“In defiance of recently imposed UN trade sanctions, President Hamadee Al Zerkhani announced yesterday that Iran would not bow to illegal international pressure to cease what he termed is Iran’s peaceful development of nuclear power, designed to promote an alternative energy source for his people. When asked why three weeks ago, another three hundred gas centrifuges were commissioned, technology not required for civilian-grade reactors, President Zerkhani stated that Iran wished to ensure an energy supply that would guarantee his country’s independence and continued economic development. The fact that Iran already enjoys significant reserves of gas and oil seems to have escaped him. The president added that any interference with his country’s legitimate exploitation of nuclear technology would incur the gravest consequences for the United States and Western economies in general.
“The weather forecast for Tel Aviv today -”
Namir Bethan casually stabbed one of the preset radio channel buttons and the car filled with the haunting strands of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. He relished the second movement, its subtle complexity and nuances, easily overlooked in the seemingly simple melody. The density and texture of the composition filled his soul with contentment and satisfaction. The piece was one of his favorites. Noting the turnoff, he slowed and eased the black BMW into Harav Kook Street. Nondescript office buildings lined the street, some modern, showing their reflective black or copper windows, glittering bright in early morning sunshine. Others were more conservative, built out of traditional white and yellow sandstone. A relatively new suburb of Tel Aviv, Herzliya dared to experiment with alternative architectural styles.
Tall trees lined the broad sidewalk, casting dark shadows along the street. Early starters, briefcases and bags in tow, hurried along, sometimes turning to walk into one of the buildings. Mildly curious, he wondered what their day would be like; a distraction while his brain did the driving on automatic. A sparrow made a startled dash across the street, vanishing among the thick foliage of a tree.
As the car whispered down Shival Hekochavim Street, he could see the familiar loom of an eighteen-story building, the sidewalk protected by a three-meter stone wall. Namir brought the car to a stop in the double driveway, climbed out and slid his black passkey into the security pad slot. Closed-circuit cameras mounted on each side of the wall stared down at him with intimidating curiosity. The heavy steel gate slid back without a rattle. He gave an involuntary glance up the sheer facade of the gray building, now outlined against the rising sun. With spring in the air, the days were getting warmer and his thigh didn’t bother him as much. This early in the morning, the air was still crisp. He climbed into his car, slammed the door shut and drove through the courtyard.
“Welcome to the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations,” he muttered with wry amusement as he slowly made his way toward the underground parking entrance. Not openly advertised, those who wanted to know where Mossad was headquartered could find out easily enough. The dashboard clock read 7:30, and had read that for a while now, he noted ruefully. Since his wife’s death two years ago to a brain tumor, undetected until far too late to do anything about it, his comfortable two-bedroom Tel Aviv apartment held nothing to keep him there. Fatalistic, the loss and guilt had still hit him hard. He should have spent more time with her, valuing what he had. But as with such things, perspective came when one was powerless to undo what years of neglect had wrought. He made up for it now by burying himself in work. At least his country’s needs were not being neglected – a poor consolation nonetheless. It did nothing to fill the lonely echoes of his empty apartment.
Unconsciously, he swept his eyes over an array of cars already parked in the lot, low-grade officers not entitled to an underground parking spot. He slipped his key into the security portal and waited as the heavy doors rolled up. Still not fully open, he drove into the dark maw. The underground parking lot had four levels, but his executive position allowed him a spot on the ground level. He parked the car, switched off the headlights, stepped out and leaned back in to pick up a slim brown calf-leather briefcase from the passenger seat. The parking and brake lights flashed when he automatically set the security lock. Given where he worked the action caused him to smile. Pocketing the keys, he slowly walked toward the foyer entrance. He dragged out a biometric badge from his coat pocket and pressed it against the door sensor. Satisfied, his electronic master unlocked the door with a heavy click. Inside the spacious, cool foyer the security guard, sitting behind a curved reception station, looked up and nodded sternly.
“Morning, sir,” he said with formal dignity.
“Shalom, Jaron,” Namir replied heavily as he did each morning, walking slowly toward the middle of three entrance portals, his footsteps echoing against the marble floor. He passed the badge over the sensor. The red-lit panel turned green and gave a sharp beep. He walked through, stopped before the polished steel of the left elevator that ran through the building’s core and pressed the dark access triangle. It turned soft amber. A few seconds later came a blunt chime and the double doors opened. There wasn’t much of a demand this time of day. It took a moment for the elevator to surge to the seventeenth floor – his department. Light gray carpet muffled his footsteps as he made his way between glass-fronted offices, most of them with their privacy curtains drawn. He could not hear anyone else on the floor.
When he hobbled to the left corner office, he passed his badge against the lock and the latch gave a little click. He opened the door and closed it softly behind him. Heavy beige carpet covered the rectangular room floor. A wide, brown executive desk stood tucked against the far corner; bare, except for a standard keyboard, optical mouse, an 18” rectangular LCD screen and a multi-function phone terminal. A round glass coffee table filled the empty space in the center, surrounded by four soft easy chairs. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf occupied one wall, cluttered with bound volumes and paperbacks, magazines and various periodicals. The windowpanes were standard double-glass, designed to defeat vibration and laser voice intercept devices.
Namir placed the briefcase on the desk and sat down. He clicked open the two side latches, lifted out a slim blue folder, closed the briefcase and stood it against the desk drawers. He toggled the mouse and the screen lit up with the Mossad logo and motto. The desk did not mount a processor or workstation. His connection, like everyone else’s, was provided through a secure shielded cable to high-speed servers on the fourth floor. The other equipment in the room was a color printer and a document shredder that ripped up to twenty-four pages at a time into three- millimeter square flakes.
The airconditioning sighed softly from two grilles mounted in the false ceiling.
A sharp rap on the door interrupted the thick silence. It opened and he looked up. Holding a steaming mug of coffee, two sugars, a young woman, dressed in a severe gray business jacket and pants, dark hair cut short, strode in and placed the mug next to the closed folder.
“Shalom, Mr. Bethan,” she said primly and gave him a tight-lipped smile.
“Thanks, Mira,” he growled and reached for the cup. He gave an appreciative sniff and took a tentative sip. Black, hot and sweet, the way he liked it. His doctor had told him to cut down on his sugar intake, but damn it, there were limits.
“Anything I should know?” he demanded, eyeing her over the rim of his cup.
She frowned and her pleasantly round face clouded. Pencil-thin black eyebrows added to her severe expression, highlighting her large brown eyes. A hint of red lipstick gloss softened her otherwise stern poise.
“Nothing that demands your immediate attention, sir. Unless you consider Iran’s latest bout of histrionics an issue,” she allowed with a trace of wry amusement and waited, knowing full well her boss was spending time in idle conversation. He knew everything of importance that went on round the world without having to be reminded. But it was a ritual they played out every morning and she didn’t mind.
“I do, but that’s an ongoing headache.” Namir passed a gnarled hand through his receding shock of gray hair refusing to stay combed.
“Yes, sir.” She frowned and bit her lip. “I cannot understand why the United States doesn’t do something. And the UN is just as lame, fulminating and impotent. Somebody should bomb them!”
“I’ll suggest it to Director Doron Kameer, but it’s complicated,” he mused, largely agreeing with her. When the great powers did eventually reach an acceptable consensus, the original intent was so watered down the final UN resolution held little meaning or potency. He took another sip, placed the mug down with a soft tap and spent a moment studying his ruthless-looking assistant.
Recruited from Shin Beth, Israel’s internal security and counter-espionage sister service – inter-service poaching was rife, even though strictly frowned upon, but nevertheless a lively industry – the one-time Army captain’s feminine exterior masked a hard no-nonsense professional. At twenty-eight and one of his star case officers, she filled a vital function being his personal assistant. In his view, secretaries were a luxury and potential security risks. Namir indulged in neither. Capable, disciplined and dedicated, he intended to continue mentoring her, provided he himself lasted the distance. In his game it only took one unguarded step and his brother colleagues, jackals more likely, would be baying and snapping at his heels. Then again, he had a job to do and Mossad didn’t operate like the UN. To advance, she needed to round off her experience by working in other departments. He would hate to lose her.
Looking through her, thinking about things, he made up his mind and squared his shoulders, but was unable to suppress a flutter of unease in his stomach. The action he contemplated would be way over authorized limits. Sometimes though, such things were necessary. He wondered whether history would agree with him.
“When Matan Irian comes in, ask him to see me, will you?” he requested in dismissal.
“Of course, sir.”
As the door closed behind her, leaving a whiff of lavender in her wake, Namir cracked his knuckles, reached for the keyboard, logged in and tapped out his search parameters with quick, efficient strokes. A number of messages waited to be opened in his In Mail box, but he ignored them. The server immediately retrieved and displayed the document. It had no classification attached to it, Namir’s logon already providing the necessary access levels.
Sitting back, sipping his coffee, he quickly scanned the salient points outlined in the paper. He knew them off by heart, but the task helped him to think and reflect on what he contemplated. Written more than four years ago when Iran’s uranium enrichment program was already well advanced – it never would have, had vital gas centrifuge designs not been provided by Pakistan between 1987 and 1991 by Dr. Abdul Qadeer Khan, to be precise – the document outlined a remarkably prophetic dissertation. In his opinion, Israel should have acted as soon as Iran’s fledgling enrichment program was unearthed. However, the then Mossad Director, Ephraim Halevy, was foremost a politician and wary of adverse repercussions should an operation to disrupt Iran’s march toward a nuclear capability somehow backfire. Not that Namir could exactly blame the Director, but he missed the old days, like in 1981 when Israel bombed Osirak, sending Iraq’s nuclear ambitions into the Stone Age.
A wry smile of grim satisfaction lit his face at other successes as he recalled the assassination of Fathi Shaqaqi in 1995, founder of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, by two of his agents right in front of the Diplomat Hotel in Sliema, Malta. The scum deserved to die. But the single wet ops which gave him the most satisfaction was having Izz El-Deen Sobhi Sheikh Khalil, head of Hamas, blown sky high, car and all, in 2004 while the guerilla fighter was in Damascus.
He understood and appreciated that type of direct action. Today, murky diplomacy and conforming to delicate international sensibilities were the norm, while Hamas terrorists targeted Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s citizens on buses and restaurants. Still, it was not as though Israel had not given them cause, he contemplated equitably. He would never say so aloud, but in his opinion the notorious wall building program, an attempt to fence off the occupied territories and stem the flow of suicide bombers, had been an asinine political decision, compounded by another equally asinine decision to exploit the moment and annex additional Palestinian land. The effort had failed abysmally and only served to harden international condemnation. It did nothing to placate illegal settlements, and tactically, did little to stop the bombings. Then again, how else could the Palestinians respond? Without a standing army to field in battle, terrorism remained the only weapon left to them. The old adage about a terrorist being a freedom fighter had a rather apt ring. Israel itself had used similar tactics against the British occupation after the Second World War. History was replete with lessons of failure, to the unheeding care of those who strove to repeat the mistakes.
Sometimes everything seemed so futile.
If he had his way, he would eliminate the politicians. That would solve everybody’s problems. Prime Minister Sharron Ibrahim had the capacity and will to act, but his Kadima Party coalition was hamstrung into inaction. Not that Labour or the minor parties such as Gil and Shas were any better. And Ibrahim’s often imperious and forceful attitude hadn’t helped to push through unpalatable policies. To hold power, successive governments had sacrificed their ability to formulate and execute initiatives by catering to extremist and radical single-issue coalition partners. Lately, Israel had changed governments like he changed socks, an ominous symptom of fragmented ideologies and loss of vision. In the long run, that led to internal disintegration. But knowing what to do and having the will to do it, whatever the cost in personal careers, are the hallmarks of good government everywhere. In his view, Israel seemed doomed to pursue a fatalistic course of internal appeasement, incapable of realizing that placating the ultra-orthodox elements in its ranks simply to hold onto power left no one room to reach a workable settlement. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on one’s point of view, the Palestinian National Authority with its hostile Hamas government fared even worse. Sometimes a lot could be said for the value of a dictatorial regime.
Personally, he echoed Shimon Peres’ sentiments that ‘Israel has no real option of turning to the political sphere in order to obtain a compromise that would constitute a genuine breakthrough – no compromise could ever satisfy the Arabs.’ The inevitable consequence of that policy was the reinforcement of a concept that there could never be a political option on which Israel could base its security, which had given rise to a general psyche of interventionism by the Israeli Defense Force establishment in the political decision-making process. Since the military were perceived as the sole instrument capable of defending the country, any criticism or curtailment of its power was interpreted as a direct threat to national security. Namir admitted that lack of public debate on the automatic application of force as the sole mechanism to solve his country’s problems had managed to derail every peace initiative to date, even if Israel’s own religious extremists were willing to entertain the initiative – which they hadn’t. Growing militancy between Fatah and Hamas, and disintegration of the Palestinian National Authority might encourage the military to take matters into their own hands. That, of course, was but a single step from fascism, the worst of all possible outcomes.
Well, he might not be in a position to solve all his country’s problems, but staring at the screen, he had no qualms about jump-starting the process. Viewing the proposal, it had all the classic elements of a military deception: a specific objective, playing to the enemy’s preconceived assumptions, a clear method selection and simple execution. The exploitation component was missing, but in this case hardly relevant. The tricky bit was that Kameer also had access to the proposal and could conceivably connect the dots, a bridge to be crossed later. He pressed the print icon and the printer immediately began to hum as it spat out the report. He picked up the still warm pages, tapped them together against the desk and reached into his drawer for a stapler.
He was still reading when the phone went off.
“Mr. Irian to see you, sir,” Mira announced.
“Send him in.” Namir placed the report on the desk, face down, as his tall visitor walked in, military bearing clear despite the tastefully cut dark gray suit, and closed the door behind him. It was nothing specific that marked his visitor, more a collection of small subtleties: clear penetrating eyes, aura of complete confidence, economical body movements, and that something that said ‘command presence’.
“Ah, Matan, take a seat,” he said warmly.
“Thanks.” Matan nodded, glanced at the coffee table and settled himself into the nearest chair, his legs stretched out before him.
Namir folded his hands and leaned forward. “How is Sarah these days? Still beautiful as ever?”
“And I’m still very much in love with her,” Matan declared, his voice crisp and determined.
“How about that! And Admina?”
“Growing up too fast.”
Namir chuckled. “She is going to break some hearts along the way.”
“As long as some slick city kid doesn’t break her heart.”
“She’s lucky to have you and Sarah looking out for her.”
“That’s a matter of opinion. Sometimes I just don’t understand her.”
“The same way she feels about you, I’m sure.”
“I don’t doubt it. Anyway, why don’t you come around some evening and straighten her out. She’d listen to you.”
Namir lifted his hands and laughed. “No thanks! I’m happy to leave that problem to you. I’ve had my time. But talking of problems, any further developments in tracking down that Hamas cell?”
Two weeks ago a twelve-year-old Gaza girl had walked into a Tel Aviv restaurant near Old Jaffa and blown herself up, taking eleven patrons and bystanders with her, and eighteen others injured, some seriously. Recovered from the debris were nails, nuts and roller bearings – a vicious combination to make a statement. The incident had caused an outcry and much breast-beating by everybody. The Collections Department suspected a single Hamas cell of orchestrating the attack, having carried out a similar atrocity a week earlier. That time, it was a fourteen-year-old boy. To brainwash children…
Matan stared at the Special Operations Division Director and wondered why the sudden concern. It was not something that could be solved overnight, if at all, like incidents of indiscriminate roadside shooting, spraying cars and two cabs with AK-47 fire. Namir’s leg had to be acting up again, he thought comfortably, although he wasn’t showing it. The old codger looked fit and would probably outlast everybody. As far as Matan knew, the Director was only fifty-eight, but the thick gray hair, hard chiseled features, prominent nose and dark complexion, made him appear older. Except for the eyes, deep green and lively. Despite the apparent external decrepitude,the eyes revealed an indomitable spirit, one that ruled his department with a rod of iron. Special Ops had not always followed the strict interpretation of its charter, earning a degree of enmity along the way not only from its sister departments, but from the Knesset as well. However, it did get things done, most of the time. In his book, that made up for everything else. Politicians did not need to know what their intelligence organs were up to – until it failed them. Namir made sure his department did not fail. Matan liked that kind of thinking.
From what he knew, the Metsada chief had always been involved with intelligence, taking over the Special Operations Division in 2002 after a stint in the Political Action and Liaison Department. A former Mirage pilot, Namir was a rising star in the Air Force Intelligence before being recruited by Mossad into the Collections Department. His organizational and administrative abilities, coupled with a flair for the innovative, ensured he gravitated through Mossad’s operational sections as quickly as possible. Running Metsada seemed to have given him a home. But he worried about the chief, especially after the sudden death of his wife. Work was the only thing that seemed to matter to him these days.
“I wouldn’t mind seeing some of those holier-than-thou Hamas leadership strapping on a bomb themselves for the cause,” Matan muttered sourly and Namir grinned.
“You and me both. Maybe we should send them a memo. How about that!”
“Something to think about. Anyway, the Research Department has given us a couple of leads, but we’re not moving fast anywhere.”
“The Director is looking closely at this one, Matan.”
“Kameer?” Matan looked incredulous. “He’s got nothing better to do than be bothered by a suicide bombing incident?”
The corner of Namir’s mouth twitched in sympathy. “I wouldn’t be too critical. The Prime Minister is giving him a hard time and we must do our duty as we see it,” he deadpanned. “Sharron Ibrahim’s niece was injured in that blast.”
“It’s an internal security matter,” Matan protested. “Shabak are handling it.”
“Apparently not well enough. That’s why we are involved. Just keep an eye on things, will you?”
Namir regarded his senior case officer with deliberate scrutiny and no small measure of fondness. A reserve colonel, having enlisted in the Army for officer training following the death of his mother and two sisters in 1979, forty-two, wife and a daughter, Matan had proven himself to be an exceptional analyst. Recruited from the Army into the Political Action and Liaison Department, it did not take long for the hierarchy to spot a rising talent. Less than a year later, working for the Research Department, Matan had produced a number of analyses and action proposals deemed controversial even by Mossad’s progressive standards. Namir had one of them on his desk now. Two years later, with his help, Matan wound up in Metsada, the Special Operations Division; Mossad’s action arm dealing with assassinations, sabotage and covert paramilitary projects. The dirty tricks department, he reflected with satisfaction and a measure of pride. As a case officer and stage manager, Matan had no equal. His operations to date were planned and executed with faultless precision and total deniability. No loose ends, simply painstaking attention to minutiae and detail. And right now, for his scheme to work, Namir desperately needed that skill.
Despite the years, Matan carried himself with confident ease, his lips pressed permanently into a thin line. Some still called it arrogance, but in reality, it was a reflection of his capabilities, exaggerated perhaps by his officer training and automatic authority. Colonels always acted like they were one rung below God. Hair still black, Namir noted, marred by a hint of white at the temples. Long face, dark complexion, square jaw, Matan could easily have passed for an Arab and spoke Farsi without an accent. The dark mahogany eyes, sunk deep into the skull, were bright with amusement. They were also eyes of a man who had suffered much and managed to survive and thrive. Namir knew that Matan yearned to be out in the field, but he was far too valuable to risk losing on some gutter-crawling ops, being groomed for a deputy’s position in the Collections Department. That had rankled at first, but in the end, Matan had accepted the inevitable exigency of the service. This should be especially sweet, Namir thought – bittersweet perhaps.
“Be that as it may,” he allowed, “but I didn’t call you in to talk about the Hamas or Shabak’s incompetence. I want to broach the possibility of a bang and burn black ops. You would be the team cutout and action officer.”
Matan sat up and the small hairs on the back of his neck bristled with anticipation. A bang and burn usually involved demolition and sabotage, invariably in foreign territory. That meant dangerous territory. The two years spent with Metsada had been, in the main, soul-fulfilling experiences, but with little personal excitement. Namir had allowed him two opportunities to conduct a field mission, one in Lebanon and one in Jordan. Both went well and eliminated their targets cleanly – Syrian agents who were providing Hezbollah with advanced tactical training. The operations left him physically taxed and he knew his field ops days were numbered. He’d had a taste and it was enough, content now to be a planner and organizer, the invisible man who pulled the strings. What had changed that Namir would now want him out there?
“Sounds, ah, like a challenge,” he ventured cautiously, looking for traps.
Namir chuckled. He couldn’t help it. The dangled bait was sniffed, but Matan was too good an operative to snap at the obvious.
“You’ll enjoy this one. It’s something you dreamed up yourself.”
“I’ve put up lots of screwy proposals,” Matan muttered acidly, “which you and the Director never tire of telling me.” Only one person was spoken to or referred in the third person – Doron Kameer, head of Mossad.
“Someone has to restrain your youthful enthusiasm,” Namir said dryly, then cleared his throat. “Seriously, though. This time, there will be no restraints, no half measures. On this one we’re playing for broke.”
“Okay, my curiosity is aroused.” They had known each other long enough to be on first-name basis. Besides, Matan had sufficient seniority not to be overawed by silly bureaucratic protocol.
“What I have in mind might save us from a confrontation with Iran.”
“What will save us is to simply bomb the place,” Matan said evenly, perfectly serious. “Waiting for the UN or the U.S. to hammer out an acceptable solution is an exercise in futility and you know it. A surgical strike will set them squawking, but it would also eliminate the threat.”
“Not a novel idea and something your military colleagues would love to do. Politically though, it isn’t an option. However, we could get someone else to do the job for us and wear the heat. How about that!”
Matan sat back in shock and his eyes darted to the overturned papers on Namir’s desk. He couldn’t be considering…
“You want to bring the United States into direct conflict with Iran? That’s crazy!”