back anyway. She felt stifled by all the regulations and procedures and orders and approvals. She didn’t want to be smothered. She wanted to breathe. She traveled in South America for four months, crossing the continent from southern Chile to Ecuador on a large motorcycle. Her lover Hagai was waiting for her at the airport on her return, and his eyes filled with tears as he told her he couldn’t take it any longer, that it was over between them. She collected her books, photography equipment, and clothes from the house on the moshav and moved back to Tel Aviv, into a room in an apartment rented by Einat, a girl she knew from the unit. She hardly felt a thing when Hagai broke things off, other than a slight sense of relief and the knowledge that that’s just the way things were. Thirty-four years old and living with a roommate in a dilapidated two-bedroom apartment in the old part of the northern end of the city. Yes, she could have done a little better for herself, but she didn’t really care. She went back to university, for her final semester toward a bachelor’s degree in film. She had certainly taken her time.
Now the academic year was winding down and editing of her final project was coming to an end. The short film she had written and directed was taking shape before her eyes, assuming depth and character, a life of its own. The leads were a man and woman in their thirties. They had first met years ago, and now they had met again, by chance. The chemistry between them was immediate and powerful. They went to a large, shuttered apartment in Netanya. Wine, Turkish coffee, dates, a sharp Gouda cheese, arak. The man and woman went from one bed to the next, spending each night in a different room, and with each passing day the shutters opened a little more to allow the sunlight to flood the room and the sea breeze to dry their bodies. The couple hardly spoke. There was something somber yet captivating about the movie. Ya’ara was pleased with it. There was something truly compelling about the emerging relationship that she saw on the screen. She felt she had achieved something real, something that touched on an element of the secrets that exist between a man and a woman. She was looking forward to screening it but now, out of nowhere, she was on her way to see the prime minister.
The large Audi turned eastward on Route 57. The wide-open stretch of sky that Ya’ara could see through the windshield was already dark. The car slowed down and turned left into a moshav. Ya’ara didn’t catch sight of the name as they drove through the gate, nor did she manage to spot the wooden sign that customarily stood alongside the checkpoints at the entrances to the moshavim in the area. It annoyed her. She felt rusty. This wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, she scolded herself silently.
“Where are we?” she asked the two security service agents sitting in the front. The one in the passenger seat responded without even turning around: “We’ll be there in a minute.”
Cheeky bastard, she thought. The car slowed in front of an electric gate, which slid open to reveal a narrow driveway hidden by large trees with thick black-green foliage. Less than a minute went by before they stopped in front of a house whose concealed lighting exposed the ocher shade of its walls, the color of earth or clay. A security guard armed with a short-barreled M16 assault rifle approached, nodded to the men in front, and opened the right rear door of the vehicle.
“Come with me, please.” As they crossed the threshold into the house, the guard asked: “Are you armed?”
“Me? Of course not!”
“I have to check you anyway.”
“Listen up.” Ya’ara’s voice turned icy. “I don’t know your name, but the prime minister was the one who summoned me here. I didn’t ask to see him. You can check my bag, but we haven’t known each other long enough for me to let you run your hands over me. If that’s a problem, you can tell your two friends to take me back home.”
From deep within the house a voice called out, “It’s okay, Eitan. I trust this girl.” Ya’ara recognized the prime minister’s resonant voice from both television and the numerous times she had sat in on briefings seeking to secure his approval for specific operations. As she turned toward the sound of his voice, she saw the figure of the prime minister, dressed in a black polo shirt, following in its wake toward her. He approached with an outstretched hand. “I see that the rumors are true. You really are someone who’s not to be messed with.” As he shook her hand, he said, “Ya’ara, I know that we’ve met before. You aren’t someone who is easily forgotten.”
As Ya’ara let go of the prime minister’s hand, she wondered why her meeting was taking place at a large, secluded villa rather than in his office. “This home belongs to a family member who resides abroad most of the year,” the prime minister said, appearing to read her mind as he escorted her into the house, initially through a spacious guest area and then into a large and dimly lit study. “He’s placed it at my disposal, and I use it when I want to meet someone discreetly, without disturbances from anyone, without any filming or recording, without any records anywhere.”
He led Ya’ara to a sitting area illuminated by a yellowish light from a free-standing lamp. The beam from a second lamp formed a circle of light on the large desk. The rest of the room was shrouded in darkness. Darkness and Chopin’s Concerto No. 2. They sat in identical leather armchairs, and an elderly woman emerged seemingly out of nowhere bearing a tray with two cups of coffee, a jug of cold water, and a small plate of cookies. “Thank you, Bracha,” the prime minister said. “Please close the door. If we need anything, we’ll give you a shout.”
As soon as the old woman closed the door behind her, he leaned toward Ya’ara and said, “I’ll get straight to the point.”
Ya’ara nodded, her eyes fixed on those of the prime minister.
“I need—the state of Israel needs—to put together a new capability. A capability, in fact, that we possessed in the past but which has eroded in recent years. We need a small, highly skilled strike force that can operate in absolute secrecy, completely detached from the state. A strike force that can act swiftly, resolutely, aggressively, free of the restraints of procedures and approvals and legal advisors. Finally, it must be a strike force that the state of Israel—and I—can, if necessary, deny.”
After a long, silent moment, the prime minister rose from his armchair, walked over to a dark wooden sideboard, and returned with a bottle of fine single-malt scotch. “Can I pour one for you, too? Bracha looks after me, offers me and my guests nothing other than coffee and cold water. But we’re adults, right? For a conversation like this, we’re allowed something a little stronger, aren’t we? But not too much, of course.”
Ya’ara loved scotch. She added a few drops of cold water to the measure the prime minister had poured for her. “It brings out additional flavors,” she said, and the prime minister nodded.
“Well,” he continued, at ease in his armchair again, “I’m looking for a black horse to help pull the chariot. Are you familiar with Plato’s Chariot Allegory?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “Sort of . . .”
“There are numerous interpretations of the dialogue of Socrates and Phaedrus,” the prime minister went on, and Ya’ara wondered if he had read the allegory in the original Greek, “and all of those with which I’m familiar present the black horse, the wild one, as a beast that needs to be controlled and tamed. Just as reason should have the upper hand over animal urges.”
He sipped his whiskey for a moment, then set it on the table and leaned forward. “I think differently. I think that a country striving for survival requires two kinds of horses to pull its chariot. An absolute must. The one, a white horse, is reason, the appropriate measures of law and order. The second is a black horse, wild, aggressive, subversive, which has to be reined in all the time. I believe—no, Ya’ara—I’m con
vinced that our intelligence services, and particularly those that operate beyond the borders of the state, need to be our black horse. The elected government can then lead the way by means of the two horses. The white horse is vital, essential. Without it, the chariot would have no direction. But in a world as complex and stormy as ours, we also need a black horse that will lead us to the places we wouldn’t get to without it.”
He leaned back in his chair, his face falling into shadow. “Once upon a time, in the early days, our intelligence services were a black horse. Over the years, they’ve grown—too much perhaps—more organized and structured, with hierarchies and bureaucracy, regulations, procedures. We’ve reaped benefits from the process, but these restrictions have created a gap that needs to be filled. And for that, I need you. I need you to be my black horse.”
Ya’ara was of two minds about the prime minister’s interpretation of Plato’s allegory. The prime minister had admitted, too, that his interpretation might be a unique one. But while she didn’t know much about Greek philosophy she did understand what the prime minister was saying. She sipped her whiskey, her ever-present string of pearls glistening in the hollow of her throat, and asked: “What exactly do you have in mind?”
“I have been briefed on your career and on your last operation. I’m aware of everything that led up to the exposure of the traitor Alon Regev, who fortunately worked for my predecessor and not for me, because then I would have killed him myself,” the prime minister responded. “I’m not convinced that the course of action selected by the president was the right one, but that’s all in the past now.” He leaned forward again. “And, I’ve been told of your role in Regev’s exposure, and I believe that it was you who put the affair to bed.” He smiled tightly as he said, “You’ve been described to me as violent and wild. There you go—I’m telling you straight to your face.”
He reached for his whiskey again. “There’s probably some truth to that, some part of you that matches the description. But I’m also familiar with things you did working for Mossad—the extraordinary things you did as a field operative. This is what I know from your former commanders: You’re brave, you’re highly intelligent, you understand what motivates people, how to lead them. You have that strength. And you love
that world of secrecy. You love it and it brings out such strength in you. I also know about your sister and the profound effect her story had on you.”
Ya’ara remained silent as the prime minister listed her virtues, and at the mention of her sister, too. She knew there had to be more to come.
“I need you back in service,” the prime minister said. “Not the Mossad. I want you to set up a unit that’ll operate by a different set of rules. Like I said—swiftly, highly aggressive, highly professional, with a willingness to take risks. The world is changing quickly, and we need a force that can act even quicker. You’ll pick your own people, and you’ll work completely detached from any and every government body. You’ll be ruthless and violent if necessary, but you’ll operate only against the targets I provide, in the name of the government of Israel.”
“And what if I believe you’re using me to take care of personal issues, or to promote a political agenda of some kind?” Ya’ara asked.
“There you go—that’s exactly why I want you,” the prime minister said with obvious self-satisfaction, like someone who had taken a bet with himself and won. “You’re meeting privately with the prime minister of Israel, face-to-face, yet show no fear of me at all. You don’t flinch in the slightest before slamming your fist into someone’s face.”
“Sir, I respect you and the position you hold, but I have to ask such questions. Without flinching. Otherwise I’m not the one to do this work for you.”
“Ya’ara, I’m not trying to establish a private militia or political assassination unit. I will never pass on directives you cannot tolerate. And, no matter what, the final decision whether or not to act will always be yours. I will never expect you to do anything that doesn’t sit well with you or your team. The bottom line is that the darkest deeds have to be carried out by the purest individuals.”
“Don’t fool yourself, sir, I’m far from pure, but I can tell the difference between right and wrong, and I try my best to make the right choices. But what you’ve heard is true. There’s a wild side to me, one that has me walking a fine line. And, because I’m a patriot, I’m willing to cross that line sometimes, too. This means you have to be prepared for surprises, sir. I may not be who or what you think I am.”
“I’m willing to take the risk. And in any event, I still maintain the
right to deny everything. Just so you know, if you and your unit get into trouble, we won’t be able to come to your assistance. You’ll be out there on your own. Totally alone.” His face looked suddenly tired. “You’re taking on a heavy burden. Of isolation, of anonymity. There won’t be any medals or glowing reports in your file—it will just be you, and the things you know. And the rest of your life will all be on hold.” He raised his eyes to hers as he asked his final question, “Will you do it, Ya’ara?”
She sat silent long enough to not appear too eager, long enough to mourn her unfinished film for a moment, then she said, “It’ll take me some time to recruit a team and train them. It’s not going to happen overnight. You should know that.”
“I understand, but don’t forget that we’re at war. I want you to do this right, but from now on, the rules of war apply.”
• • •
The night sky was as black as ink. The orange glow of the coastal plain, the product of lights and smog, appeared in the distance. She was sitting again in the rear of the large black Audi, which was driving her back to Tel Aviv. Her motorcycle was waiting for her outside the university. My new life is about to begin, Ya’ara thought to herself almost gleefully. She didn’t know how long this specific chapter would last. She didn’t know if she’d come out on the other side in one piece. All she knew was that she had a big adventure ahead of her.
She had tied up a few technical details with the prime minister before leaving. His personal lawyer, Shaul Ben-Atar, was going to put everything in place. The front companies, the bank accounts. Keep it as simple as possible, the prime minister had said, sharing a lifetime of experience with her in just a few words. Keep it simple. His voice had changed when he began to talk about operational realities. “No matter what, this will get complicated. So, build the unit and operate it in the most practical way you can come up with—the most focused way. What should always be clear to you, the thing that requires constant clarity, is the objective. The individual you’re after must always remain in your sights. Always in the center.”